What are You Carrying in Your Invisible Backpack

Have you ever stood outside a busy school and noticed all the bags and backpacks carried by students and teachers? The small backpack with a cute design on the front. Or the large over-the-shoulder backpack that could store everything, plus the kitchen sink!  

We all have invisible backpacks that we carry with us to school or the workplace every day. Sometimes that inviable backpack is light; we have everything we need to feel safe and to go through our day. Then there are days when the invisible backpack is incredibly heavy, maybe even overwhelming.

An invisible backpack can be filled with,

  • Caring for an elderly family member
  • Someone being sick
  • Grief over a loss of a loved one
  • Concern for a family member with mental health issues
  • Paying bills
  • Losing a job
  • Not knowing where the next meal is coming from
  • The high expectations at work

Even positive activities can add to the weight of the invisible backpack, attending activities outside the work day and the tough decisions that need to be made, like what to make for supper. This backpack can be a heavy load carried daily by the people at your work.

Some days people come well-adjusted and well-prepared to take on the day; other days, not so much.

  • What might your colleagues be carrying in their invisible backpacks?
  • What might you be carrying in your invisible backpacks?

“Consider that everyone is doing the best they can.

Based on their knowledge, skills, and experiences,

they are making the best choices available to them. 

Including you.”

Elana Aguilar. Onward

I have worked in several different school districts as a teacher. I had colleagues come to me and complain about another staff member that they perceived was not doing enough in the classroom, not being on committees, or leaving right at the end of contract time. I have also been that teacher to complain about others on staff. Little did I know what that person was carrying in their invisible backpack and how hurtful those assumptions can be on the workplace culture. In the workplace, there must be a balance of grace and compassion with work expectations.

Grace, compassion, and setting expectations for yourself and others are subjects that I have covered in the past. Grace to let go of my closely held expectations and simple acts of compassion can create a connection with others.

Grace can show up in your workplace by extending forgiveness to a colleague, overlooking an off-hand comment, or giving someone another chance. 

Compassion involves not simply observing and feeling for the person in suffering but taking action to alleviate a person’s suffering. Compassion is different than empathy which is putting yourself in another’s shoes, and sympathy or pity creates an emotional distance between you and the other person. Compassion starts with listening with an open heart. Also, compassion for others begins with self-compassion, extending kindness to yourself, and refraining from the self-critical unforgiving voice in your head. 

Expectations sometimes need to be lowered for us to have the strength and energy to make changes.

When you hold a space filled with grace, compassion, and lower expectations, you aren’t advocating for making excuses but for understanding ourselves and our co-workers.

You can increase your compassion and grace with co-workers by telling and listening to another’s story. Start a staff meeting or conversation with one of the sentence starters below and listen closely to the answers you hear. 

  • A positive experience I had with a co-worker was …
  • A teacher that positively impacted me was ….
  • Three things I’d like you to know about me are …

Bring grace and compassion into your workplace by recognizing the load some people are carrying and knowing they are doing their best at the moment, just like you.


Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

Introduction to Trauma Informed Education workbook by Dr. Jessica Doering

Change is Necessary

Fall is always full of changes with the new school year starting and the leaves turning from a bright green to a golden brown, yellow or red. Change can be seen in nature, and I can feel it within me.

One of the biggest changes is that our house is so quiet after years of school kid-related activities that seemed to go non-stop. My life has completely changed, and the school-related notifications for activities have abruptly stopped. Last September, three of our four children lived at home. Now none! It’s a bit disconcerting to have a house where I can hear the squeaks and groans very clearly, both of the house and my body.

The other huge change I made over the summer was to let go of a 17-year relationship. No, not my marriage. That has lasted longer than 17 years. I am referring to my part-time work with a non-profit organization I have worked with for many years. It was an amicable break and a much-needed one. I found myself putting more time into the programming for the non-profit than into programming for Wildewood Learning. The non-profit and I do similar work; however, I felt it was time to move on and work with organizations on my own. 

It’s hard to leave a work environment when you like the people and the work, yet in my heart, I knew that I needed to leave. The director and I parted ways through a short friendly email and an invitation to dinner sometime soon.

When I said “no” to working for the non-profit, I developed a space for myself to say “yes” to other opportunities that fit my values. I was on the lookout for invitations to gatherings of other like-minded folks. One of the gatherings I was invited to was a four-day train-the-trainer event in southwestern Wisconsin. This opportunity was to become a Sources of Strength provisional trainer. (Do you want to see me in action at the training? Watch the top video here.)

The vision of Sources of Strength is to empower a well world. How? Through training high school adult advisors, community members, and youth peer leaders to use their voices as agents of change and connectors to help. Sources of Strengths is a recognized suicide prevention program; however, suicide attempts are outcomes of a larger issue. Most suicide attempts are linked to substance use, bullying, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

What would happen if we flipped the sad, shock, and trauma script into a message of hope, help, and strength?

I have read many books and attended many webinars about adverse childhood experiences, trauma-informed strategies, and mental health issues. When the webinar or book ended, I was looking for some tangible program or action I could take to implement protective factors in my community. I was looking for a program like Sources of Strength.

The goal of Wildewood Learning is to create trauma-sensitive strength-based schools and organizations. It’s important to know about the effects of trauma and build best practices that acknowledge and support youth who have experienced trauma. It’s equally important to have strategies that acknowledge and supports resilience and strengths within ourselves and others.

Change is not just good; it’s necessary. Creating space to say “yes” has led me to places I feel I am called to serve, a quiet grounding that I need, and knowing that it’s okay to let go of relationships. Saying “no” allowed me to take action and move forward to create my own story of hope, help, and strength. 

Take Action Now:

  • To find out more about Sources of Strength, click here.

  • Set up a short chat with Kathy about bringing Sources of Strength to your school or organization; click here.

My Montana Experience

My young adult son was in middle school and had a challenging time. Instead of talking to me about what was happening in school, he became quiet, anxious, and withdrawn. Being bullied led him to lash out at others, and his reaction made him spend time in detention.  

I attended a 3 hour ACEs presentation for work during this same time. As I sat and listened to the presenter talk about the long-term effects of traumatic childhood experiences on health, it all clicked with how my son was reacting at school. He and his three siblings all had various degrees of trauma. At that moment, I felt relief, awareness, and sadness. I also felt like my children’s future was doomed. I thought,” This can’t be it! I had to find out more!”

My drive to learn more brought me to become a certified ACEs presenter. I created a video about “Why You Need to Know About Adverse Childhood Experiences” and gave workshops for educators and parents. I still wasn’t satisfied with how the ACEs story ended. I needed to know more. There needed to be more hope for my children and others. 

I have found it! 

The big skies of Montana were looming over me as I attended the Montana Summer Insitute at the end of June. The Montana Institute, directed by Jeff Linkenbach, works with community coalitions, schools, and organizations to develop positive community norms.

The Montana Institute was a conference focused on the positive! After the week-long conference at Big Sky Resort, I walked away feeling recharged to go out and make a change in my community!

Here are my biggest takeaways from the conference: 

  • YES! We now have the research that Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) mitigate Adverse Childhood experiences (ACEs). This one was a no-brainer to me; however, the research presented at the conference backed up the hypothesis.
  • The 7 PCEs researched are NOT big trips with your family or being in a bunch of extracurricular activities. The experiences are relationship-based with family, friends, and other adults in the community and are free!
  • Most of us have one or more of the seven experiences in our childhood. When you have these experiences, there is an increased correlation between health outcomes and PCEs.

Every weekday, I receive a fantastic resource in my email called the PACE CONNECTION. This resource highlights the work done to bring Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences to all aspects of life. Health, education, social justice, the justice system, and policy-making are just a few topics on this social networking site. 

Looking for what is right with a person, the positive aspects and relationships can have a huge and long-lasting impact on another person’s life. When I first joined the online resource, the networking community was called the ACE Connection. With the science of Positive Childhood Experience, the P=Positive was added to the name. The research of identifying the seven experiences has influenced the network of communities interested in the research to change its name from the ACE Connection to the PACE Connection (Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences).

What is the positive message you are passing on to others?

Recently read an article focused on a story about a teen who places encouraging messages on sticky notes for others around his school. 

I loved the idea of placing positive messages in obscure places. What would happen if you checked out a library book, and on page 107, there was an uplifting message. Or you went to the park; there was a positive note on the bench. 

You can use technology to make someone’s day. I challenge you to take out your phone or open your email. Send a positive message or email to someone right now. It just takes a minute; however, it can have a huge impact!! 

My attitude from attending my first ACEs presentation has come a long way. I am searching for more resources and research to help establish the protective factors to mitigate ACEs. The fact to keep in mind is that ACEs are preventable. We can all work on preventing ACEs and expanding opportunities for our families, schools, and communities for Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). 

My experience at the Montana Institute validates my work in cultivating trauma-sensitive strength-based schools and organizations plus, it was fantastic to be in a conference room full of people looking for the positive! My Montana experience was a great way to kick off my summer learning.

Trauma-Sensitive Strength-Based Resources for Teachers

Do you have teacher envy? 

Do you look over into the other classroom, and as you walk by, you see a teacher smiling, students gathering around desks working together, and creating fantastic projects in their classroom. Do you think, how can they do all of this? What do they have that I don’t have?

Great teachers have self-awareness of what works for them as a teacher and what doesn’t. They know what comes easy for them and can manage the challenges. Great teachers know their strengths!

I taught for over ten years in a middle and high school science classroom. In my first couple of years of teaching, I would watch veteran teachers and believe that I had to teach just the same way. I often would learn new tools to add to my toolbox of strategies. However, when a method that I tried repeatedly didn’t work with students, I felt awkward and very uncomfortable in front of the class. I am sure the students could feel that too! I now see that I wasn’t teaching in a way that fit my strengths.

What has helped good teachers become great is being aware of their strengths. When they know their strengths, teachers can see their students’ strengths to build a classroom that honors diversity.

Two resources to help you create classrooms that develop strengths and honor diversity

Teaching to Strengths, Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress by Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, and Judie Haynes

Classroom educators have the job of being one of the leading influencers on how a child views themselves and develop their unique set of assets and strengths. Teach to Strengths is written by three English Language Learner (ELL) instructors that approach the instruction of a diverse group of learners from a trauma-sensitive strength-based approach. As stated in the book’s introduction, the fastest-growing segment of U.S. school students is English learners, many of whom have experienced trauma, violence, and stress in very distinct ways. These learners come to the classroom with many unacknowledged strengths and resilience. The authors use case studies and many examples to help educators develop the strategies and skills for creating a strength-based inclusive classroom that capitalizes on the asset of the learner. 

This book offers ways to bring strength-based approaches into the classroom, families, schools, and community. A strength-based approach to supporting students with trauma, such as EL learners, can be a way to help educators to see their strengths and values that helped them through adversity and build resilience. When classroom teachers can recognize students, who have suffered adverse situations, they have strengths that have helped them create resilience. We need to acknowledge that the flip side to trauma is resilience.

The teacher-student relationship is one of the most significant influences on student engagement and achievement. As stated in Teaching to Strengths, “the power of our influence in our interactions with students and the methods we use have a great deal of significance in student outcomes.”

The first step is to identify your strengths and values as a classroom teacher. “Our strengths, our assets, and our capacities to support our own well-being and that of others are based on our own uniqueness.” 

If you are not familiar with your strengths, I would like to suggest the following books as excellent resources.

Teach With Your Strengths, How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students by Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller with Jennifer Robison

Teach With Your Strengths is specifically written for the classroom teacher to know and develop their unique strengths. Teach With Your Strengths uses the Clifton StrengthFinder assessment to help teachers acknowledge their strengths and relate them to teaching strategies that can best help them be better teachers. 

The book starts with what makes a great teacher. “Great teachers’ methods and intuitions are different. They don’t operate like other teachers, and they don’t believe everything they are taught or told.” In other words, great teachers know their strengths and weaknesses. They have developed their strengths to create successful relationships with their students. They have also developed successful systems to manage their weaknesses. 

The first step in your journey is being aware of your strengths. The book comes with a code to the Clifton StrengthFinder so teachers can start by identifying their top five strengths. If you would like to know all 34 of your strengths in order, you can go to the website and pay a fee to access all 34 strengths and many resources to help you go deeper into each strength. Teach With Your Strengths ends the book with supporting teachers. The rest of the journey is learning to own and apply them in your professional and personal life. 

Self-awareness has been a huge part of my journey as a lifelong learner. I have used the process of identifying, developing, and applying my strengths and value to become a better speaker, trainer, and coach. If you would like more support in identifying and using your strengths in your classroom, book a call with me, and we can talk further.