Have you ever arrived to the end of a day and wondered what happened to the moments in between? Education is a busy space filled with interactions and frames of time that bridge ideas and fill your perceptions with the way you can approach action. As new ideas and challenges arise, the minutes in your calendar fill up rapidly. As you navigate your days, finding peace and contentment with how your time is spent can seem like a challenge. Watching the empty spaces of time on your calendar disappear can push you to prioritize the space in the minutes in between to connect with others, reflect, create, implement, and refine ideas.
Landing Your Feet on the Ground
You most likely have never had a week that wasn’t filled with important things. That is because the work you do for kids is so important. You may find it to be a constant struggle to plant your feet firmly on the ground. That is because in education your feet never stay in one place. There are also going to be those days when you get pushed off balance. It will be clear to you how you intended to allot your time, transformed into something else that is out of your control. Does this sentiment sound familiar? What I am continuously learning is that every day can bring a fresh start to solidly land your feet on the ground again. You can approach the gift of time on a new day with renewed confidence and choose the way you spend your minutes despite the uncertainty some days may bring.
Making the Time
For example, this week I had a lot of meetings in different places across my district. That meant that I needed to travel from one building to another frequently. I realized that I didn’t leave ample travel time on more than a few occasions. That also meant that towards the end of those particular meetings, I found myself trying to stay more in the moment because I had already started thinking about getting to the next one. Then, when I arrived at my new destination, I had little time to settle in, recalibrate, and collect my thoughts. During one of the meetings, I received a text from a teacher who knew I was in her building. “Lauren, I’d love you to come by my classroom to see something my students did if you have time.” I immediately looked at my watch and seconds later identified that I had three minutes to get to this classroom before traveling to my next meeting. The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get there because seeing teachers and students is the most important part of the way I spend my time. When my meeting concluded, I basically ran to this teacher’s classroom. “Look Lauren, I wanted to show you that the whole grade level participated in the “One Word” activity for the New Year. We explained to them that this is a word they will focus on as they work towards meeting their social, emotional, and academic learning goals. Remember when you shared this with us last year? We’ve hung them all in the hallway and the students are always keeping their One Word at home.” My goodness. Of course I had remembered sharing this activity the year before, but never thought about the strength of its influence. Those three unexpected minutes suddenly turned into the most important part of my day. In making space for those minutes, a teacher shared that an instructional practice I shared had become a grade-level tradition and more importantly, left a positive impact on kids.
Three Ideas to Make Space for Time
There will always be a lot on the “to do” list. You know what I am talking about! This made me pause and think about three ways I will continue to schedule my time. I will look for ways to:
Prioritize People – If you are working towards continuous improvement in the work you are doing, keeping the focus on developing relationships, listening to people, and cross pollinating ideas is the best investment in time. In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he shares, “It is easy to lock yourself in your office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing…if you have lost focus on and connection with people in your building, even if you offer new ideas, they might not be embraced by those you lead.” It is vital to be visible and spend time learning from the teachers and students who are in the classrooms to create a better tomorrow.
Keep Goals in Focus – Look where you focus your time and energy. Are you filling your calendar with meetings that aren’t in line with district and building priorities? Who is involved and how will the use of that time impact the kids and colleagues you serve in positive ways? Are the conversations in these meetings learner focused? These questions may help you review your calendar in more critical ways. What meetings should stay and what can you do to eliminate the minutes that aren’t aligned with your goals and priorities?
Be More Responsive and Less Reactive – Think about this… what items on your calendar need to get done now and what can wait until later? Are the items in your calendar an intentional response to the important things you are working on? Will the meetings really solve a potential challenge or will they be a quick reaction, a band aid for an existing issue that requires more purposeful attention? I have found that being in spaces with proactive people who are more responsive and less reactive is beneficial because you are working together to take action on important things in intentional ways. When you are able to work with people who celebrate the good things, maintain a consistent vision, and identify potential concerns, you are positioned in solutions oriented spaces of time.
Your days are filled with chances. Push yourself to take a closer look at how you make space for meaningful moments of time. Examining each day with fresh eyes will cultivate your commitment to capture your own time with greater intention and purpose. Time matters.
There are so many beautiful things about being an educator. Being an educator is not just something you do. It’s a calling, it’s a gift, it’s an opportunity to leave a legacy of kindness and love in the hearts and minds of those you serve. As an educator, you move through your career living in moments, snapshots in time that turn into stories. You navigate your own personal journey opening paths to self-discovery, learning, and growth that can ultimately bring well-deserved joy and happiness to your life’s work. Perhaps, at one time, your path in education led you to a crossroads and you chose to step into the direction of leadership. As you began walking a new path, you started leaning into the experiences you invited and those you couldn’t foresee, but would later become lessons you’ve learned. – Lauren
As a 7th grade ELA teacher, I was a part of the building leadership team. I was enjoying the opportunity to learn more about change leadership and to make a positive impact on the broader school community. At the end of one of our meetings, I was packing up my many belongings, so I was the last teacher remaining alongside the principal. Anyone who has ever joined me for a meeting knows that I can be a little extra with all of my supplies. Notebooks, books I’m reading, my water, a coffee I’m still finishing, snacks, laptop…I cannot hide it. Anyway, the principal and I were enjoying a nice post-meeting conversation which led her to ask me, “You should really think about getting your principal’s license.” I should have paused before responding because I had a visceral reaction. “Why would I want your job? Your job looks terrible.” Eek, but I think what I really meant was that the job looked HARD. And it is hard, but it’s also rewarding and growth-evoking. Administration has challenged and humbled me and continues to do so on a daily basis. It’s perspective giving in the best possible way and when we do our inner work as leaders, we grow leaps and bounds alongside the talented educators we serve. – Meghan
I thought I would retire in the last district I served in. It was close to where I live, a district I loved, a place I called home. However, I knew in my heart that it would not be the place I would serve as an administrator. I remember the day I realized that I needed to move on so I can grow into the leader and educator I was meant to become. After going through a handful of interview processes, it happened, I was offered an assistant principal’s role in the right place, at the right time, with the people I was destined to know. I was set to embark on this new endeavor in the middle of the summer. So, on a hot summer’s end of July day, it would be the last time I’d use my ID fob to enter a building in a district I adored for so long. It’s where I evolved as an instructional coach and reading specialist. That day, I filled 15 boxes with treasured stories from my teaching past. I looked around an empty classroom, only leaving behind the books that belonged to the school. When I was ready to go, I peeked my head out of the door to look for a custodian to help me find a flatbed to lift and stack my boxes and bring them to my car. Oddly, there was no one in sight. After a brief search, I found a flatbed myself. I can remember closing my eyes, taking a deep breath and putting my airpods into my ears because to me, what is life without music, especially during a pivotal moment like this? At that moment, my ITunes randomly played the song “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco. It seemed fitting, the perfect song selection for the symbolic transition from teaching to leadership. I tied back my hair, loaded my boxes onto the flatbed, and as sweat dripped from my brow, I began pulling out this big, heavy flatbed wagon to my car. When I got there, I opened my trunk, pushed down all the seats and lifted each box, one by one, finally filling my trunk to the brim. I took a picture to capture the moment, the end of an era. When I drove off that day, I thought about all of the small moments in time that led me to this new opportunity in leadership. I thought about some of the lessons I’d learned from leaders, colleagues, and students. I thought about the happiness, the joy, the laughter, the comradery of teachers, some sadness and disappointment, the evolution of me, and all the small moves of impact that brought me to this place in time. It would be the very next day that I would pull up to a new building, my new home, where I was greeted by a friendly custodian. He met me by my car and helped me unload my trunk of boxes, the treasured stories of the educator I was. It was his genuine smile that would give me the courage I needed to retrieve my new ID fob from my bag to swipe a new door, and step towards the unforeseen lessons I would begin to learn and the path to the leader I hoped to become. – Lauren
Perhaps it’s our social media immersed culture, but there seems to be a pervasive belief that the things worth doing and worth having are the big, audacious moves and gestures. But often, when we see people accomplishing what we perceive to be “big, important stuff”, we aren’t seeing all of the little moves and setbacks and lessons learned that got them to that really impressive place. We don’t see all of the free throws college and professional basketball players shoot in practice or their late nights in the gym. We don’t see those lessons that flopped by teachers we deeply admire. We don’t see that professional development session that didn’t go as planned. You get it. This is why it’s critical we speak more honestly about our work. That we don’t make this work something that only perfect people do. There are no perfect people, and the more we only share our shiny selves and the highlight reels and the romanticized storybook versions of our work, the more likely it becomes that other people may start to believe that leadership is something that is beyond them. The world doesn’t need more people who look perfect leading classrooms, schools, and districts. The world needs more learners who model humanity for others. People who are deeply curious about themselves, others, the world around them. Many of us have taken the Strengths Finder 2.0. I’ve taken it a couple of times. Once as a classroom teacher and once as an assistant principal. One of my top five strengths changed with experience. As a teacher, “positivity” was in my top 5. As an administrator, I morphed from positive to “relatable.” Ha! That used to bother me, but I’ve come to embrace it. I’m learning to be deeply human with other people. I share mistakes and struggles when appropriate and in doing so, it makes me feel more connected while opening the door to learn from others too. – Meghan
This year, I embarked on a new role as the Director of Literacy K-12. As I created my entry plan for this new role, a big portion of it revolves around cultivating meaningful relationships with the administrators, teachers, staff, and community I am serving. To me, in the midst of all the meetings, observations, big things, and learning I need to do, this means that I put showing up to buildings at the forefront as much as I can. Greeting teachers, saying hello to kids in the hallways, asking kids what literacy means to them, what they are most proud of as readers and writers today, what books they enjoy, and how their day is going is essential to the work I do everyday. When I leave classrooms, I feel it’s important to email or send a voice note to let the teachers know how much I appreciated our time together. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the primary and elementary buildings with a picture book in my hands. Very often, teachers and students will ask me what book I am holding, igniting a conversation that may have never happened if I hadn’t been holding one! Those conversations have led to invitations to classroom visits to perform read alouds with kids and teachers. To me, there is nothing better than showing up to that classroom, sitting myself down on the rug with the kids surrounding me and bringing a book to life through an interactive experience! I know there will always be the big things that need to get done. Literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is also a hot button topic and instructional approaches will always need refining to meet the needs of all learners in the evolving landscape of education. What I have come to learn overtime is that although there will always be the big things, it’s those small moves like showing up, saying hello, asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, sending the check-in text to a teacher, and reading a good book that contributes to making the big things happen. These are lessons I’m learning that are shaping who I’m becoming as a leader. You may begin to recognize that if you want true happiness in leadership, you may have to sacrifice what you want now for what you want later. You have a mission and a vision and as you row toward the ultimate destination of success, there will be small moments, small wins, and small obstacles on the path that can seem like they are not enough to bring a vision to fruition. You will come to realize that those small things can add up to the big things you truly need to accomplish. -Lauren
I learned to think in small moves as an elementary principal. I would dream of big, grand gestures I could use to surprise and delight staff and to show my appreciation. But I learned pretty quickly that what mattered most was the day-to-day small moves. Visiting classrooms every day, greeting students as they walked into school, coming alongside teachers at lunch duty, and playing with students at recess. In these small moments of shared joy and learning, we had little conversations. Conversations about teaching and learning. Moments of appreciation for each other. We celebrated when a student who had been struggling had a great day in the classroom. I look back at those little moments and realize they were not little at all. They were the big stuff. It doesn’t look big when you’re in it, but the collective impact that those moments make is monumental. Those are the moments that transform a school culture. They transform a district’s culture too. As a Director of Secondary Teaching and Learning, I keep my office in a backpack. Certainly, I have an office at the district office, but I choose to spend 99% of my time in the buildings. Proximity builds trust. The work feels better when we feel better in the work, and I feel best in the work when I’m wearing my sneakers, my sleeves are rolled up, and I’m working alongside people in the day-to-day challenges we face. Every moment matters. Every conversation is a coaching conversation. Every person we come into contact with can teach us something. And honestly, when you are all-in in that way on a daily basis, it is not only incredibly rewarding, it’s also incredibly exhausting in the best possible way. It’s normal not to have the energy for big gestures…not that those don’t matter…not that you never go big…but keep the main things the main thing. Staff and students will remember those little moments and be more deeply impacted by those than that one big breakfast you pulled off. No matter how much they love bacon. And boy do I ever. – Meghan
Should be easy, right? We are, after all, human. It is critical we model what it looks like to be a learner. This means making mistakes, doing things imperfectly, struggling – and all the while learning from all of that and allowing it to make us better people and professionals. The more “power” we have in the organization, the more critical this move can be because students and staff are watching us. Many of them are wondering if they too might step into roles like ours, and it’s important we show them that there are no perfect people. There are merely willing people who care deeply. We can show them how fun these jobs can be too. We can show them what it looks like to ask for feedback and to genuinely consider it. The “higher up” we go in leadership roles, the less honest people tend to be with us. Not because they don’t want to be honest but because it can be scary giving critical feedback to someone with authority “over us.” So, we must normalize feedback. We must normalize being imperfect people who do things imperfectly but who are listening and trying. Speaking of listening…
If you are an approachable leader, educators will show up to your door or open theirs to talk to you. That’s an amazing thing! Listen attentively to people. They have come to you for a reason and want you to know what is on their hearts and minds. Let them talk as much as they need to. It’s important. I am not going to lie, there are times I want to jump in and interrupt a teacher as they are talking because I get passionately excited about an idea or I want to give in-the-moment advice. However, I have found that if you listen a little longer, you will begin to hear a narrative that leads you to the heart of what the conversation is really about. What a person initially came to you for, really could turn out to be about something else. And a lot of the time, what appears to be a problem, naturally gets worked out as that person self-reflects and develops their own solutions. Be the active listener and the sounding board that person needs.
Recognize the Potential in Others
Recently, my superintendent (Lauren) shared an ASCD article with me titled Every Student is a Firecracker by Jen Schwanke; she tells a heartwarming story about how she didn’t have it easy growing up. She discovers that through the obstacle of poverty, it was her teachers who elevated her by providing the hope, dignity, support, and trust she needed to thrive. Those small gestures inspired her to become an educator. She shared these words, “Educators can help in ways that are quiet, careful, and gentle.” Obstacles can carve paths to new opportunities. There is a spark inside us all. Children and adults just need someone to ignite it…it just takes one person. Be the leader who lifts your colleagues up so they can bring out the best in their students.
Proximity Builds Trust
Schools and districts are rarely transformed from desks with closed doors. Every interaction is an opportunity to both learn from and be of service to someone else. The more we are around each other, the more we will trust each other. Being around each other also gives us more opportunities to truly appreciate the unique gifts and talents others bring to our schools. This is why it’s incredibly frustrating for teachers when they are evaluated on small 30 minute lessons. There is so much more that goes into teaching that cannot be captured in that amount of time. When we spend time supporting and encouraging teachers in classrooms every week, we get a much fuller picture of the impactful work they are doing with students on a daily basis. Not to mention, so many little conversations and little interactions are opportunities to problem solve and work through things together. Less email. More small conversations.
Will Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality, was able to turn 11 Madison Park into the #1 restaurant in the world. He did so not by making the most unique food in the world or creating the most fancy of restaurants. He did it by tapping into a human need we have that will hold true until the end of time. The need to be well-cared for. So much of excellent leadership is not revolutionary. However, in a world filled with busy and in a time of so many initiatives and high pressure, taking great care of others can feel revolutionary. In this new year, may we all reflect upon how we can do less of what doesn’t matter as much, so we can do more of what matters most. In doing so, the work gets better and so do we. – Meghan
Meghan is a lover of learning who believes in the goodness of people, Meghan works to cultivate necessary space that honors the humanity of all people. She promotes storytelling, the exchange of ideas, and risk-taking. She is passionate about disrupting the status quo and creating kinder, forward-thinking communities of action. Meghan is also intensely curious about how to enhance the customer experience in schools. Meghan began her career in the English Language Arts classroom. So, inevitably, her mantra is Words Matter. In her nineteen years in the field of education, she has worked in all levels of K-12 education as a teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and educational consultant.
Educators have been thrust into a world of infinite access to programs, tools, and information telling them what, how, and when to teach kids how to read, write, speak, listen, and think. I often find myself as a recipient of the question, “Lauren, you have been in education for a while… What program do you like? Do you believe in a balanced literacy approach to instruction? How can we embed the Science of Reading approaches into instruction successfully? Can we blend both approaches together? What philosophy has impacted learners the most? Here’s how I feel. I am fortunate to have worked in many places that have had different populations of students, employed different systems, and embraced different perspectives to teaching and learning. I have implemented a variety of programs, have analyzed a plethora of assessments, developed curriculum and approaches to instruction to create intentional, personalized learning experiences for learners. Here’s the thing, initiatives and programs will come and go, but it is the people who implement them who remain the constant. In the educational landscape we live in, it’s inevitable. How many of you have walked into classrooms and have found stacks of literacy and content materials that have accumulated over the course of time? Each book, resource, or learning tool you pick up in that stack is most likely a strong reminder of the leadership team of that time period, their vision, priorities, and perhaps even their mission to make their mark. Do you find that each time the pendulum swings in education, you are desperately holding on to the practices that have worked and were happy to let go of others? That is because there is not one program that works for all. Not one. If there was one way, one program, one approach that worked for all learners, we would all be using it. Great educators will take the best from different approaches to learn about students and then teach them.
Sit in the Driver’s Seat
That said, when educators step into the field of education, they will be introduced and “trained” in various approaches to instruction by their school districts. But we simply cannot rely on our school districts to solely build capacity within the educators they serve. Since there are different kids sitting in front of us every year, they are coming to us with different skills and needs. Therefore, it is an educator’s professional obligation to sit in the driver’s seat of their learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros and Katie Novak share, “If we do not see ourselves in the word “learners” within the realm of education, we will never be able to bring out the best in ourselves or others who are involved in this profession. Learning, at all levels, is paramount to the work we do in education.”
Every Learner Should Get What They Need and Deserve
I am not writing this blog post to get into a debate about which instructional approaches are better than the other. There is enough debate in the universe about that. I am writing because over the course of time, I have come to understand that students may not remember a single lesson their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the teachers who had found a way to leverage learning through an asset based lens in order to level up literacy experiences for all. The great educators I am talking about continuously keep kids at the heart of decision-making. They know that every learner who walks through the doors of a school building should get what they need and deserve. They know that every learner has different backgrounds, learning styles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. They look at the whole learner and will notice and name what they need to create a purposeful plan. When they recognize the plan is not working, they pivot in real-time as students work towards mastery. However, what is important to bring to light, is that educators simply cannot look at the whole learner without recognizing who they are as human beings first. In Katie Martin’s book Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm, she highlights this idea, “People are more confident, passionate, and motivated to do better work, when you focus on what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. Creating a learning community that empowers learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their assets, rather than dwell on their deficits, maximizes their motivation, contribution, and impact.”
Level Up Learning For All
As I continue to lead, teach, and embrace a comprehensive approach to learning, here are some ideas that focus on leveraging the human aspect of learning and level up literacy experiences for all:
4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and Level Up Literacy For All
Click HERE to access the infographic for discussion.
1. Lean into Learners:How will you invest time in getting to know and intentionally connect with your learners?
Idea 1: Learning Surveys and Community Questions – Learn about who your students are by asking them meaningful questions over the course of the year and utilize their interests/background to embed into instructional planning. HERE are George Couros’ 5 Questions. These open-ended questions have elevated learning experiences across all content areas and have ensured that my instructional approaches are rooted in students’ interests. I have had students, families, and colleagues answer these questions through Google Forms, Flip Video, and in print/digital writing spaces (i.e. notebook or Google Docs). Also, during a recent middle school department meeting I facilitated, I asked the teachers, “What book turned you into a reader?” in a Wakelet collaboration space. Answers were curated in text and picture format. The answers to this question ignited rich discussion about reading identities. HERE is an example. Students can easily participate in this activity. Not only will they continue to develop their reading identities, but they will start recommending books to each other. What better way to cultivate excitement around reading in a more personalized way?
2. Layer Stories into Learning:How can you intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
Idea 2: Storytelling – Weaving personal stories and capitalizing on the experiences of students makes learning more meaningful and exciting. HERE is a blog post titled Layering Stories into Learning and a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives:
Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
I was thinking about…
I remember when…
Let me tell you a story…
Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
This is making me think…
I’m realizing that…
Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
Your story is making me think…
Your story is making me wonder…
3. Launch and Leverage Choice – How can you empower students to develop agency and take ownership of their learning?
Idea 3: Utilize Choice Boards and Menus – In the Edutopia article, The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels, Stephan Merrill and Sarah Gonser share, “…by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions.” Providing choice can show students you value how they want to learn, develops agency, and empowers them to explore the learning process through multiple pathways. I have used Literacy Choice Boards and Menus for students to access previously taught skills in order to strengthen their understanding of them. They completed the activities independently, in partnerships, and/or small groups.
4. Lift Writing and Link Ideas– What practice can help you connect with learners and elevate writing across content areas?
Idea 4: Dialogue Journals: Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. Learn more about dialogue journals in more detail clicking on a previous blog post HERE.
Investing in the Emotional and Instructional Deposit Box
The pendulum in education will continue to swing and as long as we are living in that world, we will continue to watch and feel it. If we want to be mindful about keeping students at the epicenter of the important work we do, we can better identify what students need to grow as human beings and learners. In Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched, she says, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” The ideas shared above can offer opportunities to enhance connections, interactions, and literacy experiences across the disciplines. Educators will always be inundated with programs, district initiatives, and trends. But, if we want to make the most impact on student learning outcomes, creating learning experiences designed to understand the learner is an investment in the emotional and instructional deposit box and time well spent!
The ebbs and flows of education can keep you on the edge of your seat. The days are full and all the minutes you live can pass you by if you let them. When you enter spaces of reflection, you can rewind time and recognize that the minutes are small moments in time. They are a courageous compilation of big and small wins, challenges, a plethora of learning experiences and interactions that are stirring within.
An educator’s collection of minutes are rooted in the well-intended spirit of supporting colleagues, community, and the most important stakeholders…students. While you walk through many unpredictable minutes in your days, it is clear that you are continually yearning for spaces to connect, collaborate, share your voice, actively listen to others, network, and sit in the driver’s seat of your learning so you can expand your impact and broaden your influence.
The sentiments shared above may have you wondering…
Where can you find both like minds and different minds?
Who are the people who will reaffirm your unique trajectory and where are the others who will push your perspectives to new places?
Who will lift you higher, celebrate your successes, embrace your failures, and love you harder when you step into the mess of learning?
The #EdCampLI Learning Ecosystem
Welcome to #EdCampLI, a participant-driven learning ecosystem blanketed in a sea of educators who will enthusiastically wake up on a Saturday to reflect on the educators they were, are, and are continuously striving to be. The contagious spirit of an #EdCampLI room lights up with the hopes, wishes, and dreams to learn and infinitely grow a solid professional learning network. It doesn’t matter where you are on the continuum of your educational journey. At an #EdCampLI event, the professional learning playing field is leveled. You are embraced. You are welcomed. You have a seat at the table. There is no hierarchy and there are no titles when talking about learning and teaching. I used to call it teaching and learning, but this is the new phrase I learned from Nicole Hunn and Joseph Wiener during the 3rd session of the 7th annual #EdCampLI event, held on October 15, 2022 at Bethpage High School. While I was participating in a conversation with the educators around me about this phrase, it made me think about the George Couros quote, “If you want to be a master teacher, you have to be a master learner.” And although I facilitated two sessions at #EdCampLI, I felt no different being a participant in another. You will find yourself in learning spaces that are collaborative, not evaluative. You will know that in this learning ecosystem, everyone is a teacher and a learner and everyone is valued as a leader of their learning.
The Session Board Lives
As educators swarm into an EdCamp, you will watch them hover around a living and growing session board. As they chat with colleagues old and new, they are simultaneously, personalizing their session schedules to meet their individual learning needs. While attending sessions, it is known that if one session doesn’t meet your needs, you can drift to another and then maybe another. That’s the #EdCampLI way! There are no egos. There is no judgment. There is only acceptance and kindness. Your time is valued. Your time is precious. YOU choose how you will learn.
Reconnecting and Connecting
At #EdCampLI you reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. You will leave with your own stories and moments of impact. The interactions you may have had at #EdCampLI may seem like a microcosm of your day. But, you will see, those interactions will be much bigger than that. It’s the collection of small moments with various people that become your stories to share. They will be waiting for you to courageously unwrap at the right place, at the right time, with the right people.
#EdCampLI Will Lift You Higher
So for the next #EdCampLI, be ready to share the goodness you bring to education. Be ready to be an active learner who takes it all in at your own pace. Be ready to be the educator who unexpectedly finds yourself launched into a session of your own because you were inspired by the energy and the gifts of others. You have found your place. Take your seat at the table because #EdCampLI will lift you higher!
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
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
Recently, I was asked, “what did you like about being an Instructional Coach?” It took seconds for the words to roll right off of my heart…. “When you are deeply passionate about education, the students, colleagues, and community you serve, coaching is the most meaningful opportunity to make an impact on instructional practices at the district, building, teacher, and student levels. Coaching is an opportunity to show schools they are capable of changing practices while honoring the ones that work for our students. Coaching creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future.”
If we are in education for the right reasons, we are continuously keeping students at the heart of decision-making and are working tirelessly to bring the mission and vision of our organizations to fruition. There are many professional learning opportunities that come our way as we embark on our educational careers. Some are more memorable than others, some you can live with, some you can live without, some you will forget, some you can implement in your classrooms tomorrow and stay with you for the rest of your career. Nevertheless, job-embedded professional learning is an opportunity to have dedicated professionals and thought partners, who are endlessly committed to your communities and can harness the talents of the educators in the systems in which you live. Investing in coaching is a form of professional learning capable of bringing out the best in people. It’s the opportunity to unwrap the strengths of others, lead with empathy, build human and social capital, and cultivate emotionally resilient educators. So, I ask: How can you use a coaching mindset to create the conditions for educators to recognize and develop their talents?
Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice
Over time, I have developed a coaching mindset that is rooted in my experiences that guide this work. Investing in a coaching mindset can create the conditions to shift instructional practice, improve student outcomes, and encourage collaborative, reflective practice. A coaching mindset opens doors to deeper learning, paves the way for consistent application, and values cyclical, timely feedback. A coaching mindset is an invitation to grow, support, and distribute leadership across an organization while keeping the focus on teaching and learning.
My Instructional Coaching Mindset:
We Are All Connected at the Core: All of the people in your organizations are connected. We are all pieces of a puzzle that connect to bring a bigger picture to fruition. Everything we say and do has the potential to influence the present and the future. As a collective unit, there is never one person to blame. Therefore, it is a shared responsibility in working toward meeting your goals.
Meet People Where They Are: Lead the work with an empathy lens. Take the time to actively listen, understand, and value why people are where they are. This provides an opportunity to create targeted goals and shape the work in which you lead. Everyone starts somewhere, but they don’t have to stay there! Refrain from judgment and help that person move forward in their practice with integrity, compassion, and grace.
Trust is the Foundation: Your colleagues will not open up to you about their challenges and belief systems until trust is established. They have to know that you are keeping students and their interests at the center of the conversations. This will take time. Follow through on your words through action, be supportive in your responses, and keep concerns and struggles sacred.
Use Words Wisely: Words have the potential to create the worlds in which you are living in. Be mindful of your word choice when responding to the strengths, hopes, and needs of the people you are supporting. Your vision can only be fulfilled if you lead with intention and speak with purpose.
Be Present and Patient: It is easy to be concerned and frustrated when you aren’t seeing the goals you are working toward happen fast enough. Repeat after me: Meaningful change and growth takes time. AGAIN…MEANINGFUL CHANGE AND GROWTH TAKES TIME! When you work with people and kids in education, time is undefined. It’s the process that matters. It’s the work you are putting into rowing towards your destination. Be present, keep focused on the goals, let go of impatience, and the results will come!
Let the Journey Guide You: When embarking on the coaching journey, understand that there will be unexpected turns along the way. To continue on the journey of transformation, lean into those unexpected turns with kindness, compassion, and curiosity. Be responsive, not reactive and embrace the learning process.
No matter what your role is in education, how can you use a coaching mindset to bring out the best in those you serve AND how can you become aware of your own mindset before you help others define theirs? Everyone is capable of enhancing their practices. Are you ready to invest in an instructional coaching mindset that creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future of education?
My leadership journey has paved pathways that have pointed me to new directions and places I never knew existed. With the help of the universe, the turns I have chosen to take have brought me the clarity I’ve needed to stand in my beliefs, have grounded my purpose, and have fulfilled my vision of what it means to be the great leader I am striving to be.
In the midst of my journey, I have made conscious choices about the actions I have chosen to take. These actions ultimately have the potential to unlock greatness and shape the belief systems of the people I am fortunate to serve. Do you ever ask yourself if how and what you’re doing will make a positive contribution to the community of educators and people you serve? How will those actions cultivate the leader you are continuously striving to be?
Great leaders aren’t the ones who know it all. They are the people who recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity within. They see the potential in those they serve and know there is no limit to adding value to their team. They are not jealous, competitive, or divisive; rather, they are confident, collaborative, and inclusive. Great leaders have the vision to see what is possible even when things feel impossible. They are able to identify problems and work towards solutions WITH a team. They don’t see titles, they see people. Great leaders know no hierarchy. They don’t see talent as competition. They see it as an opportunity to help them become better. Great leaders are servant leaders, not ME leaders.
What actions have you taken to recognize the value in others and work towards building capacity from within?
Include others in decision-making and conversations. Give them a seat at the table. Be a sounding board, a thinking partner, a coach. Refrain from making decisions that directly impact people and kids without actively listening to their viewpoints and ideas. It can be dangerous and offensive to make decisions solely based on a single thought or idea through a one minded lens. LISTEN to the people enduring various experiences on the frontlines. They are living things you cannot see, can be your ears to the ground, help you identify root causes, and develop the most practical, reasonable solutions. Perspective taking helps you read the room and make collective decisions. Your team will help you implement and communicate future plans when they feel like they played a vital role in creating them.
How have you included the perspectives of others when developing and implementing ideas that support the mission and vision of your building and/or District?
Be the leader who empowers others to see their gifts and utilizes them as a strength to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of colleagues and students. Give those individuals the courage to share their talents with the greater educational community. Celebrate risk-taking, failure, and innovative practices that can be courageously unwrapped in classrooms, buildings, and school districts. Help people ride the waves of change by catching a wave with them and sharing how that experience unfolded. Transformation is possible when we lead with empathy, encourage others to be mindful and intentional with their actions and work to ensure that students and adults in learning spaces are elevated, celebrated, and pushed to discover and reach their personal and professional goals.
When have you empowered colleagues and students to discover their gifts and utilize them to improve the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of others?
Shine the Light
Great leaders don’t need the recognition or credit for the impact they are making in a system. They find it more rewarding to elevate the work of others. They inherently want others to do better because it makes everyone around them better. In George Couros’latest blog post, he shares, “But as I grew in my work, I realized that the best leaders find success in lifting others. When you lift others in a leadership role, the reality is that you do better because those around you do better.” Other people should not serve as obstacles on your journey because they are doing amazing things. Be advocates for those people and help them shine. Their light will illuminate other ideas, bringing them to the surface to benefit our most precious stakeholders, our students!
How have you shined the light on others to elevate them and help them flourish and grow?
Pave the Way
One of the most important jobs of a leader is to hire the right people, and then mentor, guide, and help them spread their wings so they can fly. In the book She Leads: The Women’s Guide to a Career in Educational Leadership by Dr. Rachael George and Majalise Tolan, they share “Never underestimate or devalue your path to the leadership position you desire.” Great leaders will help you identify your goals, embrace the journey, and bridge knowledge gaps. Look around you, there are many educators and leaders who can serve as resources to help you grow. Another idea Couros shares is, “At some point, even encourage them to move on and lift others and do the same things. Ambition in leadership is not bad as long as that ambition leads to others being better because of you.” These actions can help great leaders witness the learning, commitment, growth, and fearlessness of others as they help pave the way to greatness.
What are some examples of how you have paved the way for others to identify and pursue their personal and professional leadership goals?
Invest the Time
“So how is it in your new role, Lauren?” is a question I am often asked as a new assistant principal. I appreciate how others find the time in their busy days to check-up on me, but I also recognize that we create space and time for people and things that matter to us. The truth is, I love what I do. The universe placed me just where I needed to be with having mentors around me to help me persevere through any hurdles I’ve faced. I am appreciating the leaders around me at all levels in my organization who care deeply about kids, people, community, transformational leadership, and learning. They are vision builders who embrace a systems thinking philosophy and leverage the impact we can have on one another to facilitate growth in the broader educational and social systems in which we live. Our mission and vision is clear; we live it in our everyday conversations, district priorities, and practices we suggest and employ in our classroom and building environments. They make it a priority to invest time in their leadership team by providing professional learning experiences that will help move their own practices forward to amplify the voices and practices of others.
So, I ask you…
What can you do to harness the talents of others to develop the next generation of leaders?
This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.
Shifting the Observation Narrative
I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?
I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:
Grounding the Work
An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.
Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.
Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice
Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation,I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.
So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.
Could you imagine a world where each and everyone of us use our talents and resources to nurture the potential that simmers within? Could we work toward developing an in-depth understanding of our unique talents that are awaiting to be courageously unwrapped and shared with others? What if we strived to build systems that focused more on lifting each other up instead of pushing ourselves and others down? Can you imagine a world that is grounded in cultivating our natural capacities while embracing creativity, critical thinking, empathy, collaboration, and communication? Don’t we owe it to ourselves, our communities, colleagues, and the students we serve?
In the book Imagine If… Creating a Future For Us All by Sir Ken Robinson, PhD and Kate Robinson, they share, “Imagination is what separates us from the rest of life on Earth. It is through imagination that we create the worlds in which we live. We can also re-create them.” Sir Ken Robinson PhD and Kate Robinson add “Imagination allows us to envision alternative possibilities, and creativity equips us with tools to bring them into existence.” Inviting colleagues and kids to own their learning and reflect on their thinking instead of passively using their imaginations, we can empower them to engage, create, and collaborate, which ultimately leads to deeper learning. Speaking of imagining, I was recently participating in Dr. Katie Martin’s #EvolvingEducation #LCbookclub where Dr. Katie Novak shared her brilliance, “There is not one single practice we use that works for everyone…when you anticipate that someone might need a support, design for it.” When we design meaningful learning experiences and allow students to be exactly who they are as they learn, imagine, and create, they could essentially be on the precipice of success and innovation.
How can we create conditions that remove barriers and open pathways for educators and students who visit our learning spaces to apply their imagination, create new ideas, and put their minds to work?
Share your heart with kids, our most precious stakeholders: They are interested in who you were, who you are, and who you are striving to be. Invest in their hearts. Get to know who they were, who they are, and who they want to be.
Be the trusted teacher: Welcome all students, value their stories, empower them to explore their interests in inclusive, safe spaces. Take the best attributes of all of the educators you’ve encountered and be the best version of them!
Learn from colleagues who make an impact: Collaborate, communicate, connect, actively listen, share your learning, empower, and celebrate others. Keep kids at the heart of your conversations.
Be the human-centered administrator: Lead with empathy, recognize the gifts in others, involve stakeholders in the decision-making process, and build capacity from within. Show intrinsic, authentic appreciation for those you serve.
Tell someone, YOU CAN: Give them a smile, a nod, a note, a glimmer of hope and encouragement. Help them say yes to themselves and embrace new people and opportunities.
Life and learning are not linear. Both are complex, unique experiences that can be challenging to navigate when we don’t have the right people in our corner who allow us to see things we haven’t seen before. Dr. Katie Martin says that when we embrace what we know about learners & learning, honor people in a space, help others develop a sense of belonging, and tap into strengths and interests, our learning communities grow. Could you imagine an atmosphere where we help others create the world we want to live in tomorrow?
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