4 Interconnected Ideas to Consider When Planning For a New School Year

In New York, educators and students are halfway through the summer. You may have needed this space and time to reconnect with what you value, recharge to nourish the spirit and joy for what you do, and reflect on the past to plan for a better future. Educators are aware that there will never be enough time to meet the demands and all that is required in our daily personal and professional lives. In fact, I have never met an educator who didn’t appreciate how precious time is and work towards using it to deliver above and beyond the norm.

Leaning into Time

Leaning into time allows you to manifest the right personal energy that is a key ingredient to feeling connected to your work. Energy is contagious and your engagement in your work is a choice. As you continue to breathe and think about how to approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, you will also continue to keep your most precious stakeholders at the forefront of your planning. Make no mistake about it, the curriculum will always be there, but how can you give your learners access to it without putting THEM first?

A New School Year Breathes Life

To me, a new school year breathes life into awakening opportunities to let your learners guide your planning. In George Couros’ latest blogpost, 4 Things to Consider When Moving Into a New Position, he shares, “The beautiful thing about new beginnings is that you not only get a fresh start but so does everyone around you with whom you interact.” That said, I am going to share some ideas to think about as you embark on a new season of being the legacy-building, great leader and educator who has the ability to open hearts and minds while giving new meaning to what it means to be a compassionate, empathetic citizen and learner. My hope is that these ideas will encourage leaders and teachers to ask the following questions that were inspired by George Couros:

Would I want to be an administrator or teacher in the building/district I serve? 

Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?

4 Interconnected Ideas to Consider When Planning For a New School Year

CLICK HERE to print the infographic for discussion.

1 . Connection is a Learning Tool

When we become more worried about data than the students who are represented by that data, we have lost our way. Before assessing my students and their learning in any capacity, I have always considered getting to know them as human beings first. You will be creating a variety of learning experiences for students over the course of the year so why not get their input as to what inspires and motivates them as people? Capitalize on their strengths and show them that their voice matters. When I was in the classroom, these 5 questions created by George Couros helped me develop learner profiles that gave me insight beyond what any other data could provide for me. The answers to these questions will glean vital information about your learners and support you in crafting learning activities with your students’ interests in mind. Revisit these questions to empower students to own their learning. They can answer them a few times over the course of the year so you can see their evolution as human beings and learners. By embedding their thinking into questions you may ask them in the future, will help foster meaningful relationships and establish trust. For school leaders, you may consider flipping these questions to ask your faculty and staff. For example, What are the qualities you look for in a leader?

George Couros 5 Questions

2. Recognize Your Core Values 

During my recent administrative retreat with my school district, Laura Campbell, John Maxwell certified leadership and life coach, invited our administrative team to explore and identify our top 5 core values. Susan M. Heathfield’s definition of core values is, “Core values are traits or qualities that are not just worthwhile, they represent an individual’s or an organization’s highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and core, fundamental driving forces. They are the heart of what your organization and its employees stand for in the world.” By connecting to yourself, you will be able to connect better to everyone else you serve. The relationship we have with ourselves is a mirror. When you see who you are and know what you value, you can better serve and understand others. Why is this important in education? Knowing the people who surround you, can help you understand how to respond to their strengths and can provide you with essential tools to support their needs. Let’s be clear, if you are working in an educational organization, consider yourself a leader for kids and colleagues. You will always be making shifts in your leadership. Having a plan and knowing what you and others bring to the table will help others do great things. CLICK HERE to find an activity that can help you, your colleagues, and students identify their core values. CLICK HERE to find a list of core values to choose from when engaging in the activity.

3. Instill Hope and Joy

I don’t remember a specific lesson a teacher taught me. What I remember is the joy, the fun, the hope a teacher instilled in my heart…this Edutopia tweet caught my attention:

How can we bring hope and joy into our schools and classrooms? This could be a relevant activity to invite your students and staff to engage in in order to gain a deeper understanding of what others perceive the purpose of school to be. Additionally, to me, bringing hope and joy into our spaces begins and ends with the feeling of gratitude. In the Edutopia article, 3 Gratitude Practices That Don’t Involve Journaling by Lainie Rowell, she shares gratitude practices you can implement in your classroom spaces tomorrow. These practices include a gratitude wall that helps to appreciate the good in others, expressing positive affirmations to see the good in ourselves, and a Notice-think-feel-do activity that helps us to cultivate gratitude as a habit.
You might ask, what do these gratitude activities have to do with hope and joy? My answer is that when we live grateful lives, we can embody hope and feel the joys life has to offer. Hope gives us and our students the direction, faith, and guidance to acknowledge where we are, where we are going, and how we will get there.

4. Reimagine Learning Spaces

I get the best ideas for writing while driving in the car. I generate and nurture those ideas while laying on the couch. Then, I start my writing at the dining room table and after that, I move back to the couch. Sometimes I will take my laptop outside when I have writer’s block to try and develop some new ideas. What does this tell you about the way I think and learn best? Now, let’s step into the shoes of our learners and ask yourselves the following:

Where do learners get their best ideas? 

Where can they grow and nurture them? 

How can you explore opportunities that allow your colleagues and students to create deeper connections to their learning environments?

During the administrative retreat I mentioned above, the inspiring and engaging Jolene Levin, CEO at NorvaNivel, leading designer, manufacturer, and supplier of collaborative learning environments empowered our team to think about whether we are setting up our learning spaces to merely just accommodate instead of engaging our learners. Think about it, years ago, you may have walked into a classroom to observe and work on desks arranged in traditional rows with uncomfortable chairs pushed underneath. Especially at the elementary level, learners were and still might be expected to sit and learn in that space for extended periods of time whether they were/are comfortable or not. Now there are many other options for learning spaces that can support students in having positive social, emotional, and academic learning outcomes. I also understand that there are organizations that may not have the resources to acquire the materials needed for more creative and flexible learning spaces. But, it can start with a conversation about its benefits. As Jolene shared, “A facility’s intellectual and physical quality lets every stakeholder know they are worthy.”

How do you plan to organize your learning spaces for your students?

We were encouraged to use an Empathy Mapping activity to put ourselves in the hearts and minds of our learners. Definition: An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making. CLICK HERE to learn more about Empathy Mapping. When engaging in this activity and conversation, think about the following questions:

What are the user’s goals? What do they all need to do? What jobs do they need to get done? How will they know they are successful?

CLICK HERE to access an Edutopia article titled, The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environments to learn more about modern school design and its impact on student learning.

Moving Forward

As you begin to think about how you will approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, remember, the curriculum will ALWAYS be there. When you keep your students, the most precious stakeholders at the heart of your decision-making, your impact and influence can expand beyond the school season you live in. Putting students first is time well spent. Lean into that time and manifest the energy needed to stay connected and engaged in the work. It’s worth it.

Looking Back to Move Forward: 6 Pieces of Advice I Give Myself and Share with Others

This will be my 17th year in education. When I take a mental journey back in time from my first to most current years, I can vividly recall a collection of monumental moments that have paved the way to the various destinations I’d learn, live, and grow in. When I close my eyes, I can see the people who planted courageous seeds of hope on my path to self and professional discovery. These signposts guided me to serve in the roles of teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school reading specialist, instructional coach, assistant principal, and now, director of literacy K-12.

The Roles We Serve in Are More Than Stepping Stones

Some may perceive each role you serve in over the course of your career as a stepping stone to get to the next. I don’t. The roles we serve in are more than stepping stones; they are mirrors that reflect your evolution of the practitioner you have become and are continuously striving to be. The learning and development you have experienced over time has strengthened and sharpened your empathetic and instructional lenses, allowing you to better serve others. 

Looking Back to Move Forward

Recently, as I was packing up my personal items from my assistant principal office and preparing for my new role as the Director of Literacy, my mind was reliving the advice I’d give my first year teacher self. In the book, Because of a Teacher Volume II (BOAT), by George Couros, he shared that, “Looking back is the key to moving forward.” I agree, looking back is an opportunity to approach every endeavor with the strength and courage you will need to embrace a new journey. You can relive your collection of experiences and embrace them as more than stepping stones; they are bridges that have been built to lead you to the new beginnings awaiting on the horizon. 

As you prepare for a new school year, have you thought about the advice you would give yourself to continuously pave pathways of hope and promise to a long meaningful career?

I’d like to share some of the advice I’ve not only given myself and others, but was beautifully captured and memorialized in Because of A Teacher, Volume II by George Couros and a team of dedicated educators. This advice has helped me stay grounded, honor the past, and plan for the future:

1. Leverage Your Gifts

In BOAT II Couros adds, “The best way to help others find their gifts is by embracing your own.” 

From novice to veteran educator, we all have gifts to share with colleagues and students. As you continue to breathe and reflect on your well-served break, celebrate the gifts you have brought to your students and colleagues. Create some space to think about how your gifts have transformed practices and impacted learners as the educational landscape continues to change. Recognize where your colleagues and students are in their learning spaces and how the work you’ve accomplished over time has transformed and elevated their practices because of the gifts you’ve shared. There are times we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our own work when we are trying to elevate others. DO THAT! When you acknowledge the great work you have done, you will even be better at amplifying the talents of others!

2. Empower Colleagues and Kids

In BOAT 2 Couros adds  “Help kids to find their voices, not to replicate yours.”

When I look back in time, I recognize that there were times that I may have been encouraging colleagues and students to solely listen to MY voice and perspectives and expected them to emulate it. YES, empower yourself to share your perspectives, but also encourage and empower others to use their own voices and own their learning. Listening to those voices may confirm your own ideas and/or shift your thinking. You will not always agree. THAT’S OKAY! Overtime, I realized that I could create less work for myself by opening opportunities to actively listen and trust my colleagues and learners to use their voices to implement new ideas to strengthen the spaces they are in. By doing this, I took the pressure off myself and modeled the power of using the room to collectively plan, create, and innovate!

3. Everyone is a Leader

In BOAT II, Latonya Goffney shares, “Leadership matters at all levels. It takes all of us working together to deliver on our promise to students. You do not need to have the title of principal or superintendent to be a leader. Every teacher is a leader of students. When you see something that isn’t right, do something about it.”

This deeply resonates. I grew up with two parents who were educators. They worked tirelessly to model how we all have the ability to lead from any seat to do what’s best for people regardless of the role you serve in. I can still hear my Dad clearly say, “Lauren, we salute the person, not the title.” Our colleagues and kids are watching. Be the person who advocates for them and gives them what they need and deserve. Be the person that lets people lead at all levels to optimize student growth. Be the person who lets others stand in their element and lets them shine!

4. Embrace Humanness

In BOAT 2, Couros brilliantly states, “Students want to connect with people who are teachers, not teachers who happen to be people.”

The best teachers aren’t just teaching their content or pushing people to consume knowledge, they are teaching people how to learn and navigate life. Model the humanness you expect to see. Being human makes the world a better place. Being vulnerable, making mistakes and owning them can make a person more approachable and endearing. Being a human can empower learners to make mistakes, identify problems, and work collectively to seek out solutions. Goethe said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” YOU have the power to bring out the best in people. Let them see your core and embrace your humanness.

5. You Mirror the People You Surround Yourself With

In BOAT 2, Mike Kleba said, “Surround yourself with people who cheer you on and make you better. The people you surround yourself with, in and out of school, can either be a fountain or a drain, so consider which one you are to others.”

In the last several years, I have reflected on all of the people who have been a part of my journey. I have noticed that the people who remain a constant in my life are the ones who make me feel good about myself as a professional and human being. Why is that? They recognize my successes, my strengths, give me honest and genuine feedback, and cheer me on. They show gratitude for our relationship through different avenues of communication. They have stood by my side regardless of the role I have served in and are people who continuously push my thinking. Those are the people I want to be around. And when I need it most, I look in the mirror and feel a sense of calm when I can visualize them looking back at me. Surround yourself with people who make your light brighter and your smiles bigger!

6. You Add Value to Education: Build Your Network

In BOAT 2, Dr. Latonya Goffney shared, “Multiply your network because I believe strongly in networking and the power of individuals to sharpen one another- the way iron sharpens iron.” 

In the book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros says, “Being in spaces where people actively share ideas makes us smarter.” Social media and networking beyond the walls of your organizations can provide a space to connect with other educators who can share our mindsets, but also push our thinking to create new and better ideas. It is in these spaces where we can get inspiration from other educators and organizations outside of education to try something we haven’t thought of before. Creating a culture of learning and innovation happens when meaningful connections are made beyond the walls of the organizations we live in. It is within these spaces that new possibilities are discovered to benefit learners who have the potential to make change today and in the future!

Moving Forward

Education is a journey. If you’re not reflecting on the past to shift your practices for the future, you may be limiting your impact. Whether you remain in your current role or you are serving in a new one, these core ideas can be a framework that guides and supports you to dig deeper and find the courage to embrace the journey ahead and enhance your outlook on education. When you look back to move forward you will see that all of your time in education has been more than a stepping stone, it was time well spent developing the educator you were, are, and continue to be.

Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

Recently, I was asked, “what did you like about being an Instructional Coach?” It took seconds for the words to roll right off of my heart…. “When you are deeply passionate about education, the students, colleagues, and community you serve, coaching is the most meaningful opportunity to make an impact on instructional practices at the district, building, teacher, and student levels. Coaching is an opportunity to show schools they are capable of changing practices while honoring the ones that work for our students. Coaching creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future.”

If we are in education for the right reasons, we are continuously keeping students at the heart of decision-making and are working tirelessly to bring the mission and vision of our organizations to fruition. There are many professional learning opportunities that come our way as we embark on our educational careers. Some are more memorable than others, some you can live with, some you can live without, some you will forget, some you can implement in your classrooms tomorrow and stay with you for the rest of your career. Nevertheless, job-embedded professional learning is an opportunity to have dedicated professionals and thought partners, who are endlessly committed to your communities and can harness the talents of the educators in the systems in which you live. Investing in coaching is a form of professional learning capable of bringing out the best in people. It’s the opportunity to unwrap the strengths of others, lead with empathy, build human and social capital, and cultivate emotionally resilient educators. So, I ask: How can you use a coaching mindset to create the conditions for educators to recognize and develop their talents?

Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

Over time, I have developed a coaching mindset that is rooted in my experiences that guide this work. Investing in a coaching mindset can create the conditions to shift instructional practice, improve student outcomes, and encourage collaborative, reflective practice. A coaching mindset opens doors to deeper learning, paves the way for consistent application, and values cyclical, timely feedback. A coaching mindset is an invitation to grow, support, and distribute leadership across an organization while keeping the focus on teaching and learning.

My Instructional Coaching Mindset:

  1. We Are All Connected at the Core: All of the people in your organizations are connected. We are all pieces of a puzzle that connect to bring a bigger picture to fruition. Everything we say and do has the potential to influence the present and the future. As a collective unit, there is never one person to blame. Therefore, it is a shared responsibility in working toward meeting your goals.
  2. Meet People Where They Are: Lead the work with an empathy lens. Take the time to actively listen, understand, and value why people are where they are. This provides an opportunity to create targeted goals and shape the work in which you lead. Everyone starts somewhere, but they don’t have to stay there! Refrain from judgment and help that person move forward in their practice with integrity, compassion, and grace.
  3. Trust is the Foundation: Your colleagues will not open up to you about their challenges and belief systems until trust is established. They have to know that you are keeping students and their interests at the center of the conversations. This will take time. Follow through on your words through action, be supportive in your responses, and keep concerns and struggles sacred.
  4. Use Words Wisely: Words have the potential to create the worlds in which you are living in. Be mindful of your word choice when responding to the strengths, hopes, and needs of the people you are supporting. Your vision can only be fulfilled if you lead with intention and speak with purpose.
  5. Be Present and Patient: It is easy to be concerned and frustrated when you aren’t seeing the goals you are working toward happen fast enough. Repeat after me: Meaningful change and growth takes time. AGAIN…MEANINGFUL CHANGE AND GROWTH TAKES TIME! When you work with people and kids in education, time is undefined. It’s the process that matters. It’s the work you are putting into rowing towards your destination. Be present, keep focused on the goals, let go of impatience, and the results will come!
  6. Let the Journey Guide You: When embarking on the coaching journey, understand that there will be unexpected turns along the way. To continue on the journey of transformation, lean into those unexpected turns with kindness, compassion, and curiosity. Be responsive, not reactive and embrace the learning process.

Moving Forward

No matter what your role is in education, how can you use a coaching mindset to bring out the best in those you serve AND how can you become aware of your own mindset before you help others define theirs? Everyone is capable of enhancing their practices. Are you ready to invest in an instructional coaching mindset that creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future of education?

6 Actions Great Leaders Do

My leadership journey has paved pathways that have pointed me to new directions and places I never knew existed. With the help of the universe, the turns I have chosen to take have brought me the clarity I’ve needed to stand in my beliefs, have grounded my purpose, and have fulfilled my vision of what it means to be the great leader I am striving to be.

Choices

In the midst of my journey, I have made conscious choices about the actions I have chosen to take. These actions ultimately have the potential to unlock greatness and shape the belief systems of the people I am fortunate to serve. Do you ever ask yourself if how and what you’re doing will make a positive contribution to the community of educators and people you serve? How will those actions cultivate the leader you are continuously striving to be?

6 ACTIONS GREAT LEADERS DO

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THEY:

Level the Playing Field

Great leaders aren’t the ones who know it all. They are the people who recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity within. They see the potential in those they serve and know there is no limit to adding value to their team. They are not jealous, competitive, or divisive; rather, they are confident, collaborative, and inclusive. Great leaders have the vision to see what is possible even when things feel impossible. They are able to identify problems and work towards solutions WITH a team. They don’t see titles, they see people. Great leaders know no hierarchy. They don’t see talent as competition. They see it as an opportunity to help them become better. Great leaders are servant leaders, not ME leaders.

What actions have you taken to recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity from within?

View Perspectives

Include others in decision-making and conversations. Give them a seat at the table. Be a sounding board, a thinking partner, a coach. Refrain from making decisions that directly impact people and kids without actively listening to their viewpoints and ideas. It can be dangerous and offensive to make decisions solely based on a single thought or idea through a one minded lens. LISTEN to the people enduring various experiences on the frontlines. They are living things you cannot see, can be your ears to the ground, help you identify root causes, and develop the most practical, reasonable solutions. Perspective taking helps you read the room and make collective decisions. Your team will help you implement and communicate future plans when they feel like they played a vital role in creating them.

How have you included the perspectives of others when developing and implementing ideas that support the mission and vision of your building and/or District?

Embrace Empowerment

Be the leader who empowers others to see their gifts and utilizes them as a strength to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of colleagues and students. Give those individuals the courage to share their talents with the greater educational community. Celebrate risk-taking, failure, and innovative practices that can be courageously unwrapped in classrooms, buildings, and school districts. Help people ride the waves of change by catching a wave with them and sharing how that experience unfolded. Transformation is possible when we lead with empathy, encourage others to be mindful and intentional with their actions and work to ensure that students and adults in learning spaces are elevated, celebrated, and pushed to discover and reach their personal and professional goals.

When have you empowered colleagues and students to discover their gifts and utilize them to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of others?

Shine the Light 

Great leaders don’t need the recognition or credit for the impact they are making in a system. They find it more rewarding to elevate the work of others. They inherently want others to do better because it makes everyone around them better. In George Couros’ latest blog post, he shares, “But as I grew in my work, I realized that the best leaders find success in lifting others. When you lift others in a leadership role, the reality is that you do better because those around you do better.” Other people should not serve as obstacles on your journey because they are doing amazing things. Be advocates for those people and help them shine. Their light will illuminate other ideas, bringing them to the surface to benefit our most precious stakeholders, our students!

How have you shined the light on others to elevate them and help them flourish and grow?

Pave the Way

One of the most important jobs of a leader is to hire the right people, and then mentor, guide, and help them spread their wings so they can fly. In the book She Leads: The Women’s Guide to a Career in Educational Leadership by Dr. Rachael George and Majalise Tolan, they share “Never underestimate or devalue your path to the leadership position you desire.” Great leaders will help you identify your goals, embrace the journey, and bridge knowledge gaps. Look around you, there are many educators and leaders who can serve as resources to help you grow. Another idea Couros shares is, “At some point, even encourage them to move on and lift others and do the same things. Ambition in leadership is not bad as long as that ambition leads to others being better because of you.” These actions can help great leaders witness the learning, commitment, growth, and fearlessness of others as they help pave the way to greatness.

What are some examples of how you have paved the way for others to identify and pursue their personal and professional leadership goals?

Invest the Time

“So how is it in your new role, Lauren?” is a question I am often asked as a new assistant principal. I appreciate how others find the time in their busy days to check-up on me, but I also recognize that we create space and time for people and things that matter to us. The truth is, I love what I do. The universe placed me just where I needed to be with having mentors around me to help me persevere through any hurdles I’ve faced. I am appreciating the leaders around me at all levels in my organization who care deeply about kids, people, community, transformational leadership, and learning. They are vision builders who embrace a systems thinking philosophy and leverage the impact we can have on one another to facilitate growth in the broader educational and social systems in which we live. Our mission and vision is clear; we live it in our everyday conversations, district priorities, and practices we suggest and employ in our classroom and building environments. They make it a priority to invest time in their leadership team by providing professional learning experiences that will help move their own practices forward to amplify the voices and practices of others.

So, I ask you…

What can you do to harness the talents of others to develop the next generation of leaders?

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation and Transform Practice

Reflecting on Observations

This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.

Shifting the Observation Narrative

I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?

I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:

Grounding the Work

An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.

Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice

CLICK HERE to print out the card for discussion

  1. Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
  2. Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
  3. Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
  4. Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
  5. Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
  6. Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation, I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
  7. Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
  8. Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.

Moving Forward

So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.

Great Leaders Give You Wings

“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. 

What Resonated?

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:

They…

  1. Optimize, not criticize
  2. Give recognition
  3. Show sincere appreciation
  4. Value other perspectives
  5. Show humility, vulnerability, and talk about their own mistakes
  6. Ask questions and make suggestions
  7. Celebrate big and small wins
  8. 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?

Mentorship: How Can We Invest in Teachers to Shape Our Future?

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?

  1. Cultivate authentic and caring relationships with everyone around you.
  2. Listen to understand and provide support with advice meant to change lives.
  3. 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

     

Click HERE to print question card for discussion

It was a pleasure to collaborate on this blog post with Dr. Rob Wottawa!

Click HERE to learn more about Dr. Rob Wottawa

4 Ways Leaders Can Create Cultures of Learning Ecosystems

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 wewe 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. 

Ideas:

  • 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.

Ideas:

  • 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. 

Ideas:

  • 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. 

Ideas:

  • 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?

Click HERE to print cards for discussion

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?

Harnessing the Minutes

Minutes are Meaningful

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:

  1. What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
  2. How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
  3. When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
  4. Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
  5. 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.