Monday, January 6, 2020

Is It Possible to Have Too Much Empathy?


I recently finished reading A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by by Edwin Friedman. The author shared a number of leadership insights that were helpful to me or at least pushed my thinking.

But one of his positions knocked me back just a little. He builds a case that supports personal responsibility and rails against empathy. I was nodding my head on the personal responsibility ideas but was somewhat puzzled by the anti-empathy ideas. 

Friedman sets forth that empathy is a force that results in a lack of proper relational boundaries. He says empathy deprives organizations of progress and shifts power to the least emotionally healthy members. He says that empathy enables poor behavior and results in a failure to expect the least emotionally healthy members of an organization, or family, or relationship to grow. 

Those all seemed like bold claims to me. I generally view empathy as a good thing, a really good thing. But as I studied his position more carefully and reflected on the many examples he provided, I could also relate to how empathy gone too far can result in enabling dynamics. 

Or, taking empathy too far might result in my sacrificing my principles, beliefs, or convictions to soothe or satisfy another person's emotions or ideas.

So how can we define and practice empathy in healthy ways? How can we keep empathy from going too far?

A healthy sort of empathy is about carefully understanding the perspective of another person. One of my favorite quotes is from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Healthy empathy is about being open to another person's experience and perspective, to almost vicariously share in his or her perspective to understand it thoroughly. It's about understanding their thoughts and feelings.

But healthy empathy does not require you to agree with the position of another person, in matters of opinion. When I empathize, I can understand exactly where you're coming from and why you feel a certain way, and completely validate what you're experiencing, while also maintaining my ability to be true to myself, my ideals, and my responsibilities as a leader.

Friedman also provided an interesting distinction between hurt and harm, in matters of leadership interactions. He says that fair and effective leadership may sometimes result in hurt feelings. We're not going to like every decision the leader makes. And that our hurts are often an opportunity to grow emotionally through the experience. He would say that progress will demand some hurts along the way.

But harm crosses moral or ethical boundaries. Leaders should do no harm. They should be expected to act in ways that are honest, caring, selfless, and upright. 

The confusion I've noticed is that often when someone feels hurt, there is a belief that the individual or the organization has harmed them. But these are two different things.

What do you think? Is it possible to have too much empathy? What are your thoughts on keeping healthy boundaries while also showing empathy to others? Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Relentless About the Right Things



I love the energy and intention of the word relentless. There is power in that word. It indicates persistence, perseverance, commitment, and fortitude. The word is strong and mighty.

When we talk about educators being relentless, that's often a great compliment. What parent wouldn't want a teacher or principal for his or her own child who is relentless, who exhibits the qualities of being determined, dedicated, and diligent? 

But, one word of caution. Relentless about what?

When I was in college I had a professor who I would definitely say was relentless, in a way. He had an incredibly detailed syllabus, over 25 pages long. He had clearly invested much time and energy in preparing for the course. He seemed very relentless in his attention to every fine point.

No doubt his knowledge of his subject matter was off the charts. He spoke with tremendous authority on his topic. You could easily tell he had an impressive depth of understanding. I'm guessing he studied his subject matter relentlessly.

His tests were notorious for their complexity, rigor, and depth. Students lived in fear of his tests. And upon returning the graded exams, he would include meticulous written feedback regarding each incorrect answer. Much of the feedback went right over my head. We were asked to do nothing with the feedback, but he was relentless in giving it nonetheless.

I learned next to nothing in this course. I simply survived. And from my discussions with other students and his overall reputation around campus, that seemed to be the general consensus.

Getting through his class felt like it was more about gaming his system, and his 25-page syllabus, than it was about actual learning. I surprisingly got a decent grade, but it didn't reflect much of anything about the quality of my learning.

There was little interaction between the professor and the students. There was no connection. There was no attempt to meet the learners at their current level of understanding. He simply taught right over everyone's heads.

So what are you relentless about in your classroom or school?

Are you relentless about the rules or about the relationships?
Are you relentless about the grades or the learning?
Are you relentless about the curriculum or the progress of the learners?
Are you relentless about marching through the standards or inspiring a love of learning in your students?

Let's reflect on what's most important and make sure we're applying our energy to those things.

Let's be relentless about what adds the most value to our learners and their futures.

Let's be relentless about bringing joy and enthusiasm for learning.
Let's be relentless in knowing our students.
Let's be relentless in believing in our students.
Let's be relentless in listening to our students.
Let's be relentless in understanding our students' perspectives.

Let's seek to be relentless as educators. But let's also reflect to make sure we're relentless about the right things.

What are you relentless about as an educator? What do you value most and does that also add the most value to your students? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, December 13, 2019

All Kids Deserve Opportunities for Creative Work


Which students are doing the creative work in your school? Who has the most opportunities to work on projects, solve problems, collaborate with classmates, develop ideas, design products, and publish for authentic audiences? If your school is like most schools, I'm guessing your strongest learners have the most opportunities.

And I'm guessing the students who struggle the most are doing the most repetitive work, the routine work, and the isolated work. They are spending more time in intervention settings. 


There's nothing inherently wrong with repetition or routine work. Intervention can be helpful. Sometimes that's what's needed. But there is so much more.


Students may master standards in this type of routine learning, but they will never master themselves. They need chances to demonstrate agency, to take greater ownership of their learning, and to explore different ideas.


For your next lesson, what small changes could you make to cause your learners to experience a little more curiosity and a little more creativity? Ask yourself this each day. How can I move the needle toward curiosity and creativity in learning? How can I leverage curiosity and creativity to help students master standards? How can students access this curriculum in ways that build curiosity and creativity too?


Curiosity and creativity aren't separate events from learning content. They enhance the learning of content. It's through curiosity and creativity that we learn content best.

And I believe that's true for all students. It's true for students who have special learning needs, it's true for students who struggle with behaviors, and it's true for students who are behind academically.

All kids deserve opportunities for creative work. 


Learning doesn't stop with learning standards. In fact, some of the most valuable work we can do is developing the curiosity and creativity in learners. Our kids should leave school wanting to know even more. We should aim to develop them as curious, creative, and continuous learners.

How are you developing the curiosity and creativity of your students? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Problems Usually Seem Worse Than They Are



It's been said the only certainties in life are death and taxes.


Let's add one to the list. We can be certain there will be problems. As long as we are in this life, there is a 100% guarantee there will be problems.

We all face challenges every day. And sometimes the problems seem much bigger than they are. In fact, I would say they usually seem much bigger than they are.

I know this is true because some of the things that were huge, gigantic problems for me in my past, now seem much smaller as many years have past. In reflecting, I've even felt puzzled or confused that I ever got so upset about some of the things that I viewed as big problems years ago.

So no matter what you're going through, keep that truth in mind. This problem probably feels bigger right now than it actually is. So check yourself on that before you let your feelings take over.

See the problem for what it is, but not worse than it is.

Tell yourself the truth.

Avoid thinking there is no solution or things can't change. They almost always do.

Ask for advice or counsel regarding the problem.

Reframe the problem with gratitude. Be grateful for what you can do to address the problem. It could always be worse.

Work the problem. Seek solutions. Try different possibilities.

Get a vision of working past the problem. Think intently about what it will feel like to overcome this problem. 

Wait patiently. Often problems are not resolved on our timeline, but they are eventually resolved nonetheless.

Friday, December 6, 2019

7 Things People Think or Say that Reinforce Mediocrity


In my previous post, I wrote how failure is not the enemy of improvement. Failure is actually a healthy part of learning and growth. The enemy of excellence is apathy or mediocrity. It's being content, either intentionally or unintentionally, with how things are.

That's how people, schools, organizations, etc. get stuck in mediocrity. They become content with just good enough.

There are lots of reasons people embrace mediocrity, but here are a few of the mindsets I've noticed over years of working in school leadership and reflecting on my own attitude when I fall short and observing the attitudes of others as well.

I think by reflecting on these things, we can learn to recognize them in self and others and explore ways to move past them.

1. "I already do that."

Rather than approaching a topic as a learner and looking for ways to adjust and grow, we defend our current practice and imply there is nothing more we can learn about this idea, practice, or approach.

2. "I tried that, and it didn't work."

Since I tried this already, and it didn't work, then clearly there is not room for me to explore this idea or topic again. I have eliminated any future possibilities based on my own personal experience. 

And the thing about this one is that often people didn't execute the practice or idea effectively in the beginning, or they don't give the idea enough time to determine if it could be effective with further practice and/or adjustments.

3. "That won't work with these students."

This way of thinking is extremely limiting and dismissive to students. Effective educators believe in their students, and they aren't the ones to determine if students can or cannot do something. They create the conditions where students have the opportunities to stretch their limits. They think, "If I get the conditions right, I believe my students can and will succeed with this challenge."

4. "What will the other teachers think?"

I remember hearing Ron Clark speak about how, in his first teaching job, his exciting, enthusiastic approach was getting wonderful results. Kids were learning more than ever, and they were loving it. 

But other teachers in the school were not loving it. Clark's principal came to him and said, "You're doing great, but you're making the other teachers very uncomfortable. Would you mind closing the door to your classroom?"

There is a serious mediocrity problem if teachers are not willing to learn from each other and cheer each other on. 

5. "We've always done it this way."

It's been described as the most dangerous phrase in the language. It preserves the status quo. It protects comfort and limits growth. It shuts down new ideas. 

This phrase reveals thinking that is closed minded, inflexible, and possibly even stuck in the past. We can't think creatively or make progress if we're not willing to try something new.

6. "I don't have time for that."

It seems like everyone in education feels the pinch of not having enough time, so in a way, this is a legitimate concern. However, it's also one of the strongest messages we say to ourselves that keep us stuck, that prevent us from moving forward. 

We all have exactly the same amount of time in each day, 1440 minutes in each day to be precise. If you truly "don't have time" to improve something, does that mean you are not currently wasting any of those 1440 minutes? Does that mean that there is no room for growth on how you prioritize the use of those 1440 minutes?

Not having enough time is one of the biggest excuses I know for not doing anything to grow, learn, or change. You may not have time to do everything, but you do have time to do something to grow, learn, and change.  

We make many decisions each day how we use our time. We should use it wisely.

7. What if something goes wrong?

The fear of failure is one of the biggest deterrents to progress and growth. It feels like a big risk to try something that isn't as familiar. It feels like a big risk to try something new or different. It feels safe to try things that have predictable outcomes. 

But the big risk is staying comfortable and avoiding new possibilities. Excellence requires positive risk taking. 

Can you think of any other phrases or messages that keep us stuck in apathy or mediocrity? Share your thoughts here or on Facebook or Twitter. I'd love to hear from you.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Evidence You Have Unlimited Potential



Did you learn things in your first year of teaching you knew you needed to do differently? Of course you did.

If you could do year one over again, do you think you could learn even more from it? Are there things you could do differently, more efficiently, more effectively if given the chance to do it again? Probably so.

What about year two, three, four? I'm guessing when you reflect on your past from your where you are now, there are lots of things you realize you could've done differently.

You've come a long way.

And that truth demonstrates how your capacity is unknown and unlimited. If you can recognize you left some of your potential unfulfilled in the past, that's proof that you are capable of even more in the future. 

If you continue to grow, learn, and change, there are no known limits for you.

Excellence is making the most of your opportunities. It's getting the most from your chances to grow. The key is to never stop growing.

You truly have unlimited potential. So do your students. So does everyone with a willingness to pursue continuous growth. 

Excellence is always striving to grow, learn, and change. It's striving to be better today than yesterday, better this week than last week, better this year than last year.

The opposite of excellence is not failure. The opposite of excellence is apathy. It's choosing, either intentionally or unintentionally, to stay the same.

Failure is opportunity in disguise. Mistakes are helpful when you use them for your benefit, like Bob Ross explains in this short clip.




So believe in your own possibilities. Believe in the possibilities of your students.

Aim for excellence. And crush apathy. You have unlimited capacity for greatness.

Reflection Questions...
1. How am I growing and pushing my limits?
2. Are there areas I'm protecting the status quo?
3. Where can I be more open to change?
4. Who gives me energy and inspiration to move forward?
5. If I'm stuck, what can I do to disrupt my unhelpful patterns?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Never Ask a Student This Question About Their Behavior


Students who are in trouble almost always have a good reason for why they did what they did. Sometimes a student will admit fault and take full ownership, but that's not usually the case, especially for students who habitually shift responsibility. Usually, they explain away their behavior and how they were misunderstood or how someone else's bad behavior led to their actions. 

So how should educators handle that situation? Is it okay for a student to act badly if they have a good reason or feel justified in their behavior? Absolutely not. If they can explain their intentions, does that make it better? Not really.

I had this conversation with a student the other day. In life, people are going to know you by your behavior, not your intentions. So I hear what you're saying. You didn't mean to be disrespectful. You didn't mean to cause a problem. You had a good reason for what you did. But I can't know your reasons, truly. I believe what you're saying. But it's not for me to judge your intentions. No one can know what's in another person's heart with certainty. I can't know your intentions. But I can observe your behaviors.

And life will always hold you accountable for your actions. It might not happen immediately. You might get away with it for a while. However, the choices you make now will impact your future. And as someone who cares about you and your future, it's my job to help you be accountable now so life won't be so hard on you later.

So I never ask students this question:

"Why did you do it?"

That just reinforces the idea that if you had a good enough reason, it's okay to act badly. That if you had a good enough reason, it's okay to act in a way that's harmful to others.

Instead, ask the following:

"What did you do? Which choices you made caused a problem?"

"Who or what was harmed as a result of your choices?"

"What are the expectations (rules) here about these choices?"

"How might you correct the situation so it doesn't happen again in the future?"

Keep the focus on the behavior and not the underlying motivations. If the student tries to justify their behavior, keep coming back to the specific choices and how those choices aren't acceptable in this space. When we keep the focus on what happened and how it had an impact on others, we encourage full responsibility.

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