The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 214
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
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GONZALEZ: Among the many challenges teachers have faced since the onset of the pandemic, one that persists is this feeling that students have changed, that they are less motivated, more entitled, and more disrespectful than ever before. Even if a teacher can find plenty of evidence to support this perception, it can’t be making things any better.
And while it does seem that the pandemic exacerbated this feeling among teachers, I saw it long before we ever heard the word Covid. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I worked with far too many teachers who held a pretty low opinion of many of our students. There was a lot of “These kids (insert negative generalization)” or “Well what do you expect from him, he (insert negative generalization).”
I think many of these attitudes come from a real, valid, and vulnerable place, from teachers who once had high hopes but felt disappointed and hurt when things went wrong, teachers who had good intentions and got their hearts broken a little bit every time students rejected their efforts, teachers who see behaviors from their students that shock and frighten them. But regardless of where they come from, these mindsets hurt our relationships with students, and that makes everything else worse, from behavior to academics to the culture of school as a whole.
So with all of this in mind, I was intrigued when I came across the phrase unconditional positive regard. It was in Alex Venet’s book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, where she names it as the most important guiding philosophy in her work. Venet explains that unconditional positive regard is a stance that communicates this message to students: “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.” In her book, she asserts that taking this stance and putting it into practice builds the foundation on which our students can thrive. And the more I learned about it, the more I was sold on its value.
But I suspect that for most teachers, adopting this philosophy won’t be an easy task, because the demands of the job are so intense and the challenging behaviors students bring to school are so overwhelming. For some, even the idea of this philosophy might be off-putting at first, because you might see it as just another version of teacher-blaming. But it’s not. Unconditional positive regard doesn’t take accountability away from students for their behavior; it just works on the lens teachers use to address it, and that lens can make a huge difference, not only in how you interact with students, but how you feel about the work you do every day.
Because I think unconditional positive regard is such an important, revolutionary philosophy, and because implementing it can be challenging, I wanted to lift it out of the book and give it special attention. I already did an interview with Venet about the larger concept of trauma-informed teaching (in episode 209), but she agreed to have a separate conversation just on unconditional positive regard. So this episode is going to focus on that topic alone.
Before I play our conversation I’d like to thank Listenwise for sponsoring this episode. Listenwise provides short, high-quality, age-appropriate podcasts for grades 2-12. Save time with pre-made lessons designed to build students’ background knowledge and academic vocabulary. Keep students on grade-level with scaffolding and differentiation. It’s great practice for meeting listening & speaking standards! With Listenwise Premium, you get comprehension tools like quizzes, interactive transcripts, a text-to-speech toolbar with Spanish translations, graphic organizers, and more. It’s perfect for English language learners! Learn more and sign up for free at cultofpedagogy.com/listenwise.
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Now here’s my conversation with Alex Shevrin Venet about unconditional positive regard.
GONZALEZ: This is sort of part two of like a three-part conversation about trauma-informed education, and this is one of the two topics that I really wanted to pull out because it really just sort of grabbed me. And so in our last conversation, we kind of looked at a really broad understanding of what is trauma-informed education and what is it not? One piece was that you emphasized in the book was this practice of unconditional positive regard as a guiding principle for trauma-informed teaching. Lately, particularly in the last couple of years, I keep hearing teachers say that kids are just different. They are — and they’re saying really very critical things — they’re lazier, they’re less motivated, they’re more disrespectful than they’ve ever been. And so when I read about unconditional positive regard, it seemed to be really fitting for this time. So I thought we should just talk a little bit more about what it is, why it’s important and what it looks like in the classroom. Could we start with just a definition?
VENET: Yeah. So unconditional positive regard was developed by a psychotherapist named Carl Rogers in the ‘50s, I want to say. And when he developed this concept, he was really looking at what are the conditions of a therapy relationship that would allow a person for the most growth? And so unconditional positive regard was this idea of how the therapist should take their stance towards the client, essentially with this air of acceptance and that no matter what you share in this therapeutic environment, you’re going to be accepted. I’m not here to change you. I’m here to help you grow. Since that time when he developed this concept, it’s been applied in lots of places. Alfie Kohn is one of the authors who really applied this to education and has a great essay called Unconditional Teaching which I highly recommend checking out on his website. And really then where I pick it up is to try to translate. If I were to put unconditional positive regard into a message for my students, what would it be? And so how I define that is that unconditional positive regard means I care about you, you have value, you don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing will change my mind. So it’s really this idea of seeing somebody as a whole and complete and worthy person starting from a place where care doesn’t have to be earned, it’s just assumed. Everybody gets care. It’s like Oprah with the, like, everybody gets a car. It’s “Everybody gets care. You get to be cared about.” Right? We just care about everybody. They don’t have to earn it or show us that they deserve it. And then the piece of ‘nothing’s going to change my mind’ is that you’re allowed to mess up. You’re allowed to have struggles but that is never going to invalidate your worth, and it’s never going to invalidate my care for you. And so it’s really this stance that we take towards students, which to me is the foundation of trauma-informed education and of equity work because it starts from that place of students are worthy, valuable people.
GONZALEZ: It really, it sounds so simple, and I think that upon hearing it, a lot of people would sort of just say, “Of course. That’s how I feel about all of my students.” But when I think back to my years in the classroom, my colleagues and me, our daily practice was about trying to get kids to perform in some way, whether it was academic or behavioral. And the kids that didn’t, they were definitely not treated the same way by teachers. And I think it’s just sort of endemic to schools that we use a lot of kind of, you know, behavioral tricks and a lot of times emotional manipulation to try to get them to do that and listening to conversations about kids behind closed doors between teachers, there definitely is not positive regard for these kids who are not meeting our conditions. So can you give, we’re going to talk for a minute about what you do when this really isn’t working, but can we look at an example of it working fairly well with a kid maybe who’s just a little challenging?
VENET: Yeah. So, you know, I think that one of the things that allows for unconditional positive regard is to just get to know students. I mean it’s pretty basic but to get to know what they care about that’s not necessarily related to the content because if you only are looking at a kid and going, oh, you’re good at writing, you’re good at science, whatever, then your regard is going to be conditional because you’ve placed parameters around what types of strengths I’m going to see in you. And so I just even think about how this concept helped me connect with students who maybe I wasn’t as predisposed to connect with. Right? Like, if I meet a student who is really into cats and the same TV shows as me and we have a similar sense of humor, it’s easy for me to like them, to care about them. I am thinking in particular of some students I’ve had who were really into, when I was teaching at this therapeutic school, Roblox was really big. I don’t know if Roblox is still really big, but I had a couple students who really all they ever wanted to talk about was Roblox.
VENET: And in like a lot of detail. It was a little hard for me to find okay, where’s my connection point? How do I sort of, you know, get into this? So really for me, if I reground myself in, okay, if I’m going to believe this student has value, I care about them, I need to just get inside a little bit. What makes them tick? So tell me about Roblox. What do you like about it? How do you feel when you’re playing it? Who do you get to connect with when you play Roblox? Where did you first learn about it? Sometimes just asking some different questions to try to get into, you know, it’s almost like looking for that, yeah, just what is that connection point to really help me just see you as this full person. And so part of it is that relationship building and then part of it too is recognizing the factors in a student’s life that might be contributing to the things that I don’t totally understand or maybe bother me or something. So for example if a student seems to never pay attention when I’m talking, part of unconditional positive regard is like this positive assumption that they have value, they’re worthy, all this stuff. And so I’m not going to go immediately to a place of, well, they’re not paying attention because they don’t care. Instead, I’m going to kind of get curious, right, and go, maybe something’s going on that’s distracting. Maybe they just have a hard time paying attention. Maybe I’m being kind of boring. Maybe, you know, sort of looking at what are all the possibilities so it’s almost like that stance of curiosity for the things that make a student tick, but then also a sense of curiosity for the things that I find difficult. So like that openness to just really truly get to know somebody.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. You give a, you give an example in the book of a student named Julia as an example of times when It’s really difficult to sustain this feeling of unconditional positive regard, and I think a lot of teachers will relate to this example. So would you mind sharing that in terms of when it doesn’t seem to be working and how to sustain that. This is the student who just had her head down every day.
VENET: Yes. I was just trying to remember how in depth I went in her story in the book. But essentially, you know, it’s just a student who was really not having it with me, was pretty mean to me, would let loose some pretty horrible, you know, words in my direction when I tried to connect with her and then ultimately just put her head down and not talk to me. And in this context, in this therapeutic school, this particular class was just me and her, which some teachers hear that and they go, “Wow, you’re so lucky you got to teach just one student.” Well, if you have one student who is swearing at you and putting your head down, it actually is terrible because there’s no one else to get started with. There’s no other students to get some momentum going and she’ll follow, right.
VENET: So we’re just there. We’re stuck. And so if I didn’t have that unconditional positive regard or maybe I should say if I wasn’t being supported to hold that unconditional positive regard, because I needed some coaching. I needed some coaching around this. Then I could have come up with some conclusions like she’s disrespectful, she hates me, she hates school, she doesn’t care about her education. But by holding this unconditional positive regard, which essentially says with no evidence, I’m still going to believe that she has value and I’m still going to care about her, with no evidence that would support that.
VENET: Because I chose to do that, I gave it time. I started to do things like she wouldn’t talk to me in class, but if I was standing next to her in the lunch line, then I could make a little comment to her, and she would sometimes respond to it. I started to talk to her other teachers and try to find out a little bit. Like, what does she like? What makes her tick? Whatever. She was really good at drawing, and so I started to see her art. So I started to find some connection points. So then the next time she comes in, in the half a second before she puts her headphones in, I could say, hey, I saw you drawing in your last class. Can I see what you drew? Right? And maybe she leaves one earbud out to start to talk to me about it. And as I go through this process, what I start to notice and realize is that her putting in the headphones and swearing at me, whatever, it’s not because she doesn’t care. It’s not because she doesn’t want to be in school. She’s showing up every day, right? It’s because she has been really harmed by people in her life before and she’s protecting herself. She’s protecting herself because the same way that I don’t have evidence for her, she has no evidence for me. She doesn’t know that I’m safe. She doesn’t know that I think she can learn. She doesn’t know any of that. And so it’s sort of just this, you know, it’s like you said, it’s hard, right, when you really get into this that out of the two of us, one of us had to take a leap of faith and she’s the kid so it has to be me. I’m the teacher so it has to be me to do that. And so I stuck with it for her until we gained that trust and until we were able to build it up. I’m reminded sometimes when I talk about this, there’s a great book that I’d recommend for folks who are interested in trauma-informed ed, besides mine, called Trauma-Responsive Schooling (Amazon | Bookshop.org), which follows the implementation of some trauma-informed practice in the rural elementary school. And there’s a coach in that book who is coaching some of her peers, and this question that she asks of other teachers is, how would you respond differently if you knew the student’s behavior wasn’t a choice? Such a good question, right?
VENET: If I look at Julia and I say, her behavior’s a choice. She is choosing to be mean to me and be disrespectful. Then maybe the action that I’m going to take is to say well, since she’s choosing that, I’m going to punish her for it.
VENET: I’m going to give her consequences. I’m going to withdraw my part of the relationship. I’m going to put up a wall if she’s putting up a wall. If I look at her and I say, maybe this isn’t a choice, but it is a protective reaction to try to not get hurt by another adult, then I’m going to respond how I did, which is I’m going to stick with it. I’m going to try to earn her trust while always holding this idea that I think we’re going to get there one day.
VENET: I think that we’re capable of building this relationship. What I also like about this coaching question is sort of the inherent not knowing. Right? How would you respond if you knew the student’s behavior wasn’t a choice? Because at the end of the day, we don’t know.
VENET: Maybe it was a choice, right? Maybe it wasn’t. But for me, 9 times out of 10, maybe 99 out of 100, it goes better if I treat things as though, you know, this is the way that you’re existing in the world to survive and as the teacher here, I can, you know, I can make my choices about how to meet you there.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right. And that’s, that is, I want to acknowledge that that is a big ask because every teacher that walks into a building is a vulnerable, sensitive human being who gets their feelings hurt. And when I think about the worst things I’ve ever done as a teacher, it’s usually that my ego and my feelings have been damaged in some way, and then I just reacted. And so this is not an easy task that you’re asking teachers to do. So one of the things you recommend, and you’ve alluded to this, was having what you call these perspective keeping conversations with colleagues. So let’s hear a little bit more about those and why they’re so important.
VENET: Yeah. So one huge reason that it’s important to have colleagues who are going to help you hold this perspective is that the relationship between a student and a teacher is not equal, right? If I was going to meet up with a friend, and my friend called me a really horrible word and put her headphones in, I could just go, well, I’m not going to tolerate that from my friend. I don’t have to spend time with this person, you know, I’m just going to not talk to them anymore. That’s not the same relationship that we have with students because students are required to be there and also if you choose to teach as your job, you’re required to teach them. But as the adult, we have more power. We have the ability to impose consequences that can have really, you know, long-lasting impacts, all these things. And so if a student hurts my feelings, it’s okay for my feelings to be hurt, right? It’s okay for me to say, “That felt really bad. I hated that. I don’t want to tolerate that behavior from people around me.” However, the student can never be responsible for making me feel better or be responsible for my emotions because the power differential is not equal, right? I can’t make that student responsible for me because they’re not. They’re required to be in school. I’m required to teach them. And so what that doesn’t mean is that I just have to simmer and feel bad and feel trapped. What it does mean is that I can use people around me. I can go to my colleagues and talk about how I was hurt, and they can say, yeah, that sounds really hard. We can process it. And then they can help me reset and say, okay, how are you going to show up tomorrow given the fact that you’re feeling really hurt? How can you continue to hold this regard for her even though she is harming you? Right?
VENET: It means that I can, if it crosses the line to where it’s not something that I can reasonably process and manage, you know, for example, if the student was calling me a slur based on my identity, then I need to have people around me who can say, yeah, you shouldn’t go back in that room with her tomorrow but she still deserves a teacher, so we’re going to tag out, right. Somebody else is going to work with her. We’re going to work on educating her. We’re going to solve this problem. It requires really a team effort. And I think this is where people have the most, have a hard time when we talk about unconditional positive regard because if you are the only person in your building who’s trying to make this shift, it’s really going to be difficult because our schools are not set up to foster this.
VENET: And so it does take this communal approach and it’s just hard. It’s just hard to do it if you don’t have that support to help you keep perspective, to manage your emotions, and to hang in it long enough so that the student maybe actually could restore with you or apologize authentically once you get there, right?
GONZALEZ: Right. Yeah, I can imagine a lot of teachers hearing those stories who were not familiar with this concept would just be like, “Why would you put up with that? You can’t let her treat you that way. You can’t,” you know. And you mentioned this phrase which we’ve all heard a million times and probably a lot of people have said it, “I’m not going to show you respect until you show me respect first,” which this flies in the face of that. So it sounds like it is really important that you have people on your team who have embraced this concept.
VENET: Yes. And it also helps to have that because unconditional positive regard for somebody doesn’t mean that they can just do whatever they want and nothing, you know, you’re just going to go, oh, that’s fine, that’s fine. Because if you really value somebody, then you have high expectations of who they can be as a person. So if I have high expectations and I care about this student Julia and she keeps swearing at me, I can’t hold her accountable for that before we have a relationship because you can’t really be accountable to somebody if you don’t even know them or talk to them, right? But once we had built that relationship, once she felt safe enough with me to tolerate this, then I could say to her, “Hey, it’s really not okay how you’ve been talking to me. Can you please not do that and never do that again?” But if I said that to her before we had a relationship, those walls I mentioned, those are going to come right back up.
VENET: And for kids who have experienced trauma in particular, the shame response can be triggered so easily. And when you’re feeling shame, you can’t learn, you can’t build relationship with people. You’re just consumed with it. And so if you try to push a consequence on someone without them really knowing that you’re not going to give up on them as a result, all you might be doing is triggering shame. If she knows I have that unconditional positive regard, then there’s that piece of nothing’s going to change my mind. So to fill that in, right, nothing’s going to change my mind, not even you swearing at me for a couple weeks. Nothing’s going to change my mind, not even missing three weeks of content because you put in your headphones. Nothing’s going to change my mind, not even, right? You just keep filling it in. And if they believe that, then they can feel safe enough to actually work through it with you at some point.
GONZALEZ: Okay, so as I’m listening to you, I’m trying to listen as a teacher whose, have told me some stories and stuff that I see on Twitter or whatever, and they’re thinking, that sounds all nice and good. Except for what if it is a kid who, I’m teaching a class of 30 and this kid keeps hitting other kids or throwing things at me or, you know, doing things to where it’s crossing a bigger line than just being kind of sullen and ignoring you, which is a lot easier to, they’re not causing any harm.
GONZALEZ: Does that go in the blank too?
VENET: It does but what that doesn’t mean is that you can just keep on doing that indefinitely.
VENET: Because the distinction, right, is that it’s about, my care for you is not going to change if you’re hitting people. However, you can’t keep hitting people.
VENET: And so there, you know, you can do things to maintain safety in the moment to make sure that if we need to put a pause on you being around other kids for a day so that we can figure out what’s going on, if we need to adjust your programming, whatever it is. But the distinction is that even though you hit somebody, I still think you’re a good person and I still care about you. Because what that does is it helps a kid feel safe enough to work on it, right? Versus you hit someone, now I think that you’re a good for nothing, I don’t know why you should even try in school because you’re just going to end up in jail. I hear teachers say that about kids.
GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Yep.
VENET: This kid’s just going to end up in jail. What does that do to a young person to either hear that or to just feel that that is how people are thinking of them? I don’t think that that motivates a kid to try to do better in the class community. And so it does feel very paradoxical, and I think that if you’re a person who is very entrenched in the mindset that some kids are just, you know, good for nothing, don’t care, whatever, honestly, I don’t know if that person is going to hear me talk about unconditional positive regard and totally change their perspective. But what I do hope is that if you are a person who is, who struggles sometimes to stay connected, if you need sort of some language around where do I reset to if I’m struggling with a student, I think that this concept can be helpful. And for all of us to then look at when I’m talking about the type of places that I want schools to be, when I’m looking at how do we want to shift some of these bigger picture things, let’s look at it through this concept.
GONZALEZ: You know, just for the sake of giving people some optimism who might be on the fence, you have seen this approach actually get good results long term, correct?
VENET: Oh yeah. I mean, I have built relationships with so many kids who I really thought at the beginning like, I don’t know about this. Right? I don’t know where we’re going to find a connection. But really, I have seen it so many times that when we just really hold kids in this regard, I care about you. You have value. Nothing’s going to change my mind about that. Kids really thrive. They feel good. They grow. Right? And it’s not overnight. And sometimes you don’t see it while you’re working with them, but then later on they come back and they say, you know what? While I was here, I really felt like people cared about me. And I will say too, you know, you used the word “results.” Like, this is a tension that can come up sometimes in trauma-informed education because we have to question, right, what results are we looking for? And, you know, to me the result is not ever going to be about decreasing office referrals or test scores or any of those types of things. It’s going to be about, do kids feel cared about? Do they feel empowered to live the lives that they want to live? Do they feel safe?
VENET: Do they feel a sense of curiosity and that they can learn, right? So it’s a little bit about caring less about the test scores and all of that and just refocusing on the people.
GONZALEZ: Well, and that, I’m glad that you brought that up because that actually leads me, and I’m going to sort of combine my last two questions. Because I’m thinking about Julia sitting there for weeks and weeks missing content, and then this idea of results, in which case so often, and I’ve done the same thing. A lot of times, even on my website, when I sort of pitch this idea of “Try this social-emotional thing, it will get you good academic results” as a way of, you know, sort of saying here’s the ticket at the end. There’s a quote in the book that I thought really stood out, and it also reminded me of the whole Street Data project that I did last year. This is from page 100. “If we commit to an ethic of care, building relationships and caring for our students aren’t strategies in the name of increasing academic achievement but the actual goal itself.” This would be a huge paradigm shift for a lot of educators, especially in the U.S. Where we are so focused on metrics of some sort or another and we award those things with our ceremonies and, you know, privileges that we give to the kids who achieve. And I don’t think a lot of teachers have ever thought along the lines of, you can get to the end of the school year and the kid can have terrible grades and yet still feel like it was a successful year. So why is this a goal if it’s worth considering?
VENET: I mean this is a goal that’s worth considering because it’s basically the opposite of what we do in schools right now, and schools right now are so toxic in a lot of ways. And so, you know, I just really dream about what would it look like if kids just felt safe and cared about as part of their school experience? And, you know, sometimes people will say there’s all this competition in schools, whether it be sports or perfect attendance awards or grades and scholarships or whatever. And people sometimes justify this by saying, well that’s society and what do you want? That every kid gets a trophy? Well, what I want to ask is, have you ever been in an environment where every kid actually did get a trophy and seen how beautiful it was? At the school where I taught, they used to do this end of the year ceremony that was for kids who were graduating but also every kid in the whole school, and it was a small school so this was doable. And we actually gave a personalized academic award to every single student, and the way we did it was that we would get together, all the teachers who shared students, would fill out these little sheets of paper and kind of reflect on what was some of the academic growth that you saw this year. And it wasn’t about did they meet X standard? Did they finish, you know, Y amount of pages? Or whatever it was, but it was really, what academic growth did I see this year or something that they accomplished? And we would create an award for every single kid, and then at this ceremony give them out. And it was absolutely beautiful. The kids really didn’t care that everybody else was getting an award because what their personal award said to them was my teachers saw and noticed this thing I worked really hard on. Right? And sometimes it was something like, you know, really boring sounding like mathematic reasoning award goes to so-and-so, but they knew. They heard that and they went, yeah, I worked really hard on that, and it, I hated it the whole time, but I really did that. Right? And it was absolutely beautiful. So every kid getting a trophy? I don’t know. I think that’s great. Let’s do it, right?
VENET: And to just circle back to a concept I talked about in our first interview is this idea that schools can help to create change so the world is less traumatic. I think a big part of why our world is so traumatic right now is a feeling of scarcity and competition, that there’s only limited resources, and we all have to claw at each other to get the resources, and if you’re in the way of that then you’re my enemy, right, like so many big problems in the world. What if, instead of replicating that in school by saying there’s only three sports awards, there’s only one senior award, all these things. There’s only these certain ways to be recognized. What if we work from abundance and said there’s enough for everyone? There’s enough care for everyone. There’s enough celebration for everyone. And actually celebrating you doesn’t mean that I lose. It means that we all have won collectively, right. I think that collectivity and care is what’s going to, you know, heal the world. So in a really practical way, when we make small choices as teachers to work from a place of unconditional care, we’re actually seeding that change, planting the seeds for those bigger changes.
GONZALEZ: So that we’re not trying to prepare our students for a world that is cutthroat. We’re making new citizens that may not be as cutthroat to start with.
VENET: Yes, yes.
GONZALEZ: I love this stuff. This is really good because whenever people say, oh, everybody gets a trophy, everybody just kind of nods and rolls their eyes as if it’s a foregone conclusion that that’s a terrible thing. And the way that you just put that I think is a really, it’s a good challenge to that. So again, the book that we, that contains this and so much else is “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education.” And people listening, if they like this, we’re going to be doing one more later on. And remind us again where people can find you online.
VENET: Yes, my website is unconditionallearning.org and all the links to my other social media are on there, and I’d love to connect with you all.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for your time, Alex. I appreciate it.
VENET: Thank you.
To read a full transcript of this conversation and find links to Alex’s book, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 214. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.