Not The Only Way: Authentic Vs. Compliant Learning

Not the Only Way: Authentic vs. Compliant Learning


“Authentic learning is not discovered in a textbook, but rather at the crossroads of contemporary societal issues and student passion.”– Aaron Duff


When I (Joshua) tell people that I am a middle school administrator, I usually get the same responses.

“God bless you!”

“I could never do that!”

Which eventually leads to,

“Have schools and students changed much?”


Often, after hearing this line of questioning, I wonder how it would be to be a middle school student now.  As a middle school student, I viewed my school as an irrelevant and inapplicable entity due to the extremely monotonous exercises, which lacked an explanation of real-world application. Each class was a carbon copy of the other and the classrooms, teachers, and students participated in similar traditional patterns and rituals. Students were observers of a dictated, fact-based instruction, which relied heavily on the use of teacher lectures, packets, and textbooks. The lessons were linear with a determined outcome. The experience proved compliance was the greatest quality for a student to possess for success.


My view of school was extremely jaded until I took a class on Shakespeare. I really don’t know the reasons why I took the course since, at that time, my reading material consisted of sports magazines and comic books. My teacher, Mr. Wasmund, had an amazing way of reading the material with passion, explaining the meaning behind the language used in the text, relating the stories to current events and creating a desire to read more. It was very apparent that Mr. Wasmund was motivated by the love for the material, the relationships built with his students and the grit shown by his students on a daily basis. The learning environment was about sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, debating confrontational topics, and performing the Shakespearean plays. For the first time, I wasn’t worried about my grade in a class. The growth of knowledge was natural. After experiencing a new way of teaching, hope began to grow in the knowledge that learning could be fun and voluntary.


Aaron Duff’s quote depicts the direct relationship of authentic learning through societal events and beliefs with student convictions, passions, and interest. If teachers can consistently establish the relevant purpose of each lesson, students will create connections between their skills, personal talents, and current issues.  The classroom is no longer a setting only to gain information. Instead, the learning environment is an opportunity to relate to real world problems, partnered with purposeful roles, current data sources and expanded audiences for immediate feedback.  


I (Jeff) have had the opportunity to spend the majority of my education career working with middle school students as a teacher and an administrator. Middle schoolers have no fear in sharing their honest opinion for good or bad about a class or teacher, call it – no filter. They never seem to mind pulling back the curtain and letting you know the teachers and content that they connect with the most. Middle school is a time when students are motivated by self-interest and as educators, rather than seeing that as a deficit, we have a tremendous opportunity to tap into the power of that potential to engage learning. Students in these middle years are passionate, curious, increasingly reflective, and are starting to question the world as they develop their own identity. This is a good thing. As Josh shared, relationships are the gateway to unlocking learning for kids today, now more than ever. Kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Period. Once teachers foster the relationship, they have the power to move students towards authenticity. Let me share a few additional ways we begin to move students on the path towards engagement. 


3 Ways To Encourage Authentic Engagement for Our Kids Starting Now…


Discover Rather than Cover

Often in education, we have covered a lot of material in the name of learning, throwing out curricular spitballs hoping something will stick. Great curriculum only becomes meaningful for students when the instruction engages them in the process. Using essential questions (Understanding By Design) is critical to keeping students grounded in the process of their own learning. Many educators may say they feel limited by the standards they must teach. I would suggest that we are only as limited as we are making for kids. It becomes a question of “how” you are going to teach a concept or skill that is most relevant.


One way to move students to personal engagement is through competition and gamification. For example, this past week I walked into a 6th-grade social studies classroom to witness latitude and longitude demonstrated in a friendly game of Battleship. This teacher could have used a worksheet and students would have been compliant, but instead, she met kids where they were at! They went home with a story and an experience that they will remember and ground their learning to apply to future situations.


Cross Curricular Connections

The learning becomes more authentic when it doesn’t “stand alone” for students. Our kids can easily compartmentalize content if we do not create connections or applications across broad subject areas. For example, I can remember a student saying, “ why are we talking about science in our history class? The greater question should be, “why are we not?” Our students are grounded in deeper learning when we create transference of an idea or skill across multiple contexts. Our goal should be for students to see concepts that move freely in and outside of one content area to the next. If you are not already doing this, consider how your team could move towards this alignment at least 1-2 times this school year. This could be a skill you want to strengthen such as writing across the curriculum or conceptual collaboration that all content areas can explore.


Learning Beyond the Threshold

We don’t have to struggle to create connections for our students. On any given day you can engage students by creating real-world connections through novelty and current events. We do not need to be afraid to integrate everything from fidgets to pop culture to societal struggles in our conversations with kids. They are looking to help us make sense of their world. We don’t have to act like the standards are separate and apart from kid’s experiences, because they are not. For example, are you using writing prompts that pull in current events or grappling with ethical questions that stir healthy discourse between your students?  In Denis Sheeran’s book, Instant Relevance, he further expands the practical ways to engage learners and I would encourage you to check it out!


Ultimately, students are hungry, eager, and deserve to move beyond “compliant” at worst and “comfortable” at best to embrace learning as their own. We have a captive audience every day in our schools for upwards of 8 or more hours, don’t waste a single minute. This year, let’s set a goal that we will not bore students with one more piece of seat work that is about ensuring we are keeping kids busy. Our learners need to connect their passions with meaningful experiences that translate into authentic engagement! Embrace the challenge and commit to never going back to just “ok.”


-Jeff and Josh


Joshua Stamper is currently the Assistant Principal at Renner Middle School in Plano, TX. For further reading by Joshua, check out his posts at or on Twitter @Joshua__Stamper.


Jeff Veal is the co-creator of #LeadUpChat and Additionally, Jeff is a husband, dad, speaker, learner, and a middle assistant principal at Reynolds Middle School in Prosper, TX. For more by Jeff, check out his other posts at or on Twitter @heffrey. 

Leaders Must Also Teach

Leaders Must Also Teach

I loved being a teacher.  When I was hired as a principal I was very worried that I would lose touch of what it was like to be a teacher.  I heard stories of administrators who had become disconnected from what really happens in the classroom, and I was determined that was not going to be me.  The first two years of being a principal I walked through classes as much as possible and got to know the kids.  I wanted to stay connected and by walking through classes and getting to know kids I felt a certain level of being connected but not as much as I wanted.  


Teachers would ask if I ever missed teaching and I would tell them I really did; I missed it a lot.  Toward the end of my second year I started thinking, why can’t I still teach?  I loved being a principal but truly missed being in front of kids.  Sure I was busy with principal stuff, but if I truly wanted to stay connected to the classroom, then the best way would be to find ways to still teach.  That is when I decided that I would substitute teach every class at my school for at least one hour.  I also decided I would teach a math class once a week.


So during last school year I subbed for at least one hour every single class at my school, transitional kindergarten through 5th grade.  It was amazing.  As a former middle school math teacher there was no way I could truly understand what it was like to teach kindergarten students without actually getting in front of them and teaching.


I learned many valuable lessons from teaching the classes.  These are just a few:


-Teaching classes shows others that you are willing to take risks

-Teaching shows students you care

-You gain a better appreciation for what teachers do on a daily basis

-You gain a better understanding of what teachers and students need which will help when decisions need to be made

-You can try some of the strategies that you have learned from observing other teachers


I am not sure if I will be able to sub in every class every year I am a principal.  This year I have given away time to teachers as prizes.  I also still teach 4th grade math once a week.  I have made a commitment to myself that as long as I am in education I will find a way to get in front of a class of students and teach them.


I know there are many other educators that feel the same way.  For example, Jennifer Kloczko, Principal of Natomas Star Charter, teaches Choir and Star in Motion.  Joe Wood, Tech Director for Natomas Charter, teaches after-school enrichment classes like Minecraft.  The Assistant Superintendent of Education Services of my school district, Jamey Schrey, taught art to kindergarteners last year at my school.  These are just a few examples, there are many more educational leaders teaching at schools.


It doesn’t matter what role you are in.  If you are in educational leadership, it is important to stay connected to the classroom.  Being connected doesn’t mean you just walk through classrooms.  The best way to truly stay connected is through actually teaching.  


It feels like a lot of decisions made for our classrooms are by lawmakers who have never taught, and there is a huge danger in that.  How can they know what schools need if they have never lived in a classroom?  How can these people truly know what impact they will have if they don’t know what it is like to be a teacher?  That is why I urge anyone making decisions for kids to find a way to teach kids.  It might not be weekly or even monthly, but find a way to get in front of kids and teach for at least an hour a few times a year.  What our teachers do on a daily basis is amazing.  As educational leaders it is our job to know and remember what it is like to be a teacher so we can make the best decisions for all of our children.


Our guest post is by Brandon Blom, a principal and lead dreamer of Stone Ridge Elementary in Roseville, CA. Brandon is also a husband and father. For more by Brandon, check out his blog at

Everyone Deserves a Thought Partner

In today’s educational landscape there are new pressures, unrelenting accountability, and polarizing scrutiny on our teachers, students, and administrators. Yet, the collective “we” are expected to implement, revise, and innovate.


While this may seem intimidating, we need trusted partners that can support, push, encourage, and reflect with us in order to cultivate this new frontier.  


We all deserve a Thought-Partner!


When I think back to becoming a Literacy Coach, I can remember worrying about so many parts of my new career. How do I develop my schedule? How do I get teachers to work with me? What can I do to stay current?


These questions were so crucial to my early success. However, there were two questions that I left out and, quite frankly, didn’t address until my 6th year as a Literacy Coach. Why am I in this role? And, what do I believe to be true of myself, education, and coaching? What came next is the most vital element to my life’s work and will forever be the blueprint to which I live by. It started with two words: Thought Partner.


Throughout my entire career, I’ve had talented people who’ve inspired me, fostered my growth, and pushed me to think and lead in ways that I wouldn’t dare dream of on my own. I thought about what having a coach meant for my development. Having a talented coach in my corner allowed me the space I needed to reflect in the most meaningful ways. I needed a partner that engaged me in dialogue as we explored the depths of teaching reading and writing. I relied on my coaches for support when I was pushing the boundaries of my craft. I was drawn to coaches that treated me as an equal and felt as though they were learning from me too. My craft was enhanced as a result of these partners and my current body of work is under the direct influence of these experiences.


As I think back on these most influential people, they all had one profound impact on my development. They allowed me to think and grow alongside them. They allowed me to be completely vulnerable, they allowed me to trust and be trusted, they gave me open and honest feedback, and most importantly, they provided time and space for me to think about the possibilities and opportunities of growing my craft.


Next, I was able to tease out the principles and values that made me feel successful when I was in a coaching/partnership relationship and begin developing my own Mission Statement. I turned to the resources from Jim Knight and those outlined by Elena Aguilar in The Art of Coaching. This basic template supported my thinking down a path of self-discovery and reflection that now guides my day-to-day reflections and growth.


I then began to expand my thinking around my belief and mantra of what having and being a Thought-Partner really means to me and my role as a coach. Here is what I came up with:


Partnership Learning Vision and Mission Statement


My core values are:

  • Equality: Coaches and teachers are equal partners
  • Choice: We should have choice regarding what and how we learn
  • Voice: Professional learning should empower and respect the voices of teachers
  • Dialogue: Professional learning should enable authentic dialogue
  • Reflection: Reflection is an integral part of professional learning
  • Praxis: We should apply new learning to our real-life practice as we are learning
  • Reciprocity: We should expect to learn alongside each other
  • Trust: Trust defines a partnership and creates space to chart new territories for growth
  • Compassion: Meeting people where they are requires compassion, an IC’s responsibility is to understand with compassion
  • Curiosity: Seek to discover what others see and understand that may be different from my own point of view

My definition of coaching is:

A coach partners with teachers for job-embedded professional learning that enhances teachers’ reflection on students, the curriculum, and pedagogy for the purpose of more effective decision making. (Toll, 2014, p. 10)


I partner with teachers because:

  • Everyone deserves someone that they can think with in order to grow their craft.
  • The collaboration between equals can increase learning outcomes for all stakeholders.
  • Coaching/Partnership Learning inspires people by helping them recognize the previously unseen possibilities that lay embedded in their existing circumstances



I partner with people to learn and explore the possibilities for reaching our fullest potential. I partner with teachers, students, and leaders to uncover the ways of learning and decision-making that reveal new territories for growth and development. I partner with people to support and think alongside them as they discover their own voice and comfort in this profession in order to transform teaching and learning for the benefit of all stakeholders. We all deserve someone to ‘think’ with in order to explore possibilities and develop new areas of our craft. We all deserve a Thought-Partner!


The connection to my vision and the principles that guide my way of being allow me to truly live out my WHY. So, this leaves me to time to consider ways to encourage others to develop their vision statement and supporting them in establishing their why. I keep a copy of my statement and principles, along with a few quotes I believe to be true of coaching, in my binder.  I refer to it often and share my beliefs with those around me. It keeps me focused, it keeps me grounded, it keeps me living out my work in the most meaningful ways possible.


As you develop your principles and vision, consider those who’ve partnered, coached, or mentored you either in or outside of our profession. What was it about the way that they interacted with you that supported your learning? How did these people challenge you to think differently about your craft? The people that influence us most have qualities and characteristics that we desire in a partner. It’s helpful to reflect on these elements as you craft your mission statement and core values.


So, how will you connect with your purpose and principles this year? Are you living out your WHY? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @bsepe7


Brian Sepe is a passionate instructional/literacy coach in Buffalo, NY. When not being an amazing “coach” he is husband and a dad to two great boys!

Is This Your Stop?

Today’s post is by Ben Dickson, a forward thinking educator who currently serves as Dean for a STEM Elementary School in Reno, NV. 

I hear that train a comin’ it’s rollin’ round the bend………… +

Less than 24 hours ago the Universe conspired to punch me in the gut. Now in the grand scheme of the all that is going on in the world this was a trivial event, a speck of dust on the Universe’s cosmic karma train, but it still hurt like hell none the less.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die….. +

Over the last couple of weeks I’d been working towards a goal that I saw as the culmination of a lot of effort, the highest point on this particular mountain. There may have been a bit of hubris on my part, as I figured I’d dotted every eye and crossed every T, played the game and now it was going to pay off. The “do A and then B will happen” was something I put a lot of faith in.

Based on my opening sentences you can guess where this is going…

Friday 5:04 pm email

“we regret to inform you ……”

Really??? REALLY??

I hear the train a comin’ it’s rollin’ round the bend and I ain’t see the sunshine since I don’t know when…..+

We all know that train. that one full of pity, anger, self-doubt, jealousy. It’s carrying a full load of negativity and has some empty seats.

all aboard!”

Wow, that’s not what I thought was going to happen. It was like that final paper you get back after going to class everyday, sitting in front taking notes, studying until 5 am…You wonder if they even read the paper or did you forget to answer something, did you accidently hit delete before you sent it? Was it the wrong file?

“Welcome Sir, take a seat next to Mr. Second Guessing.”

Really?? REALLY??

And now here we are at 4:03 in the morning and it’s time to get off the train.

“Next stop Now What Station?”

This is not the “Now what?” of “How am I going to eat or pay my rent?” (Perspective people…first world speck of dust on the cosmic karma train)

No this is the “now what?” that we ask our students when they fail. The “now what?” of asking what are you going to learn from this? The “now what” we sometimes see in the eyes of students or staff after we deliver some bad news.

So in lieu of any actual feedback around my particular speck of dust. I realize I need to turn inward and think about what I’m going to learn from this. We often talk about resiliency and the need to build it in our students but we also need to think of ourselves. How are we dealing with professional or personal setbacks? Are we switching trains or riding the same one all the time?

Are you you on a road to nowhere?

Are you riding a train to Heaven of Hell?

Are you in search of somewhere?

Or something that rings true? *

All aboard!

Robyn Jackson talks about the need to create Master Teachers in her book Never Underestimate Your Teachers and I believe the same concepts can be applied to leadership. How can I learn to be a Master Leader? How am I making conscious decisions about what staff and students need? How am I dividing responsibility and developing the unique talents of those I work with? To me it starts with some introspection. This event has provided me with the opportunity to take a hard look at my beliefs about leadership and how I put those into practice. To think more about my interactions with staff, students and families and look for opportunities to improve, look for those chances to move from a practicing leader to a master leader. I have my own philosophy around teaching, learning and leadership but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve and evolve. How am I constantly growing?

You can get a taste of the glory

By the ingestion of a simple truth*

I think about choices I’ve made, answers to life’s questions and not just those recent ones. Would I do things different? Would I change my answers? No, those answers and choices are at the core of my beliefs about not just  teaching and learning but about being a human: build relationships, support each person with what they need at that time and have a clear shared vision. But could my answers sometimes be better? Sure. Could I take time to seek other’s answers, of course

But here’s the thing. now it’s not about whose answers are right but how they are put into practice. Once we make statements or answer a certain way they are free in the universe for everyone to agree with, change, argue about and laugh at. for me the key is not the answers or the questions but how they play out everyday in my interactions with others. How am I putting those beliefs into practice? Where are the opportunities to learn and am I taking advantage? How am I helping others find their trains? How am I switching trains?

So for now my train is headed in another direction. I might keep looking back at that other one once in awhile, wondering what could have been,  but the important thing for me is to remember that I get to pick my stops,I get to decide which way I’m going and I’m the only one to decide which seat I take and when I look out the window I’m going to see a lot more mountains.

+Folsom Prison Blues-Johnny Cash

*It Could Be Sunshine-Love and Rockets

For further reading by Ben

A New Era: Teacher As Coach

Today’s post is by Elisabeth Bostwick, a passionate educator serving students daily in Horseheads, NY. 

charles darwin

When colleagues have entered my room, at first glance they thought I wasn’t there. I recall the bewildered look of one administrator that I worked for as he scanned the room thinking I had left it unattended. Typically one of the student leaders in my room will notice and point them in my direction. You see, as a coach I’m beside my learners as I question, reflect and provide feedback.

Conflicting Titles

While I view myself as a learning coach, my current title reads as “teacher.” I’m hard pressed to identify a “teacher” who fits the description below from the Merriam-Webster online Dictionary.

teacher noun: a person or thing that teaches something; especially : a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.

First Known Use: 14th century

Definition of TEACHER for Kids:  a person who passes on information or skill

I interpret this definition of teacher as someone who can stand, speak, demonstrate, and ta-dah! Learners will absorb the knowledge. We all know this isn’t the case. It’s crazy that we are using a term from the 14th century simply because it’s the way it has always been.  No longer are we a person who passes on information or a skill and we do not behold all knowledge.  In the 21st century our focus has shifted to facilitating student learning while coaching students in diverse ways and to support them to reach their full potential by empowering students to take ownership in their education. Learners need to be equip with the ability to collaborate, think critically, create and communicate.


The art of teaching has transformed over the years and while we recognize it, we tend to hold onto familiar and traditional terms that are no longer fitting.  In our schools, it’s critical that we facilitate learning as coaches who utilize formative assessment while providing a loop of feedback, assist learners in setting personal and team learning targets, contribute and are accessible to assist in reflection, and encourage learners to move beyond their comfort level of learning to support them to be future ready.

As we examine the graphic of the Teacher Continuum we can see the progression. Consider the term “coach.” When I hear the term coach I envision someone beside me who is encouraging and supporting my effort, analyzing and reflecting along with me on where I can improve, as well as noting what I’m doing well. This reminds me of Notre Dame’s head football coach, Brian Kelly’s coaching philosophy. As players make mistakes, he pulls them to the side to provide direct feedback without emotion so that the players remain confident in their abilities with a growth mindset to step back on the field to accomplish their goals. This is contrary to how many football coaches approach their player’s mistakes.

We need to be cognizant as educators of our own demeanor so that students can maintain confidence and develop a growth mindset. The feedback loop is critical as it allows learners to grow uniquely based on their specific needs and continuously refine. I’ve found value in making sure that my facilitation of learning is diverse to meet the needs of all learners through thoughtfully planned mini-lessons and small groups, since there’s no approach that is one size fits all. We need to maintain the role of coach at all times while remaining mindful of student learning needs and focus on visible student engagement in their learning.

Student Leadership 

In my classroom we take a proactive approach to learning in order for me to successfully facilitate as a coach. From day one, learners are identified as leaders.  As coaches we need to set the stage for learners to grow into leadership roles. This provides the opportunity for “teachers” to transition to being a coach and lessen the amount of teacher driven instruction.

I’m able to be a coach since learners are empowered as leaders in our learning space with shared responsibility.  For example, if learners have questions, they ask one another and are allowed to move around the room to seek others’ ideas. Learners are also responsible to keep one another on task. This is modeled, practiced and feedback is provided in order for fluid interactions and transitions. As the year progresses, students begin to take further ownership by taking initiative to ensure that their time is used productively.

Community and Structures

Providing structures within a supportive community promotes students to develop into risk takers and therefore confident to lead their peers. Our community is fostered early on and then enhanced all year. Incorporating the Habits of Mind and The 7 Habits of Happy Kids structures cultivates a community where learning can be synergistic.

Teacher as coach and student leadership go hand-in-hand to cultivate an authentic community environment where learners take ownership over their choices, learning, and develop the ability to lead their peers with empathy. In our learning space students are cognitively engaged in exploring, researching, and learning, and also developing skills to be independent, critical thinkers.


Each of us has the ability to shift and improve the way we currently “teach” or coach. As pioneers in education we need to anticipate change because nothing stays the same. As the future continues to evolve we must think on our feet, be flexible, and prepared to adjust. By stepping into the role as coach our understanding of the learner grows to new heights. We can then further retool instructional strategy and refine student learning targets to meet the needs of each individual. Automatically my mind shifts to seeking, “then what?” There will always be a next step as we pioneer forward. I’ve shifted from teacher, to facilitator, to coach. As societal needs change and new careers evolve within our economy, it’s exciting to ponder the thoughts of my next role in the classroom to support students in their journey of college and career readiness.


I dedicate this post to my closest thought partner, Michael Bostwick (@m_bostwick), who takes the time to edit and provide insight.

For more great insights by Elisabeth