Process over Product: Raising Confident Learners with Rachel Lotus

Hey Rachel! Great to be with you. So let’s start off with you introducing yourself to everybody. 

Hi, I am Rachel Lotus. I am a mom of three; twelve, ten, and seven year old humans, and I’m also a sexuality educator. I’m based in Brooklyn, New York and I’m really happy to be here. 

Wonderful, thanks. So you said twelve, ten, and seven. Let’s pick ten. If you could go back and think about who you were as a ten year old, as a learner, Tell me about who you were. 

It’s so fun to do this, I don’t think I’ve really gone there in my past in a really long time, so it’s cool to think back. As a learner at age ten, I was super eager, very curious, inquisitive, probably to an annoying degree for some of my teachers. I was a kid who participated a lot and had a pretty high degree of confidence in most spaces, including school, which was a result I think of personality type, but also what I got at home. 

That brings me to my home situation. My mom was a teacher, she taught elementary school, special ed, and was a literacy specialist for almost forty years. We of course talked a lot about school and there was a pretty strong relationship between the work that she did, my school life, our home life, and it was very much in the mix. We were talking about learning a lot. She read to us constantly, we read independently and voraciously. So, it felt like there was a lot of overlap between home and school. Obviously, education was highly valued. We – my younger sister and I – were not pressured. There was no pressure to perform academically in the sense of like “we expect you to get good grades, we want you to be at the top of your class.” But there was an expectation that we had to always try hard and do your best.

So that’s in terms of everyone else’s perception of you. Did you agree with how you were seen by the adults? Sometimes kids (and adults!) feel like, “I secretly don’t know anything, but everyone thinks I know something.” Or, did you feel like, “Yeah, I could totally figure something out.. If I didn’t know something, I could learn how to do it.” 

I think it’s a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy to some extent. If people are telling you that you are a certain way and they have certain expectations of you, you typically rise to see them. We know this as teachers, as educators, when we tell our kids that they are amazing and we can see great things, they usually reward us by meeting that expectation. I didn’t really have too much imposter syndrome.

Although, I will acknowledge, I think that because I was accustomed to catching onto things quickly, and learning easily, when something was hard, that was hard for me. I definitely suffered from anxiety around the gap between, “I should know this and I don’t yet,” and frustration. I think I had a low frustration threshold in part because most things came pretty easily at age ten. As I got older and I moved through school and things got more challenging, that of course was different, but at a young age, I would say that. 

Does that come up now at all? How do you feel like you worked through that frustration? I think that’s common for a lot of kids who do well in school early on. “Wait, this isn’t coming easily… is that okay?” 

Right, I think that between probably middle and high school I went through a period of, “I’m not immediately good at something then, I’m just not going to do it.” Excelled, excelled, excelled in reading, writing, anything literacy based, in math not so much and I think my parents were dismayed that I wasn’t willing to power through it a little bit more. 

I think it took me into adulthood to move past the perception of myself as, “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I’m not going to do it at all.” I think it was the turning point in my career pivot, where I decided maybe it was maturity. Being a mom was just incredibly humbling, and realizing that there isn’t perfection anymore and that taking risks is part of learning and part of growth. Being imperfect is beautiful too. I think I went through a little bit of a journey in that way. 

Yeah. Tell me a little bit about that career pivot. I know there’s a lot of unknowns when starting a business. How was that for you? 

Yeah. I was formerly teaching High School English and Creative Writing, which I absolutely loved. Took my own pause, had my own kids and then when I was getting ready to go back, knew that I still wanted to be in education, but also knew that I didn’t have the bandwidth to be back in the classroom full time, especially teaching English, which is a lot of grading and reading. So what honestly happened was sort of this confluence of events, which was me beginning the process of talking openly with my own kids about their bodies and sexuality and gender and all of these things, and simultaneously having a series of exploratory conversations with people I really trusted about what my next move would be. Not with any real goal in mind, just sort of like, “Where am I going next?” 

I was really just trying to figure it out and somebody that I really trusted said, “I think you could do this. I think that there’s a need for it. No one is doing it. It’s something you love and you’re good at, you feel confident about. Give it a try.” The thing that’s holding me back I realized in approaching the plunge, was all in the details. The daunting part was, I don’t know how to file the paperwork. I don’t know how to set up these accounts. I don’t know how to build a website. All these seemingly small things, but compiled together felt like a lot, but the really fundamental core piece of the work, which is teaching kids about sex and sexuality, I knew that I could do and I strongly, intuitively believed that, and that was what pushed me passed the fear of all the other unknowns and all the scary things that I didn’t know how to do. 

Pushing myself in that one way, then sort of cracked open and shattered the illusion of, “If you can’t do it perfectly don’t do it at all.” And I did absolutely have imposter syndrome for a while, it took a while for that to fade, and I had to earn the feeling of, “I’m right where I belong and I’ve earned my respect and my place in this world.” But it took some time and I think it’s also part of being a woman, to be honest. 

I think so too. Tell me about that with your kids. Does that come up when you talk to your kids about learning, and how do those conversations go? 

I think it absolutely comes up but I’m going to talk about two out of three of my kids. My two older kids, they’re my daughters. Because they’re so different as human beings and their approach to life and the way they learn and the kinds of students they are. I think it’s helpful to compare them side by side because it is so humbling as a mom to realize that you are only so instrumental in shaping who your children are and become, because they are very much themselves from birth. 

My older daughter who is twelve is in 7th grade now. She has always been a deeply self disciplined kid. Has had a ton of sustained focus on anything that grabbed her interest from a really young age. She’s also deeply curious and really wants to learn, so if something catches her, she could go all the way with it. For example, in first grade she got into Greek mythology and consumed everything she could get her hands on around that. The topic was a singular obsession for a very long time, and then that ended and something else came up and took its place. 

She absolutely learns towards a tendency of perfectionism, I’m sorry to say but I don’t think it’s coming from any external source because we have been so careful not to apply pressure. Not to quantify in any way what success is or should look like, but make it more holistic, “Success is when you’re trying your best. Success is when you feel like you did everything you could do.” I can see that because again she has had success early and often in school, she has typically been top, top of any group. When now in middle school she encounters something challenging, she’s very hard on herself. I think the work with her that I’m doing as a parent is really de-emphasizing the numbers and the grades and trying to redirect her focus to, “What was the process like for you?”  Not being product focused, but process focused. I think it’s going to take some time and it’s also going to take more maturing and moving through on her own. 

Then, I have my younger daughter who’s ten, and she is a playful, silly, fun, also curious and excited about learning new things kind of kid, but she’s still working towards executive functioning and focus and would much rather be running around and playing than she would being still. She’s not studious, I would not use that word about her. But she loves to learn, she just does it in different ways. So I think for her, the frustration threshold is also quite low but I don’t think it’s related to things having come easily. I think it’s more related to self regulation and dysregulation and having a little bit of a harder time bringing herself back to a centered place once something has triggered that response. So, the work with her is how do you move back into a calm place when you’ve been triggered by something so you can redirect her energies. 

Definitely. What a hard balance. That’s the big work of it.

There may be some folks reading this with kids who also lean toward perfectionist tendencies. I wonder if you could talk a little about your ten year old’s responses to some of this. Aside from the parent moves, I wonder what you see going on with them internally? How does your ten year old react to these positive process-over-product messages you’re sending? 

Great question. 

You can see a visible expansion in her when we praise her process. 

When you praise her there’s this opening and this opening extends to risk taking in a lot of different realms. Social risk taking, emotional risk taking, and I don’t mean risk taking in a negative way, I’m using it in a positive. Like the idea that in order for her to feel empowered to take a risk, she has to feel some sense of being buoyed by feeling she can step off the success. I’m trying to capture something that I just feel and observe in her. It’s a noticeable difference. 

I can give you an example, I was reading a reflection that she wrote in school about, “What went well in the fall, and what do you think you could work on for the next round?” She was so honest her response, and I realize that that was in part because her teacher had really cultivated such trust with all of them, and she has this discipline style that’s very much based on, “I love you and you love me, and so you’re invested in doing your best for me and I’m invested in bringing out that best in you.” There’s this really nice reciprocal exchange going on between them. So my daughter was able to say, “I feel like writing is an area where I could stand to improve.” And she gave a specific example, “When we worked on this essay, I only had four paragraphs instead of five. I feel like I was always behind.”  And then she said, “I really like writing, I just sometimes feel like I don’t get to finish or say all of my ideas and it takes me a little longer.” But she was saying it in a way that she didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. She wasn’t being hard on herself, she was just being really really honest. 

I think when there’s enough praise to balance out constructive criticism, that goes a long long way. I don’t really criticize anything academically that she’s doing because she does enough to herself. She does not need any other voice chiming in. 

That’s so beautiful. Thanks for sharing that. It’s interesting that you’re saying that because your girls are so different, but they sound like they both have this internal voice and drive that is guiding them. Maybe it comes out in different ways because of their different personalities, but sounds like it’s there for both of them. 

Yeah, that’s a good observation. True. 

Alright, well, wonderful. Going back to your big pivot, is there any advice you have for folks who are thinking “I want to pivot, but there’s so much that I don’t know?”

The other piece that I didn’t really talk about but was more integral to the content of my work is that old adage that we always talk about an education which is, consume consume consume, produce, and that was really huge for me. Just feeling that I needed to set aside a pretty big chunk of time before I actually started to try and do anything to consume and learn and explore as much as possible before attempting the production part of things. 

I bet that is confidence building in itself. Eventually the more you read you can say, “I read this, I already know this.” 

Yes. We’re always learning and that’s the other piece of it. You think you will achieve some level of proficiency and you’re never ever done. There’s always more to learn. There’s always growth. It’s worth pushing yourself to take the risk. 

Wonderful. We’ll leave it with those words of wisdom. Thank you so much Rachel. Thanks for talking to me. 

Sure, my pleasure. Thanks Talia.  

Rachel Lotus is an educator, consultant, and the founder and director of The Talk NYC, a one-stop shop for inclusive, progressive sexuality education. She offers classes for youth, workshops for parents, and support for schools. The Talk’s empowering program provides participants with foundational knowledge, essential social-emotional skills, and an invaluable opportunity to connect meaningfully with peers. Prior to founding The Talk, Rachel taught middle and high school in the NYC public school system, where she witnessed firsthand the need for better sex ed.

In addition to speaking frankly about sexuality to students, parents, and educators, Rachel also talks often and openly with her own three kids who, like all children, have lots of questions. 

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