Formerly a high school English teacher and a new teacher coach in Palo Alto Unified School District (Palo Alto, CA), Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant and author who works with educators and others on new teacher and employee support, being generationally savvy, effective collaboration skills, having hard conversations and creating identity safe workplaces.
Jennifer’s publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate & Create Community, Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, Whens and What Ifs, and Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Skills for Leading Successful School Initiatives. Her newest book is Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work.
Let’s dig into one of the facets you wrote about in this book that seems to be particularly important to develop during the time of quiet quitting and teacher recruitment and retention – building resiliency – tell me about what your take is on this important skill to buil
Help leaders, adults and educators “grow up at work and play nice” to communicate effectively and support each other.
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Five facets to stretch curriculum and your learning edges.
Suspend certainty and stop extinguishing better ideas being offered by your learning community.
Tips to create a level of professionalism and “healthy hygiene” where everyone takes responsibility for their contributions.
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Growing Up At Work
Ages ago when I was still a classroom teacher, I had an insight that was incredibly profound. I realized if I adjusted my attitude and adjusted my energy in the classroom, I realized that discipline disappeared. And once I really looked in the mirror on a daily right hourly class period by class period basis, I actually never wrote up a kid again. And I used to write up referrals.I definitely didn’t lead the school in the number of referrals written, but I’d lose my cool, and I’d get in this, I’d get in this emotional rollercoaster and cycle of pushing and pulling with my students. And then I figured it out and everything seemed to get easier. Well, the same is true with adults. How you show up, the energy you bring, are you responsible for it? It’s kind of like growing up, but nobody ever teaches us how to do that Well, except my friend Jennifer Abrams. We’re here to talk about how she helps leaders and adults and educators grow up at work and play nice. Learn how to communicate effectively and be there supporting each other. When you do that, everybody wins. Hey, it’s Danny, chief Ruckus Maker at Better Leaders, better Schools. And this shows for you a Ruckus Maker, which means you consistently invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school now. We’ll be right back after some messages from our show sponsors.
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Hey, Ruckus Makers. I’m here with a friend. Listen, Jennifer is unbelievable and you’ve been on this show probably more than anybody, and I still remember the first time we recorded and it was also face-to-face live, I was doing stuff on Skype back then, but you happened to be in Chicago. Let me introduce you in case some other folks don’t know you. Formally a high school English teacher and a new teacher coach in Palo Alto Unified School District. Jennifer Abrams is currently a communication consultant, an author who works with educators and others on new teacher and employee support, being generational savvy, effective collaboration skills, having hard conversations, and creating identity safe workplaces.
And she has a longer bio. You can definitely pick that up on the website and show notes. It’s something really important to know that she has an awesome book. It’s been out a little bit, but I want you to pick up a copy if you haven’t read it. It’s called Stretching Your Learning Edges. There it is. Growing up at work and I’d love to hear about how it’s been received and all that kind of stuff, but some folks may not know that this book is out. So can you just give us a high level overview of what Stretching Your Learning Edges is all about, why you wrote it and what did you initially hope would come across when putting it out into the world?
Thank you for having me here, Danny. This book is the fifth book that I’ve written, and it should have been the first book. This book is about our field, about education and the discovery that I made. I started at 22, I’m gonna be 56 in a week. What I’ve discovered, and I’ve really emphasized is we have credentials in how to teach our students and our subjects and we don’t have credentials in how to talk effectively to each other. The essence and the importance and the research that backs that says we really do need to work on that because it will actually be a very important piece to increasing student achievement and doing what we wanna do for our schools. That is a curriculum. How do we better talk to each other and how are we pros? My newsletter I put out last month was about going pro, how do professionals do this? And so this book speaks to a stretch curriculum. This isn’t your bottom line. Stay in the front office and go off and do your stuff, but what do we need to build in ourselves, our mindsets or capacities in order to be those value end colleagues and what is it? Where do we need to stretch? So that’s what the books know.
That’s really good. I visited you as the mastermind too. I don’t know if you ever met Fran McGreevey when you did visit, but he has a saying that he is a retired principal at this point and just a super leader. But basically you said I can tell you the quality of a school by just looking at the quality of the relationships among the adults. And that’s, I think, is what a lot of your work’s about too. You called it a stretch curriculum. What does that mean? What’s a stretch curriculum?
I think that the concept of adult development is something we don’t focus on in schools. We have child development, we have their curriculum. We know where you’re supposed to move vertically over through the grades. And this concept of adults developing isn’t a piece of what we think we should be doing because we’re already cooked. We’re over the age of 18 or we signed a contract, we’re teacher of record, we’re done. It’s a stretch to, I think we are stretching, not just in understanding our content or our instruction, but stretching, moving not just like totally solid yet, but really pushing toward developing ourselves in internal ways, in our intrapersonal awareness and in our interpersonal communication. And so that’s why I call it stretching because it really isn’t solid, I’m standing in it. I’m really, sometimes it’s just one step away. And there is a progression or a developmental journey that we too need to be on. That’s what I mean by stretching your learning edges. And then also growing up at work. The up is not punitive, we’re grown up. It’s about really growing up. It’s like really developing yourselves to be able to do bigger and better things.
Got it. And this is so important. To, like you said, student achievement, school success. It’s not taught in the curriculum. Thank God you’re in this space helping out leaders and adults figure out how to navigate these waters. What are some practical things that you might share? With the Ruckus Maker watching or listening, but some things that they could do to have these positive interactions and relationships with their colleagues and grow up in work, especially since we’re so ill prepared, you know?
It’s so true. I’ll give you two examples. There are five facets, but let me go into one of them to start and we’ll only look at two. One of them is to suspend your certainty. Why should we suspend certainty? I think in our culture we are all about advocating and putting in our ideas and do we ever sit and make sure that we’ve listened to other diverse perspectives to create greater nuance or shadow to add color to our information and to give us a different take because we have blind spots. One of the things really basic of suspending certainty is for people like me, if you are a person who’s like, I’m taking the lead, I’m an external processor, I’m a toaster as people say, I immediately process, I immediately put in my 2 cents. Suspending certainty could be as easy as listening to three people before you offer your idea as a leader. That might be a really good thing to do because you’re gonna get an additional set of points of view that hopefully inform what you’re gonna say if you’re listening. And so that’s just like one basic kind of fundamental way to suspend your certainty. Another way might be what am I not seeing? What am I missing? And to ask people to provide that. And to seek it out. So that’s suspending cert. Another thing that was a little bit more of a stretch for people, but they were very accepting of it as I was talking about it today. They were reading about it. We were doing a book study in the state of North Dakota with coaches today that if you have a bad person in your group, yeah, but that ain’t gonna work. But that’s not gonna work.
Could we take responsibility? And that’s one of the facets, take responsibility for our contribution to that. Like, it’s not my job. Is it my job to actually tell them to stop being a Debbie Downer? No, but it is your responsibility, I feel, to keep the group moving and to keep the group productive and to allow and support people to be agents and have agency. So this is something that I say acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge, and then ask them a question. Danny, I know that we don’t have as much time as we’d wanted and I know you’ve mentioned that we don’t have all the right resources yet. And I know that our timeline is shorter than you’d like. And given it’s not going off our plate, what do you think we should do next? It’s like, see you, I see you and let’s move forward.
So that’s a stretch edge for some people who were there was a special ed teacher. So the special ed teacher’s there to advocate and support for the person, the kid, the general ed teacher’s. Like, but I can’t do that, but I can’t do that. How might the special education teacher in an advocacy role acknowledge the challenges and help that person just the same? It’s, you have to take responsibility for what’s yours. Those are two ideas. And to me those are stretch edges. We didn’t learn that in credential classes. And yet wouldn’t it be great if we had those skills in our communication to move groups forward and to move ourselves forward
Absolutely. Those resonate with me so much. And the idea of seeing people we talk about all the time. So you’re talking, acknowledging and what would need to be true. One way I like to ask it. What would need to be true for us to accomplish this thing. What would need to be true? And seeing people acknowledging, moving forward. The suspended uncertainty I resonate with too because if I’m not careful by personality, I can just really occupy the entire space. I get so excited, especially if it’s something I’m really interested and excited about. And so that’s something that I’ve learned, especially like leading masterminds or whatever, do my best to speak towards the end. If I speak too soon, everybody agrees and it kind of shuts people down and I also sort of extinguish better ideas from being offered before I would say something. I appreciate Jennifer, because those are two practical things a Ruckus Maker could certainly do immediately. So that’s awesome. Your book’s been out about 18 months. How’s it been received? You talked about working with some coaches in North Dakota, that’s super cool. But what have you learned about people that wanna stretch and some of these challenges to stretching?
I think that it’s been warmly received by people worldwide. It’s been pretty awesome. I work internationally and I think many audiences see the need. So there could be smaller groups that really just say, yay, a senior leadership team, a cabinet in a school district at a very central office level, a group of department shares or grade level leads who are wanting to model this for their teams. And I’ve seen it where people say, yeah, this is super, super important. We wanna build our capacity. And it’s an individual piece. It’s like where can I play on my side of the net and how can I develop? When people say, and this is the challenge, and I totally relate to this because it is the challenge when people say who needs this? Our whole staff needs to be better. We have a toxic culture, we’re not healthy. We need to just kind of come and, and top down tell people this is how they’re gonna behave. That’s gonna end up being painful. It’s an interesting question for me, given that you can’t just grow up. That’s not gonna work. What is the best way to bring people forward? This is with any initiative. Why would this be beneficial? In which way can we add pieces so that it isn’t just like, here’s the book, you gotta live this. But for example, and this is my, is what I thought was really super. One group, a school out of Calgary, an amazing place called me and said, we have a PD day, which is very common. Where we’re gonna go through something, a particular discussion that we have to do for four hours or whatever in order to meet our accreditation needs. Nobody wants to be in the discussion. Everybody’s already tired, they don’t even wanna show up.
Can you come to just kind of bring a level of professionalism and mindfulness in a way that people can hear you into the first hour and then maybe people can engage in a different way for the other three or four. And I said, yes, we talked about it. Like how am I gonna bring this? I’m now working at a school on their PD day for the same amount of time because they’re gonna go into some very challenging conversations around multi-tiered systems of support and issues of equity where people might feel threatened and need to participate in their best self. It’s just, how can we do that? We honor that this is gonna be challenging and please show up and take responsibility for the energy that you bring into the space. Here are some ways that you can do that. And I know you really intend on being good. Here’s some ways that are just to be reminded. It’s been challenging in some places, so we have to kind of work it, but other people are like, oh my gosh, I wanna be a leader. These are skills that I have to study. It’s been pretty interesting and it just continues to show up from Africa to Taipei, to Seattle to Fargo so it’s been pretty cool.
I definitely wanna hear a little more about that energy piece, but maybe we could talk about that right after Some messages from our sponsors, learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school’s success, empower your teams with Harvard certificates in school management and leadership. Get an online PD that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy and innovation. Leading people and leading learning. Apply today at Better Leaders Better schools.com/harbor. When classrooms come alive with conversation, teachers and students both thrive. Last year. Teachers using Teach FX increase their student talk by an average of 40%. Can an app really do that? Even trying something like embracing extra wait time to create space for student talk can feel like a risk. But with Teach FX teachers see the power of those practices in their own classroom level data. It’s like having a personal instructional coach on your phone, tablet, or laptop.
Best of all, Ruckus Makers can start a free pilot with their teachers today. Go to teachfx.com/betterleaders to learn how and get started. That’s right, go to teachfx.com/betterleaders and start your free pilot with Teach FX today. Today’s shows are also sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more organized binder. Color coded system is implemented by the teacher through a parallel process with students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. You can learn more and improve your students’ executive [email protected]. Plus just check out organized binder because you get to talk to Mitch, who’s like one of the best human beings. And the last thing I just wanna say really quick before we get to our conversation, back to our conversation with Jennifer. I’m hosting a live event. It’s happening in July as of today, I think there’s 17, 16 tickets left. We’re gonna sell this out. The live events happening in Denver, July 14th through 16th. And I’m teaching a brand new framework called the Leadership Optimization Compass.
We’re back with my friend, one of the best in education, Jennifer Abrams. We’re talking about her book, which I want you to pick up. Stretching Your Learning Edges. And prior to the break, you mentioned this idea of being responsible for your energy. . I think I know what that means. I know when I walk into a room I’m a catalyst and things are gonna move quickly towards a more positive energy or a more negative one based on how I show up. I think I get that a little bit, but unpack that. Would you unpack that for the Ruckus Maker watching or listening?
I Am from Indiana University Health Center. So you can imagine going into that hospital sandwich board and in front of the sandwich board says, take, please take responsibility for the energy you bring into the space. Your words matter, your behaviors matter, our patients and our teams matter. I thought that was just a beautiful thing because you’re so anxious. As you’re going into a hospital. You might not be able to be as I have as much equanimity and compassion as you, maybe your fuse is a little shorter. I love that idea because in one of the facets that I speak to, it’s the idea of building resiliency. What I mean by that isn’t the resiliency that I think we really did have to find within the pandemic. And there was such burnout and such struggle and understandable struggle.
What I was imagining is before the pandemic, how do we take ownership of our emotional and psychological, what I call hygiene. Like how are we healthy for ourselves and for other people? Because when we go into a meeting, exactly like you said, we show up with our energy and I don’t want us to pigpen a meeting. So remember Pigpen from Charlie Brown, Snoopy, lovely guy. He always had dust and there’s a lot of dust. A cloud. A cloud, and you know, people who show up in your meetings and they pigpen it and they bring in something from 17 years ago and something from in the morning. It’s, and I think that we need to, maybe that means we need to take a deep breath at the beginning. We have to take a minute. We have to stand, we need water. And to recognize you have to take responsibility because it, it really does. Biofeedback wise biochemically. All energy does ooze into a meeting and I influence us, and then we can influence. I, but you gotta know that. So that’s what I mean by that.
Yeah, good point. I’m actually working with the principal one-on-one. Somebody I love. He’s awesome. Right in your back of the woods neck of the woods I should say, which is really cool. So it’s fun to be out there with him. But he has a dysfunctional department. I won’t name the department in case anybody knows who I’m talking about. And I ask, so what’s going on? With this one, with one group and a department head and another veteran. And the one is holding onto a grudge where she felt slighted from literally years ago and is still bringing it to the table, bringing that energy. And it’s hard to get stuff done. It’s hard to rally around the vision of the school and where things are going and ultimately what’s best for kids because somebody won’t let go. Like, what would it take to let it go? I like what you mentioned, the breath moving around water, these kinds of things. And would you suggest too, like could you verbally, like the sign in Indiana, could you say, Hey everybody, we’re about to start, let’s be responsible today for the energy we bring.
I put it on a slide at the very beginning of all my stuff for your In any zoom or in any workshop I do, that’s the norm at this point.
Does anybody ever just go do one of those? I’m just curious.
I either maybe don’t look at them because I’m looking and everybody’s looking at them or move right to, and this I think is the second thing I say. It’s Mrs. CO’s classroom. I found it on Instagram. Somebody is learning how to be a person by watching you. And that’s for us an education. What are they seeing? And if they were there, if a five-year-old or a 14 year old was there watching how you were in this specific meeting, would you feel proud of that? Because we know, it’s there. And so people go between this first and the second, I think without being punitive or diminishing or patronizing that’s the norm that we hold.
Good. That’s great. you talked about the pandemic a little bit and some of the challenges that are happening and I’ve read in the papers too about this idea of quiet quitting and teacher retention, right. And recruitment is really, really important. I’m just curious how to build resiliency and do you have any take on in terms of like, important skills to build, to address some of these things that we’re seeing these days? Ray gives us some hearts too.
She’s awesome. I have been told different people have different takes on this. I mean, we can’t ask people to do more. So if you put all this on somebody, put all this on somebody, so to speak. Some people will put their hands on their heads and go, this is a lot, this is a lot. Like I just, I can barely teach you now. You want me to be a nice person with my colleague. And I say, yes I do. because that’s the job. The job is everything. And if people say, but you can’t add this to people, it’s gonna cause them to burn out faster. It’s gonna, it’s gonna make them feel like they wanna quit. I’m gonna guess, and I spoke to my grad school roommate today. Her daughter is ready to quit at a school that she’s working with in the Midwest.
And I bet that if the adults were playing better at that school and they were more resilient, more responsible for how they weren’t trying to be a Debbie Downer, more open to younger teachers input, and they’d suspend their certainty and say, well, think about that. She might not wanna quit. She might want now, fair enough, it could be for a lot of other reasons, but I truly feel like this isn’t an add-on that is co that will cause people to decide to say that’s the end. I can’t be a part of a more professional, thoughtful, psychologically aware and emotionally capable group. That’s it. I’m outta here. I’m gonna guess they’re not gonna do that. It’s something that could add value. Yeah, that’s my thought. I don’t know that I haven’t done the research and boy, if somebody wants to do a PhD on this, more to it, but I’ve also cut people to say to me, I’m not growing in this way. I’m retiring in a year. I have no time to add this. And I go, go, I hope my pilot doesn’t say that about learning the flight plan and my doctor doesn’t stop about drugs. I hope that we stay professional until we’re retired. So that’s my,
You know the recruitment side of things too, because the buzz in the community. You’re just gonna be known as a great place to work. And so maybe you haven’t done the research, but I’ve worked with a few folks and there’s one super attendant I’m thinking about down in Texas. Lisa, if you’re watching, we love you. She often likes commenting on posts and I really respect and admire the work she’s doing, but she told me, Hey Danny, teachers will drive past districts closer to their home that pay a higher salary because we treat ’em right. We treat ’em right in our system and so I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about. And you know, she’s doing a fantastic job, so awesome stuff. All right. I have two more questions before we go. One being just like, all right, this book’s out. How does it align all your books? You know, congrats on having five books, but is it an extension of what you’ve always been focusing on, or how’s it fit?
I think if I, and I’ve thought about trying to do an institute the Abrams Institute, okay,
Oh, sign me up.
Oh yeah, sign you up, Danny. And yeah. And you would be totally like, I can design that. We can work on that. It’s maybe the overarching concept, this as assumption and presupposition that we need to develop in this way in order for schools and classrooms to be even better. So what are the skills? And so this to me would be maybe an initial overview and then a little bit around more collaboration. Could include the generational stuff. It could be about hard conversations and finding your voice around what matters as a supervisor, as a principal, as a colleague. It could be, we’re working on moving out initiatives. How do I respond when something comes to me? You know, and what kind of questions do I wanna ask in order not to be resistant? It’s all about communication and messaging and inter and interpersonal stuff, all of it. I think, as I’ve mentioned, I think this could be the first book or the umbrella book, but it’s that piece. Remember, we don’t talk about adult to adult communication. We just think people should know how to do it. And I didn’t. So that’s why I’m here. I wanna help people find their voice.
That’s awesome and so needed. We can’t make that assumption. So my, my last question. I know you’ve been on the show and you’ve answered a lot of these, but let me just see what your take will be today. If you could put one message on all schools, Marques, around the world for just a single day, what would Jennifer’s message be today?
Be humane. Grow yourself to be a humane human being. Yeah. Some about hu human beings, a humane human being. That’s something like that.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast, Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud, and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? It’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination.
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