Leadership is a choice. It rests on the shoulders of influence and inspiration, not compliance and control. Leadership is not a title, it’s an opportunity to recognize the greatness that lives inside others. It’s not about taking the credit for the work, but giving it to others. Leadership is about inspiring others to cultivate confidence in themselves so they can breathe life into ideas that will awaken their soul. Leadership is harnessing the gifts that are manifesting within. It’s letting others recognize their potential by planting seeds that they can nurture and grow.
Salute the Person
Growing up, I had leaders all around me. My Dad was one of them. He was and still is a well-respected educator who put people first. As a matter of fact, since he was an educator in the town I grew up in, we could not stop at a local restaurant or store without his former students running up to him and thanking him for his kindness, support, and the lessons learned from his classes. I still live where I grew up and the first thing people ask me is, “How is your Dad, Lauren? Please send him my best, he had a positive impact on me.” Although my Dad didn’t hold a formal leadership title, I always knew that he was a leader who left a legacy of influence in the hearts and minds of the students and colleagues he served. I also know that he learned this from his father who was a leader in his community and spent a lot of his time giving back to people who were less fortunate than him. As I journeyed through my childhood, teen, and adult years, I still turned to my Dad for advice. One of the pieces of advice he continues to share is, “Lauren, leaders salute the person, not the title. There is a leader inside us all.”
As I have navigated 17 years in education, those words actively live in my mind. I am a natural observer of people. I take great interest in what others say, do, and act on. I look closely at the body language, reactions, and responses of others. I try to understand others perspectives and have empathy for the hidden stories I cannot see. When truly reflecting on the people I have saluted throughout my life in any capacity, the common gifts they possess are their ability to lead through inspiration. I can still hear and see the leaders who didn’t limit my potential, instead, they fueled it. When I formally stepped into leadership, I often reflect on the experiences that shaped the leader I am becoming.
Three actions that have inspired me to unleash the leader inside:
Trusting People: My 5th grade teacher saw the leader inside of me. She recognized a shy girl’s potential to lead and support others. She chose me to take on the responsibility of being a 1st- grade class helper. Every Friday, I woke up in the morning with some extra pep in my step. I knew that I would be spending a period in Ms. Miller’s 1st-grade classroom where she gave me the responsibility of facilitating a small reading group. It felt so good to feel important, to sit in front of a group of students and model what it meant to be a good reader even though I was a reader who had challenges of my own. Looking back, I think my 5th-grade teacher knew that I lacked confidence with reading and asked a 1st-grade teacher to let me lead this work so I could develop confidence of my own. In the book Trust and Inspire by Stephen Covey, he shares, “Operating with a trust and inspire mindset means you manage things and you lead people.” When we lead people by elevating them, it helps them to recognize their strengths. They may not see the power of that move in the moment, but will eventually recognize its impact.
Asking Good Questions: Recently, my superintendent shared an article with our leadership team during a professional learning session titled, “A Beautiful Question” by Jim Knight. Knight shares, “Good questions are real manifestations of your curiosity and caring. Good questions are like intellectual fireworks, leading to explosions of ideas and more learning for the questioner and the conversation partner.” Although I highly recommend reading the article, there are really two ideas I want to highlight. One is that my superintendent is masterful at planting seed ideas within the people she serves. She is always sharing resources, quotes, and thoughts that spark collaboration and innovation among her team. I have seen this happen through a simple group text message. All she has to do is share an article in a text and ask one question, “What do you think?” This brings me to my 2nd idea and that is that great questions can lead to more creation and meaningful conversations. Once the article is in the group text, it takes minutes before there is an explosion of back and forth conversation in the text thread between her leadership team. I have seen the new ideas get implemented only days after the intellectual fireworks commenced! She is leveraging our intellectual power and elevating the leaders inside us.
Choosing Words Wisely: When bringing out the leader in people, we must recognize the powerful impact words have on ourselves and others. In the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, there is a chapter titled, Be Impeccable With Your Words: Thanks to ChatGPT, I curated some of the quotes from the chapter:
“The words we speak create our reality.”
“Whatever we swear to, we create the truth.”
“The word is a force, and it can create happiness or suffering.”
“It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
“The way we communicate can either heal or destroy.”
“The first agreement is the key to everything, because it opens the door to the other three agreements.”
“Be impeccable with your word, and you will avoid your word becoming a poison that destroys yourself and others.”
Everyone’s perception is their reality. As leaders, when we are mindful of the words we use, we can better help others recognize the leader that lives inside them. You can help others shape the perception of themselves by positively communicating ideas, intention, purpose, and instill happiness that leads to bringing out the best in those you serve. Those actions directly impact every stakeholder in your organization and at the heart of it all, students.
When you salute the person and not the title, there is greater potential to find more leaders living among us. You have the potential to rekindle and ignite the spirit and joy within others. Great leaders inspire others to have confidence inside themselves. People yearn to be inspired. Breathe life into their gifts and ideas and show them the leader that awaits inside.
Have you ever observed leaders who authentically appreciate, trust, and value the people they serve? Those leaders have an innate gift for developing and unleashing the greatness within every person they encounter. They inspire others to humbly give their hearts and minds to others and make contributions to something that matters. I often think about the leaders who breathed life into my ideas, who trusted me to bring those ideas to fruition, and unlocked the potential I didn’t know I had. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
When I was a new teacher, I worked for the New York City Department of Education as a classroom teacher. I adored my first principal, Beth Longo. She is the one who gave me my first foot in the door when I had little experience in education. She was a mentor who saw the leader in me. Beth had high expectations, pushed her teachers to try new practices, was honest in her feedback, and gave them the courage to reflect on the educators they were and wanted to be. She had the ability to be direct in her approach while remaining endearing all at once. One day, Beth pulled me into her office and said, “Lauren, our district superintendent is visiting our school tomorrow with her team and I am going to bring them into your classroom.” What happened next? I stared at her without answering. I could feel this confused look on my usually rosy turned pale face. She interrupted my silence by saying, “Lauren, I know you are thinking that since you are a new teacher, I shouldn’t be bringing these people into your classroom. Is that why you aren’t answering me? That’s what you are thinking isn’t it?” I finally blinked. “Well… ummm…hmmmm. Maybe?” There, I finally answered, not wanting to commit to a specific response. She interrupted me again. “Lauren, I’ll see you in your classroom tomorrow. Just do me a favor…be yourself.” In that moment, I could feel the rosiness restoring through my pale cheeks and my heart rate returning to a more normal beat.
Helping Others Succeed
In Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead Podcast, Adam Grant shared, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed.” Could shining the light on others, honoring who they really are, challenging them to do the hard things, and instilling a courageous spirit pave a path that shows others the leaders they are meant to be? There is a certain kind of excitement in inspiring others. When people feel that their work matters, they feel that they matter.
Learning About Yourself
The next day, my classroom instantly became a lab site, a revolving door. As I stood in the middle of my classroom, teaching and learning from my students, administrators who were also strangers took their place around the perimeter of my classroom. It felt like we were in the theater in the round. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several guests approach my students. I can remember them asking, “What are you learning today?” To this very day, I don’t remember my guests’ faces or every interaction that happened in the room. What I do remember is what it felt like to be challenged and a good pressure to rise to the occasion by just being myself. I also vividly recall the conversation I had with Beth after the experience. She asked me this question, “Lauren, what did you learn about yourself as an educator today? I paused and the first thing I said was “I can do hard things while being myself.” She came back with another question. “Lauren, what did you learn from today that you can take with you for the rest of your career?” I replied, “I need time to think about that, Beth. Can I have some time to reflect?”
Learning From Yourself
It is 17 years later, and I am still thinking about Beth’s last question. If I were to answer what I learned from that experience today, I would respond with this: “Great leaders can help others find their inner drive and light sparks that ignite a sense of passion and purpose. They give you just the right amount of push, believe in you to grow into the leader you are destined to be, and encourage you to be the best version of yourself.” In the book Trust and Inspire, Stephen Covey shares the following sentiment and question: “Instead of asking why aren’t my people motivated? A better question to ask yourself is how can I better inspire those I lead?”As you proceed on your leadership journey, take a step into opportunities that can transform educators’ mindsets by letting them experience what it feels like to garner courage and step into hard things. There are future leaders waiting for you to recognize their innate gifts and unleash greatness within.
An educational ecosystem is filled with committed groups of stakeholders who are working tirelessly to support the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of kids. Each group and person within the ecosystem brings unique perspectives that contribute to the growth and evolution of the organizations in which they serve. As I move forward as a new administrator, I am continually learning to navigate my surroundings with more intention and purpose. I am living and growing within new ecosystems and with that newness could bring some natural feelings of self-doubt.
You have all felt that kind newness I am talking about before. You have all stepped into new spaces and have created your own mind narratives leaving you feeling weary, judged, nervous, and perhaps confused. These feelings can take you back in time. For example, when I was in middle school, I had to make a change in my academic schedule. This meant that I would have to endure a new lunch period, meet new people, and worry about where I would sit during one of the most awkward stages in my life. I’d have to find a seat with people who had already been sitting together for months. I created this story in my head that no one would want to sit with me. I thought about the possibility of standing in front of the lunchroom desperately searching for familiarity and acceptance. And then the actual day came…when I walked into the cafeteria, my eyes intensely and quickly scanned the room for a familiar face, a smile, eye contact…anything. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “Hey, come over and sit with us. Do you remember holding the door open for me when I was walking into school earlier? I don’t know how I would have made it alone holding that instrument case and a pile of books!” I finally exhaled and smiled back, “Oh yes, I did hold the door for you!” The truth is, I didn’t remember holding the door. Holding a door for someone who needed help is just something I would do. What seemed like a relatively insignificant interaction for me that day, meant something more significant to someone else. Then, that someone else disrupted the narrative I created and helped me step into newness.
When you step into a new school or a new role it kind of feels like the crowded lunchroom of unfamiliar faces where you don’t know all of the people and you don’t know if you will be greeted in a welcoming way. You don’t know their stories, their educational philosophies or personal/professional goals. That can become frustrating, if you let it. I like to think of myself as a proactive person who takes action swiftly, but when things are new, I find myself holding back a little more, listening more attentively, consuming all different types of information, trying to be more responsive and less reactive, and asking lots of questions. This was a shift in mindset when I stepped into the newness of leadership. I came to a place where I recognized that there is strength in asking questions. I know I have to do this because I cannot possibly be the keeper of all the answers. And even if I have answers, I am keenly aware that my colleagues who have been living in the ecosystem will have other answers that either confirm what I am thinking, shift my thinking, and/or share a perspective I would have never thought of, EVER.
Over the last several weeks, I have been reflecting on the number of questions I have asked since I became an administrator. I know I have asked far more questions stepping into a leadership role than I had when I was teaching. You may find this funny, but I actually asked myself “Why is that, Lauren?” Teaching can be hard. Teaching can be fun. Teaching can be draining, BUT teaching is also the most incredibly rewarding career on the planet. Knowing all of these things, why hadn’t I asked the questions I knew I needed answers to years ago? Perhaps I had not stepped into a courageous place in my journey. Maybe I wasn’t in the mental place to understand that failure could be an asset, an opportunity to learn or try something new. Perhaps I didn’t have the patience to refine my practices, iterate, fail, and improve. Perhaps I didn’t realize that although setbacks can be discouraging, they are only temporary. Maybe I didn’t realize that if I was doing my best, I could still be proud of my choices.
Last week I had a check in with a new teacher. When I walked into her classroom I could feel the newness of her learning ecosystem surrounding me. As I waited for her to finish up a few conversations with students, I walked around and scanned the landscape of the room. I could feel the learning emanating through her classroom walls and the energy of her kindness and enthusiasm for learning permeating into my heart. At the same time, I noticed that she had pulled up a seat next to a student who was feeling defeated. “What is making you feel this way? What can I do to help?” A new teacher was asking a student questions to build connection and get him to a more comfortable place. When she was finished I invited her to sit next to me at a small round table. I started to ask the teacher some open-ended questions, “What’s going well? What barriers may be getting in the way of your growth?” She led with this answer, Lauren, I just need to say that I love it here. I really love it, Lauren. When I have questions, I know I can go to my colleagues for support. This new teacher had surpassed the place I was at the beginning of my career and right then, I knew she was rowing in a direction towards success. This answer made my face light up and smile so big that my cheeks started hurting. I went on to ask “What questions do you have for me?”
When I stepped into the newness of leadership, I stopped thinking about the way things are supposed to be and stopped trying to work towards a place of perfection. The pathway to the outcomes you are searching for are not always linear. Sometimes standing still in newness is the best way to move forward. Finding the courage to ask questions may be the action needed to harness momentum towards the place you want to be.
There are so many beautiful things about being an educator. Being an educator is not just something you do. It’s a calling, it’s a gift, it’s an opportunity to leave a legacy of kindness and love in the hearts and minds of those you serve. As an educator, you move through your career living in moments, snapshots in time that turn into stories. You navigate your own personal journey opening paths to self-discovery, learning, and growth that can ultimately bring well-deserved joy and happiness to your life’s work. Perhaps, at one time, your path in education led you to a crossroads and you chose to step into the direction of leadership. As you began walking a new path, you started leaning into the experiences you invited and those you couldn’t foresee, but would later become lessons you’ve learned. – Lauren
As a 7th grade ELA teacher, I was a part of the building leadership team. I was enjoying the opportunity to learn more about change leadership and to make a positive impact on the broader school community. At the end of one of our meetings, I was packing up my many belongings, so I was the last teacher remaining alongside the principal. Anyone who has ever joined me for a meeting knows that I can be a little extra with all of my supplies. Notebooks, books I’m reading, my water, a coffee I’m still finishing, snacks, laptop…I cannot hide it. Anyway, the principal and I were enjoying a nice post-meeting conversation which led her to ask me, “You should really think about getting your principal’s license.” I should have paused before responding because I had a visceral reaction. “Why would I want your job? Your job looks terrible.” Eek, but I think what I really meant was that the job looked HARD. And it is hard, but it’s also rewarding and growth-evoking. Administration has challenged and humbled me and continues to do so on a daily basis. It’s perspective giving in the best possible way and when we do our inner work as leaders, we grow leaps and bounds alongside the talented educators we serve. – Meghan
I thought I would retire in the last district I served in. It was close to where I live, a district I loved, a place I called home. However, I knew in my heart that it would not be the place I would serve as an administrator. I remember the day I realized that I needed to move on so I can grow into the leader and educator I was meant to become. After going through a handful of interview processes, it happened, I was offered an assistant principal’s role in the right place, at the right time, with the people I was destined to know. I was set to embark on this new endeavor in the middle of the summer. So, on a hot summer’s end of July day, it would be the last time I’d use my ID fob to enter a building in a district I adored for so long. It’s where I evolved as an instructional coach and reading specialist. That day, I filled 15 boxes with treasured stories from my teaching past. I looked around an empty classroom, only leaving behind the books that belonged to the school. When I was ready to go, I peeked my head out of the door to look for a custodian to help me find a flatbed to lift and stack my boxes and bring them to my car. Oddly, there was no one in sight. After a brief search, I found a flatbed myself. I can remember closing my eyes, taking a deep breath and putting my airpods into my ears because to me, what is life without music, especially during a pivotal moment like this? At that moment, my ITunes randomly played the song “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco. It seemed fitting, the perfect song selection for the symbolic transition from teaching to leadership. I tied back my hair, loaded my boxes onto the flatbed, and as sweat dripped from my brow, I began pulling out this big, heavy flatbed wagon to my car. When I got there, I opened my trunk, pushed down all the seats and lifted each box, one by one, finally filling my trunk to the brim. I took a picture to capture the moment, the end of an era. When I drove off that day, I thought about all of the small moments in time that led me to this new opportunity in leadership. I thought about some of the lessons I’d learned from leaders, colleagues, and students. I thought about the happiness, the joy, the laughter, the comradery of teachers, some sadness and disappointment, the evolution of me, and all the small moves of impact that brought me to this place in time. It would be the very next day that I would pull up to a new building, my new home, where I was greeted by a friendly custodian. He met me by my car and helped me unload my trunk of boxes, the treasured stories of the educator I was. It was his genuine smile that would give me the courage I needed to retrieve my new ID fob from my bag to swipe a new door, and step towards the unforeseen lessons I would begin to learn and the path to the leader I hoped to become. – Lauren
Perhaps it’s our social media immersed culture, but there seems to be a pervasive belief that the things worth doing and worth having are the big, audacious moves and gestures. But often, when we see people accomplishing what we perceive to be “big, important stuff”, we aren’t seeing all of the little moves and setbacks and lessons learned that got them to that really impressive place. We don’t see all of the free throws college and professional basketball players shoot in practice or their late nights in the gym. We don’t see those lessons that flopped by teachers we deeply admire. We don’t see that professional development session that didn’t go as planned. You get it. This is why it’s critical we speak more honestly about our work. That we don’t make this work something that only perfect people do. There are no perfect people, and the more we only share our shiny selves and the highlight reels and the romanticized storybook versions of our work, the more likely it becomes that other people may start to believe that leadership is something that is beyond them. The world doesn’t need more people who look perfect leading classrooms, schools, and districts. The world needs more learners who model humanity for others. People who are deeply curious about themselves, others, the world around them. Many of us have taken the Strengths Finder 2.0. I’ve taken it a couple of times. Once as a classroom teacher and once as an assistant principal. One of my top five strengths changed with experience. As a teacher, “positivity” was in my top 5. As an administrator, I morphed from positive to “relatable.” Ha! That used to bother me, but I’ve come to embrace it. I’m learning to be deeply human with other people. I share mistakes and struggles when appropriate and in doing so, it makes me feel more connected while opening the door to learn from others too. – Meghan
This year, I embarked on a new role as the Director of Literacy K-12. As I created my entry plan for this new role, a big portion of it revolves around cultivating meaningful relationships with the administrators, teachers, staff, and community I am serving. To me, in the midst of all the meetings, observations, big things, and learning I need to do, this means that I put showing up to buildings at the forefront as much as I can. Greeting teachers, saying hello to kids in the hallways, asking kids what literacy means to them, what they are most proud of as readers and writers today, what books they enjoy, and how their day is going is essential to the work I do everyday. When I leave classrooms, I feel it’s important to email or send a voice note to let the teachers know how much I appreciated our time together. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the primary and elementary buildings with a picture book in my hands. Very often, teachers and students will ask me what book I am holding, igniting a conversation that may have never happened if I hadn’t been holding one! Those conversations have led to invitations to classroom visits to perform read alouds with kids and teachers. To me, there is nothing better than showing up to that classroom, sitting myself down on the rug with the kids surrounding me and bringing a book to life through an interactive experience! I know there will always be the big things that need to get done. Literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is also a hot button topic and instructional approaches will always need refining to meet the needs of all learners in the evolving landscape of education. What I have come to learn overtime is that although there will always be the big things, it’s those small moves like showing up, saying hello, asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, sending the check-in text to a teacher, and reading a good book that contributes to making the big things happen. These are lessons I’m learning that are shaping who I’m becoming as a leader. You may begin to recognize that if you want true happiness in leadership, you may have to sacrifice what you want now for what you want later. You have a mission and a vision and as you row toward the ultimate destination of success, there will be small moments, small wins, and small obstacles on the path that can seem like they are not enough to bring a vision to fruition. You will come to realize that those small things can add up to the big things you truly need to accomplish. -Lauren
I learned to think in small moves as an elementary principal. I would dream of big, grand gestures I could use to surprise and delight staff and to show my appreciation. But I learned pretty quickly that what mattered most was the day-to-day small moves. Visiting classrooms every day, greeting students as they walked into school, coming alongside teachers at lunch duty, and playing with students at recess. In these small moments of shared joy and learning, we had little conversations. Conversations about teaching and learning. Moments of appreciation for each other. We celebrated when a student who had been struggling had a great day in the classroom. I look back at those little moments and realize they were not little at all. They were the big stuff. It doesn’t look big when you’re in it, but the collective impact that those moments make is monumental. Those are the moments that transform a school culture. They transform a district’s culture too. As a Director of Secondary Teaching and Learning, I keep my office in a backpack. Certainly, I have an office at the district office, but I choose to spend 99% of my time in the buildings. Proximity builds trust. The work feels better when we feel better in the work, and I feel best in the work when I’m wearing my sneakers, my sleeves are rolled up, and I’m working alongside people in the day-to-day challenges we face. Every moment matters. Every conversation is a coaching conversation. Every person we come into contact with can teach us something. And honestly, when you are all-in in that way on a daily basis, it is not only incredibly rewarding, it’s also incredibly exhausting in the best possible way. It’s normal not to have the energy for big gestures…not that those don’t matter…not that you never go big…but keep the main things the main thing. Staff and students will remember those little moments and be more deeply impacted by those than that one big breakfast you pulled off. No matter how much they love bacon. And boy do I ever. – Meghan
Should be easy, right? We are, after all, human. It is critical we model what it looks like to be a learner. This means making mistakes, doing things imperfectly, struggling – and all the while learning from all of that and allowing it to make us better people and professionals. The more “power” we have in the organization, the more critical this move can be because students and staff are watching us. Many of them are wondering if they too might step into roles like ours, and it’s important we show them that there are no perfect people. There are merely willing people who care deeply. We can show them how fun these jobs can be too. We can show them what it looks like to ask for feedback and to genuinely consider it. The “higher up” we go in leadership roles, the less honest people tend to be with us. Not because they don’t want to be honest but because it can be scary giving critical feedback to someone with authority “over us.” So, we must normalize feedback. We must normalize being imperfect people who do things imperfectly but who are listening and trying. Speaking of listening…
If you are an approachable leader, educators will show up to your door or open theirs to talk to you. That’s an amazing thing! Listen attentively to people. They have come to you for a reason and want you to know what is on their hearts and minds. Let them talk as much as they need to. It’s important. I am not going to lie, there are times I want to jump in and interrupt a teacher as they are talking because I get passionately excited about an idea or I want to give in-the-moment advice. However, I have found that if you listen a little longer, you will begin to hear a narrative that leads you to the heart of what the conversation is really about. What a person initially came to you for, really could turn out to be about something else. And a lot of the time, what appears to be a problem, naturally gets worked out as that person self-reflects and develops their own solutions. Be the active listener and the sounding board that person needs.
Recognize the Potential in Others
Recently, my superintendent (Lauren) shared an ASCD article with me titled Every Student is a Firecracker by Jen Schwanke; she tells a heartwarming story about how she didn’t have it easy growing up. She discovers that through the obstacle of poverty, it was her teachers who elevated her by providing the hope, dignity, support, and trust she needed to thrive. Those small gestures inspired her to become an educator. She shared these words, “Educators can help in ways that are quiet, careful, and gentle.” Obstacles can carve paths to new opportunities. There is a spark inside us all. Children and adults just need someone to ignite it…it just takes one person. Be the leader who lifts your colleagues up so they can bring out the best in their students.
Proximity Builds Trust
Schools and districts are rarely transformed from desks with closed doors. Every interaction is an opportunity to both learn from and be of service to someone else. The more we are around each other, the more we will trust each other. Being around each other also gives us more opportunities to truly appreciate the unique gifts and talents others bring to our schools. This is why it’s incredibly frustrating for teachers when they are evaluated on small 30 minute lessons. There is so much more that goes into teaching that cannot be captured in that amount of time. When we spend time supporting and encouraging teachers in classrooms every week, we get a much fuller picture of the impactful work they are doing with students on a daily basis. Not to mention, so many little conversations and little interactions are opportunities to problem solve and work through things together. Less email. More small conversations.
Will Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality, was able to turn 11 Madison Park into the #1 restaurant in the world. He did so not by making the most unique food in the world or creating the most fancy of restaurants. He did it by tapping into a human need we have that will hold true until the end of time. The need to be well-cared for. So much of excellent leadership is not revolutionary. However, in a world filled with busy and in a time of so many initiatives and high pressure, taking great care of others can feel revolutionary. In this new year, may we all reflect upon how we can do less of what doesn’t matter as much, so we can do more of what matters most. In doing so, the work gets better and so do we. – Meghan
Meghan is a lover of learning who believes in the goodness of people, Meghan works to cultivate necessary space that honors the humanity of all people. She promotes storytelling, the exchange of ideas, and risk-taking. She is passionate about disrupting the status quo and creating kinder, forward-thinking communities of action. Meghan is also intensely curious about how to enhance the customer experience in schools. Meghan began her career in the English Language Arts classroom. So, inevitably, her mantra is Words Matter. In her nineteen years in the field of education, she has worked in all levels of K-12 education as a teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and educational consultant.
Educators have been thrust into a world of infinite access to programs, tools, and information telling them what, how, and when to teach kids how to read, write, speak, listen, and think. I often find myself as a recipient of the question, “Lauren, you have been in education for a while… What program do you like? Do you believe in a balanced literacy approach to instruction? How can we embed the Science of Reading approaches into instruction successfully? Can we blend both approaches together? What philosophy has impacted learners the most? Here’s how I feel. I am fortunate to have worked in many places that have had different populations of students, employed different systems, and embraced different perspectives to teaching and learning. I have implemented a variety of programs, have analyzed a plethora of assessments, developed curriculum and approaches to instruction to create intentional, personalized learning experiences for learners. Here’s the thing, initiatives and programs will come and go, but it is the people who implement them who remain the constant. In the educational landscape we live in, it’s inevitable. How many of you have walked into classrooms and have found stacks of literacy and content materials that have accumulated over the course of time? Each book, resource, or learning tool you pick up in that stack is most likely a strong reminder of the leadership team of that time period, their vision, priorities, and perhaps even their mission to make their mark. Do you find that each time the pendulum swings in education, you are desperately holding on to the practices that have worked and were happy to let go of others? That is because there is not one program that works for all. Not one. If there was one way, one program, one approach that worked for all learners, we would all be using it. Great educators will take the best from different approaches to learn about students and then teach them.
Sit in the Driver’s Seat
That said, when educators step into the field of education, they will be introduced and “trained” in various approaches to instruction by their school districts. But we simply cannot rely on our school districts to solely build capacity within the educators they serve. Since there are different kids sitting in front of us every year, they are coming to us with different skills and needs. Therefore, it is an educator’s professional obligation to sit in the driver’s seat of their learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros and Katie Novak share, “If we do not see ourselves in the word “learners” within the realm of education, we will never be able to bring out the best in ourselves or others who are involved in this profession. Learning, at all levels, is paramount to the work we do in education.”
Every Learner Should Get What They Need and Deserve
I am not writing this blog post to get into a debate about which instructional approaches are better than the other. There is enough debate in the universe about that. I am writing because over the course of time, I have come to understand that students may not remember a single lesson their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the teachers who had found a way to leverage learning through an asset based lens in order to level up literacy experiences for all. The great educators I am talking about continuously keep kids at the heart of decision-making. They know that every learner who walks through the doors of a school building should get what they need and deserve. They know that every learner has different backgrounds, learning styles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. They look at the whole learner and will notice and name what they need to create a purposeful plan. When they recognize the plan is not working, they pivot in real-time as students work towards mastery. However, what is important to bring to light, is that educators simply cannot look at the whole learner without recognizing who they are as human beings first. In Katie Martin’s book Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm, she highlights this idea, “People are more confident, passionate, and motivated to do better work, when you focus on what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. Creating a learning community that empowers learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their assets, rather than dwell on their deficits, maximizes their motivation, contribution, and impact.”
Level Up Learning For All
As I continue to lead, teach, and embrace a comprehensive approach to learning, here are some ideas that focus on leveraging the human aspect of learning and level up literacy experiences for all:
4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and Level Up Literacy For All
Click HERE to access the infographic for discussion.
1. Lean into Learners:How will you invest time in getting to know and intentionally connect with your learners?
Idea 1: Learning Surveys and Community Questions – Learn about who your students are by asking them meaningful questions over the course of the year and utilize their interests/background to embed into instructional planning. HERE are George Couros’ 5 Questions. These open-ended questions have elevated learning experiences across all content areas and have ensured that my instructional approaches are rooted in students’ interests. I have had students, families, and colleagues answer these questions through Google Forms, Flip Video, and in print/digital writing spaces (i.e. notebook or Google Docs). Also, during a recent middle school department meeting I facilitated, I asked the teachers, “What book turned you into a reader?” in a Wakelet collaboration space. Answers were curated in text and picture format. The answers to this question ignited rich discussion about reading identities. HERE is an example. Students can easily participate in this activity. Not only will they continue to develop their reading identities, but they will start recommending books to each other. What better way to cultivate excitement around reading in a more personalized way?
2. Layer Stories into Learning:How can you intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
Idea 2: Storytelling – Weaving personal stories and capitalizing on the experiences of students makes learning more meaningful and exciting. HERE is a blog post titled Layering Stories into Learning and a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives:
Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
I was thinking about…
I remember when…
Let me tell you a story…
Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
This is making me think…
I’m realizing that…
Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
Your story is making me think…
Your story is making me wonder…
3. Launch and Leverage Choice – How can you empower students to develop agency and take ownership of their learning?
Idea 3: Utilize Choice Boards and Menus – In the Edutopia article, The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels, Stephan Merrill and Sarah Gonser share, “…by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions.” Providing choice can show students you value how they want to learn, develops agency, and empowers them to explore the learning process through multiple pathways. I have used Literacy Choice Boards and Menus for students to access previously taught skills in order to strengthen their understanding of them. They completed the activities independently, in partnerships, and/or small groups.
4. Lift Writing and Link Ideas– What practice can help you connect with learners and elevate writing across content areas?
Idea 4: Dialogue Journals: Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. Learn more about dialogue journals in more detail clicking on a previous blog post HERE.
Investing in the Emotional and Instructional Deposit Box
The pendulum in education will continue to swing and as long as we are living in that world, we will continue to watch and feel it. If we want to be mindful about keeping students at the epicenter of the important work we do, we can better identify what students need to grow as human beings and learners. In Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched, she says, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” The ideas shared above can offer opportunities to enhance connections, interactions, and literacy experiences across the disciplines. Educators will always be inundated with programs, district initiatives, and trends. But, if we want to make the most impact on student learning outcomes, creating learning experiences designed to understand the learner is an investment in the emotional and instructional deposit box and time well spent!
When I was a young learner I was told I wasn’t a strong reader. “Lauren is a nice girl, but struggles with comprehension” are words that would follow me into almost every grade level and were written on every report card I would see. In the book Choice Words, Peter Johnston shared, “The language that teachers (and their students) use in the classroom is a big deal.” Words can be heavy. Words can be impressionable. Words matter. And since I first heard them, those particular words shaped my perception of myself. Since those words were spoken, they have managed to stick to my head and heart. Looking back, I realize that reading was presented as a one size fits all experience. My memories of reading in grade school are opening a basal reader, turning to page 117 and reading the same story as my other classmates. After reading, I’d answer canned questions and then wait in line for my teacher to check the answers with a familiar double sided red and blue pen. I’d receive a blue check mark if the low level thinking questions were correct and a red X if I needed to go back to my seat and revise the answer that could be located right in the textbook. I don’t recall a strong consideration for my interests, my zone of proximal development, being asked questions to push my thinking, or being taught specific strategies that would strengthen my comprehension and build my confidence as a reader. I am not faulting my teachers, I truly believe that I am a reflection of the educational landscape and approaches from that particular time period.
From that moment on, I hated reading. There, I said it. In my young mind, I knew this was totally unacceptable since my Dad was an English teacher and my Mom a special educator and reading teacher. So, how could this be? Well, since I was told I wasn’t a great reader, I abandoned it all together. But, there was one exception, I would read the occasional teen magazine that I begged my Mom to purchase for me especially if Patrick Swayze or a member from The New Kids on the Block graced the covers. Yes, in the 80s that was motivation enough for me to read! It wasn’t until my 20s when I picked up the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer recommended by a convincing friend, that I rediscovered the magic of what it meant to be lost in a good book. During the time of me reading this series, those around me knew they would literally have to rip these books out of my hands if they wanted me to give them any sort of focus or attention.
Opportunity Lives in Obstacles
You see, opportunity lives inside our obstacles. What I have come to learn over a slow period of time is that it is not always the obstacles we face that are hard, but it is how we see the very obstacles we are living. Facing those obstacles can open new paths, eventually showing us where to go. I’m currently reading Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. In his book he shared, “What impedes us can empower us.” So, I ask you, How have you overcome obstacles when you were told you couldn’t do something well?
Let Your Own Story Captivate You
Sometimes, I will allow my own story to captivate me. And somehow I’ve realized that it has provided hope for myself and others. How could a child who “hated” reading embrace the roles of classroom teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, assistant principal, and now the director of literacy?
Throughout my career I have been tested with obstacles. Haven’t we all? After my 2nd year of teaching I sat in my principal’s office, the same place I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to have a classroom of my own, except now I was 9 months pregnant with my first child, “Lauren, you are an amazing teacher, but we aren’t going to have the budget for your position next year.” A few months later, I went back to work with a two month old baby at home and set up a whole classroom in a new building with one day’s notice. “Lauren, we want you to be in our school, but you will have to clean out a room that’s storing 50 boxes from a retired teacher and you only have today to do it.” When I realized I wanted to hone my craft and teach kids how to read, I jumped at an opportunity to take a leave replacement as a reading specialist in a district close to home. “Lauren, you are doing a great job, but you will have to wait a little longer for this position to become probationary.” A little later in my career I was told that my instructional coaching role would be dissolved so that the funds could be used towards a new program. “Lauren, you are a talented educator, but ……” I think you see where I am going.
While living the obstacles mentioned above, the feelings of disappointment and uninvited challenges were hard and at times, hurtful. Each of those experiences brought me back to the words “Lauren, is a nice girl, but struggles with comprehension.” However, it is now clear to me that adversity can turn into advantage when you let it. Ryan Holiday brilliantly states, “When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go-carving you a path.” Throughout my journey, I have turned obstacles into opportunities. Here are suggestions I have authentically embraced for turning obstacles into new paths:
5 Suggestions for Turning Obstacles Into New Paths
1. Create your own opportunities – Don’t wait for the right opportunities to find you, go find them. You can and you will. You are capable. Believe in yourself.
2. Don’t let others define your worth – There will be many times you will hear the words “no” or “but”. Have faith in yourself. Your gifts are meant to be shared at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. That“no” will eventually turn into “yes” and that “but” will turn into “and”.
3. Let disruptors in your path serve as lessons – There will be unexpected things that will happen as you try to reach your goals and ultimate destination. Learn from them and capitalize on those experiences to accelerate your growth.
4. Be the narrative you want to create – As Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You are in the driver’s seat of your story. Don’t let anyone else tell it, it’s yours to create and share.
5. Let go of people and things that no longer serve you – There are people who will come, go, and stay with you. Let go of those who no longer elevate you, but be grateful for the impact they once made on your path. Hold onto those memories; they are markers for the person you are becoming.
Adversity Turned Into Advantage
Just as every other obstacle became a new path, the year my instructional coaching role was eliminated was the year I went back into the classroom to serve as a reading specialist. During one of the hardest years in educational history, I took everything I learned from all of the roles I served in, closed my classroom door and figured out how to reimagine the magic of the workshop model in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously. During that time a mentor who saw my potential as an educator and writer asked me if I’d like to publish this work in an educational journal titled Designing Effective Distance and Blended Learning Environments K-12. This work led me to recently standing in front of a crowded room waiting to present at the #NCTE22 (The National Council of Teachers of English) national conference. While I was waiting to bring to life what I had learned with my students about Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model, the year I went back into the classroom, I thought about the obstacles that led me to that moment.
When I looked in the mirror that morning, I saw the little girl in front of me who was told she wasn’t a strong reader. She had made it to a place she and others perceived wasn’t possible. Setbacks are a part of the course of life. You can see obstacles as blockades or you can choose to push through them. The barriers that were once in the way can become a new path. “…obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and ultimately, to triumph. The obstacle is the way.” – Ryan Holiday
The heartbeat of education lives inside the walls of schools. Within those walls you can find stories of kids and teachers in the mess of learning. You will watch students, teachers, and staff buzzing about the halls and classrooms igniting discussion, cultivating curiosity, instilling joy, leading with empathetic hearts and smiling through it all. The epicenter of those learning spaces will captivate and inspire you to listen more intently. You will see new things and look through lenses you may have not considered before. You don’t have to search for the big things to see good things happen. The small things matter too.
I often reminisce about my days in the classroom. When I became an educator, I wanted to show my students what they were capable of. I wanted to help them find their voices. I wanted to provide a sense of hope that would continuously stir within. Inside my classroom walls, you could find stories and moments of impact that shaped the educator I am today. Those stories turned into sound bites, short episodes of lessons I’d later learn from. They were opportunities to personalize learning experiences and were a bridge that connected me to people. In those walls, I learned to embrace my own gifts so I could help my students find theirs.
A few weeks ago I stood by the fence over looking the football field at my hometown’s homecoming game. As I gazed onto the field, I thought about how just a couple of years ago, I was teaching in the middle school walls that were just a few feet away. Within those walls, I learned a lot of new things. But most of all, I learned patience, flexibility, and perseverance during a year of uncertainty. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by two familiar voices. “Mrs. Kaufman, Mrs. Kaufman, is that you?” one boy yelled trying to catch his breath. I quickly turned around. Although I was startled by the unexpected encounter, I could feel my face smiling big. “Oh my goodness, Ben and Sebastian, here you are. It’s so good to see you! How have you been?” I replied as I saw them both smiling back at me. The other boy looking taller than ever responded. “Mrs. Kaufman we were in your reading class in 7th-grade. What happened to you last year? We were looking for you in 8th-grade when we needed to see a smile.” In that moment, my heart melted. Was it a small thing like a smile all it took to leave a legacy in their hearts? That was the year I left to embark on my leadership journey in another school district. This special interaction made me think about a sentiment shared in the book Because of A Teacher, Volume II. In the book, George Couros said, “What is amazing about education as a profession is that what you do impacts people who later go out and impact people. In this sense, teachers will never get the recognition they deserve because their impact can be infinite.”
Now that I am a district administrator, the opportunities to have an infinite impact and influence on students can become more limited (if I let it). So I regularly ask myself, How can I find ways to continuously expand my impact and broaden my influence as an instructional leader? What helps me process this question is that I have come to understand that impact and influence lives in every level of an organization. It’s the people in systems that have the potential to do amazing things.
As I continue on my journey and evolve into the instructional leader I wish to become, I have committed to the following ideas to help expand my impact and broaden my influence within the walls of schools:
Be Human-Centered – Connections are cornerstones to our hearts. Recognize that educators are people first and learn what they care about outside the walls of education.
Lead with Empathy – Meet people where they are in conversations. Guide and support their journey by being less reactive and more responsive to their needs.
Provide Thoughtful Feedback – Use a coaching lens and ask questions that will lead people to finding their own answers to challenges. Then give feedback that will elevate their ideas “It sounds like you…” and “I am wondering if…” HERE are some coaching stems to help guide conversations.
Recognize the Gifts in Others – Listen to people attentively. You will discover their strengths and areas of expertise. Develop those gifts and capitalize on their knowledge to cross-pollinate ideas across an organization.
Keep Kids at the Heart of Decision-Making- When you keep the conversations focused on what is best for kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual growth, your impact and influence will touch the lives of many students even though you may not directly work with them.
So, if you are like me and are continuing on your leadership path, consider embracing the ideas above and opening the doors to schools and classrooms. You will find so much goodness living inside the walls. Although you do not have a classroom to call your own, you can still find ways to step into the mess of learning. When you miss the moments of impact you experienced with your own students, take a leap of faith and open a classroom door. Recently, I walked through one and was greeted by a teacher with the warmest, most genuine smile. “Look at that smile,” I said. The teacher replied “Well, it matches yours, Lauren.” Once again, I was reminded that the small things matter. You have influence, your impact is infinite and your smile and the hope you instill will live on.
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!
There are seasons in our lives where we find ourselves starting from the beginning. Beginnings aren’t always easy, but they can be beautiful. Beginnings can put you into uncomfortable places, but they can push you to be a better version of yourself. Beginnings can be scary, but they can open doors to new opportunities you didn’t know existed.
New beginnings live in the evolution of our personal and professional lives. They are a constant reminder that there are new people, places, and ideas that you didn’t know existed. There is always a door to a new beginning, you just have to choose to walk through it to find the goodness on the other side.
Walking Through a New Door
Recently, I walked through a new door when I began a new role as a district leader. The most challenging part of beginning a new role is not instantly knowing all the amazing educators and students in the way you would like. There is a bit of a different feeling as a building administrator; I felt like I was handed a built- in family. And while I continue the transition from building to district leader, I am continuously searching for avenues to connect with the new people who’ve been placed in my path.
This transition led me to ask…when making a shift to a new season in your life, How can you keep hope in reach when embarking on new beginnings? Can a collection of small intentional moves have the potential to make a bigger impact? One of the small moves I have invested in is using my passion for books, love of literacy, and learning to build and strengthen connections. Books can build bridges that manifest relationships and instill joy in ourselves and others. I am in a constant pursuit of searching for new, engaging titles that can generate excitement and cultivate curiosity. Books can also be entry points for storytelling. Stories are windows into our personal experiences and the stories in the books you share will allow you to discover beautiful connections. When given the opportunity to transact with small moments from books, you can use them to illuminate pieces of your own life with others.
While thinking about the impact books have had on connecting with people in my personal and professional life, I became committed to never leaving my office for the day without a few engaging picture books in my bag. When visiting buildings, there is magic in retrieving a book from my bag. That simple gesture ignites new conversations, brings unexpected smiles to faces, and levels the playing field in any context. By simply holding and talking about a book, I have generously received invitations to read aloud in classrooms. It is an honor to be invited into a classroom, and when I am, here are the four things I will do:
Set the Stage – When introducing a book to a teacher and class, I retrieve the book from my bag and introduce it as if it’s the most magical gift you have ever unwrapped! You may say: “You will never believe the book I have in my hands! Can you guess what it is? There is something about this book that makes me want to read more! Who wants to see and hear the magic that lives inside this book?”
Tell a Book Story: Tell the students the story about how you found the book. Kids LOVE your stories and they want to hear about how that book made its way to their classroom. You may say, “I pre-ordered this magical book on Amazon and I was rushing to the mailbox every day waiting to hold it and then give the book the biggest hug I’ve ever seen. I must have read it 10 times! Can you believe it?”
Be in the Epicenter of the Action – Be a part of the classroom community. I personally love sitting with the students and their teacher on the rug (if there is one). We are all teachers and learners and will grow from the experience together. This shows the students that you are reading not just TO them, but WITH them! You may say, “Can I sit with you today? I want to read this book together! This is OUR book! And there will be places in this book where I will need your help!”
Make it Interactive– Bring the kids and adults in the room into the world of the book. One way you can do this is by using the “I say, you say” technique. Chunk words in the text in phrases and have the students echo them back! If there is repetition in the book, have the students say the word or phrase that is next in the text. They will start echoing your expressive tone and voice. You can use a gesture like pointing to the word or phrase that is coming up and then putting your hand to your ear! This gives them the signal to say the words they know will be next. Also, have them act out the emotions of characters with you! This all helps with developing fluency, reading with expression, developing reading identities, and understanding the character’s attributes and impact on the story. Plus, kids love it that they are able to read the book with you!
Recently, after I read The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster by Mo Willems in a classroom, the teacher generously shared that they learned a few new things from the interactive read aloud we experienced together. It made my day. But, the truth is, before I even sat on the rug with her students, I learned from this teacher too… It felt like the season of a new beginning and a new connection was made.
Books Invite New Beginnings
Books invite new beginnings. They can open doors to invitations to be part of classroom communities. When you walk through that door, you can begin in the place you are, and start moving toward where you want to be. Any moment is the perfect time to walk through the door. There will be goodness on the other side, especially when you bring a book…
Educators…after a fortuitous few years, the summer of 2022 greeted you with the opportunity to take a much needed collective breath. My hope is that you filled your precious time with all the things that deeply matter to you. In my world, I don’t know an educator who didn’t embrace some space and time to recharge, reconnect, reflect on the past, focus on the present, and prepare for the future in intentional ways. You have been profoundly thinking about the trajectory of the last several years in education and where that journey has led you to today. You were faced with many challenges that don’t have to be echoed in this writing, because it is clear that you have lived them. You are not the same educator you were before March of 2020. You can’t be. You have done hard things.
Throughout the course of time, you have been immersed in contemplating different ways you intend on connecting with students to focus on their social-emotional well-being. You know that is what they need to feel a sense of belonging and develop a courageous confidence to do the harder things. You have been revisiting the instructional practices you have learned should certainly stay, because they are good for kids. You have thought about practices you are ready to let go of because they are not working. You have been tirelessly working to refine your craft after experiencing an extraordinary learning curve of a lifetime. You have shown gratitude to those who have brought the best out in you when you couldn’t see it yourself. You were entrenched in bringing out the goodness in others instead of thinking about the needs of your own. You have fallen down and have picked yourself up time and time again because you are here for kids. You have done hard things.
At the beginning of the summer, I took a trip to the beach with my son Ethan. Before we got ourselves settled, we headed to the snack bar to purchase some beverages and food to enjoy for the day. I was greeted by a lovely young man who graciously smiled when he asked what he could get for us. His gaze startled me. I stared into his eyes for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably 20 seconds. And then it dawned on me exactly who he was… “Gabriel?” I said. Looking surprised, the young man responded, “Yes, that’s me, do I know you ma’am?” My smile must have covered my whole face because the memory of him reading in front of me came rushing back. “Yes, I think you do know me.” I replied. “I think you may have been in my reading class when you were in elementary school.”
I immediately saw that he was perplexed…but not for long. “Wait a minute, Mrs. Kaufman? Is that you? How could I forget you Mrs. Kaufman. You helped me to read in that little closet. Do you remember? There was no space in the school for you to have your own classroom anymore. It was right after Hurricane Sandy when our community was decimated and many of our schools were ruined. We had to house a whole other school in our building because they didn’t have one to go back to. You were moved from your classroom and taught us reading in a very small confined space.”
I couldn’t believe it, I had remembered Gabriel, but didn’t recall that I taught him during that difficult period of time. There was so much loss for me both personally and professionally in 2012, that I managed to tuck those memories away. In fact, I’m usually running away from them. I just remembered his sweet, grateful heart and his willingness to learn. With tears filling my eyes, he interrupted the beginning of my response. “Mrs. Kaufman…I am okay. I am more than okay. I am in college studying to be an engineer. Thank you for helping me read.” On the precipice of change myself, I needed to hear this as I embark on a new role as the Director of Literacy in a wonderful school district. This was the very moment that reignited the hope and confidence I needed to fully embrace the change looming on the horizon. My response to Gabriel, “My goodness, there is nothing better for a teacher to hear from a former student. Nothing. Thank you for giving me this gift today.” I walked away knowing that Gabriel and I are okay. Even after we had done hard things.
Recently, I read the book Heart! by Timothy Kanold. This beautiful sentiment from the book resonated, “Hope manifests itself in the growth we experience when we positively redirect the life of so many individuals. When we choose to become teachers and leaders of positive influence and impact, we see the people we work with as more than just members of a group. We see each student and each colleague as a person with a heart and soul just like ours.”
And just like that, your summer has faded. You are ushering in a new school year filled with hope, renewed strength, and an unwavering commitment to teach, learn, love, and empower yourselves and others. You will touch the lives of every student who walks through your classroom doors. You will use your evolution and growth as an opportunity to expand your impact and broaden your influence. And no matter what role you serve in an educational organization, you are looking forward to instilling hope and joy into the hearts of your students. Your impact is infinite. Your story continues. Your legacy will live on. In a time where teachers and administrators have left the field of education in droves, you are still here. You have done hard things.
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