Have you ever arrived to the end of a day and wondered what happened to the moments in between? Education is a busy space filled with interactions and frames of time that bridge ideas and fill your perceptions with the way you can approach action. As new ideas and challenges arise, the minutes in your calendar fill up rapidly. As you navigate your days, finding peace and contentment with how your time is spent can seem like a challenge. Watching the empty spaces of time on your calendar disappear can push you to prioritize the space in the minutes in between to connect with others, reflect, create, implement, and refine ideas.
Landing Your Feet on the Ground
You most likely have never had a week that wasn’t filled with important things. That is because the work you do for kids is so important. You may find it to be a constant struggle to plant your feet firmly on the ground. That is because in education your feet never stay in one place. There are also going to be those days when you get pushed off balance. It will be clear to you how you intended to allot your time, transformed into something else that is out of your control. Does this sentiment sound familiar? What I am continuously learning is that every day can bring a fresh start to solidly land your feet on the ground again. You can approach the gift of time on a new day with renewed confidence and choose the way you spend your minutes despite the uncertainty some days may bring.
Making the Time
For example, this week I had a lot of meetings in different places across my district. That meant that I needed to travel from one building to another frequently. I realized that I didn’t leave ample travel time on more than a few occasions. That also meant that towards the end of those particular meetings, I found myself trying to stay more in the moment because I had already started thinking about getting to the next one. Then, when I arrived at my new destination, I had little time to settle in, recalibrate, and collect my thoughts. During one of the meetings, I received a text from a teacher who knew I was in her building. “Lauren, I’d love you to come by my classroom to see something my students did if you have time.” I immediately looked at my watch and seconds later identified that I had three minutes to get to this classroom before traveling to my next meeting. The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get there because seeing teachers and students is the most important part of the way I spend my time. When my meeting concluded, I basically ran to this teacher’s classroom. “Look Lauren, I wanted to show you that the whole grade level participated in the “One Word” activity for the New Year. We explained to them that this is a word they will focus on as they work towards meeting their social, emotional, and academic learning goals. Remember when you shared this with us last year? We’ve hung them all in the hallway and the students are always keeping their One Word at home.” My goodness. Of course I had remembered sharing this activity the year before, but never thought about the strength of its influence. Those three unexpected minutes suddenly turned into the most important part of my day. In making space for those minutes, a teacher shared that an instructional practice I shared had become a grade-level tradition and more importantly, left a positive impact on kids.
Three Ideas to Make Space for Time
There will always be a lot on the “to do” list. You know what I am talking about! This made me pause and think about three ways I will continue to schedule my time. I will look for ways to:
Prioritize People – If you are working towards continuous improvement in the work you are doing, keeping the focus on developing relationships, listening to people, and cross pollinating ideas is the best investment in time. In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, he shares, “It is easy to lock yourself in your office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing…if you have lost focus on and connection with people in your building, even if you offer new ideas, they might not be embraced by those you lead.” It is vital to be visible and spend time learning from the teachers and students who are in the classrooms to create a better tomorrow.
Keep Goals in Focus – Look where you focus your time and energy. Are you filling your calendar with meetings that aren’t in line with district and building priorities? Who is involved and how will the use of that time impact the kids and colleagues you serve in positive ways? Are the conversations in these meetings learner focused? These questions may help you review your calendar in more critical ways. What meetings should stay and what can you do to eliminate the minutes that aren’t aligned with your goals and priorities?
Be More Responsive and Less Reactive – Think about this… what items on your calendar need to get done now and what can wait until later? Are the items in your calendar an intentional response to the important things you are working on? Will the meetings really solve a potential challenge or will they be a quick reaction, a band aid for an existing issue that requires more purposeful attention? I have found that being in spaces with proactive people who are more responsive and less reactive is beneficial because you are working together to take action on important things in intentional ways. When you are able to work with people who celebrate the good things, maintain a consistent vision, and identify potential concerns, you are positioned in solutions oriented spaces of time.
Your days are filled with chances. Push yourself to take a closer look at how you make space for meaningful moments of time. Examining each day with fresh eyes will cultivate your commitment to capture your own time with greater intention and purpose. Time matters.
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.
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.
An educational ecosystem is filled with committed groups of stakeholders who are working tirelessly to support the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of kids. Each group and person within the ecosystem brings unique perspectives that contribute to the growth and evolution of the organizations in which they serve. As I move forward as a new administrator, I am continually learning to navigate my surroundings with more intention and purpose. I am living and growing within new ecosystems and with that newness could bring some natural feelings of self-doubt.
You have all felt that kind newness I am talking about before. You have all stepped into new spaces and have created your own mind narratives leaving you feeling weary, judged, nervous, and perhaps confused. These feelings can take you back in time. For example, when I was in middle school, I had to make a change in my academic schedule. This meant that I would have to endure a new lunch period, meet new people, and worry about where I would sit during one of the most awkward stages in my life. I’d have to find a seat with people who had already been sitting together for months. I created this story in my head that no one would want to sit with me. I thought about the possibility of standing in front of the lunchroom desperately searching for familiarity and acceptance. And then the actual day came…when I walked into the cafeteria, my eyes intensely and quickly scanned the room for a familiar face, a smile, eye contact…anything. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “Hey, come over and sit with us. Do you remember holding the door open for me when I was walking into school earlier? I don’t know how I would have made it alone holding that instrument case and a pile of books!” I finally exhaled and smiled back, “Oh yes, I did hold the door for you!” The truth is, I didn’t remember holding the door. Holding a door for someone who needed help is just something I would do. What seemed like a relatively insignificant interaction for me that day, meant something more significant to someone else. Then, that someone else disrupted the narrative I created and helped me step into newness.
When you step into a new school or a new role it kind of feels like the crowded lunchroom of unfamiliar faces where you don’t know all of the people and you don’t know if you will be greeted in a welcoming way. You don’t know their stories, their educational philosophies or personal/professional goals. That can become frustrating, if you let it. I like to think of myself as a proactive person who takes action swiftly, but when things are new, I find myself holding back a little more, listening more attentively, consuming all different types of information, trying to be more responsive and less reactive, and asking lots of questions. This was a shift in mindset when I stepped into the newness of leadership. I came to a place where I recognized that there is strength in asking questions. I know I have to do this because I cannot possibly be the keeper of all the answers. And even if I have answers, I am keenly aware that my colleagues who have been living in the ecosystem will have other answers that either confirm what I am thinking, shift my thinking, and/or share a perspective I would have never thought of, EVER.
Over the last several weeks, I have been reflecting on the number of questions I have asked since I became an administrator. I know I have asked far more questions stepping into a leadership role than I had when I was teaching. You may find this funny, but I actually asked myself “Why is that, Lauren?” Teaching can be hard. Teaching can be fun. Teaching can be draining, BUT teaching is also the most incredibly rewarding career on the planet. Knowing all of these things, why hadn’t I asked the questions I knew I needed answers to years ago? Perhaps I had not stepped into a courageous place in my journey. Maybe I wasn’t in the mental place to understand that failure could be an asset, an opportunity to learn or try something new. Perhaps I didn’t have the patience to refine my practices, iterate, fail, and improve. Perhaps I didn’t realize that although setbacks can be discouraging, they are only temporary. Maybe I didn’t realize that if I was doing my best, I could still be proud of my choices.
Last week I had a check in with a new teacher. When I walked into her classroom I could feel the newness of her learning ecosystem surrounding me. As I waited for her to finish up a few conversations with students, I walked around and scanned the landscape of the room. I could feel the learning emanating through her classroom walls and the energy of her kindness and enthusiasm for learning permeating into my heart. At the same time, I noticed that she had pulled up a seat next to a student who was feeling defeated. “What is making you feel this way? What can I do to help?” A new teacher was asking a student questions to build connection and get him to a more comfortable place. When she was finished I invited her to sit next to me at a small round table. I started to ask the teacher some open-ended questions, “What’s going well? What barriers may be getting in the way of your growth?” She led with this answer, Lauren, I just need to say that I love it here. I really love it, Lauren. When I have questions, I know I can go to my colleagues for support. This new teacher had surpassed the place I was at the beginning of my career and right then, I knew she was rowing in a direction towards success. This answer made my face light up and smile so big that my cheeks started hurting. I went on to ask “What questions do you have for me?”
When I stepped into the newness of leadership, I stopped thinking about the way things are supposed to be and stopped trying to work towards a place of perfection. The pathway to the outcomes you are searching for are not always linear. Sometimes standing still in newness is the best way to move forward. Finding the courage to ask questions may be the action needed to harness momentum towards the place you want to be.
There are so many beautiful things about being an educator. Being an educator is not just something you do. It’s a calling, it’s a gift, it’s an opportunity to leave a legacy of kindness and love in the hearts and minds of those you serve. As an educator, you move through your career living in moments, snapshots in time that turn into stories. You navigate your own personal journey opening paths to self-discovery, learning, and growth that can ultimately bring well-deserved joy and happiness to your life’s work. Perhaps, at one time, your path in education led you to a crossroads and you chose to step into the direction of leadership. As you began walking a new path, you started leaning into the experiences you invited and those you couldn’t foresee, but would later become lessons you’ve learned. – Lauren
As a 7th grade ELA teacher, I was a part of the building leadership team. I was enjoying the opportunity to learn more about change leadership and to make a positive impact on the broader school community. At the end of one of our meetings, I was packing up my many belongings, so I was the last teacher remaining alongside the principal. Anyone who has ever joined me for a meeting knows that I can be a little extra with all of my supplies. Notebooks, books I’m reading, my water, a coffee I’m still finishing, snacks, laptop…I cannot hide it. Anyway, the principal and I were enjoying a nice post-meeting conversation which led her to ask me, “You should really think about getting your principal’s license.” I should have paused before responding because I had a visceral reaction. “Why would I want your job? Your job looks terrible.” Eek, but I think what I really meant was that the job looked HARD. And it is hard, but it’s also rewarding and growth-evoking. Administration has challenged and humbled me and continues to do so on a daily basis. It’s perspective giving in the best possible way and when we do our inner work as leaders, we grow leaps and bounds alongside the talented educators we serve. – Meghan
I thought I would retire in the last district I served in. It was close to where I live, a district I loved, a place I called home. However, I knew in my heart that it would not be the place I would serve as an administrator. I remember the day I realized that I needed to move on so I can grow into the leader and educator I was meant to become. After going through a handful of interview processes, it happened, I was offered an assistant principal’s role in the right place, at the right time, with the people I was destined to know. I was set to embark on this new endeavor in the middle of the summer. So, on a hot summer’s end of July day, it would be the last time I’d use my ID fob to enter a building in a district I adored for so long. It’s where I evolved as an instructional coach and reading specialist. That day, I filled 15 boxes with treasured stories from my teaching past. I looked around an empty classroom, only leaving behind the books that belonged to the school. When I was ready to go, I peeked my head out of the door to look for a custodian to help me find a flatbed to lift and stack my boxes and bring them to my car. Oddly, there was no one in sight. After a brief search, I found a flatbed myself. I can remember closing my eyes, taking a deep breath and putting my airpods into my ears because to me, what is life without music, especially during a pivotal moment like this? At that moment, my ITunes randomly played the song “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco. It seemed fitting, the perfect song selection for the symbolic transition from teaching to leadership. I tied back my hair, loaded my boxes onto the flatbed, and as sweat dripped from my brow, I began pulling out this big, heavy flatbed wagon to my car. When I got there, I opened my trunk, pushed down all the seats and lifted each box, one by one, finally filling my trunk to the brim. I took a picture to capture the moment, the end of an era. When I drove off that day, I thought about all of the small moments in time that led me to this new opportunity in leadership. I thought about some of the lessons I’d learned from leaders, colleagues, and students. I thought about the happiness, the joy, the laughter, the comradery of teachers, some sadness and disappointment, the evolution of me, and all the small moves of impact that brought me to this place in time. It would be the very next day that I would pull up to a new building, my new home, where I was greeted by a friendly custodian. He met me by my car and helped me unload my trunk of boxes, the treasured stories of the educator I was. It was his genuine smile that would give me the courage I needed to retrieve my new ID fob from my bag to swipe a new door, and step towards the unforeseen lessons I would begin to learn and the path to the leader I hoped to become. – Lauren
Perhaps it’s our social media immersed culture, but there seems to be a pervasive belief that the things worth doing and worth having are the big, audacious moves and gestures. But often, when we see people accomplishing what we perceive to be “big, important stuff”, we aren’t seeing all of the little moves and setbacks and lessons learned that got them to that really impressive place. We don’t see all of the free throws college and professional basketball players shoot in practice or their late nights in the gym. We don’t see those lessons that flopped by teachers we deeply admire. We don’t see that professional development session that didn’t go as planned. You get it. This is why it’s critical we speak more honestly about our work. That we don’t make this work something that only perfect people do. There are no perfect people, and the more we only share our shiny selves and the highlight reels and the romanticized storybook versions of our work, the more likely it becomes that other people may start to believe that leadership is something that is beyond them. The world doesn’t need more people who look perfect leading classrooms, schools, and districts. The world needs more learners who model humanity for others. People who are deeply curious about themselves, others, the world around them. Many of us have taken the Strengths Finder 2.0. I’ve taken it a couple of times. Once as a classroom teacher and once as an assistant principal. One of my top five strengths changed with experience. As a teacher, “positivity” was in my top 5. As an administrator, I morphed from positive to “relatable.” Ha! That used to bother me, but I’ve come to embrace it. I’m learning to be deeply human with other people. I share mistakes and struggles when appropriate and in doing so, it makes me feel more connected while opening the door to learn from others too. – Meghan
This year, I embarked on a new role as the Director of Literacy K-12. As I created my entry plan for this new role, a big portion of it revolves around cultivating meaningful relationships with the administrators, teachers, staff, and community I am serving. To me, in the midst of all the meetings, observations, big things, and learning I need to do, this means that I put showing up to buildings at the forefront as much as I can. Greeting teachers, saying hello to kids in the hallways, asking kids what literacy means to them, what they are most proud of as readers and writers today, what books they enjoy, and how their day is going is essential to the work I do everyday. When I leave classrooms, I feel it’s important to email or send a voice note to let the teachers know how much I appreciated our time together. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the primary and elementary buildings with a picture book in my hands. Very often, teachers and students will ask me what book I am holding, igniting a conversation that may have never happened if I hadn’t been holding one! Those conversations have led to invitations to classroom visits to perform read alouds with kids and teachers. To me, there is nothing better than showing up to that classroom, sitting myself down on the rug with the kids surrounding me and bringing a book to life through an interactive experience! I know there will always be the big things that need to get done. Literacy is the foundation of all learning. It is also a hot button topic and instructional approaches will always need refining to meet the needs of all learners in the evolving landscape of education. What I have come to learn overtime is that although there will always be the big things, it’s those small moves like showing up, saying hello, asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, sending the check-in text to a teacher, and reading a good book that contributes to making the big things happen. These are lessons I’m learning that are shaping who I’m becoming as a leader. You may begin to recognize that if you want true happiness in leadership, you may have to sacrifice what you want now for what you want later. You have a mission and a vision and as you row toward the ultimate destination of success, there will be small moments, small wins, and small obstacles on the path that can seem like they are not enough to bring a vision to fruition. You will come to realize that those small things can add up to the big things you truly need to accomplish. -Lauren
I learned to think in small moves as an elementary principal. I would dream of big, grand gestures I could use to surprise and delight staff and to show my appreciation. But I learned pretty quickly that what mattered most was the day-to-day small moves. Visiting classrooms every day, greeting students as they walked into school, coming alongside teachers at lunch duty, and playing with students at recess. In these small moments of shared joy and learning, we had little conversations. Conversations about teaching and learning. Moments of appreciation for each other. We celebrated when a student who had been struggling had a great day in the classroom. I look back at those little moments and realize they were not little at all. They were the big stuff. It doesn’t look big when you’re in it, but the collective impact that those moments make is monumental. Those are the moments that transform a school culture. They transform a district’s culture too. As a Director of Secondary Teaching and Learning, I keep my office in a backpack. Certainly, I have an office at the district office, but I choose to spend 99% of my time in the buildings. Proximity builds trust. The work feels better when we feel better in the work, and I feel best in the work when I’m wearing my sneakers, my sleeves are rolled up, and I’m working alongside people in the day-to-day challenges we face. Every moment matters. Every conversation is a coaching conversation. Every person we come into contact with can teach us something. And honestly, when you are all-in in that way on a daily basis, it is not only incredibly rewarding, it’s also incredibly exhausting in the best possible way. It’s normal not to have the energy for big gestures…not that those don’t matter…not that you never go big…but keep the main things the main thing. Staff and students will remember those little moments and be more deeply impacted by those than that one big breakfast you pulled off. No matter how much they love bacon. And boy do I ever. – Meghan
Should be easy, right? We are, after all, human. It is critical we model what it looks like to be a learner. This means making mistakes, doing things imperfectly, struggling – and all the while learning from all of that and allowing it to make us better people and professionals. The more “power” we have in the organization, the more critical this move can be because students and staff are watching us. Many of them are wondering if they too might step into roles like ours, and it’s important we show them that there are no perfect people. There are merely willing people who care deeply. We can show them how fun these jobs can be too. We can show them what it looks like to ask for feedback and to genuinely consider it. The “higher up” we go in leadership roles, the less honest people tend to be with us. Not because they don’t want to be honest but because it can be scary giving critical feedback to someone with authority “over us.” So, we must normalize feedback. We must normalize being imperfect people who do things imperfectly but who are listening and trying. Speaking of listening…
If you are an approachable leader, educators will show up to your door or open theirs to talk to you. That’s an amazing thing! Listen attentively to people. They have come to you for a reason and want you to know what is on their hearts and minds. Let them talk as much as they need to. It’s important. I am not going to lie, there are times I want to jump in and interrupt a teacher as they are talking because I get passionately excited about an idea or I want to give in-the-moment advice. However, I have found that if you listen a little longer, you will begin to hear a narrative that leads you to the heart of what the conversation is really about. What a person initially came to you for, really could turn out to be about something else. And a lot of the time, what appears to be a problem, naturally gets worked out as that person self-reflects and develops their own solutions. Be the active listener and the sounding board that person needs.
Recognize the Potential in Others
Recently, my superintendent (Lauren) shared an ASCD article with me titled Every Student is a Firecracker by Jen Schwanke; she tells a heartwarming story about how she didn’t have it easy growing up. She discovers that through the obstacle of poverty, it was her teachers who elevated her by providing the hope, dignity, support, and trust she needed to thrive. Those small gestures inspired her to become an educator. She shared these words, “Educators can help in ways that are quiet, careful, and gentle.” Obstacles can carve paths to new opportunities. There is a spark inside us all. Children and adults just need someone to ignite it…it just takes one person. Be the leader who lifts your colleagues up so they can bring out the best in their students.
Proximity Builds Trust
Schools and districts are rarely transformed from desks with closed doors. Every interaction is an opportunity to both learn from and be of service to someone else. The more we are around each other, the more we will trust each other. Being around each other also gives us more opportunities to truly appreciate the unique gifts and talents others bring to our schools. This is why it’s incredibly frustrating for teachers when they are evaluated on small 30 minute lessons. There is so much more that goes into teaching that cannot be captured in that amount of time. When we spend time supporting and encouraging teachers in classrooms every week, we get a much fuller picture of the impactful work they are doing with students on a daily basis. Not to mention, so many little conversations and little interactions are opportunities to problem solve and work through things together. Less email. More small conversations.
Will Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality, was able to turn 11 Madison Park into the #1 restaurant in the world. He did so not by making the most unique food in the world or creating the most fancy of restaurants. He did it by tapping into a human need we have that will hold true until the end of time. The need to be well-cared for. So much of excellent leadership is not revolutionary. However, in a world filled with busy and in a time of so many initiatives and high pressure, taking great care of others can feel revolutionary. In this new year, may we all reflect upon how we can do less of what doesn’t matter as much, so we can do more of what matters most. In doing so, the work gets better and so do we. – Meghan
Meghan is a lover of learning who believes in the goodness of people, Meghan works to cultivate necessary space that honors the humanity of all people. She promotes storytelling, the exchange of ideas, and risk-taking. She is passionate about disrupting the status quo and creating kinder, forward-thinking communities of action. Meghan is also intensely curious about how to enhance the customer experience in schools. Meghan began her career in the English Language Arts classroom. So, inevitably, her mantra is Words Matter. In her nineteen years in the field of education, she has worked in all levels of K-12 education as a teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and educational consultant.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Call me stubborn, but I refuse to quit! T.R.U.E. G.R.I.T. is the foundation to success in learning and life! Exploring the dynamics of a successful classroom and how grit is a vital characteristic for student achievement