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?
We live a collection of memories and experiences that have been accumulated over the course of time. Within every role we serve, we are afforded opportunities that invite us to think about the educators we were and who we want to be. Over time, we establish and develop relationships, garner a multitude of teaching and learning practices, take part in numerous conversations, and make an impact on countless families, colleagues, and students who were destined to know us. As we proceed with our lives, we 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. Or perhaps there will be people who enter your life for a short time; they serve as signposts who guide and create pathways that can lead to opportunities you have yet to know to exist. Every experience you will ever endure leads to the type of educator you wish to become.
My Last Year in the Classroom
I have been thinking quite often about last year, the year that would become my last in the classroom. I certainly didn’t realize I’d be back in the classroom during a pandemic and one of the most challenging years in educational history. After all, for 5 years before that, I was serving as an instructional coach, a position I loved and adored. With change resting on my shoulders and 14 years at the elementary level, I requested to make a move to the middle school where I would be teaching literacy to learners in grades 6-8. Taking on new challenges has always been a part of my growth and development as a human being, educator, learner, leader, and practitioner. It is one of the myriads of ways I stay on the cutting edge of best practice, grow my skill set, and elevate others. I thought about how exciting it would be to take all of the learning I had ever been gifted and share it in new spaces. Little did I know, I would be sharing and growing my learning in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously and it would be my last opportunity to make an impact in that very space.
Cultures of Learning Are Built on Connection
In what seemed like an instant, I learned that all of my knowledge about literacy, had no bearing or influence on my students unless I could create authentic ways to cultivate connection. They were not interested in my content expertise; they were interested in the person I was, the person I am, and the person I was still striving to be. They were interested in me getting to know who they were, who they are, and who they wanted to be. If you want to develop a culture of learning, communication, collaboration, and empowerment, you must show your students who you are and make an effort to invest in their hearts.
Small Moves Can Make Big Impact
I keep thinking about what my friend Meghan Lawson says, “Small moves can make a big impact.” On one of my last days in the classroom, I read my students Only One You by Linda Kranz. The book inspired me to use all I had learned about my students and write them a personal note of inspiration and gratitude. With that, I also left them a special rock with the one word I felt embodied who they are and who they will continue to be. I remember my student Steven picking up his rock “Happiness” and studying it carefully. “Mrs. Kaufman, do you really think I can bring happiness to people wherever I go?” I replied, “Steven, your happiness is contagious and will bring joy to whomever you meet. Your happiness will change the world.”
Impact Moves with You
And just like that, it’s less than a year later…I am now serving as an assistant principal with a new team of people I was destined to know. The last interaction I had with Steven was just one moment in the collection of small moves I employed that would later influence the school leader I am learning to become. I often reflect on the small moves I am choosing to make to connect with people. One of the best parts of my new role is visiting classrooms to spend time with students and teachers. Recently, a student named James delightfully approached me with a piece of writing he wanted to share. One sentiment he included was, “When you walk by, say hi to Mrs. Kaufman. Don’t you want to make her day? Mrs. Kaufman is wonderful because she makes sure everyone has a good day.” As I read James’ piece of writing, it brought me back to the exchange I had with Steven. It made me think about how Steven’s contagious happiness became a part of me. It seemed as though I was inadvertently bringing that same happiness to James. Perhaps I have been carrying many years of my students’ and colleagues’ positive attributes with me. At that moment, I asked myself…”How can we continuously recognize that a collection of small actions have the potential to make someone else’s day better?”
Who is the Educator You Wish to Become?
When you make an effort to continually build connections with people, it becomes an intrinsic act of gratitude. 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 experiences that can positively impact others. Your impact moves with you.
The first few months of school are suddenly behind us, but the collection of details from our loaded days are left in mind memory boxes that are waiting to be courageously unwrapped. Sometimes we wonder how time can just pass us by along with the magical moments that transpire in every minute of our days. I have seen educators approach those minutes in the day with courage, conviction, passion, perseverance, pride, and joy for what they were always destined to do. And now that we’ve settled in, the compilation of memories from our first few months is waiting for us to view them through questions of reflection when the timing is right. Sometimes, when we experience the moments in a day in real-time, it is difficult to see the depth of our impact. Sometimes we are not sure if what we are saying and doing matters. As educators, our jobs are to help people see the strength of their influence, the power of their presence, and the significance of the imprints they leave in the hearts and minds of the lives they touch.
Pause to Reflect
Educators do so much on a daily basis to meet the needs of all of their learners, that it could be challenging to absorb the meaningful moments that manifest over the course of a day. It would be easy to let them just pass you by. Pausing to reflect on the big and small wins can motivate us to share stories and build momentum in others. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak, Couros discusses the importance of looking back on your educational journey, “You’ll look back and see how you’ve changed and how your practice has improved. In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.” How can we create space and time for educators to pause and reflect on their daily interactions with the multitude of people, tasks, and experiences they encounter across the minutes of a day? It doesn’t have to be a formal interaction. Perhaps it’s a hallway conversation, a simple email exchange of ideas, a text, a lunch conversation… Could those reflections spark new and better ideas for the colleagues, students, and communities we serve?
Some questions I’ve been thinking about:
What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
How can we work to feel more comfortable with acknowledging what we don’t know to personally and professionally grow?
Harnessing the Minutes
George is right, the target IS always moving and we have to be intentional about the way we approach our reflections and practice as educators. My friend Meghan Lawson says that “small moves can have big impact.” I have been sharing this sentiment with colleagues because when we talk about teaching and learning, we don’t always have to make big shifts to see growth. Our students are the key drivers of our decision-making. They will tell us where we need to go and it’s usually the small moves that catapult them to success. Time moves fast, don’t wait too long to harness the idea of reflection and embrace the meaningful minutes in your days as an investment in yourselves, your colleagues, and the greatest gifts, your learners. What you do matters.
The start of a school year is a time for new beginnings, cultivating connections, navigating various systems, understanding policies and procedures, digesting new curricula, and applying new learning we encounter in the ever changing educational landscape we live in. Sometimes we become so consumed with taking in so much newness and information that the experience itself can cause barriers to pathways of innovation and creation.
There are moments when we become so overwhelmed with the feeling of consumption that our brains are working in overtime to process multiple ideas simultaneously. So what could be getting in the way of our ability to shift from consumption to creation? According to Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, authors of Learning How To Learn: A Guide For Kids and Teens, there are times our brains need to lose concentration to think more clearly and problem solve. During those moments when we are less focused on learning, our ability to apply something new increases.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there are two different modes our brains require that are important to the learning process: focus mode and diffuse mode.
Oakley and Dejnowski define the modes in their book:
Focus Mode: “When you’re in focus mode, it means that you’re paying attention. For example, you might be trying to figure out a math problem. Or you might be looking at or listening to your teacher… when you’re focusing you’re putting specific parts of the brain to work.”
Diffuse Mode: “Diffuse mode is when your mind is relaxed and free. You’re thinking about nothing in particular. You’re in diffuse mode when you’re daydreaming or doodling just for fun. If your teacher tells you to concentrate, you may have slipped into diffuse mode.”
When we are in the process of learning something new, we focus and ignite those parts of the brain that initiate the learning process. In diffuse mode, there is an invisible potential to the endless possibilities that lead to making connections that forge your ability to imagine and create.
How can we create conditions for educators and students to shift between focus and diffuse modes to ensure they can apply learning in meaningful ways?
Preserve time to reflect on roadblocks to creation with colleagues/peers.
According to Adam Grant, author of Think Again, it is important to possess the qualities of confident humility. Acknowledge your struggles, know what you don’t know, and share your learning and questions with others. Provide opportunities to have protected, intentional collaborative time to discuss potential roadblocks to internalizing and applying new learning. Talk with colleagues or peers about what is causing your brain congestion. Thinking out loud with partners who may value different perspectives can provide new insights that help connect the dots to previous and new learning. Additionally, you may choose to use this time to shift from learner to teacher. Try teaching your new learning to your colleagues/peers in an effort to make your learning stick.
2. Engage in activities that support fluid movement between focus and diffuse modes.
Be mindful about stepping away from routines that put you into a constant state of consuming new information. Engaging in some mindless activities can help you weave together new learning that can ultimately lead to pathways of creation. Turning up the volume on your music as you drive, taking a walk, drawing, painting, and/or watching your favorite movie or television show can breathe life into new ideas. There is another important activity to embrace: getting a good night’s sleep! This is when your brain gets an upgrade and you unintentionally rehearse what you’ve learned. When you are learning something new and have revisited the concepts several times, sleep on it! Then, attempt pulling those new ideas out of your mind the next day. It gets easier to recall and apply that new information each time.
3. Pause to observe the details in the world around you.
Actively observing and noticing the details in the world around you can help you make connections that spark new ideas. Watching people, nature, and interactions can help you build neural structures for learning and application. You may consider putting yourself into a completely different environment than your norm as this can disrupt your thinking and help you develop new and better ideas. As you’re reflecting on your observations, invite curiosity and ask yourself questions about what you see. What environments inspired you to connect the puzzle pieces of new learning to visualize and apply new and beautiful understandings to the real world?
When you feel like your learning is in overdrive and you are looking for ways to bypass the traffic, make an effort to move from focus to diffuse mode by pausing and reaching out to a thinking partner, turning on your music, and appreciating the details in the world around you. Eventually, signposts in the roads will appear, offering a new direction to creation, development, and growth.
Collaboration is a powerful action; it breathes new life into percolating plans and nurtures seeds of inspiration. It is the gatekeeper that weaves together concepts and manifests hopes and dreams. It’s a magnetic force that pulls people together, creates unexpected synergy, and ignites dialogue, growth, and change. How can we capitalize on the strength of collaboration to be the driving force that permeates the evolution of our professional and personal development?
Who Has Shown You The Way?
There have been many leaders who have shown us the way. They have modeled what it means to be a communicator, collaborator, connector, and creator. They have shown the value in bringing others into conversations that have the potential to create meaningful change. They have organically used the words “we” not “I”; it’s in the fabric of their being. They have taken others under their wing and elevated the room’s contributions. They embrace the ideas of others and give the right people the recognition when they show up to the table. They are more “collaborative and less competitive” (Stephanie Rothstein). They understand the idea that we are better together. Collaborators give us wings to fly and feel deep pride to watch us soar. They feel a great sense of gratitude to watch others cultivate collective success. They are not jealous, they are proud. Have you ever taken a moment to think about people in your life that have encouraged you to collaborate and have unleashed the creator in you? I have and that’s why I’d like to share some strategies for collaboration that have made me better.
6 Ideas For Collaboration
Connect with Colleagues: Think about reaching out to someone you have known or someone new. You never know where your next ideas can flourish. I have admired many people from afar who have suddenly become regular thinking partners and collaborators in my daily life. Don’t forget to capitalize on the room you’re in. Every person who is in that room knows something you don’t know! Also, do not be afraid to share YOUR knowledge and ideas. In the book Because Of A Teacher, Meghan Lawson shared a profound Peter Block quote, “How do you change the world? One room at a time. Which room? The one you’re in.”
Lean into Resources: Read an article, book, and/or listen to a podcast and have a conversation about it. You never know what ideas can emerge from that discussion. It is the most informal, yet meaningful way to experience professional learning in the most organic way. In the recent Edutopia article Taking Control of Your Professional Growth, Stephanie Rothstein and I share a number of ways to bring professional learning to you! These ideas may generate some relevant opportunities for collaboration AND creation.
Co-author a Writing Piece or Present with a Colleague: What better way to share your learning than to collaborate on a writing piece that highlights your thinking, philosophies, and instructional practices. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Lainie Rowell on the Edutopia article Revisiting and Rethinking Our Priorities. Through this collaboration, Lainie taught me how to merge our ideas in very succinct and purposeful ways. She also served as an accountability partner through the process. She pushed my thinking and made me a better writer. I love presenting my learning at conferences with dynamic colleagues. This is an opportunity to share and spread our learning and growth to other educational communities. I have had the pleasure of collaborating on multiple presentations with Natasha Nurse and Christine LaMarca, two outstanding educators.
Frame the Conversation: Use your personal and professional goals to frame a collaborative conversation. This strategy will be supportive in streamlining your thinking and creation process. You will know your why, what you want to accomplish, and develop an actionable plan about how to get there. Select passionate and productive thinking partners that will foster your exponential growth. Lorie Beard, educator and middle school principal has been an unwavering thinking partner in my life. We have always framed our professional conversations with purpose and discuss actionable steps for implementation. Our ongoing dialogue has inspired me to take risks and be a better version of myself.
Disrupt your Thinking: There are times when you will want to bring other people and new perspectives into your collaboration. Those disruptions will push you to see a project in a better and different way. Although this change may alter your course of action, you and your collaborators will be better for it!
Vary Your Communication: I think we have learned that there are multiple ways to communicate. Use technology to your advantage! Through phone conversations, texting, video conferencing, and working on shared Google documents, the possibilities for collaboration are endless! Sean Gallaird and Lainie Rowell recently facilitated the summer Voxer chat series #CampFireConvosEdu where participants were given open-ended topics to discuss and respond to asynchronously. This self-paced style of collaboration was a low stakes way of sharing knowledge and practices that could be implemented in classrooms tomorrow in fulfilling and worthwhile ways!
Collaboration is a Conduit to Creation
Collaboration is a conduit to creation. It’s an opportunity to go through an imperfect process that unlocks the hidden potential in others. It’s a time to discover passions and interests that you never knew existed. It’s a place to be a part of critical moments that become new beautiful stories in your journey. In a recent #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast, Sean Gallaird eloquently says “Don’t let fear become a barrier to a collaboration that may yield something good and meaningful…we are better when we pool our strengths and gifts together in service of our students and families.” You never know where your next ideas can flourish. Reach out to someone and share your thoughts, it may lead you down paths of unexpected opportunities!
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