Education is a busy place to be. You recognize that your days and minutes are precious because you have a tremendous responsibility resting on your shoulders.Afterall, you have been chosen and entrusted by your organization to see the good and bring out the best in those you serve. Learning ecosystems are inundated with a plethora of priorities and how you navigate them will become the blueprint that guides your course. I am pretty sure you do not take the sentiments above lightly. Look inside yourself, your fundamental beliefs will shape the actions you choose to take. Your personal belief systems are the lens that enhance your vision, bringing your purpose and the people who surround you into sharper focus.
See People For Who They Can Be
As leaders and educators it always feels important to see people for who they are and who they can be. Everyone has greatness living inside them, it will just take the right people, at the right time to water the seeds that already exist and help them flourish. We are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Simon Sinek shared, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior. You can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” When you willingly give your heart and mind to others, they can contribute meaningfully to something that matters. Since the nature of our jobs is complex, I try to check in with others and ask, How are you doing? When I ask this question, I mean it. I want to hear an honest response, because I am ready to be there to support it.
The Reality of the Work
When I opened my calendar this week, I quickly realized I needed to be in several places across my school district and simultaneously complete projects that are essential to my work. My days are usually filled with observations, department meetings, professional learning experiences, impromptu meetings, and anything else you can possibly think of. You know what I am referring to, because your days most likely mirror mine, but manifest differently. Yesterday, I noticed that I needed to be in two places at once. And, I really needed and wanted to be at both places. At that moment, I actually asked myself the question, Lauren, how are you doing? I’ll admit, for a few minutes, I wasn’t doing that great, but I wanted to work through that feeling and start seeing the good.
When I got to work in the morning, I sat at my desk, turned on my device and stared at my calendar waiting for a solution to come into focus. In one place I needed to be, I was leading work involving the creation of a resource that will have an immediate impact teaching and learning with a team of teachers. In the other place, I would be in a space collaborating with other administrators on an idea we’d like to pilot. Although I had not been as involved in preparing for that particular project (I have to give my curriculum team colleagues credit for doing more of the thinking for that work), I knew I wanted to be there to learn and think things through with the team.
Then, what I have always believed in, came to the forefront of my mind. When I stepped into education, I realized that our work doesn’t have to get done in silos. The only way to innovate is to recognize that we need each other to create, plan, and execute ideas. With that, I thought about the teams I have to support me in carrying out these responsibilities. I am continually working towards being the leader that trusts people to make decisions and want other educators to know that their contributions are valuable and make a difference.
That said, here are the three solutions that came to mind as I navigated the challenges of trying to be in more than one place:
Create Systems: Leading is about being intentional in your influence. When you plan well and create systems for work to flourish and transcend, it will continue without your presence. Share your goals with the team. Create a system in which they can go through the process to produce a quality product. For the particular project I am referring to, I did a lot of pre-work like creating digital folders for the teachers to upload and store high-quality resources in an organized way. Additionally, I explicitly stated the goals for our time together and laid out a foundation of ideas in a digital template to spark the thinking of more ideas. This was a learning space where thinking can evolve and the team could add more ideas. When I was able to create this system, I knew I could leave this particular meeting and go to the other knowing the quality work would still get done.
Trust People: Goethe said, “Treat people as they are, and they will remain as they are. Treat people as they can, and should be, and they will become as they can, and should be.” As a leader, I want to model what I’d like to see, be the first to listen, admit I’m wrong or unsure. I want to create as much transparency as I can, give someone the benefit of the doubt, show respect, and always assume positive intent. I also ask, what is the worst that can happen if something goes wrong? Chances are the worst is fixable. That said, put trust in people and let them do the work. When people develop results within the systems that have been created, they feel ownership and pride to achieve even better results in the future.
Let Go: As leaders, when we decide to put the trust in others, we also have to be willing to let go and give our teams their wings. As my good friend, Sean Gaillard would say, “Always see the good, Lauren.” How you lead is ultimately how you will grow the people around you. People thrive in working in flexible, interdependent teams. This helps them have support when they productively struggle through a learning experience. When I work with educators, I recognize they are in different places on the learning continuum. That’s okay. I love the idea of letting go for all. The people who are doing are the ones who are learning. When you see the good everyone can bring to the work, people feel interconnected and empowered to want to see it through.
Seeing the Good
When I left one meeting with teachers to go to the other meeting yesterday, a colleague who was walking into the same meeting said, Lauren, what are you doing here? I thought you had another meeting.” I smiled and replied, “Well, I do. The teachers are good, they are working as we speak and now I can be in two places at once!” Then, we walked into the school building where I was an assistant principal last year to attend the other meeting. While I was chatting with my colleagues about our day, a familiar 5th-grade student came running up to me and said, “Mrs. Kaufman, YOU’RE HERE! How are you doing Mrs. Kaufman? I mean, how are you REALLY doing?” I smiled big at this gesture from a student and responded, “Brian, I am doing well…in fact, I’ve never been better, I’m seeing the good!”
Stories are windows into the soul. They are hidden treasures that are buried beneath a sea of hopes, wishes, dreams. They are small moments in time that pass you by. They are memories that enrapture your heart and wrap around your spirit. They are the hidden paths to who you were, who you are, and what you are destined to become. You are a collection of invisible stories strung together and concealed by your external being. Stories bind us to people. They are entry points to connection and open pathways to your learning journey. They shape your core identity; they are a reflection of your perception, values and what you stand for. Stories are windows into our experiences. They are the ammunition that pushes you down the path to self-discovery. Your stories are living in mind memory boxes waiting to be courageously unwrapped and gifted to people who will use them to discover ideas and recognize their own passions.
As I have navigated over four decades of living including seventeen years in education I have lived the stories that have propelled me to be the leader I am becoming. I was born into a family of educators. My grandfather, my parents, my sister, and I all have stories to tell. Although each story is unique and special, mine is a little different as I am the first person in my family to have stepped into a formal leadership role. Along with my family, there have been people who have paved a path to my development and growth as a human being, educator, and leader. Some walked into my life for minutes, some for hours, some for days, and some for years. Some are more present than others, some have come and go, while others have remained by my side. Those people have likely seen me through the big and small wins, helped me navigate the obstacles I have faced, and have valued me for the person I am, not for the title I have served in. All of these people are important because they have shown me who I want and don’t want to be. For that, I am truly grateful.
Stories Are Fuel
In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros brilliantly says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the facade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. Where are you creating spaces for educators to share how they found their path to education and leadership through stories?
We all have a story that captures how we journeyed to the path to leadership. Recently, I was asked to join a group of women to speak about my story that led me to leadership at an educational event. As I stood in the center of a wall to wall crowded room of influential women, my eyes scanned and surveyed it. As upbeat music played to greet the participants who chose to share the learning space with my colleagues and me, my mind wandered into a state of reflection. How did I get here? Who helped me see my potential and why didn’t others? Have I become a person of influence? Am I supposed to be here? One by one, ten women I admire and adore shared their stories with others, their path to leadership through vulnerability and grace. I noticed that they all had something in common. They gave recognition to others for the person they are continually becoming. That’s because leadership is not a business of “I”, it’s a business of “we”. When it was my turn to speak, I shared, “Getting to the place I am now did not come easily. It took some pretty amazing people to recognize my strengths and pick me up during the times when I had fallen down. There have been many remarkable moments in my career, but there have also been some disappointments. You see, we need those moments too. They support your personal evolution, your path to transformation. They help you see that happiness doesn’t just exist in where we are, it lives in what we have to do to get there.” So I ask, Where are you now and where do you want to be? In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he says, ‘Your life bends in the direction of your habits. Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.’ When I reflect on my past and present experiences, I often ask myself, “Who is the leader you wish to become Lauren?” My answer is “I wish to become the leader I always needed.” No matter where your journey takes you, your actions create a collection of stories that can positively impact others.
Moving Forward Stories are lenses that formulate perspectives and cultivate community. They are sound bites, and short episodes of our lives. They are opportunities to personalize classroom experiences, make connections to new learning, and a bridge that connects us with people to form new ideas. In chapter 3 of the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas C. Murray passionately wrote, “Weaving together our experiences creates our story, makes us who we are, and determines the context in which we each learn.” Understanding and sharing our own stories and the stories within our school organizations forges deeper connections that lead to deeper learning. Understanding stories values the uniqueness of each individual and brings purpose to authentic work. As we proceed with our lives, we will encounter new opportunities and people who are waiting to meet us. It can be exciting to think about a team of people we have not yet met, but will eventually become a constant in our lives. Although every person has guided my direction, I have realized that we all have the divine power to choose our own paths, our ultimate destination. We can take our experiences, our stories, our lessons learned to bring our hopes and dreams to fruition. What will you do to intentionally shape the narratives you want to create and write the stories you want to be a part of?
Leadership is a choice. It rests on the shoulders of influence and inspiration, not compliance and control. Leadership is not a title, it’s an opportunity to recognize the greatness that lives inside others. It’s not about taking the credit for the work, but giving it to others. Leadership is about inspiring others to cultivate confidence in themselves so they can breathe life into ideas that will awaken their soul. Leadership is harnessing the gifts that are manifesting within. It’s letting others recognize their potential by planting seeds that they can nurture and grow.
Salute the Person
Growing up, I had leaders all around me. My Dad was one of them. He was and still is a well-respected educator who put people first. As a matter of fact, since he was an educator in the town I grew up in, we could not stop at a local restaurant or store without his former students running up to him and thanking him for his kindness, support, and the lessons learned from his classes. I still live where I grew up and the first thing people ask me is, “How is your Dad, Lauren? Please send him my best, he had a positive impact on me.” Although my Dad didn’t hold a formal leadership title, I always knew that he was a leader who left a legacy of influence in the hearts and minds of the students and colleagues he served. I also know that he learned this from his father who was a leader in his community and spent a lot of his time giving back to people who were less fortunate than him. As I journeyed through my childhood, teen, and adult years, I still turned to my Dad for advice. One of the pieces of advice he continues to share is, “Lauren, leaders salute the person, not the title. There is a leader inside us all.”
As I have navigated 17 years in education, those words actively live in my mind. I am a natural observer of people. I take great interest in what others say, do, and act on. I look closely at the body language, reactions, and responses of others. I try to understand others perspectives and have empathy for the hidden stories I cannot see. When truly reflecting on the people I have saluted throughout my life in any capacity, the common gifts they possess are their ability to lead through inspiration. I can still hear and see the leaders who didn’t limit my potential, instead, they fueled it. When I formally stepped into leadership, I often reflect on the experiences that shaped the leader I am becoming.
Three actions that have inspired me to unleash the leader inside:
Trusting People: My 5th grade teacher saw the leader inside of me. She recognized a shy girl’s potential to lead and support others. She chose me to take on the responsibility of being a 1st- grade class helper. Every Friday, I woke up in the morning with some extra pep in my step. I knew that I would be spending a period in Ms. Miller’s 1st-grade classroom where she gave me the responsibility of facilitating a small reading group. It felt so good to feel important, to sit in front of a group of students and model what it meant to be a good reader even though I was a reader who had challenges of my own. Looking back, I think my 5th-grade teacher knew that I lacked confidence with reading and asked a 1st-grade teacher to let me lead this work so I could develop confidence of my own. In the book Trust and Inspire by Stephen Covey, he shares, “Operating with a trust and inspire mindset means you manage things and you lead people.” When we lead people by elevating them, it helps them to recognize their strengths. They may not see the power of that move in the moment, but will eventually recognize its impact.
Asking Good Questions: Recently, my superintendent shared an article with our leadership team during a professional learning session titled, “A Beautiful Question” by Jim Knight. Knight shares, “Good questions are real manifestations of your curiosity and caring. Good questions are like intellectual fireworks, leading to explosions of ideas and more learning for the questioner and the conversation partner.” Although I highly recommend reading the article, there are really two ideas I want to highlight. One is that my superintendent is masterful at planting seed ideas within the people she serves. She is always sharing resources, quotes, and thoughts that spark collaboration and innovation among her team. I have seen this happen through a simple group text message. All she has to do is share an article in a text and ask one question, “What do you think?” This brings me to my 2nd idea and that is that great questions can lead to more creation and meaningful conversations. Once the article is in the group text, it takes minutes before there is an explosion of back and forth conversation in the text thread between her leadership team. I have seen the new ideas get implemented only days after the intellectual fireworks commenced! She is leveraging our intellectual power and elevating the leaders inside us.
Choosing Words Wisely: When bringing out the leader in people, we must recognize the powerful impact words have on ourselves and others. In the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, there is a chapter titled, Be Impeccable With Your Words: Thanks to ChatGPT, I curated some of the quotes from the chapter:
“The words we speak create our reality.”
“Whatever we swear to, we create the truth.”
“The word is a force, and it can create happiness or suffering.”
“It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
“The way we communicate can either heal or destroy.”
“The first agreement is the key to everything, because it opens the door to the other three agreements.”
“Be impeccable with your word, and you will avoid your word becoming a poison that destroys yourself and others.”
Everyone’s perception is their reality. As leaders, when we are mindful of the words we use, we can better help others recognize the leader that lives inside them. You can help others shape the perception of themselves by positively communicating ideas, intention, purpose, and instill happiness that leads to bringing out the best in those you serve. Those actions directly impact every stakeholder in your organization and at the heart of it all, students.
When you salute the person and not the title, there is greater potential to find more leaders living among us. You have the potential to rekindle and ignite the spirit and joy within others. Great leaders inspire others to have confidence inside themselves. People yearn to be inspired. Breathe life into their gifts and ideas and show them the leader that awaits inside.
Have you ever arrived to the end of a day and wondered what happened to the moments in between? Education is a busy space filled with interactions and frames of time that bridge ideas and fill your perceptions with the way you can approach action. As new ideas and challenges arise, the minutes in your calendar fill up rapidly. As you navigate your days, finding peace and contentment with how your time is spent can seem like a challenge. Watching the empty spaces of time on your calendar disappear can push you to prioritize the space in the minutes in between to connect with others, reflect, create, implement, and refine ideas.
Landing Your Feet on the Ground
You most likely have never had a week that wasn’t filled with important things. That is because the work you do for kids is so important. You may find it to be a constant struggle to plant your feet firmly on the ground. That is because in education your feet never stay in one place. There are also going to be those days when you get pushed off balance. It will be clear to you how you intended to allot your time, transformed into something else that is out of your control. Does this sentiment sound familiar? What I am continuously learning is that every day can bring a fresh start to solidly land your feet on the ground again. You can approach the gift of time on a new day with renewed confidence and choose the way you spend your minutes despite the uncertainty some days may bring.
Making the Time
For example, this week I had a lot of meetings in different places across my district. That meant that I needed to travel from one building to another frequently. I realized that I didn’t leave ample travel time on more than a few occasions. That also meant that towards the end of those particular meetings, I found myself trying to stay more in the moment because I had already started thinking about getting to the next one. Then, when I arrived at my new destination, I had little time to settle in, recalibrate, and collect my thoughts. During one of the meetings, I received a text from a teacher who knew I was in her building. “Lauren, I’d love you to come by my classroom to see something my students did if you have time.” I immediately looked at my watch and seconds later identified that I had three minutes to get to this classroom before traveling to my next meeting. The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get there because seeing teachers and students is the most important part of the way I spend my time. When my meeting concluded, I basically ran to this teacher’s classroom. “Look Lauren, I wanted to show you that the whole grade level participated in the “One Word” activity for the New Year. We explained to them that this is a word they will focus on as they work towards meeting their social, emotional, and academic learning goals. Remember when you shared this with us last year? We’ve hung them all in the hallway and the students are always keeping their One Word at home.” My goodness. Of course I had remembered sharing this activity the year before, but never thought about the strength of its influence. Those three unexpected minutes suddenly turned into the most important part of my day. In making space for those minutes, a teacher shared that an instructional practice I shared had become a grade-level tradition and more importantly, left a positive impact on kids.
Three Ideas to Make Space for Time
There will always be a lot on the “to do” list. You know what I am talking about! This made me pause and think about three ways I will continue to schedule my time. I will look for ways to:
Prioritize People – If you are working towards continuous improvement in the work you are doing, keeping the focus on developing relationships, listening to people, and cross pollinating ideas is the best investment in time. In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he shares, “It is easy to lock yourself in your office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing…if you have lost focus on and connection with people in your building, even if you offer new ideas, they might not be embraced by those you lead.” It is vital to be visible and spend time learning from the teachers and students who are in the classrooms to create a better tomorrow.
Keep Goals in Focus – Look where you focus your time and energy. Are you filling your calendar with meetings that aren’t in line with district and building priorities? Who is involved and how will the use of that time impact the kids and colleagues you serve in positive ways? Are the conversations in these meetings learner focused? These questions may help you review your calendar in more critical ways. What meetings should stay and what can you do to eliminate the minutes that aren’t aligned with your goals and priorities?
Be More Responsive and Less Reactive – Think about this… what items on your calendar need to get done now and what can wait until later? Are the items in your calendar an intentional response to the important things you are working on? Will the meetings really solve a potential challenge or will they be a quick reaction, a band aid for an existing issue that requires more purposeful attention? I have found that being in spaces with proactive people who are more responsive and less reactive is beneficial because you are working together to take action on important things in intentional ways. When you are able to work with people who celebrate the good things, maintain a consistent vision, and identify potential concerns, you are positioned in solutions oriented spaces of time.
Your days are filled with chances. Push yourself to take a closer look at how you make space for meaningful moments of time. Examining each day with fresh eyes will cultivate your commitment to capture your own time with greater intention and purpose. Time matters.
Have you ever observed leaders who authentically appreciate, trust, and value the people they serve? Those leaders have an innate gift for developing and unleashing the greatness within every person they encounter. They inspire others to humbly give their hearts and minds to others and make contributions to something that matters. I often think about the leaders who breathed life into my ideas, who trusted me to bring those ideas to fruition, and unlocked the potential I didn’t know I had. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
When I was a new teacher, I worked for the New York City Department of Education as a classroom teacher. I adored my first principal, Beth Longo. She is the one who gave me my first foot in the door when I had little experience in education. She was a mentor who saw the leader in me. Beth had high expectations, pushed her teachers to try new practices, was honest in her feedback, and gave them the courage to reflect on the educators they were and wanted to be. She had the ability to be direct in her approach while remaining endearing all at once. One day, Beth pulled me into her office and said, “Lauren, our district superintendent is visiting our school tomorrow with her team and I am going to bring them into your classroom.” What happened next? I stared at her without answering. I could feel this confused look on my usually rosy turned pale face. She interrupted my silence by saying, “Lauren, I know you are thinking that since you are a new teacher, I shouldn’t be bringing these people into your classroom. Is that why you aren’t answering me? That’s what you are thinking isn’t it?” I finally blinked. “Well… ummm…hmmmm. Maybe?” There, I finally answered, not wanting to commit to a specific response. She interrupted me again. “Lauren, I’ll see you in your classroom tomorrow. Just do me a favor…be yourself.” In that moment, I could feel the rosiness restoring through my pale cheeks and my heart rate returning to a more normal beat.
Helping Others Succeed
In Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead Podcast, Adam Grant shared, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed.” Could shining the light on others, honoring who they really are, challenging them to do the hard things, and instilling a courageous spirit pave a path that shows others the leaders they are meant to be? There is a certain kind of excitement in inspiring others. When people feel that their work matters, they feel that they matter.
Learning About Yourself
The next day, my classroom instantly became a lab site, a revolving door. As I stood in the middle of my classroom, teaching and learning from my students, administrators who were also strangers took their place around the perimeter of my classroom. It felt like we were in the theater in the round. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several guests approach my students. I can remember them asking, “What are you learning today?” To this very day, I don’t remember my guests’ faces or every interaction that happened in the room. What I do remember is what it felt like to be challenged and a good pressure to rise to the occasion by just being myself. I also vividly recall the conversation I had with Beth after the experience. She asked me this question, “Lauren, what did you learn about yourself as an educator today? I paused and the first thing I said was “I can do hard things while being myself.” She came back with another question. “Lauren, what did you learn from today that you can take with you for the rest of your career?” I replied, “I need time to think about that, Beth. Can I have some time to reflect?”
Learning From Yourself
It is 17 years later, and I am still thinking about Beth’s last question. If I were to answer what I learned from that experience today, I would respond with this: “Great leaders can help others find their inner drive and light sparks that ignite a sense of passion and purpose. They give you just the right amount of push, believe in you to grow into the leader you are destined to be, and encourage you to be the best version of yourself.” In the book Trust and Inspire, Stephen Covey shares the following sentiment and question: “Instead of asking why aren’t my people motivated? A better question to ask yourself is how can I better inspire those I lead?”As you proceed on your leadership journey, take a step into opportunities that can transform educators’ mindsets by letting them experience what it feels like to garner courage and step into hard things. There are future leaders waiting for you to recognize their innate gifts and unleash greatness within.
An educational ecosystem is filled with committed groups of stakeholders who are working tirelessly to support the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of kids. Each group and person within the ecosystem brings unique perspectives that contribute to the growth and evolution of the organizations in which they serve. As I move forward as a new administrator, I am continually learning to navigate my surroundings with more intention and purpose. I am living and growing within new ecosystems and with that newness could bring some natural feelings of self-doubt.
You have all felt that kind newness I am talking about before. You have all stepped into new spaces and have created your own mind narratives leaving you feeling weary, judged, nervous, and perhaps confused. These feelings can take you back in time. For example, when I was in middle school, I had to make a change in my academic schedule. This meant that I would have to endure a new lunch period, meet new people, and worry about where I would sit during one of the most awkward stages in my life. I’d have to find a seat with people who had already been sitting together for months. I created this story in my head that no one would want to sit with me. I thought about the possibility of standing in front of the lunchroom desperately searching for familiarity and acceptance. And then the actual day came…when I walked into the cafeteria, my eyes intensely and quickly scanned the room for a familiar face, a smile, eye contact…anything. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “Hey, come over and sit with us. Do you remember holding the door open for me when I was walking into school earlier? I don’t know how I would have made it alone holding that instrument case and a pile of books!” I finally exhaled and smiled back, “Oh yes, I did hold the door for you!” The truth is, I didn’t remember holding the door. Holding a door for someone who needed help is just something I would do. What seemed like a relatively insignificant interaction for me that day, meant something more significant to someone else. Then, that someone else disrupted the narrative I created and helped me step into newness.
When you step into a new school or a new role it kind of feels like the crowded lunchroom of unfamiliar faces where you don’t know all of the people and you don’t know if you will be greeted in a welcoming way. You don’t know their stories, their educational philosophies or personal/professional goals. That can become frustrating, if you let it. I like to think of myself as a proactive person who takes action swiftly, but when things are new, I find myself holding back a little more, listening more attentively, consuming all different types of information, trying to be more responsive and less reactive, and asking lots of questions. This was a shift in mindset when I stepped into the newness of leadership. I came to a place where I recognized that there is strength in asking questions. I know I have to do this because I cannot possibly be the keeper of all the answers. And even if I have answers, I am keenly aware that my colleagues who have been living in the ecosystem will have other answers that either confirm what I am thinking, shift my thinking, and/or share a perspective I would have never thought of, EVER.
Over the last several weeks, I have been reflecting on the number of questions I have asked since I became an administrator. I know I have asked far more questions stepping into a leadership role than I had when I was teaching. You may find this funny, but I actually asked myself “Why is that, Lauren?” Teaching can be hard. Teaching can be fun. Teaching can be draining, BUT teaching is also the most incredibly rewarding career on the planet. Knowing all of these things, why hadn’t I asked the questions I knew I needed answers to years ago? Perhaps I had not stepped into a courageous place in my journey. Maybe I wasn’t in the mental place to understand that failure could be an asset, an opportunity to learn or try something new. Perhaps I didn’t have the patience to refine my practices, iterate, fail, and improve. Perhaps I didn’t realize that although setbacks can be discouraging, they are only temporary. Maybe I didn’t realize that if I was doing my best, I could still be proud of my choices.
Last week I had a check in with a new teacher. When I walked into her classroom I could feel the newness of her learning ecosystem surrounding me. As I waited for her to finish up a few conversations with students, I walked around and scanned the landscape of the room. I could feel the learning emanating through her classroom walls and the energy of her kindness and enthusiasm for learning permeating into my heart. At the same time, I noticed that she had pulled up a seat next to a student who was feeling defeated. “What is making you feel this way? What can I do to help?” A new teacher was asking a student questions to build connection and get him to a more comfortable place. When she was finished I invited her to sit next to me at a small round table. I started to ask the teacher some open-ended questions, “What’s going well? What barriers may be getting in the way of your growth?” She led with this answer, Lauren, I just need to say that I love it here. I really love it, Lauren. When I have questions, I know I can go to my colleagues for support. This new teacher had surpassed the place I was at the beginning of my career and right then, I knew she was rowing in a direction towards success. This answer made my face light up and smile so big that my cheeks started hurting. I went on to ask “What questions do you have for me?”
When I stepped into the newness of leadership, I stopped thinking about the way things are supposed to be and stopped trying to work towards a place of perfection. The pathway to the outcomes you are searching for are not always linear. Sometimes standing still in newness is the best way to move forward. Finding the courage to ask questions may be the action needed to harness momentum towards the place you want to be.
There are so many beautiful things about being an educator. Being an educator is not just something you do. It’s a calling, it’s a gift, it’s an opportunity to leave a legacy of kindness and love in the hearts and minds of those you serve. As an educator, you move through your career living in moments, snapshots in time that turn into stories. You navigate your own personal journey opening paths to self-discovery, learning, and growth that can ultimately bring well-deserved joy and happiness to your life’s work. Perhaps, at one time, your path in education led you to a crossroads and you chose to step into the direction of leadership. As you began walking a new path, you started leaning into the experiences you invited and those you couldn’t foresee, but would later become lessons you’ve learned. – Lauren
As a 7th grade ELA teacher, I was a part of the building leadership team. I was enjoying the opportunity to learn more about change leadership and to make a positive impact on the broader school community. At the end of one of our meetings, I was packing up my many belongings, so I was the last teacher remaining alongside the principal. Anyone who has ever joined me for a meeting knows that I can be a little extra with all of my supplies. Notebooks, books I’m reading, my water, a coffee I’m still finishing, snacks, laptop…I cannot hide it. Anyway, the principal and I were enjoying a nice post-meeting conversation which led her to ask me, “You should really think about getting your principal’s license.” I should have paused before responding because I had a visceral reaction. “Why would I want your job? Your job looks terrible.” Eek, but I think what I really meant was that the job looked HARD. And it is hard, but it’s also rewarding and growth-evoking. Administration has challenged and humbled me and continues to do so on a daily basis. It’s perspective giving in the best possible way and when we do our inner work as leaders, we grow leaps and bounds alongside the talented educators we serve. – Meghan
I thought I would retire in the last district I served in. It was close to where I live, a district I loved, a place I called home. However, I knew in my heart that it would not be the place I would serve as an administrator. I remember the day I realized that I needed to move on so I can grow into the leader and educator I was meant to become. After going through a handful of interview processes, it happened, I was offered an assistant principal’s role in the right place, at the right time, with the people I was destined to know. I was set to embark on this new endeavor in the middle of the summer. So, on a hot summer’s end of July day, it would be the last time I’d use my ID fob to enter a building in a district I adored for so long. It’s where I evolved as an instructional coach and reading specialist. That day, I filled 15 boxes with treasured stories from my teaching past. I looked around an empty classroom, only leaving behind the books that belonged to the school. When I was ready to go, I peeked my head out of the door to look for a custodian to help me find a flatbed to lift and stack my boxes and bring them to my car. Oddly, there was no one in sight. After a brief search, I found a flatbed myself. I can remember closing my eyes, taking a deep breath and putting my airpods into my ears because to me, what is life without music, especially during a pivotal moment like this? At that moment, my ITunes randomly played the song “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco. It seemed fitting, the perfect song selection for the symbolic transition from teaching to leadership. I tied back my hair, loaded my boxes onto the flatbed, and as sweat dripped from my brow, I began pulling out this big, heavy flatbed wagon to my car. When I got there, I opened my trunk, pushed down all the seats and lifted each box, one by one, finally filling my trunk to the brim. I took a picture to capture the moment, the end of an era. When I drove off that day, I thought about all of the small moments in time that led me to this new opportunity in leadership. I thought about some of the lessons I’d learned from leaders, colleagues, and students. I thought about the happiness, the joy, the laughter, the comradery of teachers, some sadness and disappointment, the evolution of me, and all the small moves of impact that brought me to this place in time. It would be the very next day that I would pull up to a new building, my new home, where I was greeted by a friendly custodian. He met me by my car and helped me unload my trunk of boxes, the treasured stories of the educator I was. It was his genuine smile that would give me the courage I needed to retrieve my new ID fob from my bag to swipe a new door, and step towards the unforeseen lessons I would begin to learn and the path to the leader I hoped to become. – Lauren
Perhaps it’s our social media immersed culture, but there seems to be a pervasive belief that the things worth doing and worth having are the big, audacious moves and gestures. But often, when we see people accomplishing what we perceive to be “big, important stuff”, we aren’t seeing all of the little moves and setbacks and lessons learned that got them to that really impressive place. We don’t see all of the free throws college and professional basketball players shoot in practice or their late nights in the gym. We don’t see those lessons that flopped by teachers we deeply admire. We don’t see that professional development session that didn’t go as planned. You get it. This is why it’s critical we speak more honestly about our work. That we don’t make this work something that only perfect people do. There are no perfect people, and the more we only share our shiny selves and the highlight reels and the romanticized storybook versions of our work, the more likely it becomes that other people may start to believe that leadership is something that is beyond them. The world doesn’t need more people who look perfect leading classrooms, schools, and districts. The world needs more learners who model humanity for others. People who are deeply curious about themselves, others, the world around them. Many of us have taken the Strengths Finder 2.0. I’ve taken it a couple of times. Once as a classroom teacher and once as an assistant principal. One of my top five strengths changed with experience. As a teacher, “positivity” was in my top 5. As an administrator, I morphed from positive to “relatable.” Ha! That used to bother me, but I’ve come to embrace it. I’m learning to be deeply human with other people. I share mistakes and struggles when appropriate and in doing so, it makes me feel more connected while opening the door to learn from others too. – Meghan
This year, I embarked on a new role as the Director of Literacy K-12. As I created my entry plan for this new role, a big portion of it revolves around cultivating meaningful relationships with the administrators, teachers, staff, and community I am serving. To me, in the midst of all the meetings, observations, big things, and learning I need to do, this means that I put showing up to buildings at the forefront as much as I can. Greeting teachers, saying hello to kids in the hallways, asking kids what literacy means to them, what they are most proud of as readers and writers today, what books they enjoy, and how their day is going is essential to the work I do everyday. When I leave classrooms, I feel it’s important to email or send a voice note to let the teachers know how much I appreciated our time together. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the primary and elementary buildings with a picture book in my hands. Very often, teachers and students will ask me what book I am holding, igniting a conversation that may have never happened if I hadn’t been holding one! Those conversations have led to invitations to classroom visits to perform read alouds with kids and teachers. To me, there is nothing better than showing up to that classroom, sitting myself down on the rug with the kids surrounding me and bringing a book to life through an interactive experience! I know there will always be the big things that need to get done. Literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is also a hot button topic and instructional approaches will always need refining to meet the needs of all learners in the evolving landscape of education. What I have come to learn overtime is that although there will always be the big things, it’s those small moves like showing up, saying hello, asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, sending the check-in text to a teacher, and reading a good book that contributes to making the big things happen. These are lessons I’m learning that are shaping who I’m becoming as a leader. You may begin to recognize that if you want true happiness in leadership, you may have to sacrifice what you want now for what you want later. You have a mission and a vision and as you row toward the ultimate destination of success, there will be small moments, small wins, and small obstacles on the path that can seem like they are not enough to bring a vision to fruition. You will come to realize that those small things can add up to the big things you truly need to accomplish. -Lauren
I learned to think in small moves as an elementary principal. I would dream of big, grand gestures I could use to surprise and delight staff and to show my appreciation. But I learned pretty quickly that what mattered most was the day-to-day small moves. Visiting classrooms every day, greeting students as they walked into school, coming alongside teachers at lunch duty, and playing with students at recess. In these small moments of shared joy and learning, we had little conversations. Conversations about teaching and learning. Moments of appreciation for each other. We celebrated when a student who had been struggling had a great day in the classroom. I look back at those little moments and realize they were not little at all. They were the big stuff. It doesn’t look big when you’re in it, but the collective impact that those moments make is monumental. Those are the moments that transform a school culture. They transform a district’s culture too. As a Director of Secondary Teaching and Learning, I keep my office in a backpack. Certainly, I have an office at the district office, but I choose to spend 99% of my time in the buildings. Proximity builds trust. The work feels better when we feel better in the work, and I feel best in the work when I’m wearing my sneakers, my sleeves are rolled up, and I’m working alongside people in the day-to-day challenges we face. Every moment matters. Every conversation is a coaching conversation. Every person we come into contact with can teach us something. And honestly, when you are all-in in that way on a daily basis, it is not only incredibly rewarding, it’s also incredibly exhausting in the best possible way. It’s normal not to have the energy for big gestures…not that those don’t matter…not that you never go big…but keep the main things the main thing. Staff and students will remember those little moments and be more deeply impacted by those than that one big breakfast you pulled off. No matter how much they love bacon. And boy do I ever. – Meghan
Should be easy, right? We are, after all, human. It is critical we model what it looks like to be a learner. This means making mistakes, doing things imperfectly, struggling – and all the while learning from all of that and allowing it to make us better people and professionals. The more “power” we have in the organization, the more critical this move can be because students and staff are watching us. Many of them are wondering if they too might step into roles like ours, and it’s important we show them that there are no perfect people. There are merely willing people who care deeply. We can show them how fun these jobs can be too. We can show them what it looks like to ask for feedback and to genuinely consider it. The “higher up” we go in leadership roles, the less honest people tend to be with us. Not because they don’t want to be honest but because it can be scary giving critical feedback to someone with authority “over us.” So, we must normalize feedback. We must normalize being imperfect people who do things imperfectly but who are listening and trying. Speaking of listening…
If you are an approachable leader, educators will show up to your door or open theirs to talk to you. That’s an amazing thing! Listen attentively to people. They have come to you for a reason and want you to know what is on their hearts and minds. Let them talk as much as they need to. It’s important. I am not going to lie, there are times I want to jump in and interrupt a teacher as they are talking because I get passionately excited about an idea or I want to give in-the-moment advice. However, I have found that if you listen a little longer, you will begin to hear a narrative that leads you to the heart of what the conversation is really about. What a person initially came to you for, really could turn out to be about something else. And a lot of the time, what appears to be a problem, naturally gets worked out as that person self-reflects and develops their own solutions. Be the active listener and the sounding board that person needs.
Recognize the Potential in Others
Recently, my superintendent (Lauren) shared an ASCD article with me titled Every Student is a Firecracker by Jen Schwanke; she tells a heartwarming story about how she didn’t have it easy growing up. She discovers that through the obstacle of poverty, it was her teachers who elevated her by providing the hope, dignity, support, and trust she needed to thrive. Those small gestures inspired her to become an educator. She shared these words, “Educators can help in ways that are quiet, careful, and gentle.” Obstacles can carve paths to new opportunities. There is a spark inside us all. Children and adults just need someone to ignite it…it just takes one person. Be the leader who lifts your colleagues up so they can bring out the best in their students.
Proximity Builds Trust
Schools and districts are rarely transformed from desks with closed doors. Every interaction is an opportunity to both learn from and be of service to someone else. The more we are around each other, the more we will trust each other. Being around each other also gives us more opportunities to truly appreciate the unique gifts and talents others bring to our schools. This is why it’s incredibly frustrating for teachers when they are evaluated on small 30 minute lessons. There is so much more that goes into teaching that cannot be captured in that amount of time. When we spend time supporting and encouraging teachers in classrooms every week, we get a much fuller picture of the impactful work they are doing with students on a daily basis. Not to mention, so many little conversations and little interactions are opportunities to problem solve and work through things together. Less email. More small conversations.
Will Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality, was able to turn 11 Madison Park into the #1 restaurant in the world. He did so not by making the most unique food in the world or creating the most fancy of restaurants. He did it by tapping into a human need we have that will hold true until the end of time. The need to be well-cared for. So much of excellent leadership is not revolutionary. However, in a world filled with busy and in a time of so many initiatives and high pressure, taking great care of others can feel revolutionary. In this new year, may we all reflect upon how we can do less of what doesn’t matter as much, so we can do more of what matters most. In doing so, the work gets better and so do we. – Meghan
Meghan is a lover of learning who believes in the goodness of people, Meghan works to cultivate necessary space that honors the humanity of all people. She promotes storytelling, the exchange of ideas, and risk-taking. She is passionate about disrupting the status quo and creating kinder, forward-thinking communities of action. Meghan is also intensely curious about how to enhance the customer experience in schools. Meghan began her career in the English Language Arts classroom. So, inevitably, her mantra is Words Matter. In her nineteen years in the field of education, she has worked in all levels of K-12 education as a teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and educational consultant.
Educators have been thrust into a world of infinite access to programs, tools, and information telling them what, how, and when to teach kids how to read, write, speak, listen, and think. I often find myself as a recipient of the question, “Lauren, you have been in education for a while… What program do you like? Do you believe in a balanced literacy approach to instruction? How can we embed the Science of Reading approaches into instruction successfully? Can we blend both approaches together? What philosophy has impacted learners the most? Here’s how I feel. I am fortunate to have worked in many places that have had different populations of students, employed different systems, and embraced different perspectives to teaching and learning. I have implemented a variety of programs, have analyzed a plethora of assessments, developed curriculum and approaches to instruction to create intentional, personalized learning experiences for learners. Here’s the thing, initiatives and programs will come and go, but it is the people who implement them who remain the constant. In the educational landscape we live in, it’s inevitable. How many of you have walked into classrooms and have found stacks of literacy and content materials that have accumulated over the course of time? Each book, resource, or learning tool you pick up in that stack is most likely a strong reminder of the leadership team of that time period, their vision, priorities, and perhaps even their mission to make their mark. Do you find that each time the pendulum swings in education, you are desperately holding on to the practices that have worked and were happy to let go of others? That is because there is not one program that works for all. Not one. If there was one way, one program, one approach that worked for all learners, we would all be using it. Great educators will take the best from different approaches to learn about students and then teach them.
Sit in the Driver’s Seat
That said, when educators step into the field of education, they will be introduced and “trained” in various approaches to instruction by their school districts. But we simply cannot rely on our school districts to solely build capacity within the educators they serve. Since there are different kids sitting in front of us every year, they are coming to us with different skills and needs. Therefore, it is an educator’s professional obligation to sit in the driver’s seat of their learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros and Katie Novak share, “If we do not see ourselves in the word “learners” within the realm of education, we will never be able to bring out the best in ourselves or others who are involved in this profession. Learning, at all levels, is paramount to the work we do in education.”
Every Learner Should Get What They Need and Deserve
I am not writing this blog post to get into a debate about which instructional approaches are better than the other. There is enough debate in the universe about that. I am writing because over the course of time, I have come to understand that students may not remember a single lesson their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the teachers who had found a way to leverage learning through an asset based lens in order to level up literacy experiences for all. The great educators I am talking about continuously keep kids at the heart of decision-making. They know that every learner who walks through the doors of a school building should get what they need and deserve. They know that every learner has different backgrounds, learning styles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. They look at the whole learner and will notice and name what they need to create a purposeful plan. When they recognize the plan is not working, they pivot in real-time as students work towards mastery. However, what is important to bring to light, is that educators simply cannot look at the whole learner without recognizing who they are as human beings first. In Katie Martin’s book Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm, she highlights this idea, “People are more confident, passionate, and motivated to do better work, when you focus on what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. Creating a learning community that empowers learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their assets, rather than dwell on their deficits, maximizes their motivation, contribution, and impact.”
Level Up Learning For All
As I continue to lead, teach, and embrace a comprehensive approach to learning, here are some ideas that focus on leveraging the human aspect of learning and level up literacy experiences for all:
4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and Level Up Literacy For All
Click HERE to access the infographic for discussion.
1. Lean into Learners:How will you invest time in getting to know and intentionally connect with your learners?
Idea 1: Learning Surveys and Community Questions – Learn about who your students are by asking them meaningful questions over the course of the year and utilize their interests/background to embed into instructional planning. HERE are George Couros’ 5 Questions. These open-ended questions have elevated learning experiences across all content areas and have ensured that my instructional approaches are rooted in students’ interests. I have had students, families, and colleagues answer these questions through Google Forms, Flip Video, and in print/digital writing spaces (i.e. notebook or Google Docs). Also, during a recent middle school department meeting I facilitated, I asked the teachers, “What book turned you into a reader?” in a Wakelet collaboration space. Answers were curated in text and picture format. The answers to this question ignited rich discussion about reading identities. HERE is an example. Students can easily participate in this activity. Not only will they continue to develop their reading identities, but they will start recommending books to each other. What better way to cultivate excitement around reading in a more personalized way?
2. Layer Stories into Learning:How can you intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
Idea 2: Storytelling – Weaving personal stories and capitalizing on the experiences of students makes learning more meaningful and exciting. HERE is a blog post titled Layering Stories into Learning and a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives:
Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
I was thinking about…
I remember when…
Let me tell you a story…
Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
This is making me think…
I’m realizing that…
Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
Your story is making me think…
Your story is making me wonder…
3. Launch and Leverage Choice – How can you empower students to develop agency and take ownership of their learning?
Idea 3: Utilize Choice Boards and Menus – In the Edutopia article, The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels, Stephan Merrill and Sarah Gonser share, “…by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions.” Providing choice can show students you value how they want to learn, develops agency, and empowers them to explore the learning process through multiple pathways. I have used Literacy Choice Boards and Menus for students to access previously taught skills in order to strengthen their understanding of them. They completed the activities independently, in partnerships, and/or small groups.
4. Lift Writing and Link Ideas– What practice can help you connect with learners and elevate writing across content areas?
Idea 4: Dialogue Journals: Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. Learn more about dialogue journals in more detail clicking on a previous blog post HERE.
Investing in the Emotional and Instructional Deposit Box
The pendulum in education will continue to swing and as long as we are living in that world, we will continue to watch and feel it. If we want to be mindful about keeping students at the epicenter of the important work we do, we can better identify what students need to grow as human beings and learners. In Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched, she says, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” The ideas shared above can offer opportunities to enhance connections, interactions, and literacy experiences across the disciplines. Educators will always be inundated with programs, district initiatives, and trends. But, if we want to make the most impact on student learning outcomes, creating learning experiences designed to understand the learner is an investment in the emotional and instructional deposit box and time well spent!
When I was a young learner I was told I wasn’t a strong reader. “Lauren is a nice girl, but struggles with comprehension” are words that would follow me into almost every grade level and were written on every report card I would see. In the book Choice Words, Peter Johnston shared, “The language that teachers (and their students) use in the classroom is a big deal.” Words can be heavy. Words can be impressionable. Words matter. And since I first heard them, those particular words shaped my perception of myself. Since those words were spoken, they have managed to stick to my head and heart. Looking back, I realize that reading was presented as a one size fits all experience. My memories of reading in grade school are opening a basal reader, turning to page 117 and reading the same story as my other classmates. After reading, I’d answer canned questions and then wait in line for my teacher to check the answers with a familiar double sided red and blue pen. I’d receive a blue check mark if the low level thinking questions were correct and a red X if I needed to go back to my seat and revise the answer that could be located right in the textbook. I don’t recall a strong consideration for my interests, my zone of proximal development, being asked questions to push my thinking, or being taught specific strategies that would strengthen my comprehension and build my confidence as a reader. I am not faulting my teachers, I truly believe that I am a reflection of the educational landscape and approaches from that particular time period.
From that moment on, I hated reading. There, I said it. In my young mind, I knew this was totally unacceptable since my Dad was an English teacher and my Mom a special educator and reading teacher. So, how could this be? Well, since I was told I wasn’t a great reader, I abandoned it all together. But, there was one exception, I would read the occasional teen magazine that I begged my Mom to purchase for me especially if Patrick Swayze or a member from The New Kids on the Block graced the covers. Yes, in the 80s that was motivation enough for me to read! It wasn’t until my 20s when I picked up the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer recommended by a convincing friend, that I rediscovered the magic of what it meant to be lost in a good book. During the time of me reading this series, those around me knew they would literally have to rip these books out of my hands if they wanted me to give them any sort of focus or attention.
Opportunity Lives in Obstacles
You see, opportunity lives inside our obstacles. What I have come to learn over a slow period of time is that it is not always the obstacles we face that are hard, but it is how we see the very obstacles we are living. Facing those obstacles can open new paths, eventually showing us where to go. I’m currently reading Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. In his book he shared, “What impedes us can empower us.” So, I ask you, How have you overcome obstacles when you were told you couldn’t do something well?
Let Your Own Story Captivate You
Sometimes, I will allow my own story to captivate me. And somehow I’ve realized that it has provided hope for myself and others. How could a child who “hated” reading embrace the roles of classroom teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, assistant principal, and now the director of literacy?
Throughout my career I have been tested with obstacles. Haven’t we all? After my 2nd year of teaching I sat in my principal’s office, the same place I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to have a classroom of my own, except now I was 9 months pregnant with my first child, “Lauren, you are an amazing teacher, but we aren’t going to have the budget for your position next year.” A few months later, I went back to work with a two month old baby at home and set up a whole classroom in a new building with one day’s notice. “Lauren, we want you to be in our school, but you will have to clean out a room that’s storing 50 boxes from a retired teacher and you only have today to do it.” When I realized I wanted to hone my craft and teach kids how to read, I jumped at an opportunity to take a leave replacement as a reading specialist in a district close to home. “Lauren, you are doing a great job, but you will have to wait a little longer for this position to become probationary.” A little later in my career I was told that my instructional coaching role would be dissolved so that the funds could be used towards a new program. “Lauren, you are a talented educator, but ……” I think you see where I am going.
While living the obstacles mentioned above, the feelings of disappointment and uninvited challenges were hard and at times, hurtful. Each of those experiences brought me back to the words “Lauren, is a nice girl, but struggles with comprehension.” However, it is now clear to me that adversity can turn into advantage when you let it. Ryan Holiday brilliantly states, “When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go-carving you a path.” Throughout my journey, I have turned obstacles into opportunities. Here are suggestions I have authentically embraced for turning obstacles into new paths:
5 Suggestions for Turning Obstacles Into New Paths
1. Create your own opportunities – Don’t wait for the right opportunities to find you, go find them. You can and you will. You are capable. Believe in yourself.
2. Don’t let others define your worth – There will be many times you will hear the words “no” or “but”. Have faith in yourself. Your gifts are meant to be shared at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. That“no” will eventually turn into “yes” and that “but” will turn into “and”.
3. Let disruptors in your path serve as lessons – There will be unexpected things that will happen as you try to reach your goals and ultimate destination. Learn from them and capitalize on those experiences to accelerate your growth.
4. Be the narrative you want to create – As Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You are in the driver’s seat of your story. Don’t let anyone else tell it, it’s yours to create and share.
5. Let go of people and things that no longer serve you – There are people who will come, go, and stay with you. Let go of those who no longer elevate you, but be grateful for the impact they once made on your path. Hold onto those memories; they are markers for the person you are becoming.
Adversity Turned Into Advantage
Just as every other obstacle became a new path, the year my instructional coaching role was eliminated was the year I went back into the classroom to serve as a reading specialist. During one of the hardest years in educational history, I took everything I learned from all of the roles I served in, closed my classroom door and figured out how to reimagine the magic of the workshop model in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously. During that time a mentor who saw my potential as an educator and writer asked me if I’d like to publish this work in an educational journal titled Designing Effective Distance and Blended Learning Environments K-12. This work led me to recently standing in front of a crowded room waiting to present at the #NCTE22 (The National Council of Teachers of English) national conference. While I was waiting to bring to life what I had learned with my students about Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model, the year I went back into the classroom, I thought about the obstacles that led me to that moment.
When I looked in the mirror that morning, I saw the little girl in front of me who was told she wasn’t a strong reader. She had made it to a place she and others perceived wasn’t possible. Setbacks are a part of the course of life. You can see obstacles as blockades or you can choose to push through them. The barriers that were once in the way can become a new path. “…obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and ultimately, to triumph. The obstacle is the way.” – Ryan Holiday
The heartbeat of education lives inside the walls of schools. Within those walls you can find stories of kids and teachers in the mess of learning. You will watch students, teachers, and staff buzzing about the halls and classrooms igniting discussion, cultivating curiosity, instilling joy, leading with empathetic hearts and smiling through it all. The epicenter of those learning spaces will captivate and inspire you to listen more intently. You will see new things and look through lenses you may have not considered before. You don’t have to search for the big things to see good things happen. The small things matter too.
I often reminisce about my days in the classroom. When I became an educator, I wanted to show my students what they were capable of. I wanted to help them find their voices. I wanted to provide a sense of hope that would continuously stir within. Inside my classroom walls, you could find stories and moments of impact that shaped the educator I am today. Those stories turned into sound bites, short episodes of lessons I’d later learn from. They were opportunities to personalize learning experiences and were a bridge that connected me to people. In those walls, I learned to embrace my own gifts so I could help my students find theirs.
A few weeks ago I stood by the fence over looking the football field at my hometown’s homecoming game. As I gazed onto the field, I thought about how just a couple of years ago, I was teaching in the middle school walls that were just a few feet away. Within those walls, I learned a lot of new things. But most of all, I learned patience, flexibility, and perseverance during a year of uncertainty. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by two familiar voices. “Mrs. Kaufman, Mrs. Kaufman, is that you?” one boy yelled trying to catch his breath. I quickly turned around. Although I was startled by the unexpected encounter, I could feel my face smiling big. “Oh my goodness, Ben and Sebastian, here you are. It’s so good to see you! How have you been?” I replied as I saw them both smiling back at me. The other boy looking taller than ever responded. “Mrs. Kaufman we were in your reading class in 7th-grade. What happened to you last year? We were looking for you in 8th-grade when we needed to see a smile.” In that moment, my heart melted. Was it a small thing like a smile all it took to leave a legacy in their hearts? That was the year I left to embark on my leadership journey in another school district. This special interaction made me think about a sentiment shared in the book Because of A Teacher, Volume II. In the book, George Couros said, “What is amazing about education as a profession is that what you do impacts people who later go out and impact people. In this sense, teachers will never get the recognition they deserve because their impact can be infinite.”
Now that I am a district administrator, the opportunities to have an infinite impact and influence on students can become more limited (if I let it). So I regularly ask myself, How can I find ways to continuously expand my impact and broaden my influence as an instructional leader? What helps me process this question is that I have come to understand that impact and influence lives in every level of an organization. It’s the people in systems that have the potential to do amazing things.
As I continue on my journey and evolve into the instructional leader I wish to become, I have committed to the following ideas to help expand my impact and broaden my influence within the walls of schools:
Be Human-Centered – Connections are cornerstones to our hearts. Recognize that educators are people first and learn what they care about outside the walls of education.
Lead with Empathy – Meet people where they are in conversations. Guide and support their journey by being less reactive and more responsive to their needs.
Provide Thoughtful Feedback – Use a coaching lens and ask questions that will lead people to finding their own answers to challenges. Then give feedback that will elevate their ideas “It sounds like you…” and “I am wondering if…” HERE are some coaching stems to help guide conversations.
Recognize the Gifts in Others – Listen to people attentively. You will discover their strengths and areas of expertise. Develop those gifts and capitalize on their knowledge to cross-pollinate ideas across an organization.
Keep Kids at the Heart of Decision-Making- When you keep the conversations focused on what is best for kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual growth, your impact and influence will touch the lives of many students even though you may not directly work with them.
So, if you are like me and are continuing on your leadership path, consider embracing the ideas above and opening the doors to schools and classrooms. You will find so much goodness living inside the walls. Although you do not have a classroom to call your own, you can still find ways to step into the mess of learning. When you miss the moments of impact you experienced with your own students, take a leap of faith and open a classroom door. Recently, I walked through one and was greeted by a teacher with the warmest, most genuine smile. “Look at that smile,” I said. The teacher replied “Well, it matches yours, Lauren.” Once again, I was reminded that the small things matter. You have influence, your impact is infinite and your smile and the hope you instill will live on.
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