Leaders Can Live in the Mess of Learning

The heartbeat of education lives inside the walls of schools. Within those walls you can find stories of kids and teachers in the mess of learning. You will watch students, teachers, and staff buzzing about the halls and classrooms igniting discussion, cultivating curiosity, instilling joy, leading with empathetic hearts and smiling through it all. The epicenter of those learning spaces will captivate and inspire you to listen more intently. You will see new things and look through lenses you may have not considered before. You don’t have to search for the big things to see good things happen. The small things matter too.

I often reminisce about my days in the classroom. When I became an educator, I wanted to show my students what they were capable of. I wanted to help them find their voices. I wanted to provide a sense of hope that would continuously stir within. Inside my classroom walls, you could find stories and moments of impact that shaped the educator I am today. Those stories turned into sound bites, short episodes of lessons I’d later learn from. They were opportunities to personalize learning experiences and were a bridge that connected me to people. In those walls, I learned to embrace my own gifts so I could help my students find theirs.

A few weeks ago I stood by the fence over looking the football field at my hometown’s homecoming game. As I gazed onto the field, I thought about how just a couple of years ago, I was teaching in the middle school walls that were just a few feet away. Within those walls, I learned a lot of new things. But most of all, I learned patience, flexibility, and perseverance during a year of uncertainty. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by two familiar voices. “Mrs. Kaufman, Mrs. Kaufman, is that you?” one boy yelled trying to catch his breath. I quickly turned around. Although I was startled by the unexpected encounter, I could feel my face smiling big. “Oh my goodness, Ben and Sebastian, here you are. It’s so good to see you! How have you been?” I replied as I saw them both smiling back at me. The other boy looking taller than ever responded. “Mrs. Kaufman we were in your reading class in 7th-grade. What happened to you last year? We were looking for you in 8th-grade when we needed to see a smile.” In that moment, my heart melted. Was it a small thing like a smile all it took to leave a legacy in their hearts? That was the year I left to embark on my leadership journey in another school district. This special interaction made me think about a sentiment shared in the book Because of A Teacher, Volume II. In the book, George Couros said, “What is amazing about education as a profession is that what you do impacts people who later go out and impact people. In this sense, teachers will never get the recognition they deserve because their impact can be infinite.”

Now that I am a district administrator, the opportunities to have an infinite impact and influence on students can become more limited (if I let it). So I regularly ask myself, How can I find ways to continuously expand my impact and broaden my influence as an instructional leader? What helps me process this question is that I have come to understand that impact and influence lives in every level of an organization. It’s the people in systems that have the potential to do amazing things.

As I continue on my journey and evolve into the instructional leader I wish to become, I have committed to the following ideas to help expand my impact and broaden my influence within the walls of schools:

  1. Be Human-Centered – Connections are cornerstones to our hearts. Recognize that educators are people first and learn what they care about outside the walls of education.
  2. Lead with Empathy – Meet people where they are in conversations. Guide and support their journey by being less reactive and more responsive to their needs.
  3. Provide Thoughtful Feedback – Use a coaching lens and ask questions that will lead people to finding their own answers to challenges. Then give feedback that will elevate their ideas “It sounds like you…” and “I am wondering if…” HERE are some coaching stems to help guide conversations.
  4. Recognize the Gifts in Others – Listen to people attentively. You will discover their strengths and areas of expertise. Develop those gifts and capitalize on their knowledge to cross-pollinate ideas across an organization.
  5. Keep Kids at the Heart of Decision-Making- When you keep the conversations focused on what is best for kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual growth, your impact and influence will touch the lives of many students even though you may not directly work with them. 

So, if you are like me and are continuing on your leadership path, consider embracing the ideas above and opening the doors to schools and classrooms. You will find so much goodness living inside the walls. Although you do not have a classroom to call your own, you can still find ways to step into the mess of learning. When you miss the moments of impact you experienced with your own students, take a leap of faith and open a classroom door. Recently, I walked through one and was greeted by a teacher with the warmest, most genuine smile. “Look at that smile,” I said. The teacher replied “Well, it matches yours, Lauren.” Once again, I was reminded that the small things matter. You have influence, your impact is infinite and your smile and the hope you instill will live on.

Books Invite New Beginnings

Beginnings

There are seasons in our lives where we find ourselves starting from the beginning. Beginnings aren’t always easy, but they can be beautiful. Beginnings can put you into uncomfortable places, but they can push you to be a better version of yourself. Beginnings can be scary, but they can open doors to new opportunities you didn’t know existed.

New beginnings live in the evolution of our personal and professional lives. They are a constant reminder that there are new people, places, and ideas that you didn’t know existed. There is always a door to a new beginning, you just have to choose to walk through it to find the goodness on the other side.

Walking Through a New Door

Recently, I walked through a new door when I began a new role as a district leader. The most challenging part of beginning a new role is not instantly knowing all the amazing educators and students in the way you would like. There is a bit of a different feeling as a building administrator; I felt like I was handed a built- in family. And while I continue the transition from building to district leader, I am continuously searching for avenues to connect with the new people who’ve been placed in my path.

This transition led me to ask…when making a shift to a new season in your life, How can you keep hope in reach when embarking on new beginnings? Can a collection of small intentional moves have the potential to make a bigger impact? One of the small moves I have invested in is using my passion for books, love of literacy, and learning to build and strengthen connections. Books can build bridges that manifest relationships and instill joy in ourselves and others. I am in a constant pursuit of searching for new, engaging titles that can generate excitement and cultivate curiosity. Books can also be entry points for storytelling. Stories are windows into our personal experiences and the stories in the books you share will allow you to discover beautiful connections. When given the opportunity to transact with small moments from books, you can use them to illuminate pieces of your own life with others. 

While thinking about the impact books have had on connecting with people in my personal and professional life, I became committed to never leaving my office for the day without a few engaging picture books in my bag. When visiting buildings, there is magic in retrieving a book from my bag. That simple gesture ignites new conversations, brings unexpected smiles to faces, and levels the playing field in any context. By simply holding and talking about a book, I have generously received invitations to read aloud in classrooms. It is an honor to be invited into a classroom, and when I am, here are the four things I will do:

Set the Stage – When introducing a book to a teacher and class, I retrieve the book from my bag and introduce it as if it’s the most magical gift you have ever unwrapped! You may say: “You will never believe the book I have in my hands! Can you guess what it is? There is something about this book that makes me want to read more! Who wants to see and hear the magic that lives inside this book?”

Tell a Book Story: Tell the students the story about how you found the book. Kids LOVE your stories and they want to hear about how that book made its way to their classroom. You may say, “I pre-ordered this magical book on Amazon and I was rushing to the mailbox every day waiting to hold it and then give the book the biggest hug I’ve ever seen. I must have read it 10 times! Can you believe it?”

Be in the Epicenter of the Action – Be a part of the classroom community. I personally love sitting with the students and their teacher on the rug (if there is one). We are all teachers and learners and will grow from the experience together. This shows the students that you are reading not just TO them, but WITH them! You may say, “Can I sit with you today? I want to read this book together! This is OUR book! And there will be places in this book where I will need your help!”

Make it Interactive– Bring the kids and adults in the room into the world of the book. One way you can do this is by using the “I say, you say” technique. Chunk words in the text in phrases and have the students echo them back! If there is repetition in the book, have the students say the word or phrase that is next in the text. They will start echoing your expressive tone and voice. You can use a gesture like pointing to the word or phrase that is coming up and then putting your hand to your ear! This gives them the signal to say the words they know will be next. Also, have them act out the emotions of characters with you! This all helps with developing fluency, reading with expression, developing reading identities, and understanding the character’s attributes and impact on the story. Plus, kids love it that they are able to read the book with you!

Recently, after I read The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster by Mo Willems in a classroom, the teacher generously shared that they learned a few new things from the interactive read aloud we experienced together. It made my day. But, the truth is, before I even sat on the rug with her students, I learned from this teacher too… It felt like the season of a new beginning and a new connection was made.

Books Invite New Beginnings

Books invite new beginnings. They can open doors to invitations to be part of classroom communities. When you walk through that door, you can begin in the place you are, and start moving toward where you want to be. Any moment is the perfect time to walk through the door. There will be goodness on the other side, especially when you bring a book…

Impact Moves With You

Collecting Experiences 

We live a collection of memories and experiences that have been accumulated over the course of time. Within every role we serve, we are afforded opportunities that invite us to think about the educators we were and who we want to be. Over time, we establish and develop relationships, garner a multitude of teaching and learning practices, take part in numerous conversations, and make an impact on countless families, colleagues, and students who were destined to know us. As we proceed with our lives, we 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. Or perhaps there will be people who enter your life for a short time; they serve as signposts who guide and create pathways that can lead to opportunities you have yet to know to exist. Every experience you will ever endure leads to the type of educator you wish to become. 

My Last Year in the Classroom

I have been thinking quite often about last year, the year that would become my last in the classroom. I certainly didn’t realize I’d be back in the classroom during a pandemic and one of the most challenging years in educational history. After all, for 5 years before that, I was serving as an instructional coach, a position I loved and adored. With change resting on my shoulders and 14 years at the elementary level, I requested to make a move to the middle school where I would be teaching literacy to learners in grades 6-8. Taking on new challenges has always been a part of my growth and development as a human being, educator, learner, leader, and practitioner. It is one of the myriads of ways I stay on the cutting edge of best practice, grow my skill set, and elevate others. I thought about how exciting it would be to take all of the learning I had ever been gifted and share it in new spaces. Little did I know, I would be sharing and growing my learning in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously and it would be my last opportunity to make an impact in that very space.

Cultures of Learning Are Built on Connection

In what seemed like an instant, I learned that all of my knowledge about literacy, had no bearing or influence on my students unless I could create authentic ways to cultivate connection. They were not interested in my content expertise; they were interested in the person I was, the person I am, and the person I was still striving to be. They were interested in me getting to know who they were, who they are, and who they wanted to be. If you want to develop a culture of learning, communication, collaboration, and empowerment, you must show your students who you are and make an effort to invest in their hearts. 

Small Moves Can Make Big Impact

I keep thinking about what my friend Meghan Lawson says, “Small moves can make a big impact.” On one of my last days in the classroom, I read my students Only One You by Linda Kranz. The book inspired me to use all I had learned about my students and write them a personal note of inspiration and gratitude. With that, I also left them a special rock with the one word I felt embodied who they are and who they will continue to be. I remember my student Steven picking up his rock “Happiness” and studying it carefully. “Mrs. Kaufman, do you really think I can bring happiness to people wherever I go?” I replied, “Steven, your happiness is contagious and will bring joy to whomever you meet. Your happiness will change the world.”

Impact Moves with You

And just like that, it’s less than a year later…I am now serving as an assistant principal with a new team of people I was destined to know. The last interaction I had with Steven was just one moment in the collection of small moves I employed that would later influence the school leader I am learning to become. I often reflect on the small moves I am choosing to make to connect with people. One of the best parts of my new role is visiting classrooms to spend time with students and teachers. Recently, a student named James delightfully approached me with a piece of writing he wanted to share. One sentiment he included was, “When you walk by, say hi to Mrs. Kaufman. Don’t you want to make her day? Mrs. Kaufman is wonderful because she makes sure everyone has a good day.” As I read James’ piece of writing, it brought me back to the exchange I had with Steven. It made me think about how Steven’s contagious happiness became a part of me. It seemed as though I was inadvertently bringing that same happiness to James. Perhaps I have been carrying many years of my students’ and colleagues’ positive attributes with me. At that moment, I asked myself…”How can we continuously recognize that a collection of small actions have the potential to make someone else’s day better?”

Who is the Educator You Wish to Become?

When you make an effort to continually build connections with people, it becomes an intrinsic act of gratitude. 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 experiences that can positively impact others. Your impact moves with you.