Ryan Healy who has taught for 13 years at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, WA. Ryan is the 2019 Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He was also honored with the Association of Washington Student Leaders Middle-Level Adviser of the Year Award in 2014. At his school, he helped develop a transformative student leadership program focused on social and emotional learning and character development. He teaches five SEL & Character Development classes each day and much of his current work is centered around getting access to those skills for as many students as possible. He serves other organizations and many of his former students and colleagues long after they leave his school. He is fond of saying relationships matter and even more fond of trying to provide others with the tools to build great relationships in their own lives.
We talk with Ryan about the importance of being available for our students and he shares some intentional ways that we can make time for the students and staff at our schools.
“Great teaching is innovative and great teaching is about getting system stuff out of the way when it's in the way. And then I think, for me, what that looks like a lot is me just saying, "Okay, what time do I have while I'm here, and then how can I use it more creatively? How can I challenge myself when I feel like I'm focusing on this stuff?"
— Ryan Healy
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Ryan Healy. Ryan has taught for 13 years at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, Washington. He was the 2019 Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He was honored by the Association of Washington Student Leaders as the Middle Level Advisor of the Year in 2014, and at his school has helped develop a transformative student leadership program focused on social-emotional learning and character development. He teaches five SEL and character development classes each day, and much of his current work is centered around getting access to those skills for as many students as possible. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Ryan Healy.
- John: All right. It is so awesome to have Ryan Healy, my good buddy, on the CharacterStrong Podcast with us today. How you doing today?
- Ryan: I'm doing great. Glad to be here.
- John: Well, first of all, congratulations. I mean you are a, I think it was specifically the Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year, a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. No surprise to me and all the people that love you, but congratulations on such a great honor.
- Ryan: Thank you so much. Yeah. Been a really neat experience to get to represent my school and a big honor that I wasn't expecting, but I'm really appreciative for receiving. So yeah. Super Cool.
- John: That's awesome. Well, here's what I know. The topic that I'd love to talk with you about today and our theme with CharacterStrong and our podcast is like the CharacterStrong commute, that it's shorter doses, 10 minutes each, the idea of cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. One of the reasons why I know at the heart of why you are recognized, because I've seen it for so many years, is the topic that I'd love to talk with you about today, and that is the power of being available for students, because I know in my knowing of you for many years, I have not only seen that in action when I've gotten to come down to your school and witness you at work as well as to present to your students.
- John: But talk to me about that because educators listen to this podcast, organizational leaders. It all connects, but talk to me about that power of being available for the people that you lead and, in your case specifically, students.
- Ryan: Well, I was thinking about this and I think any great leader learns from the people they serve. I think, as a teacher, that's the same thing. If I'm a great teacher, I'm learning from who I'm serving. Something I've been learning as a teacher over the last 13 years is that whether kids will tell you or not, it's super useful for them to have adults who are available. What that availability looks like for each kid might be different. Some of them, it's conversation availability. Some of it's time availability. Some of it's I just want their presence. But I don't think we're doing great teaching if we're not being available for kids beyond the academic content.
- Ryan: I asked some of my students today what they thought about this and why it was valuable to them when adults are available. I got some of the classic answers about like, "It's just nice to have someone to listen to you," and so many of those things. I had one student say ... I'm going to quote him here. He said, "I feel more connected to my school and my work when my teachers are taking an interest in me beyond just my school and my work."
- John: That's powerful.
- Ryan: Yeah. I mean it's fun to hear a middle school student articulate that. But I think there's just this gap right now in the world between what kids need and what I think adults either know how to give or are able to give because of adult life. I think a big piece of it is literally just face-to-face, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind. Kids just need adults who can engage with them and who are willing to sacrifice time from all the demands that we all compete for.
- John: Yeah, so true. I mean I was just speaking with a thought leader on the topic of servant leadership, and one of the themes of that conversation was there's no magic dust. This is about action. I mean when you say that, it's so true. It's about not only what we're providing our youth, what we're providing our students, our kids, and I think you even shared there what we can give. It's also what we're willing to give. I think sometimes it comes down to that priority piece. Someone really challenged me recently, and we've been using it in some of our trainings. So many times what we'll say is, "Well, I don't have the time," which many people would empathize nowadays because things move so fast. But what if you could no longer say, "I don't have the time?"
- John: What if you had to respond instead of, "I don't have the time," in any area of your life, what if you had to respond with, "I'm sorry, that's not a priority for me?" Example would be like, "Hey, have you gone and seen that doctor that you said that you needed to see to get a checkup on your health?" "I'm sorry, my health is not a priority for me." "Hey, have you paid attention," to go to your example, "Have you paid attention to your students and seen them as human beings, made the time to see them as beyond just students in your classroom, but real human beings that have needs and things that connect with?" "I'm sorry. The whole child is not a priority for me. It's just science or it's just history." When have to say that, things change a little bit, don't they?
- Ryan: Yeah. I think the hard part, and maybe to me, because I'm on the frontline with a lot of this, the scary part is that our behaviors are saying that. We don't mean to say it, I don't think. I don't know very many adults who mean to say that to anyone, but we're saying it. Today when I was talking to my kids, I asked them not only why is it valuable to have an adult available, but I asked them also, what's it feel like when they're not. You don't want to read that list. You don't want to read that. You don't want to hear all the, " It makes me feel like I don't matter. It makes me feel unimportant or not worth it. It makes me feel like a ship lost at sea. It makes me feel small." We don't want to be confronted with that list. I was confronted with that list today and I'm glad I was because it's a reminder even for me, someone who's deep into this kind of work. But our behaviors are communicating that to our students.
- John: Yep. So true. And goes to just that idea that our nonverbals and what we're not saying speaks far more on a day-to-day basis than what's actually coming out of our mouths.
“Does that mean I have to use my other time in my day differently? Yes. Sometimes it means people during school and paperwork later, but you know what? I'm going to get as much of that stuff out of the way. I'm going to lean on colleagues to learn about their processes, how do they do things quickly? So that I can get that stuff out of the way so I can do the real work, which is being with people and being available for them."
— Ryan Healy
- Ryan: Yeah. I think one of the things I have loved hearing recently from your co-founder, Houston, is just this idea between the to-do list versus the to-be list. So much of adult life and teaching world is wrapped up in these things we have to do, the stuff, and when we're focused on the stuff, people become a secondary thing. With kids, it's so easy as adults to go, "Well, they're a kid and it won't always be like that. They'll feel differently when they are older. But none of that helps kids. It actually gets in my way as an adult to be able to teach them the things that I need to teach them to do some of the stuff I have to do.
- John: Yeah, so true. I think to go in this quick nature, there's two, then, places I'd love to take at the end of our podcast. One is this, I don't think it's as much a question of whether people would agree or not with whether this is important, the idea of making yourself available, making students feel seen, all those things. I mean anybody who's gotten into education, and I believe them, is going to say, "Of course I am about that." I don't think it's as much a question about whether it's agreeing on the topic. I think it's more of a question of what gets in the way.
- John: So maybe two parts, one, in that context, what do you notice as a teacher that gets in the way, and how have you combated that? Because it's about disciplining ourselves because there's so much that gets in the way, so if you could speak to that. And then maybe close with this, a story, because I know you've got them, a story of the power of being available for students that you have personally connected with and/or experienced.
- Ryan: I think teachers don't feel always autonomous at school, like they can do what they need to do always because there's so many pieces of school that are dictated to us. I know kids feel that way too, which is a fun connection, but I think that's not true actually. If I'm doing good work for kids, I can get in there and do what I need to do. If I can explain that and I'm proactive about explaining what I'm doing, so for example, I pull kids out of class during my planning period sometimes. But I communicate with colleagues, I communicate with my administrators. I talk to them about why we're doing what we're doing. So I think a large part of it is we can ask for permission for things or we can ask for forgiveness when we need to, but I think we can be more flexible.
- Ryan: Great teaching is innovative and great teaching is about getting system stuff out of the way when it's in the way. And then I think, for me, what that looks like a lot is me just saying, "Okay, what time do I have while I'm here, and then how can I use it more creatively? How can I challenge myself when I feel like I'm focusing on this stuff?" For example, one of the things I do is I never go directly to my classroom when I get in the building. I find whoever is available to find. If it's an adult, if it's a student, I find who's available to find and I connect to them, head-to-head, heart-to-heart. I do that for as long as I can. And then I work through my day.
- Ryan: Does that mean I have to use my other time in my day differently? Yes. Sometimes it means people during school and paperwork later, but you know what? I'm going to get as much of that stuff out of the way. I'm going to lean on colleagues to learn about their processes, how do they do things quickly? So that I can get that stuff out of the way so I can do the real work, which is being with people and being available for them.
- John: So true. It's interesting what happens when we do put boundaries around our time and where our focus is and we say that, "No matter what, I will put a certain amount of time, intentional time, into the area," just like you mentioned. When I do that, then here's the time I have left. There will be times, my guess is, where it's like, "Well, I wasn't able to get it all done." Well, guess what? My guess is that would have been the case anyways. And so when we put the boundaries on, what happens then to us when we have to now figure out what is a more effective way, like you just said. Is there a strategy that a colleague has where I could work smarter and not harder? Is there sometimes where I'd say, "I'm sorry, I wasn't able to get that all done."
- John: There's literally not enough time in the day, but it's not at the sacrifice of making time for that which is most important. I love that practical nature of what you just shared. How about this? As we come closer to our ending time, we could keep having this conversation all day long. I always love that because it makes us want more, and we could probably come back and keep the convo going. Tell me a brief story about a time of the power of when you were available for a student.
- Ryan: Well, I think, and this relates to being practical, I think you have to make the moments. I was listening to Coley's podcast not long ago and it's about power of moments sometimes. I recently got to share a part of this story, but there was a time where I asked a student to stay after class. It was to invite them to be part of our leadership program. At the time, the kid didn't see that. They thought it was maybe they were in trouble. But that's been a life-changer for this kid, not because of anything I did necessarily other than that moment, but because of the access it got them. I think in all sorts of ways when you present yourself as available and you are ready to be for people, people need it and kids in particular need it.
- Ryan: Today I had five different conversations with students, most of whom were in tears or upset about different things, students from various grade levels going through all sorts of different experiences. I promise that if I wasn't budgeting my time and being thoughtful about how I use it for that availability, those kids would have gone through the day with no one to hear about that. That's scary. that's scary. Mental health stuff right now for kids is a huge deal, and this is a big reason why. They need outlets that are healthy and safe and who better than a teacher who can care about them no matter what and just help them move on and forward in their life. Who better than us to be the ones that work?
- John: That's right. We get them for six to seven hours a day. The average family spends 30 minutes or less a day together. What a gift, awesome responsibility, that is for educators. And yet is there a better job in the world to be able to then be that person who every day gets to demonstrate unconditional love, consistency and mood in action and to be able to be that person? That is not an easy burden to carry, but it is a powerful and a purposeful burden to carry. That's why educators are so incredibly awesome superheroes in many areas and cases.
- John: I just think it's a great reminder that it takes a village and that we can be about the whole child. So thank you, Ryan, for one, just giving us a little insight into your work, your passion, your insights. This will not be the last time that you are on this show as long as you'd be willing. Would you be willing to come back at some point and talk with us?
- Ryan: I'd love it. I love thinking about these things and talking about how we love teachers through this hard work is an important part of it too.
- John: That's right, which is so needed right now. Awesome, man. Well, thank you for your work. You make it a great day and we'll be talking soon.
- John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.