Written By: Hans Appel
17+ years ago, when I began my career,
I was a counselor who worked in education.
But time, experience, and perspective have a funny way of changing your sense of self.
Warning to educators reading this, you might be upset by what I’m about to say. Ok, here goes:
In my experience SOME educators spend too much time focusing on what their title and/or role ‘should be’ and not enough time integrating into the school system.
I know. I told you this would be controversial. But far to often I hear things like “that’s not my job” “they can’t make us do that” and “this is not what we really should be doing.”
Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to have a 250 to 1 student/counselor ratio; which the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends. I fully believe in the ASCA national model of Academic, Personal Social, and College/Career focus. Additionally, I think it’s my job to educate students, staff, and parents how I fit into the school system. But, educating others about what I do isn’t enough and certainly doesn’t ensure me to “Be REAL” (Thanks Tara Martin!) within the school system. In her incredible book, Tara argues that educators might strive to being:
-R Be Relatable
-E Expose Vulnerability
-A Always be Approachable
-L Constantly Learn through real-life experiences
If educators were more focused on being REAL, perhaps our profession would be even stronger! In Heidy LaFleur’s book “Hop on the Clue Bus”, LaFleur adroitly invites educators to a common sense approach to leadership. LaFleur inspires through age old futuristic concepts like listening, empathy, and relationships. She reminds us that integrating ourselves into a school system isn’t rocket science but instead: human science. Her style is transparently refreshing as she abandons games and mind tricks and falls back on compassion, accountability, and love. She’s the kind of educator who seems to have worn many hats throughout her experience and understands others’ roles expertly!
One of my favorite educators, Meghan Lawson (who’s the Coordinator of Instructional Services at Hamilton County Educational Service District) recently started a new leadership position. She decided that prior to the first day of work she wanted to learn more about her teammates. She arranged coffee and casual time with co-workers prior to her official first day. WHY? Meghan is a positive leadership dynamo who understands the power of relationships and identifying individual strengths. By taking a little time to ask questions, learn about each person’s job, personal life, etc; Meghan is better prepared to support and serve her team into the future. What if we intentionally connected with new educators to help their transition to our schools and districts by learning about each other before the job started?
In “Path 2 Serendipity,” Allyson Apsey reinforces this servant leadership approach to education as she explains “leading while walking alongside others is good for all of us.” She talks about the need to ask questions and learn about others work, when she started her principal position at Quincy Elementary School. Rather than focusing on her role being: 'I’m the principal and I need to have all the answers'; she integrated into the building by learning about others. She asked questions, learned about others' strengths and roles and slowly figured out how best to support: The Q.
Why is our role or title so important to us? Who's 'role' is to create an #AwardWinningCulture?
School culture is on all of us! These are OUR communities! These are OUR schools! These are OUR students!
I recently read David Guerin’s epic book “Future Driven.” In “Future Driven”, David has perfectly modeled the premise of his book as he resists spoon feeding readers all the answers on creating optimal learning environments but instead creates conditions for educators to do real thinking about how to create learning experiences for the future. In the same vein as the “Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros, "Future Driven" is the kind of book, I anticipate being relevant 30+ years from now. David succinctly inspires by saying “we must create schools that reflect the world we live in, not the one we grew up in.” My question to David: Shouldn’t this apply to educators’ own learning as well as student learning? While I’m confident that compartmentalized job roles served our school admirably for years, perhaps there’s a need for more overlap of roles than previously thought. Or at the very least, an overlap in understanding of said roles.
After working through David’s powerful insights, I began to wrestle with the idea that perhaps some of our professional development might be better focused on learning outside of our present job title. In other words, empathy, proficiency, and competency of educators could be improved with a willing dive into other colleagues skill zones. Some forward districts are already allowing educators to personalize their professional development pathway...
Imagine a teacher who can expertly meet a student’s emotional needs, within the classroom? How might student experience be different if the adults they worked with had varying skills? Are teachers the only educators in schools offering instruction? Would there be value in a counselor learning to use direct instruction when working with an at-risk student or group of students?
Are counselors the only adults qualified to teach social emotional learning and or character ed? Many schools, have moved toward teaching the Whole Child through advisory and/or leadership curriculum such as Character Strong. These schools realize that an intentional focus of Social Emotional Learning and Character Ed, coupled with strong relationships (Teacher/Student) is a recipe for success.
Think about it another way: is it reasonable to leave all leadership tasks for administrators? Perhaps the key to creating an #AwardWinningCulture isn’t about finding new or better people.
Award Winning Culture fosters positive leaders at all educational levels. Students, Staff, and Community.
We can’t sit back and put all the onus of leadership on the shoulders of a few people with the title: leader. How can we build leadership at all levels? Maybe it starts by creating an environment that encourages risk taking, leap jumping, and comfort breaking.
Consider this, are coaches the only adults who need to give the occasional inspiring pep talk? Would other adults benefit from learning the customer service skills of our most talented administrative assistants? How might the overall school synergy change if we all had some greater range of skills in teaching, leading, serving, counseling, etc. Imagine #ThePepperEffect (Thanks Sean!) that could be generated with bandmates who possessed a diverse skill set. I guess the underlying question is:
Are we willing to concede that all adults in the schoolhouse are “educators”?
One of the best ways an educator can become “REAL” is through cross-training.
**Cross training is the idea of training in one field with the purpose of raising one’s effectiveness in another field. We often understand cross training in terms of sports.
Since I’m a huge football fan, and it’s nearing the end of summer, I’ll start with that “field” (pun intended) My favorite football player BY FAR was Walter Payton. When he retired, he was the all time NFL rushing leader and a sure fire 1st ballot hall of famer. They even named an award after him: The Walter Payton Man of Year, for his exceptional character. For years, people wanted to know the secrets to his stamina, agility, grit, and “sweetness” on the gridiron. Payton was legendary in his workout regime, which included running an intense hill each day...later renamed “Payton’s Hill.” By pushing himself beyond his limits running up and down, and even backwards, Payton stretched himself beyond what other running back were doing to establish new success in cross training. Ironically, running hills is now considered common place for running backs. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s this form of intense training was very cutting edge.
In the past 10 years, football organizations are continuing to push the boundaries on cross training with ideas like ultimate fighting, boxing, and wrestling. Defensive and offensive lineman work on such hand to hand combat skills in an effort to develop an advantage when lined up against another gigantic athlete, across the line of scrimmage. It’s not that they will be physically assaulting the other team (although some have described football as an organized car accident). However, football coaches understand that games are won in the trenches. Essentially one man trying to impose his will on another man. One player trys to protect the person with the ball and the other player trys to tackle the person with the ball. Hand placement can be crucial to gaining leverage on another oversized human being. Teams have incorporated a host of physical cross training to strengthen key elements of the game.
Perhaps the newest and most outside the box cross-training is mental conditioning. Athletes like Seattle Seahawk quarterback, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, have become synonymous with Mental conditioning coaches like Trevor Moawad. Moawad has been deemed the “best brain trainer” by Sports Illustrated for delivering advanced mindset solutions to the most driven leaders in competitive sports. Moawad’s team simply help motivated individuals reach peak performance by training their minds.
While I’m obsessed with football, cross training isn’t limited to my favorite sport. Basketball players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar prescribed to learning yoga to increase flexibility and recovery from the pounding their bodies take on the hardwood. Basketball coaches like Phil Jackson, even facilitated group meditation exercises during practices. Some baseball players have even been known to study ballet. Furthermore, gymnastics has been shown to be helpful to competitive swimmers.
But cross training isn’t limited to athletes. Chess players are frequently encouraged to play soccer. Actors sign up for improv classes. And most educators are aware of the positive student connection between math ability and learning to play a musical instrument.
Even the business world has jumped on board this future driven mindset. Companies routinely cross train employees by having cashiers and/or customer service representatives learn a variety of aspects of company operations to help ensure empathy for both fellow employees and customers. Some tech specific companies even pay employees with bonuses for becoming certified in branches of the business, outside of their daily work routine. Indeed, mega successful companies like Netflix, Starbucks, and Amazon are so passionate about training employees outside of their companies, their willing to lose good folks for the betterment of company morale. [Amazon even pays up to $12,000 for tuition, fees, and textbooks to allow employees to pursue education unrelated to Amazon].
I recently saw an enlightening post on Instagram from Danny Steele, principal at Thompson 6th grade. Danny had sent a picture of himself working with the custodial staff, as he "learned how to strip floors today." Danny has shared other inspiring tweets about his outstanding custodial staff. It's clear he has a servant leadership heart for his team! A cursory look at the Instagram picture may have yielded the conclusion that Danny’s time spent working with the custodial folks was a brilliant relationship building opportunity. Yes! I think that’s certainly true. But further interpretation of Danny’s experience also gave Danny an understanding of the complexity of his staff’s job. By being a lead learner, he gained insight and empathy into the custodial and maintenance world; therefore, Danny became an even stronger leader in his ability to anticipate and understand staff needs. A bonus of the activity is increased positive influence with key educational staff. Danny’s willingness to learn outside the “principal space” is certainly a brilliant expression of vulnerability and a perfect example of cross-training.
What if administrators were willing to answer the phones for an hour, while the secretaries observed classrooms. What insights into the front office culture might be gleaned? What classroom takeaways might secretaries or admin assistance bring back to their everyday interactions with parents?
At my school, our outstanding secretaries even cross train each other; thus, they ensure that they’re all capable of being the critical cog that makes the front office run smoothly. By being able to do each others jobs at a functional level, they ensure all stakeholders are met with exceptional customer service.
Are we willing to integrate ourselves into the entire school system? Or are we DEFINED by our job title?
Recently, at the National Principals conference in Chicago, no surprise to anyone...it was almost all principals. However, the experience and takeaways were pure M.A.G.I.C for a non-administrator like me. How incredible would it be to send a team of teacher leaders to a conference like this? Imagine the growth they might make?
At a recent school counselor conference, most all participants were...school counselors. What if school psychologist or administrators were wrapped into these opportunities. What if we intentionally ventured to conferences outside of our job title or role? Imagine the learning.What books are you reading? Who do you follow on social media? Why not participate in a new twitter chat? OR...Locate a new educational blogger.
I hear prominent educators speak glowingly about their TRIBE. But does a Tribe have to be made up of a homogenous group? If we’re only surrounding ourselves with people of similar educational experiences, we’re probably not pushing ourselves into uncharted waters. It’s ironic to me that as I’ve begun to build my own PLN, I’m mostly drawn to non-counselors. Invariably I love interacting and learning from teachers, coaches, administrators, para-professionals, authors, consultants, speakers, etc.
Remember growth only occurs when we go beyond our comfort zones.
Think about challenging yourself to learn a new skill or concept. This past week I’ve been learning amazing new concepts from the #HiveSummit with Michael Matera. He’s pushed virtual PD to epic levels with teachings from incredible educators on concepts like #BookSnaps #Gamification #Sketchnotes and much more. To be truthful, much of the content isn’t specific to counselors. But the chance to learn about cutting edge instructional tools, strategies, and outside the box thinking has been worth every minute! I’m a better counselor for my time spent BEE-ing in the HIVE!
On the flip side, we need experts within a school building. The training, abilities, and specific talents that we all bring to the table should and could not be overlooked. I’m not suggesting that we all become interchangeable parts. We’ve all been drawn to certain aspects of education due to our own personality, education, and prior experience. But imagine if we all understood each other’s work on a deeper level. The type of service we might provide our students of the future could reach special heights.
My challenge to educators is to learn our colleagues’ strengths, skills and needs so that we can effectively support the educational ecosystem.
This only happens if we’re willing to listen, ask questions, engage, and occasionally cross train outside of our comfort zones. While it’s great to communicate your roll and how you fit into the school, it may be even more important for you to reach out and discover more about your peers and co-workers. Who knows maybe you’ll also discover something about yourself?
Are you a Principal? Administrator? Coach? Teacher? Psychologist? Therapist? Etc? I urge you to NOT let your JOB TITLE define you!
One of my favorite teachers to follow on social media is Nicholas Ferroni, his bio reads:
“As a kid, I wanted to be a superhero, psychologist, philanthropist, philosopher, actor, and comedian...So I became a teacher.” I might add to Nicholas’ bio: Educator.
After 17+ years in education, and a recent effort to cross-train, I no longer see myself as a counselor who works in education.
I’m an EDUCATOR who works as a counselor.
Who are you?
About the Author
Hans Appel, has been a school counselor in the Richland School District for the past 17 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He's passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness.
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.