We can’t give them normal, but we can give them resilience. By Jen Bremser, PhD

I’m writing an overdue blog post for a book project that I am behind on. I’m not sure if there will be another post to follow after this. Or a book. This was supposed to be the summer that I gleefully dropped my children off at the Q-Club, the raved about but still affordable, ½ day recreation camp in our town.  Both kids were finally old enough to participate! I envisioned sitting in my new office (with a window!), typing away for 3 uninterrupted hours a day. This is something I have never had in my academic career. I wrote my dissertation as a brand new mom, sleep deprived and on a strict pumping schedule every 3-4 hours for the first 10 months of her life. I worked between her broken sleep on weekends and evenings. I even pulled an all nighter in a hotel room as the deadline approached. Just me, piles of articles, data and my pump. IMG_3671

In the first few years of my career, my time was spent getting excellent reviews from students, department chairs and peer-review committees so I could get promoted. I published bits of my dissertation and began new projects, but only in the minutes I stole from other activities. The year my son was born, I perfected my job materials to apply for a job that would bring me closer to home. 

I hit the academic jackpot and landed that job in my hometown. My teaching and service load was more manageable and the research expectations were higher. This would certainly free-up the time I needed to spend more time on research and writing. Or so I thought. 

A month into this job I found a lump in my breast. I was 34, had breastfed both children and was otherwise healthy. The lump was most certainly nothing, but I got it checked out just in case. The lump was cancer and I needed a year of treatment. Well, maybe during all the downtime and travel time (I drove 4 hours for infusions), I could write. It turned out that those trips were riddled with too much anxiety on the way there and feelings of nausea on the way home. And the downtime? That never came with a 1 and a 4 year old at home. I worked and parented full-time through that year of treatment.

I picked up side research projects with collaborators in my field, and earned tenure within the expedited clock I had negotiated for. I let myself breathe for a summer. Then I turned to community service projects and a side gig as an adjunct professor.

Now we are in the beginning of a pandemic. My kids came home in March as did thousands of others. Camps were cancelled. Sports were cancelled. I was resentful, tired, filled with guilt and anxious for the future. My kids were lonely, sad, and didn’t find me to be a particularly good or patient teacher. 

My previous feelings with cancer returned. The uncertainty was familiar. But more potent was the longing for things to go back to normal. When I was first diagnosed, we took my kids out to breakfast. I remember peaking into other people’s lives at the restaurant. They all looked incredibly normal. That normalcy was a stark contrast to the fear and desperation I was experiencing. “Things aren’t going back to normal for me,” I thought. And they don’t. It is sad. It is unfair. It is frustrating, but it is true. I couldn’t give my kids normal, but I could give them resilience. 

That is the parallel I see with our current situation. We have kids feeling anxious and uncertain and more than anything we want to take away those unbearable feelings and provide them some normalcy–maybe it’s some ice cream, some time with friends, some baseball. We are all well-intentioned parents doing our best for our kids. 

However, there is no going back to “normal.” You can grieve, you can feel angry, but we are not going back. 

This is what we can do–we can teach our kids resilience. We can be examples of what to do when things go wrong. We can teach them how to create solutions to their problems. We can sit with them while they learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. We can help them express these feelings, teach them gratitude and the importance of helping others. We don’t have to do this perfectly. Just because we didn’t get it right today, or all of last week, doesn’t mean we can’t teach our kids how to be resilient. Part of this is being honest with them as we struggle together to navigate this new terrain. The good thing about this resilience is that it is built into our species. We are wired to respond to environmental challenges. Without these challenges we fail to develop to our fullest potential.

Arguably, the desire to bring back “normal’ for our kids resembles a type of coddling that researchers suggest has already backfired. We can’t usher them away from conflict, difficult feelings, people that disagree with their opinion, or plans that can’t come to fruition for one reason or another. When we do, we send them into the world ill-prepared to deal with the challenges they are bound to encounter as they grow. We are seeing increasing rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers and young adults. A pandemic could only make things worse, right?

Maybe not. Maybe through some forced solitude and the cracks in our routines, we can learn to navigate this uncharted territory with them. Just like my experience with cancer–it was traumatic, life altering and difficult. But it taught me how to keep moving forward even when we couldn’t go back to normal. And frankly, I no longer want to.


About the Author: Dr. Jen Bremser is An Associate Professor of Psychology for SUNY Plattsburgh.


Poverty, Student Learning, and Coronavirus

It seems eons ago when I presented a session in early March on Poverty and the Brain to 200 P-12 educators at a small city school district in Upstate New York. The district had a relatively high economically-disadvantaged student population of 46%, and a students with disability population of 21%. My presentation focused on two questions: 1) How does poverty impact student learning?, and 2) What are the instructional implications for students from poverty? Reflecting back with a full blown pandemic now underway, it is heartbreaking to imagine how our most needy students and families will emerge when “normalcy” returns. Fractured is one way to envision the impacts. Fractured in spirit. Fractured in body. Fractured in mind. Poverty takes a terrible toll on student learning, particularly during periods of self-isolation.fractured-ice

Early in the session I asked the group to individually, and then with a partner, consider how poverty impacts student learning. We followed that with a whole group conversation. The same was done for instructional implications. Notes were recorded (see below)

The educators understood first hand poverty’s impacts. But what about now in the Covid-19 pandemic world? What impacts have been exacerbated through stay at home measures, including online learning, to reduce the spread and “flatten the curve”?  I  circled items as ones we all should find especially concerning at this time. How can children learn when their basic needs for shelter, food,….are not being met, or where the home environment lacks structure, putting students in a self-preservation mode and lacking any motivation for learning? 

The teachers’ thoughts on instructional implications for children with poverty were rightfully focused on classroom environment and relationships, now made more pressing with children at home, away from classmates and teachers. Some of our most needy students are in home environments stressed by financial worries, joblessness, and lack of food. Building community and loving those students is a challenge when interactions are virtual, assuming our most needy even have the necessary technology and broadband for face to face virtual communications. And of course, the consistency and structure implications are completely out the window. The pandemic we find ourselves is real, and smart teachers will use the current times to bring relevance into their lessons. And yes, there will be some advocation for our students, but not what could exist back in school.

These are trying times for society, particularly for those on the front lines (health workers, public safety personnel, grocers, farmers….). For those in education, we must be particularly mindful for the most at-risk students and families who will surely exit self containment at a greater disadvantage than when entered. 

Change: Why so Difficult??

Are you a change agent, or does the whole notion of change create a feeling of unease? Perhaps you are in the middle, open to change, but experiencing a bit of initiation fatigue. Change is a complex, obligatory process for progress, yet frequently met with resistance and fear. Why? In the words of Karen Salmansohn, “What if I told you that 10 years from now, your life would be exactly the same? I doubt you’d be happy. So why are you so afraid of change?” I’m with Karen on this one. Let’s not be afraid of change.

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I recently had the pleasure of doing a workshop on change with a group of school administrators participating in an Administrative Leadership Development Series sponsored by SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury’s Educational Leadership Program and WSWHE BOCES. I began with a think-pair share around these questions: What makes change so difficult? Think of a change project that worked, and how/why it worked. Think of a change project that didn’t work, and how/why it didn’t. We followed our discussions with some conversation around my favorite change models (Fullan, NASSP’s Breaking Ranks, Kotter, and Scharmer).

Fear, loss of autonomy, history of failed change efforts, being comfortable with present conditions, an implication of doing something wrong, and a lack of leadership were identified for why change was so difficult.

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For specific change projects that worked, efforts were research-based, had a sense of urgency with strong and passionate leadership, clearly-defined goals (“begin with the end in mind”), adequate resources, and data to monitor and adjust efforts. Change efforts that didn’t work had no buy-in, were inconsistent, tried to do too much too fast, or were burdened by an unhealthy school culture, lack of goals, and inadequate resources.

The administrators clearly had experience with change efforts, both good and bad. Change is not nuclear science, but it can sure be messy and painful. In many ways, change is an emotional rollercoaster with oneself and others that requires resilience, vulnerability, and courage.

Here are some change models to consider when seeking to bring about change (Click here to check out my post on Climate Change and Kotter’s 8 Steps).

Fullan’s Eight Lessons (From Fullan’s Change Forces)

  1. You can’t mandate what matters – The more complex the change the less you can force it
  2. Change is a journey not a blueprint – Change is non-linear, loaded with uncertainty and excitement and sometimes perverse
  3. Problems are our friends – Problems are inevitable and you can’t learn without them
  4. Vision and strategic planning come later – Premature visions and planning blind
  5. Individualism and collectivism must have equal power – There are no one-sided solutions to isolation and group think
  6. Neither centralization nor decentralization works – Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary
  7. Connection with the wider environment is critical for success – The best organizations learn externally as well as internally
  8. Every person is a change agent – Change is too important to leave to the experts, personal mindset and mastery is the ultimate protection

Breaking Ranks (National Association of Secondary School Principals)

Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model (2002)

  1. Increase urgency
  2. Build the guiding team
  3. Get the vision right
  4. Communicate for buy- in
  5. Empower action
  6. Create short-term wins
  7. Don’t let up
  8. Make change stick

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (2002)

We all have blind spots from which we function, and four levels for how we respond to change: reacting, redesigning, reframing, and presencing. Most systems remain at stage one and two, fewer get to level three, and level four is a special area where leaders and followers together reach their highest potential (p. 52). To get to presencing requires an open mind, heart, and will of all participants . Presencing exists when individuals go beyond their source of awareness or blind spot to one of possibility; where the future and present merge to act on “one’s highest future potential” (Scharmer, 2009, p. 8).

Whether we’re looking at Fullan, Kotter, Breaking Ranks, Scharmer, or other change models, entropy is at play and change happens, so go out and proactively address what needs changing. Good luck.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. New York. The Falmer Press.

Kotter, J. P., & Cohen, D. S. (2012). The heart of change: real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press.

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges : the social technology of presencing. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

The (New) Teacher Recommendation Letter

One of my greatest joys is teaching graduate students in our Masters of Science in Teaching (MST) Program. Preparing future educators for the classroom is an honor and responsibility not to be taken lightly. Master Course Outlines and associated course syllabi define a program’s merits, and the very best offer a well-rounded student experience grounded in curriculum, instruction, and assessment (In my unbiased opinion, SUNY Plattsburgh’s Education Programs are exceptional). The tricky part I have found is writing letters of recommendation for students finishing their student teaching and preparing to find a job. What should one look for when writing these critical letters, and how best to convey one’s enthusiasm for particular students who have the makings of greatness? It is not an easy task writing recommendation letters for individuals without the track record of practicing educators, but there are some student dispositions, skills and understandings I believe tie to future performance.

Grades matter, certainly, but there are other, sometimes more important, measures to consider. The lens I start with is what I want for my daughter’s teachers. Compassionate, patient, dedicated, fun-loving, witty, smart, persistent, confident, unique and innovative, communicative, open-minded, and well-respected, are measures found in the very best educators–and these are measures I can evaluate in the graduate MST classroom. In other words, what I’m looking for in a future educator are habits of mind that lead to success. How do my students interact with one another? Are they collaborators, or prefer to do their work separate from others? Do they have fun in class, and enjoy each other’s company? Are they innovative, tech-savvy, confident and humble? Are failures or challenges seen as opportunities, and do they persist? What type of mindset do they hold, growth or fixed? And why did they choose education? So many things to consider.

It takes but a few years classroom experience for the “newbies” to separate themselves from others, becoming the teachers children adore, parents want for their kids, and principals protect and mold. Such educators develop into the informal or formal teacher leaders within the school, and embrace their work for what it is: shaping and molding young minds to become productive, mindful, knowledgeable, and able members of a democratic society. And that is why the letter of recommendation for graduate MST students is so important to get right.

Academically Optimistic? If Not, Why Not?

Optimism matters, particularly in schools.


As it pertains to schools, what exactly does it mean to be “academically optimistic,” and do we have a choice whether a school is academically optimistic or pessimistic? How do student socioeconomics enter into the equation, and is it true when it comes to student achievement the proverbial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? What about the rigors of school reform, Race to the Top, Common Core Learning Standards, and fragile school budgets? Why is there such variation in how teachers, administrators and school staff respond to these trying and unsettled times? Well, much can be attributed to the school environment–an environment greatly shaped by the building principal and a small cadre of teacher leaders.

Hoy, Tarter, and Hoy (2006) coined the term “Academic Optimism” to describe those schools that exude academic emphasis, efficacy, and trust within the halls, classrooms, and very fabric of their being. Such schools are…

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Cultivating Gratitude in the Classroom

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”-Anonymous.

I’ve made a few lifestyle changes over the past year, including daily meditation using an app I found on the Internet. Frequently, a meditation will encourage the listener to focus on his or her blessings, rather than misfortunes. I must admit feeling better and more optimistic following such meditations, which made me wonder: Does teaching gratitude have a place in today’s schools? Could daily gratitude exercises change students’ brains, making them more resilient and positive? Might grateful students be less anxious than others?  I did the research, and the answers are “Yes!, Yes!, and Yes!!”.IMG_1125.jpeg

Teaching gratitude has a place in the classroom. In fact, daily gratitude exercises should be part and parcel of the P-12 curriculum. Research shows gratitude changes the brain in positive ways, and makes people happier. In a 2017 Berkeley study by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, individuals directed to write weekly gratitude letters, whether sent or not, had improved mental well-being versus those not directed to write letters. Gratitude activates the medial prefrontal cortex, increases dopamine levels, and yes, decreases stress and anxiety levels.

The human experience is such that we will forever deal with negativity bias, with discomforting experiences being more sticky than positive ones. However, educators can change students’ mindsets. We can help students feel more happy, more satisfied with themselves and others, and more willing to see challenges as opportunities rather than unfair burdens. So, yes, practice gratitude in the classroom. Write letters of thanks to others. Do daily gratitude dumps, solo, or in pairs, to start or end the day.  And see the glow that develops as gratitude takes root in your classroom.

ps. If there are ways you practice gratitude in the classroom, please share.



Are Students Excited About School?

Dear Reader, I have a confession to make: I disliked high school. A lot. A real lot. In fact, I disliked it so much I stopped going my senior year. Eventually my truancy caught up with me, and to graduate, I had to run laps in PE class, one for each day I “cut” school. It took three weeks of running before I erased the days skipped. I was marathon-ready after that experience. Perhaps you, too, disliked school? For me, it was my inattentiveness, what we’d term today as ADHD, and common family stressors. Regardless, high school was a boring, tedious experience for me and many of my friends. Are things different today?

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Data from a Pew Research report on social trends  (2018) suggests things may not be too different. For 920 teens, ages 13-17, who responded to an AmeriSpeak survey which informed the report, students’ excitement for what they studied at school was less than 50%. Girls (33%) more regularly got excited about something they learned at school than boys (21%), partly explaining why 33% of boys say they never get in daily trouble at school versus 48% for girls. Reasons for the numbers are varied, and speak to the many challenges of our complex, digital world confounded by a divided nation. What’s an educator to do given these data?

My suggestion is to practice the Three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Balancing rigor with students’ abilities is a fine dance, akin to the Goldilocks phenomena. Content can’t be too easy lest one lose student’s interest, nor too hard, sparking student anxiety and disengagement. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development captures this idea in a more scientific manner. Relevance, the second “R”, is what excites me as a former curriculum director. Taking learning standards and developing lessons and units that both match standards and motivate students is a true creativity thrill. We all know students get excited when they are doing work that interests them. Relationships, the third “R”, is honoring what drives our species. We are social beings, and thrive working in concert with others. Problem solving, debating, strategizing, celebrating, etc…are things humans like doing with one another. Let’s honor our brain’s hard-wiring for challenging, relevant work that involves others by practicing the Three R’s: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Let’s get kids excited about school. We can do this.

Brain Candy in the Classroom

Motivating and keeping students on task is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, particularly in today’s stimulus-rich tech environment. It’s not easy competing with smartphones, tablets, or computers as social media sites such as instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc… light up screens, tapping directly into the brain’s reward pathway.   “Likes”, right swipes, and new emojis give us a sense of satisfaction as these rewarding stimuli trigger the release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine make it true candy for the brain.

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Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards humans for behavior necessary for survival.  Food, sex, listening to a favorite song, or accomplishing one’s goals all trigger dopamine release and teach the brain that such behaviors are good for the individual and worth repeating. Dopamine is often cited with addictions, and so it goes with such a powerful neurotransmitter.  Good or bad, the brain and body respond to dopamine.

Savvy teachers learn early designing lessons which allow frequent student success are more motivational than those with few success opportunities, and the neuroscience behind dopamine explains why such designs work. Each small success towards well-defined goals triggers a dopamine release, rewarding and motivating the student to continue their efforts. Long term projects such as papers, presentations, or other authentic projects are best designed to include measurable and achievable goals and benchmarks that motivate students through project completion. Remember that each small success rewards the student with a little dopamine rush; and that is better than any candy bowl.


Kovalik’s Bodybrain-Compatible Elements of Teaching

Twenty years ago I travelled to Kingman, Arizona to attend a summer institute on Highly Effective Teaching delivered by a true pioneer of brain-based teaching, Susan Kovalik.  WOW! would be an understatement for what I experienced in those five short, hot summer days. I had attended Susan’s full-day session on the topic at a National Staff Development Council conference (now Learning Forward) a year earlier, and was intrigued and eager to learn more about applying brain research principles to curriculum development and instruction. Five days at her summer institute was just right to see how such principles looked in the classroom, and transformed how I would later work with teachers and school administrators.screen-shot-2015-04-14-at-9-01-22-am

I recently learned while googling Susan Kovalik that she had “retired” for, in her words, the “fifth and final time”. She will be missed, but her remarkable work will live on. “Intelligence is a measure of experience” is one of my favorite Susan Kovalik quotes, and I faithfully identify her ten Bodybrain-Compatible Elements of Curriculum Development and Instruction when working with educators as they are truly foundational for good teaching.

Next generation standards may evolve from previous generations, as will Charlotte Danielson’s enduring Frameworks, but good curriculum and instruction take whatever standards exist and make them work for students. In Susan Kovalik’s model, the foundational Bodybrain Compatible Elements are as follows:

  • Absence of Threat and Nurturing Reflective Thinking
  • Meaningful Content
  • Being There Experiences
  • Enriched Environment
  • Adequate Time
  • Immediate Feedback
  • Movement to Enhance Learning
  • Choices
  • Collaboration
  • Mastery/Application

One could spend a semester processing and applying the elements to one’s craft, and another semester exploring the brain research supporting them.  Suffice it to say the Bodybrain Compatible Elements work.  They engage and excite students, strengthen neural pathways, develop students’ sense of self-efficacy, de-stress the classroom, and create the optimum learning environment.  Standards will come and go with our changing society, but the foundations for curriculum development and learning are brain-based and ageless. Thank you Susan Kovalik.


De-Stressing the Classroom

Stress is a fear of the unknown, and whether we like it or not, part of the human experience. Stress is our response to a perceived threat, and can be either good and bad, depending on how prepared we feel to tackle the threat.  Good stress readies students for performing at a high level, be it taking a test, giving an oral presentation, or working with others on a complex problem. Good stress is temporary, and alleviated through resolution of the perceived threat. Bad stress is another story, and unlike good stress, is chronic and contagious.  Bad stress lingers, eliciting anxiety and other undesirable outcomes. 

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Rational or not, a fear of the unknown can debilitate students, rendering some as learner helpless.  So what can we as educators do to reduce the “unknowns” in our classes, and lower stress levels for our students? It’s really quite simple.  Make the “unknowns” known through rubrics, essential questions, daily agendas, formative assessments, prompt feedback, affirmations, demonstrations, sharing of exemplars, etc… Clearly communicate one’s expectations, and give students ample opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings.  Offer retakes on exams, extra credit for extra work, one on one time….  

People often do their best work when deadlines loom, and we can thank stress for that. However, people can also do their worst work when deadlines loom and they have no clue for what is expected of them.  How did we manage our first years of teaching?  Our first classroom observation?  Our certification exams? We managed by preparing ourselves for the unexpected, and so it goes for students.  It’s our role as educators to remove the uncertainties in our instruction and de-stress our classrooms. To clearly communicate our expectations to students and allow them to see failure as part of the growth process. To add levity and lightness to our classrooms through humor and play. We won’t eradicate stress in the world, but we can certainly make it manageable for our students in our classrooms.