This post was written to honor and celebrate the launch of the book #EvolvingWithGratitude by Lainie Rowell. I am one of the proud contributors of this important and meaningful read. My hope is that #EvolvingWithGratitude will be a source of inspiration for every person who serves in an educational organization. It holds a rich source of ideas, resources, and information about how to use gratitude to create safe, equitable, empowering learning experiences for ALL learners.
Gratitude is a feeling of deep appreciation that is woven into the fabric of our lives. Feelings of gratitude are discovered in small moments that manifest in the stories we live in over the course of time. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize and feel gratitude in those moments because we are so caught up in the experience itself. Have you ever found it difficult to notice the impact simple moments have on your heart and mind when you are living in them?
Gratitude is feeling thankful for simple actions, possessing an urge to give recognition to those who have touched your life. It’s showing how deeply appreciative you are and not expecting anything in return. It’s harnessing a state of reflection and thinking of all of the moments that may have passed you by, ultimately impacting the trajectory of your life.
Gratitude lives in all the moments. It’s easier to show it during moments of happiness and joy. It’s the moments that push on your heart, rent space in your head, and put stress on your emotional deposit box that can be hard to unpack. It’s the unfavorable and disappointing experiences you may have encountered with various people or circumstances over the course of your life that can feel heavy resting on your shoulders. These are the feelings that can become trapped in your conscience and shift your spirit. So I ask, how do you find gratitude in those hard moments? While you are searching, you may have to dig a bit deeper to find gratitude through the hurt, the disappointment, and the adverse actions you may have experienced and could not control in those uncomfortable spaces.
Maybe you can find gratitude in the lessons you have learned because they have made you stronger. Maybe you can find gratitude by calling these interactions learning moments. Maybe those unfavorable moments have encouraged you to think about how to approach people or situations differently in the future. Maybe the gratitude is understanding that those moments have shaped you into the person you are and are continuously striving to be. In the book #EvolvingWithGratitude by Lainie Rowell, she shares, “We often don’t appreciate what we have until we imagine how different life could have been.” Can you find comfort in knowing those difficult moments have transported you to the very place you are living in now? Those difficult moments will continue to guide you as you find your way to the new destinations that await.
Recently, a friend I hadn’t heard from in a while reached out to share that they were having some challenges in their life. I responded to her sentiments with these words: “Life can be hard, but the barriers put before us make you stronger. It’s easy to find gratitude in moments of joy, but harder to find it in the disappointing or hard times. Keep holding your head high; there are bright spots in the hard moments that can only be realized in the future.”
Gratitude is taking the time to tell the people from the past and present that you are truly grateful for them more often. It could be people who were placed in your life for minutes, hours, days, months, or years. Perhaps you have held on to some of those people, while you have let others go. Whatever the case may be, those people were placed in your life for a reason. Maybe they served as signposts, guides, mentors on your journey. They have helped pave the way to your growth and development for the person you are and want to be; THEY are the stories that are woven into the fabric of your lives.
Recently, I was asked, “what did you like about being an Instructional Coach?” It took seconds for the words to roll right off of my heart…. “When you are deeply passionate about education, the students, colleagues, and community you serve, coaching is the most meaningful opportunity to make an impact on instructional practices at the district, building, teacher, and student levels. Coaching is an opportunity to show schools they are capable of changing practices while honoring the ones that work for our students. Coaching creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future.”
If we are in education for the right reasons, we are continuously keeping students at the heart of decision-making and are working tirelessly to bring the mission and vision of our organizations to fruition. There are many professional learning opportunities that come our way as we embark on our educational careers. Some are more memorable than others, some you can live with, some you can live without, some you will forget, some you can implement in your classrooms tomorrow and stay with you for the rest of your career. Nevertheless, job-embedded professional learning is an opportunity to have dedicated professionals and thought partners, who are endlessly committed to your communities and can harness the talents of the educators in the systems in which you live. Investing in coaching is a form of professional learning capable of bringing out the best in people. It’s the opportunity to unwrap the strengths of others, lead with empathy, build human and social capital, and cultivate emotionally resilient educators. So, I ask: How can you use a coaching mindset to create the conditions for educators to recognize and develop their talents?
Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice
Over time, I have developed a coaching mindset that is rooted in my experiences that guide this work. Investing in a coaching mindset can create the conditions to shift instructional practice, improve student outcomes, and encourage collaborative, reflective practice. A coaching mindset opens doors to deeper learning, paves the way for consistent application, and values cyclical, timely feedback. A coaching mindset is an invitation to grow, support, and distribute leadership across an organization while keeping the focus on teaching and learning.
My Instructional Coaching Mindset:
We Are All Connected at the Core: All of the people in your organizations are connected. We are all pieces of a puzzle that connect to bring a bigger picture to fruition. Everything we say and do has the potential to influence the present and the future. As a collective unit, there is never one person to blame. Therefore, it is a shared responsibility in working toward meeting your goals.
Meet People Where They Are: Lead the work with an empathy lens. Take the time to actively listen, understand, and value why people are where they are. This provides an opportunity to create targeted goals and shape the work in which you lead. Everyone starts somewhere, but they don’t have to stay there! Refrain from judgment and help that person move forward in their practice with integrity, compassion, and grace.
Trust is the Foundation: Your colleagues will not open up to you about their challenges and belief systems until trust is established. They have to know that you are keeping students and their interests at the center of the conversations. This will take time. Follow through on your words through action, be supportive in your responses, and keep concerns and struggles sacred.
Use Words Wisely: Words have the potential to create the worlds in which you are living in. Be mindful of your word choice when responding to the strengths, hopes, and needs of the people you are supporting. Your vision can only be fulfilled if you lead with intention and speak with purpose.
Be Present and Patient: It is easy to be concerned and frustrated when you aren’t seeing the goals you are working toward happen fast enough. Repeat after me: Meaningful change and growth takes time. AGAIN…MEANINGFUL CHANGE AND GROWTH TAKES TIME! When you work with people and kids in education, time is undefined. It’s the process that matters. It’s the work you are putting into rowing towards your destination. Be present, keep focused on the goals, let go of impatience, and the results will come!
Let the Journey Guide You: When embarking on the coaching journey, understand that there will be unexpected turns along the way. To continue on the journey of transformation, lean into those unexpected turns with kindness, compassion, and curiosity. Be responsive, not reactive and embrace the learning process.
No matter what your role is in education, how can you use a coaching mindset to bring out the best in those you serve AND how can you become aware of your own mindset before you help others define theirs? Everyone is capable of enhancing their practices. Are you ready to invest in an instructional coaching mindset that creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future of education?
My leadership journey has paved pathways that have pointed me to new directions and places I never knew existed. With the help of the universe, the turns I have chosen to take have brought me the clarity I’ve needed to stand in my beliefs, have grounded my purpose, and have fulfilled my vision of what it means to be the great leader I am striving to be.
In the midst of my journey, I have made conscious choices about the actions I have chosen to take. These actions ultimately have the potential to unlock greatness and shape the belief systems of the people I am fortunate to serve. Do you ever ask yourself if how and what you’re doing will make a positive contribution to the community of educators and people you serve? How will those actions cultivate the leader you are continuously striving to be?
Great leaders aren’t the ones who know it all. They are the people who recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity within. They see the potential in those they serve and know there is no limit to adding value to their team. They are not jealous, competitive, or divisive; rather, they are confident, collaborative, and inclusive. Great leaders have the vision to see what is possible even when things feel impossible. They are able to identify problems and work towards solutions WITH a team. They don’t see titles, they see people. Great leaders know no hierarchy. They don’t see talent as competition. They see it as an opportunity to help them become better. Great leaders are servant leaders, not ME leaders.
What actions have you taken to recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity from within?
Include others in decision-making and conversations. Give them a seat at the table. Be a sounding board, a thinking partner, a coach. Refrain from making decisions that directly impact people and kids without actively listening to their viewpoints and ideas. It can be dangerous and offensive to make decisions solely based on a single thought or idea through a one minded lens. LISTEN to the people enduring various experiences on the frontlines. They are living things you cannot see, can be your ears to the ground, help you identify root causes, and develop the most practical, reasonable solutions. Perspective taking helps you read the room and make collective decisions. Your team will help you implement and communicate future plans when they feel like they played a vital role in creating them.
How have you included the perspectives of others when developing and implementing ideas that support the mission and vision of your building and/or District?
Be the leader who empowers others to see their gifts and utilizes them as a strength to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of colleagues and students. Give those individuals the courage to share their talents with the greater educational community. Celebrate risk-taking, failure, and innovative practices that can be courageously unwrapped in classrooms, buildings, and school districts. Help people ride the waves of change by catching a wave with them and sharing how that experience unfolded. Transformation is possible when we lead with empathy, encourage others to be mindful and intentional with their actions and work to ensure that students and adults in learning spaces are elevated, celebrated, and pushed to discover and reach their personal and professional goals.
When have you empowered colleagues and students to discover their gifts and utilize them to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of others?
Shine the Light
Great leaders don’t need the recognition or credit for the impact they are making in a system. They find it more rewarding to elevate the work of others. They inherently want others to do better because it makes everyone around them better. In George Couros’latest blog post, he shares, “But as I grew in my work, I realized that the best leaders find success in lifting others. When you lift others in a leadership role, the reality is that you do better because those around you do better.” Other people should not serve as obstacles on your journey because they are doing amazing things. Be advocates for those people and help them shine. Their light will illuminate other ideas, bringing them to the surface to benefit our most precious stakeholders, our students!
How have you shined the light on others to elevate them and help them flourish and grow?
Pave the Way
One of the most important jobs of a leader is to hire the right people, and then mentor, guide, and help them spread their wings so they can fly. In the book She Leads: The Women’s Guide to a Career in Educational Leadership by Dr. Rachael George and Majalise Tolan, they share “Never underestimate or devalue your path to the leadership position you desire.” Great leaders will help you identify your goals, embrace the journey, and bridge knowledge gaps. Look around you, there are many educators and leaders who can serve as resources to help you grow. Another idea Couros shares is, “At some point, even encourage them to move on and lift others and do the same things. Ambition in leadership is not bad as long as that ambition leads to others being better because of you.” These actions can help great leaders witness the learning, commitment, growth, and fearlessness of others as they help pave the way to greatness.
What are some examples of how you have paved the way for others to identify and pursue their personal and professional leadership goals?
Invest the Time
“So how is it in your new role, Lauren?” is a question I am often asked as a new assistant principal. I appreciate how others find the time in their busy days to check-up on me, but I also recognize that we create space and time for people and things that matter to us. The truth is, I love what I do. The universe placed me just where I needed to be with having mentors around me to help me persevere through any hurdles I’ve faced. I am appreciating the leaders around me at all levels in my organization who care deeply about kids, people, community, transformational leadership, and learning. They are vision builders who embrace a systems thinking philosophy and leverage the impact we can have on one another to facilitate growth in the broader educational and social systems in which we live. Our mission and vision is clear; we live it in our everyday conversations, district priorities, and practices we suggest and employ in our classroom and building environments. They make it a priority to invest time in their leadership team by providing professional learning experiences that will help move their own practices forward to amplify the voices and practices of others.
So, I ask you…
What can you do to harness the talents of others to develop the next generation of leaders?
This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.
Shifting the Observation Narrative
I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?
I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:
Grounding the Work
An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.
Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.
Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice
Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation,I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.
So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.
Could you imagine a world where each and everyone of us use our talents and resources to nurture the potential that simmers within? Could we work toward developing an in-depth understanding of our unique talents that are awaiting to be courageously unwrapped and shared with others? What if we strived to build systems that focused more on lifting each other up instead of pushing ourselves and others down? Can you imagine a world that is grounded in cultivating our natural capacities while embracing creativity, critical thinking, empathy, collaboration, and communication? Don’t we owe it to ourselves, our communities, colleagues, and the students we serve?
In the book Imagine If… Creating a Future For Us All by Sir Ken Robinson, PhD and Kate Robinson, they share, “Imagination is what separates us from the rest of life on Earth. It is through imagination that we create the worlds in which we live. We can also re-create them.” Sir Ken Robinson PhD and Kate Robinson add “Imagination allows us to envision alternative possibilities, and creativity equips us with tools to bring them into existence.” Inviting colleagues and kids to own their learning and reflect on their thinking instead of passively using their imaginations, we can empower them to engage, create, and collaborate, which ultimately leads to deeper learning. Speaking of imagining, I was recently participating in Dr. Katie Martin’s #EvolvingEducation #LCbookclub where Dr. Katie Novak shared her brilliance, “There is not one single practice we use that works for everyone…when you anticipate that someone might need a support, design for it.” When we design meaningful learning experiences and allow students to be exactly who they are as they learn, imagine, and create, they could essentially be on the precipice of success and innovation.
How can we create conditions that remove barriers and open pathways for educators and students who visit our learning spaces to apply their imagination, create new ideas, and put their minds to work?
Share your heart with kids, our most precious stakeholders: They are interested in who you were, who you are, and who you are striving to be. Invest in their hearts. Get to know who they were, who they are, and who they want to be.
Be the trusted teacher: Welcome all students, value their stories, empower them to explore their interests in inclusive, safe spaces. Take the best attributes of all of the educators you’ve encountered and be the best version of them!
Learn from colleagues who make an impact: Collaborate, communicate, connect, actively listen, share your learning, empower, and celebrate others. Keep kids at the heart of your conversations.
Be the human-centered administrator: Lead with empathy, recognize the gifts in others, involve stakeholders in the decision-making process, and build capacity from within. Show intrinsic, authentic appreciation for those you serve.
Tell someone, YOU CAN: Give them a smile, a nod, a note, a glimmer of hope and encouragement. Help them say yes to themselves and embrace new people and opportunities.
Life and learning are not linear. Both are complex, unique experiences that can be challenging to navigate when we don’t have the right people in our corner who allow us to see things we haven’t seen before. Dr. Katie Martin says that when we embrace what we know about learners & learning, honor people in a space, help others develop a sense of belonging, and tap into strengths and interests, our learning communities grow. Could you imagine an atmosphere where we help others create the world we want to live in tomorrow?
“Many leaders are scared about developing people and then having them leave. They should be more worried about not developing people and having them stay.” A few months ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and immediately copied this quote from George Couros’ tweet and pasted it right into the notes section of my phone. I read it several times, and then I read it some more.
There was something about the sentiment above that resonated with me. Could it be because I recently left a school district where I thought I would retire to embark on a new educational journey as a school leader? Could it be that it’s because I served in many roles throughout my career and thought about all of the educators who have motivated me to take risks, try new things, share my learning and gifts with others, while helping to pave the way to advocate for my personal and professional growth? Could it have been the leaders’ ability to clearly communicate a vision and develop that vision with the staff and students? Was it that these exceptional leaders included all of the appropriate stakeholders in the decision making process instead of having a few people “in the room where it happens?”Perhaps it’s because these words encouraged me to reflect on the qualities those inspiring leaders possessed to help guide me and others to a new direction. Perhaps it was their ability to foster relationships within the school community by ensuring everyone felt invited and welcomed. Maybe it was their strong instructional lens that would enable them to be viewed as credible instructional leaders who had a firm grasp on teaching and learning and could teach students and staff at any given time. Was it their ability to leave their ego at the door by focusing on people, not titles, putting trust in others, and continuously building capacity from within? I think all of these attributes of great leaders I’ve encountered contributed to the leaps of faith I have taken throughout my career.
Here are some more of my observations about Leaders Who Develop Leaders:
Optimize, not criticize
Show sincere appreciation
Value other perspectives
Show humility, vulnerability, and talk about their own mistakes
Ask questions and make suggestions
Celebrate big and small wins
Give honest feedback
In the book Lead From Where You Are: Building Intention, Connection, and Direction in Our School, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo shares, “Finding those who push your thinking and support you in the journey is key to moving forward–and transforming your school community into a group of potential leaders.” Joe is right. There are those who we meet along the way who become a vital part of your team. Whether they come into your life for a few moments, a few hours, a few days, weeks, or years, these are people who can make a profound impact on your growth and development as a professional and human being. They see something in you… they can see the spark that ignites ideas and your ability to change the trajectory of the lives of others. They see that you can rally people together to create meaningful change. They see your positive spirit, your ability to listen to understand, and an action oriented approach to creation and innovation. Great leaders view themselves as thinking partners as you navigate the ebbs and flows of an ever changing educational landscape. They are helping you row in the direction you want to be in while keeping kids at the core of the journey. Dr. Sanfelippo brilliantly added the following reflective questions, “The question is not, are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space? The question is, how are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space?” So I ask you, what type of leader do you want to be? If you choose to commit to recognizing the gifts in others and see the value they bring to your organization, will you give them wings and let them fly?
“The influence of our teachers is indelibly woven into the fabric of our lives.” This is the first sentence in chapter 1 of Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom. Last weekend, as I was packing up my family’s belongings from a weekend trip, I was listening to Sean Gaillard’s#PrincipalLinerNotes podcast where he highlighted Julie’s book and her research around the impact of teachers. That inspiring conversation led me to reading more of Julie’s words where she goes on to ask the question, “Is there a teacher you remember? Not just the teacher’s name, but specific things about him or her?” I paused, and thought deeply after reading those words. It is because my answer is yes, there are many teachers who have left an everlasting impact on my heart and have paved the way for the person I am and the person I am still striving to be.
Family Roots in Education
I have known for a long time that teaching is an incredibly important job. I have always known this because I come from a family of educators. My grandfather was a law professor at a local college. I can vividly remember him talking about his students with profound pride, reading their writing, and being immersed in providing them with specific feedback that stretched across a span of hours. He did this because he wanted to unlock their potential and push them to be reflective thinkers and develop new ideas that could make a positive impact on the world. His home bookshelves were stacked from floor to ceiling with all of the books he authored and read. He was deeply passionate and committed to his students. My parents were beloved teachers in the community I grew up in; my Dad a retired English teacher and my Mom, a retired special education teacher. From childhood into adulthood, I observed them spending countless hours cultivating connections with students, families, and colleagues, reading papers, providing meaningful feedback, and creating engaging lessons. I can’t remember a day being in public without students rushing towards them to spark conversations that were rooted in stories of gratitude and appreciation for the legacy they left behind. “You were the best teacher I have ever known!” and “You helped me realize who I needed and wanted to be.” or just a simple, “Thank you for everything.” My sister is also an elementary educator. The love she has for teaching and learning, and her students’ unwavering success is palpable. Can you imagine what happens when we are all in the same room together? Yes, we talk about one of our greatest passions, teaching and the influence we hope to have had and have on the field of education.
Keeping Close Proximity
Although I no longer have my own classroom, one of my favorite things to do as an administrator is to walk into classrooms and talk to students about their learning. My friend Meghan Lawson recently wrote a blog post titled, An Underutilized Resource where she shared, “At the end of the day, I know this: my best days are spent listening to the people closest to the work. Our students. Our staff. Proximity matters.” My greatest joy is talking to teachers and students and staying close to that work. That investment in time is important and I wholeheartedly cherish all of those moments. Then, there are days I simply can’t do that as much, and in those moments I wonder about the connections, learning, and joy I may be missing.
Educators Do Great Things
You see, I have been surrounded by great educators since the beginning of time and I’d like to share that even during the most challenging times in education, I am watching and hearing educators doing great things. I am watching great educators remain deeply committed to their work; they are keeping students, colleagues, and community at the heart of all they do. I am watching the joy in students’ faces as they make new connections, ask questions, wonder, think, explore, use accountable talk to grow their thinking, develop perspectives, and navigate the learning process. I am watching educators commit to an infinite learning mindset. They are collaborating, communicating, seeking opportunities for professional growth to build capacity within, and meet the needs of all of their learners. I am watching educators ask for feedback from students and colleagues that enable them to create, innovate, and shift their approaches to instruction. I am watching educators navigate challenges that arise and proactively find solutions. I am watching educators use relationships as a form of intervention. They interact with students in supportive ways while maintaining high expectations that develop the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of all students.
The other day I was talking to students about the themes in their books. During this time, they were making connections about books they have previously read to the excerpts they were currently analyzing. Their teacher and I were not taking part in the interactions for quite a while; we didn’t have to. The students were joyfully facilitating the conversation, while adding onto each other’s thinking. As I watched an authentic dialogue that was blanketed in critical thinking, responsibility, and respect for one another’s perspectives, I couldn’t help but think about the remarkable ways teachers shape the lives of students. I couldn’t help but think about the conditions the teacher created that opened the door to these magical moments. It is moments like this that will live in the mind memory boxes of students for a lifetime. These are the moments that will be courageously unwrapped in the right time, in the right place, with the right people.
I’ll Always Be a Teacher
The greatest educators I have ever known invest the time in building classroom community, instilling confidence, and providing the tools and spaces for learners to think, share, speak, listen, and thrive. When I finally got the opportunity to share my heart and some of my own thoughts about the concept of theme with the class, many hands relentlessly started flying into the air with questions for me. It seemed as though these students were curious about my history as a learner and educator. I thought back to Julie Hasson’s words, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” Could it be that because the teacher created the conditions that value a learner and curiosity driven environment that I was invited to share my own ideas? One student thoughtfully asked, “Mrs. Kaufman, how do you know so much about books? I didn’t know that you were a teacher too.” After sharing a bit of my background, and thinking about the impact and influence my own teachers made, I smiled and responded, “I’ll always be a teacher.”
Mentorship is crucial to the work we do as teachers and leaders. Over 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years and since the current educational landscape has currently shifted, retaining new and veteran teachers has never been more vital. It is important to recognize that teachers may require different supports that are crucial for sustainability.
Why is it critical for school districts to invest in building strong foundations for new teachers that will lead to long meaningful careers?
Educators have limitless possibilities for shaping and developing the mindsets, actions, and choices for many future generations over the course of their career timelines. They have unique opportunities to create experiences that empower learners to choose a lens that paves the way to purposeful pathways of happiness and success. Since education is in a constant state of transformation, it is critical that educators are provided with the essential tools and support to navigate the changes, challenges, and systems they live in. These supports will help them develop agency, self-efficacy, instill the confidence to share their own strengths, and unleash the talents of every human being they will ever encounter on their journey. Educators also understand that time is valuable and can be difficult to balance. Every minute, every interaction, every moment in their days are precious. However, out of all the ways educators spend their time, mentoring has one of the highest returns on investment. – Lauren
I recently completed a study with a doctoral student who examined a teacher’s job satisfaction, and the results have impacted the way I work with our teachers. Six of the eight factors discovered were centered around RELATIONSHIPS and the number one factor to impact a teacher’s satisfaction is the relationship with their supervisors. In discovering this factor, I now meet bi-weekly with our new teachers and the results have been rewarding for myself and the teachers have expressed how helpful the time we spend reviewing the book “Leaders of their Own Learning” and the Danielson Rubric together. Bringing me to the question; what is a mentor? -Rob
Here is what we get if we “google” the term:
OR to go a little deeper:
How can you leverage your expertise to build perspective around what it means to be a mentor?
Recognize Teachers are Leaders
Authentically, mentoring is grounded upon trust and supportive relationships among individuals who are willing to “do the work” to grow. I have had the great pleasure of working with Kyle Krueger and Will Law (Lighthouse Educator Development – https://theledproject.com/) while in New Mexico and was featured on two of their LED podcasts to further develop the ideals and concepts of leading/mentoring teachers to support students. This work guided me in my leadership/teacher role. I typically use the terms teacher and leader synonymously because teachers lead and mentor students to make life changing decisions; and, leaders work to lead and mentor teachers to inspire great lessons and relationships with their students. Simply stated, the influence we have as mentors has the power to change many lives dramatically.-Rob
No matter what your role is within an organization, if you have been afforded the special opportunity to work with kids, you are a leader, a mentor, someone who is working toward leaving behind a legacy that will leave an impact that reaches beyond the traditional time you spend together. Those imprints will latch onto the hearts and minds of every student and educator who crosses your path. This makes the induction years a critical component of the learning journey. -Lauren
What reflective practices allow you to build capacity within?
Use the Wisdom Around You
Teachers/Leaders are role models for children and adults alike and have the ability to change lives through words and actions. I had a choral teacher mentor, Paula Willis, who always said, “Rob, our students are the jewels of their parents’ eyes, treat them delicately.” I used this advice as a teacher and as a leader, it has shaped my empathetic lens and helped me to listen to understand rather than to respond.-Rob
Look around you, if you take a moment to view all of the people in your world as mentors, you will be able to mirror the qualities of those who have empowered you, while releasing practices you would never consider implementing from others. As we seek out mentors, it is vital to recognize that we must keep the students we serve at the core of the conversations. Our kids are watching us. They take in our every move, hang onto our words, and they will perpetuate the actions we model. So I ask you, what type of educator and mentor do you want to be? -Lauren
What actions can you take to shape the legacy you leave behind?
Show Vulnerability and Humility
As I have moved through experiences I find myself reminded of the idea, “do what is right, even when no one is looking.” As a mentor and role model, I believe it is essential to have a positive core and be self-aware of your words and actions because we understand the power and must yield that power for others benefit. “It is the little things that make a BIG difference.”-Rob
A mentor is a role model who exudes a confident and intellectual humility. They possess a depth of knowledge and understand what it feels like to walk on paths of exploration and self-discovery. They impart what they have learned over the course of time to their mentees. A strong mentor will also acknowledge what they don’t know; they value the perspective that creativity, ideas, and innovation can live within anyone. Therefore, mentor/mentee partnerships embody a symbiotic synergy. Continuous communication, reciprocity, and collaboration are at the heart of learning, development, and growth. -Lauren
How do you walk softly in your role to guide with humble and authentic intent?
Level the Playing Field
People want to feel valued by their mentor, establish trust between one another, understand that the mentor is competent, and that the mentor cultivates the mentee’s security and sense of independence without seeing the growth as a threat. These four qualities are the foundation of a positive working relationship that will encourage growth for both the mentor and mentee. In any true relationship, both members are growing and learning.-Rob
Feelings are at the heart of trusting relationships. Mentors who trust their own vulnerability, are honest about their personal strengths and areas for growth, and are comfortable asking for help have greater success establishing circles of psychological safety with their mentee. Mentors who serve as systems of support create cultures of empowerment, communication, collaboration, and collective thinking. They are able to tap into an emotional drive that propels their mentees to trust their instincts as they embark on a path to become successful leaders, creators, and innovators. The quality of the journey will ultimately not be determined by what you think about it, but what you feel about it. -Lauren
How do you allow yourself to be open and vulnerable with your mentor/mentee?
Cultivate authentic and caring relationships with everyone around you.
Listen to understand and provide support with advice meant to change lives.
Think before you speak: Is it helpful? Is it kind? Is it inspiring?
Leaders and mentors are competent in what they do and have been recognized by others as a “person to trust.” Through a successful record of experiences, a “surface” or foundational trust helps establish and then build a relationship through shared connections. The more the mentee feels valued and the deeper the relationship grows, the greater the trust becomes which leads the mentee towards independence. The mentor/leader is not threatened by this independence but rather stands proud alongside the mentee to learn and grow together, this further nourishes the sense of value in both individuals. This process is to be treasured because there are only a small handful of people who touch our lives that can withstand the tests of these “ebb and flow” relationships.-Rob
The mentor/mentee relationship is symbiotic in nature. The qualities and attributes in both mentees and mentors are synonymous. There is no magic wand for mentoring. The success of strong mentor/mentee relationships rests on the shoulders of WHO. WHO puts in the effort, WHO has sensibility, WHO has the dedication, WHO commits to the process. All of these things matter, but there is a little bit of strategy that goes along with this too. It is vital to consider WHO will be the right people to guide and create strong foundations for new teachers that lead to long, meaningful, impactful careers. When mentorship is approached from a holistic lens, it has the power to build social capital and unlock human potential. -Lauren
I believe our advice to any mentor would be to model the behaviors you want to see in a mentee because they will emulate all the nuances. As a parent, I am sure many of us can see ourselves (especially the not so good selves) mirrored back through our children. As for a mentee, listen twice as much as you speak, enjoy the journey, and be patient because growth and success take time. Similar to any great slow cooked BBQ dish, the smell may tempt us to jump into the smoker and grab a taste, but if we do not wait we will either get raw meat or burn our mouth. Take time to let things marinate and simmer otherwise we could wind up on fire and/or burn out too quickly. –Rob
It was a pleasure to collaborate on this blog post with Dr. Rob Wottawa!
I have always valued leaning into the people in our organizations for support as we continue to navigate an evolving educational landscape. However, as a new administrator, I have come to recognize more than ever that there is a tremendous positive impact on our system when we collectively build social capital and rely on each other’s strengths to personalize and meet the needs of our learners and colleagues.
We live in learning ecosystems; infrastructures influenced by purpose, relationships, new understandings, collaboration, innovation, and response to the challenges we endure.
Our ecosystems are a collection of people, perspectives, knowledge, skills, hopes, and desires for the future; when we intentionally leverage the gifts of our teams, we have the ability to strengthen our circle of influence and the communities in which we serve. Creating a culture of interdependence and “we” can rest on the shoulders of the leadership within learning ecosystems. In Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, he defines interdependence, “Interdependence is the paradigm of we– we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.”
How can leaders create a culture that supports educators to live in learning ecosystems that grow through challenges and thrive in the face of change?
Create the Right Conditions
Instructional leadership is about creating the conditions that motivate and encourage educators to improve, thrive, fail, and reflect. In the book Essential Truths for Principals by Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker, they say, “Instructional leadership is not about being an expert though; it is about cultivating the expertise in your building. It is about creating a culture of collaboration where teachers learn from one another and inspire one another.” Leaders will not have all of the answers, but they will ask some really good questions. They will empower teachers to take the lead on pursuing their interests, finding their passions, and develop solutions to instructional barriers.
Create optional meeting times that provide a platform for sharing best practices; perhaps a book club or discussion of a brief article may spark some ideas
10 minute intervisitations with a targeted focus can help support and grow instructional practices
Question for Reflection:
How can you create spaces for educators to share and leverage their strengths and struggles?
Embrace the Small Things
In my recent blog, It’s the Small Things, I share, “You see, it’s the small wins that add up to the big things. When you love what you do, you have the motivation to remain courageous in your convictions. Even the setbacks you experience have the potential to become aha moments that fuel new ideas and catapult your drive for the person you wish to become. It’s the small things that pave the way to the big things.” Leaders can recognize that every interaction big and small makes a difference in the work we do EVERY DAY. Take advantage of creating personal connections and finding JOY and PURPOSE in the present as Joe Sanfelippo advises in THIS inspiring brief video tweet. School culture is created in little moments of gratitude and appreciation.
Leave a handwritten note in someone’s mailbox or send them a voice note on Voxer with a compliment and/or noticing
Skip the email and have personal conversations: ex. visit classrooms and give “in the moment” feedback. Tell that person what it is that you saw and appreciated. “It is so awesome when you…tell me more about this!”
Question for Reflection:
What small things can you do to contribute to building a strong school culture?
Lead with Heart
In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he says “Empathetic teachers think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not teacher.” This notion made me think: Empathetic leaders think about the school environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the teacher, not the leader. Couros goes on to say, “New ideas start with understanding the needs of those you serve.” Leaders who continue to recognize people are at the heart of the work and are each other’s greatest resources will see learning and innovation flourish. Include educators in the decision making and listen to their ideas because they are true professionals with vast experiences on the front lines.
Ask teachers: What do you look for in a school leader? How can I support your learning and growth? What are you passionate about? How can we leverage your strengths to support our professional learning community?
Let Teachers Lead: Create opportunities for teachers to take risks trying new practices, share their learning within and beyond their school communities, and present their ideas in a variety of formats.
Question for Reflection:
Would you want to be a teacher in your own school?
Communicate by Coaching
One of the best experiences I have had on my educational journey was serving as an instructional coach. When educators embrace a coaching mindset, I have seen first-hand how coaching moves can positively impact an educator’s teaching and learning practices. Although part of an instructional leader’s role is to be evaluative, I personally have never grown from a conversation that was approached in that way. As Jim Knight says, “Instructional coaches partner with teachers to analyze current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to hit the goals, and provide support until the goals are met.” When educators are approached as thinking partners in the learning process, there is a more productive return on investment. Creating a coaching culture paves the way to a work atmosphere that is filled with possibilities, fosters collaboration, creativity, risk-taking, and a sense of empowerment. This approach unlocks the unlimited potential in both the administrator and teacher.
Language to use in formal and informal conversations: “I am here to be a thinking partner and learn from and with you, When I enter your classroom, I can’t wait to learn from you and your students.”
When giving feedback: I am wondering if…I noticed that… What are your thoughts about…? As a result of our conversation, what instructional practices do you think you could implement moving forward?
Question for Reflection:
What communication moves can you employ that pave the way to learner-driven environments?
Choosing Your Ecosystem
When living in your school learning ecosystem, you have a choice; you can choose to lead others to be dependent, solely needing the help of others to grow; you can choose to lead others in being independent, getting what they need through their own efforts and/or you can choose to lead people to be interdependent, combining their own efforts with others to achieve collective success. How will you choose to live in your learning ecosystem?
Have you ever thought about how your personal evolution and the path to transformation exists in the small things? Where are you now and where do you want to be? Happiness doesn’t just exist in where we are, it lives in what we do to get there. Recently, I have been reflecting on how the latter part of 2021, looks and feels very different for me than the beginning. This time last year, you’d find me back in a classroom teaching reading to 6-8 grade students in the midst of a pandemic. A year later, I am a grateful assistant principal who is working with a new team, students, and community in the midst of a pandemic. Although my role has changed, I am the same person at the core. I have the same heart and passion for what I do. I recognize that it’s the small things that have contributed to endless refinement and continuous improvement towards the educator I am becoming. It’s the small things that have illuminated my love for education and the constant pursuit to be better for the people I serve.
You see, it’s the small wins that add up to the big things. When you love what you do, you have the motivation to remain courageous in your convictions. Even the setbacks you experience have the potential to become aha moments that fuel new ideas and catapult your drive for the person you wish to become. It’s the small things that pave the way to the big things. It could be the people you meet along the way; they may have taken the time to listen to your dreams, your ideas, and validate what you believe in and what you stand for. Those are the same people who probably told you “You can”. Those small things may have been a smile, a nod, a note, a glimmer of encouragement, a push into pursuing opportunities you didn’t know were waiting for you. Those small things may have helped you say yes to yourself and encouraged you to shatter the walls of fear as you were fervently finding your way. Maybe that small thing was someone who used the words “No, you can’t”. Thank that person for that, this was your opportunity to embrace every ounce of self-doubt to ignite determination and hope on the road to achieving personal growth.
It’s the Small Things
Small moves breathe new meaning into a year. In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter much in the moment.” Looking back in time, there were a lot of small things I didn’t savor in the moment. It’s the small things that led me to the place I am in today; they are rooted in a collection of interactions I’ve had with people, family, friends, students, and colleagues. The gradual evolution of becoming yourself is wrapped up in small things that happen over time. My friend Sean Gaillard recently shared a small thing, a simple sentiment in a tweet, “consider the possibilities”. Take a moment to look beyond your immediate surroundings… look for the small things in new people and possibilities on the horizon. Where are you now and where do you want to be in a year?
Call me stubborn, but I refuse to quit! T.R.U.E. G.R.I.T. is the foundation to success in learning and life! Exploring the dynamics of a successful classroom and how grit is a vital characteristic for student achievement