Growth mindset. Future ready. 21st century learning. Changemaker. These are all buzzwords in and around education. I use them a lot myself, having the majority of my work centered around innovative instruction using technology as a resource for authentic learning. But in early August, I had the opportunity to go old school – back to the basics. I was invited to a small school in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico to train their teachers and staff. The most “senior” full-time teacher on this staff has five years teaching experience. In just three years, this school has grown from five teachers to over thirty staff members, and now supports students in grades pK-7. At least half of the teachers in my trainings have never taught before outside of college. I know four of them didn’t even go to college to become teachers, and yet have found themselves called to this mission. So while I am usually working with districts on integrating technology and transforming learning through various blended learning strategies and digital-rich resources, I had to refocus, drawing on those first few years that I was in the classroom. My only technology was an overhead projector – not an interactive whiteboard, and not even an LCD projector and doc camera. No, just the old school overhead projectors with Vis a Vis markers.
In Mexico, was training on Classroom Management, Time Management and Lesson Planning, Effective Assessments, Differentiated Learning, Active Learning Strategies, and Authentic Learning. Most teachers in the United States can count on some form of technology to assist and/or enhance their teaching (at a minimum). It’s so much easier to use data to drive your instruction when you can use handy online formative assessment tools. Differentiation is easier to maintain with fidelity when you have the entire internet and digital devices in the hands of the students. I had to constantly reframe my thinking when putting together this week-long professional development. My “growth mindset” had to learn to grow in new (or old) directions.
I’ll be the first to admit that developing the training was a challenge for me, at times. But I found myself grateful for those years I spent teaching “old school style” with just that projector, a desktop computer, and my class full of eager minds. I had years of resources to discover in my memory, dust off, and add to that helped pull everything together into something that would be beneficial to these young teachers and the students whom they’d be getting “future-ready”.
Most of the teachers I was working with were from the United States. There was a handful from Mexico themselves. Halfway through the week, one of those sweet ladies leaned over to me and said (in way better English than I could replicate in Spanish), “You are helping me so much. I watch you and think I want to be like you.” I can’t even begin to explain how that comment filled my heart. My hope and goal is to serve the educators I work with well, but I don’t always know if what I’m providing is meeting their needs. These teachers gave up an entire week of their summer vacation for training right before school started.
The morning consisted of my workshops and the afternoon of school policies, and language acquisition lessons as this is an English-immersion school. Many of the teachers had only lived in Mexico for a week when I arrived. They were going through culture shock, new job shock, and information overload. And yet, not a single one complained. They all showed up early so they had time to share coffee and sweet bread with each other. They hugged me each morning and seemed genuinely happy to be there again. Did I mention that the school was not air conditioned? And that it was August? In Mexico? Get what I’m saying here? They don’t have access to many of the “comforts” we take for granted in American schools, and yet I was received with more gratitude and welcome than often occurs in the U.S. No one complained about working during non-contractual hours. No one asked why lunch wasn’t provided. No one walked in early, looked at their phones during the training, or got sidetracked talking to their colleagues. No one made excuses as to why they couldn’t use certain instructional practices I was teaching because they didn’t have enough resources. These were teachers who embraced creativity and critical thinking in ways that would support their students. Their aim at this school is to reach each student’s heart first, and their mind second. That’s the best kind of teaching I can think of. That’s the kind of innovation I want to see in classrooms everywhere. It should always be about the kids. These educators truly are changemakers, preparing their 21st century students using old school innovation.
I am what you might call a frequent flyer. I have flown in and out of many different airports for my work and traveled internationally numerous times in the past for vacations. But none of those experiences prepared me for the frustrations I was to experience recently in the Mexico City airport.
My family was traveling with me to Puerto Escondido where I was to spend the week training a school of teachers. We were adding in a family vacation, and I was thrilled to get to include them on this trip. Since I am the more seasoned traveler, I was sort of leading our pack. Here’s the first issue: none of us speaks Spanish. While I can get by in a stilted conversation, trying to read airport signs to direct my family through immigration or to find our connecting flight felt almost impossible. I felt like we were often wandering hopelessly throughout the terminal. Our boarding passes said Gate B, but the only signs we could find were all numerals. Anyone we asked, just told us we were too early and to check back later. But to check back where?! I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place.
When I had time to finally sit down and relax (we still didn’t actually know where the gate was, but we had a long layover, and apparently they don’t assign you a gate number until 40 minutes prior to departure), I realized how our experience is so similar to people going through an organizational change.
The signs in the airport didn’t offer much guidance. We looked puzzled enough, however, to prompt several people to ask if we needed help. They would give us a point in the right direction, or help translate something we read or heard. Leading teachers through a new initiative often requires similar assistance. Sometimes they just need a sign to point them in the right direction. Sometimes it takes a leader to tell them where to go. And other times it takes an outside person to walk beside them and help translate what they’ve seen or been told. Each guide is helpful, and sometimes all three are necessary to enact sustainable change. I get to play a part in all three roles when having the pleasure of guiding teachers and administrators through changes that occur around improving instructional practices.
When people resist change, it is usually tied to some type of fear. If I can relieve some of their anxiety, they are more open to the change being proposed. Reasons for resistance vary. They can include a lack of credibility in either the vision or the leadership, lack of support, conflicting culture, fear of failure, and previous negative experiences. Some people are worried that the change will lessen the need for them or their role. Others think they won’t be able to learn the new information or strategies necessary. And others don’t even know why they resist change, but it’s just plain uncomfortable for them. How can I help alleviate their fears and relieve that burden? I listen. I hear their words and I listen for what they aren’t saying. I ask questions to guide the conversation, if necessary, but mostly I just listen. From that, I learn what is scaring them most. I also get a quick look at where they are in readiness for the transitional change.
We know people accept and adapt to change in different stages of readiness. Some jump right in (sometimes before the change vision has even been shared). Others join the mission with little need of leadership after the change is initially communicated. These folks only need leaders to check in with them periodically. Others are open to change but need more guidance establishing a procedure to move forward. They benefit most from the professional learning and goal development I lead them through. Once they have a plan in place, they can see how to navigate this change. Then, we get to the people who are the most fearful and resistant. They require the most of my attention and that of their leaders. We listen to their fears, and then we start to break them down, so we can disarm the anxiety surrounding the change. Professional learning and goal development still benefit them, but they need more one-on-one guidance and more frequent face time as they work their way through the change procedures. Their fears may continue to resurface. They are often the ones who sometimes get frustrated enough to declare, “I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place!” Leaders need to keep a positive stance and continue to communicate the vision behind the change, helping these “resistants” persevere to take small steps forward. Leaders will need to think through what knowledge, understanding, and skills are most necessary for successful change adoption. How might they, as the school leaders, help every employee develop these understandings and skills? And then break it down into their own next steps, and their employees’ next steps. By thinking through each detail, the leaders will better alleviate anxieties surrounding the change, and better equip their employees to make a smooth and sustainable transition.
As an educator, I have always been in the customer-service industry. As a classroom teacher, my “customers” were my students. My job each day was to put my students’ needs first. To make sure I was creating relevant and engaging learning experiences that helped each of them grow every day. If they were bored, unhappy, sick, tired, or misbehaving, it impacted their learning and that of their peers in the class. While these may seem secondary to those not in education, teachers know how meeting these basic needs comes before any knowledge learning can occur.
“Do the best that you can in the place where you are, and be kind.” ~Scott Nearing
As a curriculum director, the teachers and my fellow administrators became my clients. I saw my position as a support role to make them more effective and efficient while making their lives a little easier.
Now as an education strategist, consultant, and learning coach, my focus is the same…helping the teachers and administrators with whom I work. My first job is to alleviate fears and help them feel more comfortable. My second job is to equip them with knowledge, skills, and resources to positively impact their students. In all of these roles, I’ve needed an open and compassionate heart to hear the person, before we could “go to work”. Through all of these experiences and interactions, I see it as my responsibility to remain professional and friendly, putting others’ needs first. Because of that, I am doubly appreciative when I see excellent customer service in other areas of my life.
Recently, my work schedule had me in New Jersey at the beginning of the week and Florida at the end. My hotel room in New Jersey had a Keurig machine with one pod of decaf and one of regular coffee. Those were gone after the first morning, and I jotted a quick note to housekeeping requesting extra (because let’s face it, when I’m traveling I need more than one small cup of caffeine in the morning). That evening when I returned to my room, I found two of each. The following day, the housekeeper was still in my room when I got there. She quickly offered me a genuine smile and asked how my day was. We exchanged pleasantries, and then she asked me if I was just drinking the regular coffee. I said, yes that was my preference, and she went directly to her cart in the hallway and brought me back four pods of coffee. Then she said, “you aren’t using the condiments, though?” I said, “No. If it was the yummy liquid creamer I would, but I’d rather drink it black than use that powdered stuff.” She said, “I’ll be right back.” She went down to the kitchen, and then came back with a small bowl of five liquid creamers for me. This small gesture of kindness filled my heart. She did not have to go out of her way to get me the creamer. I wouldn’t have even known she had access to any. She could have easily left the room after our initial greeting, but instead went the extra mile to hold a meaningful interaction, and put my comfort first.
Wednesday night had me returning to the same hotel near Tampa that I had stayed in the previous week. As soon as I walked in (I should also tell you that last week was the first time I had ever stayed in that hotel), the desk manager said, “Welcome back, Mrs. McLaughlin. How was your flight?” He proceeded to hand me my keys, thank me for being an elite member, and gave me a little bag of goodies. It felt genuine, and not like something he was obliged to do as part of his job. That conversation gave me a little burst of energy after a long day of traveling, and then when I opened my door, I found this:
This is not a luxury hotel. I paid next to nothing for my stay there. And, yet, their employees went out of the way to make me feel welcomed, to make being away from my family a little less difficult, and my stay more comfortable. Plus, chocolate!
I like to think that I do that in my own profession. I believe that building relationships has to be what happens first before true learning and change can occur. I believe in the power of servant leadership. So I try to get to know the people I’m working with first. I enjoy genuine conversations with them. I hope that they leave our interactions with a little more energy, and feeling more comfortable with the change we are walking through together. Small acts of kindness and courtesy can make all the difference.