Robert Hand teaches at Mount Vernon High School. His subjects are Family and Consumer Sciences and Leadership. He is currently teaching Careers in Education - Recruiting Washington Teachers, Leadership, Nutrition, and Life After High School. Robert is the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year.
We talk with Robert about the strategies that he uses to help keep the important things as priorities in his life, and how that starts with looking at how he spends his time.
“...as educators, if we start saying... not I have don't have time for this, but it's not a priority, and then see if that changes your outlook. And if that doesn't vibe with what your priorities really are, if you say that kids and connections and relationships are all priority, but then, when it comes to making time, we don't have time, just that simple mindset switch to say, well, building connections and relationships and stuff, that's not a priority for me, other stuff is, that's going to switch, I think, really easily, the ability that we have to put the time into doing that..."
— Robert Hand
- John: Welcome to the Character Strong podcast where we have conversations on school, culture, and leadership. This is the final segment in a three part series with Robert Hand, who's the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. Are you ready? Let's get Character Strong with Robert Hand.
- John: All right. We are back with Robert Hand. It's been awesome talking with you, man, about the concept of authenticity, becoming a more authentic teacher, authentic educator, and in our last part, last conversation, there's something that really stood out to me as important that you were sharing. It was just that idea, because it always is a part of the conversation in education. It's like, do we have the time? Or I don't have the time for this, or this is one more thing.
- John: But what if whenever we said, I don't have the time, instead, we had to say, sorry, that's not a priority for me right now? I wonder what would happen if we had to respond that way and could not say that I don't have the time. Because we make time for that which is most important. Would you agree?
- Robert: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. I think that that's something that we need to say ourselves in teaching. It's something that I apply to a lot of things in life and saying that for myself in life that made a big change was for exercise. That trying to get out and actually be physical. I run stuff, and when I was younger, I was not a runner. But as an adult, I became a runner and I love it.
- Robert: Time is hard to come by to find to go out and get runs, especially in the week during the school year. And I found myself getting to the point that I was saying that, that I don't have time for this. It was affecting so much in my life, both physically and mentally. I'm better of when I exercise or get activity in. That was something that was really an epiphany for me, is that I kept saying that I don't have time, I don't have time. I have the same 24 hours in a day that everybody else does.
- Robert: I read one time somebody said, Beyonce's got the same 24 hours in a day that you do, and look what she does. Well, of course, she's famous and rich and everything. But that doesn't take away from the hard work. Beyonce's amazing and she works hard for everything that she's accomplished. But she makes time.
- Robert: And I have to make time for the things that I believe are priorities. So that was something, really, for me. And I know the Beyonce thing is kind of simple but I look up to her. For me, that was something that I just ... when I needed to get up and work out, I was like, Beyonce's working out right now, she made time for it and everything else that she has to do. I'm going to get up and go work out right now, too. I have to make it a priority. So I switched that, and it helps me a lot.
- Robert: So I think, yeah, as educators, if we start saying that, not I have don't have time for this, but it's not a priority, and then see if that changes your outlook. And if that doesn't vibe with what your priorities really are, if you say that kids and connections and relationships are all priority, but then, when it comes to making time, we don't have time, just that simple mindset switch to say, well, building connections and relationships and stuff, that's not a priority for me, other stuff is, that's going to switch, I think, really easily, the ability that we have to put the time into doing that, for sure.
- John: Well said. No, it is so true. I remember someone shared similar to me, but when you think about the people who are really good at what they do, you could take this concept. There are people out there that you watch and go, like, they are unbelievable at both the content side in what they do and being a master at their skill and their craft, whether that's being an English teacher or a science teacher or CTE, whatever it might be. But they're also really good at making connections.
- John: So you think about it, it's like, well, they don't have any more time than me. They have the same amount of time as I do. And yet, within that time, they're rocking it. It's like, okay, well, then, what does that mean for me? Well, it means am I self reflecting? Because I also think it's the authenticity of going, I give myself permission to not have this down 100% and/or be perfect. That's not the goal, either. The goal is am I reflecting? Am I learning? Am I being more intentional today than I was yesterday? And sometimes, that means authentically, in a real way, saying I need to change.
- John: Did that ever happen for you in your journey? I know like any educator, you probably have matured over your time. Do you remember that kind of moment when that realization hit where it's like, I need to make some change in what I'm doing?
- Robert: I mean, really just trying to be out there and seeing what other people are doing. That's really impactful for me. I'm surrounded by so many amazing teachers where I work and have learned and grown so much by being around and watching so many of them and what they do. And, yeah, that idea of wanting everything to be perfect, that's something that I've struggled with a lot is, if this isn't exactly the way I want it to be, if I'm not 100% ready to do this or it doesn't look the right way or it's not, then I'm going to wait until it is. And I've had to really work on letting that go and saying hey, it doesn't have to be about having everything perfect all the time and knowing exactly what I'm doing.
- Robert: I mean, I have to research stuff and have a good sense of what I'm doing and do it in a responsible way, but I have to be, sometimes, just willing to just say hey, this is something that I saw, I'm going to try it, I'm going to test it out, I'm going to learn from it and grow. And it's not going to be perfect, it may never be perfect. I mean, it probably won't be. But, if it's better today than it was yesterday, I like that you said that, because that's something that I share with my kids all the time. We always talk about, don't compare yourself to other people and what they're doing, necessarily, in a negative way. Learn from other people. But, look at your own life and yourself and, are you being better today than you were yesterday?
- Robert: It's just this constant path forward. I always talk about forward with my kids and always being thinking towards the next thing. Learn from the past, but be living for the present and the future and be moving forward.
- Robert: So, just, yeah, that idea that try something. And that goes back to the whole idea of being afraid to make mistakes. I'll try things out, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. But then, that's where the authenticity comes in and the conversations that I have with my kids is that, I'll be straight up with them and say, hey, this was something that I tried, I've never done this before. Here's why I did it. What did you guys think? And, was it good or not, and what could be better? I ask for constant feedback. That's always reflection for myself, both internal reflection, but then also, asking kids, how was this for you? What am I not doing that you need me to do?
- Robert: Just being willing to say that I don't have all the answers, but I hope I learn something new every day and try to put it into practice and to take the plunge and do it.
- John: Yeah. Well said. I think about, once again, what you're talking about is truly a how do we infuse this work into the daily fabric of our schools? Well, we role model it. And when you ask people, what do you want most for your students? Regularly, you will hear responses like you just said, which is, I want students to be able to learn from mistakes. I want students to be able to be healthy risk takers in a good way, to grow, to learn, I want them to find their purpose. And yet, if we're not willing to do it ourselves, then we're not being effective in our teaching. And that moves beyond just our content area to those life pieces, that life readiness, which really is that whole child piece. So you went to where my next question was going to be, which is ...
- John: So, feel free to go right off of it with what you were already sharing. But, how can teachers, then, how can schools infuse a culture of authenticity in their classrooms? You've already started, but is there anything else that you would add to that? How can we, then, infuse that culture of authenticity?
“...just making school a place where kids want to be. I think we always have to think about that. Is this a place where our kids want to be? I ask myself the same question every day before and after school. Would I want to be a kid in my class today? So I ask that going in, and I ask it going out. Would I have wanted to be a kid in my class today?”
— Robert Hand
- Robert: Well, I think that one thing that we have to keep in mind all the time with authenticity, both in the classroom and in our school culture entirely, is perspective. Are we looking at things from ... are we always looking at things that we're doing in our classrooms, in our schools, from the same perspective, through the same lens? Or, are we willing to be able to open up and say that there are other viewpoints, there are other perspectives, that are out there that are valuable, that need to be included in what we're doing?
- Robert: I think about teachers in Washington state and nationwide, and look at the demographic make up of what our teacher workforce looks like, and then look at the demographic of what our student population looks like. They are very different. It's actually something that I've been doing a lot of work on in a program that I teach here and that I've been involved in, our recruiting Washington teachers program and diversifying the teacher workforce. But, in Washington state, 90% of our teachers are white. Nationwide, that's about 80%. But if you look anywhere across the country, our student population, over 50% of our students ...
- Robert: And so, thinking about the fact that there is that disparity in the difference between our teachers and our student body, we have to have that lens all the time in everything that we do. So if you think about, if I'm a black student or a Latinx student, or somebody who speaks as a second language or comes from poverty or is undocumented, I might not view the lesson, the classroom, the school culture as authentic if the people that are in charge of those things are not making an effort to include my perspective or to teach things differently than they've historically or continue to be taught in our schools.
- Robert: So, I think that school culture, the key word culture, you have to think about that in a different way, also. That, we always have to have that equity lens on everything that we're doing to say is every perspective included here? Are we looking at things from different angles than we typically would? And to always, always have that lens on to say that everything I do I have to view in that way and to make sure that I'm serving every student in my class equitably.
- Robert: So I think that that, before anything else comes into play, that always has to be the first thing.
- Robert: I think beyond that, some other ways that we can infuse authenticity into culture, for one, we have to give teachers the freedom and flexibility to do these things without fear that somebody's going to come in and tell us that we can't do that. I mean, I'm doing things all the time that I'm kind of ... sometimes I have the fear or wonder that, is somebody going to come in and tell me I can't do this or I should do this? But I just ... I let that go and I say, you know, if somebody tells me no, and probably when they do, I'm going to push back. I'm going to do this because it's what makes this a good place for our kids to be.
- Robert: Nothing I do is negative, so I don't think anybody's going to tell me not to. But I know that there are school environments that are prohibitive when it comes to doing some of the things that I might suggest doing. But just making school a place where kids want to be. I think we always have to think about that. Is this a place where our kids want to be? I ask myself the same question every day before and after school. Would I want to be a kid in my class today? So I ask that going in, and I ask it going out. Would I have wanted to be a kid in my class today? And it should always be yes, and it always isn't yes because I am not a perfect teacher by any stretch of the imagination for that to be the answer for every kid.
- Robert: Some of the things that I do, both for my classroom and school, I greet every morning before class. I actually got these things that I designed and had a student make last year for me. So I wheel them out every morning. I have an umbrella on it, and I have a speaker on it and I turn on music. And I stand outside my building, rain, shine, snow, I don't care what the weather is, every day that I'm on campus with that and say hello to kids that walk by whether they're in my class or not. That's why outside the building, not just outside my door. I'm out there saying hello and I'm fist bumping kids and saying hi and playing music.
- Robert: Just that is such an energetic and positive way to start the day. And it's me being me. That's just who I am. That's ... when I'm getting ready in the morning or doing anything, I have music going and I'm energetic with it. So, why should school be any different?
- Robert: That's something that I think that we should be looking to do. Greeting and saying hello to every kid. Making sure that every kid knows that they are visible and that you know that they're there and that you know when they're not there. So if they're absent, when they come back, hey, we missed you last time. And rather than just saying, well it's their responsibility to come and check in and get the work, how about if I take them the work and say, hey. It's their responsibility to do it, and sure we want to give kids like to be able to do all of that. But they're learning that stuff right now, though. We can't assume that they already know all of that. We have to help them get there.
- Robert: Kids that come back, take them their work, talk to them about what they missed, tell them you missed having them there. When kids show up late, rather than hitting them with sarcasm, hey, glad you could join us today or glad you find the time. I mean, if I'm greeted that way, I don't want to come back. You have no idea why I was late. How about, hey, glad you're here? Come on in and joins us and make them feel welcome.
- Robert: Little things that I do, too, would be ... I probably should own stock in the Post It company because I use so many of them.
- John: I think we all wish we had stock in Post Its.
- Robert: I'm telling you, man. I really ... Post Its are a lifesaver for me. Because I'll hand them out. A lot of times when I do my greetings with kids in the morning, and they know, I'll bring Post Its around and stick them on the desk and fist bump them and say good morning, lets get ready to go today. Sometimes I have specific prompts in it. Almost never content related. It's always more connection related. Sometimes the prompt, and this one is use repeatedly, is just how are you today? And they know that when I ask them how are you today, they're going to tell me whatever they feel comfortable telling me, and they know there's one little asterisk with that that says, to write a note on there if you need me to check in with you later.
- Robert: So, sometimes kids are really rough time and right then and there isn't the time to check in, but I might say, how are you today? And then, on their Post It, they might write, I'm awful. Can you please check in with me later? And that gives me the chance, with every single kid in every class, every day, the opportunity to continue to make those connections with every one of them. And I can't tell you how many conversations and relationships have come out of those Post It note questions that wouldn't have otherwise happened because that kid wouldn't have said anything unless they were asked.
- Robert: Right so doing that and then, just keeping journals. I do journals with kids. And that's another way to just have a constant connection and to check in with kids.
- Robert: And then, I think the last thing is be more willing to listen than you are to speak. As teachers, that's hard. For me, that's hard. Because I talk a lot. But I need to be willing to listen, though, and to listen to hear, not to respond. I think that's the key.
- John: Yeah. Well said. What great ... so many practical strategies there, things that I could be considering, implementing as an educator to work on being more authentic, to creating a culture of authenticity. Grateful for you, my friend. Thank you for your authenticity and sharing with us. Thank you for representing teachers across Washington state, and beyond, in the work that you're doing this year and all the work that you've done leading up to that, that has given you that recognition, that platform, and that influence.
- John: So, I just want to say thank you and appreciate the conversation. I look forward to our continued conversations and partnership and work. And thank you for the real talk today and for the ongoing conversation, my friend. Look forward to the next time we get to talk to each other.
- Robert: Yeah, thanks a lot, John. I appreciate it.
- John: You bet. Take care.
- John: Thank you for listening to the Character Strong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.