It’s Not the Critic Who Counts

My Ignite Talk — Before, During and After

A couple of months ago, I received an email from Brian Aspinall inviting me to do an Ignite Talk with Fair Chance Learning as part of an evening activity tied to an EdTech conference in Niagara Falls. An Ignite Talk has parameters around it. The presenter has 5 minutes, 20 slides and 15 seconds per slide to share an idea. The prompt for the talk was to talk about something you are passionate about in education

There were about 15 speakers from across Ontario (two amazing educators from my board, Jennifer Giffen and Joanna Bull) who were invited because we are all making a positive difference in education because of our passion, convictions and commitment to what we believe is important in education.

When I was invited, I didn’t hesitate. The first idea, and the one that I stuck with me, was EMPATHY. I struggled at first knowing the constraints the Ingnite talk has and at the advice of a colleague, Jennifer, who was also doing aIso doing an Ignite talk, I wrote it out first and then added photos and my artwork to the slides to compliment the story.

Here is my talk:

All I wanted growing up was to be seen. I don’t know if this was a function of being the middle of five children, being the one who struggled most in school in comparison to my brilliant siblings, or the fact that I just felt invisible a lot of the time.I have distinct memories of speaking and no one acknowledging that I actually said something. To this day, my worst nightmares have me screaming and yet, no sound comes out. This feeling of invisibility happened to me at home, with friends, and in groups at school. I remember being obsessed with characters like Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, Polkaroo on Polka-dot-door who only came out on Imagination Day and my personal favourite, Winnie-the-Pooh because all of them were part of someone’s imagination.
Not everyone could see these characters. It helped me to understand that somehow, only being visible to a few select people, made them special. This realization made me feel less alone in the crowd of people I was surrounded by. When I was a little girl, my older brother used to tell me that my whole life was a dream and that my real name was Billy Snot. Being a trusting (read gullible) person, I became unsure of what was real and what was imagined. I now see it as an early lesson in postmodernism… When I think back, it wasn’t anything anyone did or said to me that made me feel this way. I think it had much more to do with the internal world of my imagination and the fact that I was certain that I was profoundly different from anyone else around me.
I could talk to the birds and they understood me. I could see the spirits in trees. I felt like babies always looked at me and to be honest, they still do. There was something that some could see in me but seemed to evade almost everyone else. When my daughter, Rachel, was in first grade, the first year our children get a “real” evaluation, the comment on her report card said, “Rachel is a quiet well-behaved little girl.”…It infuriated me. I gave myself a few days before requesting an interview with her teacher knowing that I had to carefully think through my response. I wanted to be a partner with the teacher, not antagonistic. I went to see her teacher and I told him that Rachel was anything but quiet. She spoke clearly at age one and was an entertainer from birth.
I suggested to him that the reason she was so quiet was that she likely was not feeling safe in his classroom. I suggested that if he would be willing to be silly with her and make her laugh he would see who she really was. It worked beautifully. Now, almost finished high school, my daughter is a drama major at a Toronto school. She is a successful, active learner and although she still struggles with trusting people with who she truly is, she has chosen a path that challenges her to always be true to her nature. So what is this desire to be seen? It is a desire for connection, understanding, and empathy. Brené Brown tells us that empathy is the antidote to shame. She reminds us that we are all imperfect but still worth of love and belonging.
In the 2009 film, Avatar, the expression, “I see you” is a deeper expression than love, it means, “when you see me you bring me into existence.” Much like the word, Namaste, it is not just about a greeting to say hello but in fact a greeting that acknowledges that the divine spark in me sees and recognizes the divine spark in you. Think about that for a moment. Imagine what that would be like if each time we greeted a person, the students in our classrooms, the parents at our office door, the staff who report to us and our colleagues that we actually saw them, greeted them through our shared belief that we carry within us, a divine spark.
How different would our classrooms, our schools, our teams, our interactions with parents, our families, our workplaces and truly every relationship we have, be if this was the case? My son, Max, pointed out to me that it is no coincidence that kids disengage from school when they move to a rotary system. He tells me that after grade six none of his teachers have really known him. He says that’s why middle schools and high schools need guidance counsellors… because they know, connect and see the kids. As an educator, I have always tried to act from this place of empathy. I try to understand the struggle someone experiences and see them, truly see them, despite the fog that may surround them.
Whether it is my commitment as an equity educator and ally, my belief that technology plays a vital role creating spaces of possibility for voice and community, or the understanding I meet an upset parent with in my office, it is always empathy that drives those spaces, relationships and opportunities. Empathy is not a new or innovative idea, though it is an essential element in design thinking and innovation in general. When we act from a place of empathy in the service of those in our care and circle of influence, we change the trajectory of education as one that is responsive, inviting and inclusive.

I stepped off the stage and saw my friends and colleagues smiling at me, commending me for my work, showing love and support and everything one would hope for in a work environment. I thanked Kim for filming it and I put my cue cards down, got my wallet and decided to have a glass of wine. Before I could pay, a friend and colleague, spicylearning (Royan Lee) was there with his credit card and a hug and got me my glass of wine. He had coached me and encouraged me to go this route and to apply to other opportunities like this one. My friend, Paulla, was there, front and centre, to give me the warmest smile you could ever imagine. Janani was there to cheer us all on even though she had hours of work ahead of her that night. And my friend, Rick, was there, as he always is, to say a kind word, encourage me and to pat me on the back.

I took some time to calm down after the talk and enjoy the amazing insights, talent and passion from the educators who shared of themselves that evening. About halfway into the evening, spicylearning comes over to me and says that I have to come talk to these teachers who drove to Niagara just for the event after work and are going to drive back right after and that apparently, they are all avid readers of my blog. I was completely overwhelmed. They all wanted to take pictures with me. I know that sounds weird to say but it is true and this is not the first time this has happened to me since I started sharing my thinking and art online. I started to back away a bit saying my usual, “It’s just me! Don’t be silly! Oh my goodness, I don’t know what to say!” and spicylearning learning whispers in my ear and says, “Embrace it.” So I did. I had the best time listening to them. They told me about their teaching, their school, their children, even which blogs of mine they loved and which ones brought them to tears. One of the teachers even started crying when she shared the impact my work had had on her.

It was such a great night!

This morning I received a text from a new friend, Chris, asking me how I felt the moment I got off the stage and the only thing that came to mind was this…

Chris also took the time to listen to my talk ahead of time and offer me feedback as did another friend Will Gourley. I am truly the luckiest person in the world. I have colleagues that give of their time freely just for the sheer joy of seeing another person succeed and to enjoy the learning we do together.

Then, I came home. I wanted my husband, Jeff, to see the talk so I shared the link to the video that Kim Pollishuke recorded (Thanks Kim!). He noticed near the end of the talk that a comment came up. The comments only seem to come up when you watch it on a phone and I had watched it on my computer. I hadn’t seen the words… “Her feet look swollen.”

The thing is, I tried on 4 outfits for the night. I am not afraid to speak in public. I am not worried my message isn’t important. What I worry about, all the time, is “do I look okay?”

Can you imagine?

My husband, ever the protective partner says, “You should contact that guy. Why would someone be so cruel.”

Immediately, I start to feel that choking feeling I get when I feel ashamed. It literally comes up to my throat and I feel it tighten and my head starts to sink and I feel complete and utter shame.

Then, I checked his profile and I was not surprised by what I saw.

One follower.

No tweets.

A description that certainly lacks in tact.

And I say to Jeff, “It’s okay. My feet were swollen. I had walked over 14000 steps that day in high heels. It was my second presentation of the day. It was 30 degrees celsius outside and the humidity was through the roof.” And then my next thought was, “It’s not the critic who counts…” and once again I am reminded of Brené. I share her video with Jeff where she tells her story of the moment her life shifted after receiving so many hurtful comments while at the same time, having a TED talk that went viral and she says three things she learns in that moment:

If you want to go right to the part of the talk I am referring to go to 03:46 but I recommend you watch the whole thing. It doesn’t matter how many times I read or watch Brené. Each time, I learn something new and have deeper insights.
1. Vulnerability is not about winning and not about losing. It is about showing up and being seen.
2. This is who I want to be. I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. If you are going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee and that is, you will get your ass kicked…if you are going to go in the arena and create, you will get your ass kicked. So you have to decide, in that moment, if courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence.
3. If you’re not in the arena, also not getting your ass kicked, then I am not interested in your feedback…if you’re in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line and just talking about how I can do it better, I am in no way interested in your feedback.So I have decided to focus on the love that surrounds me, the encouragement of my colleagues, friends and family, and the three golden rules from Brené.

Don’t look at my feet. Don’t look at my body. Don’t decide that the most important thing about what I did yesterday is the imperfection of how my body works after surviving a life threatening surgery and illness and lifetime of body image struggle and shame.

Instead, listen to my words. Know the effort it takes to stand up and be seen, to create, and to see that what I share with you is my heart, in the hopes that my words will somehow, even in the smallest way, transform the world.

My feet have nothing to do with it.

What matters most is empathy…for the person on the stage, the students in our classrooms, the parents advocating for their children, for every person you meet and interact with every day. It’s not the critic who counts.

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