Barbara Gruener loves the challenge of being an educator and staying current as things trend in and out of our field. She is a coach, mentor, consultant, speaker, and author of What’s Under Your Cape.
Barbara especially enjoys working with people as they discover who they are, what they stand for, what motivates them, and what they want and need. Enjoy our conversation!
Where you grew up
Growing up on my family’s dairy farm in Wayside, Wisconsin, I learned what it meant to work hard and make a living off the land. My parents always welcomed people into our home including foreign exchange students and foster children, so I learned to cook and manage a household at a fairly young age. I also grew to appreciate diversity and culture! These skills have all served me well as an adult.
What it was like for you as a student
I got my education at a parochial grade school, a public high school, and a Big 10 University. My first-grade teacher knew what the young know-it-all, energetic child in me needed; she made me a teacher’s assistant at the age of 6. I love learning and teaching; I didn’t love leaving Miss Natzke, and my grades 3 and 4 with the next teacher weren’t very happy. That teacher didn’t know I was an assistant and, even if she did, she didn’t need one. I was a scared, nervous wreck. It did make me happy when it was announced that summer that she was moving, especially since my little sister wouldn’t have to endure another year with her. That is until the move was to grades 5 and 6. I barely survived those four years with her; I stayed home most of the 7th grade with a severe stomach muscle spasms. After a year to heal, I did return back to school and remember enjoying my high school years. College at UW Madison was kind of hard for a farmer’s daughter like me but I love a good challenge. I graduated with a BS majoring in English and minoring in Spanish.
There were five of us kids plus mom and dad grew up on the farm in my family of origin; they all still live in WI but me. My parents divorced just as they were about to celebrate their Silver Wedding Anniversary. I’ve managed to stay very close with my Wisconsin family despite the distance.
Journey to become an educator
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1984 with a Bachelor of Science degree in English and Spanish. I began a Spanish Department in a small high school in central Wisconsin before heading to Texas in 1985. I taught Spanish and ESL classes at North Shore Middle School for a year before moving to FISD to teach Spanish and coach volleyball and softball at Friendswood High School. My education includes earning a Master of Science degree from the University of Houston Clear Lake in Education in 1989, followed by a Master of Science degree in Counseling in 1994. After 16 years of teaching and counseling at the secondary level, I decided to give the elementary school a try; there I found my niche as the counselor and character coach at Westwood for grades PreK through 3rd for 14 years, then with grades 3-5 at Bales Intermediate for three additional years.
In January of 2013, early one afternoon on my way to get my son from Junior High for a dentist appointment, I was hit head-on by a drunk driver, who was also on her way to get her child from school. I was left broken in 3 places physically and in many more pieces emotionally. I returned to work fairly quickly, but by May that semester, I was unable to continue after PTSD made my life too difficult. After two years of trauma therapy, some medical intervention to take the edge off, and the opportunity to give my Victim Impact Statement, I was able to journey through recovery to the other side, to find my joy again, and to forgive so that I could move on. I still experience the startle response when I’m traveling down the road, and I still have chronic pain in my shoulders and neck, but it’s nothing that a chiropractor and a counseling session or two can’t help. This trauma amplified my voice for trauma victims and made me so much more trauma aware and sensitive.
I learned about perseverance, resilience, work ethic, responsibility, growth mindset, and grit from milking 250 cows on the dairy and doing chores before and after school during my formative years. In 1989, community members met and decided what we wanted our graduates to look like; during that time, they selected 14 traits and values that they wanted our graduates to live. In the year 2000, after a Character Counts! Training, I brought the Six Pillars of Character to our school and the Board adopted this framework to revitalize our CE efforts. Under my leadership, Westwood Elementary earned the distinction of Texas State School of Character in 2007. In 2009, we earned a National School of Character (NSOC) honor. The NSOC process strengthened our journey down Character Road; those days were, indeed, magical.
Barbara’s keynote from the National Forum on Character Ed
Book: What’s Under Your Cape
At the end of May 2014, just before my 53rd birthday, my first book was released.
In the Fall of 2013, I was giving a workshop at the National Forum on Character Education called Character Is Our Superpower. Marion Nelson, an independent publisher, attended that workshop in DC and invited me to write the book to help other educators focus on strengths as superpowers. SUPERHEROES swoop in and come to the rescue; so do Character Kids (and adults!). It’s not about intangibles like invisibility or spidey-sense; it’s more about inspiring values like service, unconditional love, perseverance, empathy, respect, honesty, enthusiasm, responsibility, obedience, encouragement, and self-discipline.
Cape up; it becomes a fun tagline.
Kindness Matters and Spreading Love
In May of 2018, I decided to retire from my full-time work in public schools and pursue my encore career in consulting, mentoring, coaching, speaking, and writing. I’m currently freelancing as well as speaking with the Character Strong team. Additionally, in September of 2019, I am going back to school on a part-time basis, to serve as a mentor and SEL coach! Here is a graphic by Jule Woodard @woodard_julie about Kindness being a Superpower!
Gratitude, SEL, and Mindfulness
Gratitude: my one word for 2013, helped me tremendously during my trauma recovery. I strive to make it a verb, in all things. In fact, it’s neurologically impossible to be in a state of anxiety and grateful at the same time. Here are some of the suggestions I made in my freelance growth sessions:
Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL)
To me, SEL and Character Development are all about how we establish and maintain healthy relationships, about communicating, self-regulating, making responsible decisions, connecting relationally. It’s HEART work, it’s holy work, and it’s important work. It’s also about serving, about being the KIND of leader that we would follow. It’s about head, heart, and hands; it starts with empathy, becomes compassion, then moves to kindness. And kindness, my friends, is the real global warming!
I’ve been researching and studying the practice of mindfulness for six years. My trauma responses and recovery brought me to mindfulness, by necessity, because I had to slow down. It’s when I learned to savor, an important lesson because we simply cannot serve from an empty vessel. It pairs nicely with self-care, to be in the moment, mindfully aware, without judgment. It’s a joy to support and encourage those educators in the field to take care of themselves so that they can overflow as they serve.
Sharing my joy and delight for educating tomorrow’s leaders through speaking and writing is one of my sparks and my blog has been an amazing outlet for that passion. Prior to blogging, my work has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Teaching PreK-8 magazine, Change magazine, Daughters magazine, and the MO Counseling Interviewer. Since the year 2008, I’ve written monthly blog posts for the Josephson Institute of Ethic’s Character Educator and most recently for Really Good Stuff and The Teachers’ Lounge. I’ve also guest posted at Books That Heal Kids, Cachey Mama’s Classroom, Teach Forever, and I Can Teach My Child and I’ve written a guest post for Kleinspiration (thanks Erin!) and was recognized at Maria Dismondy’s blog. I spent three years writing the Counselors’ Corner post for Free Spirit Press and currently guest post periodically for the Prosign Design and the Character Strong blogs.
Twitter: @BarbaraGruener #Whatsunderyourcape
The Corner on Character Where Character Speaks podcast: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/the-corner-on-character-prosign-design-N3Q7LvmJs6D/