Author: Nili Bartley, author of Lead beyond Your Title: Creating Change in School from Any Role
Currently a technology teacher and digital learning coach at Wilson Middle School in Natick, MA, I'm in my seventeenth year in education. I am passionate about bringing unconventional learning to students and colleagues, empowering them to bring their strengths and passions to school every day. After an eleven year adventure in the classroom inspiring students to lead, my technology integration role at the elementary level for the next three years pushed me to see the importance of a thriving culture. Through coaching colleagues and implementing innovative ideas together, I was able to serve as a catalyst in order to sparking positive change. I continued to grow as a teacher and coach while taking the leap to middle school and now in my current role, am invested in creating innovative experiences. A MassCUE Committee Member and Champion, BrainPOP Certified Educator, enthusiastic presenter, and author I am committed to sharing my passions beyond the school community and am always excited to connect with other educators.
I have held Mark Twain’s definition of courage in my pocket since my special crew of fourth graders six years ago helped me discover that I could. Being brave, facing my fears, and trying to master each are certainly challenging tasks, but I work on them most often with the help of others. Recently, I have also made room for and even fallen in love with another kind of courage. Unintentionally reading Brené Brown’s books in reverse order, I was so happy to finally make time for The Gifts of Imperfection. She explains that the original meaning of this special word is “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart,” that talking about who we are, how we’re feeling, and our experiences both good and bad, is the definition of courage.
In seventeen years as an educator, I’ve learned that a thriving culture where every administrator, staff member, and student feels valued fuels on the strengths, passions, and authenticity of its people. I have recently written with joy about my school and district, the tremendous support we have in taking risks, and the strong doses of empowerment we receive to make them happen. Daily inspiration from colleagues and students (sometimes more than I know what to do with) has become the norm. I have never been so invested in teaching and living courageously.
Even with masks on, increased distance, and a whole lot of remote learning, bringing who we are and nothing less, a theme I hold close to my heart has kept me going over the last several months. It has given me energy through a continuous wave of exhaustion. I have had moments of doubt, wondering if I should be holding back, yet I keep coming back to this. We are all showing up every day through a pandemic, and racial and political tension like many of us have never seen before. From public displays of hate to thankfully those of love, hope, and light, emotion has been banging on our doors both at school and at home. There is no better time to be human.
Part of my title is technology teacher and I love technology. I am also blessed to have written a book about giving ourselves the freedom to live past the print. I was disgusted and shocked by the horrific events at the Capitol Building on January 6th just one month ago today. The disparity in security when compared to Black Lives Matter protests, violence, and pride in racism and anti-semitism were overwhelming. I had never seen clothing that praised the Holocaust and I couldn’t stop thinking… “Do they really believe what’s printed on their shirts?”
My grandparents lost their parents, my grandfather lost his wife and son, my grandmother lost her fiancé, and they both lost almost all of their siblings. Most of their relatives were either killed or didn’t survive traveling by foot and train to escape Poland. My grandparents met when they returned to Poland after having fled to Siberia. My mother was born soon after and when she was two, in 1950, they left for Israel as refugees. My grandparents would tune into the radio every day for months listening for news of found family members but they never heard the names of their own.
It’s important to me that my children understand what it means to be fourth generation Holocaust survivors and the history behind their mom being an immigrant. It’s important to me that they are proud to be Jewish. I avoided books and movies about the Holocaust, and even listening to stories about my family for years. It felt too terrifying and still does. Yet it’s a part of me and it’s a part of my kids. Whether they are our own or those we carry with us, administrators, colleagues, and students show up with different stories in the same space.
Here is my grandfather in Caesarea, Israel and my grandmother is standing with my cousin in Netanya, the city where I was born.
The day after the events in DC, I sensitively mentioned the news, but I felt like I could do more especially after seeing this tweet from a friend and colleague who happens to be a phenomenal educator.
Although I am motivated to get there, what I tried wasn’t a deep dive into civics and social justice. It was, however, new for me. I launched a breakout room to talk or “chat” about the events that occurred for anyone interested. I was nervous, not sure I would know how to handle unanticipated conversation with my middle schoolers, but I’ve learned something from colleagues near and far over the last several months. When we don’t open the door to discussing important matters, some of which may connect to our students in ways we don’t know, we risk implying that these important matters don’t actually matter.
Many kids joined by accident out of habit but it was a welcomed chance to say hello. Some asked a variety of questions that pertained to class and a few talked about something unrelated to the news. Yet I hope the message was clear, that even if it doesn’t occur in real time in our own little virtual space, that I am genuinely interested to know what’s on their minds, that I will also share what’s on mine, and that I, their technology teacher who shows up through a screen, am human. When we give ourselves permission to be seen, with all of the imperfections that go with it, we have an opportunity to extend our courage to those around us during our time together and beyond.
We all have the power to bring who we are, regardless of our roles and titles, especially now. In fact in our current times, I believe we need ordinary courage in our schools and classrooms more than ever. I never decided on a #oneword, but I believe through writing this post I found two. I can’t wait to write soon about recent experiences in working with other districts where we embraced courage in our journeys together, the ordinary kind.
I hadn’t felt so nervous since the summer before my first year of teaching. I was certainly driven. I just didn’t know exactly how to be an effective online teacher and the thought of managing classes in a hybrid model in the midst of a pandemic was honestly making me a little crazy. So I searched for opportunities to learn. I hit the jackpot with A.J. Juliani’s online master course on adaptable learning, joined the #LeadLAP #GritCrewEDU connecting with courageous leaders from all over the country around anti-racism, and learned from my own building and district colleagues and administrators.
In fact, the title of this post is in quotes because it came from Natick’s superintendent during our first ever virtual opening day. Our hashtag has been #relationshipsmatter for a few years now and I’ve passionately written about the difference it has made on my experiences with students and colleagues. Now, in this challenging time, one extra word is holding power well beyond the moment it was heard.
Teaching eighteen groups of middle schoolers online is hard. The preparation can be exhausting and it’s simply not the same as face to face. Yet with a heavy focus on relationships, we have been pushed to creatively find avenues to build them. I show up every morning with the same drive that has kept me running to school for seventeen years; connection. This post highlights a few ideas inspired by my summer that have helped shape my fall. This post is about the importance of reaching students in a time where worry, sadness, and disconnect can so easily take the lead. There are things we try we choose to change and some we hold onto forever.
I am passionate about creating a space where students feel empowered and in that space, I want them to count on joy. I want students to look forward to showing up even from a screen, because it’s human beings that appear one by one in their own perfect squares carrying imperfect stories. Every minute matters. If we do not design an environment students and colleagues look forward to joining, we cannot expect to build relationships or make the impact we desire.
My joy game changer this fall (which can certainly be done in person) is playing student selected songs as they enter class. It’s simple yet so much of what we do to connect with kids and adults doesn’t have to be complex. It just needs to have purpose. In September during our phenomenal ten days of PD, I jumped on the idea of “walk in” songs. I take requests on a Google Form and because I wear headphones and a mic, I can also pretend I’m a DJ.
The difference it has made so far has been awesome.
Students know I care about them and their interests.
I’m learning more about them and occasionally when it’s Mrs. Bartley’s choice, they certainly learn more about me.
It provides a bit of suspense because students don’t know what song is coming or who selected it until they join class.
Students will even dance right on the screen even at 7:40 in the morning, even seventh graders, even in front of each other. (Of course I dance too.)
My personal favorite-students learn about each other and their diverse interests.
It can open up unexpected doors. I have a student who uniquely requested a song by a violinist. I asked her if she would be interested in inviting my friend, Lourds Lane, into our class virtually to play the violin live. Her reaction was priceless and after our next class she played the violin for me and I sat in amazement.
Music is powerful. Regardless of our roles and the ages of the people we serve, we can use it to bring people together, honor their uniqueness, and create joy.
Running a Classroom “Audit”
My “classroom” is still evolving and my hope is to have students become my designers. After learning about classroom “audits” I realized how much awareness we need to have in setting up our rooms even when they are virtual. The message we send our students and colleagues by what we “hang” on the wall and how much we encourage voice is critical. They need to see who we are and need a chance to see themselves and who they can become. My next step with the help of students is to incorporate books and videos as I did in my digital learning office.
A.J. Juliani introduced me to the classroom “audit” strategy in his course. This post from tolerance.org about the role classroom culture can play in anti-bias education is incredible. You can click on “Classroom Culture” to find classroom audits and other powerful strategies and practices. If you haven’t explored the potential in No Place for Hate, an Anti-Defamation League initiative, I highly recommend checking it out and I’m excited to participate in next steps for our school. Our “No Place for Hate” symbol was created by a current sixth grader last year.
Reframing Time Lost as Opportunity to Gain
I know it might sound simple, but if we don’t capitalize on technology’s superpower of communication, we risk missing out. In my last post, Choosing to Passion Up Even When Things Feel Down, I wrote about my passion for using video to communicate with colleagues as it lends itself so beautifully to being human. I see students through a Google Meet half the amount of times I would have seen them in person. I miss them and it matters to me that they know I care. So every week off week, I send them a quick video. It gives me a chance to throw a few reminders at them, but students are juggling a lot. What I am most interested in is reminding them that I am here for them and that I think they’re rockstars.
In addition, emails, phone calls, and office hours are helping tremendously in getting to know students and families. When we see even the challenging moments as opportunities to build and strengthen relationships, it can change the conversation. And there’s nothing like giving students a chance to get to know each other. In Natick, we are lucky in that we can take advantage of platforms like Flipgrid, Padlet, Seesaw, and more so students can share their voices in a variety of ways and on their own time, respond to each other, and feel seen, heard, and valued.
Asking Four QuestionsEvery Day
To build and maintain strong relationships with students and colleagues I have learned I need to have a pretty good one with myself. Every day, I ask four questions. The last one is certainly the most difficult for me but I am getting better. I tend to be extremely hard on myself and can’t help but reflect after every experience with students and colleagues. “Am I giving myself grace?” has allowed me to give myself permission to move on knowing I am doing the best I can. Perhaps the most powerful thing I have naturally begun to do is keep these questions in mind before class begins.
Two months in, this strange school year somehow feels better. I took a breath, learned from others (including my students), and am comfortable knowing I still have a lot of learning ahead. During this incredibly stressful time in our country, I am so grateful to be physically and emotionally okay. When we have that fortune maybe the greatest lesson is that if we try just a few new ideas that stay true to our why, we can remain empowered to make an impact. I was honored to join podcast host and author Timmy Bauer in this episode of “The Literacy Advocate” podcast to discuss my story this fall where relationships matter more.
It’s taken me a while to write again as for the last several months like so many others, I have been on a mission to learn. With a commitment to a deeper culturally responsive and anti-racism lens, I didn’t just want to prepare for online teaching as I headed back to the classroom. I wanted to be better, a lot better. My posts also tend to be longer which means wider gaps in between and trying to connect a whole lot together. So I decided to try something many have mastered already, writing more often and not trying to include it all in one post.
Before writing about my new teaching adventure so far, I wanted to share a final story from the spring. This post honors the people in my educational life who have recently changed it. It highlights the strengths of others in a collaborative effort born out of discomfort. This post reiterates that even when faced with challenging times, people need us to be human. And I believe it’s within our humanity that passion lives. Making the choice to “passion up,” a concept I first wrote about two years ago, has made all of the difference.
In “What the Heck just happened,?” a panel of local (and one we all wish was local) administrators share their journeys over the last six months. Beth Houf so openly discusses that as the pandemic quickly knocked down her normal, she temporarily lost her purpose. An animated leader whose building thrives on an indescribable energy found herself wondering how she would continue leading her school community. Although I am not an administrator, I can certainly relate as I had to transform how I would reach my colleagues. Moments of doubt arose, yet those that offered encouragement quickly took over. Like Beth and many others, I made a decision that although we were surrounded by uncertainty, I would still bring who I was. Life had abruptly changed, but my WHY had not.
Connection, empowering colleagues, as well as highlighting their awesome are my joy and a big part of why I show up. When my digital learning role during the spring extended to PreK-12 (and became completely virtual) this became a bit trickier, but I was able to speak with colleagues daily through online office hours, many of whom I still haven’t met in person. Although I was in a support position, I learned more from our discussions than I could have possibly imagined.
With inspiration and belief from administrators I was working closely with, my momentum was building fast to take what I was learning and do something with it. Before I knew it, I was composing an email to my district titled, Trying Something New to Highlight What I’m Learning From You:) The rhyming was a little corny but I’ve learned that corny often sticks. I included a short video introducing a plan I had no idea would work. I would simply share an idea in a quick video, how I was inspired to create it, and offer “Coffee and Conversation” to discuss further.
With a racing heart, I finally clicked send and the responses came. Suddenly there were over two hundred views on that very first video which also included an example of a bitmoji classroom and the teacher who opened my eyes to it. For weeks, colleagues were in touch with ideas they were trying and as bitmoji classrooms and offices were on the rise, I learned that many staff members had them up and running. Some simply replied with appreciation and anticipation for more to come. One email stood out that I will never forget and alone made the risk worth taking. A teacher brand new to the district saw the CO on my hat and included this in her reply:
I love the nod to Colorado! (that’s where I’m from). Simply watching that video made me feel more like a part of the family. I look forward to more!
I had only two colleagues ever “join” me for coffee but I’ve learned the number doesn’t matter as much as the risk we take in putting our ideas out there. I am crazy about using video to communicate as it lends itself so naturally to being human so that was certainly my preference. The first was followed by eight more that imperfectly captured the power of collaboration. Back in June, I had the honor of talking with Tara Martin about my experience that honestly sparked from teachers coming to me and me not having all of the answers. I learned to not only live in this discomfort but embrace it.
Below is my first Youtube Playlist. I was asked during the conversation with Tara to share the videos I had created (Thank you Meghan LeFevers!) At that time, they were unlisted or in Google Drive and I was feeling a little nervous. I knew the quality wasn’t awesome for those I would record early in the morning while the rest of the house was asleep and I did many of them quickly. Yet over the past several months I have formed a bond with imperfection and so far, it hasn’t let me down.
Although this year I am also back in the classroom, I am taking what I learned from the spring in offering a weekly “Digital Learning Delivery.” I am hoping to highlight once again the work of my colleagues (and students!) and ideas inspired from connecting with them. I have already worn my hat and messed up many times (which I love to turn into bloopers) as connection and being human will always come first. I am also in the process of offering more office hours, but never sweat it if I’m the only one who shows up:)
I am incredibly lucky to stand in a place where I have remained physically and emotionally okay enough to try and make even a small impact. For me, because I am able, it has become a responsibility. I encourage anyone reading this to share their own passion up story from the last several months and commit to living new ones. And if you don’t hear from anyone, which has happened to me on several occasions, it doesn’t mean no one is listening. I wish you safety, health, and happiness and I look forward to writing next month about my online experience with middle schoolers who inspire me daily.
Kiah Jones is a beautiful, intelligent, strong, independent Black woman and one of my best friends. For almost thirty years, we have laughed, cried, cry laughed, and celebrated milestones in each other’s lives. She is like my sister. Yet not once in all these years did I ever ask her how the impact of racism in this country played a role in her life.
Back in the classroom, my students and I learned about slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement with anger as well as passion and hope. We studied protests, read literature, sang songs of freedom, and honored African American history throughout the year. Even in my years as a digital learning coach and middle school technology teacher, I never really questioned whether I was doing enough.
A jolt to awakeness by so many like myself who realized we have a responsibility to do more seems to be spreading across the country. And as awful as I feel that it took me so long to make a deep commitment to be better, I am grateful that I woke up. When I decided to call Kiah, encouraged by my incredible husband, I was nervous. I couldn’t seem to get this thought out of my head; “What if Kiah thinks the only reason I am calling her is because she is Black?” I wasn’t positive it was even my place to call. I felt inadequate. Yet I learned quickly that the more important question is, “What are we saying when we choose not to pick up the phone?”
Appreciative that I had indeed made the choice to call, Kiah left me with this advice: Don’t try to take it all on. You will become paralyzed.Start with doing one thing in your community. Although I am committed to teaching my own children about racism, and becoming more actively involved as a community member, I certainly feel empowered as an educator to create opportunities for students to dive deeper. Teaching several middle school classes next year, I’m not sure exactly where to start. Yet I have learned to give myself permission in the following areas to make being better a reality.
It’s okay to lean on our colleagues.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend an online staff meeting run by our two phenomenal middle school principals. Around sixty people attended and I was beyond impressed and inspired by colleagues sharing the conversations they recently had with students. Yet the pivotal moment for me came when a colleague took the mic without a story to share. Encouraged by our principals who were pushing our thinking, he very honestly asked how to open up dialogue in his math classes and how he could get support.
When I saw hands go up immediately motioning to this teacher and to all of us that they were here to help, a bolt of confidence shook me in the right direction and I was suddenly emailing a colleague who I’m now connecting with next week. I have learned to accept that although I have done my best to honor uniqueness and diversity in the classroom, and even help lead building-wide initiatives, I too need support with specifically opening the door to anti-racism education.
It’s not only okay to jump in from any role, it’s our collective responsibility.
Although our middle school administrators shared their voices as well as resources in that staff meeting, the most important thing they did was listen. The goal was clear, to be there for us and to open up the conversation. By the end of our time together, creating staff and student forums was a new mission. In fact, just one day later we received a form with the following questions to encourage us to open up and get involved.
How are you doing? *
How are your students doing? *
Would you like support on how to talk to your students about racism in our nation?*
Are you someone who is willing to support other staff members who are asking for guidance on how to address this with their students?*
Are you interested in being part of the student forums?
If you answered yes, do you want to help facilitate or just be present to listen?
We are being called upon to go beyond what we’ve done before, to live and breathe beyond our titles, and the words that describe our roles. I wholeheartedly love my job description, but we don’t live on paper. We are human and what’s happening in this country, what has been happening for hundreds of years, is a human rights matter. With the gift of being educators, we have the opportunity to embrace humanity with each other and with our students. The questions above and actions they imply honor ALL of our voices and our unique abilities to lead, listen, and be present.
It’s okay to lean in, mess up, and learn.
“…we cannot be silent, we cannot NOT talk about this with our students. This is where we lean in to our own discomfort to build a better world for our students.”-Dr. Anna Nolin, Superintendent of Natick Public Schools in a memo to all staff last week
I am sure I will make mistakes and learn from them as I lean in to my own discomfort yet knowing I have support makes a huge difference. I have been receiving professional development around understanding diversity, racism, and implicit bias since becoming a Natick educator. This year our whole district had the honor of hearing from Dena Simmons, assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of “White Rules for Black People” to be released next year. Dena rocked our world in an exceptional keynote sharing the power in telling our stories.
Wilson Middle School soon after launched“No Place for Hate” and held staff meetings on topics such as courageous conversations, white fragility, and centering race in our practice. One of the best hours of PD I ever received was listening to a panel of former Wilson students share theirexperiences at Natick Public Schools (most of whom were a part of our incredible METCO organization) and advise teachers on what they can do to support students of color and all students.
I will never forget the final advice given by a student now in college. She asked of us that as much as we are teachers, to please learn as much as we can about the lives of our students.
When you attend a meeting after school, it’s quite an experience to walk out empowered to not only become a better teacher, but a better person. Like our students, this is what we crave, for our learning to matter. I thank leaders everywhere who are providing professional development, support, voice, and resources on topics around racism. If you are someone who is not receiving the above, I encourage you to ask your district and building administrators for their leadership. If every school community in our country felt inspired and supported to make necessary change, accepting the risk of discomfort and mistakes along the way, just imagine the ripple effect.
“As a community committed to social justice, we must speak up. Again, we are confronted with the reality of systemic racism and its impact on Black people in our country. George Floyd’s death was unjust and a tragedy. I am truly heartbroken and continue to find myself without words. I cannot imagine what our Black and Brown staff and students must be feeling. But, silence is not okay.”-Teresa Carney, Principal at Wilson Middle School in our school community newsletter last week
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and simply start somewhere.
In addition to learning more from the resources provided in Natick, I also want to be up to date with resources on social media, BUT I get easily overwhelmed. If there is even one person that identifies, I thought I would share where I started.
#DoTheWork by Rachel Cargle, a thirty-day education course on anti-racism, has opened my eyes more than I thought possible. One of the many powerful takeaways so far came from Day 6,Clean House, asking us to commit to the poster on the right. Thank you, Beth Houf, for sharing and here is alink to sign up to this incredible course.
Beth also shared the powerful webinar below led by Clint Smith through Facing History and Ourselves, a site I have learned is truly amazing. (A site I am proud to say features Natick’s superintendent) Just click on the image below to view the recorded webinar.
I also immediately ordered “The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”by Isabel Wilkerson right after Kiah recommended it. I am only about thirty pages in, I am already learning so much, and have never been so motivated to understand as much as I can about systemic racism in America.
“We cannot tweet away racism. We cannot read away racism. We cannot intervention away racism. We cannot breathe away racism. Educators, and especially white teachers, have to roll up their sleeves, look within themselves, sit with discomfort, reflect on what they can do better, and then live and teach with racial justice as their guiding principle. This work starts with us, but it cannot end with us. It must include dismantling old oppressive systems and structures and building anew.” –Dena Simmons
The individuals above, the work they are doing, and the work they have created are certainly inspiring me to keep growing. I didn’t grab it all, but I started somewhere giving me the confidence to not only keep learning, but to “roll up my sleeves” and turn my new knowledge into action. And it certainly helps to tap into friends, family, and fellow educators who are sharing.
In fact, I highly recommend becoming a part of the #LeadLAP (Lead Like a PIRATE) PLN and participating in their weekly chat (Saturdays 10:30am EST), which they have just transformed. You can find more information in their latest post, Leading By Learning, as Beth Houf and Shelley Burgess share that Traci Browder (@TraciBrowder) and Dawn Harris (@DHarrisEdS) are leading them on a journey to learn more about anti-racism education. The following video explains the launch of a “Grit Crew” to support each other in creating an anti-racism culture in our schools and classrooms. I participated in the #LeadLAP chat that this video introduces and I’m pretty much still speechless…WOW.
It’s okay to admit that I will never understand.
“I’ve cried every day since Friday…I can see another Black person and not even know their name, but I know and feel their pain. It’s a bond we all have that none of us wish we did.” –Kiah Jones in a recent text
My mom was born out of the worst act of anti-semitism in history and my existence is so deeply tied to who she is and what I fear. I understand that hatred existed and continues to exist for those of the Jewish faith. As a third-generation Holocaust survivor, I carry a weight that has lived with me for forty-one years, one I am often scared to touch. I also understand the privilege in America that accompanies being white. I am unafraid to live every day in the color of my own skin. I do not fear for the lives of my husband and children because of the color of their skin. I will never understand what it feels like to be a Black individual living in this country, but I will listen, I will learn, and I will act.
A gigantic alarm clock recently sounded. A wake up call to a deeper understanding, to allyship, and to change. A couple of weeks ago, I had actually intended to write a completely different post about remote learning, but this couldn’t wait. I woke up from a sleep I didn’t even know I was in and that kind of waking up, that kind of realization, can hold incredible strength if we use it to empower ourselves and others.
I will continue to get in touch with my Black friends and colleagues, listen to their voices, and use my own. I will tap into the wealth of knowledge of my fellow educators and friends, some who have been doing amazing work for years. I am committed to staying awake, to doing more, to talking with our young people who will one day be leading us all, and I will use the message below to inspire me daily.
While writing my last post, When Connection is at the Core, I was scrambling to manage my home life and prepare for emergency remote learning at the same time. I made unexpected discoveries, some which held beauty I couldn’t wait to share. This post is about what I’ve discovered since, as an educator in a district where #relationshipsmatter has never mattered so much. This post is about leading beyond my title in ways I never imagined and seeing those around me do the same. This post is about growing through change as a district every minute of every day. The lessons I have learned over the past month have given me faith in our journey together and will live long past this time in our lives.
Choosing Urgency Over Perfection
In my short experience so far, adapting to remote teaching, learning, and leading has required innovation, determination, and heart. The school and classroom cultures our principals and staff members work tirelessly to build must suddenly exist without physically sharing space. This is anything but easy. Yet in a district that chose urgency over perfection, we are not only learning to accept it, but my colleagues are rocking it.
The pace at which we moved sparked some initial panic yet there was also an explosion of collaboration and solutions regardless of roles and titles. When we’re not handed all of the answers (and we see this magic happen in the classroom), there is more room for creativity among all involved. I’ve learned over the past month that leaving space for imperfection, in turn, leaves space on the deck for all hands.
Owning the Rookie Status
I realize how lucky we are in Natick to be able to connect with students and families. In fact, I’m still in awe of our administration and technology department who ensured enough devices and hot spots. As they were working at lightning speed, I joined a powerhouse digital learning team responsible for training and supporting our PreK-12 colleagues with holding “Classroom Chats.” Google Meet would be the platform that would help us unleash our number one goal as a district; connection. The thing is, I had never used Google Meet to run any kind of class and desperately wanted to support colleagues in this new digital arena.
After long hours of relentless learning I still felt new, not totally prepared, and as 130 staff members and administrators entered my first training, I began to sweat. Yet through their patience and support, I quickly realized that in some way, we are all rookies. I’ve learned that it’s not only okay to not know, but to be wrong. When we can admit that we’re all learning (and that it’s hard!), and come together through gratitude and forgiveness, the game changes. Even as a team of rookies, we have a much better shot at winning.
Recognizing the Importance of Interaction
Every other day, my children’s teachers now enter our house and we enter theirs. They are sharing their lives more deeply than ever and students are certainly doing the same. As a parent observing this magic take place for her nine and seven year old, it’s hard not to become emotional. Between watching Tess and Jackson and chat hopping as much as I can, I’ve recently seen the importance of maintaining interaction.
Whether it’s watching students use a code indicating they’d like to share, greet their classmates, and even dance, or seeing them give fists to five, complete Google Forms to let teachers know how they’re feeling, and my favorite, discuss “weirdest breakfast ever,” it’s clear that student voice must remain at the heart of what we do. Seeing kids through an online platform is certainly not the same and never could be. We can’t read body language as we normally do, give fist bumps to start the day, look into faces instead of cameras, and so much more. Yet my colleagues demonstrate every day that the interaction we offer students, even in a virtual space, matters.
Turning Glitches into Gold
My classroom roommate was frustrated and at the same time determined to connect with her students. Her laptop kept freezing. After hours of research, she identified the issue and was able to not only help herself but become instrumental in assisting the district. Along with so many others trouble shooting and offering suggestions daily, she taught me that even glitches can turn into gold. And if we pay close attention, we can see that the real gold is in relationships. My “roommate” and I were texting multiple times a day when this began. Even though I was unable to help her, and even without a room to share, we’re even closer now.
Jackson’s teacher lost her audio during the first Google Meet and immediately after, we were on a video call, my husband joined us, and the conversation was full of support and even laughter. In a recent Classroom Chat, a 5th grade teacher was unable to open an item in Google Classroom. Suddenly her students were turning their mics on so they could unleash words of encouragement. It was a beautiful moment I was lucky enough to witness. Stress is unavoidable and things won’t always go well especially when we are using an enormous amount of technology. Yet allowing technical challenges to bring us closer as people is worth holding onto.
Bringing Who We are and Nothing Less
We all have titles and job descriptions and for those of us in education right now, they are changing rapidly. I feel like every week, I am trying to figure out how I can best do my job while re-crafting what it looks like. I’m continuing to connect with my teammates daily as well as offer trainings on digital tools. Yet the best thing that’s happening, and I know how powerful it’s already been with my colleagues and their students, is office hours.
Although it’s through a screen, there is nothing in the world like face to face conversations that allow us to be human. I have met so many people over the past few weeks and have been unafraid to give what I have beyond tech support. My biggest passion is empowering people to see how awesome they are. It’s what made me run to school every morning. If my colleagues walk away more confident and with the knowledge that I care about them, it drives me to keep doing what I’m doing. Remembering my why and staying true to who I am helps me continue to passion up even if it doesn’t look exactly the same.
I want to give a quick shout out to all of our incredible paraprofessionals who I’ve seen in the spotlight teamming up with teachers, co-running Classroom Chats, as well as leading them. Below is one of our inspiring paras teaching students and staff how to make bunny pancakes! Whatever role you’re in, I hope you are embracing all that you have to give, your strengths and your passions. You never know how much people need them.
Taking Care of Ourselves and Each Other
We are wrapped up in emotion daily as we read about lives that have been lost, empathize with families who are struggling, and worry about the health of our own families and communities. Balancing our drive as educators to give all we have with the weight of our current situation, which looks different for everyone, deserves attention. Jordan Hoffman, Principal at Johnson Elementary School, calls three staff members every time she does laundry or takes a walk just to see how they’re doing. That is something I am sure her staff members will never ever forget and will impact relationships long past this time.
Teresa Carney, Principal at Wilson, ended a recent email with these simple but powerful lines, holding trusted words she backs up daily; You’re all doing great work and I’m so proud of you. Please know that I care about all of you and I’m here for you. Sending Google Forms to staff and families has been of tremendous importance and I remember immediately being inspired by Allyson Apsey when she first wrote about hers. The inspiration only continued in conversations with Beth Houf and Jay Billy about the forms they used. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to complete one from Teresa and my assistant principals. I was suddenly sharing with them what I hadn’t yet given myself time to think about. It felt good.
Theses are examples among several modeling how our leaders are showing us they care about our well being. When we hear this message so loudly and clearly, it’s a reminder that not only is it okay to stop and take a breath, but it’s necessary. Personally, I have learned to chill out. I went from making sure Tess and Jackson had enough to do to simply making sure they’re happy. Whether it’s walking, Zumba, or warm yoga with a space heater, I am also intentionally making time to take care of myself. Because of this, I am able to put in all I have during the time I give colleagues and students. I’m grateful for this time as it’s given me faith in our journey together.
I was lucky enough to be able to share my gratitude in a conversation with Tara Martin last week. And by the way, I’m starting to be okay with awkward images of me talking. In fact my new favorite quote by Brené Brown is, “Be Brave. Be Awkward. Be Kind” and I hope to live up to it.
I was a sophomore in high school when I received the only comment I can remember. Never stop writing. I had written a story about my grandfather who always wore sweaters, and whose sweaters I missed. My tenth grade English teacher believed that although we were young, we had life experiences worth writing. Decades later as I attempt a new post, I think fondly of Dr. McLellan who saw me beyond a student in his class.
Recently I was asked to share a story with fellow members of my community at a local event called “Kindness Unites Us.” Knowing the dedication and impact SPARK Kindness has been bringing to Natick for years, I jumped at the opportunity. Reality soon hit, however, as I wondered what I could possibly capture in three to five minutes. Then I thought of Dr. McLellan.
Brainstorming ideas until I found the right one, figuring out how I would combine several months of awesome into minutes, and hours of practice brought a beautiful combination of exhaustion and energy. When December 11th arrived, I was incredibly nervous yet the minute I walked up on stage, I knew I was also ready. It went something like this.
My kindness story is still being written which makes what I’m about to share just the beginning. On our district opening day, Dena Simmons, assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, rocked our world as she shared the power in telling our stories. Deeply inspired by her message, Teresa Carney, principal of Wilson Middle School, challenged us soon after to fill in the following blanks.
These simple but powerful phrases opened the door wider to a culture invested in seeing the people in it. It took one person to ask the question, “What’s your story?” Around the same time I joined our “No Place for Hate” team inspired by an ADL initiative with the goal of decreasing bias and bullying. We met after school several times during the fall to plan a kickoff assembly as one of the requirements to become a “No Place for Hate” school. We decided to take a central theme of seeing each other below the surface and combine it with the power of sharing our stories. We hoped this would decrease judgement and increase respecting each other’s differences. A unique assembly was born.
You are now students at Wilson Middle School and you’re unsure what to expect as you’ve just taken your seats in the auditorium. What you’re about to see is former students and current staff members taking the stage to share their experiences with identity, racism, fear, sadness, courage, moments of self-discovery, and certainly moments of joy. You sit in silence because you’ve never seen an assembly quite like this one. Many of your teachers, with tears in their eyes, will be talking about it for days to come. You watch a video of peers and adults in the building holding signs revealing something you never knew and suddenly, they become real people.
You walk out with the message that you are worth knowing and back in the classroom, you have a chance to share who you are below the surface. If that’s not enough, you now have the opportunity to join our team so you can continue to share your voice and help make decisions on what “No Place for Hate” might look like in our school. Much of this unfinished story rests in your hands. How exciting is that?
I found the audience cheering. Even as we ended an incredibly condensed version of our assembly, they were still engaged in their roles as students ready to take on the world. I asked every person in the room to remember that kindness starts with seeing each other. I thanked Teresa for fostering a culture where people are seen, challenging us all to follow her lead.
Whether sharing our below the surface stories means taking the stage, completing three powerful sentences, writing a paper, making a sign, or creating art, it matters. I’ve learned this fall of the ripple effect that happens when we simply ask. Back in October, I gave students the task of using a platform of their choice to express themselves artistically. I had no idea that in ten minutes one of my fifth graders would sketch two beautiful hands, telling a story of their own. These hands have become the symbol for “No Place for Hate” at Wilson Middle School and I can’t wait to continue sharing our journey.
Dr. McLellan passed away my senior year, losing a battle to cancer I was unaware he was fighting. Devastated, I realized I had never really told him the impact he had made. On graduation day, I decided to write his name on my cap as I knew he would always be that teacher who saw me and I am forever grateful.
The best way I can describe my experience this year at Wilson Middle School in Natick, MA comes down to two words; overwhelmingly good. In a world that can seem overwhelmingly bad in a split second, it’s easy to feel heartbroken, helpless, and certainly scared. Yet every day I am surrounded by people who work tirelessly to support each other and love our kids. And every day, I’m reminded that right in front of me, staring me in the face, is more good than I could have possibly imagined.
I’ve discovered that middle school rocks. I’ve learned that immersing myself in a culture that lives and breathes “relationships matter” has changed me. This culture has given me more hope, and often leads me to think about an idea my friend, Jay Billy, believes wholeheartedly. If we all strive to make our school the best school, this can change the world.
As I’ve jumped back into teaching (many many students!) I’ve been inspired to share on social media the awesome that middle schoolers have created right in front of my eyes. There have been challenging moments for sure, but I’ve chosen to learn from them as well as ride the incredible moments that we can so easily miss if we don’t keep our eye on the ball. I’m thrilled to say that students (and their teachers!) have blown me away.
Yet this post is about the administrators, those who work relentlessly to make every pocket of our buildings spaces where kids and adults feel empowered. Although a huge part of my journey has been finding people to join my crazy, this post is not about building a crew, but rather recognizing the power in those that build us. I’ve been a part of thriving cultures and I’ve had wonderful administrators steering our ship, but this year has been exceptional. Countless factors play a role, but I continuously come back to one every single day, courageous leaders.
In my fifteen years as an educator, I’ve experienced a variety of responses when asking my principals to shake things up. The one that will always stick with me went something like this. “Not everyone might like it. I prefer to stay in the middle.” I understood the concern, but my own concern is that we don’t have time for the middle. The talents of those aching to make a greater impact get wasted when our leaders choose the middle. We need building and district administrators who are so okay with who they are, they welcome the strengths of others, build their staff members up, and choose “courage over comfort” any day of the week. (If you haven’t seen Brené Brown yet on Netflix, you’re missing out!) This kind of recipe calls for people to jump on their ship and work tirelessly to reach a shared vision.
When we know we’re valued, it’s incredibly motivating to show up every day and do what we do. When we see our leaders valuing themselves, however, unafraid to be seen, there is a golden opportunity for vulnerability to spread and make running into school the norm. Suddenly, we’re in the arena together and just like that, the potential to make a difference in the lives of others seems to have no limit. Quite honestly, it’s hard to keep up.
This feeling hit me hard just last week at our final staff meeting. We did something every school should do, celebrate what went well. We not only celebrated but we talked, listened, and in groups wrote furiously to capture it all. We discovered moments of victory. We honored each other’s success stories and also learned what each of us values when it comes to success. Whether it was students leading their own IEP meetings, gaining confidence, participating in the countless after school activities that exist at our school (there is something for everyone!), joining their teachers and principals to launch school wide initiatives, or simply smiling when walking in, we shared.
When we have the gift of working with children in a culture where leading from the heart, supporting each other, and doing what’s best for kids are at the core of our existence, anything is possible. From students to colleagues, I’ve built crews whose sole purpose is to make the above mission come to life. I’ve written about leading beyond the titles we have as the path to empowerment. This year, however, I discovered first hand that when our building and district leaders courageously believe anyone can lead from any role, the crew can build you.
So to all of those administrators out there who are throwing themselves in the arena and getting their butts kicked every now and then, thank you. Even on your worst days, it matters. I want to to give a shout out to my own principal and assistant principals who make a difference for me daily.
Thank you for…
being a team.
meeting with me, listening to me, and seeing who I am beyond technology.
answering every question I have even when it’s probably in an iPass tutorial.
having my back when I don’t know what to do.
understanding my deep appreciation for ABBA, high fives, and anything competitive .
helping me through understanding middle schoolersas I’m new to this exciting world.
asking me to lead, as well as take risks in sharing my passion with students and colleagues.
appreciating what I have to offer as well as challenging me to unleash more potential.
being vulnerable enough to share what’s hard.
being courageous enough to throw yourself in the classroom and even join me in launching new classes…what a journey!
And to my principal specifically, thank you for taking a huge risk by being right in the arena with me, sharing the impact of leading beyond titles with educators in New England and beyond.
There are good schools everywhere, but in my experience and from knowing some of the greatest principals on the planet (and having been to their buildings!), it’s hard to get close to greatness without courageous leaders. Jay, I’m proud to say that I think my school is the best school. In fact, I think my district is the best district. When I joined Natick Public Schools, I became part of a strong sailing crew that has most certainly changed me. It’s where I want to be every day. It’s where I want my own kids to be. I join you, my friend, in challenging every school to be the best and one at a time, and eventually together, make the impact this world needs.
It was a bit surreal crashing to the floor, sliding and bouncing while losing control. I knew I wasn’t badly hurt, but getting up without help when my body finally came to a halt didn’t seem realistic. So when two staff members immediately reached out their hands, I was beyond grateful. Only six months in at a new school and there I was in a gym of middle schoolers full of anticipation for a once in a lifetime student versus staff basketball game. And just for a second, everything seemed to stop. I had fallen hard right on my bottom and everyone was watching. Impossible to hide. Impossible to take back. And ironically, what a middle school moment it was.
It was certainly a challenge to walk back to the bench, yet a colleague rushed over to help me. We laughed, I embraced the moment, and within a few minutes I was able to shake it off. Yes it was embarrassing, yes I was certainly in pain, but this was my first Wildcat game and I was going to continue playing no matter what. In fact, toward the end of the game I found myself to be an ungraceful maniac on the court just like the old days, fighting for rebounds, steals, and taking more risks shooting the ball. It was almost as if the fall had made me stronger.
When I walked out with my daughter after the game we came across a group of students, some who I knew and some who I didn’t. They cheered and clapped. I knew instinctively it had nothing to do with my level of play. I only made one basket. I felt with every bone in my body that this applause came from a deep appreciation that I (as well as my courageous teammates) left it all out on the court. Sadly, we lost by many points, but we brought our whole beings to this dynamic adventure and that made all of the difference.
I’d like to think I also gained some respect because my fall was a result of physical contact with a student. I was knocked down unintentionally. In that dramatic split second, however, I had unintentionally shown students that it’s also okay for them too to leave it all out on the court. That’s it’s okay to show leadership, to play hard regardless of the fragile forty year old teacher standing before them. The student team dominated and that was awesome. They led us and that showed that in truth, at Wilson Middle School, we are all on the same team, students and staff alike.
Here is a Quik video from this incredible experience!
The next day, I walked into the clinic to ask our one of a kind nurses a question, when they mentioned to my surprise that my fall had been somewhat of a hot topic. I noticed a student nodding her head in agreement. I looked at this student and said, “Really? Students are talking about it?” And then came a line, the very line that inspired me to write this post.
“Well yeah. It’s just that we really don’t see teachers fall.”
I wish I could have told this student just how much teachers fall. I wish I could have told this student the number of times in my career I felt like I was crashing to the floor unable to move. I wish I could have told this student that just like in the game, I never saw it coming. Instead, I smiled. I think I was in a bit of shock that somehow I had made the front page of student news.
Just a week before the big game, I fell hard. Only this time my body was completely intact. An unexpected book review, however, shook me. Regardless of our age, words can hurt. And if you have a sensitive heart like mine, they may even knock you over, especially when public for the world to see. I would love to be that resilient rubber band that springs right back into place. I’m more like those rubber bands that are old and worn, and don’t have as much pop. I stand back up again. I just need to do it in my own way and sometimes I call on others to help. Even better, they show up uninvited.
Just like in the game, I got up with help. Just like in the game, I got stronger. In fact after the initial shock, I was better than ever. Amazing leaders (some I know and some I don’t) thundered with positivity and reminded me that the more we take risks as educators, the more likely we are to take a hit and lose our balance. Yet the overwhelming number of people leaning over you reaching out their hands makes the journey one hundred percent worth it.
So to any students out there, teachers fall too. We fall a lot. Although I can’t change the way I was wired, I can certainly choose to get back up and try to inspire others to do the same. If we don’t put ourselves out there, fall down and bounce back, we will have absolutely no idea what we could have done, who we could have been, and what it feels like to leave it all on the court.
Jed Stefanowicz, a human being I am now lucky enough to call my colleague, has been encouraging me to write a post. It’s been a while, but like any new teacher, I have been wrapping my head around exactly what it is I’m doing. Like any new teacher, I’m open to possibilities, collaboration, and learning from those who have been there. This takes dedication and a whole lot of time.
There comes a point, however, when you realize the moments you’ve experienced are too good to keep to yourself. It’s these moments that I’m not only grateful for but that keep me running back to Wilson Middle School every single day. So, Jed, thank you for pushing me to finally make the time to write, reflect, and share.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly new. I’m about to turn forty (looks pretty real when you write it!) and I’m in my fifteenth year of education. After twelve years in the same district, however, in many ways, I feel new. To be completely honest, middle school scared me. Many of these kids I stretch my neck to look up to which is quite different than bending down to engage with eager-eyed kindergartners. I knew deep down, however, I would be okay. As a “new” teacher, versus the twenty-five-year-old version of myself, I had the confidence to welcome uncertainty and build an experience with students. And whenever my nerves start to escalate, I remind myself that I am in Natick.
I came to this district hungry to hear what my new leaders would offer and I decided to eat it up. It was loud and clear on those opening days that social-emotional learning would be a huge priority. In fact, Natick’s hashtag this year is #relationshipsmatter. I made a conscious decision to make #relationshipsmatter a reality in the classroom and beyond. In three short months, this has proven to be imperfect and amazing.
Here are a few things I decided to try, ideas that took little time to implement, with results that far exceeded my expectations.
“You’re Here!” Survey
My new position is interesting in that I’m able to do some coaching, which I love, and I’m also a specialist. Seeing hundreds of students for short periods of time isn’t exactly throwing myself back in the classroom, but I certainly feel like I’m back in the game. (What an opportunity to be able to support teachers even more!) Connecting to students has always been a priority and this year, I was even more determined to make it happen. I knew it would be challenging especially with over thirty seventh graders in both of my Tech Lit classes. Reminding myself of the potential for creativity when under constraints, I began to brainstorm.
Motivated by #relationshipsmatter and inspired by ideas from George Couros as well as Chris Basile, a former colleague, I created a quick Google Form called “You’re Here!” The idea was that my students would complete this survey every time they walked in. I had no idea what would happen, but in true “new” teacher fashion, I went for it. The title was hugely significant. It’s important for me to share a message with students that their presence matters every single day.
Because of this survey, I’ve been able to attend and support student events as some kids are simply excited to share what’s going on in their lives. Because of this survey, I have been able to say something as simple as “I hope you feel better, ” “Are you okay?” and “How can I help?” I’ve even been able to yell with excitement, “I’m thrilled you feel amazing! Thank you for your continued enthusiasm when you come through this door!” Because of this survey, I have reached out to my colleagues. This has allowed me to build stronger relationships with them, which we all know is invaluable.
Because of this survey I’ve been able to apologize. I admit I don’t catch every response before conversations spark. We are a busy crew, which makes it fun, but it’s also a workout! And with the pressure of time combined with putting our hearts into lessons we hope will inspire, it’s easy to fall into the trap of frustration when we see those who appear unmotivated. Yet when students are brave enough to admit they’re not ready to learn, it changes the focus and it certainly changes the approach.
I don’t encourage waiting yet there were admittedly a couple of times when fifteen minutes went by and there it was, “I’m not ready to learn and I need some help.” Although our instinct might be to try to fix everything before class ends, the pivotal moment in my experience happens when we slow down and say, “I’m so sorry I missed this. What can I do?” Even if there are no immediate answers, I’ve discovered that this moment can change everything. This moment can increase student motivation, trust, and confidence. This moment can show students that they matter and most certainly that #relationshipsmatter.
Minute of Awesome
When I began my Natick journey, I also decided to make a strong commitment to encouraging every student to shine and build empathy with each other. Once again, I knew this would be challenging for my largest classes I would only see once or twice a week this fall. When Anna Nolin, our interim superintendent, spoke to the new teachers in August, I remember her asking us to bring every part of ourselves to the classroom; our past experiences, our gifts, our passions. Sharing students’ strengths and passions will always be a part of who I am so somehow I was going to bring it.
It occurred to me in September that sharing who I was was key. In fact, I didn’t stop there. Inspired by Fulton Middle School, I wanted to connect to who I was in junior high. So one day after school I went to the band room and videoed myself playing the drums. My beats were far from perfect, but the idea of showing my video was. If I could share something about myself beyond my Pecha Kucha intro (and what a blast that was!), just maybe my seventh graders would take the same kind of risk.
Posted on Instagram and Twitter to let students, families, and colleagues know I was thrilled to reconnect with my middle school years.
I shared the video and the very next class launched “Minute of Awesome.” It could be a minute of anything. A video of students doing something they’re proud of, something they’re passionate about, or they could get up in from of the class and speak. I wasn’t shocked to find that most wanted to quietly share a video, but I was thrilled to see the emails start coming in. We now know that we have a black belt among us, talented gymnasts and cheerleaders, expert coders, musicians, skiers, and more.
Just last week, I previewed a video a student had emailed. Her very first Youtube video included her hands dancing gracefully and beautifully along the keys of a piano. Before I clicked play, I couldn’t help but think about how this student’s video would be an incredible example of digital leadership. I was pumped and still am. When the piece was over, however, all I could do was sit at my kitchen table and cry. The sound was magical and I knew it would be even more magical the next morning.
Students are filled with mind-blowing talents and ache to share what matters to them. When we take the opportunity to highlight them in front of their peers, a whole new level of respect takes over the room. We are not simply teachers and students in those moments and those that follow. We are human beings and our #relationshipsmatter.
Weekly Instagram Video
This may seem simple, but it’s been powerful for sure! I created an Instagram account to highlight learning from each week. My Instagram page, “Mrsbartleydigitallead,” was in many ways inspired from Social LEADia by Jennifer Casa-Todd. It would definitely live on my webpage embedded for families to view, which I was thrilled about. Yet I was also genuinely curious to see how my seventh and eighth graders, many of whom are on social media, would react. I wanted to reach students beyond the classroom in a way that was real for them. I also wanted to play a more realistic role in encouraging digital leadership among all of us.
More than anything else, I wanted students to know that they are worth showing up for. To help make this message clear, I make it a point to capture their learning every class with my phone. I began using Quik to create “Moments from the Week” and I post it every Friday. I don’t get a hundred views and nor do I expect to, but students look forward to the videos and they look for themselves. They want to be noticed. They want to be known. #relationshipsmatter
Here is a recent example of a Quik video spotlighting seventh and eighth graders from a couple of weeks ago. (If you are new to Quik, I definitely recommend using live photos!)
This fall has been an adventure. I am that exhausted educator, the one Beth Houf wrote about so beautifully, the one we can all identify with. I wouldn’t change it for anything. The world needs us to keep going and every second we try to impact our young leaders is worth it. Some days I am literally running, but one thing is for sure; I continuously find myself overwhelmed by awesome. In fact, awesome has been so overwhelming, it’s taken me three months to write only part of my journey so far. As I continue my new role in a new district I can call home, connecting with students and colleagues will always come first. #Relationshipsmatter now more than ever and I am proud to be in a place that lives this message every day.