Teaching Blog

My Mental Health Journey

To hear a recording of me reading this post, checkout the podcast episode.

Today, I want to tell you a story.

Spoiler Alert: I have anxiety and depression.

I haven't said that in public before. In fact, I've only said that to about five people in my life at all. I didn't know I had anxiety and depression before six months ago. In fact, before six months ago, I didn't even understand anxiety at all, couldn't wrap my head around what it was and how people didn't just push through and keep going.

This started to come to light for me with the start of the Covid Pandemic. I am extremely extroverted, a true extroverted extrovert, who could be around crowds of people, groups of friends, co-workers, students, whoever 100% of my waking time and be energized and excited. So, getting locked in my house with the same two people for multiple months, was not an ideal scenario for me (even though those two people were my wife and son, who I love more than anything).

At the onset, the solution was easy. I am a Instructional Technology Coach, and overnight the entire education industry needed tech coaches desperately. Between Facebook Groups of teachers, Twitter questions, and emails from my own school's staff, I stayed busy. And I don't mean typical teacher busy where we always work extra hours doing grading and such, I mean work from 7 am to 7 pm with maybe a 20 minute lunch break, and then continue to answer emails/messages while I sit on the couch half watching TV or playing games with my family.

At first, it was exhilarating. I was needed. I was helping. I was building my reputation. This last reason was especially nice, since at the same time, I was in my last term of my master's program for my degree in Educational Leadership, and I knew I would be throwing my name into the hat for Assistant Principal jobs in the fall. Things were exhausting, but it was a good exhausting, and it kept my mind off the isolation.

Slowly though, I started to feel...off. I could come up to my office/podcast studio and be totally fine, get on Zoom calls and be myself, do interviews for the show and be personable and engaged. But once I left this office, I felt disconnected, like my self wasn't engaging quite right with my family. I chalked it up to being exhausted and focused on work given the increased responsibility, and pushed through.

By May, it was starting to get bad. I specifically remember my birthday, May 1st, and a few of my friends put together a surprise Zoom game day. I played along, but the whole time I kept thinking, "I just want this to end so I can go back to watching TV and not talking." That is about as far from a me statement as I can imagine. At that point, I started to realize something was really wrong with me.

I started to talk to a couple of close friends and my wife about what I was feeling. It wasn't easy, and the conversations didn't always go well. It took a lot for me personally to admit out loud the problem was there, even when I had already accepted internally something was wrong. "It's just the pandemic. Everyone is struggling. You can get through this. It's not a big deal. You're just tired. Don't be so weak. Suck it up."

Even then, it struck me as funny how much of a hypocrite I was. I advocate on my show constantly for trying to overcome the stigmas that have traditionally been placed on mental health. I talk about teacher self-care, the importance of finding someone to talk to, how we, both as the field of education and the country, needs to take this stuff more seriously for teachers and students. And yet, faced with my own mental health, I followed none of my own advice for two months.

Saying "two months" probably isn't true. Looking back on my life, this wasn't the first time I had felt this way, and it also didn't start when the pandemic hit. Those are convenient false internal narratives that allowed me to ignore the problems for longer, but they aren't true.

I finally reached out to get professional help in the middle of May, and with one telehealth appointment, the doctor said confidently that I had moderate to high anxiety and depression. By the time I had the appointment, I was already 99% sure I had depression, but something about that "moderate to high" hit me. This wasn't just a down moment I was going to get over. This wasn't just being tired, being overworked, or any of the excuses I had. This was more than that.

I was prescribed antidepressants and suggested to see a therapist as well. Despite the fact that I had avoided this for my entire life, the diagnosis felt good. It was an admission of something I had denied for a very long time. Because, once I got the diagnosis, and I considered how I felt, the symptoms that made up anxiety and depression for me, I realized I had been this way before, had dealt with this before. At many times throughout my childhood during custody battles between my parents, moving to new areas, particularly stressful school experience, and in my adulthood in college, during my first marriage, and for sure throughout the divorce process.

It became clear to me the signs, and looking back, the waves, ups and downs, flowing through the timeline of my life. The rise and fall was gradual through the years, but it is definitely there. Despite the fact that I choose to believe I'm highly reflective and hyper-aware of myself, I just didn't want to see it.

I am not a fan of medication. I just really don't like needing to take a pill every day. And, honestly, when asked, I can't say for sure the medication I am taking is working. I definitely feel different, but I don't know if that is because of the medication or the other changes I've made. Or, if the medication pushed me to make those changes.

Within a week of starting the medication, I was out on a bike ride listening to Mandy Froehlich on another podcast and, as she usually does, she was talking about teacher mental health. It hit me differently this time, for obvious reasons. And, when she mentioned meditation with the Calm app, I stopped my bike at the little dock I happened to be riding past, downloaded the app, and did my first meditation. Meditation (and most of the time the bike ride) are now part of my daily practice.

A week or two later, I found another hobby: woodworking and carpentry. Honestly, not really sure where this came from, but it has become a huge part of my life. In fact, I include it in this piece of writing mainly because I just enjoy talking about it. I spent pretty much every day this summer building planter boxes, headboards, garage shelves, workbenches, and other furniture. Even started selling some, mostly to pay for all the new tools I kept buying.

So, why do I tell you all of this? First, because I think it's important to admit this. If I can't admit that I am dealing with this, I have no right to tell people that we need to overcome the negative stigma of mental health issues. I will not be a hypocrite any more.

Second, and more importantly, I know I'm not the only person that feels the way I do. Not just the anxiety and depression, but the excuses too. It is far too easy, and far too common, to avoid seeking professional help. It is far too easy to say "this is just me" or "I will be fine." And sure, most times you will eventually be fine. And maybe you don't need medication, just someone to talk to, or a new routine. But even when you think something is normal, explaining it to a professional might bring new things to light.

So please, if you are feeling off, aren't feeling yourself, or are feeling down, or worn down, consider seeking help. Most school districts include employee assistance programs that will make your first 6 or so appointments free. And, now that most are still telehealth, you don't even have to go anywhere to talk to someone. Maybe they say you're just fine, maybe they suggest you try something new, or maybe they help you work through things you didn't event realize you had weighing down on you. What I know, is it doesn't hurt to talk.

I don't like asking for help. I don't like taking medication. But, I like the me that has come out the other side of this thing.


Coming Soon - TardEase, Tardy Tracking and Consequence Management

For the last year, I have been developing a new product for helping our school handle tracking of tardy students and assigning the consequences to those students that are not making it to class on time between periods. After building the basic shell of the program on Google Sheets, I realized that it was a powerful tool that could be deployed in many schools and for a lower cost than other similar solutions on the market.

TardEase Temp LogoAnd so, TardEase was born!

TardEase is built on Google Sheets and Google Forms as a system to manage tardy sweeps. In the most common implementation, a member of the school leadership team (likely a discipline dean) installs the Google Sheets Add-On from the market. They follow the simple setup steps like inputting the school bell schedule and your student and guardian contact list. TardEase will create a Google Form to share with the members of your school team who will be performing the tardy checks and entering the ID Numbers of students who are late to class.

Each night, TardEase will run a report of students who were caught in their second or third sweep of the year or term, and processes offenses for them. By default, TardEase creates a warning letter to be sent home for any student caught in their second sweep, and a detention slip for any student caught on their third offense (with spaces for setting the date and time of the detention). A phone call list is generated for any student caught in their 4th or more tardy sweep.

Benefits of TardEase include:

  • Easy - Anyone can setup and start using TardEase for their school!
  • Affordable - Unlike similar solutions, there is no per-user or per-student cost, nor any special required hardware.
  • Secure - TardEase does not have access to your student or parent data, you own the spreadsheet that contains that information.

TardEase will be available for a free 30-day trial soon! After the 30 days, an annual subscription is only $600!

If you have any questions, suggestions, or ideas, please feel free to reply to this post, or email me at brad@bradshreffler.com.


Master's Program Paper - My Leadership Philosophy

Application Assignment

To try to articulate exactly what makes a great leader is a complicated, if not an impossible task. From my experience, the job of a leader, and especially of a principal, consists of countless priorities, fires to put out, and an endless juggling act of various stakeholders. Even with that in mind, thinking back on my previous leaders, both effective and ineffective, I believe that a few primary skills can be focused on to separate the best from the worst. An effective leader focuses on improving staff morale, modeling comfortable failure, and ensuring the leadership team is coherent.

The most important role of a principal is to ensure that the school is a community working together. Our current model is crushing our teachers. Cox, Chambers, Parmer, Jackson, Dial, Strizek, Wang, and Kaiser (2017) found that 17% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years (p. A-7). Between social pressures against Common Core Standards (CCS), Value Added Model (VAM), and contention of districts and teacher unions, the stress on teachers is almost palpable. As a principal, it is critical that we make every effort to ensure our teachers feel appreciated (Senchel, Sober, & Hope, 2016) for the hours they put into the essential work of teaching students. I spent two years at a school where the principal did not have this priority, who believed that teachers were satisfied despite what they shared with me and others on leadership. During that time, the school saw increased turnover, including veteran teachers leaving for other opportunities or retiring earlier than planned. In my current role, I work with a principal who prioritizes staff morale. Our leadership team is encouraged to thank our staff for their hard work regularly. In addition, the leadership team does staff events whenever possible, including Pancake Fridays. The first Friday of each month, a group of the leadership team cooks pancakes for the school staff. As a result of these various efforts, the staff morale has greatly increased in the school. During the previous two years, we started the year with 40 or more new teachers, filling the positions of those teachers who left voluntarily. Based on our recently received intent to return forms, we are only anticipating four teachers leaving voluntarily.

After staff morale has improved, a leader can focus on the second most important job of increasing the instructional capacity of the teachers. According to Fullen (2014), a principal can’t sustainably be the instructional leader for the staff. A great leader can model the necessary mindset to allow for innovation and experimentation in the classroom. To accomplish this, a leader must be willing to make decisions and more importantly, willing to admit when that decision was not the right one. People learn from failure, by making mistakes and not making them again. As a leader, we can be the example of comfortable failure in our schools. This is accomplished through trying new ideas, reflecting on the results, and admitting when the results are not what we hoped. When you model this for teachers, they feel more comfortable to do the same in their classroom, which in-turn makes students more comfortable to make mistakes as well. In this way, we can indirectly impact student learning.

A principal cannot be everywhere at once, and so they need to build and cultivate a team that can carry out the work of supporting teachers and their priorities. The most important part of this process, Lencioni explains (2002), is building your team up to be comfortable with conflict. At my previous school, the principal was unwilling to address members of the leadership team when they did not meet goals or complete assigned tasks. As a result, productivity of the leadership team decreased, staff stress increased, and dissatisfaction of many of the leadership team members increased. This was the biggest reason that I left that school and came to work for my current principal. He tasked the leadership team with reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and has since used that book as a basis for leading the team in tough conversations. As a result of his modeling, team members are more comfortable addressing each other when work goes uncompleted, or when team norms are not followed. The result has been increased productivity and accomplishment of goals.

My greatest strength as a leader is building trust and improving staff morale on a campus. I am well practiced at planning and launching community building activities and programs at a school. At my last school, I created a series of staff shout-outs that could be completed by anyone for anyone and encouraged the leadership team to fill them out for teachers on campus. Most teachers who received them hung them up in their classrooms on display and viewed them with pride. I also managed a monthly after school team building meetup that consisted of a random selection of teachers in order to get teachers who did not normally interact with each other to build relationships.

I am also an expert in integrating instructional technology into the classroom. I have launched Digital Curriculum at two different schools successfully. I this role, I focus specifically on dynamic Professional Development and blended learning. This maximizes the impact of the development while minimizing the time constraints on our staff. These strategies apply to all initiatives and rollouts as well.

I know that my biggest struggle as a leader will be follow-through of my ideas. I have ideas that I am confident will be successful and lead to student learning improvements, and I will often delegate parts of the tasks to others. Where I fall short is making sure that I complete the ideas to fruition and completion, not just until I lose interest or the task is forgotten. An example of this is working with my Student Tech Support students. I created an engaging project centered around Minecraft that required peer communication, use of online discussion board, and digital citizenship skills. It was to culminate in students creating a screen capture video of their creation and sharing it via social media. We ran into an issue with the screen capture software, and so the project never got completed. This is clearly an area of need of improvement for me. One way in which I will help support this weakness is in building a team of leaders around me that are empowered to call me to task when necessary. In addition, I will continue to research this specific area of leadership and use other experts leaders to provide mentorship in completing the tasks I set for myself.

 

 

References

Cox, S., Chambers, L., Parmer, R., Jackson, B., Dial, S., Strizek, G., Wang, Y., and Kaiser, A. (2017). Documentation for the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (NCES 2017-355). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Retrieved [2/9/2019] from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.

Fullan, M. (2014). The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senechal, J., Sober, T., & Hope, S. (2016). Understanding Teacher Morale (Rep.). Richmond, VA: VCU MERC Publications.


Master's Program Paper - Professional Biography

As I announced on Episode 75 of the Planning Period Podcast, I have started a Master's Program in Educational Leadership. As part of this process, I will be posting to the blog many of my completed assignments, research papers, and thoughts about class. 

This, is the first of those posts, my Professional Biography (school names have been removed for legal reasons).

Brad Shreffler is Digital Instruction Coach at a large public middle school in Central Florida. His primary job function is to assist teachers with the implementation of instructional technology in their courses as a part of the Digital One-To-One initiative. In this role, he creates interactive and participant-lead professional development based on teacher needs through a variety of differentiated sessions throughout the year, and one-on-one mentoring.

Brad began his career in education through the Alternative Certification path. He received his degree in Business Administration from the University of Central Florida. After a few years working in various business fields, he found himself called back to teaching, where he had started in college before a degree change. He became a substitute teacher and after a year was hired to teach 7th Grade English at a Title I middle school, where he spent four years. There, he was consistently at the top of the school in standardized test scores, both proficiency in student growth, and was passionate about incorporating any technology he could into his classroom.

After his fourth year, Mr. Shreffler followed his principal to a large high school where he taught 9th Grade English for a year. During that year, he was the English Department representative of the digital curriculum teacher leader group, who were tasked with helping plan for and roll out the beginning phases of the One-to-One program. He became the unofficial leader of the group of teachers, and after a few months realized that if the first year of digital implementation was going to be a success, it would require a coach dedicated to the program full-time. He approached his principal with the suggestion and they agreed to making Brad the Digital Instructional Coach.

During his three years in that roll, he took on more instructional training and mentoring responsibilities, ending his time there as Curriculum Resource Teacher, and a definite leader in the school for teacher support in all aspect.

In 2018, a different middle school principal Andrew Jackson, and Assistant Principal Nicole Mutters asked him to come to their school as the Digital Instruction Coach to help launch their one-to-one program in their first year.

Brad has dedicated himself to innovative instructional practices, supporting teachers in their practice, and reaching the needs of all students.


Students Will Never Understand Their Place

If you listen to my podcast, you've probably heard that I am going to a new school this year, and in my area, students are back on campus today.

I have been lucky enough in my 10 or so years teaching to have some wonderful students. My last group of students at the high school I was at, students I have written and tweeted about before, are the best group of young people I have ever had the pleasure and honor to teach. They have gone so far above and beyond what is required, even by a service based class like Student Tech Support, or as the lovingly call it Shreff Tech. These students have even come to help me distribute laptops to the middle school I'm at now, taking some of their last days before heading off to college to help me even more. They're great.

What I have been struck by over this time though is that they don't really understand their place in my heart (and yes, I am aware of how cheesey that line is).

I care for these students so much. I have spent every school day for the last 4 years with them, watching them grow from awkward 14 year olds, fresh faced and in a new school, into young adults, ready to make their way into the world. It makes me so sad to realize they won't walk into my class today, and yet tremendously proud they graduated and are moving on.

I love these kids like I love my own son, with the same pride and respect, awe and excitement.

And while I have spent those 4 years showing them through action and word how I feel about them, I don't think they can actually understand it. Few if any will become teachers, but I suspect that is the only way they could connect to this feeling. Even then, I struggle to imagine any of my teachers felt this way about me. I suppose some did, but it doesn't fit with my memory of school and my teachers.

Teaching is an odd job for a lot of reasons, but this might well be the top. We spend a year, or years, building relationships with our students, raising them up and supporting them, pushing them towards adulthood, only to let them go, and in most cases, never see or hear from them again. Even if you're that teacher that kids remember, without the bounds of a scheduled course, that relationship typically evaporates in the time it takes to cross a stage and grab a diploma.

There is nothing to be done about it, nothing to scream against of fight. We just have to accept that students will never understand their place in our hearts.


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