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.

Educators Do Great Things

“The influence of our teachers is indelibly woven into the fabric of our lives.” This is the first sentence in chapter 1 of Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom. Last weekend, as I was packing up my family’s belongings from a weekend trip, I was listening to Sean Gaillard’s #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast where he highlighted Julie’s book and her research around the impact of teachers. That inspiring conversation led me to reading more of Julie’s words where she goes on to ask the question, “Is there a teacher you remember? Not just the teacher’s name, but specific things about him or her?” I paused, and thought deeply after reading those words. It is because my answer is yes, there are many teachers who have left an everlasting impact on my heart and have paved the way for the person I am and the person I am still striving to be. 

Family Roots in Education

I have known for a long time that teaching is an incredibly important job. I have always known this because I come from a family of educators. My grandfather was a law professor at a local college. I can vividly remember him talking about his students with profound pride, reading their writing, and being immersed in providing them with specific feedback that stretched across a span of hours. He did this because he wanted to unlock their potential and push them to be reflective thinkers and develop new ideas that could make a positive impact on the world. His home bookshelves were stacked from floor to ceiling with all of the books he authored and read. He was deeply passionate and committed to his students. My parents were beloved teachers in the community I grew up in; my Dad a retired English teacher and my Mom, a retired special education teacher. From childhood into adulthood, I observed them spending countless hours cultivating connections with students, families, and colleagues, reading papers, providing meaningful feedback, and creating engaging lessons. I can’t remember a day being in public without students rushing towards them to spark conversations that were rooted in stories of gratitude and appreciation for the legacy they left behind. “You were the best teacher I have ever known!” and “You helped me realize who I needed and wanted to be.” or just a simple, “Thank you for everything.” My sister is also an elementary educator. The love she has for teaching and learning, and her students’ unwavering success is palpable. Can you imagine what happens when we are all in the same room together? Yes, we talk about one of our greatest passions, teaching and the influence we hope to have had and have on the field of education.

Keeping Close Proximity

Although I no longer have my own classroom, one of my favorite things to do as an administrator is to walk into classrooms and talk to students about their learning. My friend Meghan Lawson recently wrote a blog post titled, An Underutilized Resource where she shared, “At the end of the day, I know this: my best days are spent listening to the people closest to the work. Our students. Our staff. Proximity matters.” My greatest joy is talking to teachers and students and staying close to that work. That investment in time is important and I wholeheartedly cherish all of those moments. Then, there are days I simply can’t do that as much, and in those moments I wonder about the connections, learning, and joy I may be missing.

Educators Do Great Things

You see, I have been surrounded by great educators since the beginning of time and I’d like to share that even during the most challenging times in education, I am watching and hearing educators doing great things. I am watching great educators remain deeply committed to their work; they are keeping students, colleagues, and community at the heart of all they do. I am watching the joy in students’ faces as they make new connections, ask questions, wonder, think, explore, use accountable talk to grow their thinking, develop perspectives, and navigate the learning process. I am watching educators commit to an infinite learning mindset. They are collaborating, communicating, seeking opportunities for professional growth to build capacity within, and meet the needs of all of their learners. I am watching educators ask for feedback from students and colleagues that enable them to create, innovate, and shift their approaches to instruction. I am watching educators navigate challenges that arise and proactively find solutions. I am watching educators use relationships as a form of intervention. They interact with students in supportive ways while maintaining high expectations that develop the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of all students.

Magical Moments

The other day I was talking to students about the themes in their books. During this time, they were making connections about books they have previously read to the excerpts they were currently analyzing. Their teacher and I were not taking part in the interactions for quite a while; we didn’t have to. The students were joyfully facilitating the conversation, while adding onto each other’s thinking. As I watched an authentic dialogue that was blanketed in critical thinking, responsibility, and respect for one another’s perspectives, I couldn’t help but think about the remarkable ways teachers shape the lives of students. I couldn’t help but think about the conditions the teacher created that opened the door to these magical moments. It is moments like this that will live in the mind memory boxes of students for a lifetime. These are the moments that will be courageously unwrapped in the right time, in the right place, with the right people. 

I’ll Always Be a Teacher

The greatest educators I have ever known invest the time in building classroom community, instilling confidence, and providing the tools and spaces for learners to think, share, speak, listen, and thrive. When I finally got the opportunity to share my heart and some of my own thoughts about the concept of theme with the class, many hands relentlessly started flying into the air with questions for me. It seemed as though these students were curious about my history as a learner and educator. I thought back to Julie Hasson’s words, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” Could it be that because the teacher created the conditions that value a learner and curiosity driven environment that I was invited to share my own ideas? One student thoughtfully asked, “Mrs. Kaufman, how do you know so much about books? I didn’t know that you were a teacher too.” After sharing a bit of my background, and thinking about the impact and influence my own teachers made, I smiled and responded, “I’ll always be a teacher.”

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Because of a Teacher

School Memories

From the moment you enter school, you are faced with experiences that will impact the trajectory of your life. These memories shape your identity and help you reflect on decisions you choose to make. When those doors open, every interaction big and small has the potential to become a story. These are the stories that live in your heart and mind and will ultimately be passed down from one generation to the next. These stories are the legacies educators leave behind as they have the greatest gift, the gift of creating meaningful moments that set their students on a path to self-discovery. These moments can unlock your potential and leave footprints in the hearts of those you serve. Can you visualize and feel the moments I am talking about? Can you remember a special educator who influenced your world and altered the course of your journey? Do you have a compelling urge to pass down that goodness by recreating those pivotal experiences that live and thrive within?

I have…

Because of a Teacher

Because of a teacher, I live my life by leading with empathy and kindness.

Because of a teacher, I understand the value of connection and cultivating strong relationships with the people who cross my path.

Because of a teacher, I can be vulnerable. I can name and feel my emotions and navigate them with intention and purpose. 

Because of a teacher, I am not afraid to capitalize on my curiosity, pursue my passions, and embrace the learning process.

Because of a teacher, I know that I will meet more teachers over the course of my life that will recognize and help me share my gifts, so I can bring out the best gifts in others.

The Universe Speaks

Two years ago, the universe connected me with George Couros, learner, speaker, author, and innovative leader in the education field. He encouraged me to write. He encouraged me to share my learning through blogging. He has always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. As a result, he has become a great mentor, friend, and teacher.

When George asked me to contribute to his new book #BecauseOfATeacher among other leaders in education, educators whom I respect, admire, and adore, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity. As I had gotten to know many of the authors who contributed to this book, I knew that the stories were going to be unique and special. These are the kinds of stories that tug on your heart strings and evoke layers of emotion. This is the kind of book that will remain a constant on nightstands, coffee tables and bookshelves and will truly stand the test of time. And now that the book has come to fruition, it is evident that this compilation of stories will surely make you laugh, cry, and feel ALL of the feels. They will remind EVERY educator, new, veteran, and everyone in between why they got into this beautiful profession!

My Greatest Hope

My greatest hope is that this cherished book will be the epicenter of book studies around the world, reflecting on your personal stories, educational journeys, and the impact and influence you can have on learners. My greatest hope is that it will make it’s way into your hands, the hands of every educator as well as educators you’d like to thank. Maybe it’s because that educator was a constant source of happiness and inspiration in your life. Maybe it’s because that educator gave you a smile when you needed it the most. Maybe it’s because that educator unleashed the greatness they saw inside of you. Maybe it’s because that educator believed in you when you felt like no one else did. Let this book be a reminder that #BecauseOfATeacher, you are better.

We can’t wait to hear what you think! After reading each story, post a quote, a thought, and/or idea. Tag the authors and use the hashtag #BecauseOfATeacher! We can’t wait to read what you share!

Contributing Authors:

Dr. Jody Carrington
Steve Bollar
Deidre Roemer
Dr. Mary Hemphill
Tom Murray
Dr. Katie Novak
Amber Teamann
Dwight Carter
Dr. Katie Martin
Lainie Rowell
Stephanie Rothstein
Livia Chan
Evan Whitehead
Lauren Kaufman
Meghan Lawson