WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF I ASKED YOU, "WHY?"
Every year at this time, when the old year turns to the new, I take time to reflect on my professional journey and my purpose. I began this focused self-evaluation ten years ago after reading Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why,” wherein Sinek explores how great leaders influence those around them. I recognized that I was so focused on what I was doing and how I was doing it that I never took the time to truly reflect on WHY I was doing ANY of it! If you had asked me my WHY at the start of my career, I can honestly say I am not sure I knew the answer.
Now, each January, when the calendar turns to a new trip around the sun, I return to the dog-eared pages with sticky notes, highlighter markings, and many handwritten exclamation points and question marks. Ironically far from the clean slate to which we often aspire. No matter how often I engage with the text, Sinek’s message is always fresh with a newness that highlights prior revelation and illuminates what remains to be uncovered. The impact of this endeavor has been immeasurable.
In 2022, when giving my keynote address for the School of Education Dean’s Symposium at Manhattanville College, I invited participants to think about how they are creating or building their teaching legacy every day while continuing to lean into Sinek’s work. I encouraged them to rethink legacy work as something they create every day when they enter their school spaces and not something they only leave behind at the culmination of their career.
Today, in my new role as Supervisor of Literacy and Learning at SWBOCES’ Center for Professional Learning, I work regularly in a position that I believe to be a manifestation of the many years of deep reflection on my WHY. In this role, I experience a daily recommitment to teaching, leading, and learning together with you, supporting your WHY, and contributing to your LEGACY work as a champion in the field of education.
So, as we begin this new calendar year, I encourage you to consider taking a journey of personal purpose and reflection of your own. One that is specific to your role as an educational champion and lead learner and one that is true to who you are and WHY you chose to do this work. So, lead learners and legacy makers; I ask you these six critical questions as you start your journey in 2024:
- What is your WHY?
- What is your PURPOSE in your role?
- What image comes to mind when you think of your WHY?
- What about your WHY drives you?
- How are you putting your WHY into practice every day?
- How are you leading your legacy as you start your educational journey in 2024?
As we welcome and walk into 2024 together, I invite you to stop, reflect, and think about the messy, tattered, worn-out book that refreshes and refines my work every year. You may have your own inspiration, a book or podcast that opens your mind to examine your professional purpose. Perhaps, after reading this blog, you may decide to read Sinek’s book yourself. Challenge yourself to engage in meta work with your WHY, PURPOSE, and LEGACY as you continue to lead learning in your role. No matter what book or medium drives you to reflection, inspiration, and aspiration, I encourage you to celebrate YOUR identity and who YOU are as you manifest your WHY into the educational world in 2024.
As Sinek reminds us, “If you don’t know WHY, you can’t truly know how and what.”
"I encourage you to consider taking a journey of personal purpose and reflection of your own, one that is specific to your role as an educational champion and lead learner and one that is true to who you are and WHY you chose to do this work."
TEACHER COLLABORATION = ESSENTIAL for the SUCCESS of TEACHERS & STUDENTS ALIKE
Relationships were always core to my interest in working in schools, including recognizing a need for the support of colleagues. So, when looking for my first teaching position in New York City 20 years ago, I prioritized finding a school that was intentional about relationships and professional collaboration. I knew I needed collegial connections to sustain me early in my career and sought to avoid the isolation that the classroom can present for teachers. Although I mainly applied to high school positions, I opted for a middle school job - per the school's commitment to community and collaboration - and have spent much of my career working in and with middle schools since.
The most successful teacher collaboration I've engaged in was with a Bronx middle school where I coached teachers. There, grade-level teams met twice weekly, once for a Culture Meeting to work together to address school climate and social-emotional matters and the second time for a Literacy Inquiry Team meeting. Teachers would use assessment data to identify a group of students to support with a common literacy skill across classes. Each week, they would develop common strategies for skill-building for their focus students (and any others who could benefit) and assess growth over the course of the year. Teachers' common, consistent attention to being responsive to targeted students translated into an expanding toolkit for meeting a range of student needs. Notably, meetings started with check-ins to ensure colleagues connected with each other before jumping into their inquiry tasks, reflective of how relationships are an essential foundation for sustaining collaboration.
Here at the Center for Professional Learning and Curriculum Support, I'm excited that my first school-based work in my role here is focused on facilitating teams of teachers to engage in data inquiry, using the Datawise process to determine where students need support, planning, and implementing strategies to meet identified needs, reflecting on the impact of these efforts, and repeating the cycle. This work was affirmed when I tuned into a recent Harvard EdCast episode, "What It Takes to Change a School," in which Justin Cohen, author of Change Agents: Transforming Schools from the Ground Up, shares how teams of teachers collaborating to be responsive to their students - and not top-down directives - have the most significant impact on school improvement and student outcomes. I shared the episode with the teams I'm working with, as I want them to understand the essential role of their Collaboration in serving their students.
I was further reminded of the centrality of teachers growing their practice together when I attended the fall convening of the New York State Staff/Curriculum Development Network (SCDN), where Bill Daggett presented "The Future of Education and Artificial Intelligence." Daggett, who leads the Successful Practices Network, spoke of the need to use 21st-century technology not to do 20th-century teaching better but to implement the more profound teaching and learning shifts demanded by 21st-century conditions. He also noted that policy trails the rate of change we need and urged school leaders to focus on spreading the examples of instructional innovation and excellence that exist in pockets at all schools. Again, fostering teacher collaboration, in this case to share and uplift teachers' effective efforts, is critical to widening the reach of powerful practices.
Scheduling time for teachers to work together intentionally can be a challenge, but sustaining teachers in the profession and having a sustained impact on students' success demands it. Being part of a supportive team of colleagues was critical to my development and mindset as a classroom teacher. Now, I value helping other educators to grow systems and structures for effective teacher collaboration to further student success.
"Scheduling time for teachers to work together intentionally can be a challenge, but sustaining teachers in the profession and having a sustained impact on students' success demands it."
DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION - DOING THE WORK
Sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King stood 18 steps from the landing of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his now famous and oft-quoted address. In eight successive, impassioned sentences, he shared his dreams for freedom and equity for all people. Today, we remember the dream King articulated, but we don’t recall the body of the speech in which he discusses the work that needs to take place for those dreams to be realized. Such is what SWBOCES Superintendent Dr. Harold Coles reminded participants in his opening remarks for the 4th Annual Summer Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SWBOCES Professional Learning & Curriculum Support; we need to focus on the often difficult but necessary ongoing work essential to the realization of King’s vision.
After spending more than 20 years in a variety of teaching and administrative roles in education in New York, I was drawn to the essential nature of the Center for Professional Learning & Curriculum Support’s work supporting educators in meaningful ways, and joined the Center in the role of Assistant Director just days before the Institute. Thus, it was significant that less than one week after my start, I had the privilege of participating, along with colleagues and educators representing a full range of roles in our PreK-12 systems, in a week of learning, connection, and inspiration at the annual DEI Institute.
Over the course of five days, we heard from compelling speakers and participated in workshops that explored critical considerations and opportunities for advancing the ideals of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging central to King’s dream. For me, the Institute was an inspiring welcome to the SWBOCES Center for Professional Learning and Curriculum Support, where DEI is central to our work. With SWBOCES Board members Dr. Sheryl Brady, Nilesh Jain, and Dr. Joan Weber in attendance, the Center’s Director Dr. Mary Elizabeth Wilson framed our DEI efforts by sharing, “In launching this work, we reached out to experts, read everything we could find, attended webinars, created space to talk with each other, to listen to understand, and to share our lived experiences. Together we took a risk that I knew was humanly possible.”
Our day two keynote speaker, Dr. Anael Alston, NYSED Assistant Commissioner of Access, Equity & Community, posited that to ensure educational equity, we must approach our work with the premise that every child is “born brilliant and asset-rich.” He invited participants to close our eyes and imagine, “what would it feel like if everyone who raised you treated you like you were brilliant and asset-rich?” I attribute my own investment in education to an appreciation for the ways adults in my life affirmed my sense of self, coupled with my recognition that schools too often fall short of their promise to do the same for too many young people. I have visceral memories of the connectedness and value I felt in school spaces in my formative years, which reflect the sense of belonging we want for every child. Yet, when we feel challenged by our students, we must keep in mind what Green Bronx Machine founder Stephen Ritz reminded us, “Children who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
Across the DEI Institute, workshops led by Center faculty and by teachers and administrators from across New York emphasized the need and strategies for cultivating welcoming and affirming environments in a variety of ways. The topics were themselves diverse and included creating a culture of safety, developing caring communities through school-wide restorative circles, ways to foster belonging for the LGBTQ+ community, reducing weight stigma in schools, the need for employees to feel included and for students and colleagues alike to see people like themselves in leadership roles, because “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” In their respective keynotes, Port Chester Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez and Elizabeth Seton High School President Dr. Lisa Grillo spoke about the importance of women, people of color, and Black and Brown women in particular serving in educational leadership roles - and the need to “cultivate, support, and affirm'' such leadership.
I came out of the DEI Institute grateful for the thoughtful planning of my new colleagues, inspired by the contributions of presenters and participants alike, and energized to partner with schools and districts to advance efforts to ensure all students are engaged in affirming and transformative learning experiences. Sixty years after Dr. King proclaimed, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” public schools remain a key space to forge ahead with realizing unfulfilled promises.
On behalf of myself, our Senior Director Dr. Mary Elizabeth Wilson, and the faculty and staff of the Center and SWBOCES, we thank our speakers and attendees for sharing their expertise and themselves with us as together we continue on the path toward making Dr. King’s dream a reality.