(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are the most important lessons you have learned from your colleagues?
I previously published one series in which teachers shared lessons they had learned from their students and another that focused on the lessons educators have learned from the families of their students.
This series will discuss what educators have learned from colleagues.
The most important lesson that I have learned from my colleagues over the years has been that when I have a bad day in the classroom, all I have to do is do my best the next day and things will be better. I used to beat myself up and spend a lot of time worrying after a lesson would go south or if I would have some classroom-management challenges. Now, I just spend a short time reflecting on the experience (without beating myself up or spending an inordinate amount of time worrying), figure out what I can learn from it, and know that things will get better.
Today, PJ Caposey, John Schu, Ann Stiltner, and Evan Robb begin the series.
PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:
The bottom line is that as a leader I am ALWAYS building culture. The only question is whether I am doing so intentionally or am I letting it create itself through my inattention to detail and therefore tolerating behaviors that do not bring us closer to our stated objectives.
I am very excited to tackle this question as a superintendent. People often tell you that it is lonely at the top of an organization. As a building principal, I would have resoundingly agreed with that sentiment. What I have found as a superintendent is dramatically different from my experience as a principal. In fact, in no other position in my educational career have I felt as wrapped in support and surrounded by positive collegial discourse than I have in my eight years as a superintendent.
The three most important lessons I have learned from the great educators and leaders around me are:
1) We think people are thinking about us more than they actually are thinking about us.
2) We are community leaders, not school leaders.
3) You are always building culture—intentionally or unintentionally.
Thinking about thinking
There are many difficult decisions that come as part and parcel of the job of superintendent. What I have found, through the guidance of my colleagues, is that I assume our decisions are considered much more in the greater community than they are. Said differently, I often spend more time considering how the public will react than the public spends reacting to a tough decision.
Learning this has done two things for me. First, it has given me a sense of peace when making really difficult decisions. Second, it has helped me to stay true to the values of the organization when making decisions instead of attempting to pander to perceived public opinion.
Lastly, and I want to be very clear, I have learned this is NOT a superintendent thing. We all have a tendency to do this, and to see the error in our ways, all we have to do is examine our own thinking. We are busy thinking about ourselves, the same way everyone else is. We are not the center of most people’s attention.
When I first entered into administration, I never imagined the role schools play in the overall community. For me, the job was going to be about teaching and learning. While that remains the primary purpose of the work, it is not the only purpose.
Schools are the benchmark many communities, particularly small communities, are built upon. We are the largest employer in our community and have a unique ability to make the overall community more attractive and to ensure that the community continues to take care of its less-fortunate members. Adopting this lens has allowed me to reroute some of my time to things I would have seen as superfluous or a waste of my time earlier in my career. While this has nothing directly to do with the pandemic, I can say with certainty that the relationships built in times of less stress allowed our district to better navigate the crisis that was 2020.
I used to see culture as something we tended to occasionally. We programmed, professionally developed, and planned to improve culture. They were events but did not extend beyond that. What I eventually learned from my peers is that culture is always being built. Culture is being built by what I as the leader of the organization model and tolerate. The culture of my organization will devolve to the lowest common denominator if I do not intervene and do not tolerate behavior not in alignment with our stated values.
‘Tap Into Your Personal Passion’
John Schu (@MrSchuReads) spent 13 years as a classroom teacher and school librarian. John is a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University and has shared his love of reading with countless educators and students as the former ambassador of school libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs:
During my first year as a teacher-librarian, it often felt as though I was planning lessons and brainstorming ideas alone on an island far, far away from other elementary school librarians. It all changed when I joined Twitter. Suddenly, I communicated with colleagues who wanted to collaborate, connect, and share ideas and materials. These relationships inspired me to take risks and to think and build outside the box. They transformed my library’s program and changed my life and outlook forever.
Fast forward to today, 14 years later. As the former ambassador of school libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs, I spent the four years before the COVID-19 pandemic traveling around the world from conference to conference, from school to school, from event to event, connecting with students, teacher-librarians, classroom teachers, administrators, and families through story. Thanks to these joyful and heart-growing reading celebrations, I have colleagues who have grown into close friends and have shared invaluable lessons with me.
- Tap into your personal passion to engage students: Walking into Rhonda Jenkins’ (@luv2teachtech) elementary school library in Naperville, Ill., is like walking onto the set of your favorite movie or TV show. Her space is warm, inviting, and buzzing with incredible energy. I’ve been lucky enough to shop at seven of her Scholastic Book Fairs and from those experiences, I’ve witnessed what makes Rhonda such an impactful educator. From her, I learned how powerful it is to talk with students about books from the heart. When she does this, her passion shines through, and students gather around her, eager to learn more. They take in every word and recommendation. This simple yet effective approach is a great way to engage and invite students to discover the joy of reading.
- Create space for celebrating students’ individuality: Ali Schilpp (@AliSchilpp), the 2018 School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year, is a kindhearted, inspiring middle school librarian in Accident, Md. From the moment I entered her library, I could feel and see it was a space and a place that honors each and every person who walks through the door. I saw students building robots, tinkering with gadgets, using tools to create art, and reading. Ali also goes out of her way to know the perfect book to recommend to every middle schooler. She’s always looking for new ways to challenge her students and provide them with exciting, creative avenues for learning that will spark their individual interests and passions.
- Be present for your students by slowing down: In Amstelveen, Netherlands, there is an elementary school teacher-librarian named Farin Mendis who is dedicated to fostering an environment that encourages taking risks. She does this by lifting up every child and encouraging them to share their passions with each other. Her main objective is to help students fall in love and stay in love with reading. From observing Farin work with her students, I saw firsthand how important it is to listen critically and to slow down daily interactions in the library. This intentional change of pace allows us as educators to be completely present for our students in the moment and to build deeper relationships with them throughout the school year.
Whenever I think of library programs like Rhonda’s, Ali’s, and Farin’s, something Newbery Honor author Pam Muñoz Ryan once shared with me comes to mind: “School libraries are safe havens, often for the student you least suspect.” From these colleagues and so many others who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, I’m continually reminded of the importance of creating safe havens and speaking about books from the heart, carefully listening, being genuine in everything you do, and closely sharing and collaborating with colleagues.
Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:
Teachers of a certain age might be familiar with Harry and Rosemary Wong’s book The First Days of School. What struck me when I first read the book, at the beginning of my teaching career, was their observation that good teachers are thieves. Harry Wong explained this same point at a conference years later saying that good teachers “steal” techniques from other teachers to help their students achieve and be successful. At first I was shocked by this idea, but after working as a teacher for 20 years, I have found this advice to be very true. I have “stolen” many lessons—from teaching strategies to teaching philosophies—from my colleagues in order to try and be a better educator.
I have learned many strategies, lessons, and teaching tricks from one amazing English teacher at my high school. She is my go-to teacher role model. One of the first things I “stole” from her happened by accident. I was walking past her room as she was teaching. Projected on her smartboard was a countdown clock to give students who were working at their desks a visual prompt of how much time there was left on their task before coming together to share out. It was an obvious and simple tool that made perfect sense. Students should know and see how much time they have left to work. I had been using the timer on my phone with my students, but they could not see it. This was something I ”stole” immediately to improve my instruction and student engagement.
Since then, I have come to depend on this colleague for the latest strategies and information in education. She constantly knows the most up-to-date literature for young adults. I have learned about new technologies, websites and apps like Prezi and Padlet from her. She is up on current reading research from Teachers College and shares it willingly with me. I make time to sit with her and get feedback on my lessons or advice on a new unit. She is open to sharing, and her enthusiasm is contagious.
As a high school special education teacher, regular education teachers often invite me to join their Google Classrooms as a teacher to monitor the work of students on my caseload that they have in class. This lets me see the messages they post to their students, their lessons and assignments, giving me many chances to “steal” ideas and outlooks from these teachers (with their permission, of course!).
These ideas push me to develop and challenge my philosophy of teaching. It has shown me that teachers I think I do not have much in common with have something worthwhile and important to share with me. They challenge me to expand out of my comfort zone as a teacher. I have learned from them compassionate and helpful ways to discuss issues like racial justice, the importance of mental health care, and possible feelings of isolation during the pandemic with my students.
One of the most important things I’ve learned across the board is the idea not to assume anything, to question what I think, and not to judge other teachers. They all have something to offer me if I am open. It is key that we surround ourselves with colleagues that challenge us and push us outside of our comfort zones to try new activities, to probe our assumptions, and to see things from a new direction.
Education, like so many other professions today, is extremely complex and ever-changing. One person cannot keep up with all the new strategies, technologies, resources, and materials. We rely on our colleagues and leaders to create an environment that supports our growth as professionals so that our students can be successful and prepared for life after high school. We are all in this together. No matter what discipline we teach, we all have something to share. The most important lesson I have learned is how much I still need to learn.
Evan Robb is currently the principal of Johnson-Williams Middle School in Berryville, Va., and a Corwin author. Prior to being a school principal, he was an English teacher, department chair, and assistant principal. Evan is a recipient of the Horace Mann Educator of the Year Award. In addition, the NCTE Commission on Reading selected him to serve on its national board:
Working with and learning from teachers and administrators has helped shape and affirm my core beliefs about teaching, learning, and leading.
I’ve learned the importance of patience. It takes time to develop into the educator we want to be; we each go through a journey of trial, error, and reflection. Therefore, be patient and be a learner. Give hope to and have faith in students, choose to make a difference, believe in students, and always be kind. Take risks. Great educators never play it safe all the time. Risks lead to growth.
Remember, the students who stress us out are probably the students who need us the most. When we think things aren’t working or we’re not connecting with students, keep in mind that no matter how experienced we become, we will never know every time we make a difference.
Make a choice every day to be a positive, optimistic, and compassionate person. Avoid negativity. Negative educators create negative environments and often bring out the worst in students’ behavior while inhibiting learning. It’s highly challenging for students to learn in a negative environment; the same is true for adults. Years ago, a colleague shared that students don’t like negative teachers or administrators, and neither should I. The good news, the opposite is equally true. We each have a responsibility to facilitate positive change.
In the end, I believe we all learn there are three types of educators: those we hated, those we cannot remember, and those who changed our life. All three are always available. Choose with care.
Thanks to PJ, John, Ann, and Evan for contributing their thoughts!
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