What Happens When Emotions Attend a Conference

Me and my dear friend Carol, who came from Nairobi to present at the conference, enjoying sunset at Asilomar.

It started as a desire to take hardworking educators to a gorgeous spot on the California coast and provide opportunities for learning, reflection, and rejuvenation. I’d spent a few days at Asilomar, (in the Monterey Bay) walking on the beach, watching the sunset, sitting by a fireplace, and had left feeling as if I’d had a month of vacation. I remember returning to my school district feeling much needed energy and hope. And thinking that I wanted other educators to have that experience.

So I organized a conference. And 325+ people from all over the U.S. (and Canada) came. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d learn what I did or that the experience would be transformational for me.


My vision for this conference was that participants would be intellectually stimulated and challenged; that they’d leave with pockets full of new strategies to meet the needs of children. I also envisioned participants connecting with each other—with new and old friends. I hoped our community of coaches would strengthen.

I also intended to hold a space where people might attend to their bodies, emotions and spirits. I hoped they’d sleep well and walk along the sand dunes and enjoy the glories of the coast; I hoped they’d bring their sadness, anger, joy and fear.

I shared these intentions as we convened on the first night. I shared that that morning I’d walked by the ocean, and that usually the ocean brings me great peace. But that morning, my thoughts had drifted to the families in Parkland, Florida who had buried their children over the weekend, the teens who had been massacred in their school on February 14, 2018. I’d sat on a rock by the ocean and cried. And as I shared this with the 300+ on that first night, my voice broke and I noticed people in the room wiping their eyes and a wave of sadness washed over us.

Bring your emotions, I told them. Bring your spirits. Connect with each other.

I know they did. I saw it happening all around for three days. I heard laughter and saw people hugging, I saw tears and heard anger, and I saw hope and the energy of inspiration. And I walked my own talk—I brought my own emotions and spirit, too. I’ve never done that before when I’ve been in a leadership/facilitator role. New learning for all, myself included.


It wasn’t until the first session started, and I stepped onto the stage in Merrill Hall, that the magnitude of what I was doing hit. Some 325 people had come to the first Art of Coaching Conference that I’d spent a year organizing, and now I stood on a stage where I’d once seen Sir Ken Robinson deliver a keynote. I was about to lead a session on Coaching for Equity, but the volume of old voices was deafening.

I listened for a moment. They said:

“YOU DON’T BELONG HERE. Who do YOU think you are standing on THIS stage? You are AN IMPOSTER. You are a fraud. What do you know?!! You can’t spell. You are a bad student. Unsatisfactory. Underperforming. You weren’t born here. You don’t belong—not in this country nor on this stage.”

These are the voices of the outside world of my childhood, of my K-12 experience. I stood on that stage remembering that in middle school I was the shyest, quietest girl in the class, sitting in the back of the room if I could. Year after year, my report cards read, “Elena needs to talk more in class.” In English, my work was returned covered with red correction marks and a low grade. Teachers often looked at my name and phenotype and plunked me into the low reading groups, into remedial classes, and into the softest of the electives. It wasn’t until I got to college that a teacher saw my potential and encouraged me and my sense of self as a student shifted.

I got to where I am because of my mother—her belief in me never wavered—and I believed her. My teachers let me down.

And there I was on that stage where a British knight had spoken brilliant and beautiful words. And the voices were telling me I was not worthy.

Usually when I hear those voices, I scream at them: “FUCK YOU! Get out of my head! I’ve got some shit to get done.” And I turn away.

This time, on that stage, because I spend so much time thinking and talking about emotions these days, I turned towards them. I recognized the sadness and fear and anger. I listened for much longer than I usually do. I saw myself as an awkward, shy, 7th grader who thought she couldn’t write and I said, “look where you are now.”

There was enough space for all of those emotions—I’d never invited all of them to show up. And then I felt calmer and more whole. And I turned to the group who’d come for my session and we started.

I know I belong here. I belong on that stage.


My main message these days is about emotional resilience in educators—why we need to focus on it, how it can help us create the schools that we dream of, why we deserve to talk about emotions in the workplace. My keynote was on this topic, my forthcoming book is on this topic—and I’m constantly learning more about it.

My experience at the conference affirmed that when we allow all of our emotions to be present, when we share them with others, when we just acknowledge and recognize them—we get stronger. In spite of the amount of work and effort the conference took, it left me feeling more energized and rejuvenated than I can remember feeling in a long time. There is power in accessing and inviting our emotions to be present.


When we convened on the final morning of the conference, I closed with a push for us all to go back to our schools, find those children who aren’t seen, and serve them. I know that there are kids in our classrooms who feel that they don’t belong, that there isn’t a single teacher who believes in their potential. “Find the quiet, shy girl,” I said. “Find the kids who feel they don’t belong. Do what you can so that in ten or 20 years they are on that stage where Sir Ken Robinson and I spoke.”

Our resilience is linked to our ability to serve our children. In order to offer them our best, we must accept, welcome and honor our emotions. In doing this, we can also transform our grief and anger into energy that fuels us to meet the needs of students. Whether at a conference, or a team meeting, or wherever your work takes you, I hope that you might be able to welcome and acknowledge your emotions, and that they might be a source of energy.

Sunset on the final day of the conference. This was the first time that Carol had seen the Pacific Ocean, which made it all the more special. My heart and spirit were full.