How Do You Want to Feel?

On my most recent trip leading professional learning in Honolulu, I brought my close friend, Deb Sandweiss. We came a day early for a mini-vacation, 24 hours to explore the island.

“What’s your intention for this trip?” I asked her when we got off the plane. Our time was so limited, I wanted to savor it already. Why not set an intention, like I do at the start of a yoga class?

Deb didn’t answer my question, but reframed it. “I like to ask, how do you want to feel?”


Wow, I had never asked myself that when setting a goal. 

I remember the buzz of fast thoughts in my mind as I pulled my roller suitcase across the Honolulu airport: excitement about connecting with a friend, excitement about the upcoming week of events I was facilitating with educators. So many fast thoughts, I physically felt ungrounded. I wanted to drop down from all that in-the-head energy and feel fully present.

“I want to feel grounded.” I said.  “What do you want to feel?”


It’s easy to set a feeling goal on vacation with a friend. Easy to drop “to do” lists and get grounded when you are sipping a Mai Tai and watching the sunset over the water. 

But what about NOW, when there is so much to do? 


September is a crazy time for educators. Asking any of us, “How do you want to feel?” seems out of place. 

Get serious, Tonya. Vacation is over. 

It’s time for students, schedules, standards, staff development, meetings, and initiatives. Bring back the educational acronyms, the new adoptions, the too-much-to-do normalcy of teaching and leading in schools.  

How do you want to feel? Save it, lady.  Get to work serving kids. 

If you have that reaction, which totally matches the critical voice in my head, take a deep breath and bear with me.


Do you set an intention at the start of the school year? Something new to try in your teaching or leadership? Something new to achieve in your collective impact on students?

I do, and this year, thanks to what Deb taught me on vacation, I also asked myself how I want to feel.

My answer surprised me. Even now, in the midst of many deadlines, how I want to feel is the same feeling I wanted on my vacation.

Grounded. I want to feel grounded.

That got me thinking: What if we each asked ourselves this question on vacation and then again in the midst of the toughest parts of our jobs?

What if we could take the same feeling we nurture in our time off to help us be our most resilient selves in teaching and leading? 


For me personally, learning to be grounded is about so much more than finding a way to recharge in my time off. Learning to be grounded is helping me go deeper in my equity work.

It helps me engage in deep inquiry about the specific ways I have internalized and benefited from racism even as now as I seek to disrupt it. It helps me see the history of our nation and my own family, honestly, collectively, and process the deep trauma involved.

Process trauma. Listen to trauma. Acknowledge that the racist policies of our nation benefited to my ancestors, and despite my best intentions, continue to benefit me.

From my cultural lens, being grounded in truth and authentic feelings is a rebellious act.

Asking tough questions, listening more, reflecting more is the work that I most deeply value. I’d rather engage in hard conversations about how our words and actions impact each other right now, right here- than dance around an unspoken elephants in the room.

Being grounded makes me more honest, more accountable, more real. When I cultivate this feeling, I slow down and listen – really listen especially when what I hear from students, from parents, from colleagues challenges me to reflect and grow.

What feeling do you most want to cultivate to be your best self? How do you want to feel every day in your work? How do your colleagues want to feel? How do the students you teach want to feel? 

Use the following questions to reflect and discuss.


ADMINISTRATORS AND TEACHERS:  How do you want to feel…

  • When you walk into your classroom/school/district each day? 
  • When you engage in a challenging aspect of your work?  
  • When you go home at the end of the day?

ASK STUDENTS: How do you want to feel every day…

  • When you come to this classroom/school?  
  • When you engage in a challenging task?
  • When you collaborate with other students?
  • When you leave school at the end of the day?

The student questions are great to use for peer conversations as you build community at the start of the year.  The teacher and administrator questions are also great back-to-school discussion topics for a staff meeting.

Brainstorm the real feelings you want to feel, and then choose the one that is your top priority for the year. 

Write it down. 

Don’t self-edit. If a feeling seems like a “vacation feeling” and “out of place” in work or school, write it anyway. It may be exactly what you need to do your best work, and what your students need to do their best learning.

Joy? Bring it!

Ease? Yes!  

Belonging? Absolutely. 

Whatever feeling you want to feel, write it down. Next, ask yourself (or your colleagues or students)…


ADMINISTRATORS AND TEACHERS: Look at the feeling that you wrote down, and reflect: 

  • What actions do I take that cultivate this feeling?
  • How can I feel this way even in the most challenging aspects of my work?
  • What do I need from my colleagues to experience school as a place that cultivates this feeling?
  • What are my cultural norms about bringing this feeling into my work? Do I have judgements around it? If yes, what can these teach me about my defaults and opportunities to grow?

ASK STUDENTS: Look at the feeling you wrote down, and reflect:

  • What actions do I take that cultivate this feeling outside of school?
  • What actions can I take in school to cultivate this feeling in school?  
  • What do I need from my classmates and teachers to experience our classroom as a place that cultivates this feeling?  
  • What do I need to feel this way in the middle of challenging and intellectually rich content learning? 

Focusing on how to cultivate the feelings educators and students need to thrive matters.  It re-humanizes the work and how we show up. It helps us create learning spaces that foster student resiliency, belonging and joy.

As you discuss feelings with colleagues or students, be courageous to notice if there are inequities in whose feelings take center stage. Whose emotional truths are valued without question? Whose are silenced by the culture of the school?

Are their inequities by race, by language group, by gender identity in who feels belonging, in who feels agency, in who feels comfortable or joyful at school?   Are there inequities in which voices and which cultural norms shape the social-emotional learning environment for adults or students in your school?


When I need to get something done, I tend to dismiss how I feel or how I want to feel. I’m all in my head. Think. Do. Think. Do.

My ancestors were American colonists who valued frugality and productivity above feelings in a big way. In the 1950s, my dad remembers “keep a stiff upper lip and carry on” being a core value in his New England upbringing and schooling. Even though I grew up in California in the touchy-feely ‘70s, I still inherited the family value that work is a time to put feelings aside and get things done.

So I write about feelings in this blog with a sense of rebellion, and also a sense of discomfort. I’m challenging my assumptions about what counts as “work” and can be part of this professional blog. 

Funny thing about discomfort: It gets me closer to the feeling I most want to cultivate.

Discomfort is grounding.  Grief is grounding. Humbling “ah ha” insights are grounding. 

My son and I face the history of our ancestors at the Portsmouth African Burying Ground.

Being present in courageous conversations about strengthening our schools for equity is grounding. And yes, I mean also the conversations that get heated and hard. The rage, the grief, the guilt, the shame, and all emotions that come up through the hard work of looking honestly at the status quo of inequities and privilege.

Through courageous and humble inquiry about my own biases and the best ways to transform schools for equity, I keep learning–not just to do my work better, but to feel grounded, to feel human, to feel whole. 

This is not about me. I tell my story because it is the only story that is mine to tell. I am a white woman who grew up monolingual. I cannot speak for other white people. I cannot speak for the English Learners, students of color and students from historically-marginalized communities I dedicate my life work to serve.

I share my story because in a field where 80% of educators are white and 70% are woman, I feel a responsibility to break my cultural norm of silence and avoidance of staying present in hard conversations about race and privilege.  It is my hope that being humbly public with my self-reflection and learning, I can invite deeper dialogue- even critical dialogue that brings us all closer to our vision of equitable and socially just world.


Authentic work can be hard work.  Listening to ourselves and one another deeply takes courage.  And it’s a beautiful thing.

We need every emotion at the table. Joy. Sorrow. Excitement. Fear. Rage. Belonging. Hope.

It’s a beautiful thing to cultivate in schools what makes us and our students feel our most authentic selves.  A beautiful thing to realize connection to human emotion is not a diversion from our work.

It is the work. 

Vacation may be over, but it’s still the perfect time to ask, how do you want to feel? What feeling do you most want to cultivate in your work this year? How will that feeling help you thrive in your work to create more equitable schools?

What feelings do your students most want to feel in school this year? How will you create classroom environments that collectively cultivate those feelings–not just at recess, but core to intellectually rich, transformative learning?

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

One Comment

  • Deb

    September 11, 2019, 12:25 pm

    I LOVE your honesty and willingness to engage educators in reflection around feelings.

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