Growth Through Grief: Learning to Put the Oxygen Mask on Myself, Before Helping Others

Hi, my name is Danielle and I’m a workaholic. (Hi, Danielle.) Family, friends, and colleagues will likely laugh while reading because this statement is so obvious to them. And while, yes, I do dedicate an immense amount of time professionally, it’s because I’m so passionate about the work I do and the impact I hope to make in students’ lives. New ideas and projects excite me as I think about how they can help the school counseling profession and ultimately contribute to student success. However, beginning my first semester at Harvard was definitely a test of not just my academic and professional skills, but also my ability to balance my life personally.

 As you may know, during my first semester at Harvard my dad’s lung cancer spread significantly – first to his liver, detected in early October. The news was jarring, but at that time his oncologist talked about treatment and we were all hopeful. While I let my advisor know about the situation, it was more for precautionary reasons. Being on the other side of the country from California I called more frequently and sent cards regularly. I figured I would be home in early December to spend quality time with my dad at the end of the semester. And so I went back to studying.

 Two weeks later, as I was finishing up a paper, my dad called. “What are you doing?”, he asked. “Finishing up a paper that’s due in three hours. What are you doing?”, I replied. I was still looking at my laptop, pondering how to finish my conclusion when my dad let me know he was in the hospital because his cancer spread to his brain. Oh, and he had a minor stroke, which is how they found out. After I got off the phone with my dad I called my two brothers, but one was working and the other was busy with his two young kids so both conversations were brief. My partner was out of town at a work dinner, so I filled him in and feigned being okay, telling him to enjoy the night. I then walked back and forth in my one bedroom apartment, feeling worried but also knowing I needed to finish my paper. So, I stopped fidgeting and got to it.

 My family and I didn’t know what my dad’s new diagnosis meant and my dad remained positive and encouraged me to keep up my studies. But even though I was doing my best to stay focused, strong, and calm at school I didn’t realize how much I was falling apart on the inside. One day the sadness finally poured out. I came to class feeling tearful and when some of my peers noticed and asked how I was doing I started crying and pretty much couldn’t stop all day. Many of my classmates tried to give me outs – stepping out into the hall with me and telling me I could take a break for as long as I needed, getting me drinks of water, explaining the situation to the cohort when I broke down during a whole class personal check-in, buying me chocolate – and yet I remained at school all day. Looking back, I realized that I attributed leaving class to being weak. And weakness was the last thing I wanted to show, especially during my first semester at Harvard!

 That crying day, my intuition must have been on point because one of my brothers called letting me know they got the prognosis – my dad had two to three months to live. Still trying to be thoughtful and manage my schoolwork, I booked a flight for two weeks later, to span a long weekend. I can make it until then, I thought. I updated professors and while I felt slightly unhinged, I had a plan – I would be home in two weeks.

 What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of genuine support from my program, especially from the faculty. While I knew our professors cared about us, the level of love I felt was unprecedented. Between their full-fledged support and my dad being readmitted to the hospital I ended up flying home two days (rather than two weeks) later, not knowing when I would return.

My initial thought was to go home for a week, return to school for the week and a half before Thanksgiving, and then go home again. This seemed like a good plan – l wouldn’t miss many classes, nor the big group presentation coming up. Yet, once I got home I realized I was exactly where I belonged. The words of various professors also ran through my head: “You can make up your classes. You can’t make up time with your dad.” “The work will always be there.” “Take all the time you need.” Rather than feel guilty about being gone I embraced the time with my family.

I spent time with my dad during the day, and then went to dinner at my younger brother’s house at night, enjoying time with his wife and my adorable niece and nephew. I went grocery shopping with my mom, cleaned up around the house, and tried to get in a run. It became my new routine. During my time with my dad he would tell stories, we watched movies, and we even played Scrabble and poker. I brought him meals of sushi, tacos, chicken, or tamales since he was in a skilled nursing facility with less than desirable food. My brothers and I took my dad on a few outings, including to his favorite breakfast spot and to a local car show. I also showed my dad pictures, and then hung them all over the walls of his room.

Being home for three weeks gave me the peace and healing I needed to return to Harvard after Thanksgiving. I was able to get through that week and a half because, having spent so much time with my dad and family, I felt whole. I came back to campus for the last two weeks of class which included integrating my personal experiences of needing additional social-emotional support into my personal theory of impactful teaching and learning for PreK-12 education. In this presentation, I shared how the tier 2 and 3 supports I was given from the EdLD Program was similar to what students (and adults) at all levels need. The time I spent at home, taking care of my needs first, rather than worrying about my professional life, gave me the strength to finish the semester.  

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After my last class I flew home to California. Hospice brought my dad home as well and I became his primary caregiver. Those nine days at home with my dad, before he passed away, are hard to describe – it was a time of heartache, love, intimacy, hurt, and so much more. Days and nights blended together as I resided on the couch, beside my dad’s hospital bed in the living room. Family and friends visited; my mom and I gave my dad medicine when an alarm rang; hospice checked in on us once a day; I changed my dad’s clothes and bed sheets; my younger brother stopped by after work with his kiddos; and I worked on completing my finals in the space between. I even slept on the couch so I could attend to anything my dad needed in the middle of the night, even after we got a baby monitor. It felt better to be close to him.

 Some of what I will remember of those last nine days is my dad’s positivity, even when he was hurting. I will remember us eating sushi together on the first night he was back at home, and how he insisted we get upgraded cable so he could watch car shows. And I will cherish the memory of his brother and cousin coming to visit, and my dad tearfully hugging them goodbye when they left.

I will also remember when my dad stopped being able to feed himself or even lift a cup up to his mouth. And when he then stopped wanting to eat or take medicine. I think it was his silent protest to his body not doing what he wanted it to. And shortly after, I remember hospice telling us my dad likely had 24 to 48 hours left to live. At that point the prognosis was somewhat obvious, but it still hurt to hear and is painful to think about today. I remember holding my dad’s hand, stroking his face, crying, hugging my mom and brothers…and while I felt my heart aching I also felt so lucky to be surrounded by my family’s shared understanding and love.  

 Another memory that stays with me is that I had one last school assignment to finish when we got the 24 to 48 hour news. Without thinking, I emailed my professor to let him know the circumstances and to say I would have to take an incomplete in the class. Although I have never had an incomplete in a class (nor many other things in life), I repeated the email message from a different professor in my head: “You can make up your classes. You can’t make up time with your dad.”  This reminder allowed me to put the hypothetical oxygen mask on myself first, just as flight attendants tell us to do – to take care of myself first, before I can adequately take care of others. Although self-care was somewhat easier being in school rather than having a full-time job, the experience of focusing on my own healing and being with my family reinforced the importance of this message for me. And the time I was able to spend with my dad and family, guilt free, was the best gift anyone could have given me. EVER.

I also have a newfound respect for and understanding of showing vulnerability. In the past, I have been comfortable sharing personally, but last semester I realized how much harder it is to be vulnerable in new situations. As I finally felt like I was getting into a groove at Harvard and gaining my confidence, my dad’s terminal illness hit me like a punch in the stomach. I didn’t fully trust myself sharing my personal circumstances, as I was worried about breaking down in front of classmates and professors I had just met. While I logically know that crying doesn’t make me less strong, I was concerned about how I would be perceived amongst a group of such strong leaders; I didn’t want to look weak. However, I also knew I needed help, and as I began sharing with select people – first my workplace lab team, and then cohort members with whom I was most comfortable – I realized this helped, rather than hurt me. The love and support I received was phenomenal, which gave me strength to tell my entire cohort and professors about my dad’s cancer. I was reminded to give myself grace, that I don’t have to be perfect (nor is that realistic), and it is okay to ask for help. I cried publically (multiple times), had to ask professors for extensions, and was unable to be at a final presentation with my team. And yet, I survived. I learned to give myself the same compassion I would give to others which makes me stronger, not weaker.

Because of my passion and drive, I know that taking care of myself will be a continual battle (that’s why the title says learning to put the mask on myself first, rather than learned!). However, the love and support given to me during my dad’s illness and passing taught me a monumental lesson of the importance of self-care. I started my second semester feeling at peace (or feeling as much at peace as is likely possible after a significant death), which helped me regain my footing and jump back into school with minimal setbacks, including finishing up my incomplete assignment. I am grateful to work with such amazingly supportive cohort members and professors, and to have wonderful family and friends. And while my heart still hurts as I miss my dad, the lessons he taught me both during his life and in his passing are in my heart. I would never change the time I was at home with my dad and family for anything, which validates the importance of self-care and is a lesson I will never forget.



It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (for School Counseling Advocacy!)

It’s almost here…National School Counseling Week! The 2019 celebration takes place February 4-8 and focuses public attention on the unique contribution of professional school counselors within United States school systems and how students are different as a result of comprehensive school counseling. In school districts and states across the nation, National School Counseling Week proclamations are being presented, such as by Assemblyman Jose Medina (District 61-Riverside) in my home state of California. Additionally, on the Friday before National School Counseling Week, 2019 School Counselor of the Year winner Brian Coleman and other finalists will be celebrated in Washington D.C. Our profession is incredibly lucky that former First Lady, Michelle Obama, highlighted our role and even hosted the ceremony in the White House for many years. For her most recent speech at the 2018 celebration watch here (skip to minute 43).  

During this week, my Facebook and Twitter accounts are often flooded with school counselors sharing the accolades or gifts they have received, but in my humble opinion, I prefer to celebrate partnerships that allow me to work collaboratively and effectively as a school counselor. Therefore, rather than expecting treats, my school counseling department was the one who gave them out. In addition, we would pair those treats with the programs, data, and related ASCA Mindsets and Behaviors Standards from school counseling department activities. I most recently worked at a school in 2016 – here is what we shared with our staff:

 

Some examples of data you can use include:

  • Highlighting the number of students who have improved their grades from D’s and F’s after participating in study skills groups

  • Showing the increase in number of students who want to go to college, know the college entrance requirement courses (called A-G requirements in California), and have completed a 4-year plan aligned with A-G courses

  • Sharing the number of students who participated in school counselor-led intentional interventions to improve behavior, and the reduction in discipline referrals

  • Identifying and featuring improvements in feelings of school safety and connectedness using data from Panorama, California Healthy Kids Survey, or other school climate/culture surveys

  • Recognizing the increase in students who are taking and passing AP courses and/or are graduating from high school and entering post-secondary education programs

Don’t have a lot of data? That’s okay too! Share information about the upcoming family college readiness night, or even better also include how many people attended the last one. Use “qualitative data” (quotes) from students, parents, and/or staff about how school counselors support their success. Include your school counseling department’s mission and the programs in place to support student development. The only “wrong way” to celebrate, in my (again humble) opinion, is to not celebrate at all! As school counselors, we don’t often like to pat ourselves on the back, as we are usually too busy giving pats to others, or we feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. However, if we don’t market our school counseling programs, the work we do, and the benefits provided to students, others may not realize how hard we are working to support students’ success. As a profession, we often feel frustrated that teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and many others don’t understand or value our work. National School Counseling Week is the perfect opportunity to appropriately shed light on our role and significance within the educational setting.

 A few more suggestions…

  • Check out the American School Counselor Association’s website for their new school counseling week image, 2019 photo challenge, and other ideas. Your state school counseling association may also have ideas about ways to celebrate.

  • Elementary school counseling intern Courtney Lloyd set up a guessing contest about the number of school counseling core curriculum classroom lessons they had taught to date and then shared the results. Check out more details on her website.

  • Last year’s Hatching Results podcast about National School Counseling Week features a variety of school counselors from across the country and how they celebrate. Listen to get some additional ideas.

While you all are prepping for National School Counseling Week at your schools, I too will be prepping here in graduate school! I’m planning to share a short presentation about the changing school counselor role and use of data in counseling with my Harvard Education Leadership cohort. I will be sporting my SCHOOL (not guidance) Counselor shirt and will pass out I <3 My School Counselor stickers with them as well (which you can also buy in Spanish on the ASCA website!).

Along with enjoying the celebratory week, I hope you appreciate the process of reflecting on your work as a school counselor and the difference you make in the lives of students. And remember, if Michelle Obama can sing our praises, we can too!

My Journey to Harvard!!!

Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m here, studying at Harvard! And did you know that Harvard University was founded in 1636?! Being on a campus with so much history and knowledge is extremely exciting, inspiring, and humbling! I visited the Harvard campus for the first time at the 2014 College Opportunity Agenda: Strengthening School Counseling and College Advising, an event in partnership with the White House and Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative. Being with phenomenal school counseling leaders from across the country at the convening was life changing. I felt so much gratitude to be among the 140 attendees to learn, collaborate, and share, and was also extremely inspired being on Harvard’s campus. The visit was my first time setting foot on an East Coast ivy league school, and I felt in awe of the history and prestige surrounding me.

As school counselors, we know that taking students to visit universities helps demystify college, as they can begin envisioning themselves on campus. This is especially important for students who will be the first in their family to attend college. Coordinating college tours, coupled with classroom lessons to help students prepare for the visit and then process what they learned after was one of my favorite parts of my school counselor role. I loved seeing students excitedly walk on campus, comparing the college classrooms to the ones at their school, and asking every questions imaginable. While working to demystify college for my students, I didn’t realize I also needed college demystified for me.

College opportunity agenda: strengthening school counseling and college advising at harvard university, 2014

College opportunity agenda: strengthening school counseling and college advising at harvard university, 2014

After my visit to Harvard I reflected on many aspects of my trip, including the possibility that I could attend Harvard. How had I never thought of attending Harvard before?, I wondered. The question continued running through my mind as I researched Harvard’s doctoral programs and considered applying. Several months later I attended the next White House Convening at San Diego State University, entitled Strengthening School Counseling and College Advising, and reconnected with Harvard professor, Dr. Mandy Savitz-Romer. Mandy was on the core team working with the White House to promote the appropriate role of school counselors within the Reach Higher Initiative, and I wrote her a thank you email after attending the Harvard event. As we talked in San Diego I asked her about the doctoral programs and said, “I think I’m going to apply, and you’re the first one I’m telling.” Her response was something to the effect of “Now that you said it out loud you’ve made it real.” She was right.

In the fall of 2015 I applied to Harvard’s Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program. Having worked as both a school counselor and counseling grant project director, serving as President for the California Association of School Counselors, presenting at state and national school counseling conferences, teaching graduate courses for future school counselors, writing an article published in the Professional School Counselor journal, and studying like crazy for the GREs, I felt good about my application. I knew Harvard conducted in-person interviews at the end of February, so beginning in January I started anxiously awaiting notification. The notification came, but in the form of a rejection email. I was crushed.

STRENGTHENING school counseling &amp; college advising with the california reach higher team, san diego state university 2014

STRENGTHENING school counseling & college advising with the california reach higher team, san diego state university 2014

While I loved working as a school counselor and now leading counselors, I was ready for a change, and I hoped that change would be Harvard. I applied to two other education leadership doctoral programs as well and wasn’t accepted to either. Shortly after all the bad news I visited my parents in Northern California and I still remember going on a run and crying (which is pretty hard to do at the same time!). I wasn’t sure of my next steps, but I still was looking for a new opportunity in my learning and leadership.

This change came in the form of Dr. Trish Hatch :) When I was a graduate student at San Diego State University (SDSU) Trish was the director of the School Counseling Program and her mentorship continued after I graduated. My first school counseling position was grant funded and Trish was the grant evaluator, and not only supported my learning as a new counselor, but also involved me in the evaluation process as we analyzed data aligned with our counseling program, wrote the federal grant report, and presented to the school board to advocate for continuing counseling services after the grant funding ceased (which happened…yay!). Trish empowered me to become an adjunct faculty member in SDSU’s school counseling program, encouraged me to run for president of the California Association of School Counselors, and pushed me through the painful process of co-authoring a peer reviewed journal article with her! So much of where I am today is due to not only my hard work, but Trish believing in and empowering me. After my graduate school rejections Trish and I talked (and I likely cried again), and the conversation turned from one of sorrow to one of healing. We brainstormed about next steps and how Trish was looking for additional support in her educational organization, Hatching Results. After a variety of discussions and processing I took a leap of faith and decided to leave my tenured position at my district to work full time with Hatching Results.

When I began, I didn’t even have a position title and continued to joke that we were a start-up (which was actually more serious than a joke but in the best of ways). My role became Director of Professional Development and I provided direct services to support school counselors as they evaluated, developed, implemented, and improved comprehensive, data-driven school counseling programs, alongside administrators and district leaders. My work spanned districts and counties throughout California and Indiana, and the position grew to helping hire, train, and support additional part-time team Professional Development Specialists and Coaches as they began working in our contracted districts as well. During my two years working with Hatching Results our organization grew so much - from streamlining our professional development to increasing the number of districts in which we were working to hiring three times the number of additional staff to purchasing a property to coordinating an annual conference. I loved teaming with counselors and administrators to support their improvement, measure their impact, and learn about the successes and challenges amongst different districts and regions. And yet, while I was extremely happy, I knew achieving my doctorate was still an important goal for me.

In 2017 I applied again - to Harvard and two additional programs (both different than the last time). I asked for more feedback on my applications which included "selling myself” more. I took the advice and even though I felt uncomfortable, I framed my application to better highlight my work as a leader the field of school counseling. In January I was just about to start leading a professional development in Southern California when an email from Harvard popped up on my phone - I was selected for an interview! A month later I flew across the country, trekked to campus in the snow, and participated in an intense but amazing full-day interview process. At the end of the day I shared my story about visiting Harvard and being demystified, which further reinforced the power of my work to do the same for students. I spoke of not being accepted two years ago and, regardless of the outcome this time, I would still continue to work passionately to support all students’ academic, college and career, and social/emotional development. And I left feeling both exhausted and at peace.

This time the notifications I received were positive - acceptance to all three programs!!! And the choice was easy. HARVARD!

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I share my journey to Harvard for several reasons: 1) for readers to get to know me as an imperfect human who has successes and also struggles, but still does my best to make lemonade out of lemons, 2) to encourage school counselors to think of themselves as leaders in the education field and to recognize education leadership as an amazing option for a doctoral program, 3) as a reminder to myself and others that when situations don’t turn out in the way we hope (aka, not getting into Harvard the first time) other great opportunities can arise, and 4) to push myself to continue working hard and fighting for what I believe in, which I hope readers will do as well.

Thank you for reading my first blog post…I am excited to share this amazing experience with you all as I process through learning, struggles, and growth.

Harvard university education leadership doctorate (edld) cohort 9

Harvard university education leadership doctorate (edld) cohort 9