Community Fluff Can’t Wait



Just listen.


Listen from the heart.


The simple and unassuming acknowledgment of another person’s thoughts is powerful and restorative.

As a 6th grade teacher, I am faced daily with typical ‘tween’ angst, social landmines, and raging hormones. There’s a heavy need in middle school to “fit in” and to “look cool.” Often, the class clown who can spit out a funny comeback or the person who highlights uncomfortable truths with teasing and jest becomes the center of attention. At other times it is the edgy and judgmental kids that yield power and influence over the more vulnerable and impressionable, especially those who are terrified they will be a victim of something mean.


Add all of this to the often highly competitive nature of the community where I teach, where children are nurtured and groomed (almost from birth), to be “successful” at just about any cost, and I am facing a virtual war zone of craziness on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could come to school feeling safe? Wouldn’t it be easier to learn and focus if we didn’t have to worry about avoiding a mean comment or feel the intense pressure to fit in or to succeed at all costs?

A few years ago while attending a training for Positive Behavior Intervention Support, I learned about a strategy that could potentially help build a more supportive classroom community and a safe place to connect, a forum for sharing, a way to debrief and de-stress. I was intrigued. I had been working for some time on developing lessons and teaching positive character traits, I was eager to try out a process I hoped would reach into the hearts of my vulnerable tweens.


Skeptical at first…

At first, I was a bit skeptical, how would Community Circle work with my kids? The name itself sounds precariously close to “group therapy” and my students would definitely put those two together. They would resist, for sure. Also, how would my administrator, my colleagues and our community perceive a seemingly “unimportant” activity like “sitting in a circle and just listening,” when there are very important standards to master in an already packed schedule?


The question about my administrator’s thoughts on the subject was quickly answered. He was all for it. “Go for it, Kim! Try it out.”


Check. (Permission granted.)


Now the students.


“So class, we are going to move our tables to the sides of the room. Now we will put our chairs in the middle of the room in a circle. No, not in the shape of an amoeba. No, no, not an oval. We all need to see each other…. must be a circle.”


Sigh. We will get there.


Finally, our first circle was formed. Some students giggled. Some rolled their eyes. Some chose not to speak. Some couldn’t help but blurt out comments or questions, but with some thoughtful reminders about the rules, all soon began to just listen.




The Naysayers…

As for the naysayers, those of us who feel the intense daily pressure of meeting the needs of all of our learners at all levels; those of us who brave the frontlines and are intensely committed to teaching our students to read, to write and do math. With only so many teaching minutes in a day and with so many needs to be met, who has time for this? Who, in all honesty, has time for something frivolous like… Community Circle? Seriously?


Not ready to check that box just yet.


Still, I decided to push forward and try out this strategy. Maybe, just maybe, it could help us all feel better about coming to school and maybe, we would become a stronger, more supportive community. The first year of community circle turned out well. My kids enjoyed the times when we could create a class circle, talk and really listen. I was pleased but unable to tell if I was seeing a positive effect on my students. Maybe I should start earlier in the year and have a weekly set time.


Last year, having done more research on the efficacy of community circles, I committed to continuing the practice once a week in my classroom. One day, our scheduled community circle session conflicted with another activity on campus. When I got the word about the conflict, I was frustrated. Normally, I would have been a lot more flexible in this situation and allowed my students to miss out on our community circle time. However on this day, one of my students came into my classroom to deliver a message from the teacher organizing the activity. With a shrug and slight touch of incredulity in his voice, the student announced to me (and the class) that the teacher had said,


“Community FLUFF can wait.”


Oh, really? It’s hard enough to get 11 and 12-year-olds to participate in a circle… all I need is for an adult on campus to imply that it’s not important or (worse) ridiculous…This has been such a long road to get to this place.


So, in front of my students, I picked up the phone and in a kind and measured voice, I let the teacher know we would be missing the event on campus. I gathered my kids into a circle where I asked about who the heroes were in their lives. We passed the talking stick around the circle. Some students chose to share and some did not some wiggled, some giggled, but all of them listened to each other, and hopefully, listened from their hearts. I then excused my students to their lunch break.


That day, I sat at my desk at lunch, feeling as though steam was rising out of my head. Was the whole idea of community circle just a bunch of fluff? I admit I was skeptical, too. Maybe I should just stop and refocus on the basics. I wondered if trying to reach my students in this way was really worth the time. Should I just forget trying to change the world one student, one classroom, at a time? My racing thoughts were interrupted when I heard a knock on my classroom door. I opened the door to find four 11-year-old boys asking to come in. Sure, I shrugged, why not.


“What’s up, guys?”

“Um, we were wondering if we could do Community Circle in here?”

“Well, I’m too busy right now to sit down with you.” I answered, thinking about the emails I needed to return and a pile of other projects I was working on.

“That’s ok, we just want to do it together, in here.”

“Sure, the talking stick is over there.”


I sat down to look at my computer screen, but I couldn’t help but notice that the boys were setting up four chairs in a mini circle and one of them had grabbed the sparkly fairy godmother wand I always used as the talking stick. It was a remnant of a former Halloween costume, a prop that I kept perched in my pencil holder.


Trying again to focus on my computer screen, I heard one of the boys ask a question of the others.

“So, how was your weekend?”


A Sense of Hope…

Suddenly the steam (the steam that had been spewing from my head) began to dissipate. Could this be true? Is this really,

really happening? Are these boys actually having a nice conversation and taking turns just listening to each other?

As I covertly listened in and the boys continued their circle discussion, I felt an enormous sense of hope. This “Community Fluff” stuff was definitely more, a lot more than fluff. This was indeed a way for my students to communicate and to connect. This was a way for my kiddos to feel heard. These four boys, who also happened to be smart, cool and athletic, were having a heartfelt, respectful conversation with one another. It dawned on me that as educators, we must give our kids the tools and the permission they need to have a meaningful conversation with each other. When do we actually take the time to show our students how to do that, how to listen from the heart? Heartfelt conversations rarely happen on the playground or on the sports field. They may not happen at the dinner table. As adults, we often talk AT our kids, but they do not learn from us HOW to speak with each other and about the power of just listening.These four boys needed a way to do that, and our circle gave them the skills and the courage to do so.


So, to the naysayers, and the skeptics like me, I say, Check.


Community Circle isn’t just fluff. It’s real and it is powerful.


Our guest post is by Kim Wells, a passionate educator and 6th-grade teacher at Harborview Elem in Corona del Mar, CA. Her principal, Dr. Todd Schmidt, recommended her to write a “from the field” piece for LeadUpNow and we are thankful she did! 

Four Tenants for Building a Coaching Culture

Four Tenants for Building a Coaching Culture


*All teachers deserve coaching

*Every teacher should have a growth plan and growth necessitates feedback

*The stronger a teacher becomes the more coaching they should receive

*Teacher leaders are the first to request coaching as they work to build the culture


A common concern that I hear from instructional coaches is the question of how to approach teachers who see no “need to” or “value from” working with a coach…… teachers who are “fine”. These staff members often view coaching as a supervisory activity or a support structure for new or struggling teachers. They may view themselves as equally (or better) skilled than the coach and believe that coaching is an activity involving an advanced professional (coach) working with someone less skilled.


A focus from school administrative and teacher leadership on these four tenants can create a vision and understanding of coaching that increases teacher openness and vulnerability to seek the rewards of coaching for themselves and their students.


All teachers deserve coaching


I have found this wording to be important. I originally repeated a statement I heard others use, “All teachers need coaching.”


Consider the difference in definition, ( )


Need – A condition or situation in which something must be supplied in order for a certain condition to be maintained or a desired state to be achieved.


Deserve-to merit, qualify for, or have a claim to because of actions, qualities, or circumstances


Everyone deserves a coach in order to have recognition for the complexity of the job and the celebration of successes (student learning) All teachers have had the experience of that magical learning moment with students happening, and no one was there to see it. It’s difficult to celebrate alone. While students appreciate the teachers “work” that led to their success, its often only another teacher who can appreciate the “work” the teacher executed.


Everyone deserves a coach because the task of generating success for EACH student is extremely complex and the collegial input and support of that goal is critical.


Every teacher should have a growth plan and growth necessitates feedback


I have written earlier that “there is no mountaintop” in teaching : there always remains a level of increasing student learning through teacher learning. ‘Creating a community of life- long learners” is a phrase found in many schools’ mission statements. Teachers need to be the critical models of that continuous learning. Implementing changes in the classroom that positively impact learners in a complicated process and ongoing feedback is critical.


Peer coaching allows the teacher to own and use the feedback as the teacher has decided and requested the desired feedback.


The stronger a teacher becomes, the more coaching they should receive.


Just as in sports and performing arts, the best get coached the most. The higher in ranking an athlete progresses, the lower the ratio of players to coach becomes. Top players have several coaches. Why? They perform at that complex a level. They require very narrow feedback at times.


Highly effective teachers may master changes more quickly and are ready for the next area of focus.


There is an extra bonus to the best receiving lots of coaching. The coach is learning. We want our most effective teachers’ practices being observed so that those observing can learn about the practices this teacher is implementing.

When the best teachers request coaching from their colleagues, they model the continuous growth culture as well as strong teaching practices. The peer coach need not be more skilled than the coachee. The coachee can direct the feedback they need. This creates more openness to learning than labeling the strong teachers’ classrooms as “models.


Teacher leaders are the first to request coaching as they work to build the culture.


Teacher leaders make themselves vulnerable before the culture of coaching (trust) has been built. The leaders’ early, public experiences with coaching encourage other staff to step forward and take the risk of being vulnerable with colleagues. I was just working with a school staff to encourage their initial entry into peer coaching. A trusting environment has not been very broadly established yet. A teacher leader agreed to assist me in modelling a pre- conference in front of the entire faculty. She revealed a concern about how her strong beliefs might over power the class debate she wanted to facilitate. When we finished the modeling, she looked out at the staff and said, “This is real. If anyone is available, I would love to have you do the observation I just discussed with Steve.” A great model.


Coaches and principals might use these four tenants to facilitate staff discussions design to examine their schools coaching culture.


For the past 30 years, Steve has served as an education consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. A prolific published author, his weekly blog, Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud, has evolved into a go-to resource for teachers and administrators all over the world. Today’s guest blog is also cross-posted at Steve’s aforementioned blog.


To hear more on Steve’s perspectives on building a culture of coaching check out his interview with @leadupteach here. 

Developing Teacher Leaders: A Transformative Process


Today’s students are far different than the students sitting in classrooms not even two generations ago. In response to the varying needs of today’s students, we have heard the call for differentiation in the classroom. This call is often answered by teachers whose own varying needs are not met by those tasked with leading adult learning. Though managerial leadership has been the norm of educational leadership in the past, the time has come to embrace transformative leadership—the type of leadership that differentiates for the needs of the adults in the building in order to develop leaders of learning. Why should school leaders embrace this style of leadership? Because school transformation is a highly collaborative process and as John King, U.S. Secretary of Education states: “We don’t just want educators to be a part of the necessary change – we need them to lead it.” How does this leadership differ from other styles of leadership? It focuses on coaxing teachers through three stages of leadership in the same way that nature coaxes the butterfly through the stages of metamorphosis.


Build Them Up By Identifying Everyday Strengths


In the caterpillar stage, the primary objective is to eat and grow. A transformative leader helps a teacher grow by recognizing his or her contributions to the learning environment. Knowing that a teacher may not recognize these contributions as leadership, a transformative leader helps teachers recognize their everyday roles as leaders of learning. Drew Dudley helps us all understand the value of what he calls “everyday leadership” in his TED Talk by that same name.  He states: “We’ve made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it. And if you change one person’s understanding of it, understanding of what they’re capable of, understanding of how much people care about them, understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you’ve changed the whole thing.” A great tool for helping teachers recognize their everyday strengths is the article “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” which will help teachers recognize that their current contributions are indeed leadership.


Push Them to Grow Through Sheltered Opportunities


Though the chrysalis stage appears to be a restful one for the caterpillar, it is anything but restful. In fact, this is the stage that is the most challenging for the caterpillar as its body literally transforms. A transformative leader recognizes when a teacher is ready to develop additional leadership skills and is willing to push the teacher to do so. This type of push may come in the form of asking a teacher to teach a new grade level after several years of success in a different grade level; asking a teacher to lead professional learning for his colleagues; or asking a teacher to chair a curriculum committee. Regardless of the look of the push, it will certainly take the teacher out of her comfort zone. We must end the practice of moving skilled teachers from the classroom and into the front office and calling that “teacher leadership.” Teacher Leadership was a topic of focus during the Fall 2014 ASCD Whole Child Symposium. In its report on the symposium, ASCD states: “Now more than ever, skilled classroom educators must hone their craft, mentor others, and grow professionally—while keeping one foot firmly inside the classroom.” A transformative leader recognizes her role in growing teacher leadership through the appropriate amount of push married with essential support and coaching.


Let Them Fly


Following metamorphosis, the caterpillar emerges as a butterfly but is not immediately ready to fly. Its wings are small and wet and its flight muscles are not quite prepared. So it is with teacher leaders. Following the transformative experiences set in motion by an effective leader, a teacher leader emerges but is often unsure of her ability to fly. She may still come to her school leader and ask questions such as “How would you address this issue?” A wise school leader would encourage the teacher leader to exercise those flight muscles by pushing back on the question with a question of his own: “I’m curious. How would you address this issue?” Feeling the support and encouragement of her leader, the teacher leader tentatively takes flight. With time, she recognizes the impact her leadership is having, seeks out additional opportunities to lead, and becomes an integral part of the school transformation culture.



Marci Houseman has served students in a variety of education roles and currently is the improvement coach with Education Direction. Additionally, Marci is also a wife and mom of 4 kids! 

Students Today – Leaders Tomorrow

I want you to visualize something.  Close your eyes and imagine a classroom………..


Scenario #1: All the students are sitting at desks in rows looking at the back of each other’s heads. The teacher is in the traditional spot at the front of the room. There is a Power Point on the board and instruction is being provided in lecture style format. The predominant voice is the instructor’s. The students dutifully sit at their desks and take notes because they know how to “play the game of school”.  There is minimal movement and even less conversation.


Scenario #2: The desks are arranged in “pods” or groups of 4-6. The teacher is nowhere to be found at first glance. One must look closely to find her/him walking around or sitting with the various groups of students. The predominant voices are those of the students talking and learning with each other.  It is an extremely active environment with multiple conversations happening at once.


Which classroom is developing and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders?  


What is a leader?


My definition of a leader is someone who is a listener, a thinker, an inquirer, a risk-taker, resilient, and imagines what could be possible while empowering and inspiring others.


As educators, how are we creating tomorrow’s leaders in today’s classrooms?  Which character traits do we encourage and celebrate?  Do all students believe they can be leaders? Do you tell your thinkers, listeners and seemingly “quiet” students they are leaders?


As educators, we need to break the traditional definition of what a leader is thought to be.


  • Male or female?
  • Adult or child?
  • Introvert or extrovert?
  • Speaker or listener?  


When you hear the word leader, what image or name immediately pops into your head? How is that belief transferred to your students?


As I thought about this, I decided to reach out to fellow PLN members and some of my students for their thoughts. The responses I received were inspiring, thoughtful and empowering.


  • Someone who never gives up and is responsible for their actions. They are a true role model to people and make people want to listen to them because they make such a good impact on people’s lives.”  8th grade student


  • A leader is someone who influences a group of people to do a good or even maybe a bad thing.8th grade student


  • Someone who people look up to, and sets a good example for others.8th grade student


  • “Influenced. Makes leadership attainable, not positional.” @heffrey


  • “ Student leaders are collaborative, curious, independent, and confident.” @JayBilly2


  • “A leader empowers others to individually and collectively rise to their fullest potential.” @burgessdave


  • “They never stop learning, inspiring, supporting, questioning, they lead by example and they empower others.” @itsmeSpiri


  • “A leader is grounded in knowledge, curiosity, and open-minded flexibility to continuously ask and ponder questions leading us all on a never-ending quest toward PATHWAYS OF POSSIBILITIES.” @DrMaryHoward


  • “Leaders find, foster and flourish the gifts in others, so they may go and illuminate the world.” @LaVonnaRoth


  • “A leader is someone who doesn’t need a title, who honors where people are in their own growth, and who scaffolds appropriately.”  @bethhill2829


  • “A leader is someone who inspires action through their vision and uplifts others around them.” @AmyHeavin


  • “We are all leaders in one way or another, we can either use our leadership potential or not.”  @drneilgupta


How do we provide scaffolds in fostering student leadership? How do we nurture the above mentioned traits?


I believe it begins in a student centered classroom.


Student Centered Classrooms


Student centered classrooms may have multiple descriptions. Students need to learn more than the content and curriculum. They need to learn how to interact with others in a collaborative environment.


Is your environment and/or instruction reflected in the following descriptions?


Ownership of  the Learning Environment


It is our classroom. The priority is creating a safe, secure, comfortable space. (Need a pencil? They go in my drawers and locate one.) . I change my furniture based on my lessons or student requests. (Studying Anne Frank? Create the Secret Annex.)


Teachers and Learners


Everyone is a teacher and learner.  I am more than willing to take a seat in the class and learn from my students. Sometimes planned, but often times not. (Examples to share? Why don’t you go up to the document camera and teach us. Students write catchy “hooks” in their essays? Teach a small group.)


Wall Space


I consider our walls “living”. They are covered with relevant, often student requested anchor charts and resources to support independent learning. (Need a resource for later? Take a picture.)  Student artwork is proudly displayed, particularly in the book corner, a favorite place to hang out, work or read. (Buying posters from the store is virtually unheard of now.)


Building Relationships


Some might find it odd, but I have few personal objects, photos, etc. Reason? It opens up discussions between my students and I. They have to engage in conversation with me and ask questions in order to get to know me. Building rapport and establishing relationships is everything!


Teaching Collaboration


Students need to learn how to problem solve, respectfully disagree and stand up for their beliefs.  This does not always happen naturally, in fact most of the time it needs to be taught. They need supported opportunities to role play and practice.


As @ShiftParadigm said: “In education, a classroom is either a place where all students learn well all of the time, or not. If you want the former to happen, then classroom and everything else must revolve around student learning.”


Final Thought
We are preparing students for life as citizens of a global community. They need to be problem solvers, risk takers, inquirers, collaborative, reflective and confident individuals. We can help build that foundation.  I challenge you to think about how you will provide the necessary skills and strategies for building tomorrow’s leaders…


Today’s guest blog is written byTeresa Gross, a passionate life long learner  and middle school literacy teacher in New York.


Shifting Leadership Paradigms

I believe the opportunity is before us to inspire a movement within our schools. We all have unique desires for our school campuses. From school culture to innovation, it’s our teachers who have the ability to cause a ripple effect of change. Consider what teacher leadership looks like at your school. Often times, it’s not defined. Some teachers have leadership roles, but they end up stifled by constraints, or a top down approach. Other teachers develop as leaders by pioneering, sharing successes and failures, leveraging the strengths of individuals around them, and motivating colleagues in their district.


Traditional hierarchal structures may send a message that teachers are to be compliant and wait for instruction before proceeding,Shifting Teacher Leadership however, The Teacher Leader Model Standards “imagine school cultures in which teacher leaders and administrators have reciprocal relationships, supporting one another’s work and sharing responsibility for outcomes.” As we consider the vision for our respective schools, how can we ensure that we are headed in that direction? How do we excite our teachers and get them charged up to imagine possibilities, and empower them to turn those possibilities into a reality? Teachers are the key to creating significant momentum of change within schools, and empowering them through leadership opportunities is critical.


Why Teachers Leaders?

In this era of education, teaching has become more complex. With an increase in available edtech to enhance learning, designing relevant yet rigorous learning opportunities, and expectations to personalize learning, teachers are seeking a new way to balance the demands. What teaching really requires today, is leadership. Leadership puts us in control of how we collaborate toward specific targets and scaffold learning with intention.


The advantage is that teachers have the opportunity to connect daily with colleagues through authentic relationships on personal levels. They often share the same students and plan for what individuals need using collective input. Teachers hear from their colleagues first-hand about what the bona fide struggles and successes are. Due to developing a rapport with one another, they tend to be transparent, develop trust, and are able to reflect together on a deeper level. This nurtures professional growth and ultimately impacts student success. We need to seize the opportunity to develop our teachers as leaders in a genuine way that inspires them.


Teacher Voice Transcends Student Voice

There’s great value in amplifying student voice to co-design learning. The question is, how does the students’ voice make its way into conversations within committees where decisions about what’s best for students are taking place? When teacher voice is empowered it transcends student voice. Teachers are direct advocates for students. It’s our teachers who are connecting what’s taking place within the classroom and providing committees with valuable student input to connect all pieces of the puzzle.


Empowering Teachers

Every educator has unique strengths that can be leveraged. Consider who the influencers are within your school. Who will take risks without fear of failure? Who takes the time to check in and connect with colleagues about topics that are both school and non-school related? If we want to see the most growth in our schools, our building and district leaders need to intentionally work in a collaborative manner with teachers, foster authentic relationships and provide ownership to them as leaders.


Contemplate how impactful teachers could be as leaders in your school. Teacher leaders listen to and are cognizant of students’ and colleagues’ needs. They assess how they can best engage in reflective conversations to support the development of others. When the objective of teacher leaders is to empower others by adding value to colleagues, and helping them to identify their individual strengths in order to view themselves as a leader as well, we all become more impactful. By restructuring traditional protocols, we can provide opportunities for autonomy which leads to increased integrity.


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Risk Taking and Innovation

Today’s leaders are expected to communicate with clarity, collaborate and share best practices, continually pursue professional development, and be forward thinkers. Teacher leaders model and promote risk taking, and are eager to share failures for others to learn from. If we want to ignite innovation in our schools, we need to champion both teachers and students as risk takers.


While teachers have the ability to lead without seeking permission, some still look for approval. Principals inspire a culture of innovation by empowering teachers as they listen to them with intent, provide collaboration time as well as ongoing support, and work alongside teachers in an encouraging manner that’s non-evaluative. Collaboration time within a culture of yes, where teachers have autonomy is critical. New ideas develop due to the synergy amongst educators who are passionately working toward a shared vision. Teacher leaders empower their colleagues to be risk takers and this creates unsurpassable energy within a school.


Rethinking Leadership Pathways

Traditionally, teachers who are identified as leaders are encouraged to take the next steps to go into administration. While that may be the ideal path for some teacher leaders, it’s essential that we retain talent in the classroom by providing support as well as leadership opportunities for our teachers. We need to shift our culture to value the role of teacher leaders and the impact they are creating beyond their own classroom as they influence colleagues. Schools that intentionally utilize the expertise of teacher leaders rather than moving them into a new pathway are strengthening the foundation of their culture of excellence.


I envision vibrant schools filled with connected, driven teachers who join hands to overcome any barrier in the best interest of students. Teacher leaders have the ability to collaboratively cultivate this mindset within their school’s culture. What will be your role in making this happen? We all entered the field of education to make some kind of a difference. This is our time to step up and lead forward.


On both Twitter and Blab, #LeadUpTeach is driven to empower teachers as leaders and connect educators in all positions as we take part in this movement.