Self-Awareness: Knowing Ourselves to Know Others

In this third of four foundational posts, we take a look at an essential ingredient in an educator’s ability to build secure relationships: their own self-awareness.

Educators, like students, are not blank slates.

Just like their students, educators bring a history of their relationships into classrooms, schools, and interactions every day.

A study of maternal and infant patterns of attachment by Fonagy, Steele, and Steele looked at the attachment styles of expecting first-time parents to see if a parent’s attachment style could predict that of their unborn child. An attachment style is a habitual pattern of relating that develops based on our earliest relationships with parents or caregivers. The researchers in this study first assessed whether these expecting parents were “securely attached” or “insecurely attached”, and then brought the parents back to assess their babies after their first birthday. Researchers wanted to know if there was any relationship between the parents’ attachment styles and the attachment styles of their children. Amazingly, the researchers found that they could predict with 75% accuracy the child’s attachment style based on the parent's attachment style (which was measured long before the child was even born).

What this study tells us is that the best predictor of whether we will build secure or insecure relationships with others is our own attachment history.

You may be wondering what implication does this have for educators? Relationships are a double-edged sword. While on one hand, a secure educator is more likely to build secure relationships that enhance learning, on the other, an insecure educator is more likely to build insecure relationships that affirm the student or staff's problematic view of relationships and impair learning.

If being securely attached is a prerequisite to building secure attachment in others, then what are the people who never had a secure attachment figure to do? This is a critical question as, in the general population, about 40-50% of us are insecurely attached—and in one study of 307 teachers, every single one of them was insecurely attached.

Is it possible to change your attachment style, as an adult?

The resounding answer is YES! Even though as teachers, principals, and district leaders, we may have had insecure experiences in childhood, it is possible to change our own attachment style. Researchers have even coined new terminology for this change in attachment style from insecure to secure. It is called “earned secure attachment”, and there are two criteria that set individuals with “earned secure attachment” apart from other adults who had similar insecure childhood experiences but did not change their attachment style.

First, these individuals had a significant and secure relationship with a close friend, romantic partner, or therapist, which allowed them to develop from an insecure to a secure attachment style. Simply experiencing a secure relationship later in life is one path to healing, changing, to earning secure attachment.

Second, these individuals had reflected on their childhood experiences and developed an understanding of how past experiences impact their present and their future. They are able to tell their ‘personal story’ in a logical way while also sharing emotional content appropriate to the experiences. Researchers call this a “coherent narrative,” which is essentially a story about how one’s early attachment relationships shape and impact a person today. Coherent narratives are built through the work of self-reflection and self-understanding. Having a coherent narrative is one indicator that an adult has developed an earned secure attachment style.

This brings us to the next part of the FuelEd framework — self-awareness —and the reason why we, at FuelEd, believe it is critical that educator training involves not just the science of relationships or the skills of relationships, but an exploration of the self: an educator’s way of being in relationships, their relationship histories, their attachment styles.
 FuelEd helps educators develop greater self-awareness through insight-oriented activities in our training and promoting educator counseling. These intentional self-awareness activities enable educators to name their emotional triggers in relationships, develop an awareness of their attachment styles, explore their early experiences with caregivers and process the ways in which they were treated as children. Educators leave our training with a greater understanding of the way in which attachment styles unconsciously and powerfully play out in their adult lives as educators, and how developing an awareness of the past has the power to enhance their security of attachment and improve their personal well-being.

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Bryan's Story

When School Principal Bryan Reed experienced FuelEd’s training it set him off on a self-described “transformative self-awareness journey”.

Bryan began his career in education as a teacher with Teach for America and has since served in roles ranging from teacher to grade-level chair, to the principal. As School Leader at YES Prep North Central in 2013, Bryan was well-liked by colleagues and very driven to succeed. He was passionate about his leadership role and made it a priority to validate his fellow teachers and administrators, but Bryan felt depressed. He couldn’t concentrate, was frequently tired, and felt hopeless, all of which were affecting his work, his relationships, and his health. His usual pride in work was waning and he was isolating himself more and more. He even considered leaving his job. Fortunately for all of his colleagues and students, Bryan experienced something at his FuelEd training that allowed him to see the world differently. Instead of shying away, he leaned in by attending regular counseling—for the first time in his life.

Through counseling, Bryan found the support he needed to reflect on his present-day relationship patterns. This helped him see how hard it was for him to recognize his emotions or ask anything of others. He also began to see how rarely he shared himself at work or home for fear of burdening others and realized how highly self-critical he could be—often steeping in shame and guilt. Bryan often and easily sacrificed himself and his wellbeing to make others happy. While he aggressively held himself accountable for his actions, he found it difficult to hold others accountable. Bryan was beginning to believe there was something wrong with him.

Over time with his counselor, Bryan dug deeper and, for the first time in his life, looked closely at his past. As an only child with busy parents and a sick grandparent living at home, Bryan learned to stay in his room and not ask much of anyone. He felt a sense of pride for not asking for his needs to be met. A high value was placed on hard work and self-sacrifice and he never wanted his parents to see him fail at anything. The connections between his past and present were becoming clear.

Bryan delved further into discovering, understanding, and accepting more of himself and began to consider sharing more of himself with those close to him. As an action-oriented person, he made a plan to intentionally share more of himself with others and experiment with asking for what he needed. To his surprise, his outreach and requests were met with validation and support.

Bryan realized that his newfound emotional intelligence was something he could bring to his professional life as well, like the time he facilitated a powerful gathering for staff members at the school. First, he modeled vulnerability by sharing openly about his feelings, and then he invited others to similarly share their thoughts, needs, and feelings about the school. Through intentional, personal work, Bryan moved from a downward spiral of depression and hopelessness to a sense of control, renewed purpose, and hope.

Years after that first FuelEd program, Bryan’s investment in personal growth and self-exploration continues to bear fruit. In 2016, Bryan founded his own school and consciously placed relationships at the center of its mission. Not only does he continue to model transparency, genuineness, and secure attachment as a leader, but relationship-oriented policies and practices shape the way the school is run. Students gather in weekly restorative circles to process conflict, staff and students are organized into small communities where intimate relationships flourish, and teachers are hired based on the way they build and value relationships.

Bryan’s story shows the ways in which an educator’s deep self-work builds a critical foundation for the highly interpersonal and emotional labor that is teaching, learning, and leading in schools.

To learn about how FuelEd grows educator emotional intelligence and how you can too, check out Part Four in our Foundational Article Series.


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About the author

Megan Marcus

Partner & Founder - San Diego CA

Megan holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Pepperdine University. While at Pepperdine, Megan studied under Dr. Louis Cozolino and served as the lead researcher for his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. Megan then completed a Master’s degree in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard University, where she explored how to translate the elements of a therapists’ professional training to an educational setting. Her research with Dr. Cozolino and studies at Harvard combined to form the core beliefs that became the bedrock of FuelEd. Since 2012, Megan has passionately served the educational community as FuelEd’s Founder.

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