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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 16, 2023

What does it mean to “bring the best version of yourself” to the classroom?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What does it mean to “bring the best version of yourself” to the classroom?

By Angela Watson

Who you ARE matters just as much as what you DO. How can you show up as the best version of yourself each day, not only for students, but in every aspect of life?

I’m talking today with Elena Aguilar, a writer, leader, teacher, coach, and the author of seven highly acclaimed books including The Art of Coaching, (2013) Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators (2018), Coaching for Equity (2020), and The PD Book: 7 Habits that Transform Professional Development (2022).

Elena is the founder and president of Bright Morning Consulting, and host of The Bright Morning podcast (which is a phenomenal listen, by the way.) She also collaborated with Dr. Rebecca Branstetter and I on the Reversing Educator Burnout course–you can hear her as a special guest expert in Module 2.

Listen to our conversation in the podcast player below, or in your podcast app. You can also read the condensed transcription that follows. Elena and I will discuss:

  • Why “bringing your best self” brings ease rather than “one more thing” to your plate
  • The power and simplicity of being fully present in challenging moments
  • Trying harder vs letting go
  • The traits and dispositions we display when we are our best selves
  • What to do when you’re too exhausted to bring your best self to the classroom

Listen to the audio below,
or subscribe in your podcast app


This episode is sponsored by Finally Free


Your way of being has a tremendous impact on the quality of your work and relationships

ANGELA: In your work, you talk a lot about who an educator is, their way of being, and how that has a tremendous impact on the quality of their work and relationships. And this is one of the things that I admire about you the most because I feel like there’s a tremendous emphasis in education on what teachers are doing, and very little attention is being paid to who they are as people.

And to me, we’re missing one of the most fundamental aspects of learning if we ignore the actual human beings who are facilitating that learning. So there’s just so little concern, in my opinion, paid to teacher morale and wellbeing, to lightening teachers’ workloads and stressors. And the funding seems to go towards things that directly impact student test scores instead of ensuring that the people who are teaching our children are happy and healed and whole human beings. And that has always been mind-boggling to me.

So anytime I see your work, it is just a breath of fresh air. Anytime that something you’ve produced or that Bright Morning has done, comes through my social feeds or is brought up in a conversation — it’s great, your work is so, so needed. I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this and what you mean when you talk about bringing the best version of yourself to the classroom.

ELENA: Thank you. There is so much that you just shared that resonates with me. Why are we looking at the human beings? But it’s also not either/or — it’s not teachers or test scores or teacher well-being. It’s not binary like that — there is a connection between all of this. And we can do many things and we can look at the human beings and how they are doing and take institutional responsibility for developing well-being. We can do that and we can pay attention to children and their well-being and their achievement and their test scores. We can do it.

So let me come back to your question, which is, what does it mean to bring the best version of yourself to the classroom? I love that question mostly because it opens up a whole conversation. And I would really invite any listeners, anyone to think, what does that mean for you?

I’ll speak for myself for a moment. The best version of myself is the version of me that is fully present, that is acutely self-aware, and present for every little thing that comes up, for everything that happens. And when I am able to access that state of being, it also allows me to access the part of myself that I love the most, the part that’s energized and open and curious and full of zest and passion. The part of me that’s willing to take risks, the part of me that’s courageous, the part that feels everything.

So I can only access all those parts of myself when I am fully present because otherwise, I am living in the past or in the future. And so I think that, at its essence, my best self is one that’s fully present that can then tap into all these ways of being. Let’s also think beyond the classroom, because what if we could consider bringing our best version of ourselves to the living room and to the grocery store and everywhere?

To me, your question is really about what allows us to be fully human, to explore and embrace all the dimensions of our humanity. And again, it’s only through that exploration that we get to be our best selves. And those best selves really emerge when we have engaged in deep reflection and growth. When we know ourselves, when we’ve done the work on ourselves, then our best selves come out when we are fully present.

If we could bring our best selves to the classroom, our schools would be different places, and the experiences for children would be different. And yes, their test scores would be higher if we all were able to develop these capacities to be fully present and to tap into all these aspects of ourselves. So let me stop there.

You are your best self when fully present, or in a state of flow

You know, what you’re saying reminds me of research on flow, that flow state where you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you just lose all sense of time. And I think those are the best moments as a teacher where it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe there’s only five minutes left in this lesson.” Because I’m so engaged with the kids, like that will make up for so much tedium, monotony, and data entry meetings.

There’s research showing that 90 minutes a day is the ideal amount of time for a flow state. And it may not be in work. It could be in exercise, it could be in gardening, walking, creating. But 90 minutes is what’s really an ideal for humans.

And when I think about what that would be like to have 90 minutes of the school day for teachers to be in the state of flow where they’re fully present and engaged, and what would that be like for learners, wow! If students could spend 90 minutes of their school day in flow? I mean, even just starting with 10 to 15 minutes where you just are totally present with the people around you, with the task engaged in it, it’s an optimal state of being a human. And I think this came to my mind when you were talking about being present.

Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting connection to make. And you can’t be in a flow state unless you are fully immersed in the present. I mean, if you are thinking about the past or worrying about the future or ruminating or creating unhelpful stories about what’s going on, then you’re not present. You can’t be in flow, and so I think that is an interesting connection to make.

But I also think that we can experience the really difficult parts of teaching or life from a place of presence and actually taking it all in, or from a place of sort of pushing back, not wanting it to be this way, creating all these stories and feeling angry, resentful, and scared.

We can be scared and be fully present or we can be scared and not be fully present. So I think there’s a quality here of actually being with whatever comes up, whether that is our own fear or sadness, worry or joy, or deep absorption in a lesson and in an experience with kids. I think this is key to being able to respond to whatever happens to deal with anything that happens,

Right — when you’re present, then you’re not resisting, you’re ready to respond to whatever’s coming. And I love what you said about how being our best version of ourselves is not just for something at work, but like you gave the example of the grocery store, and I think about that a lot.

You know, sometimes I have encounters with people just randomly in places like that, and they’re totally present. You know, we’ll have a little conversation or you know, you treat people better when you’re fully present, when you’re rushing to the next thing and you’re thinking about what you have to be doing, and your mind is in another place, you don’t notice other people. You don’t engage with them. You don’t pay attention to what’s going on with them and their needs, nor do you get anything back from those engagements.

I mean, how many times have I checked out of the grocery store and been looking at my phone and not paying attention to the person who was processing my payment versus when I stopped to be really present there, notice them, make eye contact, thank them sincerely. It is such a more meaningful way to go through life when you think about bringing the best version of myself to every situation, not just to my work.

I love that you brought that up. So maybe 12 or 15 years ago, I heard someone talking about something that ended up resulting in a huge change that I made at the grocery store, or any of those places where someone who is in a position of service says to you, “Hi, how are you today?” And you say, “Fine, thank you.”

So I had heard this thing and it prompted me to start saying, “I’m doing okay. How are you today?” And I say this every time when I encounter a service person — at a grocery store, the coffee shop, even on the phone — and I can’t tell you how many times someone would look up at me and say, “Oh, thank you for asking.” And it was this moment that sometimes was, you know, was 15 seconds, sometimes 30 to 60 seconds of connection.

But it was a connection and it felt so meaningful. And it was a moment for me of slowing down and not going through everything in this rote.

And I think you raising that made me think about something I’ve been exploring recently which is the six core human needs. Psychologists group our human needs into these six categories, and the first one is the need for connection and belonging, which is a core human need. Every human being needs connection and belonging.

And so then the question is, so how do we create that for ourselves every day? And this was one of these, I was just kind of, I have since been amazed by how much I get back from pausing and saying to someone, I’m good, thank you. How are you? How are you today? And just that moment. And so this is, you know, in some ways that is a moment where I feel like I am being my best self. It’s a moment when I have slowed down enough to actually be with whatever’s happening and the person in front of me.

When bringing the best of yourself feels like one more impossible demand

I wonder what you would say to someone who’s reading this and thinking, “I’ve never really considered any of this. It sounds like Angela and Elena have thought a lot about what it means to be the best version of themselves. I’m not sure I’ve really thought about it.”

And to them maybe it feels like an additional pressure, particularly when we talk about bringing the best version of yourself to the classroom because there’s already so much pressure. Teachers need to be experts in such a wide range of really complex skill sets, from communication to planning, to assessment and partnering with other stakeholders like parents. It is just a really complex job, and there’s very little room for error for teachers. You know, they’re not really allowed to be human and make mistakes and to fall short.

So I wonder what you would say to someone who’s thinking, “Great, so on top of everything else right now, I have to be the best version of myself. Isn’t that just one more expectation on me? “And I wonder how we can frame our thinking about that? Because for me, it actually eases the burden and lightens the load. Thinking about this brings me back to what’s essential instead of the mundane or from the to-do list — it brings me back to something that feels more meaningful. But I know for some folks it can feel like it’s adding to that weight.

So if I was reading this, I would probably have been one of those teachers thinking, “Yeah, now I have to do more.” So when I think about teachers bringing their best selves to the classroom, one of the things I think about are the conditions that need to be created so that can happen. And yes, right now in some places, you cannot bring your whole self to an organization.

You know, for folks with identities that have been historically marginalized in some places, it’s just not safe. Some organizations are so toxic and so harmful that you can’t take risks. You can’t express your passion. Self-development doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can only bring your best self to a place where there’s some receptivity, where there’s some space for that best self. So that’s one part of this answer. I would say yes, there are conditions, but there’s another component to this answer.

So I worked in a school for a while where I really wanted to bring my best self. I was really working on myself and taking all these courses. I had a coach, and I was really deep in my meditation practice, and I really tried in that school, but there was just no space for that self to really be expressed or to grow.

And I finally realized — and it was such a hard realization — but I needed to find a different place to work. And I say it was a harsh realization because I felt like there was a part of me that felt like I was failing. Like if I could only shift my attitude, or if I could only keep working on myself. And I realized that I had done all this work to recognize that I actually needed to set some boundaries, and I had this clarity that I needed to find a different place.

And so this message that I’m sharing that I think you’re also sharing is about knowing yourself and bringing your best self. And it includes an invitation to consider whether the place you’re in or the work conditions you’re experiencing allow for the full development of that self.

This is an invitation to deeper self-knowledge and to exploring the conditions in which you can thrive, to recognizing and acknowledging any pain that might be present: sadness, anger, fear, all those uncomfortable emotions are part of you. You have to know them, you have to integrate them in order to thrive, and to even entertain the idea that maybe, it’s also not teaching, maybe it’s not teaching that grade or that content, or in that school or in that district or in that organization.

Maybe it’s not right now. I think we have this mindset that if we were to decide that teaching wasn’t the right thing, we’d be failures … at least that was the experience for me. Every time I thought that maybe I can’t be a teacher, I felt such shame.

And it was only when I really thought it’s not this school or this grade, or maybe there are ways I can contribute but not in the classroom. I taught for 12 years when I moved into a coaching role which I did for many years. And when I moved into that, I actually felt like I found ways to have an even greater impact on kids. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking, One more thing, there’s something for you to explore there.

Trying harder vs letting go

I’m really glad that you made that point because I think a lot of times teachers feel like if they’re not thriving, the problem is them. And I can think of many, many schools in which I would have a very difficult time bringing the best version of myself. Like, the context does matter, and your point about safety matters as well.

I’ve talked before in the podcast about how showing up is the best version of yourself. It’s not really about trying super hard, you know, and working to be your best self and working to change your negative habits or traits, and going all in on this self-improvement. A lot of times, it’s more about releasing unhealthy coping mechanisms and healing trauma, unpacking biases, and unlearning patterns that are no longer serving you.

Because I believe that at our core, we are all good inside. As Dr. Becky Kennedy says and her awesome work about parenting and children, “We are the people our students need. We are good enough for our students.” So the job is not to become better educators or become better people, but to show up each day in our work as healthy and happy and healed is possible. I wonder what your thoughts are on that interpretation.

I’m so with you on all of this — almost all of it. I had to have a response to the word happy. So I don’t know if we need to show up as happy, because in some ways I think it’s almost impossible because happiness is an emotion, right? In a way, it’s a state, and it comes and it goes. And I think there’s a lot of pressure on people, on teachers, on women to smile and be happy, and sometimes that crosses over into the realm of toxic positivity, which is the suppression and denial of emotions.

Coming back to my work, I talk so much about mindfulness and presence, and I think we need to learn how to show up and be fully present. It makes me think about a Buddhist teacher. I’ve learned a lot from Sylvia Boorstein, and one of my favorite things that she says is a mantra that she offers is, “Meet every moment fully and meet every moment as a friend.” And I just love that and think about that so often. That’s often an intention I set for myself — meet every moment fully, be fully present, and then meet every moment as a friend. Approach the moment with openness with a sort of quality of curiosity, of benevolence, of friendliness.

What does it take to do that? And that’s where I’m totally aligned with you — that to do that requires releasing unhealthy coping mechanisms. It means healing our trauma, unpacking our biases, unlearning patterns. I talk a lot these days about healing because unhealthy coping patterns and coping mechanisms are a response most likely in our childhood or young adulthood, even a response to some kind of difficulty or pain or event.

And so doing that deep inner work, and again — it’s not just for our jobs or for what our students need — it’s really our birthright. It’s our birthright to heal — to live with ease, with openness, with joy, with happiness, when it comes and goes to live fully. When the moments of sadness or frustration happen to really be in those and not be repressing them or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms, but to live and experience the full range of emotions to live with full presence.

We deserve this for us and our students deserve it — they deserve us to be having that kind of experience. They will benefit if we are having that kind of life.

Thank you for pushing back on my word of happy, too. I hadn’t really thought very deeply about that, and I should because happiness isn’t the goal. It is the byproduct. I’m wondering if the word I’m looking for is more like having an inner peace, or contentment, or an ability to be present.

Yeah, I think happiness is tricky. It’s also just laid in with so many different kinds of meaning that we’ve imposed on it. I do think about a word, that for me, resonates sometimes is ease. Sometimes even when I’m experiencing a lot of fear, I can do so in a way that feels easier when I’m not. What happens to me is when I experience fear, it becomes a cycle of emotions. I don’t like feeling afraid, so then I start feeling ashamed, or I feel angry, or I feel afraid of the fear, and all of that is not useful. It’s complicated, right?

So when I feel fear, but it’s from a state of ease, I’m actually able to go, “Oh, there’s fear arising.” And then I have a set of strategies that I can use to actually be with it and not push back against it.

Sometimes I like the word joy, again — it’s an emotion and it comes and goes, but it’s one that I recognize as maybe it just isn’t as laden yet with the meaning that happiness has had forced upon it. But again, it’s an emotion, and emotions just come and go and we get so attached to them, like the ones that we like or we get so aversive to the ones we don’t like. That’s why I come back to living with full presence and being with it all, just being with whatever comes up. If somebody you love dies, you don’t want to be happy at that point — you want feel the grief. The grief is a reflection of the love, but you have to be fully present to really feel it.

Right? Happiness is not the goal at all times. And I love the word ease. I think about even working through grief with ease. I think about the path of water flowing, right? It takes a path of least resistance. Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower.

Your “best” may not be the same each day — but you can still be present

Do you think that the best version of ourselves looks different from day to day or even from hour to hour? What do you think is a helpful framework in terms of thinking about our inconsistencies in moods and productivity and output?

I think the best version of ourselves is a version that is fully present and kind. If that’s the best version of ourselves, then we’re going to see differences in how we show up day to day, hour to hour. So for example, if I have to teach on a day when I didn’t sleep well because my kid was throwing up all night, then I had a frazzled morning getting ready and trying to find backup childcare, I didn’t get breakfast, and so on. I may not feel like I’m being the best version of myself.

But if the best version of myself is a fully present version of myself, then as I go through all of these inevitable experiences, because we’re all going to have sleepless nights and kids getting sick, and so on. But if I can be fully present, then I can have much more influence on how I respond to things, how I respond to the student who rolls her eyes, when I give the class directions, how I can respond to an email from my principal saying, “We’ve got to have a 15-minute staff meeting after school.” If I’m fully present, then I can recognize I’m exhausted and I’m frustrated right now. I’m frustrated at this request and so on.

I think the best version of ourselves might look different depending on what we’re determining that is. But if the best version of ourself is something along the lines of I’m fully present — I’m really here with whatever happens and I’m taking a general approach or attitude of kindness towards it — then there might be some difference or there might not.

The traits and dispositions we display when we’re our best selves

That’s a great answer — thinking about just being present with whatever’s coming up. And sometimes she’ll handle it in ways that you’re proud of. Sometimes you won’t. But just sort of allowing that to be looking for the path forward with ease. Tell me about what traits or dispositions we’re typically showing when we’re bringing the best version of ourselves to school. What else should we look for? You’ve mentioned now presence and also kindness, which I think is a big one.

So I think the traits or dispositions we show when we’re bringing the best version of ourselves at school are curiosity, compassion, courage, openness, wonder, appreciation, humility, self-awareness, reflection, non-reactivity. There’s this quote that I love. No one knows who actually said it or wrote it. The quote is, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response and our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I always think about this between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response, and in that space is our power in that space is our freedom. And so things will happen. There are always going to be things that happen that we can’t control. All we can control are our thoughts and our response to what happens.

And we can’t control our emotions. Emotions arise, but we can control the stories we tell about them, the thoughts we can control, how much we get stuck on them. We can control how we express those emotions, and so when we have acute self-awareness, then we’re going to have much more capacity to be non-reactive, to not respond to the stuff that happens, to the things that might get us emotionally activated.

So then when we feel some kind of uncomfortable emotion, we can actually tune into that and respond to that rather than the external stimuli. So when we cultivate presence, we become less reactive. And so I think, again, in addition to curiosity and compassion, humility and all of those dimensions, I think it’s this acute self-awareness, the ability to be reflective, to know ourselves, and then be able to act on that awareness that we have with capacity.

I like the word curiosity — that’s one of my favorite things to cultivate in myself too because it just brings so much more joy and wonder to life. And I feel like curiosity keeps me from being reactive and judgmental when I encounter someone who sees something differently than me. It goes really hand in hand with that humility and compassion, wondering what is it about this situation that I don’t understand? How could I learn more? What might this person have experienced? What might this person know that I don’t know or that I haven’t experienced? And that curiosity kind of brings you back to that place of ease, and it brings you back to that place of kindness. What’s your experience with the importance of curiosity?

So I have long talked about the two most important dispositions or orientations for transformational coaches are compassion and curiosity. And really, that’s all we need. A few years ago I was doing some reflection on this, and I was doing some reading from many different places, and for me, I had this epiphany which was that you can’t actually be truly curious unless you have a certain level of safety, or a certain level of trust in yourself to be able to deal with anything that happens, or unless you feel a certain amount of self-compassion. And so I’ve actually come to see that there’s a relationship between these words and there’s something of a sequence, and so you actually need to deeply cultivate compassion, including self-compassion, before you can be truly curious.

When you’re feeling really afraid — Imagine a child living in a place where there’s a war going on and hiding in a bombed-out building and not knowing whether their family is alive, and then hearing the bombs — they are not going to be curious about who’s throwing these bombs. I’m giving you a super extreme example here, but we actually have to have a certain level of safety to be able to be curious about what’s going on.

One of the other things I’ve been learning a lot about in recent years is about trauma and trauma-informed coaching, and I’ve been doing a lot of exploration including into myself and my own life, and just having so many insights into what it takes for us to truly be curious. When you are living with tremendous pain and trauma, it’s really hard to activate that part. So I’m just saying that because there have been some people I’ve coached where they can’t really feel curious. And as we dug deeper into it, there are blocks.

When you’re too exhausted to bring your best self to your students

What would you say to someone who’s thinking, I know I have so much to offer my students, but I’m just exhausted. I’m stressed, I’m distracted, and I feel guilty because I’m not fully present with my students. I’m getting easily irritated in class and there’s just so much pressure on me. I’m not present and I am not bringing my best kind self. How do I move from that state of being and start showing the best version of me to my students?

The first thing I’d say is, I hear you. I hear the pain you’re in, I hear the suffering you’re experiencing, I hear you’re not being who you want to be, and this is a really hard place to be. And acknowledging it just like you’re doing is really important. And so I’d say the first step is to be kind to yourself. You know, if someone that you loved, your best friend, your child, someone you loved tremendously said this to you, what would you say to them? Like, maybe you just wanna give them a hug and show your care.

For so many of us, self-compassion is really hard and it is an essential first step toward becoming the person you want to be. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t give to others until you’ve given to yourself.

And so more concretely, I’d say to build up your support system. Get yourself a really good therapist. Tell some close people that you’re really struggling. I want people to know that rates of depression and anxiety are so high in our world right now, and amongst teachers, the rates are even higher. So when someone tells me this kind of thing, which I hear not infrequently, one of the things that I first wonder about is whether they are clinically depressed or anxious.

If this is someone that I’m coaching, I might ask some more questions because if they’re clinically depressed or anxious, then the suggestions that I might make may not work. So for example, I might want to suggest some of the strategies that I talk about in my book onward. I might wanna talk about meditation or self-care, looking for the bright spots. But if someone is depressed, then they don’t have the capacity to engage in those strategies and it ends up making them feel worse because they’re like, “I know I should meditate, I know I should go for a walk, I know I should do all this.”

In my book Onward and on my website, I have this resource that I use to help people self-assess for depression and anxiety. It also may be helpful for people to know burnout, which is depression according to the experts. And so I don’t want to offer strategies that don’t actually really address the root problem.

Looping back now to your question, this is a situation in which the person thinking this or feeling is suffering and they deserve healing. And so really the question becomes what’s the path for that healing to happen? Where does it start? Who can help? Who can support this healing journey? And feeling deserving of the healing is a critical step. That’s the self-compassion piece. And so often I find people really struggle with feeling like they deserve to feel better or heal. And so starting with telling yourself, “Oh wow, I really am in a hard spot and I deserve to feel better. I deserve to be cared for.’ That’s the place to start.

Where to find more resources and wisdom from Elena

Elena, before I ask you to leave us with a takeaway truth, I want you to tell readers where they can go to find these resources to learn about all of your books. I read Onward several years ago when it first came out. It was absolutely phenomenal book on resilience and if there’s anyone reading this who loves Truth for Teachers, you will absolutely love Elena’s Bright Morning podcast. I feel like it’s very similar to Truth for Teachers. And usually it’s you speaking straight from the heart and you’re talking about these kinds of deeper issues that I feel like a lot of times are just left out of conversations and education.

So that’s my personal recommendation to people is to get your book Onward. I know you have others as well you can tell us about and definitely subscribe to Bright Morning Podcasts because it’s just a really phenomenal resource for anyone in education who wants to have transformative coaching, relationships, and teaching.

Thank you so much for sharing that and for that feedback. So I do love doing the podcast. I think that is a great way for people to learn more about me and my work, and of course, it’s free and available anywhere that podcasts are found. I think Onward is a great book to start with. I have written six other books, and so you can learn more about those, by Googling it or look on my website. My website is brightmorningteam.com and that’s also a place to learn more about the kinds of workshops that my team and I develop. We do free webinars and if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll find out about those. We are also on social media, and you can find the links for those on my website as well.

Final thoughts

I really hope that people follow you, Elena, and we need more people learning from you, and I just think your resources are so valuable. Thank you! Let’s close out with our takeaway truth. Something that you wish every teacher understood about bringing the best version of themselves to school.

So I wish every teacher understood that it is possible to bring the best version of yourself to school. I wish every teacher understood that it is possible to heal. It is possible to experience a tremendous amount of ease in life, a tremendous amount of presence and joy, and comfort in life. It’s possible to be our full selves and to bring these full, complicated, complete best selves to school, to the living room, to the grocery store, that healing and transformation are possible. I find a lot of people don’t have this belief and possibility, and I think it is possible.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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