The Things We Don't Say

We are five days into November, and this month feels incredibly hard. The excitement of a new school year has definitely waned, obstacles to learning have presented themselves, and we are struggling to stay honest, open, and connected. So are our students.

It is hard, really, really hard, to say what we think but even harder to say how we feel. It's the strangest thing: while having "heart" is at the center of all things learning, sharing the emotions that our hearts feel is not necessarily a celebrated, embraced, or even accepted practice.

In January of 2021, I shared a piece entitled, "Toxic Positivity: How the 'Show-Must-Go-On' is Secretly Harming Our Teachers." At the time, I wrote this piece to try to capture much of what I was hearing as I worked with teachers and leaders in schools. I wanted to offer a voice to this perspective that so many of us feel on a daily basis--that naming our emotions (especially is they are emotions that hurt) will make people perceive us to be weak. And worse yet: if we name our emotions and hurt and pain about our profession, then we must be bad teachers.

And there it is: a real, tangible fear that so many of us (I know I do) carry around each day. We are haunted by thoughts about our true worth. At home. At school. In our relationships. In our contribution. We don't know how to measure our value for ourselves, and we feel someone else is always measuring us.

Over the past three weeks, nearly all of my coaching conversations and processing activities in workshops have been centered around feelings of worthiness and safety. We put structures in place to have systems we can review and measure. But the structure and the system do not create trust between people. The structure (and then outcomes) creates trust in the system. Space for hard conversations, normalizing how hard it is to collaborate, and naming our emotions in our teams--that creates trust between people.


I recently asked a group of leaders to fill-in-the-blank with this statement:

Teacher are...

The responses were quick, positive, and full of honesty:

  • Creative

  • Compassionate

  • Hard-working

  • Dedicated

  • Problem-solvers

  • Caring

  • Open-hearted

When we are forced, we are able to stop and remember who we are in our heart of hearts. But wow. How buried our hearts have become under the weight of the pain in our society.

Because we view ourselves as good creative, compassionate, hard-working problem-solvers, it is incredibly difficult for us to face conversations and situations that might make us question our value. For example, when we look at student writing samples as a team, and I realize that my students' skills are not at the same level as another groups in my grade level. In that initial moment, I am faced with either feeling shame for not solving the problem, or feeling curious to learn how others solved it. For many of us, because our identities as people are so closely tied to how we view ourselves as teachers, shame immediately takes over. We tell ourselves we cannot solve the problem and secretly we believe we are failures.

What we don't say about the process of collaboration and becoming a team is that it is raw, vulnerable, emotional work. To be a member of a team means giving pieces of myself and taking pieces from others. I cannot give nor can I take without changing--transforming--and transformation can be overwhelming.

What we don't say about teaching and leading is that to do it well, we must create room for one another. We are thinking and emotional (and I would add spiritual) beings. However, we often believe that there is little permission given for emotions to be felt, let alone shared.

What we don't say is that we are experiencing fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of disregard, fear of alienation. We hold our fear cards very tightly to our chest, refusing to name the emotions and instead choosing to defend our current practices or blame others for the outcomes we get.

What we don't say is that by denying ourselves the openness to share and experience these emotions as teams, we are denying ourselves the ability to grow.


The question we need to ask ourselves is this: how do we make and keep and protect space for our emotions? I am not suggesting that team members accept hurtful, personal attacks, or conversely, the stonewalling and surface politeness that lacks true follow-through and integrity.

What I am suggesting is that we acknowledge the pervasive role that shame is playing in our abilities to share and collaborate. And once we do that, we then need to leave space for people to feel their feelings. To be heard. To be seen.

As leaders, often the most powerful thing we can do to create a space of belonging and dignity is to provide our people with safe places to say what they need to say. To process their worries, fears, hopes, and dreams.

By providing the space to feel our emotions, we validate our value in humanity.

We honor one another's true selves.

We make space for our growing, hurting hearts.


Looking to process safety and teams further in a collaborative community? Register for my online course, PLC Leadership 101.

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