Bringing Psychological Safety to Our Teachers with Michael Vargas
August 24, 2021
Bringing Psychological Safety to Our Teachers with Michael Vargas | Education Evolution

As educators, we know the importance of making sure our students feel safe. Their learning depends on it.

But we often forget that the success of our students depends on our teachers and school staff members feeling safe and heard, too. It’s only with the safety of our teachers that they can show up fully for the students they’re charged with supporting.

This week on the podcast, Michael Vargas of Lead By Impact and I talk about how the psychological safety of our teachers transfers over the safety and success of our students. Because with that safety, teachers are likelier to share ideas and strategies, and are more open-minded and understanding.

I hope you’ll tune in and think about how you can facilitate more open conversations in your own schools and create a structure around collaboration and sharing.


About Michael Vargas

Michael is an international facilitator with nearly 10 years of experience.  Utilizing his Master in Clinical Psychology, improv, and design thinking background Michael facilitates workshops and speaks to organizations on developing collaborative and productive team cultures.  Lead By Impact supports teams to develop psychological safety, building trust, and effective communication.  They have worked with organizations like Dropbox, Salesforce, Kaiser Permanente, ACLU, Evergreen Middle School, the County of San Diego, and many more.


Jump Through the Conversation

  • [1:56] What is psychological safety
  • [3:34] Schools evolving for all learners 
  • [3:56] What prevents teachers from speaking up
  • [8:59] Ways schools can start these conversations with teachers and create safety
  • [14:23] Transferring this idea to students and to life in general
  • [15:55] Clarity in structure and process
  • [21:33] Us vs. Them is an opportunity for clarity
  • [23:26] Tools to help teachers move beyond the traditional landscape
  • [26:06] Setting the soil to help this idea grow
  • [30:49] How to reframe if no one has questions
  • [32:29] The deep wisdom of nurturing people’s intuition
  • [35:06] Turbo Time Questions
  • [46:18] Michael’s magic wand
  • [49:45] Maureen’s takeaways


Links and Resources:

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Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present-day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of Education Evolution, Micro-School Coalition, and cofounder EdActive. I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:07
Hi Michael, so good to have you.

Michael Vargas 1:11
Thank you, Maureen. I’m glad to be here.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:14
And listeners, today I’m chatting with Michael Vargas, the founder of Lead by Impact. Michael facilitates workshops and speaks to organizations on developing collaborative and productive team cultures. Boy with so much going on, we could really use our team cultures to be focused on and everybody to be loved up right now. And so, Lead by Impact supports teams to develop psychological safety, building trust, and effective communication. All super important. With the pandemic shaking everyone’s confidence, we need his skills now more than ever to help education evolve. Michael, let’s dive in. What is psychological safety? And why is it important in schools?

Michael Vargas 2:00
Well, thank you, again, like I said, for having me here. And, you know, psychological safety…there’s really an emotional element. But I think a woman whose name is Amy Edmondson, she is the leading researcher on psychological safety. She writes the definition as, “psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished, or humiliated, for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” So the ability to be open, to be able to be free to speak whatever’s on your mind, and not have any negative consequences. So that’s, that’s the idea. And, you know, I think another way that people can get a sense of what this is like is, and I do this exercise, is take a moment and think, who are the people that you feel like you can really open up with?Maybe that’s a grandmother, maybe that’s a neighbor. And that person allows you to feel safe. And so we can start looking at psychological safety through the lens of the people that we feel most comfortable with.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 3:11
Wow, I guess I would want that just to be a given in our schools, for our teachers and for our students. But when you say that, I just think, whoa, how many teachers amidst their peers or students, amidst their peers, don’t feel that for whatever reasons. We totally have to unpack this. So our schools must evolve to serve all learners. And you’ve worked with teachers to build the psychological safety needed to create change. Can you share, what can make it difficult for teachers to feel safe showing up and doing their best?

Michael Vargas 3:47
Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question. So there’s actually quite a few different things that prevent teachers from really getting to open up. And when I worked with this last school, it was a middle school, I did a big old survey of, hey, you know, we were working to get teachers to share their practices with one another, their classroom practices, their perspectives on it, what do they do, and so on and so forth. And the school didn’t really have that happening. Teachers weren’t opening up. So we sent out a survey, and asking, “Hey, what causes you to not feel safe when talking about classroom practices?” And so I actually have right here, if it’s okay, to read some of the responses, would that be alright?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:33
I think that would be priceless. Because we want change. But if people don’t even feel safe sharing their daily practices, how can we look for more? So please, yes.

Michael Vargas 4:43
So one of them is when people are quick to judge. And that’s one that I see across the board. So this is literally what someone wrote, “When people are quick to judge.” And there’s so much to unpack in that. Just the idea of when we are trying to speak our minds, come up with ideas, what people start doing in that moment is often judge it. It’s a good idea. It’s a bad idea. It’s a right idea. It’s a wrong idea. All of those are killing the opportunity to actually be open about ideas. Now, do we want to identify what idea to go with? Absolutely, but let’s save that for later. Let’s have a moment, a space, a set of times and principles, that allow us to just openly speak about our ideas, and have curiosity before the judgement. So that’s one of them. “I don’t feel confident in my perspective,” right? That’s something someone said, that they feel just really insecure about what they have to say. So the space doesn’t really allow it, so that it’s okay for you to share that you don’t know. Because I know, at least for me in my past and I hear from a lot of other people, if I don’t have the right answer, and I share something that’s a maybe, I don’t want to look dumb. I don’t want to look like I don’t know, I don’t want to look less than, because also what might happen to me for my, for my job.

Michael Vargas 6:21
And so there’s that. There’s also, “I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all or incompetent.” “I want other teachers to think I’m good at my job.” “People shut down ideas before they’re tried.” “I feel nervous about doing the wrong thing.” “Fear that I’m misunderstood.” So the theme here is the idea that, if I share my perspective, something negative will happen to me. And I don’t like pain, so I’m not going to put myself in a position where something painful happens. So I’m not going to say anything. If I see a mistake that someone’s making, but if I speak to that person on the mistake and they’re going to start coming at me, why would I open up? So those are some of the things that teachers are saying about what’s preventing them from feeling safe.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 7:14
Wow, I usually am at the student level, thinking, you know, “What do we need to create the space for our students?” So stepping back, because we can’t create what doesn’t exist for ourselves. You know, if I don’t know what psychological safety feels like, how can I create that for my students? So for us, as school leaders and as colleagues, as professionals, for us to be able to create norms, I like that, that, hey, we’re going to create a space to feel safe, so we’re not going to respond or even if it’s a compliment, wow, that was the best idea. No, we’re not going to judge, we’re just going to take things in and, and nod that we’ve received it instead of judging and any sort of feedback is a judgment, I guess.

Michael Vargas 7:57
Yeah. Like, I think there’s a space where if we’re speaking about ideas, if we’re talking about different perspectives, to just work to understand, work to understand and maybe even build off of each other’s ideas. So the concept of yes-and, oh, that’s a great idea. And what if we did this? And what if we did that? Because these are just ideas, this isn’t what we’re going to do. This isn’t making solid plans, this isn’t saying something is less than or more than. All it is, is an idea, a thought, a just a simple notion. And so let’s allow ourselves to have that space and allow people to have that space so that they feel heard. So they feel understood. And when they have those feelings, now they’re able to open up more and share more and get more depth out of the conversation.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:51
Yes, yes. And I have another question for you. So you’ve talked about, you know, we can create this yes-and and this open curiosity. Do you have some specific ways schools can start this conversation? Because I know you facilitate. But if you come in and have the answers, I doubt that that’s, I mean, how do you help schools come up with what they need to do so that they can own it? Because when it’s top down, we know it doesn’t stick as well as when students or we get to create.

Michael Vargas 9:26
That’s such a brilliant point. You’re absolutely correct. So the idea about the at least some of the the workshops that I do, they always have a sense of empowerment, right? It’s about empowering people to have those conversations. So when doing that, a lot of times the process itself is meant to be safe. So I send out an anonymous survey so people can share their thoughts without them being connected to their thoughts or their their perspective. So as I’ve done this work, I see more and more principles that help people feel safe, so separating the person from the problem. So that’s a way that we can put in for teachers. And that’s what they started identifying, is “Hey, if we want to talk about these things, why don’t we just send out a survey, and we can put in all the different practices that we have. And then as a group, look at those practice and say, Hey, here’s the ones that we actually want to talk about and dive in deeper.” It has no connection to the person. And yet, everyone’s ideas are out there to be seen and heard. So really allowing the space for people to be separated from the thought or the problem or anything like that, and putting it away, so that there’s an open discussion about the subject matter, and less about who it’s coming from, and their, their judgments or opinions about the person.

Michael Vargas 10:54
So that’s one of the ways that we can help create a lot of safety. Another one that a lot of the teachers identified was, “We don’t really know each other that well.” We don’t really have a good understanding of, you know, and you have the newcomers versus that people who’ve been there for a while, and there’s a big disconnect there. So they just recognize they don’t know each other as people. So what they did was work to start setting up times, where they just met and talked, get to know one another, they even created like 50 different, like, prompt questions of what they can do to like, understand, like, “What got you into teaching?” “What was one of your experiences as a kid during school that you look back on fondly?” “What’s one of your favorite hobbies?” So on and so on, just to know the people there, rather than this person who is just a teacher, and seeing them as a whole person.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 11:55
Wow. And we do that with our students, we, you know, so much better. But yeah, to consciously do that with our teachers and, and know that “Oh, my gosh, you’re a good ice skater,” you know, stuff that doesn’t have to do with teaching algebra.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:11
Yeah, this is so funny, because the parallels at every level of any institution and especially in schools, I mean, this just everything you’re saying applies to teachers, applies to school leaders, applies to students, applies between the organizations, how do we let students know we’re a whole person? You know, how do students let us know they may not be tuned in here, but they are really rocking their, their job outside of school? How, how do we make things more humane and the safety factor for all of us. As you can tell, the ideas are just spinning, you have so much to share.

Michael Vargas 12:47
Well, I’m so grateful that you see this, Maureen, because this is something that it’s just so human. It’s just so human for these things to happen. And so they show up in all the different ways. And there’s been plenty of people who’ve taken these principles and started applying to their students. Remember, one woman messaged me afterwards and said, “I tried this right away with my students and two students who are always quiet, started speaking up, because we put in things in place to help them feel more comfortable.”

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 13:17
Yes. Yeah, and when you talked about separating the person from the problem. We all know, the people, students or adults, that are like second guessing themselves, and should I answer, and did I answer too many times, have I spoken too much today? They have all these messages running in their mind. We also know in any class, “Ooh ooh, pick me, pick me!” that you’ll always have that kid that’s gonna be the first to answer. So of course, we have those personalities in our adult teams, as well.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 13:44
So to neutralize all that, so that it’s like, “My idea is going to be spoken and it has nothing to do with me. You know, it’s, it’s just going to be out there as a part of a list” frees me then, I can even, I can even say, “Wow, I like this idea because of this, this, this,” and nobody knows it’s my idea so I can defend an idea. All of a sudden, I’m anonymous, it’s neutral. Right there, I can just see how that would feel safe. And, and teachers wouldn’t worry about how things are perceived and and then be able to apply that to their students. Have, have teachers, other teachers giving you any examples of transferring to students?

Michael Vargas 14:21
Yeah, so that was one of them. Another one was just getting to start opening the conversation with students about, “Hey, what what is it that you all want?” and they did it more in a way where they just open up the, because each person, each group, each classroom is going to be different. So she just provided time for people to be able to start talking about this. And then they said how a lot of times or several of the students said that they had that conversation with other people in their lives, about “Hey, can we try different things? Can we maybe like when you do that, can we can we not do that? Or can we try this a different way?” So yeah, this just being able to teach students how to have the conversation, and letting them understand that in their body, they also can request things that feel safe as well.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:14
Yes. And when we talk about kids being self advocates, it’s like, “What am I feeling?” and ask for what I need. But a lot of times, and we do that, really, in our micro-school we do a ton of that. But we haven’t really unpacked psychological safety, specifically. What is it? What isn’t it? So that kids can ask. If they don’t have that concept and understand it, how do you ask for something that’s not unpacked? And I don’t think our schools have really done that well for our kids.

Michael Vargas 15:44
I think that’s something that’s a challenge in general. And that’s another part of what I’ve identified as like, some of the principles around safety, is like clarity. Is there clarity in the structure? Is there a clarity in the process? Is there clarity in people’s perspective? So giving students a sense of like, “How can we be clear about this? Hey, if you want to speak about this, like, let’s try it this way. And let’s have a conversation of how do we do these things.” And that’s the same thing with with teachers.

Michael Vargas 16:16
And I was working with a nonprofit recently for domestic violence, they didn’t have a process for decision making. So the midlevel leaders, they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up to like the executives, because they didn’t know like, how to engage them, how to talk about things. And so, giving clarity helps people get settled, because they know what to do, they know what to expect, they know how to approach something. And that in itself can create a tremendous amount of safety. So that’s a good step as well, is to look at, “What don’t we know here?”

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:53
Wow, I, I think we’ve identified it for students in terms of structure. You know, if you if you don’t know when I come in, what am I supposed to do? What’s gonna happen, when there’s, you know, the structure, but structure is more almost two dimensional when you talk clarity. I think that that’s a broader sense of structure. Because it’s structured for how we communicate, for what the day is going to look like, for all of these processes. Well, are there other principles that come to mind that really build psychological safety?

Michael Vargas 17:26
Yeah, so another one that I really like is the, what are we reinforcing? Right? Are we reinforcing negative behaviors? Or do we want to reinforce safe behaviors? So when someone asks a clarifying question, you know, do we say, “Thank you so much for that. That was really insightful.” Or when someone says, “Hey, I don’t understand. Can you tell me more?” “Hey, thanks for asking.” So finding, what are those behaviors that help people feel safe, and then how do we reinforce those? So that’s always one that I looked like I look at.

Michael Vargas 18:01
And I said, I think one of the, one of my favorites is what I mentioned before the curiosity before judgment, seek to understand before being understood, and I think that will help people create a lot of safety. Again, separate the person from the problem. Another element, and this goes into the clarity element, is sharing our intent. Why are we doing this? So we give people a sense of the fuller picture so again, they know how to interact with that. So those are just some of the principles I found that have been really helpful.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:33
Wow, just those four, I mean, that really, as I’m thinking as a school leader, if I asked these four questions before any interaction, I would go in so much more intentional and mindful. And there are times where I open my mouth and I’m not sure of my intent, so I probably shouldn’t be opening my mouth, you know?

Michael Vargas 18:57
I totally know that feeling. I’m a big mouth sometimes, too. I’m there with you.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:02
Yeah, but if I knew, hey, my intention, first day of professional development coming up next week, my intention for this day is for us to reform as a team, to welcome in the new members to this, if I really know. And I know, I’ve worked with this emotional intelligence person in Ireland and and he has it on his computer screen. What is my intention for this conversation? You know, because it all ties into emotional intelligence to looking at the whole person and not just what’s on my agenda today, what tasks do I have to accomplish, what information do I have to disseminate or gather? Which is just the brain and not the whole human. So the safety piece enhances everything.

Michael Vargas 19:48
I think so I in my perspective and experiences, it’s fundamental. A lot of times, I get organizations, “Hey, we’re having a communication problem.” And I go, “Yes. And let’s dive into that more.” And as we dive in, there’s actually more of a psychological safety element that’s having a challenge rather than the communication. So if we can really work on that, that just gives 10x to the communication.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:14
Yes, yes. I, I’ve been playing with something called polarity thinking. And I love it, because it’s looking at situations, we had a guest speaker in our heads conference last spring, talking about sometimes as school leaders you find this situation, this problem, you’ve solved it, and it keeps coming back. Like yes, so maybe it’s not a problem to solve, like, I need to hire a math teacher. Yeah, that’s a problem to solve. Maybe it’s a dynamic tension to manage, like, I want kids to be independent, but we also need to have them accountable. So how do we, so it’s a tension, it’s not a one and done. But if we can identify it as two sides to the same issue, and know that we’re all heading to the same goal competent students, but how do we the independence and still maintain that sense of core learnings that have to happen? And then if we look at the upsides of both sides of the polarity, we can pull together versus your way, no, you’re giving the kids too much freedom. no, you’re doing too much top down. So polarity, what you’re saying is that same kind of thing about seek first to understand, let’s create this safety and because we are all in it together, there’s no teacher out there, that’s like, yeah, I want kids to fail. You know, no, we all have the same goal. You know, and we forget that when we get polarized on on silly stuff, you know,

Michael Vargas 21:32
I think you hit the nail on the head there. You know, a whole ‘nother topic that I dive into, and this was, this was one of my research papers during my master’s program, was us versus them. And what you what you mentioned is so profound that so many people don’t see, is that instead of us versus them, that’s the opportunity to get much more clarity on the realities of what’s happening, because a lot of times, both perspectives, or third perspectives, or all seven perspectives, have truth of what’s happening. And so if we can work together to understand each other’s perspectives, even when they’re in polarity like that, then we get a much richer solution. So I love the fact that you mentioned that. Thank you. Polarity thinking, love it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:28
I actually just had a TEDx go live, my my first, it’s been on my bucket list. And that’s what I talked about, about talking about changing my mind, from we’ve got it with schools have to transform that we have to revolutionize, to, to that both-and: no, I don’t want to throw out the whole system, there’s so much good in our system. I had to change my mind, if I really want to help schools change and be the consultant and the leader in that. And so it’s like, yeah, this is my own personal learning that, come on, Maureen, there’s more than one side and we all want the same thing.

Michael Vargas 22:59
I think that’s so powerful. I think that’s a really lovely perspective of bringing people together.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:06
So taking that, we’ve talked about school, creating safety within school teams and teachers and how that naturally applies to students and can ripple out. But I want to extend it, because with your master’s in clinical psychology. And also with your improv and design thinking background, what tools might you recommend teachers use to help move beyond the status quo landscape? I mean, teachers and school leaders, people that want to innovate. So which of these do you think are going to be the most important? Because some people just really dig their heels in like, No, we’ve been there before done that. This is the flavor of the month, no changes. And then they get locked into textbook-driven, numbed kids shut down, you know, that are totally tuned out. But they’ve been through so many changes, they don’t want to hear the latest idea. So from all of your work, and from the design thinking, big picture, and the playfulness of improv, I’m throwing it all together. What, what could we do to help school leaders and teachers and people will say, “Yeah, let’s, let’s try something a little different that empowers kids a little bit more” and I don’t know. It’s a big question with lots of moving parts, so any angle you take would be awesome, Michael.

Michael Vargas 24:26
I think, you know, you just got to ask nicely. That’s it. Well, that’s part of it. But, I think when I hear this, there’s different elements of a process. Again, I always think you know more about the environment and how things are done to help facilitate that. So the first thing is, for those who are against or not necessarily against, but they’re like, oh, why change it? Or, you know, we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work. Those are valid. And so work to understand the people that you need to create by in with. What are their challenges? What are their issues? What are the things that they have difficulties with? And what are their visions and goals for how they want to be, for what they want to create, for what they maybe once thought was possible? And maybe over the 10-15 years, they tried so many times, and they kept getting smacked down. And so why wouldn’t they think it’s pointless?

Michael Vargas 25:33
So really working to understand the people who might have the most resistance. Because going on what you said, what the polarity thinking, they have a lot of wisdom and reasons behind why this happened, or why they have this perspective. So I think that’s one part is getting the understanding of where people feel stuck. And, and really work to understand them, and what are their aspirations. So what are their challenges? What are their aspirations? And how can we really connect in with those, to get them a part of the conversation? And then, overall, to have a goal of where we want to go. And I think that the two biggest things, you know, when you this is kind of like setting the setting the soil. But the things that help it grow are one, a sheer number of ideas, that is one of the elements of innovation. And that’s where we want to get people, people being really playful, really fun, really silly, like, come up with some crazy ideas, like encourage that. Say, I want at least three ideas that have a unicorn, a lollipop, and a clown, go. And giving them the permission to get silly with it.

Michael Vargas 26:48
And allowing that space to happen. And so that people can then just let the ideas flow, because one of the elements of innovation is the sheer number of ideas. The more ideas you have, the more innovative you have, the more possibility of innovation you have. So getting people to just get with ideas. And like I said, using certain terms like the improv yes-and, you can have people do like physicals and move around and get into their bodies and come up with ideas that way. Give them a whole bunch of art to mess with, give them Legos. So you can also give them a whole bunch of just toys and elements for creative process to come out. Just so they can inspire more ideas. So you can have a lot of fun with it.

Michael Vargas 27:38
And then, later, not then, later. I want to say this one more time, not at that moment. But later, start identifying which of these ideas can we make into reality. We’re not in reality based when we’re coming up with ideas. And that’s what a lot of people do. I don’t think that’ll work. Now, that’s kind of dumb. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not the point of that exercise of idea generation. Later, then we start putting structure to it, then we started saying, Okay, what would work in our situation, in our environment, and then we start creating an experiment. Having them understand that this is an experiment, this isn’t the law, this isn’t how it’s going to be, let’s be clear that nobody here knows for sure what’s going to happen. But we’re going to do an experiment for two weeks, four weeks, three months, whatever it is, try this idea out. Come back, what worked, what didn’t work, maybe some of it worked. Maybe all of it worked. Maybe none of it worked. And let’s do this again. And now let’s get silly with it, again, come up with some crazy ideas of how we can even better this, and go on, so on and so forth.

Michael Vargas 29:04
And when we include people in that process, I think that that’s a very empowering experience, really getting people involved in it, and letting all the voices be heard. So I think that that’s some of the things that people can do to create a little bit more innovation in a space. And again, how do you do it in a way that safe? Well, maybe you have a bunch of sticky notes for ideas, and people just put them up on a wall. So it’s not that anyone is talking about it, but they have it there. Some people process longer, some people process shorter. So can we give in reflection times that people write down what they think, so that they fully process it before they start sharing their ideas? Right. So in the process itself, trying to figure out how do we make it safe, and then we can start allowing the process to unfold and just get that innovation flowing.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:56
Wow, you took my messy question and Boom, okay, systems, okay design thinking and iterations and playfulness. Let’s weave this in. I love that. And I know I’m guilty of sometimes taking things too seriously too quickly. And when we play, and when we let our students play, the joy, the lightness, the buy in, it’s light, but kids are connected and teachers would be connected. So what you’re saying is super wise and very holistic. I love it.

Michael Vargas 30:33
I appreciate it and thank you for that, for that question. When I heard that question, I was like, this is an excellent question. Because it can be feel messy and complicated. And people don’t know. But that’s why having the clarity, and having…one of the things I try to encourage people to do, and I think this was a great example is okay, does anyone have a question? No question. Okay. Does anyone think that they have a question, but they don’t know how to form the words, but there’s something there? Well, can we speak to that too, and like, work together to figure that out? And there are many times where people like, I think I have one of those. And so what we can do is I put in a structure, I brought in clarity for that process for people who are experiencing that. Now they know what to do. So again, I think working, you know, in one school, just what are the things that aren’t being said and start bringing clarity to those things? Yeah, yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 31:32
Wow. And yeah, if you don’t get it, you obviously you have a question. So if people aren’t saying, Yes, I have a question, but they don’t get it. There’s that gap. So if you can identify that gap, stuff isn’t being said, because I know everybody doesn’t get this. I see the perplexed looks but people aren’t asking questions. How do I create the structure? How do I model, how do I create the safety to get the unsaid spoken, which validates everybody. And chances are we always say this, hey, if you have a question, chances are a half the class have the same question. Thank you for raising it.

Michael Vargas 32:07
I see that all the time where someone starts talking about things, and then we get a little bit more identifying the words to go with what they’re talking about. And then you start seeing the nods in the room of like, yes, that thing. And yeah, and I think that I also think this might be a kind of a different element of it. But there’s something about that process. In particular, for me, at least, that’s about nurturing someone’s intuition, right? If they kind of sense something here, to allow themselves to really connect with that and start exploring that and give words to it. Because a lot of times what happens is alright, folks, does anyone have any questions? No, good. Okay. Let’s go on. Oh, so is everyone good about this? Does anyone have any objections? No, good. Let’s go on. But again, some people process things at a different pace. And it starts some people, it starts with this feeling of eh…and they don’t know how to express it, and people are already on to the next thing. And yet sometimes, what I experience is that there’s deep wisdom, in that it’s just not articulated yet. So giving people that space and time for that.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 33:25
Yes. And you know, some of our students have autism, one of my daughters has an autism diagnosis. And they don’t even naturally take in some of the social perspectives. So for that other person to grapple and say, Ah, wait. You know, because logically, I mean, we have some really smart cookies with or without autism, but the getting that social perspective, valuing that intuition and helping them find words for it is like a Whoa, I would have never looked at it that way for a lot of people. So a way to make the conversation richer and validate the person that has a gut feeling that doesn’t match up with a word or a question.

Michael Vargas 34:10
And when we talk about inclusivity, this is one of the elements because people just think differently, they process differently. So how can we help all those teachers, all those students, maybe identify their own internal processes, and then we make sure we make it a more equitable environment for that to happen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 34:31
Equity, yeah, when we talk about that, there are so many awesome layers to that and it needs to be something that we keep unpacking and these tools can really help us make conversations more equitable for our team of teachers or a team of students and, and safety. We all want safety. That’s not I can’t imagine if I say no, I don’t want to create a place that’s safe. But how do we do this? You’re you’re telling us how Um, yeah, I mean, I pivot now because I want to spend a little time getting to know the Michael, that is behind Lead by Impact. So I have some turbo time questions for you.

Michael Vargas 35:11
I’m ready. I’m gassed up, I’m ready to go.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 35:15
Okay, here it is. What is the last book you read?

Michael Vargas 35:20
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Callahan. And it talks about our biases. The he’s one of the founding researchers on that he was the first psychologist to ever win a Nobel Peace Prize in Economics. And the stuff that he writes on, it just blows your mind. Now, the book took me a year to really get through because it’s so dense, but it had such great information. And one of the biggest takeaways for me was my assessment on risk. It made me really take a deep dive in my assessment on risk, which was so valuable.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 35:54
My assessment on risk? Unpack that, what do you mean?

Michael Vargas 35:58
How do you look at risk? How do you measure risk? How do you identify whether a risk is worth taking or not? And the secondary consequences of it? How do you look at the severity of it, the impact that it has, the likelihood that it has? What’s my situation to allow me to take risk? What are the things I could mitigate the risks, how can I transfer risk? So on and so on, and so on. So just so many I have like a whole process. I’m a big process nerd. So I have a whole process when I’m coming up with a big decision. Now that I look through that through the lens of Okay, what are the risks and benefits and go through that process.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 36:34
Wow, again, something I’m pretty unintentional on that it’s at a subconscious level. So what a concept to make conscious and really, I mean, of course, we all look at risk, you know, it’s a yellow light do I, do I gas, do I hit the break? You know, we’re all always Yeah. But to make it more conscious and deliberate, and if this like you said, How do I mitigate? How could I mitigate if I want to go? Somebody subtleties, boy. So Michael, this is so important for us to look at risk differently and more consciously, I’m, we need to have like, more podcasts with you, because there’s so many layers to everything that you’re sharing, but I will get back to the turbo time questions. They’re supposed to turbo and I’m slowing you down. So two inspirational folks, you’d love to meet real life historical, out of literature?

Michael Vargas 37:31
Yeah. So they’re gonna be cheesy, but Bill Gates, and Mother Teresa. You know, one thing I learned from my grandmother that I’m constantly practicing is how to come from a place of true love. Constantly, even. And love doesn’t mean that we don’t keep our boundaries. But I felt like Mother Teresa was the embodiment of coming from a place of love. So love to learn more of how to live that way.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 37:55
Yes, do small acts with great love via pencil in the hand of God. I yeah, she. Oh, yes. And then Bill Gates is just Bill Gates.

Michael Vargas 38:06
Yeah. I mean, yeah.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 38:10
Definitely. Yeah. How about a TED talk that inspires you.

Michael Vargas 38:14
So going back on the on what we talked about was the Amy Edmondson talk on psychological safety. So if you want to hear a little bit more on that, type in Amy Edmondson, TED talk on psychological safety. That helped me start getting a sense of Oh okay. Something I knew, but she started putting words to it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 38:32
Yeah, that’s so important. And I’ll put that in the show notes with all of these resources that will end with your business resources, of course. What’s the biggest thing you wish folks knew about really empowering people to be lifelong learners, whether it’s our teachers or our students?

Michael Vargas 38:57
I think going back on what we said a little bit of: try not to judge anything that you’re learning, just really be curious about it and seek to really understand it. And as one learns to be curious about how does this apply to yourself? How could we potentially use this in the everyday? So I think that would be the biggest one, really, that if I could like, yeah, just curiosity before judgment of what it is that you’re learning, whether it’s from a book or someone talking, or what you’re witnessing on the street.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 39:31
Love it. I love that that Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind that I’m open, I don’t have all the answers. I’ve actually taken on a kind of this physical fitness practice where I am a beginner and it’s so good for me to remember this is what my kids go through when they’re trying to solve a quadratic equation. They’re like what huh? Because I overtime have selected stuff I really love and I’m pretty good at so for me to have to be beginners like we do this to our kids all the time. Yeah, we’re gonna give you some chemistry, we’re gonna give you some world history, we’re gonna give you all this stuff. And you need to make it happen. And I think being curious and being lifelong learners ourselves, I think, also give us empathy for kids, because we’re asking them to do a ton of that.

Michael Vargas 40:17
I have a, I have a buddy of mine, who he’s very successful on a lot of what he does, and he, he’s someone that I look up to quite a bit. And he recently started playing soccer, which he hasn’t done in like, 20 years. And when he talks about he’s like, that made me humble. He’s like, that brought me down to earth. And just okay, beginner’s mind again, wow I’m not even close to where I was, and to see how all these other people are. Okay. Let me be curious about how I can approach this. And, yeah, he now has a beginner’s mind with that. So it’s very easy for us to I think that’s a great way to get more into what is that beginner’s mind like? Do something you don’t really know, and then you can start bringing that back into the everyday practice of a teacher who has been teaching for 15-20 years and bring life back into that beginner’s mind?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 41:08
Yes, very wise. How about a pet peeve of yours?

Michael Vargas 41:14
Littering. I can’t stand it. So quick story. I was at a restaurant years ago, and I’m leaving, and I see someone drop some some paper on the ground and walk into their car. So I then grabbed the paper, I knocked on the window and say, I think you forgot this. Oh, they just they took it and then they just left. But it’s just just hold off until you find a place to put it somewhere. Littering.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 41:44
I hear you. Yes. What’s one passion that you bring to Lead by Impact?

Michael Vargas 41:52
Really looking at how can we serve the community? That’s really the end all be all goal. I used to work at a residential facility for mental health. And what was scary was that we had a lot of clients leave and come back, leave and come back. So how effective were we really being? So now I’m trying to look at all the different ways that I can actually have real change with communities to have that positive impact, working with schools, nonprofits, ACLU San Diego, that I’m working with the County of San Diego, and how do we actually create real change and real impact even if it’s small, but real?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 42:32
Yes, yeah. Not just here’s my product, go have a nice life. But what is the impact? And how can it be the biggest and impact the most people in the community?

Michael Vargas 42:43
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the benefits of this training is the the psychological safety work is when I hear about people who bring it home.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 42:53
Yes, Mm hmm. So how can others create safe spaces for school transformation? You’ve said a lot of things, if you were just gonna summarize what would be the one thing “Hey, you can go out and do this in your school tomorrow”?

Michael Vargas 43:13
I’m gonna say, there’s so many I think ways to answer that, but I’m gonna say, look into your life. Who is someone who has helped you feel safe? And how do you embody what they do in your everyday? I think that’s just that’s right there, we all have those, that person or those people, and so how can we fully try to come from Okay, what would that person do? What would my grandmother do in this space? And so coming from that perspective. I think that would be one just, you know, that would allow me to be more aware of it. And then that would allow me to start practicing it. And then that would allow me to be an example to others of how they can create safety. So I think that would be a really good way.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 43:56
Nice, and it lets me choose what I value not, Oh, we should all be Mother Teresa. Or we should all…but who has done that. And yeah, when you say that I get shivers because like, Yeah, I would love to channel some people that have been super cool and powerful my life. Yeah, very cool. Okay, last question in turbo time. What is something about you that most people don’t know?

Michael Vargas 44:26
I did martial arts for three years. I was in seventh, seventh and eighth grade I did two years. And after the first year, that was actually the first environment that I felt truly safe. And after the first year, they actually started asking me to help train the students. And that’s where I first started getting a feel for group work.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 44:46
Wow, and martial arts for you to feel safe in that place, which to me sounds a little scary with, you know, all this physical stuff going on. That’s interesting that that they created with their structure and their clarity, the safety you talk about.

Michael Vargas 45:02
That was the safest place I ever experienced until about eighth grade seventh and eighth grade. Talking about school, I’m talking about home, I’m talking about everywhere. That was the safest place I have ever felt into that time.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 45:16
Wow. Even though this is turbo time, it makes me want to go deeper on this because that means if I’m a scout leader, or a soccer coach, or youth group leader, how can I be creating this? And might I be that one place that the seventh or eighth grader feels safest of all? It’s like an honor and a responsibility.

Michael Vargas 45:40
Yeah. And I recently reached out to Christopher Colombo, who’s the Sheehan of the school, you know, and letting him know, hey, you’ve been a real inspiration for a lot of the work I do. So thank you for that. And what you’ve done has made a real impact in my life. And he continues to still run the school and still help students and create a crazy safe space, but also one of empowerment.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 46:03
Wow. And I’m sure he was honored, especially after time has passed, since you’re a little beyond eighth grade, you know. So that you know that it’s resonates and has had a long term impact. I’m sure he was pleased to hear that.

Michael Vargas 46:17
Yeah, I think so. And it was good to hear from him.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 46:20
Nice. I always like to wrap up our interviews with a magic wand question. And I don’t want to wrap up this interview, because I feel like I have so much more to learn from you. But we’ll just have to do this again. Yes, definitely. So if you had a magic wand, and I don’t even think it would be schools, if you just had a magic wand, it could make groups of people, you could use some of the psychological safety pieces you’ve talked about, you know, what would you bestow upon just our group interactions with your magic wand?

Michael Vargas 47:03
I if I could, and you know, I even think about the world. And, you know, all that if I can have that magic wand, it would again, go back to the idea of curiosity before judgment. Seek to understand before being understood, really being curious about other people’s perspectives, what they say, what they believe, why do they believe that, and really work to understand each other before we start like, challenging one another, which I love. But having that deep understanding before trying to be understood. So that would be my magic wand.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 47:42
I love that. And I don’t hear your questions. I mean, I’ve heard a ton of questions like, they’re not really seeking to understand, though, don’t you really think it would be better if we all did it? You know, they’re really trying to persuade you. And they’ve got it in question. And that’s not what I hear you saying at all.

Michael Vargas 47:59
No, no, that’s like leading questions, right. And things like that. Versus more open ended. There’s like closed ended questions. There’s leading questions. And then there’s more open ended questions and really having the heart of that, when you say that you’re frustrated that we’re trying this, can you tell me more about what makes you so frustrated? Have you had something to happen in the past? Have, have you tried this before and it hasn’t worked? Do you feel like you’re not being heard? What is it? Let me really understand that. And again, it’s a lot of tone as well, right? Like, oh, yeah, you don’t like that? Versus Oh, okay. You don’t like that? What’s going on? And I think you hit on that big time is also the tone and the spirit in which we really try to understand people.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 48:50
Wow, Michael, what an honor. I am so glad that we got to talk today. And you have such an important message for all of our groups. I usually focus just on school evolution. But boy, can you imagine if our national politicians like wait, I really want to understand you. And even you’re in a different party and I still really want to understand you. Can you imagine what this could do if we could really embrace psychological safety and curiosity before judgment at every level?

Michael Vargas 49:24
It would be such a lovely game changer.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 49:27
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Michael Vargas 49:32
Maureen, thank you so much for having me and again for having this platform where we can share these ideas and these perspectives in a way to help others so thank you.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 49:41

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 49:51
Wow. As you can tell, it was super fun talking with Michael. Everything he was saying, my brain was just delighting. It was like a smorgasbord for my brain, there was just so much about how we can treat each other well, and how we can build bridges. And I’m all about collaborating to create equitable learning for all of our students and letting them be empowered. And all of his ideas apply directly to making that happen and start with our teachers, did they feel safe? Because if they’re not safe, how are we going to look at learning differently? And how are we going to pass on that feeling of safety to our students?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 50:40
So I could have gone on with Michael forever. And I’m just going to reiterate a few pieces and tips. So in the show notes, I have Amy Edmondson who is an organizational behavioral scientist of Harvard, I have her TED Talk. And she introduced the construct of team psychological safety. And she defines this as a shared belief, held by members of a team, that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That’s super powerful. And I don’t think that we intentionally create time to build this psychological safety as a team. I know I do a lot of team building, I’m not sure that’s always been an explicit outcome. So I, as always get to learn more from my guests than probably any of you listeners do. And that’s definitely a takeaway for me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 51:49
And then, I am going to repeat seven tips that Michael shared that I think are really powerful in how we create psychological safety, which to me says, I love you, I value you, and I really want a deep connection with you. So to me, this is important, whether it’s in our personal relationships, or in our schools, or wherever, because the world definitely needs more love, and empathy and caring. And here are seven tips I heard him express:

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 52:24
So one was make sure we separate the person from the problem. And whether that’s anonymous, and you have lists of things, and you bring them up, and they’re not attached to names, or even when I’m talking, you know, to a child, you know, I love you. But I don’t love this behavior. We do that as parents, you know, what you did does not make me happy. But that doesn’t stop me from loving you. Separating those two out.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 52:52
The second tip: get to know each other, the whole person. I love the school he worked with, that they decided to create socials that aren’t about getting committee work done. They’re about understanding what made a difference to somebody as a kid and why they ended up in education and appreciating the whole person when we’re connected and when we have these bonds. We’ve developed Stephen Covey’s emotional bank accounts, and we’re putting deposits in those. And then if we have a conflict or a disagreement or something isn’t working well, we can take a withdrawal but we have this emotional bank account going. So getting to know each other is a must. I know for my girls overseas, getting to know people in so many different cultures has changed their worldview. They don’t see the us-them as much as some of their cousins and people that have just lived in, in one area their whole lives. It’s been interesting to watch, they really have a sense of there are so many ways of doing things. So many religions, so many colors of skin, so many languages. So getting to know the whole person, I think we’ll come back to the learning that I have from my overseas travels and from my experiences that we all want what’s best for everybody, we all care. We all are mothers or daughters or colleagues and we’re all human. And that is a healing place to start from.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 54:27
His third tip, honor different ways of knowing and processing and help unpack the gut feelings, the intuition, the the different ways if it’s not a verbal way of expressing, we can honor these differences and help let them be valued and and be expressed.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 54:48
His next tip was add clarity. Clarity makes safety and he talks about that in his martial arts program. I think sharing our intent also creates safety. Hey, you’re not in trouble student, I just really want to understand why your assignment didn’t get done so that I can help you with it. Whew, okay, this is the teachers intent, I can relax, I’m not going to, it’s not going to, you know, my parents aren’t getting called, I’m not in trouble. Okay. I feel safe.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 55:18
Five: seek to understand, be curious. Again, this is a Stephen Covey from my early training, seek first to understand. You know, do I understand what’s behind this resistance? What is this different view about? Hmm, I’m curious, I want to ask open ended questions and truly understand, not to fix, not to change, just to understand.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 55:43
And six is my favorite, get playful and creative in your ideation stage. You know, so how are we gonna generate tons of ideas? We’re going to do silly stuff and improv is great for that. Okay, unicorn, lollipop, clown. Three ideas that include all three of these. Or yes-and, yes, I, like the the teacher before me said this, and we could grow on it and build on it by doing this. Yes-and it’s super fun. If you haven’t done that before. It’s playful and easy.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 56:17
And finally, what everybody can do. Just take a minute right now, who’s helped you feel safe? I remember always feeling safe with my kindergarten teacher. I didn’t always feel safe at home with five kids and lots of moving parts. But my kindergarten teacher just laughed and was calm and was like a grandma. So how did she make me feel safe? She listened. She didn’t seem like she was in a hurry. Okay, so how can I channel Miss Barbara Elise Kohler, my former kindergarten teacher? So who helped you feel safe? How did they do it? And how can you channel this to create this experience for those around you and those that you care about? So building psychological safety. Michael Vargas, Lead by Impact. Wow, important message and I’m so glad you got to share it with me today.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 57:31
If you’re finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school. Let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book, TEDx talk, and online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student. Let’s create an action plan together. Visit to book a call and let’s get started.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 58:07
Education Evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued, and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you listeners. Signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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