Stop Focusing On The Empty Seats

The past few weeks, I’ve watched educator after educator nearly tear their hair out as they host video conferences with 20% attendance. They spend precious hours brainstorming, crafting, and transforming lessons into digital content. They are putting in more hours than a “normal” teaching week, and pushing themselves to learn new platforms like Kami, Kahoot! and Quizlet. They are fighting hard to find the quiet time and space (amidst other family members and children taking other classes of their own) in order to continue to show up for their students. They have a LOT of themselves invested in their weekly lessons.

Understandably, they then feel extremely bummed out when only a handful of their pupils pop in for the show. They get on Facebook teacher groups and gripe about the lack of students present, complain that only a handful of them are turning in work, and make assumptions about the students themselves.

That mindset? It’s worthless.

Stop focusing on the empty seats. Funneling your brilliant, hard-working and dedicated energy into the students who aren’t showing up, leaves very little for the students who are showing up. Let’s be real – you getting angry isn’t punishment for those students anyways. You only have limited amounts of emotional energy each day – don’t waste it. Instead, give it to:

-The kids who are setting an alarm and logging in to your school platform early, so they’re not late.

-The kids who have triple-checked your weekly agenda to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

-The kids who tucked themselves into a quiet part of their house to be sure they weren’t interrupted.

-The kids who are secretly craving this short time together with you and your class

You could be the one thing those students have to look forward to that day, the one thing that isn’t uncertain or scary. Seeing your face on the screen could be keeping them grounded, giving them small sense of normalcy. We, as educators, don’t know what each students’ home life is like – but we can provide every one of them with the opportunity to join us during the week to stay in contact, share their wins/fears, and to keep moving forward. Whether they choose to join or not is up to them.

We must remember, there is only so much that we have control over right now. We don’t have control over which students have internet at home. We don’t have control over which students are going to be self-motivated. We don’t have control over which students’ parents will have the time to encourage their learning.

All we can do is make our meetings encouraging, consistent and dare I say a little bit fun. We can be flexible and understanding in what we assign, and continue to ride this storm with our students. We can continue to be a safe place for them to land.

There will be kids who haven’t turned in a lick of homework. There will be kids who won’t bother to attend the video conference, even though they DO have internet at home. Those aren’t the kids who should soak up our attention right now. Those are the kids that we send a polite but encouraging email home to remind them of their student responsibilities, and pray that they acquire some semblance of priorities as time wears on.

It’s time for us educators to stop focusing on the empty “seats” in our video conferences, and to start pouring our love and effort into the kids who are showing up. These are the kiddos who are proving they care – let’s reward them for their resilience during this unprecedented time.


I Am Your Teacher First, Your Cheerleader Second.

It took me nearly five years of immersed teaching to understand who I am as an educator. At first, I was rocked by the diverse opinions of my co-workers on how to handle student situations. I tried (and often failed at) new methods of instruction, classroom management, policies and time management.

Throughout those years, I would spend my hour commute absorbing the wisdom of motivational speakers such as Rachel Hollis (my spirit animal), Tony Robbins, Brenden Burchard, and Mel Robbins. I grew so much in those first years as a person and found myself able to weather any sort of situation thrown my way in the classroom. Though those years were often PAINFUL – it is evident now how crucial those growing pains were to my overall success as a shaper of young minds.

The one ideal that I have zero apologies for adopting? I am your coach, your mentor, your teacher FIRST. I will be your cheerleader SECOND.

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Rachel Hollis famously speaks on this and adopts this attitude (which is most definitely why I love listening to her podcasts). She iterates that a cheerleader is there shouting for you no matter what – even when you’re not doing what will make you successful. A coach is there to tell it to you straight and keep you on the right path.

This year especially, I have trained my brain to stop autopiloting to cheerleader mode when a student makes a mistake. It was my general nature to pat them on the back, even when they weren’t performing their best writing, and to gently encourage them to “try better next time”!

Ya’ll, it wasn’t working.

Kids will be kids, and if they think they can get away with turning in sub-par work for decent credit – that’s what they’re going to do. This doesn’t make them “bad kids” – it makes them adolescents who, if given the chance, will prioritize their social life or hobbies over perfecting a school assignment.

Look, I GET IT. Teaching gets tiring. Nagging them to do better, spell better, write better, read more, care more, show more of an effort gets OLD. Sometimes, it’s just easier to accept the crappy work and put a grade into the book. But that, “At least they turned in something” attitude is TOXIC. It permeates off of you like a vile stench that will, if you allow it, affect the remaining students in your class.

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If the teacher isn’t requiring effort, then why would any of the students work hard? If Susie can turn in a paragraph that only has three sentences, then why should Billy write six sentences and include a quote for evidence? The fact of the matter is, Billy won’t continue to push harder since the expectation isn’t there. As Tony Robbins says, RAISE YOUR STANDARDS, CHANGE YOUR LIFE (or classroom, in this case). If you raise the expectation, the students will rise with you.

Taking on a coaching mindset as a teacher does not mean that you are rude, intolerant, or sarcastic with your students. Let’s be real – you do that, you will lose the respect of your students REAL quick. Taking on a coaching mindset doesn’t mean you don’t offer encouragement as they work through tough assignments.

Instilling a coaching mindset means:

You place achievable, but challenging, standards for all of your students.

If your students are really on a role, have them HELP YOU create these standards for your classroom. Whatever you decide, the expectation for nearly everything you do in your room needs to be expressed – CLEARLY.

It is my solemn vow to spend the first two weeks of classes creating simple exercises that teach and reteach procedures for everything we do. I have FAR surpassed the mistake of “assuming” students know the correct way to do ANYTHING. We have no prior knowledge of their upbringing – thus, to avoid common behavior pitfalls, just make your expectations clear for everything. Place them in a syllabus or display them on your wall. Make them a part of the structure of your class.

You don’t accept sub-par performance or work. Period.

A piece of work gets turned in and it is clearly not that student’s best work? Create time during class to meet one-on-one with that student and calmly point out where they did well and where they fell short. Then send them back to their seat to revise. This is not optional. Even if the student is having a bad day, normally doesn’t turn in ANY work, etc. Be diligent in the pursuit of quality.

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A student acts inappropriately after you have set clear expectations? Ask them to step into the hallway (or an equally appropriate place). Coach them that WE don’t accept that behavior here. If you choose to act that way, you will have to leave so the rest of us can learn. We will try again tomorrow. The student will still be required to complete the work they missed, which in my classroom translates to staying after school (even if I have to mandate it). This will get old for the student, who will learn that this teacher means BUSINESS.

What you accept, will continue.

You hold students accountable for their actions and quality of work. Consistently.

This ties in nicely with the first two mentioned. If you set clear expectations, and never allow a student to “get away” with sub-par work or performance, this makes logical sense. The student must be made accountable for their actions. This is where the coaching part of teaching gets interesting. Often, students who turn in poor work (or none at all) will try to blame their actions on someone/something else. “My parents don’t come home until 1:00 AM, so I don’t have anyone to make me do my homework.” or “I didn’t sleep very much last night, so I don’t feel like doing the class activity.”

This are two reasons for sub-par work that I have heard in my classroom. The first one can be heartbreaking to me. Not having a parent at home to provide support really puts that students at a disadvantage. However, if we allow our students to use this excuse to “get away” with not doing their work, they start to believe that this excuse will get them out of doing the hard work forever. We must teach them to be responsible on their own, as one day they will be moving out of the house. Who will they blame their lack of work on then? Holding students accountable themselves will build a young adult who can rely on their own internal drive to get things done.

The second excuse mentioned is just a fact of life they will need to learn. It happens. At some point or another, sleep schedules get disrupted. That does not mean it is a free pass to float through life or their responsibilities for the day. Taking a coaching mindset in this moment will build stronger resolve in your students for later in life when things get tough outside of their high school halls.

You embody the qualities you expect in your students.

Lead through example.

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You want students to show up and be attentive? Dress sharp and take pride in yourself as a professional. Message to the students: this teacher cares a LOT about this content and this job – I should take them seriously.

You want students to read fluently and with inflection? Take time during class to read out loud certain sections of their class novel. BE CREATIVE with your voices, and fearless in your delivery. Message to the students: this teacher is CRAZY, but reading aloud with voices makes this SO much more fun. Maybe I can be brave one day, too.

You want your students to write using better vocabulary? Start using better vocabulary in your everyday journal prompts, notes on their papers, and in your lectures. Take time during the reading of a text to pretend you don’t know a large word, and show students your “out loud thinking” as you Google search it! Message to the students: Words freaking matter, and even my teacher has to look them up sometimes! 

You want your students to write passionately for their daily journal prompts? Set a timer and ask for quiet, then sit down with them and write your own! Share your own prompt with them, using varying vocabulary and sentence structure. Be vulnerable in your stories. Message to the students: Even the teacher has a hard time with some things! They admitted it to the whole class! I can do that, too!

You provide examples of quality work to shape their thinking.

I saved this for last because it is SO important for teaching writing. If your students are struggling to write thesis statements, paragraphs and essays beyond basic levels, the ONLY way they are going to improve is to show them multiple examples of writing done extraordinarily.

Period.

The human brain learns through seeing examples. Simply assign a writing task to your students. Take them home, sift through them and assign each one a tentative “level”. Level 6 writing is EXTRAORINDARY with hardly any mistakes. Level 1 writing was entirely off task or missing. We Only Do (2).jpg

I remove student names and if handwritten, I type up the shorter responses. Compiling one sample of each level, I print off enough for my students. As a class, we read each sample out loud, starting with Level 6. The students take about five minutes per paper to jot down what that student did excellently and to make three comments about what they could improve.

By the time we made it to the Level 1 papers, the students are all professionals at pointing out what is missing! Then, I hand back their papers and ask them to dig through their own assignment. We spend that class with red pens, rewriting their original. The next day, they get a fresh piece of paper, and try again. I cannot STRESS ENOUGH how effective this is. It does require a firm coaching mindset – no cheerleading allowed here. Students must be told what they did well, and what needs some serious rework.

 


 

If you’ve had a cheerleading mindset (or your student’s previous teachers did), you will experience some push-back at first. Stay the course, be fair as well as consistent, and I promise you that students will rise to the bar that you set. The annoying dance of “Teacher, is this good enough?” will slowly die away.

Remember – we are here to guide our students towards success. Do not be afraid to create firm expectations. Watch your students’ confidence in themselves rise as they push to reach goals. Then, make sure you CELEBRATE!


Teacher, Stop Apologizing

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With the new release of Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing, I was inspired to write a blog post that held the same spirit but was directly for teachers. I asked many of my teacher friends and acquaintances from around the world to chime in on what was weighing on their own hearts… things they wished they no longer needed to apologize for as an educator of the nation’s youth. Here are the ideas that came streaming back to me.

1. The Expectations

Teacher, Get Your Graduate Degree – But We Can’t Pay You Enough to Cover Your Monthly Loan Payment

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Photo by Esther Tuttle

The majority of responses that came flooding back to me revolved around the low salary that most teacher’s make, especially starting off their careers. Reading through their words, it was clear that every single one of these people had an overwhelming passion for education and yet were extremely frustrated with the sky-high loan payments that were required to engage in this career path.

Long gone are the days were school districts offer to pay for a teacher’s Graduate Degree, and so this financial burden has been placed on teachers’ shoulders. Many teachers earning a single-income reported having to move back in with their parents in order to be able to make their required payments. Those with multiple income-streams admitted to relying heavily on their spouse’s income in order to make ends meet.

It goes without saying that most of the teachers I personally know have some side hustle going to help them pay those bills! Even though it isn’t ideal nor easy, I want to let those of you who fall under that category know – you are amazing, courageous and incredibly resilient human beings. If no one has told you lately, then I will tell you – I am SO proud of you and every damn thing you have overcome. I’ve been there, and man… do I know that it is HARD. 

Teacher, Have High Expectations… But Not Too High

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Photo by Ani Kolleshi

When a teacher first begins working at a district, they must determine what their district’s expectations are and adjust their own accordingly. Yep, you read that right. Multiple teachers wrote that expectations for students (in the same grade) were entirely different depending on which district they were teaching at. Imagine how confusing that might be for a student who changes districts?

One teacher wrote that one district appreciated and admired him for having high expectations and holding students to those expectations. He made rules and procedures clear, and students who misbehaved or broke procedure were held accountable. He then married his wife, and they decided to move closer to her family. He transferred to a district closer to their new home.

This district had extremely vocal parents who would question many of the decisions of that same teacher. He came to school weekly to angry parent emails, students who blatantly did not follow the rules and threatened to turn HIM in to the principal, and a principal who was trying to merely smooth things over to avoid a lawsuit rather than back the teacher.

The message that many teachers have been getting is that they must have high expectations in their classrooms until one of the students or their parents do not agree – then they must adjust their expectations. Without guidelines, many teachers wrote in to say that they are hesitant to draw a hard line with high expectations for fear of being reprimanded or losing their job.

Teacher, Implement All New Policies and Curriculum Without Question

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Photo by Rock and Roll Monkey

Anyone who has been in the education world for a few years understands that new policies and curriculum are a dime a dozen. Once teachers get used to one way of teaching, a new administration comes in and deems something else more effective for reaching students. It is a constant merry-go-round of merely trying to stay afloat with the changes.

One middle school teacher wrote in to say that she wished that teacher voices were actually heard by the ones making decisions about policies and curriculum. She politely stated that she and her fellow teachers are the ones on the front lines, testing the material and seeing how beneficial (or not) it was for their students. Who else has more wisdom to discuss what should be kept or discarded than the ones actually working with the new enactments? While some states are listening more to teachers, there are many areas that seem to be failing to take the opinions of their educators into account.

Teacher, You Must Also Be Your Student’s Parent

 

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Photo by BBH Singapore

This expectation gave me some goosebumps and made me quite humbled. While only a few teachers wrote in on this expectation, they wrote with such fervor that I can only assume that there are other teachers out there who also are feeling the pressure in this area.

One teacher from a low-income, rural school in Oklahoma has six students in their homeroom class alone with both parents who are incarcerated. These students are either living with their grandparents or are jumping from house to house, sleeping on friend’s or relative’s couches. This teacher also has students with at least one parent who is facing addiction to narcotics. These students have confided that some nights they do not know where their mom/dad/guardian went, and are unsure when they will return.

When we have students who literally have limited or no parenting, the expectation is that teachers will become a stand-in parent for those students. Teachers should instill in them positive character traits, straighten out their attention-seeking behavior, provide love and support, make sure they are completing work outside of school… all while teaching the curriculum they are mandated to teach, according to their job descriptions. Even if there are parents in the home, sometimes respect for others or positive character traits are not being instilled in the student, which is leaking into their behaviors in the classroom.

While most educators have hearts of gold that are ten sizes bigger than any other human being on the planet, it is not their responsibility to parent their students. Now, I know there are educators right now who are cursing my name, angrily inquiring, “If we don’t help them, who will?”. I say this respectfully, but this is not our burden to take on. Should we keep showing up for them every single day and being a shining example of what an adult should be? Absolutely! Should we keep encouraging them, holding them responsible, and giving them opportunities to succeed? Of course. While we all love our students beyond anything in the world, and want so badly for them to succeed, we cannot take the place of their parent(s).

Teacher, That Student Is Failing… What Are YOU Doing Wrong? 

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Photo by Rawpixel

A veteran teacher who had enjoyed teaching for over twenty years wrote that the day she quit her job was the day her principal called her into his office, showed her a student’s failing grades, and asked her, “What are you doing to get this student passing?” This topic links back up to our earlier topic of having high expectations but not being too demanding.

There seems to have been a shift of responsibility within the last decade. Rather than students being responsible for getting in their work and doing well in their classes, there is now an expectation that students do what they will and teachers will pick up the slack to get them passing. I have seen time and time again, students who do poorly in ALL of their classes, yet their parent attends a conference and demands to know what the teachers are doing that is causing their child to be so unsuccessful. I can feel you all nodding your heads – we’ve seen this story played out so many times.

It is worth noting that several teachers wrote in to say that they felt they cared more about their students’ grades than the students did.

Teacher, Work During Your Non-Contract Hours

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Photo by Christian Erfurt

Without a doubt, this topic FLOODED my inbox. Teachers who are done, absolutely DONE, with feeling guilt for not working during non-contract hours adamantly wrote their frustrations with this ridiculous expectation placed on educators. No other career that pays in this scale requires such commitment (for no extra pay, either). This topic could be divided into three categories.

Teachers should care more about other people’s children than their own. 

This one broke my heart. Absolutely, hands-down, I had tears in my eyes reading some of the stories that educators are living. For whatever reason, society as a whole has placed this expectation on teachers. Teachers must give up their time that should be spent making memories with their own children, spouse, and family members to keep up with running their classroom.

I would add to this, that teachers are expected to care about other people’s children even more than their own HEALTH. I cannot tell you how many times I personally would skip meal planning on a Sunday in order to finish grading that pile of essays because of this overwhelming teacher guilt I felt about somehow not providing enough feedback for my students. I could just throw together a lunch for tomorrow, and figure out the rest of the week as it came, right? My best friend stopped going to the gym for an entire WEEK in order to create a brand new unit around a novel for her 6th grade students because she knew it would reach them more than her previous plans would.

Was that her choice? Sure. But why do most educators make moves like that? Because they feel this enormous pressure to constantly be on their A-game for the students they adore. Unfortunately, their own health takes a back seat. I’m sure you all know what that leads to… and it isn’t beneficial for ANYONE.

Teachers will keep up with grading, planning, providing feedback, answering parent and co-worker email… even if it requires non-contract hours to complete. Don’t complain, teachers, you get great benefits & summers off.  

In the popular slang of today, I first want to say, “Them’s fightin’ words”. Aside from pulling teachers away from family or their own health, this is one of the most damaging expectations placed on educators. NEVER should a professional be expected to work outside contractual hours without additional pay. Period. A set calendar is agreed to at the beginning of the year, with a set number of days, with set contractual hours. Those benefits, holidays and summers off were all calculated in when determining initial salary.

The additional 5-20 hours that MOST teachers are putting in on weeknights, weekends, and other time off are ADDITIONAL. As in, not included in their original agreed-upon hours. As in, additional pay would be given for any other professional job for additional work. Teachers, for the love of all that is education, do NOT allow anyone to tell you that great benefits and summers off is compensation for sacrificing time with your family. 

Teachers will learn how to use the newest technology and apps, as well as how to implement them into their lessons… but during their non-contract time. 

Some schools offer PD days where they get a chance to explore new technology on a surface level. They are exposed to new apps, websites, gadgets, everything that may intrigue their students enough to want to learn. However, several teachers wrote in that they were not given time to implement the new technology into their lessons, and test them out. Thus, either their students became their guinea pigs for these new technologies, or they had to do research and testing on their own time. AKA, non-contractual time. Some teachers are even observed on how well they implement new technology into their lessons!

2. Behaviors To Ease the Expectations

In perfect Rachel Hollis-style, I’ll give some tangible advice that may help educators who are feeling immense pressure to perform under these expectations. If you are a veteran teacher, you may already be a pro at these. If you are a brand-new teacher, take some notes and make your transition into your teaching career a bit easier.

Most Important Behavior: Learn How to Say No

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Photo by Isaiah Rustad

If you are a people-pleaser, this will be the most difficult, yet a game-changing step for you to take. Learn what your expectations are for yourself, have a discussion with your administration about their specific expectations for your job performance, and then act accordingly. While parents, students, and the community will all have expectations of you as a teacher, you are the final determiner of what you allow – and what you don’t.

Stop trying to keep up with the Pinterest-perfect teachers you’re creeping on on social media, or trying to assign multiple writing assignments that all require you to provide HOURS of feedback for your students. Be smart. Keep the activities that are exceptional, and toss out the rest. Say no to perfection and over-achieving constantly, and say yes to the fun events going on during non-contractual hours with your friends and family.

Also, learn what extra duties to take on, and which ones to say no to. If admin or a co-worker asks you to be the coach to an athletic team or start a club, if it’s not a Hell Yes, then it’s a big, fat no. I know you want to be involved in your district. Make sure you’re only investing your time in things that light your soul on fire. That’s not being selfish. Accepting the role of Drama Club Director, even though you HATE choreography and designing sets is being selfish. Someone else could take that role of Director and bring LIFE into that program. You? Who hate everything about Drama Club? Well, you may stifle or extinguish a student’s love for that simply because your heart isn’t in it. Learn to say yes to only the things that ignite you, too. 

Remember, this is your job, not your whole life.

Internal Behavior: Learn That You Are Enough

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Photo by Rawpixel

I keep seeing this post floating around the internet that says that teachers make more split-second decisions in one day than brain surgeons. Now, I haven’t seen the research to back that up but from experience, it certainly FEELS correct.

Teachers make magic during the school day, changing the lives of so many students every year. And each year, those same teachers get a new cohort, and work their magic again. Kids are learning, growing, heading towards their own futures, all because of the work that teachers put in to guide them on their path. It is no easy feat, treading the line between teacher and mentor, yet we all do so to the best of our ability.

Learn to whole-heartedly accept that at the end of the day, you were enough. This does not mean that you should give every ounce of your energy to your job so that you return home at night too emotionally-vacant to be an exceptional person, spouse, parent or relative. I spent a few weeks this year giving all of my emotional energy to a rowdy group of seniors, and then would come home with zero patience when my puppy acted like… well… a puppy. One night I yelled at her when she was asking for attention, and she just stared at me with those pitiful, beautiful eyes of hers. I knew in that moment that I needed to stop giving so much of myself at work, so I could give more of myself to the ones I loved.

Sacrificing everything you have for your job does not make you a superhero. It makes you tired, and unfulfilled in the other aspects of your life. Close your classroom door each day with a smile on your face, take a deep breath, and know that you make a difference… especially when you work within your contractual hours. Education is not a sprint, it is a marathon, and if you plan to stay within the profession for longer than a few years, you will need to treat each day as such.

 External Behavior: Draw Boundaries

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Photo by Luke Bender

You may want to identify where you are feeling the heaviest amount of expectation, and make moves to ease that pressure.

Some teachers were receiving emails from parents that had them feeling cornered. Send out a newsletter to parents that updates them on what is going on in your classroom, and subtly include a nice box at the bottom that states your new office hours, which is the ONLY time that you respond to emails. Purposefully make your office hours every other day, so that you have a grace-period to 1. Cool down if the parent was rude 2. Do any research or seek guidance from admin over a difficult situation 3. You’re just plain BUSY in your personal life and don’t have the emotional energy to write a response that day.

Then, STICK TO YOUR OFFICE HOURS (aside from emergencies, obviously) NO MATTER WHAT. At first, parents may be upset. However, when they see that you are keeping a reasonable attitude, expecting them to remain professional as well, and holding firm to your own hours, they will come around. Sometimes, we teachers need to also have high expectations of parents when it comes to professional discourse and respecting our own time.

Parents were making comments on teachers’ social media accounts about their activities outside of school. Delete, delete, delete. Parents who are judgmental in any way of your private time, delete them from your account. In fact, unless a parent is a close, family friend, I would delete all parents from your social media. Look, I know you want to have community ties and to develop relationship with parents. But, let’s be real. No parent needs to know THAT much about their child’s teacher. In fact, it is asking for some trouble. If you are experiencing expectations from social media peeping… start to thin the herd.

Teachers were being passive-aggressively asked to take on extra duties by admin. 

This is one that teachers experience quite often and one that must be handled professionally. Whether it is by your Superintendent or your Principal, it can be intimidating. If your admin “suggests” you take on an extra duty that you aren’t yelling, “Hell, Yes!” for, you need to still say no, and further explain what you are holding out for.

Our administration do not know about the secret fire in our heart to lead the Debate Team, or start a Book Club. They also may not know that you cannot take on an extra duty because of something going on in your personal life. They only see that they have an opening that needs to be filled and “Wouldn’t Ryan be just perfect for that position?” Communication is key with these types of situations, so be clear but unapologetic. A great admin will understand and be thankful that they now have further insight into who you are as a person.

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Photo by Markus Spiske

What other expectations would you add?