Turning Obstacles Into New Paths

Words Matter

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. 

Abandoning Reading

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

Leaders Can Live in the Mess of Learning

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Books Invite New Beginnings

Beginnings

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…

A NOTE TO EDUCATORS…You Have Done Hard Things

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.

Celebrating Instructional Coaches Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Always

I was recently asked about the impact an instructional coach can have on an organization by a well-respected colleague. My first physical response, a genuine smile. My first internal thought, now THIS is a thoughtful question and a meaningful conversation I can’t wait to be a part of. Then, the words from my grateful heart said, “I appreciate you being interested in the work of an instructional coach, really THANK YOU!” I believe in the work of instructional coaches and will highlight and celebrate their work every chance I get. As I stated in my previous blog post titled Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice, “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.”

I served in the role of instructional coach for five years and without the experience, I am not sure if I’d be the leader I am evolving into today. Let me be clear, I am well-aware that it is not a role that is easily understood in an educational organization and perhaps not embraced by all. There are times when the work of a coach may not always be visible or noticed, especially when coaches are in the midst of researching, gathering resources, preparing professional learning experiences, and refining curriculum. Instructional coaching is a role that rests on the shoulders of mutual understanding, partnership, collaboration, connection, reciprocity, and trust. I will always celebrate the work of instructional coaches because it’s a role that is capable of shifting approaches to teaching and learning while keeping your most precious stakeholders at the heart of decision-making, students. 

While the epicenter of the role is cultivating strong relationships with teachers, this takes time and patience. Instructional coaches, I am celebrating you because I know you do not give up on this process because you know the colleagues and students you serve are worth it. You also understand that your role will not be palatable for all. I’ll admit, when I was a coach, perhaps I wasn’t for everyone. I wasn’t okay with it then, but l’m at peace with it now. I am not perfect…I’m always a work in progress. Could I have been better at times? Sure. Could I have tried harder at times? Sure. Could I have been more empathetic at times? Sure. Could I have smiled more consistently? Sure. Could I have misunderstood the needs of others? Sure. Overtime, I have reflected on every interaction I’ve experienced. I attribute the solid collection of interactions I’ve endured to shaping the leader I am and are continuously striving to be. Living this role paved the way to practices I passionately employ as an instructional leader today. The coaching mindset I embrace is an invitation to grow, support, and distribute leadership across an organization while keeping the focus on teaching and learning.

Coaches, as you embark on a new school year, I am celebrating YOU and the work you continue to embark on to create spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future of education.

I am celebrating you because I know that growing into your role will require an armor of vulnerability, fortitude, confidence, and intuition. Your intellectual courage and emotional intelligence will encourage teachers to use their voices to reflect on the educators they were, are, and are striving to be! 

I am celebrating you because you are nurturing relationships with teachers that will cultivate an inspirational culture of learning for your educational communities.

I am celebrating you because you are navigating relationships between administration and teachers to build bridges to meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.

I am celebrating you because you put yourselves into vulnerable places when you are co-creating lessons and modeling best instructional practices with your colleagues present.

I am celebrating you because you are elevating and recognizing teachers’ gifts, honoring their practices, recognizing their work, and cross-pollinating ideas with other teachers and educational communities.

I am celebrating you because you are working tirelessly to refine curriculum, instruction, and assessments with teachers to personalize instruction and meet the needs of all learners. 

I am celebrating you because you are endlessly supporting teachers, serving as mentors, and participating in purposeful conversations as a thinking partner and guide.

I am celebrating you because you are creating relevant resources and swiftly getting them into the hands of educators who need them. 

I am celebrating you because you are intentionally creating inspiring and motivating professional learning experiences that fit into the mission, vision, and priorities of your school districts.

Coaches, I am celebrating YOU!  Your school districts made an important commitment to investing in continuous job-embedded professional learning and creating spaces for your work to blossom and grow. 

Keep throwing yourself into the work you believe in with your whole heart. Keep living it and loving it because education needs you. You became an instructional coach because you have made positive contributions to the field of education. Someone believed that your impact is capable of influencing and inspiring others while you work toward building capacity from within.  I’m an instructional coach at heart and will continue to celebrate your work yesterday, today, tomorrow, and always.

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

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

Leaning into Time

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

A New School Year Breathes Life

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE to print the infographic for discussion.

1 . Connection is a Learning Tool

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

George Couros 5 Questions

2. Recognize Your Core Values 

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

3. Instill Hope and Joy

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

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

4. Reimagine Learning Spaces

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

Where do learners get their best ideas? 

Where can they grow and nurture them? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

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

The Roles We Serve in Are More Than Stepping Stones

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

Looking Back to Move Forward

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

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

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

1. Leverage Your Gifts

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

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

2. Empower Colleagues and Kids

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

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

3. Everyone is a Leader

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

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

4. Embrace Humanness

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

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

5. You Mirror the People You Surround Yourself With

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

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

6. You Add Value to Education: Build Your Network

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

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

Moving Forward

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

Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

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

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

Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

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

My Instructional Coaching Mindset:

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

Moving Forward

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