When you find your why, you find your joy. Join podcast hosts, Matt and Laura Grundler, as they discuss joyful leadership with Principal Bethany Hill and why they think it takes a village to teach a child.
Laura: Welcome to the podcast. This is the creatively connected classroom with Matt and Laura Grundler and we are super excited today to have Bethany Hill on our program. I feel like we’ve known Bethany for a long time from Twitter, but we haven’t actually ever spoken to her live, so this is really exciting. Awesome. So, Bethany, tell us a little bit about yourself. I know that you promote leadership and joyful leadership a lot on Twitter, but I’d love to know a little bit more about your background.
Bethany: Sure. First of all, thanks for having me on today – it’s very exciting – and I look forward to this new featured podcast too. My name is Bethany Hill and I am lead learner at an elementary school in Arkansas. Central Elementary. We have about 350 kids this year, plus about 80 Pre-K kids. And I have been doing, this is my fifth year actually at Central and 21st year in education, so I’m used to… I’ve taught kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade. I’ve been a curriculum coach and was an assistant principal and now principal. So I’ve been on quite a journey but all in the same district, just in my hometown. I grew up here. It’s been great to give back to it all these years.
Laura: Well that’s really exciting. Yeah. So I’m, I’m thinking it’s really thrilling too that you’re giving back to your home community. Like that’s, that’s really neat. I, you don’t hear that much anymore. Where we are in Texas, we have a lot of transplants and most people here are not from the area and so it’s really kinda cool. So just out of curiosity, do you get to see generations of families come through your school?
Bethany: I do, I do. And that’s when I, it always is a wakeup call that I’m just getting a little bit older every year. Last year I actually hired a person that I taught and so that was a big, you know, kind of a slap in the face but very exciting at the same time. I taught her in first grade and was able to hire, hire her as a third grade teacher. So it was really, really cool. And then
Laura: I just got goosebumps though, that’s so cool. But that’s what it’s all about, right? You’re inspiring the next generation. Yeah.
Bethany: Yes it was, it was really neat to watch her evolve as a teacher. This is year two for her and so it’s a really cool experience and I’ve watched her grow up, you know, all these years because she’s come back home to her hometown to teach. And so we’ve always stayed connected and I’ve also started having kids as people you know, that I grew up with then graduated with. And so that’s really cool as well, you know, to be able to see that. And so it’s, it’s a neat experience to grow up in the same community that I went to school in and I started teaching with some of the teachers who taught me for the first few years of my career. And, and now to, you know, it kind of comes full circle. It seems like that it’s really neat thing to experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Laura: That’s awesome. That is cool. Yeah, I think that’s actually something that maybe some people miss out on is that, you know, it’s that quote about you never know where your, your effect, the ripple effect, the ripple effect kind of thing. You know, and a lot of times in education you don’t get to see that, especially if you’re teaching the little ones. I mean if you have them as Pre-K kids, they go on and you don’t get to see them and you don’t know where they’ve gone off to and that’s, it’s really exciting to get to see the impact you’ve had. So congratulations, that’s cool.
Matt: Um, so, you know what, I mean, thinking about that kind of leads into how did you kind of fall into the idea of, of leading this joyful leadership. You know what… I mean, because we, we collaborated. You and I collaborated for the K-12 art chat and I know on that topic. So how did you decide that that’s really where you wanted your passions to lie?
Bethany: Well, the hashtag kind of started just in my journal and it stayed there for… I’m an avid writer. I write constantly. A lot of it is never seen by anyone but me and I’ll love to hand-write more than anything, so I feel like journal after journal after journal and so Joyful Leadership was just something that kind of just appeared in a thought one day and you know, the hashtag is so trendy and everything and so I just sort of wrote that one day and doodled around it and everything. And it sat there for a while and I decided one day – I always look back at journals and get ideas for blogging and chat topics when I’m asked to moderate and things like that. And so I happened upon it several months later and decided the blog about it, just mainly to just try to brand myself, you know, as that, you know, as being known for that. I didn’t expect it to take off and for other people to use it.
Bethany: So that was. But that’s what happened. I promoted that in the blog, encouraged people to, you know, to jump in and use the hashtag and what it stood for and basically what it stands for is when leaders face a lot of obstacles and a lot of adversity on a daily basis. Things are just kind of thrown at us. But there is an opportunity in, in every barrier or obstacle or you know, adverse experience to find some joy and some positivity. So that was kind of my whole “why” behind the hashtag and it just sort of became a movement, which is really, really awesome. It’s been amazing to see and there’s not a day that I don’t scroll through it and look at what people are posting. And I just see, it’s like everyday I see someone new who has used the hashtag. So it’s very, very, very cool. And I’ve grown my PLN in a big way based on that hashtag. So…
Matt: Yeah, for sure. I mean I’ve seen people, you know, that we know that, that run in that same circle, like a Sean Gaillard and Jen Williams and a few other people.
Laura: Oh, I’ve even seen some of our administrators and our school district use your hashtag, which is really exciting. Josh Stamper. I don’t know if you know him, but…
Bethany: Oh my goodness, yes. I love him. He’s great. I was on his podcast a while back.
Laura: Oh, excellent. Yeah, he actually, he’s, he’s left our district, which is good for him, sad for us, but good for him. He’s closer to home and I think it’s a great move, but we’re going to miss him.
Bethany: I can imagine so. He’s amazing.
Laura: Yeah. So, you know, I, I work with teachers, that’s my role and I really believe in teacher leaders, and, and growing teachers as leaders and I, I sometimes run into this, this a little bit of a barrier with teachers. They just maybe don’t see themselves as a leader. How would you suggest to work with teachers to help grow their, their leadership capacity?
Bethany: That’s a great question. And something that I have reflected on quite a bit, especially after I transitioned from teaching in the classroom to being the lead learner role, because it, it becomes a lot more about adult learning than just the learning of kids. And so in fact, that’s where, you know, that’s where the power is the principal can come from, is to empower teachers because that’s a direct effect in the classroom. And, and so what I, what I, what I can’t stand for teachers to say, and it’s like a kill for it. I mean, it’s a total buzz kill in our building. And we know that nobody’s allowed to say this is, “I’m just a teacher” because you hear people say… no, you hear teachers say, “oh my gosh, I could never do that, I’m just a teacher. I don’t ever want to be an administrator. I don’t ever want to lead. I’m just a teacher.” And I have, you know, anytime someone says that, who teaches in my classrooms, I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, wait a minute. You cannot say that. That’s an, that’s an oxymoron that we never want to use. So, um, I think taking that mindset away, it’s sometimes really challenging for, for stem educators who may be more of a personality to work behind the scenes a little bit. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not leading. So I think sometimes pointing out those strengths and the things that they do that are unique to them is the best way to pull out leadership. And um, you know, the way I, the way I see it is every teacher is a leader and if so if we constantly use teacher leaders as you know, a description and sometimes it makes, it sends a message that not all teachers are leaders, some are and some aren’t. And so I think if they’re going to stand up in front of kids and collaborate and work alongside a group of other educators, they’re leading already.
Matt: Yeah… they have to see that because sometimes you know, as you said, teachers go, Oh, well I, I’m just, I’m just this. I’m just that. And so they can see where they would be the leader or how they’re actually that leader then. Yeah. Then then that, that does, I mean, and even with kids know, you get those kids, like with me teaching art, you know, those kids would always go, oh, I’m not an artist, you know, or I don’t do this or I don’t do that. And when you can show them, you know, I always throw it back when they say, well, is this okay? You know, and asking for that approval. And I go, well, what do you think? You’re the artist. And they’re like, I’m the artist. And I’m like, yeah, you’re the artist, you’re the one making this. So yeah, pointing that out, making them aware of that.
Laura: And I think you make a really good point about the word just. I hear that a lot as well. Just the teacher or just the art teacher or just the PE teacher like, oh my gosh. So one of the things, and I’m probably already said this and one of our previous podcasts, but you know, I had a real heart to heart with our teachers, the elementary art teachers this year. And I said, I’m looking at a room that teaches every single elementary child in our district. There is no “just” in that. You have tremendous power to impact children for all the positive, most creative reasons in the entire world. Like if, uh, if principals could understand that the specials teachers teach every child in the building from the time they’re in kinder to the time they’re either in fifth or sixth grade, you know, they’ve had this relationship with those children for sometimes six or seven years. And there’s no “just” in that. To me that’s huge.
Bethany: Absolutely. And sometimes those specials are the, are the ones who see very unique gifts in our kids that maybe classroom teachers don’t get to see. And if that collaboration can take place to where the special teachers can communicate that with classroom teachers, then we had the chance to empower kids in a different way or to motivate or reach kids in a different way that maybe we haven’t bought it before in the class, right? In the regular classroom setting. So, you know, it’s, that’s a perfect example of, you know, just identifying the power in a role that someone plays in a school even from, even ones not in classrooms are. Our custodians and our secretaries and the counselor. And people like that, who directly impact the culture of the school on a daily basis or the climate.
Laura: That’s so true. I traveled to all the schools in our district and previous to that I was also an assistant principal and the secretary or the receptionist when you come in that building are a huge piece of the puzzle, you know, talking about impacting the culture. They set the tone. If I come to school and someone doesn’t greet me or they just look at me or you know, it’s, it’s, it’s just a different feeling than, oh hi, we’re glad to have you here today. That it’s just such a different feeling. And then on the flip side of that, from from having worked with closely and in situations with kids that had some traumatic things going on in their lives, those secretaries know what the story is because parents will tell them at the, you know, when they come in to sign their kid in or you know there’s something going on. They get the back story sometimes. Just in the chit chat that… it’s so important. Yes.
Bethany: And even on the phone, same thing, my motto is let them throw your smile through the phone. They should be able to feel it because they can tell! If you’re not listening actively to the conversation… and we know that our schools have so many things going on at one time and sometimes a way to lead is just to be present, too, no matter what the role. Whether that’s the custodian who passes the child in the cafeteria and notices tears and stops and, and has a conversation or the secretary who answers the phone but also has to smile at the person walking in to know that they’re being recognized. So to the teacher in the classroom who, you know, he notices every child every day.
Matt: I think that kind of leads into a question. So how do you, how would you suggest that somebody kinda heads down that path of trying to, you know, more or less brand themselves as, as the creative leader for their campus or for, you know, the curriculum for… How do you, how do you brand yourself? How would you suggest they kind of start down that path if that’s something they’re interested in?
Bethany: It’s funny you ask that… We actually did a really cool activity during our back to school weeks and I give all the credit to the instructional facilitator in our building. She asked if she could begin our week with the morning meeting and all of our classrooms start that way every single day. It’s like a community time where kids are practicing social emotional skills but also making connections with their peers and they sometimes play games or maybe they embed a little bit of content into that morning time just to be able to kick the day off in a positive way. So my instructional facilitator came to me and said, hey, can I do this and model a few things within it? And I was like, yeah, that’s a great way to start that. So she had a fun activity that got everybody moving and she had a morning message written for them, but she in that time before we started to meet had a chart up and she had different types of strengths that you might see within people. Like if they were starting in classroom management, if they were strong in procedures and routines. If their strength was family communication, maybe even a particular content area. If they felt really strong about number talks in math or whatever. They went in and everyone in the room had to go and sign their name under an area where they felt like they were, they were good at. And they could even add an area if it wasn’t up there. So before we got started, everybody’s name was on the chart somewhere. And so what my instructional facilitator did was say, you know, look at this chart, you know, we’re going to transfer this our PLC room and when someone is struggling, we’re going to look at it and we’re going to say, “oh, this person’s really great with classroom management. I am struggling big time with my transitions. So I will go to that person and see if I can get some ideas.”
Bethany: So it makes those connections, but it also validates the strength of someone who may not otherwise be noticed for that. So I’m really, really looking forward to the school year and seeing teachers use that as a tool and we’re going to try to, you know, it’s going to be up to me, the assistant principal and the instructional facilitator to you to remind teachers of that, you know, to look at that and say, yeah, these people are great at that. Why don’t we, why don’t we have some conversations with them or maybe I can set up a time for you guys to talk. We’ll get your class covered, we can go and see you on your plan time or whatever. So we’ll have to own that responsibility of allowing opportunities for those things to happen.
Matt: It’s interesting you say that because Laura and I were just kind of looking at each other, you know, kind of nodding our heads in agreement because it’s something Laura started to propose this past summer, uh, was creating what we call it, a guru list. And so all the different, all the different art teachers in their, things that in their strengths that they are kind of lumped them all together and said, okay, this person’s really good at this. This person’s really good.
Laura: You know, the thing about being an art educator is that just like with anything, but, you know, we go to school and we, we take one of everything, you don’t get to specialize necessarily in just print making or just ceramics or just photography. But we all have our personal passion within the arts and so if I, you know, I am, I’m the leader of art teachers except that I am not an expert in kilns or kiln maintenance or ceramics, that’s not my thing, but I know two or three teachers that I can call and in a heartbeat, they’ll be able to answer those questions. And so we started the list and we have it for teachers to access all the time and we just call it our guru list. Because all of us have our talents and I mean some of them it’s classroom management…
Matt: Some of them it’s a particular medium. Some of it, it’s yeah.
Laura: Some of them it’s supply management. Man, I have some that have the most organized, most beautiful storage rooms, I think, you know, and, and honestly that is not a typical trait of an art teacher. So it’s really important that you know those people. You know?
Bethany: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And, and, you know, as far as owning the responsibility of making sure I can help with those connections to… What hit me this week and going into classrooms the first week of school and seeing the strengths of some of the teachers with just those little things that can make life very great or miserable in the classroom with procedures and routines and high expectations. You know, is giving that feedback on something that, you know, of course I love to write handwritten notes, you know, I love just leave those little sticky notes. Sometimes it might just be one word and you know, I’ll always write a big H. That’s kind of the heart in “h” and that’s my signature. And sometimes it could be a note, you know, to validate, but then also then to activate something that’s simple for a procedure like if we’re really, really honing in on that for teachers to get the first two or three weeks of school set up in a way that’ll, that will be setting them up for success the rest of the year with tightening up those things.
Bethany: And so it hit me when I was writing a note the other day that I needed to have a picture of that chart in my phone. So I can say, you know, I noticed that, um, that you tried it, a couple of different things with supplies or with managing materials over the last two days, so-and-so has a really great system going in their classroom. So why don’t we touched base with her and just having that little note there because we have, we have established and it’s been been there five years, this is my fifth year now. So teachers know, not taking it personally and I know that it’s just a support and that we all need help in little areas sometimes. We have to be transparent about it. And so I’ve realized this week that I need to be, I need to give feedback that will encourage collaboration and it doesn’t have to be me that’s helping them solve the problem. It can be someone else. And in fact it’s more powerful when it is.
Laura: You know, you, you hit on it. A couple really relevant things there is that it doesn’t have to be the principal to, you know, uh, I, I, I own that for myself as a leader that I feel like I have to be the fixer for everything. And it’s taken me awhile to find out that, you know, really it’s about helping them make the connections. But something other that you said that was very significant, was the, the constructive criticism, you know, in the art world, in the arts, all of the arts. Um, we work on that a lot, you know, the constructive criticism and the feedback. But I do find that teachers have a little bit of, their, their, they put a little wall up sometimes when you give them constructive criticism. Um, and you know, it’s just like when you’re doing your observations and they want to be “exceeds” on everything – that’s who teachers are – and proficient, is not good enough and our, our new system really proficient is, is pretty much the highest you can get. So that has been, um, that’s always a little bit of a challenge working with teachers because they just want to be – and this is something I love about them – they want to be amazing and it’s a little bit hard for them to hear the constructive feedback sometimes. So what are your suggestions on, on having that transparency and, and teachers and leaders working together through that process?
Bethany: That’s a great question and it’s fun to me again, this is helping me, I think more than anybody, right? And it’s, it’s really grounding me in some goals for the school year. My biggest goal, my big audacious goal for the school year is to get to a point where I can be brave enough to always find the, the, the validation of what’s being seen, but then to activate something that will be a next step for the teacher. No matter how amazing that the lesson is or the environment is, or whatever’s being noticed at that time, and to get teachers to see that it’s never, it’s never about you just because there’s an activation.
Laura: Always, always like, you know, I, I, that’s the thing I’m trying to work with teachers on too. I call them awesome art teachers, like we have just amazing teachers, but there’s always room to grow. There’s always room to see how you can make it better for even just one child in that classroom.
Bethany: Yes. Yes. And, and I’ve, I’ve, I’ve thought back on the years that I’ve been a teacher in the classroom, I still consider myself a teacher and always will be first and foremost. But, I, it’s been a long time since I’ve just been in a classroom setting and not been in administration. It’s been 11. This is the 11th year. And my biggest fear is to, is to become disconnected from the classroom – I’m terrified of it – because I see it happen to those who have spent years out. And that’s my greatest fear. And I’ve told anybody listening that as they start to see me disconnected that they need to tell me to go. It’s time to go. It’s time to retire, go to the house. But when I went back to the way I taught, especially in that the teacher as facilitator role and reader’s workshop, writer’s workshops as an elementary teacher that it, when conferencing with kids, it was always a validate first. And an activate second.
Bethany: And you know, we, we can’t just stop there. We can’t just praise kids all the time for everything they do great. They’re not going to grow. And so if we do that with kids and we’re not afraid, then we should be able to do that with adults as well. And not be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings or to step on toes. You know, that was a big thing at our back to school meetings to share with teachers. We had some tough conversations with them because of know, just feeling the need to tighten things up in the building and saw that naturally some things have slipped. And I own that as a leader, as the leader of the building. And so there were a couple of times I just had to say, curl up your toes because they’re about to get stepped on a little bit and I learned that from it, from a presenter that I’ve heard the summer, her name is Dr. Amanda May, and she was so amazing and that’s what used that whole time because she was asking administrators some very hard questions and it was like, ouch! She asked me, she was like, curl those toes up, here it comes. So I kind of borrowed that brilliance from her and use. We use that statement a lot. And so I think we do have to a little step on someone’s toes. It doesn’t mean we have to smash them into the ground. But we make them a little bit uncomfortable. So they continue to grow. And that goes for us too, right?
Laura: Those hard questions have to be at the forefront of what you’re doing. I think, you know, I love that you journal. I’m, I’m, I don’t, I kind of have this weird thing about writing. I’m not a big writer, but I, I journal in a different way. I do visual journals and I think that it’s really important that you’re constantly asking yourself the really hard questions or working with a thought partner that will push you to ask those hard questions. I think you kind of have to have your, your partner in those kind\ of situations. So that you’re not alone in it. And that’s, that’s important too.
Bethany: Yeah, definitely. I have been a program in the last couple of years in my state. It’s the Arkansas leadership academy and they have a master principal program. And so one of the things that they push us to have a critical friend, you know, one of those people who will nudge you to think about it’s, it’s, for lack of better term, devil’s advocate in a way. They kind of sit to bring you back down to reality inside. But right. Are you, are you, are you addressing your why? Does… how does this change your, how does this lead change? How does this affect your vision and your mission? And it can be just someone who can take me back to those bare bones of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And where you’re headed so you don’t lose track.
Laura: Yeah. The why, the why. We talk about our “why” a lot. I mean I think we have built in partnership already, which is lucky for the two of us. But…
Bethany: Yeah, I bet you all have some great conversations around the dinner table.
Laura: We, we constantly joke that, you know, with three children…
Matt: Maybe one of them will at least become a teacher. Or they’ll run!
Laura: As teachers’ kids, we both ran initially. We resisted and then we realized that it was in our DNA so.
Bethany: Right, right, right. I have one of each of those as well. I have one who’s, a son who’s a senior this year. He is about to start his internship with student teaching and coaching. And my 15 year old is like, no way, I am not. I have stayed in school my entire life till 7 and 8:00 at night. He unfortunately had to grow up in administration. And the other one did not. And so it’s very different. He, he had a lot of suppers and pizzas delivered to him at night. while I was still working in the office.
Laura: My kids have gone to lots of concerts with me.
Matt: They’ve had lots of meals on the road.
Laura: Definitely not an eight to five job, that’s for sure. And they just go with ya. We’ll see how it all turns out!
Matt: Especially when they were little just go, alright, let’s go. Yep. Yep.
Laura: So speaking of kids… I’m also a big proponent of teaching children leadership skills. Do you have any suggestions for infusing student creative student leadership into your classrooms or into your, your campus culture?
Bethany: Yeah, last year we started to focus on that a little bit more and I am so far from where I want to be on that with student voice and ownership. But we we started a couple of different leadership opportunities for kids last year and one of them was a news broadcast so they could feel… and it was very student led. We had a facilitator and one of our, one of our teachers who facilitated that, but then the children read the script. They decided what was important to share and you know, that that really impacted a lot of our kids and it wasn’t just our kids who were functioning way above grade level, our gifted students, it was a mixture of at risk students and, and those kids who normally might just kind of fly under the radar in a school. They’re very compliant and sweet and quiet, but it gave a chance to give them a voice.
Bethany: And then we also started a little entrepreneurial club last year, in our afterschool club that was with some of our, our, our, at risk kids to you and it gave them a chance to they started a little business in our school and sold bag tags that go on kids’ backpacks and they created the design for – and they personalized them for kids who wanted to buy them. So it was very amazing. They, they created a, you know, a commercial to advertise, you know, what, we had to do a prototype first.
Laura: Design thinking
Bethany: Absolutely and so the facilitator of the group made a little credo type. And actually that was the, it was for me and that was the first one, so I piloted it and made sure it was strong and it could last and things like that. And then the students started to take orders from other kids and they use tinker cad to design what was the initials that the kids wanted on there or the name of our school or just a first name. And we charged fifty cents for those and they had to figure out a budget and had to, I had to order the little links, um, chain links on Amazon. So we looked at to see how much that would cost and because we wanted to make a little bit of a profit and they figured out a packaging system to deliver the tags when they were made. Of course, it was like a brown paper sack that had a note on it.
Bethany: So they, so we did that in May and they actually designed those all year long into orders and so every, every one was unique. And then we used our 3D printer to print them out and it was fantastic. And then one of our kids said we should be selling these to people, not even in our school, like we should be selling these to people everywhere. So then they decided to make the order form and electronic – so it was a Google form on our website and everything and we had even other people outside our school come by and get them. It was very neat. So we plan to continue that this year and add and add some other kids, you know, into that to have an opportunity. Of course they’ve already, they’ve already started thinking about lots of other things that they could make, bookmarks and you know, other things and even jewelry and things that don’t have to be 3D printed that can, that they can create. And so I’m, I’m anxious to see how that continues this year and I know there are lots of other things that we need to do to build student voice and to tap into strengths. But those are, those are a couple of ways that were very effective last year. So we plan to continue those this year and expand and we purchased more 3D printers. So they’re like, oh my gosh, we can, we can do this even faster this year!
Laura: One 3D printer, you just sit there and you wait. It’s like watching paint dry…
Bethany: Yes, it can be. Fortunately the tags are small and it didn’t take too long because that was a thing that they had to consider, time, because if we were going to make several a day, it couldn’t take a long time for them to print. So they had to really think a lot before production started. So I think that process was very, very helpful for kids and help them apply some skills that they had learned in school, a lot more life skills probably than content but but a lot of mathematical thinking involved along with the creativity and design.
Laura: I see a lot of cross curricular connections there, you know, with mathematics and the entrepreneurialship and the design and design thinking and understanding through those. And, and you know, you can’t discount the soft skills. I mean soft skills are huge. I mean, Matt’s moved up to middle school and I think he’s seeing, you know, you start to really see it divide, I think probably around seventh grade is those kids that really understand how to relate to other people and, and use those soft skills. And those that just need more assistance in that and we’ve had a lot of conversations around that lately, just, you know, and especially, you know, as parents trying to make sure that the kids have an equal balance of that, that it’s not all academics, but you know, being successful in life is being able to have a live conversation with someone and not just texting.
Bethany: Yeah, definitely. And I think we have to make sure that kids understand that’s a way that we can win, is to use our own personality, our own ability to connect to, to empower other people to empathy and tolerance and acceptance and those big things that really we have to teach in schools because kids don’t come with them always. We know kids with, sometimes lacking social graces and we have to be able to, you know, to, to foster those in the classroom to teach them how to, how to be able to impact other people and how to be able to contribute. But also, um, you know, how to collaborate and function in a group because we can’t always be in a silo.
Matt: No, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you know, you, you said they come with those other negative forces and I guess as a, as a leader, once you’ve kind of established yourself as a leader in your, you know, your, that, that agent of change I guess is what it is, what is considered sometimes, you know, you get a lot of resistance and, and you have to try to, you know, it, it’s, it’s wearing, it’s taxing. And so I guess, how do you, how do you find that balance? How do you keep yourself positively moving forward even though you’re trying to overcome some…
Laura: Keep smiling.How do you find keep smiling? How do you find joy?
Matt: Would you suggest to somebody? How would you, you know… yeah.
Bethany: Well, I’ve, I’ve had, I’ve had a struggle with that this summer. It’s, you know, professionally and personally we have at our school have really been wholly focused on innovation, creativity, personalized learning, really finding out what makes that child tick and using that and not as much on preparing for our state assessments and you know, being able to have high test scores and things like that. And it shows because it takes, it takes time for things like innovation to show up in something that’s standardized. And so that’s where we are in my school right now. My test scores are not great and I work in a poverty school. There’s a lot, there’s a lot against our kids. It’s not an excuse, it’s not an excuse by any means, but but it takes, it takes a lot to motivate kids who are coming to us you know, drowning in poverty and living in trauma and, the aces, the adverse childhood experiences that some of them have had… incarcerated, incarcerated family members and you know, even homelessness that we, that we have to face.
Bethany: And so, um, I’m, I’m a huge proponent of not giving into, you know, sacrificing great instruction and creativity and innovation for more traditional methods that will increase test scores. But I do believe that in time, if given a few years that the test scores will come naturally and kids will realize… you know, kids will, we do have to prepare them for some of those things because if they, if kids do want the college route to be able to basically manipulate a test, you know, and figure out how they can do well, but for our kids who aren’t, who won’t be college-bound, but who want to pursue a talent in a different way or a gift or a dream for, for lack of better term. You know, focusing on just pure academic test preparation and more, more canned teaching will not help those kids at all. And so I, I, I struggle with that.
Bethany: Our test scores came in in the spring, it was frustrating because I know our kids, I know our kids grew so much and it didn’t necessarily show in every kid… We saw growth between age, between grade levels. But when you look at just the right level itself, it didn’t look good. You know? And so it really robbed me of my joy and I felt very deflated because that’s how schools are judged, that’s how real estate companies recruit people to communities. They’ll say this is an A school, you know, they have an A grade, a B grade, there’s a top performing school in the state or whatever, you know, and it’s only based on those test scores, it’s not based on anything else. And so it’s, it’s very frustrating and you know, and I’ll, I’ll, I’ll be honest, I was very, very negative for several days after those scores came out and you know, this summer was, was challenging personally. I lost my father this summer and very suddenly…
Bethany: And so that all happened about the same time and I was struggling with the joy piece. I was just not able to find it. And um, it, you know, it’s always there, but sometimes we just don’t want to look for it. We refuse to see it and I was kind of in that mode for a few weeks. It was tough. But but reflecting on adversity and looking around made me see that I wasn’t, I wasn’t alone. Professionally, I wasn’t alone because I had a team at central office who was was backing me, who was supporting me, who knows that test scores aren’t everything but we do need to improve those. We do have to find ways to help kids be successful in that area without sacrificing about our core beliefs about how kids need to learn and what school needs to look like for them, but then also (audio drops) to find the positive and in ways in someone that’s close to me. Um, that was, that was a balance that I had to seek this summer. And, and I’ve, I’ve, I’ve gotten there, you know, it’s taken, it’s taken a couple of months and it really took getting back into a school routine to help that happen. But, yeah, and I think we just have to at that time have to realize that we can’t do, we can’t do things alone and I’m a very independent person, very stubborn person. I like to say determined, I like to refer to it as determined but people who know me well say stubborn. I, I have to make myself and rely on other people and to seek that balance of asking for help when needed and admitting that you know, I need support. So it was, it’s been a humbling summer for sure, for me, but I’ve grown from it.
Laura: I’m just sitting here, just struck by is how I’m, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Brene Brown, but I’m rereading a book by Brene Brown called the Power of Vulnerability or re-listening to it because I love listening to her and I. You were just so vulnerable, but it’s so refreshing and so I know our listeners are going to find that so beautiful because you know that’s one of the things I just from also a personal background. I’ve never worked at a non-title one school. I’ve always worked at as the teacher and as a administrator at the, the, the most challenging schools and it is so true that you can see this tremendous growth for kids and it, it’s not necessarily reflected in those scores and that your, your whole community is judging you on that one day. That one snapshot, that one moment in time and you could have worked so hard with those babies and they possibly know it and they just weren’t able to demonstrate it on that particular day because maybe something else happened the night before.
Laura: Maybe their mother was arrested or maybe they didn’t get to sleep at home because you know, who knows what it was or you know, and, and we do everything we can to provide them breakfast and all of those things. But at the end of the day, that is a snapshot, a moment in time. And that being what everything in your community is judging you on is just not, we would never do that. You know it in so many other ways. Like, you know, when you, when you’re hiring somebody, you look at the totality of the person, you do an interview, you have a resume, a portfolio, you know, you’re looking at all of these pieces to the puzzle. But when we look at schools, we only look at one piece of the puzzle and it is very difficult. And uh, I’ve been in your shoes and I know, I know how frustrating it is and it’s, you just gotta continue to, to advocate for the kids.
Laura: It’s all about the kids. Your why. Go back to the why, you know? I used to read a book called Hooray for Diffendoofer Day. Are you familiar with that? I used to read… by Dr Seuss and I used to read it to our staff at the beginning of the year to say, you know, it’s not, yes, it’s about the content, but we’re not going to teach to this test. We’re going to teach children. We’re here for these children, you know. Um, and so I think that that’s, that’s it’s really powerful. And change takes time… They say three to five years at minimum, so, you know, and, and we just don’t always have that time and then the state will go and change all the rules on ya.
Bethany: That happens frequently. It seems like something, you know, the level of accountability, or the test – the cut off scores or whatever it may be that you feel like when you’re getting there they just up the ante or whatever. And um, you know, I, I do. Um, I do know the importance of that aspect of school, you know, and looking back, I, I could have focused on it more without jeopardizing, you know, what I believe in as far as school and learning and teaching. And so I’ve had to, I’ve had to do a self check and you know, I’m a big advocate for… I would love to just rid our schools of standardized testing… Because they are just other ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the school and of a teacher. It is a sliver of information that will help us, you know. So I’ve, I’m really trying to focus on the data and what it’s telling us and how we can use it because we can use it. It is of use.
Bethany: And so I’ve had to shift my mindset on it even though it ultimately, when I think about them a lot, I get mad. My blood pressure just starts to rise because I know that there’s so much more to it than that. But, but it is a piece that we can use and we can turn it into a positive at our school just by having even goal setting conversations with our kids. And talking to them about no matter what we’re doing, we give our 100 percent of ourselves every time and you know, and, and that even though it might not be something that we enjoy doing that, you know, if it’s a task in front of this that we need to put our all into it, you know, and so just some of those things I think that I can tighten, help tighten up in our school, and, and increase the level of accountability in that sense, will help. But it was hard to admit those things to myself as a leader. You know?
Laura: But that what makes a good leader, honestly. Bethany, like that’s, that’s the power of vulnerability, you know, and being honest and looking and reflecting. And then just that, I, I, I’m very refreshed to hear all this from you. Not, not just, you know, I know a lot of really great principals, but not all of them are honest with themselves and it’s, you know, why you called yourself the lead learner and that’s your learning. Like, I mean that is the true definition of a lead learner is that reflective process.
Bethany: It is, and it’s not an it, it’s not comfortable sometimes. Sometimes it is because you think back on things that went so well… and you can be very proud of things and there are so many things that I’m proud of, you know, when I look back on even our last school year. But um, but you know, looking at those scores, it hurt, you know, because I knew that I probably could have done things differently or better to support, you know, just to support teachers, in supporting kids and you know, and so I realized that that was just a part of my leadership that was needed, that was weakened and it needed to be strengthened. And I had a close friend who helped me see that too. And she also is a district office person and so her being very honest with me too, helped so much because again, the invalidating is great, but we have to be activated on some, some goals to set for ourselves so we can be more balanced and that’s just one area that I need to tighten up so I can be a more balanced leader.
Laura: That’s profound, though… I mean, I think… I, I give you lots of credit because it’s not easy to do.
Bethany: Thank you, thank you. I think it’s been good there for therapy, for me to share it. So thanks for letting me have the outlet to do that.
Laura: But I’m excited for the listeners to hear it too because I don’t think teachers often either… I know that as a principal, assistant principal, I didn’t always share that with my teachers, you know that, that it’s a different kind of pressure and it’s a different kind of it, you’re just looking at this whole picture and it’s, it’s just different and, and it, it’s, it’s good for teachers to hear it. So I’m so, so happy you shared it.
Bethany: Thank you.
Matt: Alright. So, um, I think as we start to wrap up our conversation, is there any kind of last bits of wisdom because you’ve, you’ve imparted quite a bit of wisdom, I think, today.
Bethany: I’m glad you see it that way. I think it, like I said, I think it’s helped me more than it will help anyone else to be able to articulate some of the things that had been in my head over the last, the last couple of months… to be more transparent about it is, has helped me a lot, but I would say as a suggestion for anyone who’s listening is to, is to, to jump out and be vulnerable, put yourself out there. The transparency of who we are is so important and I know we like to have parts of our lives that are private and that we don’t want to expose to everyone. That’s… all of us have that, but when we expose who we are and what we believe in and share who we are as people and educators at the same time and that education is part of who we are.
Bethany: Transparent with them about that. The more trust we have from our colleagues, from families, with our kids and I think that’s probably the biggest piece of advice I would give anyone, is to so even for the most introverted person to step out and share with people who you really are as a person and what strengths do you have but also where you need people to help you become a better person, a better leader, whatever it may be. And that’s not always easy for us because it’s hard to admit our faults, to rely on others sometimes because we do want to be independent for various reasons. And whether it’s not to burden other people or whether it’s because we’re a little bit stubborn and we want to do it ourselves or whether it’s control and we feel we need control over things, whatever, whatever’s, whatever the barrier is there. We just need to make to make it go away. And I think if we can all do that as educators are, our profession would be elevated to heights that we can’t even imagine, you know, because because we do tend to be silos in our profession, whether that’s a person in their classroom or a school in their district or a district in.
The educators who are determined to do it alone are, are doing a disservice to kids. It’s, it’s to me unethical, you know, whereas unethical because there are, there are just no excuses anymore to not be connected if it, if it can’t happen in your building where you serve because of the culture, then make it happen outside of the building equal in other schools and other districts in other states like has social media, has that outlet and for us now and we just can’t ignore it anymore. And as, as building leaders, it has to be modeled, it has to be modeled it from that level and for teachers to understand how important it is to, you know,
Matt: As a teacher you lose your joy. If you’re just teaching by yourself, you lose your joy, you lose your passion to teach whatever it is you’re teaching. And when you can feed off of somebody else’s energy who’s really excited and really passionate about it, eventually that resparks back into you and so… I know that about myself too.
Laura: It’s the wildfire effect. Absolutely. Somebody catches fire and then it just starts to grow. Yep. So yes…
Bethany: Absolutely. And we just can’t do it alone. And there’s no, there’s no need to anymore. It’s just like I tell families that when they come and join our school that you know, you cannot raise your kids alone. In today’s world, you need help. You need help from schools. You need help from the community and we all have to watch out for our kids. And it’s a joint agreement that needs to be, needs to be in place. And so it just needs. It needs to be the same for educators too. We can’t, we can’t raise our kids alone; we can’t teach them alone either. In order to be really, to be at the capacity that we’re capable of being, we’ve got to, we’ve got to knock the walls down and, and, and become humble and admit that we need help from others in order to be the best we can be. So it just, it just is and it, it should be a non-negotiable everywhere in every school. It needs to be written in stone somewhere.
Laura: I don’t think we could agree anymore on that point. That’s, that is, that is the absolute truth for us. I know over the past four years even, I think we had a community probably before, but now our community is global and I, I know that both of us have grown exponentially from, from our relationships with educators all over the world.
Matt: And meeting people like you…
Bethany: Iron sharpens iron, right?
Matt: It does. Thinking of Forged in Fire…
Laura: We have a son who loves that show… It’s something about fire and iron
Matt: All thanks to that welding class I went to for… a day and it was awesome. Yeah. Well Anyway, um, well Bethany, we can’t thank you enough for coming and talking with us for an afternoon, for an hour…
Laura: Taking some time on your weekend to be with us and the community that we hope to support and uplift and… just. Yes, thank you.
Laura: Thank you.
Matt: Thanks, Bethany! That was amazing.
Laura: That was amazing.
Matt: Words of wisdom. I just love the fact that she talked about, you know, not being, not doing it alone because it shouldn’t be done alone.
Laura: Education, I mean if you think about it, it’s about. I mean if you, even if you go back to like Socrates and Plato, you know, it’s about groups of people coming together, like
Matt: ideas that lead into other ideas then that… only elevate each other.
Laura: When you have a classroom of kids, are you alone?
Matt: Shouldn’t be.
Laura: I mean you wouldn’t know, but I’m saying like if you’ve got your whole classroom of kids in, there were never. It’s a community. Your classrooms are these little microcosm communities and yet we have teachers that, that want to try to forge ahead alone and it’s, it just can’t be done. And like, I, I actually agree with Bethany that it’s unethical, you’re doing your kids a disservice if you’re not reaching out and growing your, your community as an educator with your colleagues because the connections and the ideas and the, the personal growth you will have as an educator will directly impact those students. Yeah. Yeah. What else?
Matt: Well, I mean, I, I, you know, I think with that, as I said earlier, you lose your joy as a teacher because you’re like, oh, I have has to be done. They’re just done this and then yeah, you, you don’t see the kids enjoying it. And so then in turn you’re not going to enjoy it because you’re too busy trying to make it a certain way.
Laura: Right? Absolutely. Yeah. I think there were a lot of really great things she hit on. I think that, you know, the, the ideas with that entrepreneurial club, I’m like, oh, how can we do that? Like I want to definitely…
Matt: Yeah, in middle school, you know, doing some kind of art club afterschool with the middle school kids and teaching them about the, using 3D printers and that. And then turning it in, having it then turned into that would be awesome.
Laura: That would be awesome. So I mean there’s all kinds of things there, but just the idea of student run things, giving the voice, giving them those leadership opportunities. So you know, just the idea of joyful leadership. You heard her thoughts around that. What were your thoughts?
Matt: I mean it just goes back to what I said earlier, it, if you don’t have the joy, you know, finding or talking, that’s why reaching out to other people are so important because then you gain that joy and if you didn’t have it in the first place or need a re-spark of it, you know, having that community, having that group, that network just helps to reinstill that.
Laura: And you bring up a good point. Re-sparking it. You know, I think we all go into education with this idealistic passion. You know, you’re going to change the world. I’m going to impact kids. I’m going to share my love of art and they’re going to love art and I’m gonna love art and we’re gonna do this together. And that, the truth of it is that’s all there. That’s it. It doesn’t go away, but what happens is, I think, is that it gets covered over. I think that you lose it because you’ve got, you’ve got IEPs to read and differentiation strategies to get in there and you’ve got to, you know, respond to parents and you’ve got to respond to, I mean, goodness, I, our son came home this week talking about the first lockdown drill. You know, those things are the reality that it’s… I think when you first go into education, you have a very narrow vision, blinders on. You don’t know because you don’t know what you don’t know. But, it’s not that, that joy I think is ever gone. I think that it just gets covered over by some of the day to day stuff that has to happen in a school and so sparking that or reigniting that or keeping it at the forefront of the “why” is, is probably beneficial for everyone. And she did talk about the why.
Matt: That was… yeah. I mean that’s, that’s the root of what we, we hope to do with kids and make them better people, or you at least hope so…
Laura: Yeah, I mean, so finding your why as an educator is, is key. Well it was a great chat with Bethany. I’m excited to, to have that time to visit with her and I hope that maybe we can have her on the chat again.
Matt: Okay. That’d be good. Yeah, for sure. Alright. Well this is Matt and Laura… kinda … signing off so we will talk to you guys again. All right, bye.
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Laura and Matt Grundler are art educators from Plano, Texas. They are also proud parents, bloggers and founders of the popular Twitter Chat #K12ArtChat. After teaching middle school art, high school art and working as an assistant principal, Laura has moved into the role of district Visual Arts Coordinator. Matt started out as a graphic designer; however after finding the commercial side of design to be unsatisfying, he soon found his niche as a K-5 Art teacher. Both Laura and Matt are passionate about raising their three creative kids, sharing their love of art education with their professional learning network and continuing to grow everyday.