Observing Through a Coaching Lens II: 3 Ideas to Leverage Learning Inside the Classroom

The Leap

Taking the leap into leadership has provided me with opportunities to expand my impact and broaden my influence in ways I couldn’t have imagined until I started living them. Through my progression from teacher, to reading specialist to instructional coach and now administrator, I have dedicated a substantial amount of time thinking about the type of leader I needed and the leader I aspire to be. This introspection has motivated me to seek out ways in which I can create nurturing spaces where teachers thrive, discover their gifts, and infuse their work with a profound sense of meaning and purpose.

Who We Are is How We Lead

If you are in the field of education, you are acutely aware of the time constraints that can become a barrier to the growth and development of educators. To address this challenge, I have strived to make every interaction with the educators in my immediate learning community and beyond as intentional as possible. During my recent listening of Adam Grant’s Re: Thinking Learning podcast, I came across a powerful statement from guest Brené Brown, “Who we are is how we lead.” This statement deeply resonated with me. At my core, I will always view myself as a teacher and a coach; this has been my guiding principle in my approach to leadership. Through my background in instructional coaching and my continuous pursuit of learning including engaging in professional development, reflective writing, reading insightful books, listening to podcasts, and observing the actions of exceptional leaders, I have to deeply value the power of leading and living through a coaching mindset. 

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

Last year, I wrote a blog post titled, Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation and Transform Practice.  I asked the following questions of myself and encouraged others to think about. How can I continue to be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve? I also shared that I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. I invite you to read it as that post builds on the ideas I am going to share in this writing. 

Click HERE to read the previous post.

In addition to the ideas I have shared in my previous post, each year I will continue to refine my approaches and have added the following ideas to my previous post:

 3 Ideas to Leverage Learning During the Classroom Visit of the Observation Process

Lean into Learning: There is so much to see when you enter a classroom space. At times,it can become overwhelming if leaders cannot pinpoint what they are looking to learn with the teacher and students. As stated in my previous post, I ground the observation process in the mission and vision of the school district and facilitate conversations that clearly focus on the district’s priorities. The pre-observation conversation is a great time for a leader and a teacher to select a learning focus together with those ideas in mind. This year, I continued with a learning focus that is rooted in lifting the level of classroom talk. In many conversations and professional learning experiences, I have shared Using Dialogic Conversations to Develop Oral Language from Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. The Engage, Repeat, Expand strategy and the prompts it includes has enabled teachers to plan with more intentionality and has provided students with a tool for more purposeful classroom talk. This practice has helped deepen understanding about various topics and texts, has supported students to actively listen to other perspectives, and put an emphasis on expanding one another’s academic vocabulary. 

Lift the Level of Practice: Over the last few years, I have worked toward building relationships and trust with my colleagues. In turn, when I am observing in classrooms, I have become more comfortable with providing coaching in real time. This organically happens as a lesson is unfolding and I can foresee an opportunity for students and teachers to take the learning that is transpiring to the next level. When I started developing the courage to do this, I incorporated this approach into my pre-observation conversation. It sounds something like this: “I am excited to visit your classroom and learn with you and your students. I approach observations as an opportunity to be a thinking partner with you. Since I am a teacher and instructional coach at heart, this can be a great way for me to coach into a lesson if I see there is an opportunity to take learning to the next level. How do you feel about that? The responses I have received have been positive. Often the teacher will respond by sharing that they are excited to grow their practice together and implement the ideas immediately. This year a teacher shared that it helped for me to show her how to take a more teacher-led discussion about literature and shift it to a student-led conversation. Her feedback made my year! HERE are some coaching stems that can be adapted to coach-in during a class lesson.

Listen and Learn Inside the Classroom Space: When I enter a classroom, I really try to take the experience all in. I scan the classroom walls and find the learning that lives in the landscape of the classroom. I jot down what I see in my notes so I can use a displayed teaching tool as a talking point during the post-observation conversation. It might sound something like this: Tell me more about this great anchor chart and how it elevates student learning experiences? I love that you have student work hanging in that space in the corner, tell me more about how you selected that particular work to highlight in your classroom? Additionally, I try to actively listen to as many student and teacher interactions and conversations as I possibly can. This enables me to think about how the interactions are aligned with the assessment criteria, purpose of the lesson, and the standards being addressed. As mentioned in my previous post, when I leave the classroom, I may include a portion of the conversation I heard in a Voxer Voice Note to support and celebrate the goodness I was seeing in the classroom. In that same voice note, I will leave the teacher with a wondering about what I observed. I have been told that this practice has been appreciated as teachers know that I am paying attention to their hard work and leaving them with immediate feedback and something that they can think about implementing immediately before receiving the observation write-up.

Moving Forward

The observation process becomes an invaluable opportunity to embrace a coaching mindset and elevate the quality of teachers’ and administrators’ work in schools. If approached with intention and purpose, it provides an avenue of support that can uplift educators, enhance their teaching practices, tap into their untapped potential, and bring forth their best selves.

You’re an Educator

Education is the most gratifying career I can think of. Since you are reading this post, I think you know that too. That’s because you’re an educator. You recognize that every day is an opportunity to touch the hearts and minds of the kids, colleagues, and the community you serve. You are essential. You are writing your own legacy and choosing how you will be remembered by influencing the lives of others in the most intentional ways. Every interaction you are living, big and small matters. A simple moment in time that may be a microcosm of your day, could have the possibility of leaving a lasting impression on others. The idea that the people who have crossed your path could take a piece of you with them is special.

You’re an educator. Your presence exudes inspiration and the measure of your impact knows no bounds. How many other careers have the potential to leave a lasting impression and influence how people approach their future? In the book Because of a Teacher, I shared, “When you make an effort to intentionally connect with people, you pave the way to hidden pathways of opportunity that can positively impact your future.” You recognize that the connections you intentionally build make your work matter. Those connections open doors for students to shape the minds of future leaders, innovators, and change agents. It’s because you’re an educator, you care about your students’ interests. You embed those interests into your practice so your students can find their passions, are propelled to achieve greatness, and overcome any obstacles they will face.

You’re an educator. You have the tremendous responsibility of creating safe spaces in your classrooms and instilling a sense of belonging so that students feel seen, heard and valued. In the book Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom, Julie Schmidt Hasson shared “It occurred to me that making a difference in students’ lives wasn’t just about helping them feel safe. It was also about making them feel seen. It was about demonstrating through actions that students are worthy of their teacher’s time and attention.” With your unwavering commitment, you are establishing classroom cultures of mutual trust and respect where students lead with an empathetic lens, feel more connected to each other, take ownership over their learning, and unlock their full potential.

Recently, I was walking the halls of a school building during transition time. Since I no longer have a classroom to call my own, I use this as an opportunity to connect with students and colleagues because I am still an educator. As I was walking, I heard a student calling my name. She looked awfully familiar, but I admit, I couldn’t exactly place where I had interacted with her before. I turned around and my smile met hers. “Hi, how is your day going?” I immediately asked, feeling excited that there are students who still know my name. “It’s been an interesting day, Mrs. Kaufman,” she responded looking a little deflated. “Would you like to share a little more with me?” I responded carefully inviting her to elaborate. “Yes, I would, I wanted to talk to you about something. When I saw you, I wanted to share something because I remember you telling me that you were a reading teacher when you visited my classroom a few months ago.” 

I quickly went through my file cabinet of interactions as this interaction DID seem familiar. Yes! I suddenly recalled that while I was conducting a formal observation in a classroom, this student and I had a chat. This is not unusual for me because when I go into classrooms, I like to speak with the students and teachers. Rather than being “that stranger” in the room who is documenting a lesson, I like to be a part of it.

The student went on to share, “Today, I officially have an IEP. I am not sure how I feel about it. Sometimes I struggle with understanding what I’m reading. Can you give me some advice, Mrs. Kaufman?” she responded. I paused for a moment and thought about how deeply moved and privileged I felt that this student wanted to include me in her reflection and seek my feedback. “Well, right now I am seeing a learner who is reflective and cares about her personal growth. I see you as a student who will not let this define you because you will use this as a tool to highlight your strengths and be even more intentional about working towards your goals. You are in charge of your learning!” That deflated look that this student had seconds before turned into a smile of gratitude and relief. “Thank you, Mrs. Kaufman. You must have been a great teacher.” My heart sank for a moment, longing for the teaching moments I had experienced when I was able to interact with students more regularly. When I replied, I started letting go of that feeling and I suddenly felt a sense of pride and purpose in the reminder that my role as an educator extends beyond the physical classroom and into the lives of my students. “I’ll always be a teacher.”

You’re an educator. Your influence will always extend far beyond the classroom walls and into the hearts and minds of those you touch. Keep striving to be intentional in your interactions, and know that you are making a difference in the world. Rest assured that your legacy will be felt for years to come. Stay in the work that matters. We need you.

Embracing Opportunities

A Calling

Teaching and leading is not just something you do, it’s a calling; it’s a beautiful gift; it’s an opportunity to unleash the talents within every human being you encounter; it’s a time to cultivate powerful relationships that have the chance to stand the test of time; teaching and leading creates a space to collaborate with colleagues and builds bridges to connect previous learning to new and innovative ideas. Educators and leaders are responsible for shaping significant moments in time that can leave profound imprints in the hearts and minds of every learner and colleague they touch. Teaching and leading is also hard work. It can be extremely emotional. It can be draining. But, it’s so incredibly rewarding. That said, as an educator and leader, how will you leverage your experiences to serve as a mentor for your colleagues, staff, and students, fostering their personal and professional growth in a way that leaves a lasting impact on their journeys? 

The Leader Lives Inside

The journey to becoming a great educator and leader is an ongoing process of self-discovery and eternal growth. The mentors who were and continue to be placed in your path have played a crucial role in helping you bring out the best version of yourself. As you continue to discover the leader that lives inside you, you may recognize the significant influence your mentors have contributed to the educator and leader you are becoming.

When you take a journey back in time, can you still see and hear the people who believed in your gifts and unleashed the leader inside you? I can. My story starts at a young age. When I close my eyes, I can still see myself sitting at my desk in my 4th-grade classroom. I don’t remember other classrooms as vividly as I remember this one. I can clearly see my teacher, Mrs. Roth, greeting me at the door, wearing a genuine smile of hope, and offering sincere nods of encouragement. I can feel her positive spirit permeating through my malleable heart. When you are a young learner, you are more impressionable. So, when you are lucky enough to have teachers with high emotional intelligence, they can be more responsive and less reactive to your needs. There were times I could feel myself losing the confidence I needed when learning new things or doing hard things. Regardless of how I felt, Mrs. Roth showed me appreciation for the person I had the potential to become. For example, I was a struggling reader, who lacked the stamina to persevere through a reading or writing task. When Mrs. Roth saw my head meeting my desk, I heard, “Lauren, you can do this. You’re a reader. Lauren, yes, you can do this. You’re a writer.” When I was charged with the privilege of reading aloud to younger students to instill a love of reading while improving my own reading abilities, I would hear, “Lauren, yes, you can do this. Those little ones look up to you. You’re a role model. You’re a leader.” 

Embracing Opportunities

As you progress in your career as an educator, it’s crucial to prioritize the needs and goals of students and keep them at the heart of decision-making. As you keep your eyes open to new opportunities that align with this purpose, you’ll not only develop your own capacity but also inspire and uplift those around you. It always feels important to acknowledge and appreciate the people in your past and present who have enriched your educational experiences. There will also be people you have yet to meet who will make vital contributions to your growth, and shape the leader you are striving to become. Those people are awaiting your arrival at your next destination because you were meant to be there, with them. In the book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek shares “Faith is knowing that you’re on a team, even if you don’t know who the players are.” Consider every moment on your journey as a significant step towards your future. Every action you choose to take is a chance to refine ideas and collaborate with individuals you may have not known existed. When you approach every observation and interaction as a learning experience, you are enhancing your leadership lens and embracing new opportunities that nurture your talents in unanticipated times and places. In best selling book, Atomic Habits James Clear shares “Every action we take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” When you are striving to be your personal best, you are taking necessary actions to step out of your comfort zone to explore other opportunities a little more deeply.

Moving Forward

My commitment to stepping out of my comfort zone remains unwavering and I am grateful to share that in my upcoming book, I will be illuminating stories that highlight the leader that lives within each of us.  I am grateful for the support and guidance of George and Paige Couros of IMPress books, who have always encouraged me to write, believed in me, and empowered me to amplify my voice and the voices of others. I am also appreciative of Dave and Shelley Burgess for this opportunity. As a result of my own experiences and the mentorship of great educators, leaders, and friends over the course of my life, I am committed to continuing reflecting on my learning, writing more blog posts, and using my upcoming book to connect with, empower, and inspire others to step out of their comfort zones to embrace new opportunities. My hope is that this book serves as a mentor that can lead the greater educational community to pathways of hope and promise. These defining moments in our journeys shape who we were, who we are, and who we are destined to become.  

Leading Together

Leading and learning together is a privilege. New opportunities to grow ideas and collaborate with others within an educational organization are all around you. The energy you exude as a leader can have a significant impact on the people you lead. If you acknowledge what you can’t accomplish given the vast scope of your work, others will be willing to step in, support you, and make meaningful contributions to the mission and vision of the organization in which you serve. True growth transcends when you leverage the collective experiences and expertise of the people around you. When you limit your work to your own perspective, it’s an invitation to building unnecessary barriers and missing out on invaluable insights that can propel your team to success. In the book, Lead Like a Teacher, by Miriam Plotinsky, she shared “It became increasingly clear that when leaders and teachers work together consistently with a shared desire to help students achieve, they are close to unstoppable.”

As leaders who are dedicated to learning with and from others, your intent is always to make a commitment to navigate your days with authenticity, an open heart, and mind. In making an effort to connect with others and value the purpose of the work, you can see people and things in ways you may not have noticed before. Unearthing new ideas in unexpected places opens doors to the fresh possibilities, even in the face of obstacles that can impede the optimal level of student success. 

A Missed Opportunity to Learn From

When I was a teacher, I attended a local conference with other teacher leaders and a large group of administrators. In the morning, together we attended various sessions where we expressed how excited we were to learn new things to bring back to our school district. I’ll never forget the next part of this story. During lunch, my colleagues and I sat with a few administrators, while a larger group of administrators sat at another table. Suddenly, the administrators who joined our table had abruptly left to join their colleagues. It felt somewhat awkward because their table was overcrowded while ours had empty seats. To me, this action unintentionally created a noticeable divide between teachers and administrators. Would it have been more beneficial to have quality time and inclusive conversations with educators who work directly with students and teachers to help move our schools forward? The missed opportunity at this conference highlights the importance of how leaders can be more intentional about creating more opportunities for educators to come together and share their thinking and learning, naturally bridging the gap between the role of an administrator and teacher.

Level the Playing Field

As I have mentioned in my previous writing, to me, there are no titles in education. If you have been entrusted to work with kids, someone has faith in your ability to model the behaviors you want to instill in students and colleagues around you. Therefore, the relationship between leaders, colleagues, and staff must be symbiotic in nature. By leveling the playing field, and leaving egos at the door, stakeholders can work together toward a common goal. Plotinsky also added this sentiment in her book, “When teachers and leaders do not seek to understand one another, that becomes one of the largest untapped barriers to school progress.” Having time to reflect together and talk ideas, share our successes, and challenges can become pivotal moments that help leaders capitalize on the expertise of those around us. In the book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday has shared, “Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity.”

That said, how can we build social capital by coming together to share meaningful ideas that can have a positive impact on the organizations we live in? 

Here are 3 Actionable Ideas to support the vision of Leading Together

  1. Intentionally Embrace Shared Experiences: Recently, I attended a local conference with a few of the teachers I lead. The experience I shared above at the conference I attended years ago has stayed with me. Even though I was meeting an old friend and colleague at this conference, I also made sure to get to the conference early and save seats for the teachers I work with. That morning, I found them on the other side of the room and immediately invited them to join me at the table. This small move ensured that we could connect and share ideas. In turn, they surprised me by attending the session I was facilitating, even though I tried to convince them to attend another! This strengthened our leader-teacher connection because I made the space for that time together!
  2. Proximity Counts: When I facilitate department meetings, it’s always important to me to sit with teachers. I often position my chair so that it appears that I am not the only “leader” of the meeting. This sends the message that “your voice matters” and “you are an important contributor to this discussion.”Also, by sitting with teachers and being physically closer to them, allows me to pay closer attention to nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. This helps me better understand their perspectives. This builds trust, cultivates community, and strengthens future communication and collaboration.
  3. Reflective Questioning Grows Ideas: Recently I facilitated a secondary department meeting, where I asked the following two questions:
    • What were some of your most successful teaching moments this year, and why do you think they were successful?
    • What advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of the school year, based on what you know now?

After providing some wait time, these questions opened up a wide range of discussion and allowed teachers to share best practice in an authentic way. These learning spaces create an environment where ideas are valued and learning is prioritized. At the end of the meeting, a veteran teacher whom I greatly admire said, “What I just learned is that I need to talk to my colleagues more about what they are doing. I’d like to add more creativity to my teaching.”

Moving Forward

The leaders who inspired me to want to become a leader always considered their teachers more important than themselves. How will you commit to creating spheres of influence that ensure teachers and leaders are leading and learning together? I can assure you that being intentional with this time will be a critical investment in the social capital deposit box. Never miss an opportunity to lead together to propel students and your colleagues towards success.

Finding Magic in the Now

As an educator, you deserve a well-earned break, especially with all the personal and professional obligations you face. Your hard work and dedication to your students, colleagues, and community are admirable. It can be so easy to get caught up in the minutia of your role and live in the now as there are so many important responsibilities resting on your shoulders. You care deeply about every celebration and challenge that comes your way, striving to provide unwavering support and guidance to those around you as you instill a sense of purpose for all. At times, it can be harder to find the magic in the now when it feels like you are taking on the world. That said, you are deserving of taking the time to recharge your batteries as a necessary step to maintain your physical and emotional well-being.

About a month before Spring Break, I was sitting at my work desk preparing for a big presentation while thinking about other vital commitments. I had been staring at the computer screen for quite some time with my mind completely consumed with my big “to do” list. Sound familiar? I was feeling a little overwhelmed at that moment in time when my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a phone call from my older son, Drew. “Mom, please can we go back to Disney?” Pleeeeeaaaaasssssse!” There it was. The usual question that I probably get asked almost daily.  Lately, I had been giving my kids the typical Mom responses that could possibly bide me more time. I was saying things like, “Maybe…we’ll see… and let me talk it over with Dad…” Let me be clear, Disney is not my favorite vacation. Before any assumptions are made: Disney can be truly magical, especially when you plan ahead and see it through the eyes of your children. However, the enchantment of some experiences can be overshadowed by factors such as heat, crowds, and exhaustion, making it a challenge to fully embrace and appreciate the magic they hold.

As Drew asked me the question this time, I paused and realized that my kids won’t always be so eager to ask me these things. It made me reflect on finding the magic in the now and appreciating the excitement in Drew’s voice. I wondered how much longer his enthusiasm would last. Although I cherished the time spent with my family at Disney, I had allowed the memories of exhaustion to overshadow the joy. I am guilty of doing this professionally too. I am not perfect, but I am learning that instead of dwelling in moments of the past, it can be more empowering to reflect on the present and consider where I want to be. After a long pause, the magical words finally escaped my lips, “Yes, we can go to Disney.” 

With just my two sons and me, we went on a journey to Disney where we immersed ourselves in every moment, cherishing the magic we found in the memories that will forever be etched in our hearts. I’ll always remember the sound of their laughter as the rollercoaster soared. I’ll always remember the sight of their smiles beaming through their young teenage faces as they eagerly encountered their little kid heroes Woody and Buzz in Toy Story Land. I’ll always remember the sensation of their arms wrapped tightly around mine during a ride, bracing for the unexpected twists and turns. I’ll always remember their response to the Walt Disney documentary we watched together in Hollywood Studios, “Mom,” they said, “Walt Disney failed many times before he achieved success. He persevered through all those setbacks to bring joy to countless people. He didn’t let the past determine his future.” I’ll always remember what it meant to finally say, yes. Yes, led me to finding the magic in the now.

I invite you to experience the same joy I felt through the clips I’ve shared:

So, when you come back from your well-deserved break and embark on the end of another school year, find the magic of now and use it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and be the best version of yourself. You’ve earned it. Don’t let the past hold you back. Perhaps, say yes to something you have been saying no to for some time. Finding the magic in the now, can be used as a source of strength to unlock the goodness that lives inside yourself and others. Recently, Laura Williams tweeted, “The truth is we don’t always have to know. Life isn’t always about knowing. Immerse yourself in the now. If you look for magic you will find it. It’s a miracle we even exist so own it & jump into the greatest time of your life. It’s always been right now.”  

Find the magic in moments that live inside each day. Your greatest gifts can be found in the now. Live inside them with your whole heart and carry them with you to the future. Let these moments guide you towards new and unexpected paths.

Much Closer

In the fall, I had the pleasure of listening to Kelly Gallagher, educator, writer, speaker, and author speak at a national conference across the country. Although he was incredibly inspiring then, his words seemed farther away, taking a little more time to land on my educator spirit. At the time, I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps, it was the bigger venue. Perhaps it was because I had arrived late to his session. Perhaps it was because prior to that, I was in a different room packing up my personal belongings and speaking with lingering educators after finishing the facilitation of my own session. 

Since I consider myself to be an “on time” kind of person, my mild discomfort probably started there. It took me longer to get settled into a learning space that was overflowing with a sea of educators. I remember the image vividly, every seat filled with people sitting along the perimeter of the room and in the middle of the carpeted floor. What a compliment to both Kelly and Penny Kittle who was also presenting with him. I remember thinking how proud they must have felt to look around that room and know the legacy of their literacy work has had a profound impact on the world of education. It’s the kind of work that’s so meaningful that educators walk away feeling they can implement these new practices tomorrow and see better outcomes for their students. It’s the kind of work I look up to. The kind of work that makes me better. It’s the kind of work that made my day better.  

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen to Kelly speak again at a local conference. It was four months later and this time, the day began differently. I had arrived at the venue early enough to select the table I would feel comfortable sitting at and was even able to save seats for colleagues and a longtime educator friend. After I got some breakfast and a much needed second cup of coffee, I turned my head back to the entrance to see if my friends were in view. Instead, I noticed Kelly sitting at one of the round tables in the back of the room. He was settling in and waiting for the conference to begin like everyone else. His image, once feeling so far away, suddenly, didn’t seem so far away anymore. He was much closer.

I didn’t think twice, I sprung up from my seat, walked over to his table, and greeted him with a smile and a subtle fan girl spirit. “Hi Kelly, welcome to Long Island. I saw you speak at NCTE in the fall. I am a big fan of your work.” Suddenly, I realized that his fall presentation may have had more of an impact on me than I realized at the time. It was certainly enough for me to have wanted to initiate this interaction. Kelly and I went on to have a conversation about travel, education, our shared technology issues at the last conference, and the day ahead of us. At that moment, we were just two educators, ready to embark on a day of learning. Towards the end of our conversation, I wished Kelly luck on his presentation and said I was looking forward to hearing him speak again. He replied, “Good luck with your presentation today too, Lauren.”

In that moment, I quickly remembered that once again I was given the opportunity to present and felt incredibly grateful to be able to share practices I am passionate about with other educators. Afterall, professional learning is not just something educators do. It’s a choice. It’s an obligation to help themselves and others grow into the learners and thinkers they are capable of being. 

A little later on, I stood in an empty room, setting up for my presentation. As I scanned the empty room, I envisioned this sentiment: If I can make even one person’s day better, I have done my job. While I was talking with a few people I knew, I briefly looked up and noticed that the room wasn’t so empty anymore. Instead, it was filling up quickly. In fact, it began overflowing with a sea of educators, eventually filling every seat in the room. Then, I looked up again and saw that educators had begun pulling chairs from other areas to join the learning space, while others were sitting on the floor. 

There were a few moments where I unexpectedly paused during my presentation to internally reflect on the educator I am continually becoming and asked myself, Am I too beginning to create a legacy that leaves a profound impact on the educators who cross my path?  When the presentation concluded, a familiar woman approached me. She shared, “Lauren, I saw you present at NCTE and was so excited to be here to see you again. This is the kind of work I look up to, the type of work that makes me better.” I smiled and replied, “Well, it is an honor that you chose to spend your time with me again. I am grateful.” She looked back at me and said, “Lauren, I came back because you had an impact on me, not to mention, last time, I was sitting so far away, this time you were much closer.”

Living in Stories

Living in Stories

Stories are windows into the soul. They are hidden treasures that are buried beneath a sea of hopes, wishes, dreams. They are small moments in time that pass you by. They are memories that enrapture your heart and wrap around your spirit. They are the hidden paths to who you were, who you are, and what you are destined to become. You are a collection of invisible stories strung together and concealed by your external being. Stories bind us to people. They are entry points to connection and open pathways to your learning journey. They shape your core identity; they are a reflection of your perception, values and what you stand for. Stories are windows into our experiences. They are the ammunition that pushes you down the path to self-discovery. Your stories are living in mind memory boxes waiting to be courageously unwrapped and gifted to people who will use them to discover ideas and recognize their own passions.

As I have navigated over four decades of living including seventeen years in education I have lived the stories that have propelled me to be the leader I am becoming. I was born into a family of educators. My grandfather, my parents, my sister, and I all have stories to tell. Although each story is unique and special, mine is a little different as I am the first person in my family to have stepped into a formal leadership role. Along with my family, there have been people who have paved a path to my development and growth as a human being, educator, and leader. Some walked into my life for minutes, some for hours, some for days, and some for years. Some are more present than others, some have come and go, while others have remained by my side. Those people have likely seen me through the big and small wins, helped me navigate the obstacles I have faced, and have valued me for the person I am, not for the title I have served in. All of these people are important because they have shown me who I want and don’t want to be. For that, I am truly grateful. 

Stories Are Fuel

In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros brilliantly says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the facade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. Where are you creating spaces for educators to share how they found their path to education and leadership through stories?

We all have a story that captures how we journeyed to the path to leadership. Recently, I was asked to join a group of women to speak about my story that led me to leadership at an educational event. As I stood in the center of a wall to wall crowded room of influential women, my eyes scanned and surveyed it. As upbeat music played to greet the participants who chose to share the learning space with my colleagues and me, my mind wandered into a state of reflection. How did I get here? Who helped me see my potential and why didn’t others? Have I become a person of influence? Am I supposed to be here? One by one, ten women I admire and adore shared their stories with others, their path to leadership through vulnerability and grace. I noticed that they all had something in common. They gave recognition to others for the person they are continually becoming. That’s because leadership is not a business of “I”, it’s a business of “we”. When it was my turn to speak, I shared, “Getting to the place I am now did not come easily. It took some pretty amazing people to recognize my strengths and pick me up during the times when I had fallen down. There have been many remarkable moments in my career, but there have also been some disappointments. You see, we need those moments too. They support your personal evolution, your path to transformation. They help you see that happiness doesn’t just exist in where we are, it lives in what we have to do to get there.” So I ask, Where are you now and where do you want to be? In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he says, ‘Your life bends in the direction of your habits. Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.’ When I reflect on my past and present experiences, I often ask myself, “Who is the leader you wish to become Lauren?” My answer is “I wish to become the leader I always needed.” No matter where your journey takes you, your actions create a collection of stories that can positively impact others. 

Moving Forward
Stories are lenses that formulate perspectives and cultivate community. They are sound bites, and short episodes of our lives. They are opportunities to personalize classroom experiences, make connections to new learning, and a bridge that connects us with people to form new ideas. In chapter 3 of the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas C. Murray passionately wrote, “Weaving together our experiences creates our story, makes us who we are, and determines the context in which we each learn.” Understanding and sharing our own stories and the stories within our school organizations forges deeper connections that lead to deeper learning. Understanding stories values the uniqueness of each individual and brings purpose to authentic work. As we proceed with our lives, we will encounter new opportunities and people who are waiting to meet us. It can be exciting to think about a team of people we have not yet met, but will eventually become a constant in our lives. Although every person has guided my direction, I have realized that we all have the divine power to choose our own paths, our ultimate destination. We can take our experiences, our stories, our lessons learned to bring our hopes and dreams to fruition. What will you do to intentionally shape the narratives you want to create and write the stories you want to be a part of?

The Leader Inside

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:

  1. “The words we speak create our reality.”
  2. “Whatever we swear to, we create the truth.”
  3. “The word is a force, and it can create happiness or suffering.”
  4. “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
  5. “The way we communicate can either heal or destroy.”
  6. “The first agreement is the key to everything, because it opens the door to the other three agreements.”
  7. “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.

Moving Forward

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.

Unleashing Greatness Within

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.

Imparting Courage

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.