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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.
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
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.