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.

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.

6 Actions Great Leaders Do

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

Choices

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

6 ACTIONS GREAT LEADERS DO

CLICK HERE PRINT THE CARD FOR DISCUSSION

THEY:

Level the Playing Field

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

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

View Perspectives

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

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

Embrace Empowerment

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

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

Shine the Light 

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

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

Pave the Way

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

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

Invest the Time

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

So, I ask you…

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

Great Leaders Give You Wings

“Many leaders are scared about developing people and then having them leave. They should be more worried about not developing people and having them stay.” A few months ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and immediately copied this quote from George Couros’ tweet and pasted it right into the notes section of my phone. I read it several times, and then I read it some more. 

What Resonated?

There was something about the sentiment above that resonated with me. Could it be because I recently left a school district where I thought I would retire to embark on a new educational journey as a school leader? Could it be that it’s because I served in many roles throughout my career and thought about all of the educators who have motivated me to take risks, try new things, share my learning and gifts with others, while helping to pave the way to advocate for my personal and professional growth? Could it have been the leaders’ ability to clearly communicate a vision and develop that vision with the staff and students? Was it that these exceptional leaders included all of the appropriate stakeholders in the decision making process instead of having a few people “in the room where it happens? Perhaps it’s because these words encouraged me to reflect on the qualities those inspiring leaders possessed to help guide me and others to a new direction. Perhaps it was their ability to foster relationships within the school community by ensuring everyone felt invited and welcomed. Maybe it was their strong instructional lens that would enable them to be viewed as credible instructional leaders who had a firm grasp on teaching and learning and could teach students and staff at any given time. Was it their ability to leave their ego at the door by focusing on people, not titles, putting trust in others, and continuously building capacity from within? I think all of these attributes of great leaders I’ve encountered contributed to the leaps of faith I have taken throughout my career.

Here are some more of my observations about Leaders Who Develop Leaders:

They…

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

In the book Lead From Where You Are: Building Intention, Connection, and Direction in Our School, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo shares, “Finding those who push your thinking and support you in the journey is key to moving forward–and transforming your school community into a group of potential leaders.” Joe is right. There are those who we meet along the way who become a vital part of your team. Whether they come into your life for a few moments, a few hours, a few days, weeks, or years, these are people who can make a profound impact on your growth and development as a professional and human being. They see something in you… they can see the spark that ignites ideas and your ability to change the trajectory of the lives of others. They see that you can rally people together to create meaningful change. They see your positive spirit, your ability to listen to understand, and an action oriented approach to creation and innovation. Great leaders view themselves as thinking partners as you navigate the ebbs and flows of an ever changing educational landscape. They are helping you row in the direction you want to be in while keeping kids at the core of the journey. Dr. Sanfelippo brilliantly added the following reflective questions, “The question is not, are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space? The question is, how are you going to be remembered as the leader in your space?” So I ask you, what type of leader do you want to be? If you choose to commit to recognizing the gifts in others and see the value they bring to your organization, will you give them wings and let them fly?

4 Ways Leaders Can Create Cultures of Learning Ecosystems

I have always valued leaning into the people in our organizations for support as we continue to navigate an evolving educational landscape. However, as a new administrator, I have come to recognize more than ever that there is a tremendous positive impact on our system when we collectively build social capital and rely on each other’s strengths to personalize and meet the needs of our learners and colleagues. 

We live in learning ecosystems; infrastructures influenced by purpose, relationships, new understandings, collaboration, innovation, and response to the challenges we endure.

Our ecosystems are a collection of people, perspectives, knowledge, skills, hopes, and desires for the future; when we intentionally leverage the gifts of our teams, we have the ability to strengthen our circle of influence and the communities in which we serve. Creating a culture of interdependence and “we” can rest on the shoulders of the leadership within learning ecosystems. In Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, he defines interdependence, “Interdependence is the paradigm of wewe can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.”  

How can leaders create a culture that supports educators to live in learning ecosystems that grow through challenges and thrive in the face of change? 

Create the Right Conditions

Instructional leadership is about creating the conditions that motivate and encourage educators to improve, thrive, fail, and reflect. In the book Essential Truths for Principals by Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker, they say, “Instructional leadership is not about being an expert though; it is about cultivating the expertise in your building. It is about creating a culture of collaboration where teachers learn from one another and inspire one another.” Leaders will not have all of the answers, but they will ask some really good questions. They will empower teachers to take the lead on pursuing their interests, finding their passions, and develop solutions to instructional barriers. 

Ideas:

  • Create optional meeting times that provide a platform for sharing best practices; perhaps a book club or discussion of a brief article may spark some ideas 
  • 10 minute intervisitations with a targeted focus can help support and grow instructional practices  

Question for Reflection:

How can you create spaces for educators to share and leverage their strengths and struggles?

Embrace the Small Things

In my recent blog, It’s the Small Things, I share, “You see, it’s the small wins that add up to the big things. When you love what you do, you have the motivation to remain courageous in your convictions. Even the setbacks you experience have the potential to become aha moments that fuel new ideas and catapult your drive for the person you wish to become. It’s the small things that pave the way to the big things.” Leaders can recognize that every interaction big and small makes a difference in the work we do EVERY DAY. Take advantage of creating personal connections and finding JOY and PURPOSE in the present as Joe Sanfelippo advises in THIS inspiring brief video tweet. School culture is created in little moments of gratitude and appreciation.

Ideas:

  • Leave a handwritten note in someone’s mailbox or send them a voice note on Voxer with a compliment and/or noticing
  • Skip the email and have personal conversations: ex. visit classrooms and give “in the moment” feedback. Tell that person what it is that you saw and appreciated. “It is so awesome when you…tell me more about this!” 

Question for Reflection:

What small things can you do to contribute to building a strong school culture?

Lead with Heart

In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he says “Empathetic teachers think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not teacher.” This notion made me think: Empathetic leaders think about the school environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the teacher, not the leader. Couros goes on to say, “New ideas start with understanding the needs of those you serve.” Leaders who continue to recognize people are at the heart of the work and are each other’s greatest resources will see learning and innovation flourish. Include educators in the decision making and listen to their ideas because they are true professionals with vast experiences on the front lines. 

Ideas:

  • Ask teachers: What do you look for in a school leader? How can I support your learning and growth? What are you passionate about? How can we leverage your strengths to support our professional learning community?
  • Let Teachers Lead: Create opportunities for teachers to take risks trying new practices, share their learning within and beyond their school communities, and present their ideas in a variety of formats.

Question for Reflection:

Would you want to be a teacher in your own school?

Communicate by Coaching

One of the best experiences I have had on my educational journey was serving as an instructional coach. When educators embrace a coaching mindset, I have seen first-hand how coaching moves can positively impact an educator’s teaching and learning practices. Although part of an instructional leader’s role is to be evaluative, I personally have never grown from a conversation that was approached in that way.  As Jim Knight says, “Instructional coaches partner with teachers to analyze current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to hit the goals, and provide support until the goals are met.” When educators are approached as thinking partners in the learning process, there is a more productive return on investment. Creating a coaching culture paves the way to a work atmosphere that is filled with possibilities, fosters collaboration, creativity, risk-taking, and a sense of empowerment. This approach unlocks the unlimited potential in both the administrator and teacher. 

Ideas:

  • Language to use in formal and informal conversations: “I am here to be a thinking partner and learn from and with you, When I enter your classroom, I can’t wait to learn from you and your students.”
  • When giving feedback: I am wondering if…I noticed that… What are your thoughts about…? As a result of our conversation, what instructional practices do you think you could implement moving forward?

Question for Reflection:

What communication moves can you employ that pave the way to learner-driven environments?

Click HERE to print cards for discussion

Choosing Your Ecosystem

When living in your school learning ecosystem, you have a choice; you can choose to lead others to be dependent, solely needing the help of others to grow; you can choose to lead others in being independent, getting what they need through their own efforts and/or you can choose to lead people to be interdependent, combining their own efforts with others to achieve collective success. How will you choose to live in your learning ecosystem?

Harnessing the Minutes

Minutes are Meaningful

The first few months of school are suddenly behind us, but the collection of details from our loaded days are left in mind memory boxes that are waiting to be courageously unwrapped. Sometimes we wonder how time can just pass us by along with the magical moments that transpire in every minute of our days. I have seen educators approach those minutes in the day with courage, conviction, passion, perseverance, pride, and joy for what they were always destined to do. And now that we’ve settled in, the compilation of memories from our first few months is waiting for us to view them through questions of reflection when the timing is right. Sometimes, when we experience the moments in a day in real-time, it is difficult to see the depth of our impact. Sometimes we are not sure if what we are saying and doing matters. As educators, our jobs are to help people see the strength of their influence, the power of their presence, and the significance of the imprints they leave in the hearts and minds of the lives they touch. 

Pause to Reflect

Educators do so much on a daily basis to meet the needs of all of their learners, that it could be challenging to absorb the meaningful moments that manifest over the course of a day. It would be easy to let them just pass you by. Pausing to reflect on the big and small wins can motivate us to share stories and build momentum in others. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak, Couros discusses the importance of looking back on your educational journey, “You’ll look back and see how you’ve changed and how your practice has improved. In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.” How can we create space and time for educators to pause and reflect on their daily interactions with the multitude of people, tasks, and experiences they encounter across the minutes of a day? It doesn’t have to be a formal interaction. Perhaps it’s a hallway conversation, a simple email exchange of ideas, a text, a lunch conversation…  Could those reflections spark new and better ideas for the colleagues, students, and communities we serve?

Some questions I’ve been thinking about:

  1. What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
  2. How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
  3. When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
  4. Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
  5. How can we work to feel more comfortable with acknowledging what we don’t know to personally and professionally grow?

Harnessing the Minutes

George is right, the target IS always moving and we have to be intentional about the way we approach our reflections and practice as educators. My friend Meghan Lawson says that “small moves can have big impact.” I have been sharing this sentiment with colleagues because when we talk about teaching and learning, we don’t always have to make big shifts to see growth.   Our students are the key drivers of our decision-making. They will tell us where we need to go and it’s usually the small moves that catapult them to success. Time moves fast, don’t wait too long to harness the idea of reflection and embrace the meaningful minutes in your days as an investment in yourselves, your colleagues, and the greatest gifts, your learners. What you do matters.

The Power of a #Hashtag

Connections lead us to paths of growth and opportunity. When you least expect it, the invisible team members you were destined to know suddenly arrive. And in that space and time you know they were meant to be placed in your universe to elevate, transform, and partner in being a driving force towards your vision; the vision that tugs at your heart, keeps your spirit alive, and becomes so insistent that it keeps us reaching to those who can help us act on it.  -Lauren

Collaboration can generate a sense of belonging; physically, digitally, emotionally, mentally and so much more. Understanding our purpose and passion can be a lifelong mission that many strive for and finding others that speak our language can enhance that ever-changing journey. Connection to ourselves and those around us has been a central part of being human since the beginning of time and understanding this foundational pillar can help us foster authentic relationships on a local and global scale. – Naomi 

A connection is not something you try to find, true connection finds you. Connection builds bridges to hearts, minds, and stories. Connections are fueled by passions and our ability to think beyond ourselves. Connection creates circles of safety and trust. When we trust our instincts we are able to invite others to become more vulnerable in the spaces we create. It’s an opportunity to overcome our fears and embrace the moment. Trusting our instincts helps us gravitate towards connection and collaboration; it’s a feeling of wonder that sparks the curiosity that lives within. -Lauren

Curiosity, openness, and growth are all things that can help when creating foundations for known and unknown collaborations. For example, I was on a mission to connect with others who were sharing their learnings from George Couros’ book The #InnovatorsMindset. This is when I stumbled upon the fabulous co author of this post – Lauren Kaufman. This connection and the possibilities that have come about because of it really have taught me the power of a hashtag. – Naomi

When I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone in the early morning hours, I stumbled upon a message from an unfamiliar name in my inbox. Curiosity was the engine that awakened my tired eyes. As I read Naomi’s message, I could feel her positive spirit luring me into her world. My inner voice felt a sense of confusion. How could someone whom I’ve never met and lives across the world have the ability to stop my precious time, pause in the moment, and consider adding another commitment to my daily life plans? My intuition knows that surprise disruptors in our lives live as moments that lead us to paths of promise. Exploring new collaborations, partnerships, and friendships are gatekeepers to transformation. -Lauren

Sometimes walking up to a random stranger in the street can be very daunting or in some places a downright weird thing to do, which may result in more than just a dirty look. But online there is a different type of atmosphere where cold calling and sending a message to a stranger can be very much acceptable. This in itself can bring about positive and negative outcomes as we have seen across the world, keyboard warriors being created due to the disconnect and lack of empathy for the person on the other side of the screen. However, I have experienced the power of reaching out and speaking with someone I didn’t know and reaping the rewards of that leap of faith. Taking the risk and knowing that the power of many can be greater than the power of one. When I first entered into the Twitterverse, I didn’t know what to expect. I had only ever used social media for personal reasons and in my teacher training we were so aware of our ‘online presence’ that I didn’t know if it was even appropriate to be online. But the more I explored what Twitter and other platforms had to offer, the more I realised that there were an abundance of people and resources at my fingertips who I could learn and grow with. – Naomi 

“But Naomi, how did you find me in the midst of a crowded sea of strangers?” I asked. “Oh, it’s simple Lauren, I searched the hashtag #InnovatorsMindset and came across the work you had done with the book!” In that instant, my mental file cabinet traveled back in time to the moment I used the very same iPhone to retrieve Naomi’s message to search for a professional book I could utilize as a framework to guide conversations with the new teachers in the mentor program I was hired to facilitate. Before then, I had never heard of the book The #InnovatorsMindset and couldn’t have imagined the many powerful connections and opportunities I would cultivate because of the power of a hashtag! -Lauren

One of my passions is to connect with others and create spaces where people, from all different walks of life, can come together to feel safe and share their experiences. This is how #Empathetic_Educators was born. Since connecting, Lauren has been a guest and a cohost on the show alongside many others along the way. These connections have added value to the show beyond what I ever could have dreamed of. That leads me to one of my biggest lessons from the power of the hashtag. -Naomi

Life is not meant to be a solo sport. You’re playing on a team, but you may not necessarily know who all the players are yet. I think it is safe to say that there will be players on your timeline that you will start with, but not necessarily grow with. You will carry those connections with you because they have supported your personal and professional evolution; those connections have shaped your mission and have propelled you toward your ultimate purpose. Hold onto the faith that there are people who will become an important part of your life that you have not met yet. -Lauren

“We find that when we open up, people respond and accept us for what we are. Instead of feeling vulnerable we become free, alive, vibrant and awakened in ways we never experienced before.”

John Kehoe – Mind Power 

Just like the quote above implies, since joining the online community of educators inside and outside of schools I have been open to the endless possibilities that are available to us, if we just take the time to look. I am so grateful for the connections made in the ‘digital’ world but one of my other passions in life is travel and when the clouds start to lift and we can travel again I can not wait to continue allowing these relationships to flourish in ‘physical’ spaces too. I could not be more grateful for the support, guidance, laughter and connection that my online presence has gifted me. And now more than ever I feel like we should be helping our learners realise the positive potential the power of the hashtag can have. -Naomi

You cannot thrive in isolation. Collective thinking leads to innovation, creativity, and growth. I too am grateful for the invisible team members who were destined to place themselves in my path and join me on an infinite learning journey. Together, we are rowing towards a vision, exploring needed conversations, encountering new experiences, and provoking new thinking. In an ever changing global society, educators have a unique opportunity to model the power of connection, collaboration, and new possibilities they were destined to be a part of. They have the ability to show learners and educators alike how the power of a hashtag will connect you to the new teammates you were always meant to know! -Lauren

How have you felt the power of the hashtag? How can it be used positively to impact others? We would love to hear from you!

More about Naomi Toland:

Follow the hashtag #Empathetic_Educators

Follow Naomi on Twitter: @naomi_toland

Follow Naomi on Instagram: @naomi.m.t

Naomi’s website: www.naomitoland.com

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

Memorable Moments

When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life. 

Snapshots in Time

For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth. 

Great Educators CAN Make a Difference

In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32).  I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:

Picture of the Day

I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn,  personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).

Link to Literacy Offline Choice Board #1

Link to Notice and Note Offline Choice Board #2

Dialogue Journals

This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Here is an example of student dialogue journals:

Inspiration Collages


There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).