Lessons in Leadership: A Collaborative Blogpost by Lauren Kaufman & Meghan Lawson

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

Be Human

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…

Listen Attentively 

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

About 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. 

Connect with Meghan

Website: www.meghanlawson.com

Twitter: @meghan_lawson

Instagram:@meghanlawsonblog

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.

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.

Collaboration is a Conduit to Creation

Collaboration Breathes Life

Collaboration is a powerful action; it breathes new life into percolating plans and nurtures seeds of inspiration. It is the gatekeeper that weaves together concepts and manifests hopes and dreams. It’s a magnetic force that pulls people together, creates unexpected synergy, and ignites dialogue, growth, and change. How can we capitalize on the strength of collaboration to be the driving force that permeates the evolution of our professional and personal development?

Who Has Shown You The Way?

There have been many leaders who have shown us the way. They have modeled what it means to be a communicator, collaborator, connector, and creator. They have shown the value in bringing others into conversations that have the potential to create meaningful change. They have organically used the words “we” not “I”; it’s in the fabric of their being. They have taken others under their wing and elevated the room’s contributions. They embrace the ideas of others and give the right people the recognition when they show up to the table. They are more “collaborative and less competitive” (Stephanie Rothstein). They understand the idea that we are better together. Collaborators give us wings to fly and feel deep pride to watch us soar. They feel a great sense of gratitude to watch others cultivate collective success. They are not jealous, they are proud. Have you ever taken a moment to think about people in your life that have encouraged you to collaborate and have unleashed the creator in you? I have and that’s why I’d like to share some strategies for collaboration that have made me better.

6 Ideas For Collaboration

Connect with Colleagues: Think about reaching out to someone you have known or someone new. You never know where your next ideas can flourish. I have admired many people from afar who have suddenly become regular thinking partners and collaborators in my daily life. Don’t forget to capitalize on the room you’re in. Every person who is in that room knows something you don’t know! Also, do not be afraid to share YOUR knowledge and ideas. In the book Because Of A Teacher, Meghan Lawson shared a profound Peter Block quote, “How do you change the world? One room at a time. Which room? The one you’re in.”

Lean into Resources: Read an article, book, and/or listen to a podcast and have a conversation about it. You never know what ideas can emerge from that discussion. It is the most informal, yet meaningful way to experience professional learning in the most organic way. In the recent Edutopia article Taking Control of Your Professional Growth, Stephanie Rothstein and I share a number of ways to bring professional learning to you! These ideas may generate some relevant opportunities for collaboration AND creation.

Co-author a Writing Piece or Present with a Colleague: What better way to share your learning than to collaborate on a writing piece that highlights your thinking, philosophies, and instructional practices. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Lainie Rowell on the Edutopia article Revisiting and Rethinking Our Priorities. Through this collaboration, Lainie taught me how to merge our ideas in very succinct and purposeful ways. She also served as an accountability partner through the process. She pushed my thinking and made me a better writer. I love presenting my learning at conferences with dynamic colleagues. This is an opportunity to share and spread our learning and growth to other educational communities. I have had the pleasure of collaborating on multiple presentations with Natasha Nurse and Christine LaMarca, two outstanding educators.

Frame the Conversation: Use your personal and professional goals to frame a collaborative conversation. This strategy will be supportive in streamlining your thinking and creation process. You will know your why, what you want to accomplish, and develop an actionable plan about how to get there. Select passionate and productive thinking partners that will foster your exponential growth. Lorie Beard, educator and middle school principal has been an unwavering thinking partner in my life. We have always framed our professional conversations with purpose and discuss actionable steps for implementation. Our ongoing dialogue has inspired me to take risks and be a better version of myself.

Disrupt your Thinking: There are times when you will want to bring other people and new perspectives into your collaboration. Those disruptions will push you to see a project in a better and different way. Although this change may alter your course of action, you and your collaborators will be better for it! 

Vary Your Communication: I think we have learned that there are multiple ways to communicate. Use technology to your advantage! Through phone conversations, texting, video conferencing, and working on shared Google documents, the possibilities for collaboration are endless! Sean Gallaird and Lainie Rowell recently facilitated the summer Voxer chat series #CampFireConvosEdu where participants were given open-ended topics to discuss and respond to asynchronously. This self-paced style of collaboration was a low stakes way of sharing knowledge and practices that could be implemented in classrooms tomorrow in fulfilling and worthwhile ways! 

Collaboration is a Conduit to Creation

Collaboration is a conduit to creation. It’s an opportunity to go through an imperfect process that unlocks the hidden potential in others. It’s a time to discover passions and interests that you never knew existed. It’s a place to be a part of critical moments that become new beautiful stories in your journey.  In a recent #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast, Sean Gallaird eloquently says “Don’t let fear become a barrier to a collaboration that may yield something good and meaningful…we are better when we pool our strengths and gifts together in service of our students and families.” You never know where your next ideas can flourish. Reach out to someone and share your thoughts, it may lead you down paths of unexpected opportunities!