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  • Writer's pictureGeorgia O'Keefe

Experimenting in the Classroom & Pursuing your Passions: a Conversation with Designer Kristen

On this next episode of Making the Grade podcast, Georgia & Christine chat with transitioned teacher Kristen about her unique perspectives as a mom & educator who knows the importance of taking a step back (three times!) from the classroom to reflect & explore. Kristen’s journey is “bumpy” or not linear, and it’s a good reminder for all educators (& individuals) to remember that sometimes our heart can get there before our head does. This conversation covers it all: from Lizzo’s advice on perfectionism, navigating the barriers many teachers & parents face getting students the services they need, to why the classroom environment is so important.Kristen, a former educator turned interior designer, chats with Christine and Georgia about her career in education and how her experiences at home and in the classroom coincided to show her the next steps. This episode brings up topics ranging from compassion fatigue, the draw of the classroom community, & how experimenting with your passion in the classroom can help you find your next big thing.

Christine 0:03

Welcome to Making the Grade an education podcast for current and former teachers to share notes to find success and assess their own happiness in the classroom and beyond where your hosts Christine in Georgia.

Georgia 0:16

The problems in education may seem endless, but so are the possibilities. Listen last and leave our episodes empowered to define your own success as an educator and an individual.

Georgia 0:33

Hello, fellow educators, and welcome to making a great podcast. We're your hosts, Christine and Georgia. And we're so excited that you're tuning in to share your teacher voice. Today, we're going to be talking with our guests, Kristen, about experimentation in the classroom, compassion, fatigue, and how she turned one of her favorite aspects of being a teacher into her current career.

Christine 0:56

Teachers have you ever felt like you're giving your all to fight for your students needs, but you're angry that you even need to fight in the first place? You're asking yourself, why should we be needing to advocate for our students basic necessities like accessible curriculum, extra support to succeed, or even just basic human needs? Kristin has a lot to share about all of this, and we think you'll find her experiences as relatable as they are empowering. And they're also very funny.

Georgia 1:23

Stick around to the end to learn how Kristin was lucky enough to use her classroom as a lab to experiment. Why burnout is not an accurate term. And which delicious cocktail she makes perfectly, which is perfect because it's Friday, and I'm already thinking about that.

Christine 1:41

Exactly. Me too. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Kristen.

Kristen 1:46

Thanks for having me. So, so exciting.

Georgia 1:48

Yeah, we're so excited to have you here. We're really looking forward to getting into your experience as a teacher and what you're up to now. But one of our favorite things to do is start out by getting to know our guests a little bit more in a personal way. So we're going to do some would you rather some people call them Mr. That kind of go back and forth with that, but are you cool, it's a little game for to start out. Alright, I know you a little bit or a lot for the guests. But so this is something I know the answer to but I'm going to ask it anyways because I think it's a fun one. But the Backstreet Boys are in sync

Kristen 2:30

1000 1,000% and I am as of right now, but if you listen to this podcast and you you align with me, I was a how we d fan and I've never been a fellow how we fan.

Christine 2:43

I was a Kevin girl, which is also less popular.

Kristen 2:47

In our club.

Georgia 2:48

I love it. You went and saw them in concert recently, right? Yeah. Oh my gosh, I remember seeing your story. I was as soon as I saw it. I was very jealous. I'm the same way though. I'm teen Backstreet Boys. What about you? Christine, are you I

Christine 3:05

wasn't in sync girl.

Georgia 3:09

I didn't know that either.

Christine 3:10

Yeah, no, I think it was. Yeah, it depends on like, who your one or two friends are at that age. My cousin and I were really into in sync. We saw them in concert. It was yeah, it begins in curls JC specifically.

Georgia 3:27

That's awesome. Okay, cool. That was a fun one. All right. Next one. We'll do one more like unrelated teaching and then Christine has a good teaching related. Would you rather? Okay, would you rather see a sunrise or a sunset?

Kristen 3:43

Sunset? Any sleep I can get? I will. So I'm not trying to wake up early. I want sunrises and sunsets lately. But

Georgia 3:54

I agree. And we're on this like trip right now around the country. And every time. Like I say to Sergei, we should get up early and see the sunset tomorrow. And we're like, Yeah, let's do it. And then we're like, Yeah, let's see the sunset later instead. But, okay, cool. Good answer.

Christine 4:13

Yeah. Okay, so, I know when you were in the classroom, you are working with younger kids. So this I kind of changed the question a little bit with that in mind. But would you rather do an activity with your kids like at their I'm assuming they have tables not desks, right. So tables or rug?

Kristen 4:36

Table just more comfortable. Yeah. And like Georgia, and I will you take little kids so a lot of stuff went down on that rug. You know, always like the best place to be.

Georgia 4:49

Yeah. More structures true. A little bit more. Yeah, table.

Kristen 4:54

Yeah, I need your cleanup. I don't know.

Christine 4:57

Yeah, I think my kids in there Eris like felt like their personal space. I don't know, we could tell that where they had to be a little bit more. Whereas on the rug, it was just kind of a free for all like, Oh, I'm gonna roll over this way and lay down and like harder.

Kristen 5:15

Thankfully, the amount of kids who threw up and peed on the rug was hard to, to get out of your head when you're playing bingo, you know?

Georgia 5:22

It's true is true. Yes. Okay. That's true, man. Right? Sure.

Christine 5:29

Yeah, no, exactly. Yeah, no, definitely. No, that kind of makes me think a little bit about what you're doing now. And how you kind of transitioned from experimenting in the classroom into your current fields, which kind of has a lot to do with setup and the Altero setup of room. So now professional

But yes, do you? Do you want to talk a little bit about what you're doing now? And then a little bit, maybe about what you were doing in the classroom?

Kristen 6:02

Sure. Yeah. So right now I'm doing interior design, and home staging. And the classroom had a lot to do with that. When I was teaching, I was teaching in a public school in Massachusetts. And my favorite part, well, one, I mean, I love the kids. But besides that, says, the children, my favorite part was setting up the environment. And for a while, it was like the classroom got so busy and so stressful, that I gave that up, I just sort of needed to get my To Do Lists done and needed to meet certain curriculums and test scores. And so I, I saw in my career, like, in the beginning, I cared so much about the environment, then I got like, all stressed out and jumbled, I let go of it, and I got super unhappy. And then I, my husband's career coach kind of reminded me to bring it back. And that really helped me. So I started doing basically, looking at the classroom from an interior design standpoint. And kind of testing out like what that did for the kids, for me, for learning for behavior for just emotional well being. I don't know.

Christine 7:20

Yeah, that's incredible. I mean, what you do now is incredible. But to be able to kind of find that in the classroom, I feel like it's pretty unique. Like, you know, I think as teachers, you think about what would make my day and the students stay better, but not necessarily like this tangible thing that you ultimately have control over. But don't think too much about unless it's kind of brought to you or something? So I think, yeah, that's really cool that you were able to experiment with it, and then that it became such a passion of yours.

Georgia 7:56

Fun fact. So Kristen, you you inspired me greatly to kind of do the same thing in my classroom, like kind of use it to experiment and kind of see what else like, was out there in terms of what else I was interested in how I could kind of use that in my classroom to reignite my passion a bit. So I don't know if you know that, but you did inspire me to do that. And Chris, and I taught in the same district we taught, we both taught pre K. And so we've kind of been in each other's lives for the teaching journey, the oh my gosh, am I still excited about this part of it, and then the new adventures, so we've kind of been through it all together.

Kristen 8:42

Like we've had our journeys have been really different in like, the little details, but the same and like bigger, overarching.

Georgia 8:50

Yes. And it's it's funny, because Christina and I feel that way, too. There's like all these parallels, even though, like you said, the little tiny details and reasoning for things might be different. But overall, it's like a common theme. So I think that's, I don't know something to continue exploring, like, why did the three of us kind of have this overarching similarities and do other teachers maybe have that as well? You didn't like up and leave the classroom all at once. You kind of laughed for a little bit and came back. Yeah. Do you want to go into that a little bit?

Kristen 9:25

Sure. Um, so I taught in Massachusetts for about 10 years. I started in a private preschool for children experience, HomeLink homelessness. And then I ended up teaching in a public school pre K again, which is where I met Georgia. So I'm really bad at like years and timelines. So don't no one likes like it's down and like double check, but I know my son was born in 2016. So when my first son was born, I took a maternity leave for the year. Her show was super fortunate to be able to do. And so I was home with him, which is wonderful, but super exhausting. Kind of just like, had to change every single little detail of my routine in life and not sleeping at night, but had John so that was worth it. But I was excited to go back I missed the routine. I all my friends really were at school, I had a really good community of friends. So I went back for a year. And then during that year, it was sort of like, I don't I don't know, I I miss being home. I live in LA, I lived in Boston, where it's really expensive to live. And daycare, childcare is extremely expensive. So I was sort of trading my salary just for child care. And then it also became apparent that John had some neurodiversity. So I was sort of trying to figure out, you know, how I was going to advocate for him. And so after going back for a year, I actually took another year off, like Georgia for career exploration. I did some curriculum design, some writing, but really, I just started hunkering down on my advocacy work for my son. And then I got pregnant again. I took another year of maternity leave. And then I came back, after kind of getting jobs set up, I came back for the COVID year, which ended up being my last my last year, and then I permanently left. So it was a I was in and out a bunch. I've had a lot of times that kind of reflect and I think it shows like it's not an easy decision. Every time I would leave. There were things really important things drawing me back, which was my community of fellow teachers who were like my best friends, the routine the kids. But then there was also this other pool of like, the rest of life and trying to balance out. So it was bumpy. It's even now I'm like, No, I'm permanently out in the back of my head. I'm like, well, dumper garbage. But

Christien 12:22

I think what you were saying about, I mean, really every piece of it, but about motherhood and, and being home and then, you know, missing that community. And because it is so unique, and your classroom and your space and teaching as an identity and, you know, the the piece of like advocating for your child as well. And, you know, having to do that in the classroom too. I'm sure. It was, it was a lot. And yeah, it's a it's incredible, all the things that you were doing at the same time. And that you were able to kind of even through all that, see, okay, this is where I want to be. And this is why

Georgia 13:03

I feel like, yeah, I've already I've already said this on future episodes, I do believe in following your gut. And it's, it's so much easier said than done. And it's also easier when you're giving someone else advice. You know, it's, it's so easy for you to see, you know, Kristen, you're an amazing interior designer, leave teaching, it's not for you right now, you're going to be so successful. Like it's so easy to see that as an outsider. But then when you're that person doing the decision making the decision, it's so hard. And the three of us became teachers for a reason, because we love kids, and we wanted to be teachers and we liked the routine. And we liked the community, like you were saying. And so even if our life circumstances and our curiosities are calling us elsewhere, it's not easy to just up and leave. It's, it's you know, we wanted to make it work. But at the end of the day, you have to put yourself and your family's needs first, especially when you're experiencing so many similarities at home and in the classroom in terms of having to advocate so much and care so much for all these littles in the classroom and the little ones at home. And it's a lot. It's definitely a lot. Do you want to speak a little bit more about your time in the classroom in terms of how you were able to use it as as a lab while you were transitioning out? And also, you told us about this term compassion fatigue, and I think those two kind of go hand in hand in terms of you leaving, do you want to share about that?

Kristen 14:47

Sure. Um, so I stumbled across that term compassion fatigue and it really, I can't remember where I saw it or not come up with it. But it really spoke to that year I went back to teaching when I had had my first son, I was starting to figure out how to best advocate for his diversity. And you wouldn't believe I mean, you would, because your teachers, but the amount of paperwork, the amount of hours on the phone with insurance and, and again, like I'm so privileged in the way of like English is my first language and I have a master's degree in early childhood special education. And when I'm telling you I was pulling my hair out, it is the most confusing and infuriating process to get your kids support. And I can go on about that for hours. Must be intentional, because it's just, it's beyond frustrating. But so while I'm doing that, and plus, just like dealing with my son's diagnoses, and all the emotional aspect of kind of reframing what you thought your life was going to be like, and what your kid's life is, like, it's just all that little stuff. I had a child in my class that I was teaching, going through the exact same thing. And I was trying to support his parents and their advocacy. And it was just, I with a shell, like, it was too much. And so when I heard that term, compassion fatigue, for so long, I've been saying I'm burnt down and burned down and burnt out. But when I heard compassion fatigue, I was like, No, that is what's happening. Like, I care so much, I haven't stopped caring and burn out of care. I just care so much. I can't, I can't, I'm exhausted, I'm fatigued, I can't, I can't do this. So that was like a really reflective year of like, reframing what it is, That was exhausting me,

Christine 16:53

when I'm talking about like advocating and in English being your first language, and, you know, being able to have all of those conversations, like, I thought about that all the time in special ed, where my parents English was not their first language and navigating health insurance calls with them after school or something, or, you know, even just emails are getting the right paperwork that they need filled out by the doctor and then brought into school and filled out by, you know, whoever it was, who needed to sign off on all those things. I constantly thought about all of those steps and to you know, that's just the one portion of it, and then you also spoke to the emotional aspect of it, and then you're still taking care of your child during all of this time. It's like, how do you? How do you balance all of that and take care of yourself as well, like, that's, that's, that's just a lot. And then to have that in the classroom, as well as just your empathy must have been an overdrive, like,

Kristen 17:52

a lot of teachers feel that. I mean, it's, I think it's one of the founding like characteristics that makes you get into teaching, right, just being an empathetic person. But there's only so much you can really expect of people and I think right now, teachers are really under it. And then if you add one more layer, the balance just gets thrown off so much.

Georgia 18:20

And another piece of it is, you know, everything that Chris Christie and Kristen, were just talking about the paperwork and the helping the parents and the list goes on of the things that go into advocating for your students, you are the sole person doing that, like there, yes, there are people above you that are supposed to be helping, but that's very often not the case. They're unreachable, or, you know, giving you kind of like silly responses, you know, I have this huge problem, blah, blah, blah, okay, here's a band aid is that help? You're good, right? And so,

like, put out fires out?

Kristen 19:01

Yeah. There's also this breakdown of like, and I'm sure it's not like this in every district in Georgia. I don't know if you had this experience in ours, but I sure did. Where it was, like the people I'm supposed to ask for help are also the people judging my performance. So there's this I'm advocating for a child but what it could get twisted into is me saying I can't do my job. And so when you have an administrator who's not in the right state of mind are they can use your advocacy against you also. So it's a very fine line that teachers are are walking.

Georgia 19:40

It is no it really is. I taught my last year of teaching last year and it was you know, still COVID was happening. I stuck it out one year after do I really wanted to leave at the same time as you but I just wasn't quite ready. So I stuck it out one more year and it was a really hard year and I'll get into that in another conversation. But I remember talking to someone, it's like I'm so burned out. And they were like, No, you're not, you're not burned out, burned out implies that, like you're doing something wrong, that it's a you problem that the problem is not you the problem is this system wide issue where teachers are not taking care of the way that they should be. And things like COVID things like advocating for special ed, things like that expose these, like deep rooted issues that no one's really fixing, or just throwing little band aids on. So yeah, I really think that's a very accurate term compassion, fatigue.

Christine 20:41

And it's the important stuff that you're advocating for, you know, and the things that, that we, as teachers and as individuals care about the most not like, is this student meeting benchmarks and, you know, academically excelling, it's like, is the student able to function in the classroom in a way that's meaningful for them and be able to socialize with their peers in effective ways? Do they have what they need? Like, those are the things that are like baseline most important and when those needs aren't being met? It's like, it just I feel like it makes a person who does care so much like a teacher, like all of us, just be like, just almost like to the point of irrational, irrational, like, where do you find like, those memes that are like, we're gonna min find the density? It's like, where do you find the audacity to tell me I need to be do something differently, when this child can even be in the classroom without their accommodations? And like, you're telling me, I need to do my job differently? Like, no, there's something very wrong with this picture.

Kristen 21:45

And now, it's like a special ed parent. It's interesting, because now, I have a situation right now in my son's classroom, where there's new, there's a couple of new students, and it's clear, there's not enough supports put in place for these students. And I would like to advocate because, you know, now, the teachers having to take a lot of time to focus on these two students, of course, right, because you go where the greatest need is, I would love to advocate for her to get more staffing support more what she needs. I let me tell you, I've written this email 14 times, I don't know how to send an email, that doesn't sound that I don't think an administrator is going to go, oh, this parents complaining about the teacher, because I'm not or this parents complaining about those kids. I'm not a kids belong there, the teachers fabulous. You need to do more. And it's it's it just the system of schools not set up for like, where, who, how do I hold the people up accountable? Because it's just seems to all fall on the teachers shoulders, or at worse, it'll be like, well move those kids. That's not what we're asking for. It's really right.

Georgia 22:58

If you're worried everything you're saying it's gonna get twisted. And it's unfortunate that, yeah, yeah. Like, who do you go to? Who do you go to as a parent? Do you go to as a teacher? When you need real help? Yeah.

Kristen 23:15

Without a buck having to stop always at the teacher? Yes. Doing the most

Christine 23:24

strict Yeah, I think when you do put the students needs first. And like, if administration were putting students needs first, then it would be so clear, like, oh, yeah, of course, that's, that's not an issue, or that's not a problem. But like, I don't know, if so much just gets caught in the shuffle or, like, lost in the middle. And I think, you know, I don't I don't think necessarily, like from my experiences. And in my district, I don't think that it was, you know, that they, people at the top didn't have the right idea as much as they were so burdened by other things like it, it was clear that, you know, I think my leadership definitely wanted to do those things. But yeah, I think it was just that they had so many other things going on from time. So it was like, yeah, yeah,

Georgia 24:10

I totally agree with that. And I think, coming from where Chris, Kristen, and I taught where we were teaching, the littlest kids at our schools in our schools went from pre K to eighth. So it really was like,

I think that my principal, especially during the year of COVID, she had so much on her plate that she was dealing with that it's like, okay, well, you know, Georgia is teaching the youngest kids. Oh, they might have need some special ed or who knows what they might need. But you know, if they're little and they'll figure it out, and Georgia's got it Kristen's got it, Christine's got it. Like we have much bigger fish to fry as they say, like we can't, that's not a problem right now. And yeah, I don't know what the answer is and How to fix it. But I know that that's a common theme as why amazing teachers like Kristen, and Christine and all of us are kind of pivoting. So,

Christine 25:14

that leads us into our next question well, so to kind of come back to what we were chatting about earlier, so you know, you were teaching for so long, and then you pivoted into this new career of interior design. How do you define success now versus when you had started in the fields? Whether it's teaching or what you're doing currently? How are you making the grade?

Kristen 25:41

Yeah, so I think when I was teaching, it was all about being liked. I was just like, living for positive feedback, I think. I definitely perfectionist so it was first one there last one to leave, everything needs to be done beautifully in straight edges. And Georgia knows my I can get real stuck on details.

Georgia 26:08

But it helps with your career. Now,

Christine 26:09

I was just gonna say do so beautiful photos.

Kristen 26:15

But they're I mean, you can get real lost in it. So I'm gonna I'm gonna quote one of my my new mentors. She doesn't know she is. But Lizzo said on her show, yes. That you can't ask a perfectionist not to seek perfection. They can't, I can't undo it. I can't let go of perfect. But you can ask them to reframe perfect. And so that's been kind of my work in the last year of being like, Okay, perfect. Doesn't have to be mean you are the most productive, the most tired. The one who did the most the most the most. Now, it's about being present. It's about enjoying my children. It's about resting if I can, now resting, if I can see that was I was old thinking, resting. And just enjoying really just enjoying my family and trying to be present. calmer. So now it has nothing to do with work. So it really one add on me.

Christine 27:16

So I love Lizzo's advice about the being a perfectionist. What advice do you have for teachers in the field right now?

Kristen 27:28

I think to do less, even though that feels impossible. The culture sort of keeps throwing more curriculum, we're projects more PD has every year but I think if you can try to set yourself up every year for a little less work. And just just slow down a little. That's my advice.

Georgia 27:55

That's good advice. Just yeah. Good advice for everybody. Whether you are classroom teacher or not. That's really good advice. Yeah. No, oh, go ahead. Christina. I

Christine 28:06

was just gonna say I love that you made that human terms and not like turn off.

Georgia 28:13

True. Full Circle, good follow. On that note, of, you know, things are being thrown at teachers all the time, this curriculum, this new PD, this new this, this and that. What do you think would make education a little bit better right now, for teachers, for students just in general,

Kristen 28:41

mean very similar advice, I guess. But it would be to slow everything down. I think curriculums moving really fast, I think, especially in the early years, kids are getting left behind. When it's really unnecessary. stressing about reading levels in kindergarten, or how we hold a pencil in pre K, it's, it just makes no sense. Just from a brain development point of view. It's just a rush to hope for good test scores later on. There's really no other explanation for it. So I think just to slow it all down, especially in the early years. Let the teachers be creative. Let them do what they went to all that school for, which was setting up environments for kids making their own curriculums. Give everyone a second. Wow.

Georgia 29:36

I really like that. And then maybe if we focused a little bit more on all those things, you're saying we weren't so forceful about did you learn the new letter this week? Or, you know, in a pre K term or in eighth grade? I don't know. Did you learn the new math curriculum? Like if if that was less of a focus and we focus more on all the things you're saying just enjoying time with the students And yeah, exploring with them and showing the kids that were doing things that were passionate about inspiring them to do the same. That could solve maybe a lot of the problems that we talked about earlier in our call.

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“I want to try something different” is the sentiment that began a new classroom model & organization for educators. With experience teaching in the US & India, Amar has spent many years in many differ

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