From Checking to Connecting

I was walking the halls of the middle school today and ran into three former students from my elementary principal days. I cannot express enough just how much I enjoy seeing former students.

It’s almost always the same when I see them. They say my name and come running closer to me and then they stop with their hands folded in front of them and a smile on their face, and they wait.

If this has happened to you, you know what they are waiting for.

They are waiting for you to show excitement over seeing them. They are waiting for you to make them feel important.

I understand the assignment, and I’m entertained every time.

In this case, the three girls who remain friends today were standing in a circle with me. We shared a group hug and laughed. I asked them a couple of questions about things that I remembered about them or their families. They asked me if I had been back to our elementary school and exchanged a fun dialogue about reasons they had been back themselves. It was really sweet.

Of course, I had to throw in, “I just can’t believe you’re in middle school now!” I officially sound like the older people in my life from when I was a kid. I was also amazed that in our big middle school, the three of them ended up on the same instructional team and in the same math class. They seemed really happy and excited about that too.

I don’t think running into former students will ever get old. . Having them stand quietly in front of me, smiling, waiting for me to show my adoration. It’s incredibly endearing and heartwarming.

Even as adults, there is still a part of us that remains that kid. We don’t show it in the same ways, but I think in the end, we are all kids deep down who want to feel appreciated, enjoyed, and important. Perhaps this is why some therapists call it “inner child work” where you acknowledge that part of yourself. Often, at the core of many of our emotions, you can find something from our childhood. Perhaps a need that wasn’t met. It is our responsibility as adults to understand where our emotions are coming from and to do the work of being OK. The work of being more than OK because we deserve it, and our students do too.

I’m really glad that I wasn’t buried in my phone when I ran into those middle schoolers. Technology is incredible and can wonderful things as far as connecting people with each other, new ideas, new learning, and expedited ways of working. I do, however, believe that too much of a good thing can make us sick. Too many Reese Cups are fun in the moment and regretful later. Too much time on Instagram is fun in the moment but often leaves me feel unsatisfied. Too much time on the computer can leave us feeling productive but disconnected. “Too much” is relative and looks different for different people.

In my upcoming book, I talk about how there are certain things in our work that will have to matter less, so we can make room for what matters more. I’ve felt myself at various times become a perpetual email checker. Checking and responding to emails could be a full-time job alone. However, if we spend the majority of our time at work on emails, we are missing out on the real work of connecting with and learning alongside others in our schools. Yes, let’s check our emails, but let’s check emails and respond to them at set times in the day. Maybe it’s different for others, but I figure that if someone really needs to reach me right away, it won’t be through an email.

What’s really fun is to lose myself in the moments at work…to enjoy the people and the conversation and the work so much, that I forget about my phone unless I’m using it for the work, of course. I try to create opportunities in professional learning and meetings where we stand and talk to each other versus sitting. It’s harder to reach for your phone when you are standing or walking with your group and looking at something together.

Here are some things that I find interesting about taking time away from our technology:

1.When you’ve had time to miss things on your phone, it’s a little exciting to come back to it.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, ha. When I’ve been away from my phone for awhile, it’s fun to see what memes are waiting for me and what little updates I’ve missed. Sometimes, it’s a little scary too, but it’s nice to take a break and then come back to it.

2. If we spend all of our time on our phones and our emails, we may send the message that we have nothing better to do than to respond to people quickly.

It might be a little weird to name that, but it’s true. If you are always responding to emails right away, then you are giving the impression to others that this is when they can expect to hear back from you. If taking 24 hours to respond on a business day feels stressful for you, perhaps you could send an auto-reply to people that let’s them know when they can expect to hear back from you. If I was a parent receiving an email reply from teachers during the school day that said they were busy enjoying and learning with their students, but they would get back to me by _________, I would find that heartwarming. It’s a nice example of kind boundaries and priorities.

3. When we take time away from our phones, we remember that there is more to us and our lives than what happens online.

“Some say” that our phones are becoming part of our sense of self. And that whether we realize it or not, for many of us, especially those of us who have grown up with this technology, we subconsciously do not think of ourselves as separate from our phones. In essence, phones are an extension of us. While this may be true, I’m finding that I personally feel more alive and connected with who I want to be when I’m being fully present in the moment. Whether it’s a long dinner with close friends or playing with students at recess, I feel the most alive and at peace in the moments when I choose to fully engage with that which is around me versus that which is in my phone.

I remember so many names of former students from my time as an elementary principal. I’m not sharing that to brag. I’m sharing it because it has made me curious about why it’s true. I think it’s true because of all the time I spent talking to students in the lunch room, greeting students when they arrived at school, playing with them at recess. In all of these moments, I wasn’t impacting students and staff with an email or a post on social media. I was impacting them because I allowed them to impact me. I gave them my full attention.

Our students and colleagues deserve our full attention. Whether we show it or not, at the end of the day, we are all former students, standing in front of an educator, smiling, waiting to be recognized and celebrated. People deserve our attention.

We deserve our attention too. It’s not about villainizing technology. It’s about embracing what it can do while also taking ownership over how we use it.

The world will continue to change but one thing will remain: the need for human connection. So, while we learn about all of the amazing things our technology can do to make life more convenient or the ways it can help us tell stories, let’s not forget the power of stories told around campfires. Let’s not forget the power of seeing and listening to other people during in-person conversations and classroom lessons. That cannot be replaced.

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