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The Power of Education with Jen Rafferty

Jen Rafferty is an educator, author and founder of Empowered Educator. Since its inception, the Empowered Educator has reached teachers and school leaders all over the world. Jen has been featured in Authority Magazine, Medium, Thrive Global, Voyage MIA and was on the TEDx stage with her talk Generational Change Begins with Empowered Teachers. She's also the host of the podcast, Take Notes with Jen Rafferty, which is rated in the top 3% of podcasts globally.

Listen to the episode here.




[01:14] Jen Rafferty on what she’s most passionate about

[01:39] Jen Rafferty on her childhood

[03:06] Jen Rafferty on how she first got interested in music

[08:58] Jen Rafferty on the challenges she faced in her music career

[11:02] Jen Rafferty on her book, A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher

[13:50] Jen Rafferty on going for her PhD during COVID

[18:36] Jen Rafferty on what it means to be an Empowered Educator

[19:57] Jen Rafferty on why she chose to focus her company on teachers

[23:14] Jen Rafferty on tips for coping with burn-out

[28:49] Jen Rafferty on the power of the human brain

[31:56] Jen Rafferty on how to be supportive of someone you love who is experiencing burn-out

[34:31] Jen Rafferty on how she works with her clients

[37:31] Jen Rafferty on the education system in the current political climate

[40:17] Jen Rafferty on her podcast, Take Notes with Jen Rafferty

[43:31] Jen Rafferty on tips for having a successful podcast

[45:20] Jen Rafferty on the Sing Together program she created during COVID

[49:39] Jen Rafferty on who she is now

[51:37] Jen Rafferty on the advice she’d give her younger self

[52:06] Jen Rafferty on her dream for women

[52:35] Jen Rafferty on the mantra she lives by

[53:00] Jen Rafferty on her definition of success

[53:34] Jen Rafferty on her proudest career achievement

[54:01] Jen Rafferty on implementing her strategies in her own home

[56:15] Jen Rafferty on taking her work beyond educators  

[57:43] Jen Rafferty on the advice she would you give to a young woman who wants to follow her passion




Passionistas: Hi, we're sisters Amy and Nancy Harrington, the founders of The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we give women a platform to tell their own unfiltered stories. On every episode, we discuss the unique ways in which each woman is following her passions, talk about how she defines success and explore her path to breaking down the barriers that women too often face.


Today we're talking with Jen Rafferty, an educator, author, and founder of Empowered Educator about the Power of Education. Since its inception, the Empowered Educator has reached teachers and school leaders all over the world. Jen has been featured in Authority Magazine, Medium, Thrive Global, Voyage MIA, and was on the TEDx stage with her talk Generational Change Begins with Empowered Teachers.


She's also the host of the podcast, Take Notes with Jen Rafferty, which is rated in the top 3% of podcasts globally.


So please welcome Jen Rafferty.


Jen: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.


Passionistas: We're so excited to have you here today. We have so much to talk to you about. Um, we always start our interviews with the same question, which is, what are you most passionate about?


Jen: I am most passionate, hands down about education. I think that education is the foundation of our world and unfortunately, it's not given the credit that it's due. And in our world, in our society, we don't value it the way that I believe that it, it needs to be. So that is where my heart is. That is where all of my Passionistas that gets my tail wagon and gets me going in the morning. For sure.


Passionistas: So does that go back to when you were a kid? Were you, uh, did you like school as a kid?


Jen: You know, I was, I was really good at school, um, which I think made me think that I liked it, you know what I mean?


Like, I could, I could do it really well. I knew how, um, I mean, I always loved learning. I loved, I loved learning, and I particularly loved being in my music classroom. That was the place where I felt most at home. That was the place where I felt like I belonged. It was the place where I felt like I could, I could in a way that really I couldn't in any other spaces at school.


So I was lucky enough to have some really incredible teachers. Um, but I, I think through that passion, I became a music teacher because I, I wanted to share the, the tools so other people could just discover their voice themselves and also understand the beauty in sharing their music. And so through that and through my career, I started to discover really what the gaps were between what teachers needed and what they were able to get.


And that's, I think, really fueled this sense of urgency that I have about focusing my attention, my work towards education.


Passionistas: Let's talk a little bit more about music and what got you interested in music, how you got started, what was the first instrument you picked up? Tell us a little bit more about that joy that you found.


Jen: You know, the story goes, I was, you know, three or four and I was lining up my stuffed animals in the living room to perform for them and just really wanted to be on stage. I, I guess that was just something that was very innate from when I was a little kid. My, you know, mom always loves to tell me, she tells my kids those stories, same stories now too.


Um, and so they, I, I was really lucky that my parents, I. Fostered that love of of music with me and, and was able to, you know, drive me to rehearsals and get me involved in dance lessons in ballet and tap and theater. And, uh, when I was in elementary school, I was able to be a part of this theater company's professional theater company.


And it was great. Like I was able to perform as Annie. I was able to perform as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I had like all of these really beautiful professional theater company experiences when I was a kid. And I just loved being on stage. I loved exploring story through the narrative of, of theater. You know, I think, you know, musical theater for me is, is one of the highest art forms because it's just, it's everything, right?


It's just, it's, it's everything. And, um, the emotion that always, you know, was evoked not just for me, but for my audience was always so magical and I was just drawn to that. And so, um, when I went to college, music education was kind of a no-brainer for me. And I also studied vocal performance, so I was classically trained as, as a vocalist, which was really cool.


And, you know, I was, while I, I learned a lot in college about like, you know, classical singing and, um, I love a good Mozart art song. And, and I love all that stuff. But really the, the music that I tend to gravitate to are songs from the American songbook of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Like, that's what I loved.


You know, I got a gig at a restaurant singing on a Friday and Saturday night, which was really cool. I was lucky to have the Friday and Saturday night because they were always the biggest dippers, right? Let's be real about that. And, um, I just was always able to have music be a part of my life and I was able to share it with my students with in my community, which was really cool.


So as far as instruments to actually answer your question, now I play them all, but, but singing and piano is actually my, my main instrument. So how did you ultimately decide, um, decide to move into the education side of music? What's interesting about that is, um, performing is a highly competitive field.


It's just, it's a doggy dog world out there. And it, you know, I never had that in me. It was always like, oh, you want, you want this more than I do? Like, go take it. It's yours. I don't, it's okay. Um, that was part of it. I just didn't, I didn't want to feel the pressure and the competition that is often a part of that lifestyle.


That's just not the life that I wanted to lead. It wasn't aligned with who I wanted to be. Instead, I looked at music education as a way to give people tools to unlock this expressive side that they might not have had access to otherwise. And what that actually led me to is, is a really cool place in, in my career.


You know, I thought I'd be teaching chorus. In general music and, you know, teach people how to sing and, and do choirs and conduct. And I, I did all those things. And, you know, further along in my career, I was conducting all over New York State. I was pre presenting at conferences all around the country. But one of the coolest things that I did, actually had nothing to do with singing.


Um, I started a modern band program at my high school, which was a great opportunity to teach kids how to play guitar and keyboard and drums, like drum kid and bass. And, you know, I was a soprano in, you know, growing up. So I still kind of chuckled to myself. The first time I ever picked up an electric guitar or like a bass, I found like such a poser.


I was like, who, who am I? What is what is happening here? But what it did was a, it gave me an opportunity to become a student of music again. A lot of my kids knew how to play guitar better than I could, and I was able to kind of redefine my role as a music educator. Music education is very, very traditional.


We're starting as a profession to kind of move further and further away from that and to kind of more of a relevant and accessible place. But it's still deeply ingrained in tradition. And what those opportunities allowed me to do was kind of see where the kids were, what they wanted, and meet them where they were at.


And I was fortunate enough to be in a school district that just kinda let me do, do whatever I wanted to do. So no one really said no to me. So I said, Hey, I have this idea we're gonna do this guitar class. He said, okay, Jen, you know, go do your thing. And okay, we're gonna expand it now to drum set and bass and and guitar.


Okay Jen, go do your thing. And so what's happened was this beautiful program came out where kids started their own garage bands. Again, we like, you know, unearthed garage band culture again and in our town and. Kids are now writing, producing, performing their own tunes. And now that I'm no longer in the classroom, the person who's replaced me is doing just a stellar job with these kids and they're really keeping the tradition going.


So, you know, people's lives have been changed. I'm at a point now in my career where kids are grown up and they get to tell me about how that experience has really impacted them. You know, some of these kids guitar changed their life and now they're in a band with their buddies and they are able to connect with people and travel and perform.


And it's, it's really everything that I intended it to be when I first started out as a music educator. For sure.


Passionistas: So it sounds like an amazing experience that you had and, and you had so much, so much comes from music and, but what were the challenges that you faced doing music?

Jen: I mean, did you, did you have any pushback from people who didn't think music was important or it sounds like you had a pretty great school system that you're working in.


Yeah, well that's always how the story goes is right. It's, you know, convincing the people that what you do is worthy of their time, attention and funding. And you know, right out of the gate music, teachers out, advocacy. And I actually became very involved in my state organization, which is the New York State School Music Association.


And part of the work that I do did there, and I, I still work with them, um, you know, kind of peripherally is, is part of the advocacy committee. Because you're right, there are a lot of people who don't understand the value and think of it as kind of this like, fluffy, extra that's nice to have and don't really understand that this is a must have, that this is, you know, a part of the human experience.


That unless we have it as part of the school day, it's, we're denying a part of the hu the humanity of our kids as they grow up. You know, it is their right to know that they are musical beings. It is essential for them to at least discover a way for them to express themselves. This kind of gets me on a little bit of a tangent about emotional intelligence and the social emotional learning programs that are there.


Right? We kind of talk the talk about social emotional learning programs, but then we're cutting our arts programs. That doesn't really make any sense. Um, you know, that's the place where kids find themselves and advocating for that is always a challenge. Um, it's important that the messages are, are clear and consistent, and the music education community at large is, is very strong and, and has a strong voice for that.


So, yeah, I mean that is, that is always a challenge even when things are going great.


Passionistas: In 2019, you published the book, A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher. So what inspired you to write that book and tell us about it? Tell us what it's about.


Jen: That book is everything that, you know, you don't learn in college. t's really just paying homage to my younger self is really what it was, because, I'll be honest with you, after my first year of teaching, I was like, what did I sign up for? I don't think I want to do this anymore. And I was really torn up about that. And of course, now the work that I do currently, this is not, you know, an uncommon story for new teachers, but I really felt like a bait and switch, and I was mad about it because, I always wanted to do this.


I was told I was really good at this, and now I come into this space kind of being thrown to the wolves and feeling super unsure of myself, um, unsteady in my footing. I couldn't really find my stride. And then just started questioning everything because you know, big part of being a, an educator is it's conflated with your identity.


You know, it's like, well, I am a teacher, so it's not just, you know, grappling with this idea of do I need to switch jobs? It's like, well, who is Jen if she's not a teacher? And that's like a really scary question, which has been a theme throughout my life. Maybe we could talk about it later, but important questions to ask.


I was really confronted by that, you know, really early on in my career. And, um, you know, spoiler alert, I stayed and had this, you know, beautiful career teaching, learned a whole lot. But this book was really about. A letter to my younger self, um, in the hopes to really inspire some, not just newer teachers, because teachers who have, have lots of years of experience have gotten value from reading this book, but really have a different perspective of, okay, I've lost sight of where I was when I first started.


What's important to me, because it's so easy to just get caught up in the weeds, and when we get back to the space of feeling grounded, then you could really decide what's important, what's not important, and that the book is a, a way to do that. So yeah, I, I wrote it was a really fun project and, um, you know, as a side, my marriage was really going through it during this time too, and I could have, you know, gone to drinking more or eating more, and I decided to do research and write a book.So I kind of buried myself there. And, you know, that's, that is really also the truth of it, that I, I really wanted to focus something. On, on something that wasn't my marriage, that was falling apart at that time too. So, uh, this book was born.

Passionistas: And then COVID hits. So, um, so how did that impact you and did that lead to you studying to get your PhD?


Jen: Yeah, so the book came out in December of 2019. Two weeks later, my husband and I decided we were gonna get a divorce, and then I ended up moving out of my house with my two kids who were five and seven at the time. The same weekend, the world shut down. So that was, that was a crazy weekend. I mean, it was crazy for everybody, but there was just like a little extra special sauce that I was kind of dealing with there too.


And, you know, it, it, it shook me, it shook everyone and it, it created this space where I really had to grapple with some pretty serious. Confronting feelings and there was no place for me to be distracted from them. You know, my, my plan was I was gonna go on the book tour and I was going to travel and I was going to, you know, visit Miami where my sister is and have my, you know, hot girl summer.


You know, none of that happened. COVID happened. So I was literally by myself with my feelings and it was brutal. It was, it was brutal. Um, isolated, you know, my sister was gonna come up and help me move. That obviously didn't happen. Couldn't even hug my mother through any of this stuff, you know, it was just so much loss that, you know, that we were experiencing.


And, and by the way, singing was also something that was very dangerous at the time too. So here, this is something that I love that brought me joy, that, you know, was something that I did for my career. Now even s singing like that was something that was really dangerous. So there was a lot I needed to think about.


Um, and it provided an opportunity to really decide, well, okay, who do I want to be? Who, who am I if I'm not a music teacher in the way that was really traditional? Who am I if I'm not married to somebody? Who am I if I'm not, you know, living in the house that I lived in for so many years, who, you know, there, there was this huge identity shift personally and professionally.


And so I decided to stay home with my kids for that semester when I thought would just be a semester, uh, to homeschool. And that is an adventure. Anyone who has experienced doing the homeschool thing, especially during COVID, um, you know, that, that's maybe for another day. But what I wanted to do also was something for me, and that's when I decided to start my PhD in educational psychology.


And one of the turning points for me was when the professor, my very first class was, you know, you know, just said, introduce yourself. And everybody was introducing themselves by relation to their spouse, um, in relation to their job or in relationship to their children. And of course, I, I love being a mom, but I just didn't wanna lead with that.


And I was literally sitting in front of my computer just crying, like, who, who am I? And I just didn't know how to even introduce myself. So, you know, that that led to some really hard reflection. And I dove into the work because educational psychology led me down a path of mindset. I was always really fascinated in cognitive neuroscience because being a teacher, we have very little training on how the brain works, even though our job is to.


Quite literally changed brains. So on my own, that was something that I did a lot. And the work of my PhD kind of led me down some of that path. And, um, in my own healing journey and my certificate that I got for my certification as an emotional intelligence practitioner. Also within that timeframe, uh, I just was like, you know, I think that there's something else for me.


So, you know, in February I had to decide whether or not I was gonna go back to teaching. So my mind said, of course, Jen, of course you're gonna go back. You just wrote a book about it. Of course you're gonna go back. It's always what you wanted to do, right? And my body was screaming at me that there's just something else.


There's, there's just another calling for you. So I wrote my resignation letter, felt amazing. And then four days later, I'm a hot sobi mess on my couch thinking, what did I just do? I just quit my job. I have my kids to feed. I what? I'm gonna start a business now, who do I think I am? You know, all of it. Um, but truly, Empowered Educator came from my life's work, from research I've been doing since college, you know, since I was 18 years old.


And it all became very organic as I was really setting up the structure of what I wanted this to look like, what it meant to be an Empowered Educator. And then I was kind of off to the races.


Passionistas: What does it mean to be an Empowered Educator?


Jen: There's eight tenets of what it means to be an Empowered Educator.


An Empowered Educator has a very clear mission, a clear vision, Empowered Educator, understands about their brain. So we talk a lot about metacognition and understanding what that means for you as the adult has good, reflective practices. Has, um, an ability to use their voice in a way that is advocating for themselves and for their students.


Understands the power of language, has a really clear holistic idea about wellbeing and is an emotionally intelligent practitioner. So all of those eight tenants really create a framework for people to work through. Um, and truly it's, uh, you know, Personal growth through professional development. I mean that, that's what we're doing here.


And it's really different than a lot of the professional developments that, that are out there. Not that there aren't great things out there, there really, really are, but this approaches it a little bit differently. I always come from a lens of science. It's really important that all the stuff is based truly in science.


Um, and brings along the things that are really important about what we're doing, which is feelings and emotions, which we often don't talk about in these professional spaces.


Passionistas: So many organizations in education focus on the kids. Why did you feel it was important to focus on the teachers?


Jen: Because the wellbeing of a school is dependent on the wellbeing of its educators, period.

And we are so focused on kids, obviously, because we, that's, that's our, that's our outcome, right? We want them to feel safe and learn and succeed and all of the things. But when we leapfrog over the social emotional needs of the adults in these spaces, we're actually not able to provide the things we say we wanna provide for our kids.


You know, we can't create a safe space in a classroom for kids to learn if the person leading the class is overwhelmed and depleted and burned out. It's just not possible. And while this isn't, you know, Groundbreaking new information. COVID certainly highlighted this problem in a way that I don't think we would've seen it or been talking about it the way that we are now.


There is no question that teachers are burned out, they are leaving. There is the great exodus from this profession and, you know, giving them more money is only going to be part of the solution. It is not going to fix everything. There are very serious organizational problems within these school systems that need to be addressed, and it's not going to come from better curriculum mapping or new assessments.


It's, it's just not, what needs to happen is that each individual teacher, educator, I, you know, I say teacher, but I, I really mean educator and that means anybody on campus, anybody who works with kids, parents included. Right. You know, we all need to hold up a mirror. And be the change. It's, it's cliche cuz it's true, but the change has to start with you.


Like I am done with this narrative of blaming everything and everybody for the problems that are existing because organizations don't change until people change. And if you're just constantly waiting for other people to change, you are always going to be waiting and you are never going to see any transformation.


You know, for me, I am in the business of making generational change and this is how you do it. We are able to give people the tools that they need to be self-reflective in a way that gives them the chance to regain their sense of agency, to feel empowered to use their voice. You know, I've lost track of how many teachers have said to me, I don't drink water throughout the day because I don't have time to go to the bathroom.


That's a problem. And I don't care what kind of social emotional learning program you have, but if your students are watching all their teachers not drinking water and not going to the bathroom and not taking care of like their very basic biological needs, those are the messages that they're actually getting.


So we're modeling burnout for our kids and normalizing it. And for me, this is where the urgency comes in. There's too much at stake here. There's absolutely too much at stake.


Passionistas: I think in, in most professions, in, in most people, when you're experiencing burnout, you just kind of think it's become the normal thing. And you might not even recognize that you're burned out. You just think it's what you do. So how can people recognize that they're experiencing burnout and what are some tips for how they can start to address it and make changes in their lives?


Jen: Yeah, it's normal. It's, it's normalized only because it's common.


But there is nothing normal about it. If it was normal, we'd all feel great all the time. But feeling perpetually like crap isn't normal. It's just not. It's not. And, and I know that if you were to really ask somebody, is this what you want for your kids? Of course the answer would be no. Yet here we are as these adults doing this thing.


So one of the things I like to start with is actually really simple, which is why sometimes people don't pay attention because it's like, no way can it be that simple. It's what do you feel like when you're feeling stressed out, right? Physically. I mean your sweaty, your head starts to hurt. Your shoulders wanna be earrings, your stomach's and knots, right?


Like, you know, you have some back pain, you're foggy, you, you can't really sleep. Your body talks to you all the time. And we are just terrible listeners. And what happens is we notice the things. Right. Like, okay, my heart's beating really fast, but we don't do anything about it. So we just like it down and then it happens again.


We don't pay attention to it. Or you know, we, we medicate either, you know, through a doctor or, or self-medicate with some other things. Right. And we kind of, um, put a bandaid over all of these things. And not that I have anything, it's medicine. I just need to clarify that too, that that's all great and fine.


But there's a bigger picture here that I'm just trying to make a point about. Um, you know, then what happens? We get sick or we have chronic pain or chronic fatigue, or your back goes out, you know, that, that's happened to me a lot of times when I'm not paying attention. And so the, the burnout happens when we just keep ignoring the signs that our body is telling us because we we're told we have to push through.


We're told we're doing it for the kids. We're told that being productive makes us valuable. We're told that teachers are superheroes. So we compare ourselves to these immortal, indestructible creatures and then wonder why we can't keep it together and feel guilty about it if we take a day for ourselves or move from a place of shame, because we don't want anybody to know how bad we're feeling on the inside.


And that's never a good place to do anything, particularly working with kids, right? And so, you know, we're, we're done subscribing to that superhero narrative. I am not available for that anymore. We're we are done. Um, it's dangerous. And so what is something that someone can do? Notice what your body's telling you, and then do something about it.


And here's really simple, one thing that you can do right now today. It doesn't even cost anything. You just have to pay attention to your breath. And why this is so powerful is it, it's because it actually brings your focus and attention to something that's right here, right now. And what I do is I actually use a box breath, which is inhale for four, pause for four, exhale for four, pause for four.


I do that, yes. And what's happening is when you're stressed out, your body is in a stress response, which moves into fight, flight, or freeze, right? So this part of our brain that's responsible for that, that reaction hasn't evolved much since we were hunting and gathering and being chased by bears. So even though we are like getting to a deadline, or you know, we're dealing with a challenging student, or having a hard conversation with a parent or an administrator, your brain, your body, your nervous system, and I'll, I'll just use the word nervous system, um, things, you're being chased by a bear.


There's no difference. And so we need to be able to create safety within our nervous system to say, okay, we're actually not being chased by a bear. We're not gonna die right now. I'm actually just gonna have this conversation. Or I need to pay attention to something. Or my body's trying to tell me something.


What is it telling me? We have to create that safety. So this box breath is a way for your nervous system to feel safe and not feel like it's being chased by a bear. So I actually have four alarms in my phone that go off four times a day. When the alarm goes off, I just stop what I'm doing, I'm doing, and I take three rounds of a box breath.


And what this does is it. Resets my nervous system because sometimes, right, we're just stressed out. We don't even realize it. I'll be doing dishes and the alarm will go off and I'll be like, oh, wow, my shoulders were super tense. That's so interesting. What was I thinking about right there? Right? So I'm interrupting my autopilot and I'm able to make a conscious choice to regulate my nervous system.


And what essentially that's doing is we're creating new neural pathways in our brain that it is safe to feel calm. It is safe to feel at ease, that it is not something that is life-threatening. If you are not feeling the pressure, um, it's, you are okay. You are safe. So that is something that is very tangible that you can do, doesn't cost anything you can do it in your car.


Passionistas: I found myself recently at night lying in bed. The, the days, you know, tomorrow's activities going through my head and I realize I'm like this, I'm like curled up. I'm, my fists are tense, my shoulders tense, my neck is tense. And I'm like, oh, my heart's racing. I'm like, what am I doing? I'm in bed, relax. And I do that. I take the deep breaths and I, you know, but I love that. I love this setting the alarm thing. I think that's great.


Jen: Yeah. And you know, that's, that's the thing about our brain. Our, our brain is so cool that you can actually create and manifest a stress response in your body just by thought alone.

Like you're in bed, like you're totally fine. Right? And your brain can create that for you just by thinking about it. And if that's the case, to bring you to a stress state while you're safely ready to go to bed. The opposite is also true. You can actually create and manifest a safety state whenever you want.


But we have to notice we're, we're so asleep. And this is another beautiful part about our brain. You know, we go on autopilot because it's super efficient. We go on autopilot so we can do so many cool things like have a podcast interview on Zoom on opposite sides of the country. While you know I can, I still know that my water is here and I can like sit on my chair and not fall off and have things in my ear, like, our brain is great and it's keeping us alive.


It's literally, its only job. It doesn't care if you're happy. It doesn't care if you're burnout. It doesn't care if you're learning. It doesn't care if you're living your dreams. And in fact, it would rather you didn't live your dreams because it has no evidence of you doing that and surviving. So, you know, having these thoughts that come up at night.


It's a beautiful part of your biology and it's doing its job. So part of this too is to recognize, okay, we're not gonna hate on it because it's just part of who you are. It's part of your wiring, it's keeping you safe. Hey, I see you. I know what you're trying to do. I appreciate the effort, but I actually got this.


What I really need is a good night's sleep right now. So thank you. But no thank you and I can check back in with you tomorrow. And even something as simple as that of like objectifying, it can kind of dissolve a lot of the way that we become engulfed by it. You are never engulfed by it. It is something that's really important to understand is you're not your brain.


You're a person who has a brain, and that gives you so much agency in how you navigate your choices.


Passionistas: I heard this monk once talking about, uh, monkey brain, and that buzzing in your head of all those different things flying around. And he said that the way he, he quiets that is he gives his monkey something else to do. So he'll just like give his monkey a task. Like, Hey monkey, think about this for a little bit. And I love that. I love the visualization of like, okay, this thing in my head, I can, I can make it a character and I can assign it a new task.


Jen: Yeah. It's so powerful, right? Because then it doesn't become you, it's just a part of you.

It's not like, oh, thank God I was so anxious about that big event cuz I totally nailed it, you know? No, it's not, it, we just don't need it. We just aren't aware of the tools that we have at our disposal. And again, like you said before, because it's so common, we just consider it normal.


Passionistas: So, what can you do for someone, you know, a loved one friend, family that's going through burnout? How can you support them?


Jen: Hmm. That's a great question. So, there's two things. You know, right now, the, the, the phrase everyone's using is hold space, right? We're gonna, we're gonna hold space for them because you can't make anybody do anything. If they're not ready to come to this kind of work, then it's, it's really, it's their journey.


You know, everyone needs to come to this place of self-reflection, self-awareness, self-regulation, at their own time. One of the best things that you can do is en encourage, um, the support that, that they have around them to utilize the support that's around them, um, and prioritize themselves. This is a scary thing.


Especially because of the reason I said before, if you are somebody who's always doing something for other people, doing something for yourself doesn't feel safe and feels really scary. Um, so you know, asking what do you need, how can I support you, is always a good thing because you don't always know what they need.


So asking. And then I think the second thing and more important thing is doing this work yourself because you can actually be a better friend, a better partner, a better parent, a better educator when you are regulated because you don't have the capacity to hold space for somebody else when you yourself are activated.


And let's be honest, you know, all we need to do is turn on the news or open up social media and we're failing activated. Right. It doesn't take much. So, you know, being able to use these tools yourself to then, um, Help other people in more of a ripple effect is, I actually think more powerful because, you know, you are the change, which then affects all of the things around you because you're the variable.


You show up differently, everything is different, including the person who's going through burnout and letting them know that you are here to support whatever that looks like.

Passionistas: And so how does your company, the Empowered Educator, work with people to help make this change as well?


Jen: What I love about this part of, of my company is it's really flexible. I've never worked with two districts quite the same way. Um, so there's a couple ways, you know, I do a lot of events on my own where teachers kind of come, you know, they, they find me through a friend or through a teacher center or, or whatever. And then what happens is they have this very big transformative experience and then they go back to their districts and like, oh my gosh, you need to hire this person.


And then I end up working with a school district in a variety of ways. So right now we are looking at kind of this 360 degree model of support where we're not just dealing with, you know, teachers and, and school leaders. And I think I alluded to this before, but we're also dealing with the support staff, you know, the TAs and the custodians and the bus drivers and the folks who work in the cafeteria and the school nurses, you know, they don't get the PD that the teachers do or the administrators do.


Right. But they are very much a part of the school. I mean, just think about it, the bus driver is sometimes the first person that these kids see at the beginning of the day and the last person they see at the end of the day. You know, I, I want them to have the tools as well. Um, and then I'm also working with office staff.


Because l you know, all of the people behind the scenes running the show is, are so important. And the people who sit at the front desk in the office, I mean, we, we know how that story goes a lot of the time. That's often a very underappreciated person, an underpaid person, um, and, and someone who isn't necessarily, um, Given the support they need to really run the building.


Cuz we all know who really runs the building. It's that person, right? Uh, and then the other piece of this is parents. Because in order to make a a culture shift, we really need to have everybody on board who understands this universal language that we're now sharing. You know, I wanna be in a space where, you know, I'm like, Hey, you know Amy, I'm gonna be two minutes late to this faculty meeting cuz I need to regulate my nervous system.


And you're like, cool Jen, take your time. And it's no big deal. Um, that's how we make impacts on kids. And then, and only then will I work with kids and bring somebody in to, to work with the kids because, Sometimes these social emotional learning programs, the teachers are given this curriculum and the math teacher who is strung out herself, who is feeling so depleted, who is annoyed because they're teaching eighth grade, but they really wanted to teach ninth grade and now they're teaching a lesson on empathy.


Like, come on, give, gimme a break. This is not how this is going to work. What we need to do is, is really focus on the people who are doing the teaching and doing the, the things that run the school to then, uh, impact the kids. So right now, that's how I'm, I'm generally working with school districts and regional teacher centers and my own programming.


Passionistas: There's so much crazy stuff in the news right now about education. And do you feel that teachers have, now this and educators have this new level of stress being added for this sort of attack on books and libraries and things like that are going around the country? And are you, is that manifesting in your work? Are you seeing it.


Jen: Yeah, it's awful. It's absolutely awful. You know, seeing the things that are, are going on in some of these places, it's, it's unsafe. It's just not safe, you know, between the school shootings and the anti-trans legislation and the attack on books and learning, you know, here it's, it's the fundamental principles of what we're doing here.


But, you know, we can't make change by doing the same things. So. You know, from where I'm standing, coming at it from a place of emotional intelligence, from a place of cognitive neuroscience and mindset, you know, this is something that's different. And so we need to do something different in order to make change.


And when we look at the history of, of our schools, you know, a classroom in the early 19 hundreds doesn't look that much different than the way a classroom looks right now. And we live in a completely different world right now. And so that disconnect is also adding to a lot of this stress too, because people, you know, are, are needing so much and there are so much, um, going against the grain of, of what they're able to do and what their mission is.


And it's so easy to just point fingers, but if we spend time pointing fingers, we're not actually doing the work ourselves. So I think one of two things are gonna happen. One, you know, there is going to be this. Mass exodus of teachers and the whole system is going to implode. Um, or nothing changes. And I am really of the camp of let's, let's make this change, which is a kind of like this third category over here where I'm hoping for of let's not wait for it to implode, let's start making changes and kind of go through the back door, right?


This is, this is very backdoor, covert op situation that we're dealing with because this isn't big messaging of, Hey, we're doing this new initiative where everyone's gonna feel empowered now, so follow these five steps and like everything's gonna be solved. This is really personal work that elevates professional development in a way where people have a very clear idea of what they want, why they want it, what they need, and then feeling, again, agency to use their voice to get it.


Because using your voice and screaming into the abyss, Is not working. We need to find a different way.


Passionistas: I'm gonna shift gears because I wanna talk about your podcast, the Take Notes podcast. So tell us what that is and why you decided to start it.


Jen: Okay. So first of all, I love, I love my podcast. I just, I love it. And it started off as just an idea that I had, um, long time ago and then COVID happened. And remember when like, clubhouse was really cool for like a minute. Okay, so we got on Clubhouse and all of a sudden I was in rooms with people and speaking with people I would never have access to. And so I had this idea, and don't forget, I was still teaching music at the time and I thought that's what I was gonna continue to do.


Um, I, I was, you know, in this place with all of these really great thought leaders and I was like, okay, we're just gonna do I time right? I was home. Um, I ended fi around with Garage Band, so let's do it. So I started the podcast really about. Expanding the idea of what music education was by highlighting the crossroads between social science and music education.


So it was really cool and innovative and I'd had people come on who, you know, worked, um, as, as neuroscientists and as people who were connecting music with space and space learning and STEAM initiatives. And I had people on there about emotional intelligence and I did this teacher feature it and it was just great.


And then as I was moving towards Empowered Educator, it was becoming less and less aligned because I was no longer in the world of music education. So I took a really big break. And then, um, last summer I was like, you know, I really miss doing that podcast. So we're gonna, we're gonna do a season two and it's gonna be aligned with Empowered Educator.


And my sister was the very first guest that I had, and she has a lot of training and certifications in emotional intelligence, conflict management, mediation, all that stuff. So I had my first episode with her and haven't looked back. And I love having. Because it's not really about teaching, it's about being a human in the education space.


So I still have neuroscientists on there because I love talking about brains. Um, but I also have people on there talking about going through divorce. I have people on there talking about trauma, talking about grief. I had, uh, fashion on there talking about how you can really decide how you wanna wear based on how you wanna feel and feeling confident in what you're wearing.


Um, people about time management, and I have some really exciting guests coming up, um, in the future that I, I cannot wait to share with the audience. It's just been a beautiful way to connect with people, again, who I would have no reason to connect with. You know, it's reaching out to somebody and an author that I admire.


I now have a platform to say, Hey, you wanna talk, um, to me on this podcast and, and reach, you know, Thousands and thousands of teachers and usually the answer's always yes. So that has in and of itself been very cool. I've been able to connect with a lot of my heroes and the people that I admire.


Passionistas: And your podcast is very successful for a podcast. So tell us, for people who are listening who have a podcast and are like, I wanna have a lot of listeners, what do you have a, do you have a tip? Do you have advice about how to grow your podcast?


Jen: There is two things. So the first thing is, do what feels good to you. It's so easy to get in your head of like, what do people wanna hear?


And I found that it's really not my business what other people want. You know, I know what feels aligned with me, and that is always the way forward. That always feels good. And if it stops feeling good, don't do it. Um, that's, that's the first thing. And that's more of kind of coming from an energetic space.


And then the second thing is, you know, I have a team that does this. And at first I didn't, like I said, I love noodling around garage bands and I would produce it and I would cut and paste and, you know, one of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics. So you know, do you know that podcast? Yeah. And they do such a great job, right?


There's like a theme, there's like chunks, pieces of interview with music, and then there's, you know, an insert of the host, like with his thoughts about it. And so that's actually how I structured my podcast at the beginning, because I thought it was so cool. But it took me four hours to make each episode, which at the time was fine because I was home with, you know, my kids during COVID and whatever.


Nothing mattered then, right? So, you know, what was time? I don't know. But now I don't have time for that. And in, in order to really produce something that again, aligns with the caliber of my company, I, I needed to outsource and I wanted to outsource. So I, I found a team that does a really good job, not just with producing, but also does a really good job with seo, and they know what they're doing.


So I, I trust them. They do their work, I do my work. And at the end of the day, we created a really great podcast that reaches a lot of people and landed in the top three, which. Surprised me, you know? I was like, wow. That's awesome.


Passionistas: We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington and you’re listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Jen Rafferty.


To learn more about her work prioritizing the social and emotional health of educators to achieve systemic, long-term success for the entire school community visit empowered educator dot com.


Now here’s more of our interview with Jen.


Tell us about the Sing Together program that you did during COVID.


Jen: During COVID, you know, I obviously had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Um, but I really stayed true to like, what my mission was, which was to inspire people to discover their voice. And so I thought to myself, okay, well how can I do this, you know, from a distance? And so I directed an intergenerational choir for about 10 years at that point, um, from people who were like eight years old to 92.


And they would all come in and we'd sing together, summer choir, no auditions. They never know who I was gonna get. I was like, please let me have tens this summer. You know, it was like one of those kinds of things. Um, and it was always magical. We'd have six rehearsals and then two concerts at the end. And so they're like, Jen, can you do something for them?


I don't know what I'm gonna do. So I, I put together a program that. We met on, on Zoom, but because of the lag, you know, we couldn't do live singing. So I made some tracks, you know, on, on garage band or whatever. And, um, it was kind of like an interactive TV show, um, where we would make music, but everybody was on mute.


So they would sing with the track and with me, but nobody could hear anybody else. And what happened was people told me that, you know, I discovered my voice because I wasn't embarrassed to sing out loud because I was on mute. Right. Oh shit. Okay. That's cool. So, um, I. Offered it again to the public. And then, um, it became one of those Airbnb experiences and that became global all of a sudden.


And then Creative Mornings picked it up and I would have hundreds of people from all over the world Wow. Singing songs that I wrote because, you know, after a while, like you had needed like a special kind of song to do something like this. Um, so I would write some tunes and from like Kazakhstan and Japan and India and I mean like everywhere would come together.


And so I called it Sing Together and it was a singing community because it wasn't a chorus. Um, and we would, we would sing for an hour and we would talk a lot about emotion and, um, you know, learning about music through emotion, learning about emotion through our music. And we'd have this like magical experience together.


And then, you know, we'd shut the computer and elevate humanity a little bit. But that was one of the most beautiful special things that I've ever done. And I get choked up actually thinking about it because it was just so, so powerful. And, um, wow. I don't know. I wanna do something like, hey, homage to that also in some way at some point.


And they haven't figured out how just yet. But, um, that was, that was really something That's incredible. It was very cool. And especially for the older population, it gave them a connection to people in a way that was different than, you know, anything else that they were doing or they could do at that time, you know?


So I had a lot of the, the older folks there too, but yeah, it was, or families, that was another thing, you know, we were so bored. I was like, what, what are we gonna do with our time? You know?


Passionistas: [CROSS TALK] all the singing families that came out during COVID and then, yeah.


Jen: Yeah. So many, you know, you know, or like, there was this one time, there was, um, I was like a, a prize for some science, um, competition that they, some girls won and, um, So these three women came on from Turkey, India and this one was also from Kazakhstan.


And cuz they were on some sort of team together, they didn't really know what they were getting themselves into. Um, but by the end of it, you know, this one girl was like, can I go get my hairbrush? Sure. And so she's like, let's sing in our hairbrushes. And I was like, okay, so we all got our hairbrushes and we're singing in our hair right here.


I would sit right here and we would sing in our hairbrushes. And I was like, what is happening? This is just, this is amazing, you know? And, um, ugh, just so special.


Passionistas: So you have said this a couple times during the course of this podcast and you answered the question at different times in your life, but I wanna know who is Jen now?


Jen: Oh, that's a great question. My body got all tingly when he said that question to me. You know, I. I am a person who is on a journey of self-discovery. That's who I am. I am not my job. I am not defined by my role as a parent or as a friend, or as a daughter. I am a human on a personal growth journey. And what that means for me is I get to explore all of those things.


Being a mom, being an entrepreneur, you know, my relationships with my partner, my relationships with, you know, my, my friends and, and my family with beautiful curiosity and has led me to a lot of learning about, you know, again, what do I, what do I want? And, um, it always comes back to alignment. What feels good, what feels right, and that takes.


Um, practice. It takes trust, um, and grace. Lots of grace. But it's through those lessons that I, I, I live my life now and, um, it's exciting to me because I don't know what's gonna happen next. And that used to terrify me. That was always the scariest thing of, I, I needed to know because that's what made me feel safe.


Um, but now truly, I, I'm just so excited that I don't know what's going to happen next. And that's really led me to pretty amazing things like meeting you, like being on the TEDx stage, like having the podcast, like traveling around the world. You know, if I knew what was gonna happen next, I would never be open to those things because that wasn't ever in my current reality.

Um, that's, that's who I am. I am, I am an explorer, if you will, of, of the human experience. And it's just a great ride.


Passionistas: That's fabulous. So knowing all of those things, what advice would you give to your younger self?


Jen: Uh, that's a gorgeous question. You know, you are, you're worthy, your voice matters, and you're inherently safe, so just shoot your shot. Like, that's, that's what it is. You know, there's, there's really nothing at, at stake. You know, you're, you're not gonna die by using your voice. You're not gonna die by pursuing your dreams. So, so do the thing.


Passionistas: What's your dream for women?


Jen: My dream for women is for them to realize their inherent worth and to use their voice, because women who know their worth and use their voice are on fire.


And those are the people that I wanna have in my corner. Um, and truly that is the work that I'm doing now too, because adults who show up who know their worth and use their voice, raise kids who know their worth and use their voice, and that's powerful stuff.


Passionistas: Do you have a mantra you live by?


Jen: I do. There's a couple, but there's one that's on my desk that I really look at every day. And that is enough is a decision, not an amount. And you are the only person that gets to decide when it's enough. You know? How often have we said, you know, I'm just not doing enough. I'm not, I should be doing more, or I shouldn't be doing this.


I shouldn't be worrying about this. I'm just not enough. It's a decision that you get to make and you're the only person who gets to make it.


Passionistas: What's your definition of success?


Jen: Oh, I love this one too because, you know, as a Type A straight A student, I used to think my definition of success was how many good job gens I got, or how many gold stars, or how many A's, or how many accolades and, um, still working through some of that stuff. But now my definition of success truly is to be able to feel the way I wanna feel for as many hours of the day as possible. Um, I, I really make my decisions based that way. Um, because what else matters? That's success.


Passionistas: What's your proudest career achievement so far?


Jen: My proudest career achievement, I think would have to be the transformation that I've seen for people who really embody this work.


You know, I've seen such a beautiful shift, shift and change in, in people's understanding of what they're capable of, you know, um, And then what they're able then to do in their classrooms. You know, here's a perfect example. I have, uh, one teacher who told me that, you know, her class was having a hard time.


It was after lunch. They were super challenging, they were noisy, it was, you know, whatever. And she said, old me would have, you know, thrown consequences their way, have given them more paperwork, have sent someone out to the office. She's like, but now I understand that I was activated. I could tell that they were too.


So I just shut the lights and we just did a quiet meditation and just breathed for like 30 seconds. And then we had a great class. And so what that means is that there's lower student disciplinary referrals. The kids were actually able to learn better because now they were capable of learning better and nobody was outside of the classroom.


And then everyone goes home differently, right? And that's the kind of ripple effect that I get to see and I think is one of the best things that I get to do in my company.


Passionistas: And how hard or easy is it for you to then apply these rules and thoughts and tips to your own life in raising your own kids?


Jen: So that happens first because I never teach something that I don't embody myself.


And I think that's what makes me really good at what I do, because I can honestly tell you that it is not like I'm walking around on a cloud singing kumbaya, and my kids are like so grateful that I do everything. No, that's, that's not what happens, right? I live in this three dimensional world here where life gets lifey, um, and I use the tools to do the things and so, Because I am, you know, a beautifully messy human just like everybody else.


I get to share that experience too and say, yeah, I was really annoyed that my door handle of my car broke in the middle of winter and I had to like crawl out the passenger side to drop off my kids at school. And I was really annoyed about that for a good, solid four hours of my day. But when I realized how angry I was, I was able to actually do something about it.


And then by the time I went to go pick up my car, I was actually able to turn it around where I was super grateful that they were able to get me in that day. And I was grateful that I was able to afford it. And I was really happy that I didn't have to crawl through the passenger door again when I went to go pick up my kids.


So I handed over my credit card with a smile on my face, and that's, That's the whole thing, right? It's not about never getting mad human. Um, but I practice all of these things all of the time and that's really gotten to me, to where I am today. That's gotten me from that place of that weekend crying because it was COVID and I just got divorced.


Now I'm a single mom in, in an unknown world, to being on the TEDx stage a year and a half later. That happens because of what I'm teaching, because of all of those practices.


Passionistas: Are you gonna take this, these methods and these practices and take them beyond the educators? Because it seems like something everyone can benefit from.


Jen: Totally. And that is something that, you know, we're expanding now to parents. Um, you know, which opens up a whole other sector. You know, I feel very strongly about the education space because I do believe that that's how we can make the most change in this world as we raise a new generation. So, you know, the short answer, no, I'm not taking it to the corporate space unless you can show me that it affects kids in some way.


If, if you can make a case for that totally. I will be there and we will do the work. Um, but my heart is in education because like I said before, I am interested in generational change and so everyone has to go to school. Everyone grows up with parents and those are the people that I really want to serve.


Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to follow her passion?


Jen: There's too much at stake. If you don't, you know, if you are feeling that that fire and that voice in your head is just not going away and you can't ignore it anymore, it's there. It's there for a reason, right? It's there for, look, I could have easily stayed a teacher and been fine, you know, there would've been always a part of me that would've said, what if?


And the the truth is nobody gets out of this alive. So if you are denying a part of yourself, you are, you are potentially denying, um, an incredible impact that you'll have in this world. And is it scary? Yep. Um. You're not always gonna know what you're gonna do and what the next step is, which is why community is really important, which is why you know your company and your organization is essential for women especially, who are starting off to, to create new things.


You know, you, you're building something out of nothing that's, that's magic, that is magical. And you cannot do this on your own, nor should you want to. And so finding your tribe and in places like The Passionistas Project, you know, these are places where women are explicitly supporting women and everybody wants you to succeed.


You know, I think especially as, as young girls sometimes, you know, we get into this place where girls aren't nice or girls can be catty or girls aren't mean. And I think that that is also just BS and it is, um, you know, uh, a tradition that has come from a world that we don't live in anymore. And while, yes, you're, you're always going to find people that you don't resonate with, uh, the truth is, again, capital T truth.


There are beautiful souls out there who want to support you and your dreams, and find those people because you will succeed.


Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Jen Rafferty. To learn more about her work, prioritizing the social and emotional health of educators to achieve systemic long-term success for the entire school community, visit


And be sure to visit to sign up for our mailing list, find all the ways you can follow us on social media, and join our sisterhood of women coming together to explore their passions and find their purpose.


We'll be back next week with another Passionista who's defining success on her own terms and breaking down the barriers for herself and women everywhere.


Until then, stay well and stay passionate.


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