My Magic Question

I have a magic question.  It is simple yet powerful.  It is empowering and not degrading. It is:

“In the future, what would I see different?”

I use this question all day, in all situations, with all ages of students.  If I am speaking with a student about an undesirable behavior I have observed — I ask this question.  If I see a student who has forgotten or is struggling with a school routine or expectation — I ask this question.  If I am dialoguing with children who are stuck in conflict or trying to make sense of the choices they made — I ask this question.

This question is magic because it …

  1. Moves the conversation from an authoritative lecture to an supportive learning opportunity
  2. Empowers students to be thinkers and use their voice
  3. Creates a natural opportunity for student reflection and proposed action
  4. Creates a sense of student buy-in where the student can actually follow through on the “difference” they name
  5. Shows the student you don’t define her/him by his/her current choice/action but rather …
  6. … Shows the student you believe they are capable of changing behaviors and making positive choices
  7. Allows students to practice problem solving skills and become solution-focused

This question has not failed me.  Sure, sometimes students stop and hesitate before answering.  However, I like to believe it is because they are genuinely surprised that someone would ask and then they are thinking of an honest, thoughtful response.  I love the way that when I ask this question, a sense of worry visibly disappears from student faces.  They know that this is not a punitive conversation where they will end up “in trouble.”  Rather, it seems that when students hear this question, they realize that I am supporting them in their behavior and action development. It is always inspiring to hear the response of a student who clearly has a plan to choose a different plan of action in the future.  It is also liberating to spend more time listening than talking.

So, go ahead.  Steal my magic question.  I dare you.

A Back to School Wish

My wish for educators in the upcoming school year:  Reclaim your passion.  

As educators we spend so much time planning, organizing, meeting, and aligning.  We spend hours in professional development learning about new techniques and best practices.  We structure our classroom, build lesson plans, peruse resources, decorate bulletin boards, collaborate with colleagues, prepare assessments, and think endlessly about how to best engage students.  We focus on the big picture and hone in on the small details.  I can’t help but wonder — as we get caught up in the doing — how often do we step back and reflect on why we entered education in the first place?

Choosing to join the education field is typically driven by a passion:  Passion to develop students as life-long learners.  Passion to challenge status-quo and shift educational paradigms.  Passion to impact the lives of young learners and have them impact you as an adult learner.  Passion to never settle for “good enough” and instead challenge through inquiry.  Passion to make a difference and to believe that the work you are doing has a lasting impact.

What was your drive?  What is your passion for education?  Do you even remember? Or, has it become lost in the nitty-gritty?  In the “to-dos” and standards based assessments?  In the budget cuts and difficult parents?  In the long hours and low pay?

What would happen if, when planning, organizing, and polishing the classroom you carved out honest time to reflect on your choice to join education field?  What if you reconnected to your passion for _________________ that caused you to become a teacher, counselor, administrator?  What if you wrote down your original hopes and dreams when you thought of becoming an educator and re-read that statement every day?

I believe that when we reclaim our passion and remember the heady goals we started on this journey with, then we will be better educators.  By tapping into our passion we will teach more passionately, connect with students more passionately, build an effective school community more passionately.  Reconnecting to our educational passion will not only refresh and recharge us but will also be noticeable to others around us.  Perhaps, our renewed sense of drive and purpose might even inspire students and co-workers to be a little better, try a little harder, or be a little more passionate about their education.

So go ahead.  Reclaim your passion.

Student Centered Educators

As an educator, every action taken, every decision made, every choice being weighed should be in a student’s best interest.  By always keeping students at the center, an educator is most likely to create a purposeful, meaningful, and authentic learning environment that serves all students — not just a handful.  Over the years, I have noticed a variety of practices that clearly indicate an educator is making decisions to promote student centered teaching and learning. Here are a few of my anecdotal observations of student centered practices:

1. Teacher is never behind a desk.  A student centered teacher is actively engaged with his/her classroom.  This means being up, moving, checking in, asking about new learnings, dialoguing, providing new strategies.  Sitting at a desk when students are in class only benefits the teacher — not students.

2. Planning is done in advance with learning goals, objectives, and assessments in mind.  The plan is differentiated and based on learning styles and learning needs. “Planning” that occurs day of and is done via Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers is a clear indicator that a student’s needs are not at the center.  A one-size-fits-some worksheet is easy for the teacher but not necessarily best for promoting purposeful learning among students.

3. Educators develop themselves professionally on their own time, on their own accord, often on their own expense.  Student centered educators are always seeking to better their practice knowing that keeping current on essential practices, new innovations, and changes in pedagogical thinking ultimately impacts and benefits their students. Student learners are always the focus when new educator learning is taking place.  A non-student centered teacher’s PD occurs one hour a week at school mandated staff meetings.

4. Classroom doors are kept wide open.  Student centered educators welcome other educators in — at any time — to be observed by peers who can then provide feedback, reflections, and suggestions around teaching practice and methods.  This open door policy keeps teachers always growing, developing, and reflecting, which hopefully can stop stagnation of practice. This always benefits students.

5. Reflection is part of the daily teaching practice.  A relevant, student centered educator is reflective in nature so as to always question what went well and what needs to look different in the future.  Student feedback is used as part of the reflection process so that the student’s voice is a driving force of tweaking or adjusting current practices. Anytime a student voice is considered for future development of self, this is a clear indicator that the educator is student centered.  By skipping reflection, an educator most likely assumes that what he/she is currently doing is working just fine. In all actuality it may be working at the benefit of one or two students but most likely not the entire learning community.

6. More time is spent listening than talking.  A student centered educator recognizes that the model of a teacher talking to students is antiquated and not student centered.  Listening — really listening — to students helps educators tap into what students are saying but more importantly, what they are not saying.  This creates a space for student centered educators to assess needs and support thinking and learning.  Listening to student voice is a great tool to drive one’s work.

7. Students are approached holistically — not just assessed academically.  Student centered teachers are constantly looking to serve the academic, social-emotional, behavioral, and developmental needs of their students.  They seek to understand the big picture of each individual student and meet the student where they are across all facets of learning.  A student centered educator knows that you cannot separate academic success from other life circumstances.  Each child is a system and you have to make little tweaks along the way in order for systemic change to fully occur.

8. Students are empowered to do their own thinking.  Rather than tell students what and how to think or what to memorize, student centered educators provide opportunities for students to explore, inquire, and make meaning.  Students are encouraged to think and think deeply.  A student possibly learning something new or innovating on their own (without the teacher telling them the information), is invigorating and exciting to a student centered educator — not intimidating. The educator will support the learning process, necessary skills, and provide encouragement. They will not be providing prescribed thinking for the students.

9. Play is recognized as a learning tool — not a waste of time.  No matter the age or grade, student centered educators engage students in play so as to learn and construct meaning.  Student centered educators recognize the power of play to inquire, connect, and unpack learning opportunities for students.  Even though play can be messy, unstructured, and chaotic (read: more challenging to monitor, facilitate, and assess on the teacher’s part), it is a powerful tool for growth and critical thinking. So, though it might be stressful, a good educator recognizes that play is healthy for student development and learning (= student centered).

10. Mistakes are acknowledged and admitted to students.  Recognizing and naming when you make a mistake or an error is a huge trait of being student centered. Removing the misperception that you have to be perfect is a gift that a student centered educator can give students.  Help students view mistakes as learning opportunities instead of opportunites for shame and embarrassment.  Model the practice of admitting when you erred and see the students follow suit.

These are just a handful of indicators that an educator is always thinking of students first.  By no means is this a complete list.  It is just a starting point to question if — at the end of the day — am I working to put students first?  What other traits are indicators of a student centered educator?  What else would you add to the list?

A Framework for Support


Part of the counseling practice involves providing support — support to students, support to parents, support to colleagues, support to administration. Often this comes in the form of professional support. Sometimes this comes in the form of emotional support. No matter the form, being supportive is a skill. It is a skill that needs thought, reflection, and action. It is also a skill that needs practiced and developed. Too often someone might believe they are being supportive and yet, their actions –however well intended — can be causing more harm than doing good.

As a practitioner, I have spent a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on support. I have come up with my own framework of support that is applicable to staff, students, friends, family, alike. In my framework, there are five points to always consider so as to be effective and intentional with support.

1. Support looks different for every individual. How I would define support is different from how my partner would define support is different from how my co-worker would define support. Every individual, in a time of need, has unique and particular ways that he/she would like to receive support. Each individual also has distinct, personal criteria that would be perceived as unsupportive. It is not enough to assume that my definition of support is the same criteria that anyone else would use to define support. Support is usually such a mashup of different standards that it is impossible to guess the criterion someone might place in the “when I feel supported” category. For some, support means a kind, comforting word. For some it might be being physically present with another person. For some, it might mean being left alone. For some it might mean springing into action and distracting the individual from whatever is on his/her mind. The list of possibilities is endless. Therefore, what I always tell people, “The best thing you do to support someone is ask them ‘What does support mean to you?” This is the first step in creating a genuine and meaningful supportive relationship. Have the person voice what support looks like, feels like, and sounds like — in his or her perspective. That way you (as the supporter) have a clear understanding of what the friend, co-worker, student, etc. is looking for. With a clear definition in mind, you have a clear starting point or jumping off place to ensure genuine support can provided.

2. Unless you know how the individual defines support, you are most likely setting up a situation of disappointment and failed expectations. The biggest mistake is jumping in to provide support without first having a clear working-definition of what support looks like to the individual who needs it. A co-worker is at a loss with her classroom and the behaviors of her students. She comes in saying “I don’t know what to do.” The counselor jumps in by coming into her class, creating behavior plans for specific students, reestablishing routines, doing guidance on pro-social behaviors — and the teacher feels worse than when she went in “asking” for support. Why? Because the counselor did what she thought was supportive. The teacher just felt challenged, undermined, and like her professionalism was being called into question. If the counselor had simply asked (prior to jumping into action) “What can I do to support you? What does support look like to you?” then the counselor would have been able to see the teacher just wanted someone to listen to her and validate her feelings. She did not need more than a quiet ear. In other words, we can spring into action based on our definition of support. We can walk away feeling proud of ourselves for being so supportive. The other party involved, though, might feel like we did nothing, that there was no follow through, or that we minimized his/her issue. The individual receiving support may feel like his/her expectations were not met and the person providing the support might never understand what they did wrong (which in this case was offer support based on his/her interpretation, not the person needed supporting). It’s a lose-lose situation for both parties involved. Start with a clear understanding of support and eliminate the confusion and disappointment that can ensue when neither party involved was aware of the others expectations from the start.

3. Support does not mean solving the problem or having the answer. A lot of people do not offer support because they do not feel like they know “what to do.” You don’t need to know what to do! Support means being present as an individual, friend, student, family member, works towards resolution, closure, or clarity. People often think that to be supportive means making the issue go away. This is simply not the case. Rather, be there, listen, validate, question, challenge the person asking for support. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Don’t feel responsible for having to make everything better. Just focus on being supportive in the way that he/she expressed would make him/her feel supported.

4. There can be too much support. There is a fine line between being supportive and being suffocating. If you feel that someone needs support — ASK. Don’t assume you can be of assistance and then find out that you are bothering, annoying, and adding additional stress to their life. Maybe you are not the person they will turn to. Maybe at this time they want to muddle through the mess on their own. Do not overdo the support or feel like you have to be involved in the support. It all comes back to that word “ask.”

5. Support is ongoing — not a one time event. If you step up to offer someone support, remember that you are making a commitment to him/her for an unspecified amount of time. Do not make the offer and commitment to support someone if you do not have the time, resources, energy, or capacity to see the process through to fruition. That is unfair to everyone and in that situation, no one walks away feeling good.

These are my go to points when people inquire into support. What are some things you consider when offering support to someone? What are some barriers to offering support? What are some tools you use to create meaningful supportive interactions?

Curse The Countdown: Teaching to the End

At this time of year, in any school community, teachers and students have their sights set on summer vacation.  An anticipatory energy seems to fill the school as the weather gets warmer and days get longer.  In the international school community, this time of year also signals a time of transition as highly mobile expat students might be moving onto their next school and as teachers say goodbye to one school to move to their next placement.  A lot of energy and resources are placed on year-end activities and providing closure for students and staff, alike.  I enjoy all the aspects of wrapping up an academic year.  All aspects except one:  the COUNTDOWN.

The dreaded countdown.  

How many instructional days left?  How many days till summer break?  How many student contact days?  How many days till I am on a plane headed “home?”  

No matter how it is framed or what method is used (corner of white board, calendar cross off, having students count remaining days, a countdown app on your device), I believe a “countdown” devalues the educational process.  Why?

A countdown tells the viewer (students, peers, parents, administrators) that the only thing that really matters is when school ends — not the learning that is in progress.  Why are we telling students to be so excited for their structured learning environment and daily inquiry process to come to an end?  If we are so focused on the end of the academic year then what value are we assigning to all the days of meaningful instruction that have not yet occurred?  By highlighting the last day of school as a celebration, I feel the messaging is that school is a chore, boring, something that has to be done rather than something we get to celebrate daily.  Educators should be counting every contact day with students as a learning opportunity yet to be had and creating an atmosphere of excitement about the opportunity to gather as a classroom community to inquire, unpack, and explore together.  We should model for students that learning is something to celebrate and build excitement for as learning happens every day. Counting down toward the end of an academic year does not promote the zeal and excitement around acquiring knowledge to create lifelong learners.  Instead it says “Hey, you get 180 days to learn and then — BOOM — take a break (and you “deserve” that break because school is hard, boring, and monotonous).”  Students pick up on our attitudes and messaging whether we intend them to or not.  If we are not placing a value on every academic day then why should they?  While we might not intend for a countdown to be detrimental to academic progress, I have yet to hear anyone to argue the benefit for student academic growth.

So, in a time when we are all getting ansty and thinking about things to come, what can we do instead of a countdown?  My suggestions:

1. Set daily goals of things you want to accomplish during the workday and cross those off the list instead of days.  Make them small goals of meaningful tasks to accomplish.  Give meaningful feedback on the latest assessment.  Get in a peer’s classroom for an observation.  Read a blog on assessment in inquiry.  Try a new teaching strategy.  Set a daily goal or two and make yourself follow through on accomplishing it.  Then, once you have achieved your daily goal, scratch it out and reflect on the process.

2. Take the initiative and lead a year end closure project or opportunity.  As the end of the academic year approaches, there are always too many projects that need accomplished at the school and never enough time.  Volunteer to take the lead on a goodbye assembly, grade 5 moving up project, organize a year end celebration for leaving staff, review documents that need updated prior to the next academic year, be part of the new staff orientation planning process, facilitate group sessions for students leaving the school and moving, or plan something totally new and innovative in your community.  By focusing on something extra or bigger than yourself, you will find the year end becomes too busy to count down.  You also model learning and growing yourself professionally and not shutting off because the “end is in sight.”

3. Develop engaging, innovative lessons that you have not tried before to promote student engagement and inquiry.  Excitement is contagious.  When students are engaged in meaningful, impactful, and purposeful learning, they will let you know.  You will also find that the more student excitement there is, the more excitement you will feel as a teacher.  When you are excited about something, do you really want whatever it is that is making you feel good to end?!?

4. If nothing else, remember — you are a teacher.  Your job means that you should be promoting learning and knowledge in your practice.  You chose to join a profession that, yes, has long breaks, but is tasked with developing a passion and desire for learning with every student you interact with.  Focus on the task you have at hand and represent the profession well.  Set high standards for yourself and then strive to achieve them.  At the end of every day, reflect and ask yourself, “Did my actions today promote or discourage students from becoming life-long, self-directed learners?”  I would reckon a big number on the board representing how many days left of the school year would not garner a tally in the “promote” column.

So, please, I implore you — wrap the academic year up when it needs to wrap up — after the students have left for the summer break.  Don’t start wrapping it up 54, 53, 52 … days early.  Kill the countdown and focus on the day in front of you.

Being Reflective with “Trouble Starters”

“How do I make friends?”  “How do I keep friends?”  These are two of the questions that I am most frequently asked by students across all grade levels in my daily counseling practice.  In response, I always start by turning back to the IB Learner Profile and reviewing with students what it means to be reflective.  Students explain their knowledge and understanding of this profile trait and I reiterate that being reflective means thinking about yourself and the role you play in any situation.

Then, I turn to one of my most trusted resources to help students in their reflection process and in making meaning of their friendship questions and issues.  I pull out my “Trouble Starters” list which I originally found in a book from the American Girl Company called Friends: Making them and keeping them (Criswell, 2006).  This resource names 10 actions or choices that a student (or adult) might make that would most likely cause conflict with a friend.

10 Trouble Starters in an infographic I made for use in my counseling practice.

10 Trouble Starters in an infographic I made for use in my counseling practice.


Together the student and I look through the list, one item at a time.  I make sure the student understands what each action means and that they have context for the statement.  We then spend time dialoguing around why this might cause problems with friends.  Then, I ask the student to reflect silently on if she/he might have ever intentionally or accidentally engaged in that action.  Often the student shares out his/her response and a personal example or connection.  After this I always ask, “In the future, what will look different?”  At this point, the student usually spends some time thinking and responding about different choices she/he could make to avoid a trouble starter with friends.  Sometimes we spend time planning for actual conversations or situations.  Sometimes it is more theoretical or vague.  No matter what, I always communicate that we are focusing on his/her actions NOT the friend’s actions as the only person we can ever change is our self.

I have found that this list of Trouble Starters is a powerful tool for students of all ages as they can make personal connections between their actions and the impact on the friendship.  Each trouble starter also seems to be a universal action that students comprehend regardless of home culture, community, or country making this a great resource for the international school community.  I have also had many students report back when they 1) caused conflict with friends by using a trouble starter or 2) avoided conflict by choosing a different action.  When this happens I always acknowledge the student being reflective and either celebrate or counsel accordingly.

Trouble Starters has been in my counseling tool kit for years.  What other resources do you rely on to explicitly teach friendship skills?  How do you encourage student reflection?

Criswell, P.K.  (2006).  Friends: Making them and keeping them.  Middleton, WI:  American Girls Publishing, Inc.

…But Who Takes Care of You?

One question that I regularly hear from my principal/co-workers/family members/friends is:

“You take care of so many.  Who takes care of you?”  

It is not a secret that being a counselor can be an emotionally charged experience.  A lot is shared with a counselor — happy stories, joyous experiences, celebrations, laughter.  On the flip side — anger, hurt, resentment, fear, angst, really lousy situations. It takes a lot of balance for a counselor to practice empathy while also keeping up a shield and working through emotion without making it your own.  This is a skill that is hard to perfect (and many never do).

Over the years of my professional development and practice, I have been able to identify a handful of ways to refresh, recharge, and release.  This helps me to achieve an optimal balance of demonstrating empathy while maintaining a tough skin so as to serve others.  While my five strategies might not work for all, they might provide a good jumping off point for developing your own self-care plan.

1. Find Your Release.  Everybody has something that brings them peace.  Running.  Writing.  Dancing.  Cooking.  Riding horses.  Silence.  Music.  Family.  Organizing.  Whatever it is that makes you feel the most calm and full of solace is your release.  It is the activity that you can get lost in and before long, all your thoughts seem to disappear.  When it’s been a particularly bad day, make sure you engage in that activity.  Spend time “doing” and soon you will realize that the “thinking” has subsided.

2.  Just do you.  Spend time reflecting.  Counseling should be reflective in nature both for participant and practitioner.  In my experience counselors are highly skilled at helping other people be reflective but spend limited time reflecting on themselves.  Reflect on why this one day/event/issue might have had more weight for you.  Reflect on why this conversation triggered you or impacted you in the way it did.  Reflect on what you could do differently to work through the issue without bringing it home with you.  Reflect. Reflect. Reflect.

3.  Get comfortable with “no.”  When your plate is full and you are starting to feel like you are losing your balance, say NO.  Turn down an offer for something.  Tell your team you need some support.  Tell a teacher/parent/student that his/her request will have to wait for a bit.  It’s okay to choose how you invest your time.  Learn the power of saying “no” and feel yourself re-balancing.

4.  Identify safe people.  These are the people in your life who support you, love you, want to spend time with you because they appreciate you as you — not you as counselor.  They do not need an explanation of your day or emotions.  They are happy to engage with you and remind you that there is more to your life than your professional self.  Identify those individuals and seek them out.  Talk about anything and everything but work and then thank that individual for allowing you to be your best self.

5.  When all else fails, just _______ (Fill in the blank): Drink coffee, go for a walk, cry, laugh, get angry, run, bake (and eat) cookies.  Sometimes the best way to achieve balance is to just rid yourself of the emotional charge you are carrying.  You know what makes you feel better — even if you feel a little worse, first — so do it.  Release and move through it.

A counselor cannot effectively care for others without first caring for him/herself.  If you take care of yourself and find strategies that work to keep you balanced, your practice will be productive and you will be able to maintain taking care of others.