Ninth Shift: What Do You Need?

What do I need?

It’s a simple question, but I can’t help but wonder: have you ever asked yourself this question before?

What do you need?

It’s a simple question, but I can’t help but wonder: have you ever asked your students this question before?

Our lives are busy. Our classrooms are busy. There is so much to do and get done. Rarely do we pause in the middle of the day or the middle of a class, and ask:

What do I need?

What do you need?

We tell ourselves what to do constantly. Eat more kale. Get more sleep. Get off your phone during dinner. Fill out the field trip permission slip. Schedule the haircut. Mail gifts. Plan tomorrow’s lesson. Grade papers. Put gas in the car.

We tell our students what to do constantly. Listen to the directions. Write complete sentences. Finish your work. Stop talking to your classmate. Sit down. Sit still. Pay attention.

What if we stopped telling and started asking?

What if we started each day by asking ourselves, what do I need? What if we paused long enough that we listened to the answer?

What is we started each class by asking our students, what do you need? What if we paused long enough that we listened to their answers?

This is what I am thinking as I read Mirna Valerio’s post, An Open Letter To Women Who Aren’t Putting Their Needs First. Mirna is an athlete, a mom, a wife, a writer, and so much more. She writes about how it wasn’t until she had a major health crisis that she began to ask herself what she needed. She writes about how important it is for women to look after themselves just as much as they look after everyone else.

Why wasn’t I ever taught this? I think as I read. Why didn’t I ever teach my students this?

I believe that we have to teach ourselves how to identify our needs, listen to our needs, and act accordingly. This isn’t innate. In fact, many women (myself included) ignore that little voice inside their heads that says, “you need a break” or “you need to ask for some help.” We put on our metaphorical modern woman cape and charge on, determined to prove that we can do and be it all.

Until we can’t.

Because after all, we are only human and no one can multi-task her way through life without ever getting a cold or locking herself out of the house or losing someone she loves.

What do I want? We ask ourselves. What don’t I have? We think. What should I do? We ponder. Never, what do I need?

So what are modeling then for our students? For our own children? Do I want my son to think that he should continue working even when he has pneumonia? Do I want my students to think that finishing a worksheet determines whether or not they have learned something? No. Of course, not.

The other day as I was struggling to pack lunches, find hats and gloves and matching shoes, I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I looked feral, half-crazed, and exhausted. I was holding so many things in my arms that I dropped my mug of coffee and it spilled all over me, all over the stuff I was holding, and all over the floor. I started to cry.

My son said, “Mom. Do you need some help?”

My son asked me what I needed. He is six. All I could think about was what I wanted: more hours in the day, more sleep, more time to think. Paper towels.

I am working with a teacher who isn’t new to the profession, but this is his first year teaching at a new school. He began the school year by setting expectations for his class, and telling his students what those expectations were.

When he came to our meeting, he shared that the students weren’t meeting the expectations and that they didn’t seem invested in them.

“If we create expectations for our students before they have walked into our classroom, how do we know that those are the right expectations?” I asked him.

“What if expectations are fluid, and constantly shifting as the students grow and the class progresses?” I proposed.

“What if we re-visit the expectations again and again and ask ourselves and our students what’s working and what no longer serves us?” I shared.

I challenged him to re-visit the expectations using a silent Graffiti Walk Protocol. In this strategy, the teacher writes questions on large pieces of chart paper. The students have seven minutes to walk around the room with a marker and write down their responses. Then the students re-visit the posters a second time, and they respond to their peers’ responses. They ask questions. They put a +1 if they agree. All of this (in theory) is done silently.

I suggested that the posters might provide entry points into a whole class discussion about what the students needed from the class and from their teacher to be successful.

In this strategy, expectation setting shifts from being a fixed teacher-driven process to a fluid student-centered process. Wants shift to needs.

After he tried the strategy, he shared with me that he felt much more connected to his students. The conversation flowed freely, and the students were eager to share and make suggestions about how to make the class work better.

He asked his students what they needed.

Another teacher that I am working with made a similar shift. Instead of telling her students what they were going to do, she started asking for their input. The class is working on a whole group essay. Part of the brainstorming process was to select three adjectives that describe the character at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. When the teacher saw that her students were having trouble distinguishing between adjectives and nouns, she shifted her lesson plan, and asked her students if they’d like her to slow down and go over adjectives and nouns with them.

She asked her students what they needed.

I challenge you to think about moments in your classroom where you could make the small shift from telling your students to asking them.

When a student is off task and disruptive, what would happen if you walked over to that student got down on her level, and asked, “what do you need right now?”

She may not know the answer, but by asking the question you have opened the door and you have shown her that her needs matter.  At the end of the day, I believe all of us just want to be seen and heard.

As we round the corner into December, the season of goal setting, resolutions, and list making is upon us. I don’t think anyone is immune. Whether you plan to set a New Year’s Resolution or not, chances are you’ve seen something, read something or gone somewhere that planted the seed.

Like most women (and teachers, and well, let’s be honest, people in general), I have a tendency to set goals for myself that are big. I decide to change everything instead of something. My bucket list for the next year becomes long enough to fill a page. Family, Work, Finance, Fitness: I lean towards big shifts.

This year, I have been tiptoeing around my usual process because something has shifted in me. I don’t necessary want to accomplish more this year. I don’t want to run a marathon or plan all my meals on Sundays every week. I don’t want to teach my son how to spell by creating a Montessori inspired station rotation we complete every Saturday. Just thinking about these absolutes makes me want to take a nap.

This year I want to stop telling myself what to and start asking myself what I need. I hope to find more stillness, and in the quiet begin to listen to and honor the needs that surface, however big, however small, I hope to show up for myself, and have Mirna to thank for it.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Start A New Morning Ritual
When you wake up what is the first thing you think of? For me, it is often, “I have so much to do,” or “I am exhausted already.” In order to shift my focus away from “shoulds” and “wants,” I am going to begin each day by asking myself what I need. Sometimes I need to cancel an appointment so I can take a nap. Sometimes I need to take a sick day when I don’t feel well. Sometimes I need to hit snooze. The problem is I feel like I am failing or doing something wrong when I really listen to what I need. Who am I disappointing? What am I failing at? I need to re-write my own story, and I challenge you to do the same. Our first thoughts set the tone for the day to come. Consider re-visiting how you begin your classes as well. Is there a small change that you could make so you can provide your students with time and space to think about what they need? Maybe instead of starting with a quiz, you can provide five minutes for them to journal or draw? Maybe you can start by asking them if there is anything they need to talk about before class begins?

2. Find An Accountability Partner
I feel very fortunate to have many women in my life who I admire. Several of these women are incredibly positive people whose joyful energy is contagious. Whenever I am around these women (Kelly, Afrika, Laura, and Anne I am talking about you!) I immediately find myself being more positive and finding more joy in whatever we are doing. It’s not easy to change your mindset and your thinking habits. Share what you are working on with your friends. Ask them to gently remind you when you begin to go back to old habits of negative thinking, doing too much and focusing on the “shoulds” and “wants.” It takes a village. Try the same process with your students. Consider pairing them up with a partner and supporting them to generate a list of needs, and then use that list to create some personal goals for themselves. By making time and space in the classroom for these conversations, you are showing your students that focusing on their needs is essential to their well-being. You are practicing what you preach.

3. Do Nothing
I know what you are thinking. What do you mean, do nothing? I can’t do nothing. I am not suggesting that you throw in the towel, curl up on the couch with the entire Harry Potter series, and call it a day. What I am suggesting is that you stop the rushing around, the multi-tasking. You don’t have to do everything in one day, and many days don’t go according to plan. The problem is we don’t seem ok with that when it happens. Your students will have days where they are distracted or tired or their braces hurt. That doesn’t mean you don’t teach, but that does mean you may need to pause, and ask what they need before you soilder on through your grammar mini-lesson. Sometimes the best thing that we can do for ourselves is nothing. We need to pause and create space before we can move forward.

Eighth Shift: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But Shouldn’t You Get What You Need?

Eighth Shift: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But Shouldn’t You Get What You Need?

What’s your story of school?

I was asked to write a lengthy response to this question when I was in graduate school at NYU studying English Education. After we drafted our response, our professor asked us to then write a philosophy of education. We put both documents side by side. She asked us to use a highlighter and look for patterns. I used yellow to indicate similarities, and then highlighted contrasts and contradictions in blue.

There was a whole lot of blue, and very little yellow.

It was a powerful moment for me. The way I was taught, and my experience of school was disconnected from my beliefs and values around teaching.

Do you teach the way that you were taught?

This was the next question. Our professor asked us to take a lesson plan we recently used during student teaching. With a partner, we looked at our lesson plan and compared it to our story of school and our teaching philosophies. We used yellow to highlight the parts of the lesson plan that matched our story of school, and blue to highlight the parts of the lesson plan that matched our teaching philosophy.

There was a whole lot of yellow, and very little blue.

Do you plan lessons with yourself in mind?

This was the third question she asked us. We looked at our lesson plans and used Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences to identify what learning styles and preferences were in our lessons. ( I should add that in a previous class we explored different learning styles and preferences and identified what ours were). She asked us to tally up the learning styles and preferences.

There was a lot of auditory learning in my lesson plan. I am an auditory learner…


There was a disconnect between what I thought I was teaching and how I was teaching it, and what I was actually doing. I was planning lessons with myself in mind, and I was teaching the way that I was taught.

I was giving my students what I wanted, not what they needed. 

I still remember these questions, and I share them often with teachers I coach. 

When I work with a teacher and I see that there are contrasts and contradictions between how the teacher thinks she teachers, and what she is actually doing in the classroom, I look to these questions to bring self-awareness to her practice.

For anyone who has studied education, reflection is at the center of the curriculum. However, when we begin to teach in our own classrooms, there is often little time to reflect. We are busy teaching.

The same can be applied to our daily lives. We are busy. We are so busy that we don’t often take the time to reflect. I believe that when people say they feel unbalanced that what they really mean is that their values and beliefs aren’t aligned with their actions. For example, I value family. My time with my husband and our kids is sacred. However, just like everyone else I am busy. Last year I found myself doing a lot of multitasking. I’d have my computer out during breakfast so I could check emails. I’d fold laundry, and take phone calls while playing Go Fish.

My son even commented that I was always doing two things at once. I felt stressed all the time. It was as though I was playing and endless game of Tug of War: my family on one side, and my work on the other and me somewhere in the middle trying desparetly to keep the balance. 

A small shift for me came when I realized that all this multitasking was making me less productive and compromising my values. Now, my family time is family time. No cell phone, no work. When I take my son to soccer, I sit and watch him play. This allows me to be fully present, and I am modeling my values for him. He matters. Family matters. He has my full attention.

Once I made this shift, I felt much more balanced. I no longer felt the pull between family and work. I accepted that when I am working, I am working, but once my children are home, the work stops. I don’t get my computer back out after the kids go to sleep. I spend that time with my husband. We read books together. We talk. That time is sacred. Family matters. He has my full attention.

It is hard to realize when there is a disconnect between your values and beliefs and your actions. In order to see it, you have to pause and reflect.

As a teacher it is so important that your instructional approach and your teaching aligns with your educational beliefs and values. While it may feel like you don’t have the time, I want to encourage you to go through the process my professor shared with me, and answer these critical questions:

What’s your story of school?
Do you teach the way that you were taught?
Do you plan lessons with yourself in mind?

You will need your teaching philosophy and a recent lesson plan.

If you see a disconnect what do you do next?

First, don’t beat yourself up. You are human. Regardless of how you have been teaching and what you have been teaching, you have been doing the best that you can and that is enough. However, if you want to make a shift so your values and beliefs align with your actions in the classroom, here is a place to start.

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If you are planning lessons with your learning preference and style in mind, try using these four quadrants to shift your lesson so it provides learning pathways for different learning styles and preferences.

I like to write down a specific student’s name in each of the boxes. This helps me plan with my students in mind and shifts the focus from how I prefer to learn to how I think my students will learn the skill best.

I found this approach helpful in shifting my lesson planning away from myself. This approach also ensures that you are providing student choice and a variety of learning pathways for practicing the same skill(s).

I also think it is helpful to survey your students and seek their feedback. Do they feel that they are provided with different ways to learn? What activity helped them learn best and why? Support your students to see that curriculum is a conversation and show them that you value their voices. Here are some sentence starters you can use to support students to provide feedback:

The most challenging thing for me today was ________.
The activity that helped me learn best was __________.
I’d like to do more of __________.
Something we didn’t do that I’d like to try is _________.

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This lesson was design for a blended classroom. The teacher starts the class whole group, and shares the learning objective and highlights the skills that students are practicing. She sets expectations for the work ahead. There are three stations: teacher, collaborative, and independent. The class then comes together for a final activity. This teacher has 1:1 devices and the students use iPads. The students have a choice at the independent station if they’d prefer to use Vocaroo and record their thinking or if they’d like to use Padlet and write down their thinking. For an extension, students can do both. The class ends with a Gallery Walk activity where students share their work with each other. The teacher can assess the students by looking at their written similes and metaphors during the Gallery Walk.

Another step is to write down your story of school. Identify how you were taught, and write about what kind of student you were. After you have written your response, look at a current lesson plan. Do you teach the way you were taught? Highlight your lesson plan and identify places where you’d like to shift your instructional approach.

Finally, identify your values and beliefs around education. If you haven’t revisited your philosophy of education, pull it out. I think it is important and helpful to note that your values and beliefs will shift. Pull three words or phrases from your philosophy that align with your teaching now. Write them down on a Post-It and put it on your desk. Consider sharing these words and phrases with your students and explaining why they matter to you. Look for places in your lessons where you can provide activities and learning opportunities that align with your values.

I’ll end with a story from my own classroom. One of my students raised her hand in my class and asked, “are we ever going to be quiet in here?”

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a talker. Sharing my thinking and discussing my ideas with others is how I learn best. Silence makes me uncomfortable. 

My instructional moves reflected my learning preference. My students were always talking. I rarely gave them time to think or process their ideas before we jumped right into a discussion. My student needed quiet. She needed time to think and jot down her thoughts before she shared them. I started shifting my choices. When I planned lessons I thought about her question. I realized that my students’ needs aren’t my needs. My students’ learning preferences aren’t always my learning preferences. Teaching isn’t one size fits all. When I shifted my planning so that I planned with different learning styles and preferences and specific students in mind, I saw more engagement and progress. I also found myself growing. Instead of immediately talking, I embraced the three minutes of silent thinking time. I started writing down my ideas before sharing them. The shift from action to reflection has kept my actions aligned with my beliefs and values. I have my student to thank for that.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Check Your Blindspot
We can’t change what we can’t see. Make time for reflection. Even if you only have twenty minutes, block time for it. Think about your beliefs and values, and write them down. Re-visit your teaching philosophy. Look at your lesson plans. The way we teach and what we are teaching is always shifting and changing. Every year the students are different, and have different needs. What worked last year or five years ago may not work anymore. What you believed then you may not believe now. Be honest with yourself about whether or not your values and beliefs align with the actions that you take both in and out of your classroom. Make small shifts so there is more balance. I have a friend who journals in a red notebook every year. She may not journal every day, but she has documented her feelings, thoughts, and experiences year to year. When she goes back and looks at previous years she can see how she has grown and changed. A daily practice like this can help provide perspective and create space for reflection.

2. Ask Them What They Want And Give Them What They Need
Teachers can’t read minds. Yes, we learn a lot about our student through observation, but we don’t know until we ask. Make it a priority to provide your students with resources that will help them discover how they prefer to learn and work. Provide them with different pathways to learning a skill. Give them opportunity to reflect and share feedback about what was most helpful and why. The more we know about ourselves the better we are able to ask for what we need. Share how you like to learn and work with your students, and how you use this information both in and out of the classroom.

3. Find Your Tried and True
I’ve had teachers tell me they feel like an entertainer that has to find new tricks and bells and whistles in order to keep their students engaged. Identify 3-5 learning activities that your students enjoy. Use them frequently. Add in new strategies and activities as the year goes on, but don’t be afraid to rely on what works. The same applies to meeting your own needs. I know that a long run, a trip to the library, and morning coffee with my husband relax and ground me. When I am feeling unbalanced or unsure about what I need, I go to one(or all) of these to feel more grounded. There isn’t always time for all I want to do, but I have learned that I should give myself what I need.


Seventh Shift: Steering Your Ship When The Waters Are Rough

Seventh Shift: Steering Your Ship When The Waters Are Rough

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my own ship” (Louisa May Alcott).

Last night I went to my son’s back to school night. His teacher shared a strategy with us she called Active Apologies. “When I ask a student to apologize to another student, they aren’t making that choice, I am,” She told us. “Also, sorry is a word, and unless it is followed by an action, it doesn’t have a positive impact or result in a change in behavior.”

When a child is asked to apologize in her class, the child has to take action on the apology. She can ask her classmate to sit with her at lunch; she can write a kind note; there are so many things she can do to not only say, but show that she is sorry.

I love this. 

I almost jumped up out of my chair and started clapping. She is not only teaching her students the importance of accountability and owning their mistakes, but she is also teaching them the difference between words and actions. It is what you do that matters most, I believe, more than what you say. As my colleague Daniel says, “words are just wind.” 

I believe that teaching students means not only teaching them how to divide, form a hypothesis or write a complete sentence. Teaching means equipping students with strategies for how to develop and use their internal compass in order to make good choices and take action, especially when things get tough in and out of the classroom. 

We all have feelings. We all have thoughts and opinions. Sometimes they are positive, and sometimes they are not. There has to be space in our classrooms to teach students how to become aware of their emotions, and how to navigate those emotions when the waters are rough.

I feel like the waters  are very rough right now. Our students and our children feel this too.

Words are powerful. When we don’t pause and think before we speak, we can be hurtful and unkind. My son’s teacher is onto something. If we say something, we can’t just say it, and move on. We need to follow it with action. But how do we know what action to take?

“Trump is a bad man. I hate him,” My son says at the dinner table. He says it in a nonchalant tone, the same way that he says he hates wearing jeans, eating bananas, and the color green. This is the same child who thoughtfully asks me how my day was, and who holds his stepbrother’s hand when they cross the street.

I wanted to say, “hate is a very strong word. Are you sure that is the word that describes how you feel?” But I couldn’t say that to my son because I am angry. I am sad. I am horrified by the events that are taking place in our country, and I am feeling a lot of feelings. The question that has been keeping me up at night is,  how do we talk to our students and children about what is happening in our country? How do we support them to become aware of their feelings, and keep going? It’s really hard. Should we talk about it? Should we not talk about it? What can we do? I’ve stopped watching the news because each time I turn it on I see things happening that are so horrible, and so inhumane that I have to stop what I am doing and put my hand on my heart to steady myself.

I told my son to eat his carrots. I will circle back to what he said about the president, but I am still searching for the best approach. Many teachers I work with feel the same about responding to their students.

As a teacher you spend more time with your students than some of their parents do. Your students are or maybe have already looked to you to explain what inexplicable things are happening. How do you answer their questions when your own feelings are so strong and your disbelief is so present?

How do we teach ourselves and our students to cope? To listen? To love? To heal?

If we don’t teach ourselves and our students these skills, the alternative is anger, division, paralysis, fear, and shame. The stakes are too high. So while it may feel that getting through your list of whole class novels is important, and yes, it is, I would argue that what is more important is teaching students how to become aware of and process their emotions. They don’t teach that in graduate school, at least they didn’t at mine. It is a small shift, but an important one. Do we teach content? Do we teach skills? Do we teach both, and if we do, what content and what skills are most important in the society we are living in today?

When I first started teaching I thought my job was to teach content. The title of the book mattered. There is a literary canon after all. I am so grateful that the more I taught the more my students showed me that what they really needed to learn and practice were skills. These skills were academic, but they were also social and emotional skills. By the end of my time in the classroom, the skill that I felt was most important to teach my students was self-awareness.

How do you teach self-awareness? How do you connect teaching social-emotional skills to your subject matter?

I was working with a teacher last week who is very passionate about having a class meeting. She wants to create a time and space in her classroom where her students can talk about empathy and kindness and develop strong relationships with each other.

“The problem is, she told me, “it feels like the class meeting is entirely separate from the rest of the class.”

“The curriculum,” she described, “doesn’t include texts or lessons that support students to make connections to the topics they cover in class meeting.”

I nodded my head. She was onto something. We know that part of higher level thinking skills involves making connections and synthesizing information (Thanks, Bloom’s Taxonomy). If we don’t support our students to see these connections, the learning feels compartmentalized.

We talked about how important it was to her that the students were able to apply the skills they were learning in class meeting, and the topics that came up to the novels they were reading, and the essays they were writing.

We talked about The Four Voices, which is a strategy for developing self-awareness, and how we could modify it to support students to name and process their feelings, while also using the same lens to think about the characters they were reading about, and analyze a text. 

The idea is that we are receiving different messages as we navigate our way through our day, our years, our lives. Some of these messages come from our mind through thoughts. Other messages come from our heart through feelings. Some messages we experience through our bodies, and others come from our deepest sense of intuition, our soul.

My children, who are almost five and six don’t have self-awareness yet. The night before the first day of school, Cian had an upset stomach. I believe that was his body voice expressing anxiety about the upcoming change and new school year. One of the ways I hope to support my children as they grow up is to help them become aware of what they are feeling, what the four voices are telling them, and how they can best use that information.

This strategy has also been helpful in my professional and personal life. When I am trying to make a difficult decision, I rely on this fame to bring awareness to my thoughts and feelings. I look for patterns, and those patterns help me determine my next steps.

The sentence starters shared below provide an entry point to the work, but there is no right or wrong way to approach this strategy. You can give students a topic, and ask them to use the quadrant below in order to explore their response to the topic. You can give students a word or a phrase, and they can investigate their four voices.

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Students can apply the same strategy to explore dynamic characters in a text or a historical figure. What is the character saying? What is the character doing? What is the character feeling? What does the character believe? It is always exciting when students begin to identify patterns. They often see contrasts and contradictions between the different voices, and how these patterns contribute to why the character is dynamic.

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It may be helpful to look at the types of questions that you ask your students. In schools, we ask students to use their Mind voice. We ask questions like, “what is the answer?” and “what do you think?” “What do you know?” Asking students questions that allow them to access and explore the other voices can lead to deeper thinking and increased self-awareness.

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For younger students, it can be helpful to give them the outline of a heart, the outline of a body, the outline of head, and focus on mind, heart, and body to start. If you are trying to support younger students to express their worries and fears, it can be helpful to give them the outline of a tiger or another powerful animal, and ask them to write down or draw what they are afraid of. Once they have done that, the next step is to color in the animal. The process of bringing awareness to their feelings, and then coloring over everything they have written and drawn can help them see that their worries and fears can go away. As Rumi said, “no feeling is final.” Drawing over the fears empowers the students and takes the power away from their worries.

The teacher I was working with talked about how she could use The Four Voices in the class meetings, and then use the same frame as the students were analyzing dynamic characters in the whole class novel. It is an experiment that we are doing to see if this strategy helps students make connections between class meeting and the novel.

I would also encourage you to use The Four Voices Strategy in order to help your students access and process their emotions when they see something on the news or hear something said that makes them feel worried and fearful. The frame can provide students with a tangible strategy they can rely on to help navigate their emotions during difficult times.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Try It Before You Teach It

If The Four Voices are new to you, try using the strategy yourself before you use it with students. One of my favorite coaching strategies is called Hot Mess. The strategy is simple. Whatever you are about to do or try for the first time, anticipate what could go wrong/what might be challenging. For example, if you are about to have a debate in your class about a controversial topic, and you want to use The Four Voices Questions, anticipate what your students’ responses may be, and how you will facilitate the discussion and support your students. Being able to have a difficult conversation and listen to different viewpoints is an important skill, but it is a hard skill to develop and practice.

2. Adapt It As Needed

With any strategy I share on this blog, you should always know that you can pull from it what is helpful, and modify it as needed. Start small. Start by introducing one voice to your students, and then build from there. Many students have never been asked how they feel or what they believe in a classroom. If student’s experience of school has been centered around memorization, and recall, then asking the student to think about how she feels and what she believes is a big shift in her thinking. Plan with your students in mind rather than yourself. Meet your students where they are.

3. Share The Why Behind The What

I believe that anytime you introduce something new to your students that it is important to name that for them, and explain why, and what’s in it for them. It is also helpful to ask them for their feedback on their experience. Is this strategy helpful? How is it helpful? If it isn’t helpful, what might they change to make it more useful? Do they like the strategy? I always told my students that curriculum is a conversation and learning is linked. If you use this strategy for a class meeting, try also using it with your content. Provide opportunities for your students to make connections and see how this strategy can be used as they read and write and as they learn how to navigate their daily lives, especially when the conversations are hard, and the waters are rough.


Sixth Shift: There Are Many Ways To Learn How To Swim

Sixth Shift: There Are Many Ways To Learn How to Swim

“Aren’t you going to get in?” I ask my son.

I was sitting on the edge of the pool, dipping my feet in, wishing the wind would stop, and the sun would come out from behind the clouds. The forecast called for sunny, but this is Boston, and our weather is persnickety, an unreliable narrator, the most dynamic of characters.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” he says and sits down next to me.

Meanwhile, his stepbrother has already disappeared under the water, and is fully submerged.

Both boys are still learning how to swim. They take lessons. They have had many afternoons at the pool to practice, but they have approached learning to swim differently.  I’ve had to meet them where they are at. Sometimes this means diving in the pool after Thomas who has gone out to the deep end. Other times this means walking down the steps with Cian and slowly making our way to the wall.

I pivot and I adjust based on what each boy needThis parenting thing is a lot like teaching.

The problem is this: when I am at the pool with the boys, there are two children to help. I can use different strategies, and I can pivot and adjust. When you have a classroom of 25-30 students, making moves that allow you to meet your students where they are each at can feel like standing on the edge of the diving board not sure if you should jump off or not. The water feels far away, and it is a long way to fall. 

Many of the teachers I work with come to our first meeting with a clear focus: they want support on how to differentiate instruction. So often I hear, “I have kids at all different levels, and only 52 minutes. I know I can’t teach the skill one way, but there’s never enough time.”

If you are beginning to think about making differentiation manageable and sustainable in your classroom, there are strategies to support you whether you want to test the waters or jump right in.

I thought about watching my kids learn how swim while I was talking with a teacher this week. She’s incredibly focused on empowering her students with reading strategies so that when she says, “read,” they have a toolbox of approaches to try.

She talks about the strategies she has been teaching, and then says, “for some kids, it is going great. Others still look at me like I’m speaking another language that they’ve never heard before.”

I nod my head. I’ve been there before. I had so many reading strategies that I believed in when I was teaching. One of my favorites was Stop, Notice, and Note, an annotation strategy created by Kylene Beers. In this strategy, students learned different signposts to look for while they were reading. When they came to one of these signposts, they stopped, answered questions, and took notes. It was an effective strategy for some students to practice important skills like re-reading and annotating.

The problem was it worked for some students. I made the mistake of requiring all students to use it as we worked through a whole class novel. When I asked my students for feedback, many expressed how their reading experience was so much harder because they felt they had to read in one particular way.

The teacher and I came to an “ah ha” moment during our meeting. We should differentiate reading strategies just like we differentiate other types of instruction. A one-size-fits all approach wasn’t going to get her to her goal.

“There is more than one way to learn how to swim,” I told her. “And there is more than one way to read.”

We jumped right into the work. She wanted to teach her students that there are different types of reading. I thought about my children and swimming. Cian wanted to test the waters, and Thomas wanted to dive right in. If I was going to ask them to read something, Cian would be more engaged if he was able to look at the headings and the pictures, and get a sense of what the story was about before he started reading. Thomas would be more engaged if he was able to start reading right away and immerse himself in the story. Was one better than the other? No. Did it mean that Cian would need support moving from skimming to swimming? Yes. Did it mean that Thomas would need support coming up to the surface and seeing the big picture? Yes.

If you want to differentiate reading for your students, try this strategy. I like to give students a guiding question to help them think about what they feel would be most helpful to them before they start the work. Their answer to that question helps them make a choice about how they want to learn. Once they have made a choice, I give them specific tasks to hold them accountable and support their learning. 

How Do You Want To Read Today?

Do You Want To Test The Waters?

Read Titles
Look At Pictures
Read The First Few Sentences
Think About What You See and Read

Do You Want To Dive Right In?

Read As Much As You Can In The Time Given
Stop And Summarize As You Read
Look For Repetition And Patterns
Jot Down Questions

Do You Want To Go Deep and Explore?
Read and Annotate

Read A Few Paragraphs
Pay Attention To Word Choice, Imagery And Style
Note Character Development, Contrasts And Contradictions
Make Text To Self, Text To Text, and Text To World Connections

One of the teacher’s initial concerns with this strategy was that the students who chose to skim would do less work than the other students. I can understand that reaction. However, we have to recognize that all students aren’t beginning at the same starting line. I like to use this visual to help explain what I mean.



Do we want all students to be able to go deep as readers and explore a text? Yes. Do we want students to develop confidence in their reading abilities? Yes. Do we believe that in order for students to be willing to go deep that they need to have confidence? I think so.

Building a student’s confidence starts by meeting her where she is at. Whether that is on the edge of the pool, or down in the deep end.

There is also the matter of preference. Readers have preferences. When I read a mystery, I skim through it as quickly as possible in order to get to the end. However, when I read literary fiction, I submerge and go deep, paying attention to language and the writer’s craft. If a student is really interested in the ocean and you are reading a text about coral reefs, then that student may want to go deep. Other times, the student may went to skim. I believe that helping students identify their reading preferences builds their reading confidence and reading identity. Do we all have to read things sometimes whether we like them or not? Sure. That doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge our likes and dislikes.

Whether your students choose to skim, read, or read and annotate may depend on how they are feeling when they come to school. If a student is really tired or hasn’t been feeling well, she might want to skim and that’s ok. If a student comes to school feeling curious and eager, she might want to read and annotate. By providing students with different approaches, you are showing your students that you see them not only as students, but as readers, and as people.

At the core of this approach is to remain flexible, to provide options, and to pivot and let your students pivot as needed. Regardless of their choice, each approach will meet your students where they are at and honor your ultimate goal: to empower confident readers.

We spent a lot of days at the pool this summer. On some of those days, Cian wanted to test the waters before he got in the pool. Other days he jumped right in.  It was the same with Thomas. Sometimes I jumped in with them and swam next to them. Other times I sat by the side of the pool and watched. When I took a step back, I could see how far they had come as swimmers, regardless of the path they took to get there.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. You Have Options
Structure is good, but flexibility within that structure is better. Recognize that you have choices, and that you don’t have to do something the same way each time to do it well. For example, I used to think I had to go running every day in order to be a runner. I would force myself to go for a run even if I didn’t feel like it, and I hated every mile. Or I’d set a routine that every run had to be a half an hour, and I’d sacrifice sleep to get my thirty-minutes in. Now, I give myself options. I ask myself, “do you feel like running today or do you feel like going to yoga? Do you want to go for a walk with the kids?” My goal is to move my body every day. That doesn’t mean I have to run every day. The same goes for teaching. It may feel helpful to spend the first ten minutes of every class on grammar and vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean that every class has to start with a daily edit. When you provide your students with options and choice you are teaching them that there are many ways to do the same thing. You are showing them that it is ok to feel different each day and to try a different approach.

2. We Don’t Teach (Or Live) In A Vacuum

We have to compartmentalize sometimes. However, I believe that everything is connected. A student doesn’t leave what happened at home over breakfast at the door before she walks into your classroom. We have to acknowledge that at the end of the day we are all humans doing the best that we can. Somedays we don’t get as much done as other days, and that is ok. Be kind to yourself. Know that being flexible and having the ability to pivot and adjust are the makings of a strong teacher. You are modeling an important skill for your students: when things don’t work out or goes as planned, we do the best that we can, and move on. This is why I believe framing your instruction and debriefing with your students is so important. Tell them why you are doing something, and ask them what they think. After all, we are all in this together, whether we are talking about the classroom, our homes, our communities, etc.

3. What Works For You May Not Work For Me

Last night at dinner, my friend Kate was talking about how sad she was that her daughter doesn’t love soccer. Kate played soccer in college. Soccer is her Thing. However, her daughter begs not to go and would rather sit on the sidelines. Soccer may not be her Thing, and that’s ok. Often we become teachers because we love our subject. Our subject is our Thing For me, writing and reading are essential parts of my identity. They are the ways that I make meaning of my experiences and how I express myself. I can’t imagine not wanting to go to the library to look for books or not wanting to keep a notebook where I jot down poems. However, writing notebooks and stacks of books hasn’t worked for all of my students, and that’s ok. This is why I believe in providing a lot of choices. I didn’t teach myself, I taught my students. I couldn’t only share with them what worked for me, I had to create different pathways so they could find their Thing and what worked for them.

Fifth Shift: Save Every Page, and Call Them, Writers.

Fifth Shift: Save Every Page, and Call Them, Writers.


“I’m not a writer,” she tells me. “That’s why I’m here for Writing Lab.” This is a three-year-old memory, but I can still recall the first time this student came to work with me after school on her writing. She was in my 7th grade English class. Energetic and gregarious, she was the student who waved her hand in air and demanded to be heard. Other teachers were often exhausted with her constant chatter, but not me. She had found her voice, a rare gift for a twelve-year-old girl, and she reminded me of my younger self: bossy, and bold.

“Who says you aren’t a writer?” I asked.

She shared a story about her second grade teacher. The teacher who told her she wasn’t good at writing, writing wasn’t her thing. I’d heard this story before, just a different version. I felt the dull ache of my own memory. For me that teacher was a college professor who told me that my honors thesis wasn’t good enough to finish. I wasn’t a writer. Even now as an adult, I am still shocked and a little bit horrified that a professor I barely knew wrote my story of who I was (or wasn’t) as a writer.

I’m still tiptoeing around my writing identity. “I write,” I tell people,  but I never say, “I am a writer.”

Sometimes I replay the moment he told me, “no,” and I rewrite the story. I finish the thesis anyways. I write it my way for me. Even if no one reads it or publishes it, I put the words down. At the time, my younger self was too ashamed to do this. She thought, no means, no, and left it at that. However, I know better know. 

In The Gifts of Imperfection, social researcher, Brene Brown talks about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt, she writes, is thinking, I did something bad. Shame, she writes, is thinking, I am bad.

I believe that children’s identities and sense of self-worth are shaped and impacted by the people around them. As teachers, parents, coaches–human beings, we have the responsibility to help our children see the difference between their actions and their worth. In the classroom, a teacher can, with or without intention, say something to a student that makes that student think, I am bad or, I am wrong, instead of, I said something unkind or I got the wrong answer. Carrying around feelings of shame can lead to low self-esteem, defensiveness, and anxiety.

Shame is a heart-shaped fist. 

When my professor told me I wasn’t a writer, that’s not what I heard. I heard, “you aren’t good enough,” and “you can’t do this. His feedback was no longer about the writing, it was about me, and I have carried it with me since.

I want to rewrite the story for my student. I want to help her separate what her teacher said from who she is. Words are just words. Really they don’t mean anything. We assign meaning to them, and there is power in that. We can rewrite our stories. One of the reasons I became a teacher was because of that college professor. I wasn’t going to be the teacher who told students they weren’t writers and that they weren’t good at writing. I was going to show my students how to find their voices, and teach them how to develop themselves as writers.

When I shared my beliefs on writing, and told my student that she was a writer, she was hesitant. She had so many ideas, but she wasn’t sure how to say them. She tried to outline, but then couldn’t make sense of her notes. She wrote too much, and her grades were low.

“You aren’t a good writer or a bad writer,” I told her. “We just have to find out how you write. I want you to throw out anything you’ve ever been told about how you are supposed to write, and just talk to me instead.”

So we talked. We drew pictures. We listened to music. We looked at art. We read. And it was through our work that we came to realize that she felt best about her writing when she drew first. So instead of writing an outline, she started drawing pictures and making storyboards. Her ideas no longer felt muddled and out-of-order. They made sense to her this way.

She had a process that felt authentic and meaningful to her that was personal. She had found her writing voice.

I didn’t have writing teachers who helped me see that there are many different ways to write and be a writer. I did have writers who helped me find my writing voice (Thanks, Mrs. Solar). Below you will see a choice board that you can use with your students to provide different learning pathways for finding ideas for writing. Using this can help you provide them with concrete strategies for getting started. Students select how they want to begin: talk, draw, listen or look. From there, they might get started. Or, they may use a tool like Storybird in order to browse images for inspiration and ideas. They will all complete the same writing task: write about the people, places, and things that are most important to you, but they will do that using different modes and different tools. The most important part of this strategy, I feel, is the debrief. After students are done, ask them to share what their experience was like. Did looking at images help them develop ideas for writing? How did drawing help them remember what they care about most? What was their experience like as a writer?

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 7.11.10 AM.png

The beginning of the school year is an ideal time to provide students with different learning pathways for finding their writing voices. By supporting students to write about themselves, and the people, places, and things that matter to them, I believe that you are sending students a powerful message about writing: everyone is a writer, and what you want to write about and how matter.

When I was a child, I spent hours writing my own stories. My mother encouraged this. She ordered blank books so I could fill the pages. She saved every word, whether it was a poem I wrote on a napkin, an essay from school or pages from a diary. She helped me write a different story of myself as a writer than my college professor. She didn’t have to tell me I was a writer because she showed me that she valued my words by saving them. Last week my mother sent one of the books I wrote to my son so I could share it with him. I save my son’s writing because he is a writer, and he is finding his voice, and his story matters.



The curriculums and systems that we teach within may require that students write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of modes, and I believe there is value in that. I also believe that we have to make difficult choices in our teaching. There is so much to cover, and often creative writing is the first unit to go. However, if your ultimate goal is to build a community of writers and support students to find their voices, then I suggest beginning with the students’ stories, and building from there. A personal narrative unit or a sense of place unit are both recommendations I suggest to the teachers I coach.

As you write alongside your students, you may discover stories that were told to you about who you are. Rewrite the stories if they no longer serve you, and call yourself and your students, writers.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers and All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Save Every Page
When we save students’ writing, we send a powerful message that their work is meaningful. I believe it is important to save drafts just as much as final copies. If we want to help our students see the importance and value in the writing process, then we need to show them through our actions that we value each step they took as they wrote. It can be incredibly powerful to give students the same writing prompt throughout the year, and save their responses. When you show a student what her writing looked like in November and what it looks like in January, the student is able to see her own growth. I believe this also helps build writing stamina. Writing can feel like a slow process, and it requires patience and time. If students see visible examples of their progress, they are likely to want to keep writing. Technology has increased the options for capturing the writing process. Check out Seesaw and Kidblog for two options I’d recommend.

2. Write Alongside Your Students
I believe that one of the best ways to discover your writer’s voice is through mentor texts. I will never forget the first time I read Sandra Cisneros’ line, “until then, I am an anchor, an anchor tied to a balloon” in A House on Mango Street. Reading her writing connected me to my own feelings. She was able to use figurative language to paint a picture with words that was a universal reflection of the human experience. I wanted to be able to do that too. Your writing will serve as a mentor text for your students. It is also helpful for them to see you engage in the writing process. My students were always surprised when I made a grammar error or struggled to start my next paragraph. Writers are human, and mistakes are human. Therefore, writers make mistakes. Model making writing mistakes as you write alongside your students, and help them see that those mistakes are ok, and part of the process.

3. Call Yourself and Your Students Writers
Writing isn’t either a talent you lack or have. It is a skill that can be taught and developed over time and with practice and patience. I believe that anyone who puts the pen to paper is a writer. By calling your students writers you are validating their work, and encouraging them to make writing part of their identity. You may feel like you don’t have time to write. Work. Family. My To Do List. If writing is something that at one point in your life brought you joy, or you want to make writing a daily practice, start by keeping a journal. Write about your teaching. Write about your family. Write about what you see, hear, and do. Put the pen to paper, and in doing so, connect with yourself.

Fourth Shift: Setting an Intention For Learning and Living

Fourth Shift: Setting an Intention for Learning Living

Yesterday in my yoga class, the teacher asked us to set an intention for our practice. While we rested in child’s pose, she provided some suggestions: breath, gratitude, focus, strength, etc. She explained that the purpose of setting an intention is to anchor your practice. When your mind begins to wander, and you become distracted, you can come back to your intention and refocus.

As we flowed through each vinyasa, I did find my mind drifting at times. Often, I would think about the work week ahead, my to do list or I would get distracted by another student or the room. It’s so hot in here! How does she bend her back like that? What time is it? My chosen intention was: be here now. Like the refrain in a song, I came back to it again, and again. Be here now. My intention became a thread that weaved together my energy during the class. I felt grounded in the present moment, and connected to myself and my body. Be here now. My refrain. My intention.

As I was leaving the class, my mind shifted to a coaching session I had with a teacher the week before. I usually begin each meeting with the questions,” What is something that you observed your students doing this week that you were proud of? What role did you play in making this happen?”

She responded immediately and said, “The students were working on their choice board, and even though they were doing different activities, they were more focused than I expected.”

“That great,” I said. “What did you do to support your students to engage in their work?”

“I told them I was grading their focus.”

“What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t told them that you were grading them based on their ability to stay focused?” I asked.

“They would have been off task. They would have been talking to each other about their weekend or asking me to repeat the directions for the third time,” she said.

“Do you feel like grading focus aligns with what you hope to teach your students? I asked.

She frowned. I want them to see the value in seeing a task through until the end. The constant interruptions are exhausting, and I feel like we never get into a rhythm or flow. I’m putting out fires when I need to meet with individual students or small groups.

I could empathize with her immediately. There were so many times in my classroom where I felt like if I didn’t stand in front of the room and teach to the whole group that I would lose control, and no one would learn anything. I often talked constantly at my students to prevent them from cross-talking or interrupting me. This fear of chaos, and my concern that my students couldn’t maintain focus on their own kept me away from integrating blended and personalized learning into my classroom. Even though my teaching values and beliefs held that this model would provide the framework for differentiation, student ownership, and independence, I didn’t see how the theory would work in practice. It took many small steps until I got there, but I did, and I knew this teacher could too.

“If your students were in a rhythm or flow, what would you see them doing? What would you hear them saying?”

She described a classroom that I think most teachers dream of. A classroom where students are seeking help from each other before interrupting the teacher. A classroom where other than the soft shuffle of feet as students get supplies and transition to their next activity and the buzz of discussion and collaboration, is quiet. A classroom where the teacher is re-teaching a small group of students. A classroom with a rhythm and a flow.

“Do you think our work might start with this vision in mind,” I asked?

She looked skeptical.

“How will we get there? I’m not sure where to start.”

We began by generating a list of skills that students would need to be taught and practice in order to focus and fall into a rhythm and flow.

The list included active listening, strategies for re-focusing, how to ask for help without interrupting, strategies for dealing with frustration, and many more.

“Do you think the students know what focus is and how being focused can help them learn and be successful at the task?” Let’s find a strategy to support them with that.

I shared the practice of setting an intention in my yoga class.

“What if you asked your students to set an intention for their work, and modeled for them how they could use that intention to refocus on the task at hand?”

We mocked up a visual to support students with this process, and then we used it to prepare her next class.

We can:
We will:
Ongoing Task or Limited Task (Time):
Tasks (Choose one):



Focus First: Today’s Class

We can use our understanding of the novel in order to develop and discuss our ideas
We will use Accountable Talk stems in order to engage with our peers in a discussion
Intention: Choose a word or phrase to refocus

Options (If you are stuck): Back to it, Begin Again, Here and Now, Reset
Ongoing Task or Limited Task (Time): 20 minutes
Tasks: Choose One Task From Below.


Do you want to work silently and on your own?

Graffiti Walk Discussion
Visit each poster once, and answer the question. Once you have visited each, visit the posters a second time, and use the Accountable Talk Stems to respond to your peers’ posts.
Do you want to talk through your ideas with a partner?


Piggybacking Discussion
Use this graphic organizer (link organizer) to document your conversation with your partner. Use the Accountable Talk Stems to keep talking.

Do you want to work on the computer and collaborate with your peers?

Padlet Discussion
Visit these Padlet walls. Post your response. Read your peers’ responses and post additional responses, using the Accountable Talk Stems to keep the conversation moving.


Accountable Talk Stems

Tell me more about…
Can you explain what you mean?
Can you support your idea with an example from the text?
I disagree with you because…
I agree with you because…
Another way to think about that might be…

One of the most important steps in using this strategy was to provide students with the opportunity to self-assess whether or not setting the intention, and using it helped anchor their focus, and redirect their engagement. She created a Google Form, which students filled out at the end of class, and asked questions like:

Rate your level of focus in today’s class: distracted, somewhat focused, focused, very focused. Then, write a sentence explaining the rationale for your choice.

What was your intention word or phrase?

Did you use it to help you refocus?

Once she tries the strategy, we will look at the students’ responses together and determine if intention setting was a helpful strategy to teach students how to regain focus. From there, we will modify the strategy, try it again, or try something new, and in doing so, find our rhythm and flow.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Model and Explain:

Be transparent with your students about why you are asking them to set an intention, and how you think it may help them focus and why. Use the yoga class example or an example from your own experience to share with them how this strategy has worked well for you, and how you use it.

2. Practice Builds Stamina

Trying a new strategy takes practice. Tell your students that their intention may not work every time. We all have days where we are more distracted than others. There are many yoga classes where I find my mind wandering no matter what I try. Give students ample opportunities to practice using this strategy, and to reflect on their experience with it.

3. Use the Collective “We

Support your students to understand that they are part of a learning community, and that everyone is trying a new strategy together. Using “we” instead of “I” and “you” in your can statements will take some of the pressure off, and hopefully, alleviate some anxiety for students who are worried they will remain distracted.

4. Practice What You Preach
Use this strategy yourself. Whether you set an intention for your teaching each day or try intention setting for managing your to do list or completing a task at home, see if it works for you. Reflect on your experience with it, and share your observations with your students.

Third Shift: Is this Good? Am I Good? Is This Fun? Is This Done?

Third Shift: Is This Good? Am I Good? Is This Fun? Is This Done? 

My son’s first grade teacher sends home, “Fun Work.” I appreciate that his first experience of school work transferring to homework is through this lens. The work is almost always creative (color, draw, imagine) or collaborative (roll, record, play). She doesn’t require that students complete it or bring it back to her, but she always welcomes students to share it with her if they want to.

Yesterday my son decided he wanted to do his “Fun Work.” Once he finished, he held up his work, and asked,

“Is this good? Am I done? Is this right?” 


The questions my six-year-old posed were the same questions my seventh graders asked, and this brought me pause. My child and my students weren’t really looking for a confirmation that yes, the work was done, and yes, it was good, and yes, it was right.

I believe what they were really seeking was an affirmation of self.

Am I good? Do I fit? Am I right?

I believe that all kids, whether they are our own children or our students, have a fundamental need to be seen and heard by the adults in their lives. Whether a child is well-behaved or not, taking ownership over their learning or not, doing their homework or not, all children are seeking affirmation that they are ok. 

This moment led to the realization that as teachers, we have an opportunity here to bring self-awareness to the reality of the competing need for both progress and product in our classrooms, and how those competing needs are affecting our students’ understanding of the purpose of learning and their self-esteem. 

This starts with bringing self-awareness to our beliefs and values, as well as the reality of the systems and society we are teaching within.

Are we practicing what we believe? Can we practice what we believe?

What matters most: process or product, and what messages are we sending our students about what matters most? Getting it done or Being seen?

What can we do to support our students to shift their mindset as we are shifting what we ask them to do and why?

Back to my son, and the “Fun Work.” He was looking for an answer. So I turned it around, and I said, “Did this assignment help you learn?” “Was this assignment fun?” “What did you learn about these words and how you are learning them?

He is a thoughtful kid, and took some time to think. Then he told me that he was confused.

“My teacher gave us a paper with these words on it in class and we had to say the words we knew out loud,” he told me. 

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“She had a timer, and I felt like if I didn’t say them fast enough that I wouldn’t finish and she would think I didn’t know them, even though I do.”

She wouldn’t see him, my son felt. She would see right or wrong. Good or bad. 

“What do you wish she had done instead? I asked.

“The Fun Work,” he said. “I liked matching the colors in the picture with the words. I had as much time as I needed, and it was fun!”

I had to sit down.

It became so clear to me in that moment that as teachers, we may be giving students mixed messages about process vs. product in our classrooms. One minute we are providing students with creative options to demonstrate their thinking, and removing the barriers of time and completion. Another minute, we are setting the timer, and saying go.

I don’t think this is our fault. We are working within schools, whether traditional or progressive, where process and product are competing priorities. On the one hand, our students have to demonstrate mastery of standards and take state tests. On the other hand, project-based learning, providing students with choice, and giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests through tasks like Genius Hour are at the top of many teachers’ priorities and aligned to their core beliefs and values. 

If we have to do both, how do we support our students to shift from, “how many paragraphs have you completed in this class period?” to “What do you think about Atticus’ decision to take the Tom Robinson case, and why?”

I would argue that there will be times where getting it done is the purpose of the task for students, while other times the process of engaging in the task will take priority.

However, we can’t expect students to shape-shift from doers to thinkers without support.

In order to unpack this, I think about my own choices around process vs. product, and I think about my relationship with running. I have been a runner since middle school, and run most weeks multiple times. When I am training for a race, my experience of running is very different. It is focused on product. I use an app on my phone to keep track of my pace and mileage. I schedule my runs specifically around getting ready for the race. I run on treadmills to work on intervals and speed. I will be honest, a lot of the joy I experience while running is lost this way. Running isn’t fun. When I am running because I feel like running, I am focused on the process. I don’t set out with a particular speed or distance in mind. Sometimes I think I am going to take one path, and I end up on a completely different one. Sometimes I don’t run with my phone at all. This is when my mind clears, and I am completely present in my body and in my run. Running is fun. 




My son had a similar experience with his “Fun Work.” When he was doing this work at home, we turned on music. He sat on the floor. He hummed to himself, and sometimes sang along. He shared what he was noticing with me as he worked. He wasn’t being timed.

It was exactly what his teacher had intended, it was fun.

In contrast, in the classroom, there was no music. He sat in a chair at a desk. He was silent until it was his turn to recite the words on his page. He only named the words; he didn’t share his thinking. He knew he was being timed. It wasn’t fun.

The “Fun Work” gave him the opportunity to be seen. The schoolwork gave him the opportunity to feel right or wrong.

Am I good? Do I fit? Am I right?

I shared my experience running with my son in hopes that he would begin to see that there is a place for both: process and product in school and in our daily lives. We were walking to the playground.

He said, “let’s race and see who gets there first, but once we are there, let’s just play.”

So we did both, and shape-shifted from product to process, and it was fun. The most fun I have had in a long time.

Shift Small: Steps For Teachers And For All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Define process and product for yourself and your students.

Be transparent that in the classroom that process and product co-exist. However, share your belief on both with your students. I often told mine that what I care most about is that they have time and space in our classroom to think, develop their own perspectives and ideas, and share those ideas in a way that they choose. I also told them that I care about supporting them to learn how to take ownership over their work, manage deadlines, and experience the pride of seeing a task to its completion. I do the same thing with running. The process is clearing my mind, enjoying nature and my connection to the outside world, and being present in my body. The product is the race I am training for and taking the steps needed to prepare to see that race through to the finish line. Sometimes I run for the process. Sometimes I run to work towards the product.

2. Name a task’s purpose for your students, and seek their feedback on their learning experiences. It will help students adjust their mindset before starting a task when it is clear to them that the purpose is the process or the product. Saying something like, “we have been practicing sight words, and exploring different ways to learn them. Today, we are going to check in and see what progress we have made, and the purpose of our work is to complete a timed assignment” could be very helpful. I use the same strategy with my son. I will say, “ we are going to the library to return our books, but we won’t check out new books because your book order just came.” Product. Or, “we are going to the library to find some new books, and we aren’t in a rush.” Process. Seek feedback from your students about their learning experiences. What is the experience of a task when the purpose of the task is to complete it like for them? What skills do they need in order to do that? Do they feel that you are teaching them those skills? What is the experience of a task like when it is process-oriented? What skills do they need in order to do that? Do they feel you are teaching them those skills?

3. Practice Shape-Shifting With Your Students
One of the teachers I coach plays a song when students are transitioning from working on a process-oriented task like a  project to taking a product-oriented task like an assessment. The song has become a routine in the class that provides space and time for the students to transition themselves and their mindset.

Second Shift: The Too Big Bite That No One Can Swallow

Second Shift: The Too Big Bite That No One Can Swallow

When my stepson was three, chewing and swallowing was challenging for him. He would take a bite of macaroni and cheese or chicken, and struggle to use his teeth to break it into smaller pieces. “Chew on the sides,” his dad would say.  “Take smaller bites,” I’d suggest. One of us would reach for his plate to cut up the chicken. I’ll get him some water, I’d say and then jump up from the table. “Take a drink.” It was a cacophony of the best-intended parents at work, but was it helpful? I’d watch his eyes grow wider as he chewed, and chewed. Frustrated, he would spit the food back on his plate. “I’m all done,” he’d say.


Was it just a matter of time? Because time, takes time. It’s the space in between children’s phases of development that worry us. We live in a reactive society. The minute something feels like it isn’t on track we find ourselves feeling helpless. So, we open the computer and google it; we read all the books, and often, at least for me, take action right away.

What do I need to do to fix this?

The problem is there isn’t just one result when we Google, or one book when we search on Amazon. There is so much information out there that we can easily go down the rabbit hole, and overwhelm ourselves with next steps, tips, and fast solutions. Life is captured in headlines. Humor is shared in memes and YouTube Videos. Full disclosure: I love videos of kittens cuddling as much as anyone, but the access to information is endless.  This is the world our students are navigating. Knowing that instant and never-ending access to information is part of their daily reality, how can we support them to manage it all?

Are we getting too much feedback?

My first few years of teaching, I spent hours grading my students’ writing, and giving feedback. I had a system that I believed was best for my students: a lot of feedback is good feedback. Another full disclosure: I didn’t even think to ask my students what types of feedback they found helpful or if they knew how to receive feedback, or even if they knew what feedback was. I assumed these were skills they already had.

The system went like this: I would first mark up their writing line by line. Prior to teaching, I was a magazine editor and writer, so this was the type of editing I was most familiar with. I wish I could say that I never used a red pen, but I often used whatever pen I had around. I was also a big fan of the highlighter. After the line edits, I would write each student a multi-paragraph letter where I highlighted what I thought they were successful at, and what I thought they still needed to work on. I didn’t consider there may be value in asking them what they thought would be most helpful. After all, students don’t grade their own writing, and would they even know how to self-assess their work? Every peer editing lesson I planned had been nothing short of a disaster.

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Just typing that made me cringe. You don’t know what you don’t know.

As you can imagine, this system took a long time. It took so much time that one year I was still grading papers on Christmas Eve while the rest of the family sat around the fire and watched Christmas Vacation. It got to the point that I carried my students’ writing wherever I went. If I was waiting in line at a coffee shop, I’d pull out a paper and start marking it up. Once I missed my stop on the subway because I was writing feedback.

What was most interesting was how my students responded. If you are a teacher, this image will either make you laugh and empathize. I’d pass back the papers, students would flip to the back, look at the grade, and then toss them in the trash. Not even the recycling, the trash.

If insanity is the definition of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then my approach to giving my students feedback on their writing was insane. I kept using this system, and they continued to toss my feedback in the trash.

I remember an especially painful conversation with one of my mentor teachers. “I don’t understand! I have taught comma splices three different ways. I’ve showed a video; I’ve provided examples, and they’ve corrected sentences with comma splices in groups! Yet every single paper, there are still comma splices! I spend my nights and my weekends writing as much feedback as I can, but their writing never changes!”


She then proceeded to do something for me that was hard to swallow, but powerful. “Julie, what if I came into your classroom to watch you teach, and a few days later handed you several pages of my feedback. Both positive feedback, and constructive criticism are included.” She then began to list some of her observations of my teaching. As she continued to speak, I could feel a heaviness in my chest. It became hard to focus on what she was saying. I started to feel so overwhelmed by all her suggestions and comments that I stopped listening.


I threw her feedback in the trash. I couldn’t take another bite.

Finally, she stopped talking.

“What was that like for you?” She asked.

“Impossible,” I said. “I couldn’t process everything that you were sharing.”

“Do you feel like you have a sense of what you need to work on in your teaching?”

“No! I feel like I am a terrible teacher, and I have so much to do, and so much to learn.”

She smiled.

Point taken. A teachable moment.

When I work with teachers, some of the comments I hear most are, “I hate grading.” “Despite giving feedback, my students aren’t improving. ” “I don’t have time to give the kind of feedback I want to, and “the students don’t seem to care what my feedback is or know what to do with it.”

What I see in these moments are teachers who are just as overwhelmed by feedback as their students. The feedback loop is broken and there is no joy in the process for anyone. Receiving feedback then becomes a painful process instead of an invitation. Suddenly no one is hungry, and everyone wants to leave the table.

When I begin to work with teachers on feedback, we start to shift their thinking by exploring what feedback means to them. I ask them, “think about your own story of school. Identify a teacher, coach or adult who gave you feedback that you still remember. What feedback did they give you, and how did they deliver this feedback? While they are thinking, I see the light start to return to their eyes. Some teachers even smile. Others cringe.

Their responses go something like this. “My tenth grade teacher, Mr. Martin, would ask us to answer two questions at the bottom of every assignment. Did this assignment help you learn? What is one thing that made you curious as you did this assignment? I still remember thinking, Mr. Martin cares what I think? Isn’t he the teacher? I’m just the student! But now that I am a teacher myself, I am realizing that asking students what they think and what their experience was like is an important part of feedback.”

A small step, a big shift.

Some teachers struggle to come up with answer. Instead, they flip the question on me, and say, “I can remember the teachers that didn’t give me feedback.” One of the teachers I was working with shared that her eleventh grade teacher told her that her writing was C level work. The teacher didn’t explain the rationale behind the grade or give any specific feedback. She said C is average, so you did well enough. “I always worry that I am only good enough,” she shares. “ Even as an adult, I still feel like everything I do is C work in my teaching and in my personal life.”

Feedback is powerful stuff. Especially when we give our students too much of it or not enough of it. So how do we find the balance?

Today I took my son to his first theater class, and his first soccer practice. He was nervous, and didn’t want to go to either. I got down to his level, and said, “remember when you didn’t want to try red peppers because you thought they’d be yucky?”

He nodded.

“Once you tried red peppers, you loved them, and now you eat them all the time. If we always eat the same things or do the same things, we could be missing out on all kinds of fun. And sometimes finding the fun means trying something new which means maybe feeling a little uncomfortable.”

He nodded. Fast forward four hours later, and he says, “mom, I love theater and soccer is cool.”

It’s easy to stick with what we know or even what we think we know. Our teachers may have marked up every line of our writing, and so we teach how we were taught. We may think that we aren’t doing our jobs if we don’t correct every error or comment on every paragraph. So we pick a plan and stick with it, but nothing changes, and even though it isn’t working, we keep doing it.

Shifting can be scary. Being in a learner’s stance can be scary. Doing something outside your comfort zone can be scary, but that’s exactly why we need to do it.

This summer one of my colleagues asked me to facilitate a Design Studio by myself in New Buffalo, Michigan. A Design Studio is a two-day in person workshop where we introduce students to our coaching process and begin to craft a plan for their work with us this year. The colleague who asked me is a colleague who I respect, admire, and constantly learn from( You’re awesome, Daniel). He’s not someone I say no to often. So I said yes right way, and as the design studio grew closer, my anxiety built. I had never been to New Buffalo, Michigan. I would be working with elementary teachers, and I taught middle and high school. I planned several new activities, and didn’t know if they would be well received. There was so much fear. But then, there was also the excitement of possibility. What if it went really well? What if the teachers were engaged in the work and eager to start coaching? What if Google Maps got me exactly where I needed to go?

Eventually the two days came and went. When I walked out of the school afterwards, I felt so energized. I was proud of myself, and I learned things about myself that I didn’t know before. I made a shift from I can’t do this to, I am going to trust that I can try to do this. And it was cool.

It was a shift in mindset. A willingness to try something new.

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(New Buffalo Teachers and Administators hard at work)

I always tell teachers that I coach a mindset, not content. Part of that mindset involves conducting experiments. These experiments involve testing out a new teaching move, routine, procedure or strategy, and collecting data to reflect together on whether or not the experiment had a positive impact on both the teacher and the students.

“You want me to do what?” This teacher wasn’t buying it. “You want me to ask my students for feedback on how I give feedback?”

“I don’t want you to do anything, “ I said. “I am suggesting that you might want to consider asking your students if the feedback they are receiving is helpful. It might be interesting to ask them how they would like to receive feedback, and how much feedback they need in order to take action.”

“Isn’t that opening up a giant can of worms?” He said.

“What’s so bad about that?” I said. “Is the current system working for you? Is it working for your students.”

He said nothing, and then said, “Ok. Let’s try it.”

Step one in the Feedback Experiment was giving students a survey on the current feedback they were receiving. Once the students completed the survey, we looked at it together in a coaching session. The patterns were clear, but not what the teacher I was working with expected.

Most of the responses looked like this:

I understand why my teacher gives me feedback on my writing.


When I receive feedback from my teacher, I know it will be helpful.


I see the value in getting feedback on my writing.


My teacher gives me feedback because he wants to help me become a better writer.


“It sounds like having a conversation with your students about feedback is your next step” I offered.

He agreed, and held a class meeting where he asked his students to think about a team or group they were a part of where people gave and received feedback well. What did that feedback look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?


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From there, the class worked together to create a list of hopes and fears around receiving feedback.

I worry that the feedback will make me feel like I didn’t do a good job, so I don’t like to read it.

I hope for less feedback because I think the less feedback I get, the higher my grade will be.

I hope to know what to do when I read the feedback, but I often don’t and there is no time to ask questions.

Too many big bites, and too much to chew. The students couldn’t swallow their feedback. They couldn’t even pick up the fork.

“ What feels like the next step? How can we address both their hopes and their fears?” I asked him.

“Maybe instead of grading for every single thing–grammar, structure, word choice, content, etc. I could have them each focus on one thing. at a time”

“Say more things,” I prompted.

And this is how Fun-Size Feedback was developed. Over two-coaching sessions, we talked through a process where students would set a goal for their writing. They would share the goal with their teacher, and he would support them to refine it so it was SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely). When he collected their writing assignment, he would give feedback on this goal only. He took a video of himself giving the feedback, and shared it with each student. They were able to watch it as many times as they wanted or needed to. After they watched the video, they wrote 2-3 sentences explaining if they felt they had met their goal, and why, or if they felt they weren’t there yet, and how they could use the feedback to formulate their next goal.

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(Thank you, Kaelee, for the student work examples)

Another teacher decided to highlight only a one area of focus that she wanted a student to address in his writing. Once the student got back his writing, he revised just the highlighted area of focus. Using an Independent Correction Sheet, he identified the problem area, and revised. The teacher provided a list of potential problems to support the student and scaffold the process.
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(Thank you, Darcy for the student work examples)

No more papers in the trash. No more big bites. Fun-Sized, and only one bite at a time.

Shift Small: Steps For Teachers And For All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Fun-Size Your Feedback For Your Students And Yourself.

One of the strategies I recommend to teachers is to provide students with a glow, and grow. The language is incredibly positive, and the amount of feedback is digestible. At our company, we use the same framework in providing feedback to each other. Parents might want to consider using this framework with their children. It provides a familiar and predictable structure, which makes receiving the feedback feel safer and lower stakes.

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2. Throw It Out (Not the student writing!)

Consider becoming open and willing to experimenting with new systems for giving your students feedback. If your current system is leaving you exhausted and depleted, and your students aren’t improving, then it may be time to try something new. While it may feel like there isn’t enough time to tackle the feedback problem, ask yourself if you want to spend another winter break doing line edits.

3. Shift Your Daily Inventory to Daily Gratitude.  

I used to do a daily inventory before I went to sleep. I’d go through my day and give myself feedback. Usually it went something like this, “If  only I had…next time I will do better…I can’t believe I…I didn’t get that done, etc.  Not only did I have trouble falling asleep, but this thinking wasn’t productive. The day was done, and beating myself up over the “shoulds” and “what ifs” wasn’t aligned with my values of balance, joy, and authenticity. My colleague, Chuks, starts all of his meetings with teachers with a sunshine moment. He asks teachers to share the bright spot from their day. I have started using this with my children, and I have replaced my “shoulds” with my own bright spots. 

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(Thanks, Chuks for the meeting agenda)

4. Set Yourself and Your Students Up For A Small Win.

If your students have one writing goal to focus on at a time, they can manage that bite, chew it, swallow it, and digest it before they take another bite, and write another goal. When we are trying to develop and practice skills, we need to be realistic about what we can handle. For example, if you want to start exercising, and you tell yourself you will go to the gym every single day, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Ask yourself, is it realistic for me to set this expectation? If you start small, and commit to taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you are more likely to have a small win. You are integrating exercise into your daily routine, rather than starting a new routine all together. The same applies to teaching. Rather than commit to giving students feedback on their writing within two days of receiving it, tell your students that you need time to look at their work, and set a more realistic expectation for yourself. A small shift, a small win, but a bite you can easily chew.

First Shift: The September That Didn’t Go As Planned

January has never felt like the start of the year for me.  When I was teaching, September always signaled a new beginning: a blank page and the possibility to plan and start fresh. One of the first steps I took to start preparing for a new school year was purchasing a new planner and filling it in with my schedule and obligations. I would write on the top of the first page: What am I going to do this year? Many lists followed with to dos like: run a half-marathon, read a book a week, fill all my students’ learning gaps, differentiate daily, cultivate empathy in my students, teach my son how to tie his shoes, meal plan every Sunday, grade at least 10 essays a night when I’ve assigned a paper, and on, and on. Looking back on it now, I realize that the preparation process that I thought was going to center me and prepare me for the school year, was actually doing just the opposite. It was replacing intention with to dos. My anxiety was set into motion before I stepped into my classroom, and as I color-coded each component of my life with different gel pens, and began to fill in the days, I realized that the answer to my question, what am I going to do this year was: everything.


Often in moments of high stress, I have always channeled my inner Giles. Giles is the character in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible whose punishment for pleading the 5th is death by rocks piled on his chest. Instead of saying no or stop to his persecutors, Giles says,

“More weight.”  


When I taught this play, I would ask my students if Giles’ statement was admirable, heroic even. Many thought it was brave of Giles to stay strong even during extreme pain, fear, and powerlessness. This belief, I feel, is highly reflected in the society that we live in, a society that values taking on more and champions product over process. This is the society our schools operate within. 

In my own work and life “more weight” had become an affirmation of my own worth. Each item on my to do list felt like another rock, and instead of saying, “this is too much” or “no more rocks, please,” I said, “more rocks,” and I thought, “I can handle this.”

So this September, I purchased my planner, re-stocked my gel pens, and rolled up my sleeves to chart out another year, another schedule. And then something miraculous happened: I came down with walking pneumonia. I was the sickest I had been in a long time. The kind of sickness that demands you stop everything and get into bed and rest. I didn’t have a gel-pen color for rest. Rest was not in any of the boxes in my planner. They don’t teach rest in the curriculum, and I felt ill-equipped to honor what my body needed, which was to be still and put the whole plan on pause.

(Walking Pneumonia Recovery Kit)

So as much as I wanted to jump out of bed, and tackle my to do list and adhere to my schedule, I forced myself to stop, and during that pause I took stock of my beliefs. I channeled my inner Brene Brown and dug deep. Instead of asking myself, what am I going to do this year? I took down my thoughts with some much-needed self-talk, and shifted my thinking. The question became: What do I hope this year will bring?

To support my exploration of this question, I pulled out Elena Aguilar’s list of core values from her book, The Art of Coaching. I scanned the list, and looked for the values that resonated with me both in my personal and professional life.

They were: joy, balance, and authenticity.

When I looked back at my calendar from the past year, I quickly saw that these values weren’t reflected in my actions. My beliefs and my behavior were out of alignment, and I felt anxious, unbalanced, and depleted.

In order to honor my belief that process is more important than product, I would have to shift my thinking. This blog is going to explore the process of using self-talk to shift my thoughts from “more weight” to more joy, and how I support teachers to do the same so that teaching feels sustainable and joyful.

I work with educators who teach within systems where taking on “more weight” isn’t a choice, it is an expectation. While it would be a “single story” or a blanket statement to say this is true of all schools, it isn’t. However, I think it is fair to say that based on my teaching experiences, and the conversations I have when I coach teachers, it is a expectation that weighs on many. You can teach another section, right? I know you’re not certified in Math, but you can teach it, right? You can be on the hiring committee, it only meets twice a month, right? More weight. I believe that in order to make teaching sustainable, teachers need weight removed, not added. Teachers need to find joy in their teaching and have the time and the space to try new things and reflect on their impact in the classroom. Teachers need less weight. We all do.

In my work with teachers as an instructional coach, I support them to make shifts in their mindset and their teaching practice. At my company our mission is to light up teachers so they can light up their students. At the center of our beliefs is joy, a joy of teaching and a joy of learning. Teachers often come to the work feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, and worried that meeting with a coach every two weeks is something they just don’t have time for: it is more weight.

This is why I begin my work with teachers by asking them, what do you hope this school year will bring instead of, what do you have to do this school year?  The responses range from, I don’t understand what you are asking me to no one has ever asked me that before.

So we start with a very small shift. Instead of collecting and grading every assignment, select three assignments a week that you feel will give you the most meaningful data about your students’ learning. For the rest, provide the students with a framework for self-assessing their understanding. Less weight.

A small shift might focus more on their energy around teaching. I am so exhausted and it’s only week two, one teacher tells me. I ask her to share what her exhaustion sounds like and looks like. What is she doing when she is exhausted? She tells me, grading. I grade a few papers when I wake up, I grade papers before I go to bed. We talk about how she feels like she has to get feedback to her students immediately. I suggest she think about one of her closest colleagues. I ask her, would you be disappointed in your colleague if she didn’t grade all of her papers right away? She said, no. Of course not! We decide that her shift is to replace her name with her colleague’s name when she feels the urge to grade papers first thing in the morning. She is going to try saying, “Would I expect my colleague to grade papers before breakfast or a shower?”  No. Of course not! Less weight.

These shifts aren’t easy, and they take time and practice. Developing a ritual or routine to signal to yourself that you need to pause or rest has been one of the first shifts for me. When I find myself feeling like I am not doing enough or need to do more, I get up and turn the lights on and off. This helps signal to me that I need to shift my thinking away from,  I can handle this to I am doing the best I can, and that is enough. My colleague, Romain gets up and takes a walk when he feels he needs to stop working and pause. My colleague, James, stands up, stretches and says out loud, “I am done working for today.” This signals to him that the computer shuts down, and his time with his family begins. No multi-tasking. No work and family, just family. Small wins, but the beginnings of a big shift.

Shift Small: Steps for Teachers and For All Of Us To Start Shifting

1) Create A Shift Ritual.

When you find yourself feeling exhausted, burnt out, or you need to pause, it can be helpful to develop a shift ritual. Whether you channel Romain’s walk, mimic James’ stretch and statement or try turning the lights on or off, a physical action can help you practice making a shift, and it will eventually become more automatic and instinctual.

2) Combat Your Thoughts With Self-Talk.

One of my favorite strategies to share with teachers is Instead of This, Think This. For example, instead of thinking, I have so much to do today, think I am open to what today brings. Write down your shift on a Post-It and stick it near your work space as a visual reminder. Share your shift with your students, and ask them to do the same exercise. So often our students say, “this is too hard” or “I can’t do this.” Instead of thinking, “this is too hard,” think “This is hard now, but will get easier with practice.” Instead of “I can’t do this,” think “I can’t do this yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”

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3) Insert a close colleague, beloved teacher or your best friend’s name into your thinking.

When you set expectations for your teaching or yourself, pause and ask, would I be disappointed in her/him if ____________ didn’t get all of this done?

4) Bring Self-Awareness to Your Values and Your Actions.

Identify three values that are important to you, and write them down. Then, look at your calendar from the past few months. Did your actions align with your values? If not, how might you make some small shifts so that there is more alignment? For example, one of my values is balance. This means I feel anxious and agitated if I don’t make time for exercise, self-care, and my family. When I see a day on my calendar where there are no breaks and back to back meetings, that is a signal to me that I need to shift my schedule so I say yes to what will allow balance, and no to what will lead to imbalance.

Shifting is a process, and requires practice and reflection. It may feel that there isn’t time to do this work, but I have found that small shifts make a big impact on my work, in my personal life, and in my overall well-being. This work has become a passion project for me, which I will continue to explore and write about here.

Thanks for reading.