Take the Next Step

Maybe it’s just me, but so often I find myself putting off a project if I don’t think there will be a successful, “perfect” end-point.  I had thought that I was doing better at taking risks and worrying less in my life post-covid [post?!], but this very writing of mine has brought back the vulnerable struggle of attempting perfection every step of the way.  I took a break from writing last summer and did not participate in the professional reading responses as I had in previous years, so this time felt like there was more to prove.  The moment the book Leading like a C.O.A.C.H. by Matt Renwick showed up on my doorstep, I was thrilled!  I didn’t open it immediately, however, because I wanted to devote my complete, focused attention to his work.  Then when my school year had ended, I had all intentions of getting it started, but I was in the middle of a Colleen Hoover, so…  Finally, I had some evenings in between baseball games and chasing my boys that I was able to really dive in with my flairs, highlighters, and post-its.  My plan was to read it cover-to-cover so I would best know which direction to take for my writing; but even when done, I was left with pages of ideas and unable to decide which would make the best choice.  A few articles were drafted, but I noticed a new challenge for me was found in writing about leading teachers and colleagues, versus students.  I had such high expectations for my writing and was not feeling successful, so I kept walking away.  I read three more novels before deciding I couldn’t procrastinate the work any longer.  What point am I even trying to make in exposing my messy process of a professional writing post? I think it is that when we as professionals feel the support and envision the success, we are more apt to take the next step in professional growth.

For our students to be ready to put in the work that the learning progress requires- sometimes despite a mindset of failure before even beginning- we empower them with opportunities for success.  By pre-teaching, frontloading, providing background knowledge, basic accommodations or greater modifications, students are more likely to feel successful, harness their abilities, and master new learning of the grade-level standards.  In addition to planning these intentional skill and confidence boosters, there are some conditions within our control to give students (and teachers) empowerment to tackle the challenges, press past the situations where motivation seems blocked by wary doubts, or throw hands up in a perfectionism surrender and say, “Alright, let’s do this.”  Trust, praise, and feedback are how the learning community can grow together.                 

Renwick’s book inspires us to do this for teachers- create opportunities for success.  By leading like a coach and constructing the conditions for professional growth, the outcome is positive for all.  “We co-create a collective belief that a community of professionals can make a real and positive impact on the lives of their students” (p.42).   With use of instructional walks, principals, district leaders, or educational coaches can be witness to the reality of the daily learning community.  Teachers can express and demonstrate their classroom’s strengths and achievements, and be the ones driving their own professional growth.  Coaches reaffirm the success through informal, yet explicit feedback on how the teacher is authentically contributing to student learning.  Through leading a solution-driven (versus problem-based) collaborative approach, the educational team can reexamine our current practices and use authentic data to determine those that are most promising for our individual students- collectively moving instruction forward.  As leaders and coaches, our most important role is to give support.

Be Authentic.

walk with the dreamers quote

I came across this quote eight years ago when I took my first administrative job.  I am pinning it back on my office wall tomorrow so the positivity can radiate down on me during another extraordinary school year of ‘new’.  It will be is hard.  We must be honest for our students, staff, and colleagues so that we may grow, resiliently, together.  And yet, we must keep dreaming, believing- courageously, cheerfully.  In all we do, be authentic.


The dialogic classrooms in Engaging Literate Minds thrive on authenticity.  But even if this concept of ‘dialogic classrooms’ is new to you (hand raise), there are so many ways to make this year the year for enhancing the culture and climate of the learning community, deepening the purpose for assessments, and engaging others through authentic instruction.  For your students.  For you.


To start, we create the conditions in which children believe they, too, can be authentic.  If our students are afraid to let their teachers and peers witness the wonderings, the mistakes, the attempts, the inquiry, then they will be too afraid to learn, and we will never have the full picture of what they know and need.  When children feel anxious or that they are at the bottom of a status hierarchy, their learning suffers (p.273).  This year, call upon the children to create the rules. Perhaps with an approach of behavior development, versus management.  Discuss together, and with the supportive resources of your building and community, the authentic emotions that affect our learning- both in-person and online.  Help the children to articulate the strategies used when problem-solving for the new (and old) situations they will encounter this year.  And know that it is never too late to be authentic- to walk in on a Monday with a revived spirit and share with your students/staff/parents the need for change.  


Authentic assessment allows students to maintain trust (of the teacher, the system, the process), while demonstrating skill and thought on a much deeper level.  Engaging Literate Minds highlights the use of self-assessments to develop the sense of agency and responsibility for learning (p.63, p.251 for samples of student response logs).  The authors also share the belief that assessments must strive to be asset-focused- to showcase the student’s strengths rather than create shortcomings- with benefits including increased motivation, greater independence, and a positive self-assessment of their learning.  To do this, take nearly any work sample and look specifically for the indicators of progress, process, and possibility (p.223).  Running records and reading conferences may be the most authentic measure of a student’s reading (p. 233; more resources for getting started with running records listed in the endnote 14.11).


Authentic engagement and conversations around literacy are the all-encompassing instructional supports that strengthen the classroom community, give insight to students’ understandings, and allow for rich instruction.  I love sharing with others the strategy of using poetry or lyrics to engage learners of any age in meaningful conversations about language, comprehension, writing, life.  The authors use music to support positive transitions within a classroom, an idea taken from Debbie Miller, and they share a list of songs with prosocial lyrics on page 205.  Did you know that there is research showing that listening to such songs reduces aggressive thoughts?!  There are enough on the list to print off, analyze, and listen on repeat one per week for the entire first semester.  Enjoy them, together.


Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers 

“Listen to Me!”

Last night, as I’m holding my two month old and attempting to discipline my four year old, all of us on the verge of tears, it was as if time stood still and my professional and personal worlds collided in slow motion.  I was losing my patience at rapid speed, telling my son to “Listen!”  He incessantly nodded his head, moving around the floor like a Transformer, making oblivious noises. “Listen!” I insisted, louder and louder, blood pressure rising.  “Listen to me!” And then –wham- worlds collide and the lightbulb goes off in my tired-mama head.  “You can’t just nod your head. You have to pause what you’re doing and look at me the entire time, until I’m done speaking.”  He needed me to stop, calm down, and teach him what it means to listen respectfully.

The moment went perfectly with this summer book study of Shane Safir’s The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation.  Shane’s words read like therapy for the leader who isn’t sure of the next steps.  I’ve already filled many pages of notes and reflection on her words.  What has spoken to me most so far is the reminder of the critical importance to establish a culture of trust.  While I had previously focused this philosophy on student learning and growth, I am realizing the same must be true for all of us.  Shane illustrates through her experiences in working with educators the “deeply human need to matter, to be seen, heard, and valued” (p.2), and in Chapter 2 describes the neuroscience behind it all: to develop, our brains need emotional safety, positive feedback, and room for error (p.47).  Not only is this so powerful for the instruction in the classroom communities we provide our students, but also for our staff.  The classroom, school, and district must support one another with a “healthy emotional climate in which people are relaxed enough to learn, grow, and collaborate” (p.41).

Last summer, I embraced Regie Routman’s Literacy Essentials.  Regie prioritized her book to begin with Engagement 1: Developing Trusting Relationships.  She shared the wisdom of her experiences with sending the message to each child “I see you, I know who you are, I understand you” (p.13).  What if we cultivate relationships with our colleagues to the same degree?  To begin deep change, we must start with listening.  For our district goals, visions of student success, and all the hard work to resonate, we must first (re)establish the culture of trust.  We must develop a shared vision for our students, and determine what evidence we really need to show progress.  Both Shane and Regie believe in the power of storytelling (and listening) to start this pivotal process.  In Literacy Essentials, “Storytelling, as generations of people from all over the world have known for millennia, helps us bond with each other.  Stories humanize us and connect us.  Stories promote the value of our lives through talk, listening, and conversation- all of which are necessary for a full and happy life” (p.16).  Shane references ‘storientation’ and 30 minute listening ‘one-on-ones,’ and I’m curious to read more about her methods for this.  She encourages inquiry into the key events that have inspired who we are as teachers today.  I plan to start with something like,

Think about who you are as a teacher and who you aspire to be.  Consider the pivotal moments that have shaped your journey.  Share pieces of your story (p.49).

I am excited to witness the impact these storytelling and listening experiences will have on myself as a leader, the staff I work with, and the students and families of our community.  And I hope to be brave enough to lower my administrator walls and share pieces of me too.

{Originally written for Reading By Example as part of the summer book study blog for The Listening Leader at https://readingbyexample.com/}

You can read the first chapter of The Listening Leader free!

Be Realistic.

I started to write this post nearly a year ago, but life happened.  The 2018-19 back to school season came fast, and the timing for a blog about school supply lists just didn’t line up with reality.  I wrote about other topics for a bit, and then the daily routines and curveballs of life overpowered my writing goals.  It’s funny how we educators get an idea over the summer, but it can lose momentum with the weather.  So, lesson learned: give yourself grace. Be realistic.

As I pick up the pen where I left off, getting started on my annual summer rejuvenation, I’m writing about an issue I believe every educator needs to reflect upon, because it impacts all students in one way or another every single year: school supply lists.  Why is this the topic to spark my summer ’19 fire? Because I’m passionate about supporting all students and doing all things with purpose.  August will beckon your time be spent in other ways, so get them out now!

Have you taken a really good look at your grade level’s required supply list from your students’ perspective? Reviewed what you expect their backpacks to be loaded up with- picked out carefully with hopes of having the right items to please both their teachers and friends.  Maybe they begged their parents to spend an extra dollar here or there for this season’s styles.  Or maybe that list led to tears in the aisle because something was going to have to get put back on the shelf.

Now, have you taken a really good look at the list from your students’ parents’ perspective?  Examined what you expect their paycheck be spent on, and how hard that might be if there are three other siblings to buy for too.  They carefully manage the list in hopes of pleasing both the teacher and their innocent child.  Maybe even hiding tears in the supply aisle because something is going to have to get put back on the shelf.

I challenge you to sit down with your teaching team and go back to the drawing board with that list- line by line:

  • If you can manage teaching without it, X it off.
  • If something’s on there just because that’s what has come through your classroom door every fall, X it off.
  • If you personally buy those items anyways or get them donated, don’t make the parents duplicate it, X it off.
  • If the list this year had something that ended up not being used how you envisioned, X it off.

Then when you’ve narrowed it down, add every item to your virtual cart on Walmart.com or price the items at the neighborhood store your students’ families shop at.  Decide if the total cost will be worth it for all the students & parents.  Then, go back to your list again and be realistic.

If you’re on a journey to trying new things in 2019-20, here are some ideas to #ditchthelist

  • Use classroom community supplies with baskets of markers, crayons, glue, scissors, etc. for all to share. At open house night, have a note asking if parents want to contribute by sending in one supply to add to a basket.
  • Allow parents & community members to choose apples from a donation tree and send in the requested items.
  • Ask the art teacher what he/she really needs the kids to bring weekly. Chances are, they have community supply bins too.
  • Ask the PE teacher, custodian, and admin if those gym shoes are really necessary, or brainstorm other innovative solutions.
  • Call upon churches, local businesses, even donorschoose.com and get donations or sponsors for items you can purchase yourself.
  • Begin a school-wide supply looping method of sending the supplies from grade 2 on to grade 3, etc. Parents will appreciate a school routine that encourages each child to reuse the items next year.
  • See if your principal or PTO will contribute to each classroom’s supplies by buying school color/mascot folders, notebooks, etc.
  • Ask families to send in a book for the classroom library instead of traditional supplies, or to spend the money at the school book fair.

Lastly, I encourage you to volunteer at a local Salvation Army, church, or other organization in your community that hosts back to school “shopping” experiences for children of low-income families.  This life-changing, humbling opportunity will surely make those supply lists more realistic!

Don’t lose the spark.

Where are all my teachers at, prepping for next year?!  I know you’re out there, because the Target dollar spot was picked over on day three of cutesy school stuff!  It’s only July, but here we are, excited for next school year! I think it may be similar to planting a garden (I wouldn’t know, exactly, but my husband does a great job of it!):  A gardener decides which veggies to plant for that year, where the garden should go, which plants to put where, how to prep the seeds to start off right for the best chance of new growth, excited to spend time in this beginning season…  Do you still get excited? What do you need to get that back? What do you need to let go? Let. It. Go.

Set goals.

Make plans.  

Plant the seeds.


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Encourage collaboration.

It’s a beautiful thing, the excitement of learning alongside a peer. The trust and community that develops by believing in one another.  True for adults and children, staff and students.

Shared learning experiences build community and relationships.  The beginning of Regie Routman’s Literacy Essentials focuses on developing trust, “Get to know students, and help them get to know each other” (p. 14).  Without prioritizing the establishment of trusting relationships, teaching efforts are likely to fail. Not only on the first day of school, or when welcoming a new student into the room- throughout the year, trust matters.  By creating opportunities for students to work collaboratively together, they will support one another as learners, help one another as friends, and respect one another in the community. There are many names for the topic of this post: Peer learning, collaborative learning, cooperative groups, shared learning, buddies, partner work.  Whatever you call it, I hope it fosters joy, trust, and engagement in your classroom.  Read More

Just read.

I used to play school in my bedroom every day.  One of my dad’s favorite pictures of me is around age 6, standing hand-over-heart in front of a self-created Pledge of Allegiance poster, almost entirely misspelled.  I reenacted school days for baby dolls, stuffed animals, and sometimes my younger brother got to play along. I loved reading books, poems, even a treasured hymnal. It brought me joy to read these beautiful texts and stories out loud!  Fast-forward 20 years, and reading aloud to my second and third grade students was the best part of teaching- watching their faces light up, laughing together, sometimes crying, rereading our favorite authors, savoring poetry, soaking up every word.  

Does your real-life teaching bring you joy?  Do your students enjoy each day learning in your classroom?

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Never Give Up.

“Never give up- on yourself, or on students with disabilities, or on those who struggle,”

said one of my senior students with autism, as she was preparing for an anxiety-inducing presentation to students, teachers, and community members throughout our state. Cue my soppy, trying-hard-to-not-let-her-see-me-cry face! (I cannot possibly be the only one who has those crying-teacher moments, right?) This girl is going places, and I am beyond proud!

I am now the Director of Special Education in my small, rural district, but I first really learned about teaching students with disabilities in year 6. Lord knows there aren’t enough experiences in undergrad work (another topic, another day). Yes, I had students with IEPs in previous years, read a lot about differentiation, gave real efforts at inclusion, but I didn’t really learn any monumental instructional strategies worth replicating until I struggled right along with Gary (name changed for this post to the world).

Gary was one of a handful that came into my third grade classroom reading well below grade level, but unlike the others who made progress through my multiple times a day read-alouds, shared reading studies of beautiful poetry, a plethora of choice books, guided reading, books on cd, home-school literacy connections, buddy reading, independent reading, I could go on and on… Gary was my mystery who just wasn’t making progress.

By October, I was already in a panic. I knew he was gaining more minutes of higher-level reading instruction with me than by leaving for his IEP time, so we quickly adjusted that. I knew he had already read through every level A-G reader we had in the school, so I took him with me to our amazing school library to pull his favorites from the shelf and added in a couple new because he trusted my recommendations. But, I knew he did not like to read and was practically sleeping with his eyes open- or sometimes actually sleeping- during independent reading time. I knew he felt embarrassed doing running records and reading aloud to me. Does all of this sound like a non-reader you know?! Read More

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton


During my 11 years in education, I have taught numerous children in a variety of settings: in three different districts as teacher, assistant principal, and now special education director; in multiple classrooms- from the beautiful room with high, leaky ceilings; to the room with unwanted mice that especially loved to come out during independent reading time; to my middle school office used as a classroom for a suspended student or two with much to learn; of all ages and grades; from multiple countries and cultures; with so many unique stories and situations I could fill a book. All of these children, and all of the literal blood, sweat, and tears put into teaching, have taught me that there are so many lessons to learn each and every day from the kids, their families, and the experiences we share in learning together.