Leading with Empathy

As an introvert, I naturally shy away from the limelight as I prefer to be a fly on the wall enjoying the scene unfolding before me. But my passion for technology and teacher education has pushed me out of my comfort zone to present in front of groups of people (both large and small). I mention this because I just finished putting together a presentation I am going to share with a group of educators next Saturday. And, I am both excited and exhausted.

I’m excited because I get to share my knowledge and experience as a classroom teacher in a formerly blended, now fully online learning environment. But I’m also exhausted at the thought of having to speak in front of people.

Story of my life.

The presentation is for teachers and educators who are enrolled in an educational leadership and technology course at a local university. These master’s students are learning about leadership and organizational change. And, I was asked to share my experience as an educational leader whose passion is technology integration.

I have been presenting to teachers since 1998. I began with sharing how I created lessons that were rigorous and engaging for my middle school students. Over the years, I have shifted from merely sharing my ideas, strategies, and lessons learned to an incorporation of how technology can be the catalyst for meaningful learning.

To be clear, I am not advocating the integration of technology for technology’s sake. I am a firm believer that we have to begin with the learning objective and then match that to the technology tool. For example, if you want your students to collaborate on a writing assignment, Google Docs is the perfect medium. If you want your students to practice speaking literacy skills, then perhaps Flipgrid with their video and audio features would work. If you want your students to create a display of their learning, then Padlet would suffice as a virtual bulletin board. But it begins with the learning objective first.

Technology is the means to an end. Not the end itself.

Students are more apt (than adults) to simply jump into a task that includes technology. I’m not entirely sure why, but from my experience they just are.

Adults come to the table with prior experience, varied levels of knowledge and skills, and preconceived notions of the value of technology for student learning (Ertmer et al., 2012; Frank et al., 2011; Shifflet & Weilbacher, 2015; Wachira & Keengwe, 2011).

So, if you want teachers to “buy-in” to the idea of how technology can support student learning outcomes, you need to meet teachers where they are. And, that means starting with empathy.

Websters Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

I mention this because when it comes to technology adoption, integration, implementation, or any other verb of your choosing, we need to first begin with empathizing with the user. And, that means starting with their concerns. What are their concerns when it comes to using technology?

Hall and Hord (2015) purport that there are six stages of concern:

Impact

  • Refocusing – I have some ideas about something that would work even better.
  • Collaboration – How is this related to what my colleagues are doing?
  • Consequence – How is my use of technology affecting students?

Task

  • Management – I seem to be spending all of my time getting the technology set-up.

Self

  • Personal – How will using technology affect me?
  • Informational – I would like to know more about technology. 

Unrelated

  • Unconcerned – I am more concerned about other things.

All of these concerns are valid and are potential barriers to technology integration. So when considering a new initiative that includes technology, professional developers, trainers, coaches, etc. need to begin by empathizing with the teacher.

How can you find out what teachers’ concerns are regarding technology?

You ask.

What I’ve learned over the years when working with both children and teachers is that everything is based on relationships. Building a good rapport with students helps when you want them to complete tasks that they may not necessarily find interesting or motivating. The same can be said for teachers. If you are asking teachers to change their thinking or instructional practice, then building a good rapport is key.

This is where being an introvert is difficult.

Normally, I am not one to start small talk. And, I am most certainly not one to just walk up to people and start a conservation. But this is something I’ve naturally done with students who walked through my doors. I know they typically hate history, so my goal is to build a connection with them so that they are at least open to the possibility that history can be very interesting. I’ve since then adopted the same practice when working with adults. I begin by getting to know them, who they are, what motivates them as a teacher, etc.

I’m hoping that these short conversations will help when it comes time for me to introduce something that is going to potentially change how they teach.

Hall and Hord (2015) also advocate for something they call the one-legged interview which is really just short conversations in passing whereby people end up sharing challenges and celebrations for whatever change initiative is on the docket. These quick conversations can occur in-between classes or in the workroom when making copies–well, maybe not at this time since most of us are still remote, but that’s not say that we can’t drop a quick email or text to a colleague to check in, right?

The relationships we build through these snippets of conversation are what help us to develop empathy for each other. Or in my case, it’s what helps me better understand the concerns of my colleagues when it comes to technology integration.

If I don’t first invest in building the relationship with my colleagues, what’s to motivate them to want to change?

I cannot empathize with their situation, I am going to talk over their heads, they won’t care what I have to say, and then everything will be for naught.

This is a lesson I’ve learned throughout my years of planning and facilitating professional development. Without empathy, very little change will happen, and I’m pretty confident that any change that did happen would not be sustainable.

Change can occur people see the value in it for themselves.

But we need to open the door and greet them with empathy.

References

Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59, 423–435. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.001

Frank, K. A., Zhao, Y., Penuel, W. R., Ellefson, N., & Porter, S. (2011). Focus, fiddle, and friends: Experiences that transform knowledge for the implementation of innovations. Sociology of Education, 84, 137–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040711401812

Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2015). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (4th ed.). Pearson.

Shifflet, R., & Weilbacher, G. (2015). Teacher beliefs and their influence on technology use: A case study. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15, 368–394. Retrieved from http://www.citejournal.org

Wachira, P., & Keengwe, J. (2011). Technology integration barriers: Urban school mathematics teachers perspectives. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20, 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-010-9230-y

Six Days

it be like that sometimes

On November 12, my school re-opened for in-person instruction.

On November 20, we received word that our school was moving back to fully distance learning.

We lasted six days.

Our hybrid model allowed parents (and students) to choose whether to attend school in-person or continue with distance learning. At the beginning, our in-person students comprised a little over 50% of our school’s population. By the time we received word that our county was moved back to the purple tier, the number of parents (and students) choosing distance learning was over 55%. We had changes almost on a daily basis.

The numbers in the zip codes for my school have been going up exponentially (in line with many areas in our state and country). But in one particular zip code (where more than 50% of our students live), the case rate doubled in one week’s time.

Double digits.

Yikes.

My administration (especially our new rockstar principal) has worked tirelessly to get the school ready for the teachers and students. He has been nothing short of AH-mazing. Our custodial staff has also worked diligently to get our rooms configured to allow for six feet of physical distancing. They moved furniture to two storage units; they installed plexiglass shields on student desks; they put together and delivered plexiglass shields for teachers. The amount of money poured into purchasing hand sanitizer, paper towels, gloves, face shields, masks, thermometers, signage, portable hand-washing stations, touchless water bottle refill stations, plexiglass (of all shapes and sizes), external monitors, and cleaning supplies was probably astronomical. We also hired more custodial staff to clean the quads and bathrooms between passing periods. I don’t know the entire cost, but I know it was A LOT.

And now our school has closed for in-person instruction.

We lasted six days.

I have no words.

But…I am upset at the fact that, once again, I was unable to speak directly to my in-person students about moving back to fully distance learning. We were told wait until the district sent a message to all families at the conclusion of the school day. I felt like a fraud all day on Friday knowing that this would be the last time my kids were going to be able to see each other and their teachers for awhile and they had no clue.

I’m kind of glad I had to wear a mask so that they couldn’t see what my face was likely portraying.

But I hated that I had to post an announcement after 5PM on a Friday to let them know that everything was going to be okay – instead of assuring them of that fact in-person.

It sucked. Just like it sucked March 13.

Six days.

T-Minus 6 Days

March 13 is a day that will forever be seared into my mind as it was the last day I spent time with my students in the physical classroom. Since then, along with many dedicated teachers, I have worked tirelessly to provide meaningful learning opportunities that hopefully established a sense of “normalcy” and camaraderie online. I cherish the moments I had with my students last spring as they were a neat group of kids.

Fast forward to today, November 3. Last week, we were given word by my district that our school was among the Tier 2 Schools (not to be mixed up with the tiers used by the State of California to determine covid infection rates) which would be opening for in-person instruction on November 12. In spite of my concerns, erratic emotions, and general disbelief at having to return while cases are increasing in my school’s zip codes, I have to admit that my current administrator (he’s new to us this year, but he is certainly not new to this position as this is his 35th year in the public schools) has worked so diligently and thoughtfully on our behalf to ensure (to the best of his ability) that all teachers would feel safe when returning to in-person instruction.

Full disclosure: I am not comfortable returning to in-person instruction. Not only do I worry about my husband who has a compromised immune system, but I also worry for my own general health. The data and reports about the severity (or not) or the longevity (or not) of the symptoms are big red flags for me.

Working at a Title I school, I am sensitive to the needs of our most vulnerable students. I have heard too many heart-breaking stories about their homelife and the day-to-day struggles that many of their parents face. I know that many of my students do not have their own devices let alone reliable Internet connectivity. The push to close the digital access gap is real, folks. I mean, it’s been around for far too many years, but this year…the gaps are glaringly obvious. So, yes, I get that my students would benefit more if

  • They were in a physical classroom so that they could receive immediate support from their teachers
  • They could easily have access to two hot meals a day (breakfast and lunch)
  • They could interact with their peers to develop important social skills
  • They had reliable access to technology devices and the Internet
  • They had a safe place to be while their parents worked
  • They knew an adult was readily available if they needed help
  • They had the opportunity to be with their friends and make new ones

Yes, I realize that this is but a short list of benefits for my students.

But, I also know that more than 50% of our parents do not want their child to return to in-person instruction at this time. In fact, today I found out that more parents and students are opting to continue with the distance learning option out of concern about their health and safety.

So why are we going back to in-person instruction at this time? Well, it’s certainly not because the students will receive more instructional time (in fact, they are going to receive less instructional time than if we had stayed with the fully distance learning model). It’s also not because returning to in-person instruction will give students the opportunity to develop social skills–how is that possible with wearing masks and maintaining six-feet a part at all times? Students are not going to eating lunch together, they are not going to hanging out after school with their friends, they are not going to be engaging in many of social celebrations and activities that we used to have pre-March 13.

In fact, what awaits our students are desks measured six-feet a part or tables with a plexiglass shield down the middle. Their expressions are going to be hidden behind masks which they have to wear the entire time while on campus. Our students have to abide by one-way hallways. No short-cuts allowed. They are limited on what they can do during the passing period as it’s no longer about hanging out with friends in the quad. Students are going to still be served lunch, but it’s grab-and-go. No socializing over food for them.

No club activities.

No after school sports.

No enrichment programs such as robotics or photography.

Oh, and did I mention that they will have reduced instructional minutes with their teachers?

So, I guess I’m not seeing the overall benefit to returning to in-person instruction at this time especially when taking into account the added stress of possibly contracting the virus with the increased number of contact between people. This is not only a concern of mine, but for my students as well (yes, I have surveyed them multiple times so far this year).

I am a career educator. This is my 26th year in the classroom. I love my students. I love my colleagues. And I love teaching. But in light of the limitations we have to work with at this time, I do not see how the benefits outweigh the costs of returning to in-person instruction in six days.

Someone needs to get me off this roller coaster called 2020.