Category Archives: Teacher Leadership

Share Your Stories

“Oh you’re a teacher!  You guys have it made.  Paid summers off where you sleep in every day–what a cushy life.”  These words, uttered by my dentist while his hands were in my mouth drilling a tooth, caused far more discomfort than the actual dental procedure.  So after he was done (and yes, the novocaine still had half of my face numb) I shared with him that I spent most of my summer at conferences and in classes. I also explained how the pay structure works.  And, as these conversations typically go, it ended up with, “I really had no idea.”  

A year ago I felt a fire light inside me. I can’t remember what started it all to build, but the result has been an overwhelming desire to advocate for the teaching profession.  Maybe it was the need to address the misconceptions that people have about this lifestyle (I consider teaching a lifestyle, it’s far too encompassing to just be a job) or perhaps it was the oversimplification of this work by the media, tv shows, and movies that show burned out teachers, but either way, that fire started and it keeps burning brighter.  

So last week, when the airplane pilot standing next to me on the shuttle to our plane started asking me questions about my work, I was happy to share the dynamic nature of teaching. I also made sure to note that I was flying back from a week long class on constitutional law.  The pilot didn’t realize that teachers participate in summer coursework to strengthen their knowledge and skills in the classroom.  He was curious about this and we had a great conversation (our shuttle was stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes) about professional development for teachers and pilots, thus shedding light on both of our professions.

I have spent the past eight months talking to policymakers and stakeholders about the impact of legislation in the classroom.  While I go in with a game plan, inevitably the conversation always turns when I tell a story about my students, my colleagues, and my own children.  Last month I met with my US Congresswoman in Washington D.C., and while my ask was to retain Title II funding in the budget, my story was specific to how we use that funding in our schools.  This story provides insight into policy impact and also constituent needs. Her job is dynamic, too, and I do not expect my representative to be an expert in all facets of life.  So if I can be a resource and share my experience with her, then perhaps that experience can shape her thinking on an issue.

I’ve come to see these interactions as opportunities to educate and advocate for this work. We can control the narrative.  It’s easy to sell an anti-teacher message when the public doesn’t have a deep understanding of what our work looks like.  Worse, if people rely upon their varied past experiences as students without recognizing how that skews their vision of what schools look like today, the picture that’s created may likely be inconsistent in practice and unrecognizable to those of us who do teach.  So instead of dismissing ignorant remarks about our work,  it is imperative that we seize the moment as an opportunity to teach.  We must teach others about our work so that they can see the intricacies of this lifestyle.  We must share our stories, our experiences, our successes, and our struggles. Only then will the larger public begin to see who we really are.

Educators Rising: Start ‘Em While They’re Young

The Hyatt filled with teens from across the country. The smell of long bus rides, airplane food, and hot Cheetos permeated the lobby. But by the opening session, these students had transformed into professionally dressed young men and women in “conference mode.” Their excitement and energy was palpable in the North Ballroom. Last weekend was the convergence of young voices at the Educators Rising Annual Conference. This organization “cultivates highly skilled educators by guiding young people on a path to becoming accomplished teachers, beginning in high school and extending through college and into the profession.” What’s even more exciting than this mission is that 51% of the 30k members are students of color!

Basically, Educators Rising works with secondary teachers to identify black, brown, and white young people–as young as 13– who have potential as future educators. Through intentional programming at local and state levels​, these students will one day be well-prepared, highly effective classroom teachers. The annual conference offers outstanding keynotes, interactive workshops on cultural competency and teacher leadership, and competitions.

Competitions are fascinating and are divided into three categories:

  1. Teaching. Sub categories include planned instruction where students create a lesson, tape themselves teaching, then reflect with a judge (think National Boards) or impromptu teaching where a student is given a scenario (Mr. Hall started vomiting and you must take over his class immediately), a learning standard, and a box of materials. The subs must create an engaging lesson and deliver it in a short time (think Iron Chef but teaching).
  2. Career Explorations. Students competing in this category follow an administrator, a non-core classroom teacher, or a support staff member in a job shadow. They must conduct an interview, dig into all aspects of this career and then present their findings..
  3. Advocacy and Policy Development. Students can create a Ted Talk on an effective instructional strategy, present a policy brief on a researched issue, or give an impromptu speech on an education issue.

Are you kidding me!? I know grown adults who couldn’t handle these challenges.

This makes me hopeful.

Early in the opening session, Joshua Starr set the tone of the conference when he quoted Dr. King reminding us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Despite our political climate, the increase in police brutality, and the growing racial divide in this country, we must still have hope. Nate Bowling developed this theme with his talk that culminated in a challenge for everyone in the room (current or future educators): Embed, Disrupt, and Advocate.

Nods, tweets and follow up conversations indicated that these messages resonated with the crowd. This makes me hopeful.

While some adults complain about teens obsession with fidget spinners and Snapchat, I’m here to tell you that our young people are far better than we are. They are more creative. They are more compassionate. They are more understanding. They are more kind. They are more justice-minded.

I met two students who especially exemplified these qualities—Educators Rising National Student President, Cassey Hall from Mississippi and National Student Officer Tamir Harper from Philadelphia. Cassey shared her story of how her 9th grade English teacher recruited her into a new course centered on learning about teaching. As she heads off to college, she is certain she wants to be a 3rd grade Science teacher.

I struck up a conversation with Tamir on the way out of the convention center. Instantly I was struck by his charisma, his wisdom, and his passion for his school, his neighborhood, and his city. Besides running a session at the conference on reconstructing the educational system, this fall Tamir will co-teaching an African American history class at his high school. As Tamir shared his dreams to teach and later run for office, I kept think “is this young man really 17?!”

These are just two of the hundreds of students at #EducatorsRising17 that I know are bending their voices towards justice. In four to six years, they will be teaching our children. I cannot wait!

They make me hopeful.

Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Stepping Off the Career Ladder

Back in 2009 or so when I started writing for this site, I was what I referred to as an “untitled” teacher leader. I taught all day, didn’t hold any specific positions, yet I still saw myself as a teacher leader charged with advocating for kids, systems, and our profession. I was less than a decade into my career.

Then, in the standard “nose goes” way, I found myself with the title of Department Chair for the English Department. While not “leadership” as I envisioned it (since managing P.O.s and counting books in the book room wasn’t my vision of leadership) it served an important systemic role.

Over time, the titles started to pile on and I began to drift further and further away from the classroom. This year and last, my desk isn’t even in a school, but at central office two doors down from HR. The only time I get to teach real, live, children is when I do model lessons for my first-year-mentees or snag an unfilled sub job here or there to keep myself sane.

This spring has been one of relative upheaval at the high school level in my district. Two administrators at our large compressive high school (my former building) are moving to different roles, leaving unprecedented administrative vacancies. Both of the English teaching positions at our smaller alternative high school opened up, leaving a whole discipline unstaffed.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on many people who find themselves with teacher leadership titles. I started feeling it a few years ago as TOSA when the social studies department started (half-) jokingly referring to me as “Junior Admin.” When I think about what has made some of the administrators in my district so successful, I often find myself saying “they still think like a teacher.” We should want good educators to be the administrative leaders of our buildings.

And we should also want good educators to be standing in front of kids.

I don’t know if it is the same for women in education, but as a man in education I started feeling the assumptions about “ascending the career ladder” to an administrative position as soon as I took a hybrid role teaching half-time and being on special assignment half-time. After each of the administrator roles at my former building were posted, I was inundated with texts and emails: “Are you going for that job?” Never mind that I have no administrative coursework let alone credential. For reasons woven into the fabric of our idea of what it means to be “professional” in our culture, climbing the career ladder is the assumed goal. To not keep climbing is to lower oneself down, to go “backward.”

Next year, I will be in a hybrid role: I applied for, interviewed for, and was offered one of the English teaching positions at our smaller high school. I’ll still be serving part of my time on release as our local EA President. The year after that, I’ll be full time teaching, untitled.

I’ve worked hard to avoid two phrases as I talk about this move. I’m not “going back.” I’m not “returning.”

Rather, I’m trying to redefine what the career ladder might look like for teachers who want to lead and teach.


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Having a Voice

I didn’t want to get up at 6 am on Saturday.

I didn’t want to catch a 7:05 ferry.

I didn’t want to get turned around in the dark and rain and end up going north on I-5. Then spend 20 minutes wandering around downtown Seattle trying to find my way to south I-5.

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

But, oh, NBCT teachers, if you ever receive an email invitation to an NBCT Policy Summit and wonder if you should consider going, I am here to tell you—it was definitely worth it.

After we all went through check-in and ate breakfast and had a chance to mingle, the morning panel greeted us. There were five people on the panel but three in particular stuck out to me, probably because they represented the three organizations that sponsored the summit:

The general message? Speak up. Stand up. Be heard. Make an impact.

But the specific message that reverberated back and forth from one panel member to the next was that teachers need to find their passion and focus on that passion.

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

I immediately took that message to heart. As soon as we were dismissed to mid morning snack time, I introduced myself to Gil Mendoza. I gave told him I’m on the Executive Board for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). He replied enthusiastically about what a great organization it is and how lucky we are to have it in our state. I gave him my card and said, “If you ever need someone with a background in gifted to serve on a committee please keep me in mind.” He grinned—he’d just talked about how OSPI looks for teachers willing to serve on committees. Now he had a volunteer! He handed me his card and asked me to contact him again by email.

I’ve been teaching gifted in this state since 1989, and I’ve been on the board of WAETAG since 2008. But being in the room at the Policy Summit gave me a different level of access than I’d ever experienced before.

Breakout sessions met before and after lunch. Participants met in groups of about eight to discuss one of two issues:

  • A—Second Tier Licensure (Professional Certificate) or
  • B—National Board Incentive Structure

At our table in one of the B groups we started with the fact that we love having a bonus and, for those who get it, love having the extra bonus for challenging schools. What we don’t like is that fact that any bonus is a line item. It’s too easy to delete from the budget. For a long time those were our biggest discussion points.

Then I spoke up. I’d come to the Policy Summit with a slightly different point to make. As I told my table, I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and I’m not ready to stop. I hit 16 years’ experience a long, long time ago. I earned my MA in 1982 and I hit my 90 units beyond an MA when I was in my 50s and a long way from retirement.

The ONLY way for me to get any additional money was to become National Board Certified. So I got my NBCT in 2012. I plan to keep teaching until my certificate expires in 2022.

Having a salary schedule plateau early means veteran teachers can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, especially health costs.

So I suggested it would be beneficial to have some kind of step system that allows for longevity. For example, what if we got a bonus for the initial NBCT and an additional bonus at each renewal?

That led to a long examination of my idea. People brought up snags I hadn’t foreseen. They improved the original suggestion by adding a requirement that teachers who get the extra bonus demonstrate leadership—which spawned another tangle of questions. Who defines leadership? How many hours a year? How would the extra work be documented? How would OSPI track the paperwork? We even tossed around ideas for how much of a bonus although finally most of the questions were labelled TBD.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we not only kept my idea on our list of five “high leverage” ideas to submit to the group at large.  In a surprise move, the members of my group voted my suggestion as the number one on the list because it

  • encouraged teachers to pursue NBCT sooner rather than later
  • encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles after completing their NBCT
  • encouraged professional growth, not just professional development

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Then came the mid afternoon snack. (Nasue warned me that her goal was to have each of us gain five pounds before the day was over!)

Our last keynote address came from Peggy Brookins, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She spoke eloquently about those who surreptitiously do things for teachers but without teachers—for example, people who write education laws without bringing teachers to the table. Once again, she encouraged us to make our voices heard.

I came to the Policy Summit wanting to be heard. I hoped my peers would listen and understand and maybe empathize with the salary concerns of older teachers.

I left feeling empowered.

So think about coming yourself next time. And meanwhile, think about your passion and the difference you can make.

 

The Critical Friend (and why we all need more of them)

NBCT Joanna Tovar Barnes

This guest post is courtesy of Joanna Tovar Barnes. Joanna is a NBCT in EMC Literacy. She teaches third grade at Lydia Hawk Elementary in Lacey, WA. Her areas of professional interest include English Language Learners, social justice and integrating art, science and social studies into elementary curriculum.  She facilitates for North Thurston School District’s National Board cohort.  When not teaching Joanna travels the world seeking culture, food and understanding.

When I first heard my role at the Teach to Lead Summit in Long Beach, CA was a “critical friend” I wrinkled my nose and thought “that doesn’t sound like a good thing, who wants a critic?” The term ‘critical’ conjured up images of a group of reporters dissecting a starlet’s wardrobe choice or a food critic berating a chef for his uninspired appetizers. “The Critical Friend asks probing questions” the organizers of the event said, “They make suggestions about possible resources, and offer a fresh perspective on a problem.”  I unwrinkled my nose a little and thought “Ok, maybe I can be a critical friend.  I can do those things. That sounds helpful instead of scary. Also, maybe I need more of these ‘Critical friend’ people in my life.”

I think the opposite of a critical friend could be called an ‘echo-friend’. We all have them. You go to these friends when you want your conclusions validated, not questioned. When prompted they say things like “you’re absolutely right!”, “of course” and “obviously”.  “I’m right and she’s wrong, right?” I ask “of course you are” my echo friend nods knowingly.  I feel better.  My own conclusions were echoed back to me and now I feel justified, reassured and comfortable. No questioning or suggestions, no discomfort.

Here’s the problem with the echo friend; eliciting this kind of feedback leaves us right back in the same place we started with our problem.  In fact, now that our choices have been validated we are even more firmly rooted in the patterns that got us to our frustration point when we sought out our echo friend.  I admit that sometimes I don’t want to go deep and think critically about big problems, I want to vent, or have someone tell me I’m right. However, I can’t be surprised when I still have the same problems with no new strategies to tackle them when I’m done with my echo-session.  If I want to move forward in my problem solving I need a critical friend.

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Teach to Lead Summit participants work together to process problems they face in their work. Teams and their critical friends use a logic model over two days to identify causes, outcomes and next steps.

From my time at Teach to Lead I am beginning to formulate some important steps in the art of being a critical friend. (it’s a good thing)

  1. A critical friendship begins with connection

Ok, we know that the critical part can help us move forward with a problem but that ‘friend’ word also really matters. As a teacher leader I’ve found that if people don’t know you and see you as a person outside of the current context they are less willing to accept critical feedback. People need to know that their critical friend is just that; friendly. That they assume positive intentions and competence and are there to be helpful.

I try to share something that tells people who I am professionally and personally. “I am passionate about social justice and interested in bilingual education” gives a quick glimpse into who I am at the core as a teacher and person.  It makes me vulnerable and encourages the person I’m working with to do the same.  I also present something I am still working to understand such as “I’m still learning about the new National Board component too, let’s look at the directions together”.

  1. Next it’s time to listen

The listen part is where the connection you built will allow you to get at what the problem is through how much the other person shares, which details they include and how they frame the problem.  Without the connection you may not hear much, or you may hear only a small window into the problem at hand.  You may need to go back and establish more of a connection before they will tell you more. Listening carefully will help you know which questions to ask. But hang on! There’s an important next step.

  1. Before questioning it is helpful to validate

Remember the echo friend we sometimes seek out? You’re going to want to meet that need too by acknowledging that this problem is frustrating, complex, etc.  You can use some counseling 101 phrases like “That sounds really frustrating.” Or “There are a lot of different needs you’re having to think about.”  This part matters because now you can strengthen your connection as a friend and you can meet their need to be validated. If we weren’t a critical friend we’d stop here.  But here’s where the magic happens and we become something more than an echo friend. Here’s where we push our friend forward.

  1. Time to ask some questions

I know enough to know I know very little about the art of questioning.  Luckily I have some awesome role models when it comes to this. Peers, friends and coaches who have challenged my thinking with thoughtful questions that at first made me huff, and then made me think much more meaningfully and deeply about something.

If you’re like me and are just starting to question critically maybe some sentence frames can help you. “I wonder…” “What if…” “Why do you think…” are some of my standbys because they’re open enough to allow the person wrestling with the problem to say something about them but encourage deeper investigation of one element of the problem.

  1. Now you can suggest resources

Oh boy, what you’ve been waiting for. Now you can tell them how to solve their problem if they would just…wait! Do not start telling them what you would do.  This is not about you. (I can’t help it, it’s the bossy older sister in me) It’s about them and their problem.  You can help by suggesting a resource you know of that might hold a missing piece of the puzzle, or someone who is struggling with a related problem.  The suggestion part needs to be connected to what you heard initially and when you questioned.  It’s important that the person you’re working with knows you’ve been hearing them when they shared.

Here’s the cool thing about the role of critical friend-you can do it with anyone starting right now! Just start connecting, listening, validating, questioning and suggesting.  If you’re an echo friend already, you have a connection and must be someone they trust to listen.  The next step for you will be questioning. I’ve pulled this trick on several people in my life since the Teach to Lead Summit.

I’m getting better at finding my own style of critical friendship and am recognizing when I see someone else who has mastered it and I seek them out to be one of my CFs.  If we want to move forward in our understanding we need to embrace the discomfort of someone giving us more than an “uh-huh.” We all need more critical friends in our lives so we can become better educators and people.  Isn’t that the point?

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My amazing Teach to Lead Summit group who I served as a critical friend with our logic model.

Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

During an teacher leadership workshop I was leading a few years ago, a veteran teacher said this to me:

“It feels like every time I go to present a new idea to my principal, she shoots it down just because it’s coming from me. It’s like she says ‘no’ just because I’m the one with the idea. I keep thinking that if she heard it from anyone other than me, she’d give a different answer.”

My response: “You’re probably right.”

That doesn’t make it fair or valid, but the reality of human interactions is that there are times where who is doing the talking matters. As I got to know this particular teacher and his situation, it was pretty clear that he and his principal had a history of conflicts…most of them petty…which colored their relationship. Wrong as it might be, the principal was saying “no” because of the messenger and his track record, not the message itself.

Being skeptical or “resistant” to new ideas or to changes in practice is not a bad thing. We should allow ourselves time and space to think, process, and make decisions about the new. However, we also ought to be mindful of what exactly it is we are resisting.

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Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

Binaries are comfortable for people: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them.

To collect and classify what we know into an either or an or makes us feel to be on more stable ground: if we can classify it, it won’t surprise us. By ascribing the big label (us or them, for example) we can line up assumptions about who and what falls into that category, and assumptions in our world today are given as much power as facts, if not more.

It is the us versus them binary that I hear about the most in my past work as a union representative and now as our EA president. And, because of my role within our district (I mentor new teachers and I also design and lead professional learning for both teachers and administrators) I am in the strange situation of seeing the line between us and them become very blurry. On both “sides,” I work with caring, professional, student-centered educators who are struggling to do the right thing. Likewise, on both “sides” I can cite examples of weak integrity, manipulation, and poor conduct. Neither “side” can be classified by a convenient set of universals.

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The Tyranny of the TTWWADI and Why Change Is So Hard

I’m in a new role this year, having been elected last spring to serve as the president of our education association. We’re also heading into a full contract bargain this coming spring.

As I’ve been learning about contract negotiations (and the posturing, games, and politics involved), I keep asking myself a very simple question: Why does it have to be this way? Why the “us” vs. “them”? Why the feeling like it’s all about sliding back-and-forth a series of numbers face down on scraps of paper? Why the constant “poker game” metaphors about holding cards close, reading your opponent, bluffing and calling bluffs?

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Goals for a New School Year: #ObserveMe

I first spotted the #ObserveMe hashtag on a leisurely scroll through my Twitter feed. This piqued my curiosity. Who’s observing me? What are they observing? As I spiraled down the internet, I found that Math teacher, Robert Kaplinsky, is challenging educators to rethink the way we pursue feedback by making it easy and immediately obtainable. It’s simple. Make a form that says something like “Hi I’m ____. I would like feedback on the following goals:_____”. There is no right way to set up your #ObserveMe sign. Then, adjacent to this invite place a reflection tool. From reflection half-sheets to QR codes connected to google spreadsheets, a teacher can embrace any way that is easy (and I’d argue most meaningful) for them to receive this feedback.

I discovered that while #ObserveMe isn’t quite trending yet, it’s catching fire even at the university level. In teacher prep, some professors are using it as a way to model to preservice teachers the need for a clean feedback loop. Today’s teachers are constantly working to fight the isolation that can happen in this profession. We are also always looking for ways to improve and receiving meaningful feedback on our instructional moves is hard to find. Here’s what I like about Kaplinsky’s challenge to teachers.

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It increases the frequency of feedback. With #ObserveMe, I don’t need to wait for my administrator’s scheduled visit. I don’t need to wait for end of unit or end of course student reflections. I don’t need to wait for my instructional coach to find time to come into my classroom. I don’t need to wait for a colleague to get a sub so they can meet with me about student learning. In fact, this has the potential to give me more, real, immediate feedback from a variety of perspectives than anything I’ve seen this far in my eleven years of teaching.

ObserveMe-5-300x232It forces me to have a growth mindset. If this sign is on my door, I am telling the world that I want to grow. I am inviting anyone to come in and comment on my instruct. Yeah, that’s a little scary. But it’s a healthy risk that models vulnerability and openness to others. Who could pop in? A visitor. A parent. The librarian. Another teacher on planning period. I’m both thrilled and terrified at the possibilities. The #ObserveMe challenge reminds us that teaching is relational and we need all types of perspectives to help us grow. This model is based on trust. By opening myself up to the community, I am making them a part of my learning process and saying that I value their voice in my growth.Alissa

It will definitely impact students. If we begin the year with this signage, we are modeling the culture of learning we are trying to cultivate in students. We should be getting feedback that we can implement the next day. I will have concrete date for how I implemented my feedback and can brag about that to my administrator at my evaluation (wink, wink). This has the possibility of transforming my instruction and hopefully inspiring the observer to work on something in their classroom.

 

So far, a handful of teachers in my school are ready with their signs (they gave me permission to include below). I’m hoping our vulnerability will encourage others in the school to jump on board, foster deeper conversations about goal setting, and improve our practice.

Nate

 

Anyone else up for the challenge?

If you’re on Twitter, post a picture and use the hashtag

#ObserveMe