Formerly a high school English teacher and a new teacher coach in Palo Alto Unified School District (Palo Alto, CA, USA), Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant 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.
Jennifer has been invited to keynote, facilitate and coach worldwide from the USA to Africa, from Asia to Europe, from Australia to South America, and she is honored to have been named one of the “18 Women All K-12 Educators Should Know,” by Education Week’s ‘Finding Common Ground’’ blog.
Daniel: What does it mean to be an adult at work? One of the greatest tragedies in terms of prepping for becoming an educator and then a school leader is that, you get the certificate, you get the licensure, you go to the grad school classes and all this stuff, and it teaches you things that you need to be successful. Interestingly, it leaves out a huge gap that is absolutely foundational to your success and that really is about emotional intelligence. It's about being an adult, being a professional within your school or district. How do you do that? Lucky for you today I'm joined by my dear friend, Jennifer Abrams, and she has just written a book on that topic specifically. You're going to love it. She shares many stories and practical tips. It's going to help you be a better you while you're at work.
Daniel: Hello, it's Daniel and welcome to the Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our show's sponsors. Established your legacy with Harvard certificate in school management and leadership. Learn from Harvard business and education school faculty as you develop the frameworks, skills, and knowledge, you need to drive change improvement in your learning community. Apply now for our June and July cohorts at Better Leaders, Better Schools.com/Harvard. That's Better Leaders, Better Schools.com/Harvard.
Daniel: Are you automatically tracking online student participation data during COVID? Innovative school leaders across the country have started tracking online student participation using Teach FX because it's one of the most powerful ways to improve student outcomes during COVID, especially for English learners and students of color. Learn more about Teach FX and get a special offer@ teachFX.com/BLBS that's teachFX.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn more at organizedbinder.com. Ruckus Makers, I'm joined again by Jennifer Abrams. I don't know this might be three or four visits now on the podcast. I still remember, I feel like an old man talking about when I knew you when you were younger, but I remember recording our first episode because it was different.
Daniel: Most of my shows I've recorded virtually over Zoom for years and we did it face to face. I admired your presence, I enjoyed your stories and I'm so thankful that we've known each other all these years now. That was a bit of my bio for you, but here's the official one. Formerly a high school English teacher, a new teacher coach in Palo Alto Unified School District. Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant 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 multi-generational workplace communicate, collaborate, and create community hard conversations unpacked, the who's, ones, what ifs, and swimming in the deep end for foundational skills for leading successful school initiatives. Her newest book is Stretching your Learning Edges, Growing up at work. Jennifer has been invited to keynote facilitate and coach worldwide from the US to Africa, from Asia to Europe, from Australia to South America. She is honored to have been named one of the 18 women all K-12 educators should know by Education Weeks, Finding Common Ground Blog. More about Jennifer's work can be found at her website, Jennifer abrams.com and on Twitter @Jennifer Abrams. Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Thank you, Danny. Nice to see you hear you again. Always good to be here.
Daniel: The first question, you've been prolific in your creation of content and books and the way you serve leaders and then educators. Why do you keep showing? Working? What I mean? Writing a book is not easy, but you keep doing it. What's going on here?
Jennifer: Yeah, that's it, why do I keep showing up? I think that I write for two reasons, I write to learn something and I write because I see, I see a need. My first book was Having Hard Conversations and as I say, and I say it every book, so this is my learning. I guess I just show up in the world, do this. I have a credential in how to teach students the subject of English. I don't have a credential in how to talk effectively to other adults. In education, our emphasis is with the kids and that's our focus and our mission. We have so much work that we need to do together. I am guessing that as we move into this coming year, that as we move into continuing to really work to deal with so many challenges that we, as a field and as a world are dealing with, we need to work with each other as adults. Why do I keep doing this? I keep writing to keep learning and to bring sort of this conversation back into education. We need as adults to learn how to work effectively and humanely together and that hasn't quite always happened. I keep showing up to make that be something that's on the plate and I still am a work in progress. So that's why I do it.
Daniel: Thank you. I appreciate you, uh, sharing that. It is interesting. Obviously it's about the kids. I have a dear friend Fran McGreevey, and he talks about how, uh, the quality of the school is directly connected to the quality of relationships within the building and relationships among the adults. I think one of the things I enjoyed most about this book is that exploration and hearing sort of view growing up and these markers that we have, "Okay, we've crossed this milestone, we're now an adult" Yet, we still have so much to learn on how to be an adult and interact with other adults. I know you're super excited about this new book. I know the inspiration a bit about your continuous learning journey. Why now with like How to Be An Adult?
Jennifer: I had a marker happen that we all will go through most likely is that I lost my father. I lost my mother a number of years ago. All of a sudden, I was the adult, the elder in my family. I thought, "Well, I don't know how to be an adult yet. I'm now currently sitting here at 54 years old. I thought, "Well, if not now, when?" I have to start to be the elder and I talked to my friend Barbara, and she said, "You're eldering, you're eldering. You have to learn how to develop into somebody that you will feel proud that you have been." I thought, "Well, educators, we don't have a lot of time to talk about adult to adult interaction." We teach the students all the time and then we get into these meetings and I thought, "Wow, I need to spend even more time than just the afterschool workshop or the staff meeting that kind of work."
Jennifer: I need to actually learn what it means to develop as adults. We think you're 26, you're off your dad or mom's insurance. Now you're an adult or you got the job. You're now a teacher in second grade or you're whatever. Now we just expect you to be a professional. I thought we've known, and this is the frustration. We know people are kind of not so great. Sometimes they're not their best selves in these after-school meetings. They're not the person that you'd want to collaborate with. I thought that is part of their development and their maturity and their journey. It's also that we don't give it emphasis. We don't study how to be better and that's really where this came from. How do we develop? The thing is growing up at work.
Jennifer: And the up is in parentheses. I'm not deliberately trying to be really obnoxious and cheeky and go, "You need to grow up" because we are the adults in the schools. I also know that we can still grow and that's where I want us to stretch ourselves. You're not always your best adult self. What does that look like? That's why I showed up to do and I'm a work in progress. I am not saying this is the be-all and end-all, this is a book that asks us all to participate in each other's development. This isn't a read this and you'll be an adult. This is just a study in how can we take a look at how we can grow?
Daniel: I think that comes through quite well in the book. You also challenge the reader to think proactively what's the insight here? What sticks out to? How are you going to apply it? I really appreciate that. You mentioned your father and I know he's shared a verse, Micah 6:8 and it's a heavy, challenging verse.I want to bring it into this conversation because I think it will have people thinking bigger, outside of themselves and what they're doing as a school leader and as a Ruckus Maker.
Jennifer: Yeah. I'm Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah and I'm standing on the Bema or as many people would know the pulpit and my father is speaking to me and he says, "I wish for you and your adulthood, that you live, the words of Micah, you act justly, you love mercy, and you walk humbly with your God." I'm listening to him. I'm 13. I haven't gotten my braces yet. I'm just figuring out how to wear pantyhose and I'm like, "this is heavy lifting. This is really heavy lifting", but as now we're 40 years out. I just turned 54. 40 years later, have I tried to act justly, have I tried to love mercy and be compassionate. Have I tried to be more humble and get that I'm just one piece, one person in this whole thing? It's like, "Yes, and I still have a lot more to do." This book definitely says, "We're individuals developing. We're also part of a collective. How are you offering things to the collected? How are you a value add? How do you receive and have people support your development?" I'm always working that. I'm always working that. He's a part of me. I hope he's looking down and thinking "Good for you, Jenny." He's the only one who can call me, Jenny, minus a guy named Jock, who lives in Hong Kong, who can say Madamemoise Jenny, but that's it. My dad and Jock, but he would probably look down and say, "Good for you, Jenny," so I'm feeling good.
Daniel: I'd love to invite you to give us an overview of the five facets of growing up at work. That's something I know you discussed.
Jennifer: I tried to kind of put it into buckets. Which parts of us do we need to develop? Where do we need to grow up? These are not inclusive of everything, but they include to know your identity, to be really mindful of how your upbringing and the way that you see the world is one way. To know where you're coming from and how that impacts other people and how you can work to make sure that you see other people's identities. The second one is to suspend certainty. I was angry at Adam Grant, who just wrote a book called Think Again, because he just snuck up in there and did the same idea. But that idea that you don't have the only way you can advocate, but you need to inquire where are you missing some things.
Jennifer: Suspend your certainty that you've got the right way. To take responsibility for your work, but also for your language and how you interact. How many times have we seen somebody get really frustrated that they're unclear and then they get angry. "I don't understand what's going on. Why is this happening? This is not right. I don't, it's just too fuzzy." Maybe you could see clarification in a purposeful or focused way. If you have a concern, how do you express that before it becomes a complaint and you start to be whiny? If you've been hurt by something, How do you have a hard conversation about that? All of that taking responsibility for your language. Two more ,engage in reciprocity, which I'm fascinated by this. I was just on a conversation that was also talking about the collective that we need to believe.
Jennifer: Part of our job is to engage with the other adults in a mutually respectful way, to be a value add to the group, and to open yourself up. The group is a value add to you and engaging your reciprocity presumes a level of mutual respect and a skillset to live that respect out loud to other adults. The last one is to build your resiliency. I'm not thinking resiliency, I'm not giving it short shrift. I'm not saying "We shouldn't work on self care. We shouldn't take care of ourselves and our wellbeing." I'm focusing it on. If somebody gives you some feedback, that's hurtful. How do you sustain yourself in that moment? If you are not feeling psychologically, you're feeling a little shaky. How can you still go into an interaction with another adult and not kind of ooze that drama onto them so that you are building your strength, your bandwidth, to be able to deal with disappointment and all the challenges. It's not that we can't be connected and we shouldn't be vulnerable, but there is sort of that open heart and strong back that we need to be able to have. Those are the five parts. I started writing self-assessments and continuums and exercises and did some videos. I'm just really interested in how people see this and what I can learn around these five parts that are in the book.
Daniel: I'll say too, the videos were a nice touch. I really enjoyed clicking on those and seeing your smiling face telling a story that was interesting, challenging and thought-provoking. I know your readers will really enjoy that as well. Practicing what you preach and modeling this continuous path of growth. Another question I'd love to ask. I'm just curious, what are you working on these days to develop yourself?
Jennifer: You heard my "ooh" coming up because it's always a work in progress. I'll give you what I was doing right before I was on here. I was on with a group from South Africa, I was not presenting, I was a participant and they were talking about Stephen Biko, Cry Freedom was a movie that we saw here in the states about his fight for black consciousness and black liberation and ultimately was murdered. They were talking about Steven Biko's idea of inner freedom and how can we amidst the societies that we're in? How can we still sort of self author, at least how we see ourselves and get courage to sort of move in in our world. I was just in that for two hours before I came on this podcast. I'm doing a lot of study around adult development and my own development. I'm working with a group called Cultivating Leadership. I'm also doing a lot of meditation and grounding myself with Meg Wheatley. Meg Wheatley, is doing some work called Warriors For The Human Spirit and how can we be really strong people for this time? All of that's happening and my editor is saying to me, "How are you marketing and how are you doing that? I'm holding my own development, and then how can I do my work?
Daniel: There's a lot of Ruckus Makers who I'm sure aspire to write a book at some point. I don't know what percentage you'd give it, but that's a small percent of the work. Getting it out there and getting it into people's hands so that lives can change that's the real work and that begins once you're done with the revisions. Now your job has actually begun.
Jennifer: Celebrate this book. People are like "Celebrate this book" and I'm like, "Now the work begins. How do you put it out there? How do you see where it would land?" It's a lot of work, but the two of us have in common, some work with Seth Godin and the Alts MBA, and the answer is ship it. We shipped it and now, how do we reproduced it? How are we going to really make it sing and be out there?
Daniel: That's good. For the Ruckus Maker listening, just a quick challenge and reflection question, what are you doing to develop yourself? I really appreciate Jennifer's candor and talking about what she's working on, but what are you working on? All my south African friends, since you brought up South Africa, François, Mandela, and Lawasley, if you're listening, [inaudible) this is your friend. Let's pause here just for a quick break and message from our sponsors. When we come back, I'd love to talk about core values. Learn the frameworks, skills and knowledge you need to drive change improvement in your learning community with Harvard's online certificate in school management and leadership. A joint collaboration between the Harvard graduate school of education and Harvard business school connect and collaborate with fellow school leaders as you address your problems of practice in our online professional development program. Apply today at BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com/Harvard. That's BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com/Harvard.
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Daniel: We're back with my dear friend, Jennifer Abrams, her newest book is Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing Up at work. We've had a fantastic conversation so far about the journey of continuous growth and figuring out how to be an adult. A big part of that is identity and core values. I could talk for years on this topic. I love it, but I'd like to invite you to share a practical tip with the Ruckus Maker, listening on how they might go about identifying what they stand for and why it matters.
Jennifer: That's a really good question. When you said, "Let's talk about core values." I'm like, "Where are my core values?" I did a workshop a while back at the beginning of COVID times with a coach named Jen Lemon and she had us sort of take a look at a set of values and bring it down and then get to three. In my book, I do have a set of four values. Many people do this work, but then put it somewhere in front of you. On your laptop on, I had it for many, many months posted on my zoom light. Is what you're doing that moment aligned with what you believe in.
Jennifer: If it isn't, should you be? How might you make it come alive with that or not? I'm noticing that my need for authenticity, my need for integrity and my need for growth are sort of just always alive in this work that I'm doing. Those might not be the values of the people around me. Where do we kind of kind of overlap with each other? The scariest thing I think about being an adult, when my values do not connect with the organization or the school or they're going in a different direction or believing something different. I have to make the choice to not join that. I did when I left my school district. I went on leave 10 years ago. It's my ten-year anniversary of being a consultant.
Jennifer: That was one of the scariest things about growing up was to realize that I was in charge of my life and how I chose to live it and did the where I was, did that align. I went on a different path. I say that sort of more slowly, but core values are do you want to be so distant from who you want to be in the organization that you're in? I made the decision, so I left and I am happier. I sleep better. I'm physically healthier now I'm in a different position.
Daniel: I didn't know we would go there. I appreciate you sharing what you shared. Something you said really resonated with me. You figured out that you're in charge? You're in charge of your life and that has to do with growing up to be an adult. I'm curious, was there anything you'd like to share with the Ruckus Maker, in terms of what helped you take charge?
Jennifer: A real tough love conversation with my former superintendent who said,"If you're not happy here, maybe you should leave." That happened a long time ago. That was many, many years before I left. I made it work for myself, but I placed myself in conversations that really pushed me to make choices. My body ultimately, I was diagnosed with MS and that pushed me to recognize that I need to be healthy for myself. I am having a lot of therapy, counseling, all that kind of stuff, but also not talking to people per se in our field helps. Talking to people outside our field to see there are just other ways to do life. Whether you choose to do it or not, there are ways to live and many people would just say, "Well, I don't know what you're still doing there." I'd be like, "Oh no, I can't possibly leave." They were all like, "We do this all the time." I think being a part swimming in that soup, swimming in that pool helps. Getting out of your day to day conversations, talking to people outside your field, reading magazines that are not just about education, but maybe fast company or recognizing there's a whole big world out there was really scary and then ultimately freeing.
Daniel: I encourage everybody when it's safe for you to travel. It's a great way to realize, "Oh, there's not just one way of doing things. That was the greatest single gift of living abroad was really opening my mind in that sense. I love what you're seeing in terms of busting out of the echo chamber, industry-wise, and that's an edge I chose with the Mastermind. We don't read educational books. We only read books outside of education for two reasons. One, I already know people are reading those books, so I don't need to force them and then to expose ourselves to stuff that works outside of education. I love doing that with them. I love to travel.
Jennifer: I love travel too. I know we did not meet when you were in Europe.
Daniel: I'll be back. Were on a grant. My wife's on a grant for five years with the CDC of the Netherlands. It will still happen. It just hasn't happened yet. The last question I have for you, Jennifer, it's interesting, you bring up this model called the scarf model and I'd love for you to touch on it because we often think of things like examples core values and sort of the positive stuff within our control. Always consider sort of the enemies or the threats and the dangers, so useful. I'd love for you to expound on that before we end today.
Jennifer: I think that there's a, self-compassion that when you're looking at knowing your identity, I think you're looking at exactly what you said. You're looking at the values, the strengths, and what you believe in. You got to actually know that you have some limitations, you have some human needs and to be really aware of those and not to beat yourself up with them. I have a cognitive crush on a guy named Dr. David Rock. David Rock wrote a book, uh, called Your Brain At Work and in that book, and you can also seek him email@example.com online. He wrote that every single one of us when we are in an interaction, either perceive that interaction as threatening or fearful it's comes from our our limbic system. Are you lion on the Savannah kind of a thing?
Jennifer: The scarf model is where do you feel threatened? Everybody has all five, but some people have more fear or worry about some of them. Some of us want the other person to honor their status. That's the S, your PhD, your title, uh, it's important to you. I will admit, know your identity. I will admit, I like people to know my status. I have five books. I am an international consultant. You're not snobby and awful because you have that need. It's just to be aware that that trigger is there for you. The second one is certainty. We want control. We want to know what's happening next. If people don't have the sea and Scarf, they get really anxious and they kind of lash out. The third one is the a, which is autonomy. Some people really want autonomy.
Jennifer: If we tell them they have to do something, and I'm looking at Danny with his with this tattoo. Who's a Ruckus Maker. Let's be self-authoring. I want autonomy. If you want autonomy, you don't want expectations or requirements. You want options. You want ideas, you want suggestions. I always giggle that that's my high school people. That's always my PE guys or women, my social studies teachers who like to see things and make choices within there. You can imagine that the certainty people might upset the autonomy people, because they want everything to land. I want to know exactly. The other people are like, so you're constantly kind of pushing up against each other. Relatedness is am I a part of the community? Am I part of the team?
Jennifer: Am I part of the family? Am I part of the group? Am I belonging? Am I connected? I always say with great love. Those are usually my elementary school teams. They sit with each other and they bring each other coffee and they celebrate everything together. They're the relatedness people. It's not that you can't be relatedness in high school, but I'm saying that's a thing. The F, the fairness and is this right? Is this socially just, is this fair? It's the union. It's your people they're really saying, "Where is this equitable? Is this something that we should stand for?" If you've got people who have all of those different needs, they're pushing up against each other. To know that about yourself and to not be not to beat yourself up, but to say, "Whoa, I want to honor that this is just a neat I have and what is yours?" You can take quizzes on it. Literally, you can go get a SCARF assessment, but I would encourage you not to go scarf assessment. You'll get a scarf. Like the one I'm wearing. You actually need to do SCARF, David Rock assessment, and you can see where you might have needs. It's to be really aware of yourself and others that we have. We have to be supportive and we're not perfect and we have these things.
Daniel: This has been a delightful conversation. Jennifer, I'd love to hear you share. What's the one thing for sure. You want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Jennifer: Your development isn't an indulgence. You don't have time not to develop yourself. If you don't you're not going to have as fruitful of a life, as a Ruckus Maker, as thoughtful of a life, and you won't live in the world with the same amount of ease. I would encourage you to energize yourself by taking a minute, to do some stuff.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com 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 B L B S level up your leadership at Better Leaders, Better Schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.
- The book for leaders to participate in each other’s development
- Exploration of markers to learn on how to BE and interact with adults
- A meaningful verse, pantyhose and a gift for reflective leadership
- The scariest thing and the 5 facets to help overcome the fear
- Tips on identifying what you stand for and why it matters
- Finding bandwidth to deal with disappointment and all the challenges
- Exploring The SCARF model and what threatens us about new ideas
“Your development isn’t an indulgence. You don’t have time not to develop yourself. If you don’t, you’re not going to have as fruitful a life as a Ruckus Maker, as thoughtful of a life, and you won’t live in the world with the same amount of ease.”
– Jennifer Abrams
Jennifer Abrams’ Resources & Contact Info:
- Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work
- Dr. David Rock: Home
- Jennifer Abrams: Home
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