Naomi Toland has spent the last 6 years teaching in different countries and researching a variety of areas such as nutrition, neuroscience, and psychology through the lens of education which she shares on her Empathetic Educators platform. She believes these topics help us communicate, challenge ourselves, collaborate, and better understand ways to look after our wellbeing as well as supporting the wellbeing of others.
Naomi Toland is originally from Derry in Ireland but she hasn’t lived on the Emerald Isle for nearly 10 years. One of Naomi’s passions is traveling as she believes it challenges her perspectives on life and opens her eyes to how she and others see the world. Growing up in Ireland, Naomi spent every Summer traveling and exploring her beautiful homeland with her family and believes these experiences ignited her love of going on adventures off the beaten path to what the world has to offer.
Your Journey as a Teacher
I am one of those teachers who used to play school with my teddies and (politely) force my siblings to look at the blackboard and get them to practice their spellings. So, I would say teaching has always been in my bones.
When I left school I went straight to university to train in Early Primary Education, and I have loved teaching across the Primary sector from ages 1-13 years old in a variety of places.
Initially, I spent my first 3 years teaching in Hackney, London where I loved working with a multicultural community in an inner-city London school. I feel very grateful to have had this experience in my foundational years as a teacher, as it exposed me to the need for empathy, understanding, and connection. During this time, I took on the role of Arts Coordinator and feel this has had a huge impact on developing my interest in the importance of arts in the classroom. I was responsible for creating opportunities to support teachers and parents, helping them weave the arts curriculum into their lessons and home. This shifted my own mindset of what was and is possible to help to learn come to life.
Before moving to my next destination, I spent 3 months traveling and teaching in South America, at one point volunteering at a nature reserve in Costa Rica (Reserva Tortuga) where my partner and I would go on daily missions to look after a variety of animals. This included nightly patrols to preserve turtle eggs from poachers, teaching children about sustainability and safety, crocodile tagging, and snake walks. This was my first time in a country where I did not speak the language and loved learning from the people I met along the way!
I spent the next 3 years teaching in Auckland, New Zealand. New Zealand for me is a home away from home because of the fabulous people and beautiful nature I get to surround myself with. I loved working at Stonefields School and with the Manaiakalani Community which again pushed my idea of what learning environments and systems could look like. Stonefields is an Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) where I developed my awareness of co-teaching, working with 2 or 3 teachers in the one space with 60 – 80 learners all learning with and from each other. I believe my own practice has grown significantly over the years by remaining open to the possibility of how each experience and person can have an impact on me. And sometimes the lesson doesn’t come until much later. When I initially heard about these ILEs my brain didn’t know what to think but through experiencing it I was able to get takeaways I didn’t even know existed.
In recent years, I moved countries again, spending much of 2020 teaching the IB curriculum in Tokyo, Japan. My partner was a big driving force behind this move because of his love for Japanese history and culture. Due to COVID my partner’s visa was delayed for 3 months so I had to move alone to a country where I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know anyone. I remember in the days leading up to the move I didn’t know if I should go because I was apprehensive and so aware of the possible negative outcomes.
What happens if he can’t come? What happens if I can’t get back to New Zealand? How will I make friends? How am I going to communicate with people when I don’t speak the language? These were all thoughts that were racing through my head telling me not to make the move. But I am so glad I did because it opened my eyes to new perspectives and different ways of living, as well as meeting lifelong friends along the way. Again, this reinforcing the significance of remaining curious and taking the leap.
And that brings us to the time of this session where I have just returned back to Auckland, NZ where my partner and I plan on being for our next chapter. As I said before, we consider this our home away from home. I am so excited about my next adventure. I feel very grateful to have been able to tick big bucket list goals off in my personal life and now my next big bucket list tick is to look at ways of sharing those experiences in my professional life. I can’t wait to start my new role as a Head Teacher in a beautiful preschool in Auckland. I have loved researching, experiencing, and learning all about the importance of the foundational years and think there is so much we can learn from the way children see the world, especially in their Early Years.
I can’t wait to continue sharing the adventure with you……
What have you learned in your time away from home?
During my first year of teaching, I got a big awakening as to what it means to be a teacher and all the hats we might wear and this had a big impact on my mental health. I couldn’t help thinking — I am supposed to have been trained for this… why was I feeling like a failure?
This set me on a journey personally and professionally where I have come to reflect on four areas in particular; process, perseverance, patience, and possibilities. I have been on an inquiry into how we can better understand how our bodies work as I believe the more we can understand how and why we do things, the more we can help ourselves and others take control of our/their own lives.
As I said, my first year of teaching had a significant impact on my mental health. I went from a person who had teaching in my bones to a person who didn’t know if I could come back the next year to continue in the teaching profession. A big part of this was the internal and external expectations I was putting on myself and others around me.
This is when I was introduced to the term ‘Empath.’ I was wearing mine and everyone else’s worries on my shoulders. Feeling their feels and just getting overwhelmed as a result. I talked about this in my interview with George Couros. Where I mention I am now at a stage where I ‘show empathy but not at the expense of myself.’ As teachers, many of us put our heart and soul into the development of our kids but I believe it is important to set boundaries so that we can fill our own cup as well as leadership teams setting up systems that create solid foundations for the community to flourish too.
So now instead of saying ‘why am I feeling like a failure?’ I actively seek out opportunities that allow me to fail and in turn, grow. Still having high expectations for myself and those in my reach but accepting my current starting position, and move from there while setting up boundaries instead of being in a constant state of worry and fear that I am going to take the wrong step.
Being away from home has taught me that challenges are always going to come my way, be they small or big. But in my experience, many of these challenges (even though I might not have been grateful for them at the time) are the exact things that have helped me grow my toolkit to go on and face the challenges in the future with more understanding and stability.
Since understanding that challenges help me grow, I have given myself a big challenge to overcome every year for the past 5 years:
In 2017, I faced my fear of going open water diving. I went from not being able to put my head underwater with my scuba suit to diving with Hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands.
In 2018, I challenged myself to post my new show idea, Empathetic Educators. I was so scared of facing the camera and sharing my voice but now this has opened doors I didn’t even know existed.
In 2019, I gave myself the mental and physical challenge of training for 20 weeks with Wimp 2 Warrior to have an MMA fight. I got a concussion and lost the fight but this experience truly changed the way I see myself and has enhanced my mindset towards what is possible.
In 2020, like I said I moved alone to Japan, a country where I did not speak the language and did not know anyone. And I remember sitting at the empty airport at 11 pm about to get on the flight in Auckland and not knowing if I was making the right decision. But looking back it was one of the most fun adventures I have had to date.
You mentioned Empathetic Educators. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
And coming to the year of this session, 2021, I gave myself the challenge to create an online conference with a twist. I am so interested in looking at the way we create learning opportunities for adults to in turn enhance the learning opportunities for our children. So I created #EEConQuest, (Empathetic Educators Conference Quest) Which was a 12-hour conference that had guests and live audience members from across the globe. Including yours truly Barbara Bray. Check it out here.
N.E.R.D.Y. Networking (Neuroscience, Empathy, Relationships, Design, psYchology)
Since starting my teaching career I have loved continuing to research ways to improve my teaching practice and beyond. As I said before, in my first year of teaching, my whole body and personality began to take a decline, including getting migraines weekly, at one point on a daily basis, when I had never had them before. So I started to focus my research on understanding what was going on in my brain and this helped me start to think about what was going on in the brains of my learners. This in turn helped me to empathize with myself and others as I could understand more about why I was acting certain ways and why the learners were too.
It got me asking the question – why as teachers are we not taught more about the exact part of the body we are trying to work with? – the brain. So, in 2017, I started my podcast, Empathetic Educators to document my process. I have interviewed people from all different walks of life with all different backgrounds as I believe conversations with people we agree with as well as people who might think differently can help us navigate the next steps for the education system.
Throughout each of the sessions we discuss different N.E.R.D.Y topics:
(Neuroscience, Empathy, Relationships, Design, psYchology)
And I believe our power is within our G.R.A.C.S.P:
Growth. Relationships. Accountability. Challenges. Systems. Perspectives
So as you can see in the visuals above, as part of Empathetic Educators we are looking at ways to weave empathy through our education systems and beyond. Exploring ways we can connect these 6 main themes to our Teachers, Learners, Leaders, and our Communities.
And we will explore these themes in a fun way that you can see above on T.O.L.A.N.D where we will have exciting missions and adventures to go on together. You can find out more about these here.
‘Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times,
if one only remembers to turn on the light’
I love how Barbara provokes us to think about and define our WHY. This is one of my favourite quotes of all time, from one of my favourite series, Harry Potter, and it very much ties in with my WHY:
‘To grow human connection globally through empathy and awareness by igniting the light in people to hold themselves accountable for their choices and understand their actions have an impact on the world.’
In my darkest times, when I was questioning the profession I had chosen, my actions sometimes were not very kind to myself and to those around me because I was acting out of fear and uncertainty. When our brain feels safe and we feel heard and seen, our self-confidence and self-worth get boosted and we can have a much brighter outlook on the world. So I am on a mission to grow awareness of ways we can grow the light within ourselves to enhance the confidence and creativity of myself and those my message hopefully reaches. I have gone from always wanting to be right and fearing failure to actively seeking out opportunities where I can fail, learn and grow. This process has allowed me to have patience for myself and others, to foster my own perseverance, and created possibilities I didn’t know existed.
I wonder how we can fail, learn or grow together? Come join our fabulous #Empathetic_Educators community, without them none of this would be possible! We look forward to continuing on the adventure with you and would love to hear all about your journeys too!
Interested in checking out more of the Rethinking Learning podcasts, click on the podcast tab at the top, the logo below, or go to https://barbarabray.net/podcasts/
For more information about Barbara’s book, Define Your WHY, go to this page or click on the new image of the book for resources, questions, and links.