Striving for Empathy, Humility, and Compassion

This weekend I watched “The Way I See It”: a documentary about Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for the Reagan and the Obama administrations.

Watching world events unfold as of late, I have felt more and more disheartened. And then, watching this documentary, watching the leadership of President Obama in particular, I again felt inspired and hopeful.

In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. Words such as empathy, humility, compassion are foremost on my mind. Among many other moments, this documentary showed President Obama’s address to the nation after the horrific Sandy Hook shooting. I remember watching it when it occurred. Watching it now, I was especially struck by his authentic empathy, his obvious love and compassion for others. All others.

Each of us are in a leadership role of some sort. Whether we lead students, staff, or our own families, we are leaders.

When we make decisions, do we make decisions with respect for human dignity? Do we acknowledge and appreciate the impact of our decisions on the people around us? Do we listen to and consider alternative points of view? Do we lead with authenticity? Do we stand up and speak up for others?

I know that President Obama was not perfect in the role of president and I don’t necessarily agree with every decision he made. However, I have the utmost respect for his confidence to surround himself with diverse viewpoints, for his contemplative nature, for his willingness to change his thinking, for his ability to lift others up, for his genuine kindness.

Today I leave the last words to him: “We may not be able to stop evil in the world, but how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”

The Books We Read

When we choose books to read to our class, we typically select them for a specific purpose: the content, a writing strategy, a reading strategy, a cross-curricular connection…

I’d be curious to track all of the books I read to my students in a given year. What is the overall impression of the collection?

Are the books diverse in genre? topic? cultural representation? Can my students see themselves represented somewhere within these books? Are they also exposed to experiences and conditions outside of their own?

Whose voices do we hear? Are there voices missing from the conversation?

Does the collection take them throughout the world and to other periods in time? Do these books challenge my students to think, to reflect, to grow, and to question?

It’s not too late: we’ve not yet reached October. Take a picture of the book covers each time you read to your students. I’d be curious to see the collection at year end!


In a recent poll, 1600 Alberta teachers expressed extreme and unsustainable levels of fatigue (94%), stress (95%), and anxiety (81%).

THIS in mid-September.

During this challenging year then, we must find ways to take care of ourselves. Consider: What rejuvenates you? What refreshes you? What calms you?

This year, we can’t put self-care at the bottom of the to-do list; this year, it must be at the top. We must be intentional about finding balance, finding time to separate ourselves from work, and finding ways to connect with others. Each and every day, we must commit to something towards our own self-care.

Remember the words of Katie Reed: “Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.”

Feedback please!

Last week I presented my first in-person PD in half a year. Just like the teachers who have returned to in-person teaching, I felt blessed. What a difference: head nodding, body language, facial expressions. An opportunity to read the room. Feedback!

This in-person PD was an exception; I will continue to work primarily in an online environment for the foreseeable future.

I now realize that I took for granted in-person PD and in-class teaching. Before the pandemic, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that we wouldn’t be allowed to be in the same room as each other.

For those teachers and consultants who remain online, we must find ways to connect, to read the room, and to garner feedback, despite the limitations of technology.

What are your strategies? What suggestions do you have for garnering feedback in an online environment?

Word Study: 2020 Style

As we begin the school year, we also begin word study in our elementary classrooms. We create word walls to help our students with both high frequency words and structural analysis. I also introduce The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds at this time of year to inspire students to collect words on a class bulletin board or in our own Literacy Notebooks.

There are various reasons to add a word to our collection. I might like the sound of the word: kerfuffle and lollygag come to mind. I might like the meaning of the word: peace and solitude, perhaps. I might like a word because of a positive association: malarkey… I can’t hear this word without hearing my Dad say, “Who dealt this malarkey?”

This year I would add an extra element to my word study lessons. Consider all of the words and phrases that have become a part of our daily vernacular. Some that we hadn’t ever used before 2020: COVID, coronavirus, social distancing, flattening the curve. Some that were not used with the frequency that they are now: cohorts, masks, quarantine, pandemic, contact tracing, isolation, synchronous, asynchronous. We could go on.

This situation is a natural opportunity to talk with students about the development and evolution of language. Ask students: What other world events or circumstances may have influenced and changed the English language over time?

Be ready for a fascinating conversation!

Back at it!

I shared this Arthur Ashe quote during my sessions last week: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Many teachers commented on the quote: the relevance and reassuring tone.

As we go into the first official week of the 2020-21 school year, these words remind us to do our best and control what we can. Will the week be perfect? No. Will we be challenged and exhausted by the end? Likely. Will it be exciting to connect with our new students (either in person on online)? Absolutely.

Although much of the focus will be on procedures, protocols, and routines, be sure to save time for a read aloud or two. Bring some ‘normal’ into each day.

And remember, we’re in this together. Reach out to your colleagues. Share ideas. Share frustrations. Share strength.

Yet Another Reminder of the Power of Story

Have you ever read a book and the characters just won’t leave you, even when the pages of the book are closed? I’ve been fortunate to read a few books like that this summer: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is one.

Reading this book has changed my thinking. I have a new appreciation and understanding for those who have lived the migrant journey. I was taken outside of my own privileged, protected background. I walked with the characters as they experienced unimaginable fear and incomprehensible grief. I began to understand the enormity of the challenges others face daily, some repetitively. I began to consider the journey of my own ancestors, too.

Imagine a child who is never exposed to the stories of others. A child who does not have the opportunity to walk alongside a character in a book. Will that child develop the same compassion for others as the children who are exposed to a myriad of stories and experiences? Will that child be able to think about a situation from the perspective of another, to empathize with situations other than their own? To some extent, probably; to the same extent, I reckon not.

The reminder is this: parents, bring story into your children’s lives, and teachers, into your students’ lives. Diverse stories. Stories of struggle, stories of hope. Stories of those like us, stories of those unlike us. Immerse them in the lives of fictional characters and see what transpires.

And now for me… back to American Dirt. I’m nearing the end…

Building Relationships

In preparing for an upcoming session, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of connecting with students this fall. It’s always important, yes, but this year it is more important than ever.

What did we lose during emergency online learning in the spring? Connections. Face to face connections. Those classes that were most successful in the online environment were the ones that were best able to maintain connections. But, as you well know, it was challenging, and certainly not the same as the in-person discussions, high fives, and hugs we normally enjoy.

During these challenging times, we must be even more intentional in connecting with our students while they sit before us: building trust, creating positive energy, establishing an environment of safety and security as best we can, helping students regulate their emotions, nurturing both the individuals and our class community, developing rigor.

Even now, a few weeks before the start of the school, we are not certain what the year will look like. In fact, we can count on much uncertainty as the year unfolds. Strong connections will carry us through the year, regardless of what it brings.

Permission for Imperfection

With each passing August day, I’m thinking more and more about school reentry and all of the realities it will bring. Something new occurs to me each day and my thought usually begins with “Hmmm… how are we going to…?”

Back to school will be especially challenging this year. In addition to everything we normally face, there are safety guidelines to consider: from both our government and our school districts. There are logistics to work through knowing the physical space and context of our classrooms. There will also be heightened emotions: teachers and students are certainly going to experience a wider range of back-to-school emotions than usual.

Our collective survival is dependent on our willingness to reach out to each other for support, sharing both our challenges and successes. The reality is, we won’t be able to approach things as we usually do: the sooner we accept that, the better.

As we begin the year, we must give ourselves permission for imperfection. We are tackling new territory. We may try something only to discover it doesn’t quite work the way we anticipate. Rest assured, we can try again.

Although it will be challenging, what I know is this: teachers are determined, creative, and resilient.

Our students need us more than ever and we will be ready. However imperfectly.

Looking back, moving forward.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those who have influenced me both as a person and as an educator: in particular, my dad, my mom, my uncle, my grandmother, a teacher I had many years ago, and a former admin partner of mine.

They don’t know it, but they are often with me in my decision-making. Their words, their examples, and their integrity, guide me to this day.

They stand with me as I strive to educate with passion, compassion, and empathy. They stand with me as I listen to and learn from those I work with, adults and children. They stand with me as I advocate for teachers and their needs.

Looking back on this year, I know I have done my best with the circumstances before me. Might I do things differently next year? Yes. Not because I didn’t try my best, but because I’ve learned a thing or two.

One day, not so far from now, we will return to the classroom. We will bring our students to the reading corner for a read aloud. We will play a rousing game of dodgeball. We will sing and paint and laugh together. It will happen. We’ll hope for September but understand if it takes a little longer.

Before it happens though, we need a break from screens. We need to breathe the air around us, to rediscover what it’s like to be bored, to savour the long, unscheduled days ahead, to read a book unrelated to work. We need time.

I’m taking some time away from my blog this summer, too. When we return ‘together’ in the fall, we will be refreshed. In the meantime, be sure to soak up the summer sun…