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The Secret to Success

I have high hopes that the title of this blog intrigued you enough to have you click on the post and read it. I hate to do this, but I need to confess something right now. If you decided to read this because you thought I might actually offer some philosophical wisdom that would blow your mind, you need to know this is not that blog. There really isn’t some magical secret to success. In fact, what I have to offer here is incredibly simple in logic, but challenging for so many to execute.

Success isn’t about personality, popularity, or your ability to “play the game.” It has nothing to do with being most liked, admired, or even dressing the part. It’s my opinion that too many folks have the wrong perception of leadership, attaching things like charisma, charm, and the ability to schmooze with the right folks to it. Leadership is not an act. It is who you are, what you believe and stand for, how you behave and treat others, and what you are not willing to accept. It’s about having a standard of expectation for yourself, no matter who your boss is, where you work, or what you do. It starts and ends with you.

Highly successful leaders get the simple things right and they do so consistently. Here’s my list of things that I believe make the biggest difference in how we succeed in anything we do, personally or professionally:

1. Work hard. Take pride in what you do because it is a reflection of you, your character, and your values. Be diligent, conscientious, and proactive. Most of all be consistent in your performance. Excellence isn’t a sometime thing.

2. Deliver high quality work. Never confuse getting something done with doing something well. Speed is not a factor in success unless you are on a track running a race in which you must sprint. In leadership, delivering quality work is far more important than showing that you can do something quickly. Every time you produce something, assess it for quality. Make sure the quality meets the standard of excellence that you want associated with your professional reputation.

3. Be consistent. When you work hard and deliver high quality work over and over again, you cement an expectation from others that you can be trusted to not only do the work, but to do it well. That’s what sets some people apart from others. While some individuals treat their work like a list of tasks to check off, others see quality as much more important than compliance. Doing it well, whatever it is, matters more to them than getting it done, and because of that they work to do their very best on a consistent basis.

4. Go above and beyond what is expected of you. Successful people don’t obsess over the minimum requirements for anything. They live their lives in a way that exceeding the baseline is their standard. They live and work above average, going beyond what is required of them because they value doing their best. Let be me clear. They do not benchmark their performance against others. They are only in competition with themselves. Their goal is to draw out the very best of themselves. Their only competition is the person looking back at them in the mirror!

5. They are positive. I’ve yet to meet a successful leader who complains about everything, or can turn a joyous occasion into a miserable one with negative energy and commentary. They understand that optimism is a key to being successful. They seek out joy and find the bright side even in a challenging situations. This isn’t because they are into toxic positivity. It’s because they know and understand that negativity-in attitude, mindset, energy, or behavior, has never resulted in something great and powerful happening for an organization. Grouchy and grumpy people don’t make anything better or anyone feel better. It’s really that simple.

So that’s it. That’s the secret in my opinion. As simple as those things sound, they are incredibly challenging to execute on a consistent basis. My challenge to you, and me, is to show up and nail 1-5 every day. If we can do that, success will meet us at the top of our potential! I’ll see you there!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Just Keep Teaching!

Every year as a principal, I’d find myself emphasizing at this time of year one very important thing to staff: Don’t stop teaching. Maintain the structure and routine in your classroom. Children thrive when the instructional day remains consistent. In my annual reminder email I’d write something to this effect: “Dark rooms and movies, along with unstructured activities can lead to issues with discipline and detract from an opportunity to provide our students with high quality learning experiences until the very end.” And then, I’d walk the halls and visit the classrooms because that’s how important it was to me that instruction continued for our students. They had too much they needed to learn for us to waste a minute not giving them what they needed.

Now-don’t get me wrong. We held the annual field day, awards day program, and those other end of year events. However, we had a collective agreement that the ending of state testing did not signify the ending of instruction or learning. Learning for our students had no finish line.

The end of the school year, or anytime you have available for that matter, is a great time to capitalize on the opportunity to extend learning for those who have demonstrated mastery in a particular area, provide intervention and support for those who still demonstrate academic deficits, and position students to be as ready as possible for their next step in their academic journey.

I worry that the heavy emphasis on state testing being over-sends a signal to our students and perhaps to some educators, that the bell has rung on the instructional experiences we provide. Learning is a continuous process that has no ending. Let’s model that for our students whether testing had ended or not, because if we keep teaching they will keep learning!

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Connections and Common Ground: Moving Ahead With Purpose In A Divided World

Bridges are important to our world. They are often used as a way to allow people to travel from one place to another, to connect two geographic areas, especially when there is no natural path for that connection. Our bridges and roads are so important that they often make up a good portion of the work of state and federal legislatures, making sure their upkeep is maintained so that we are safe as citizens when we choose to drive our vehicles across them. They are often accompanied by warning signs, (Bridge ices before road. Weight limit: 2 tons.) and in spite of these safety precautions, the world’s transportation system would not be functional without the use of bridges. They are a critical part of our infrastructure.

Like the physical bridges in our world, we need people who can serve as bridge builders. The current climate of society pushes us constantly to choose a side, and treats the most complex issues as an either/or rather than a both/and. As I reflect on our society’s history and some of the most controversial issues of our time, I recognize the role of bridge builders in moving society forward. Voting Rights, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and desegregation would not have happened had there not been individuals who felt compelled to build a bridge between people who –thought-they were divided. I am convinced that to move forward in our state, and our country, we need more bridge builders.

Bridge builders help people find what we know we all have: common ground. We were each born, and we will each die. We all smile when we are happy, and we cry when we find ourselves sad. Caged between our ribs is our hearts, and water falls from our eyes when our souls are moved. When we work to find common ground before we work to find where we disagree, we can work together to better our organizations, our society, and more importantly ourselves. Our approach in challenging times is what moves us forward or keeps us stagnant. If we hope to move beyond a society where finding where we are oppositional leads our language, our love, and our lives, we need to adopt a perspective that focuses on finding common ground with others and nourishing our connections with other people as human beings.

If we’ve learned anything from the global pandemic, we know for certain that human beings need each other to thrive. We aren’t wired to be isolated from one another. We NEED connection. Our connections with each other have the power to make us better people who can love, live, and work together in productive ways, and we get to decide who it is we are willing to build connection with; That’s the power of the human condition. It is possible to connect with anyone, we just don’t always choose to do so.

And while I recognize that this is not new information, it certainly appears to be difficult for us to implement. In an age of social media “followers” and “friends,” bandwagon like appeal seems prevalent and our feeds are often echo chambers of people who think, look, love, and believe just like us. This makes it easy to get swept up into an us vs. them mentality, and when scrolling to pass the time becomes habitual, we may subconsciously find ourselves feeding our minds confirmation, rather than learning ways we can connect with others who are not just like us.

So if we are going to make it past this era of divisiveness, we are going to all need to be mindful of our work with others. Are you building bridges or fences in your conversations and interactions, whether they be public or private? Are you finding connections with others or oppositions? Are your words and actions helping to build the social infrastructure of our society, like the bridges in our world? Or are the things you do and say, online and in person, fueling divide and shining a light on differences?

I am convinced, because history tells us so, that there will be some special people who build the bridges we need to move forward. And those are the people who will be remembered in ways that add love and light to the world. I want to be one of those people, whose heart is full of love, that is demonstrated unconditionally, no matter what, because love has no side.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Let’s Talk About Who’s Staying

Seems I read a headline daily about the surging teacher shortage, and stories abound of educators who are exiting the profession at all levels. I’ve always believed that people should follow their heart’s desire and nothing is more miserable than doing something that you do not desire to do any longer. I’m thankful for every educator who chose this noble profession, those who are leaving or have already left, and those of us who are choosing to stay.

This era of public education reminds me of two distinct periods during my career. I started teaching in the late 90’s. Openings were everywhere. I came home for Spring break as a senior in college and went back to school with a job secured. State standards were the hot topic, and hobby teaching was said to be no more. Technology was about to disrupt the way we communicated because email was going to change the way we worked and help us all be more efficient.

Fast forward to 2011, and in South Carolina our new State Superintendent, was Mick Zais (who went on to be Deputy Secretary of Education under Betsy Devos). Those years with Zais at the helm in South Carolina were difficult and challenging for public education. Schools and districts were rated with letter grades A-F, funding was pushed toward a massive school choice movement, and many did not think we’d survive his tenure, or No Child Left Behind, but we did.

And here we are now in 2022. Public education has endured a global pandemic, challenges to broadband access, increased mental health needs of all stakeholders, educators included, and a complete disruption to the way we live, work, play, and learn when it comes to technology. Add to it the polarizing debates of our time including CRT, book banning, and vaccinations, and you get what we have today: messiness. I completely get why some folks are choosing to walk away from the field. It’s hard. It’s stressful. It is more challenging than it’s ever been before. I understand. I really do, and I’m not judging anyone for doing what they feel is right for them.

But I can’t leave. My soul won’t let me. For me, the right thing is to stay, and to keep fighting for what I know is an essential cornerstone of democracy: public education. I might be wrong, but I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that we’ll survive this era too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks return because passion doesn’t lie and it doesn’t die. It may flicker, but that flame is always there.

The way I see, now more than ever, I have a chance to make a difference in the field that I love so much. My goal is to do just that in my work, my words, and with all I have the opportunity to interact with in this field. The time to make a difference isn’t when things are easy, but when they are hard, and that’s why I’m choosing to stay. I want to see what happens if I don’t give up and I know that our children need strong, positive, effective, and resilient educators, and I want to be one of them.

Before anyone accuses me of toxic positivity, allow me to make it clear: this work is hard. Everyday is not sunshine and rainbows. Some days are very stressful and some problems are taxing and challenging. I would never deny that. I’ve lived it as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. It’s not easy, and I’d never make any attempt to say otherwise.

Even so, I am staying. It’s MY civic duty. I owe the change in my life’s trajectory to public education. Growing up in poverty in a single parent household and in a housing project, I know first hand the power and influence of a good public education. My life is a living testimony to what a great public education can do and how it can change the future for generations to come with a single quality experience for one student. Thank God that my teachers stayed and didn’t give up on me or the field. I’m sure they had challenging times too. Without my education, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so my commitment is simply a return on investment.

For those who are leaving or have already left, thank you! Thank you for sharing your minds and hearts with our children, and making a difference where you were and with the children you served. You are truly appreciated, and I feel sure after 23 years in this field that you’ll see a return on your investment when the children whose lives you’ve touched are successful, productive, and contributing citizens of our society. I hope you’ll find a way to continue to support this great and noble profession. We are going to need your support and encouragement!

To those of us who are choosing to stay, I see you! Let’s stick together and do the work that we know makes a difference. No matter what happens in the future, let’s not forget that. I’ll see y’all on the battlefield. We’ve got work to do!

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: There’s A Message In The Mess.

I couldn’t bear to watch the confirmation hearings for Judge Jackson in their entirety. I wanted to, but my heart was troubled by each instance I saw of how she was treated, spoken to, and disrespected. Each day of the hearing, I’d try to watch some of the highlights and read a few articles about the day’s events to see what had transpired. I told myself that less was better to protect my mental and heart health. I needed to know what was happening but I didn’t have to know every detail. But the day that Senator Corey Booker spoke everything changed.

I called my Momma on my way home from work. We were having our usual small talk and mid week check-in conversation when she asked me if I had been keeping up with the hearing. I replied, “Somewhat. It’s just so hard to watch. I don’t know if I can take it.” That’s when Momma corrected me in a way that only she can do. She simply said, “If she can sit there and take it, we can watch it.” That hit me squarely in the heart and the gut. Momma was right. My secondary hurt was nothing compared to what Judge Jackson was enduring. From absolutely illogical and ridiculous questioning to stir the pot of divide to a complete disregard of her credentials and achievements, she was steadfast and unwavering. She responded with dignity, class, and the undeniable intellect that can never be taken away or denied, no matter how she’s treated. I was so moved and so proud of seeing someone who looks like me in that seat, and I especially loved what she said she tells young people: Persevere.

Her experience was a reminder to me, and I’m sure to many others as well. It reminded me that being first and breaking down centuries of denied opportunities is for specially chosen people. I believe that God carefully selects some of us to be publicly brave for a reason. It’s because while our accomplishments may be a part of our purpose, our purpose is so much greater than our accomplishments. What Judge Jackson has endured will pave the way a little smoother for the next candidate of color for the United States Supreme Court. How we treat each other should not rests on any affiliation other than the fact that we all belong to the human race. In the grand scheme of things, we don’t need any other knowledge of anyone to know how to treat and interact with them. Humanity is our shared experience, and that ought to be enough.

When the world feels messy, our purpose must remain clear. That’s the only way one can remain as steadfast Judge Jackson did throughout the hearing. Watching the hearings reminded me that we must not be moved by the evils of this world or some of the people in it. It is our duty to be led by our purpose, regardless of what we experience, and to remain steadfast in that sense we have that God has an intentional reason for our assignment here on earth. When we trust and focus on that, especially when we are exhausted by the actions of others who want to deny our achievements, overlook our accomplishments, and keep us in a position of inferiority, we can do what Judge Jackson said: persevere.

Momma made me realize that while I found much of the hearing to be a collective grieving experience for Black women, there was also collective joy, and the bad should never overshadow the good. I am so inspired by Judge Jackson and I know without a doubt that millions of us were watching her with the same sparkle in our eyes as her daughter in that now infamous photo taken during the hearing. We are proud. We are inspired, and we are hopeful.

Thank you Momma, and Thank you Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Make Up Your Own Mind

There’s power in a made up mind. My Momma was sure to emphasize to us as young children that we were to think for ourselves. Momma used to tell us all the time, “You’ve got your own mind. Think for yourself.” She wanted to emphasize to us that our decisions ultimately should rest on what we believed in our hearts and minds, and encourage us to not to “go along to get along” or do or say what everybody else was doing and saying just because it seemed popular. As Momma would simply put it, “You ain’t everybody else, and I ain’t everybody else’s Momma. I’m yours.”

I didn’t quite understand that sentiment until I was much older, and even now it becomes more and more clear to me exactly what she was trying to communicate. I’ve interacted with countless folks who are victims to peer pressure, children and adults alike, making choices and adopting mindsets that belong to somebody else, so much so that when pressed with the question of why they believe what they say they believe or think what they say they think, they can’t articulate it. Momma’s rearing and words have given me a sense of security that I don’t think I could have ever developed on my own. I don’t mind being the odd man out or being thought of as different. I’m fact, I find it incredibly freeing to not be the victim of other people’s expectations, beliefs, and ideas of who it is I should be. It isn’t always easy to operate like this, but it’s far easier than the alternative-being someone I am not.

Mommas words, “You’ve got your own mind. Think for yourself,” have helped me to not succumb to the societal pressures of life or to make any attempt to be who others think I should be when their ideas are contrary to my own. Instead, I’ve been focused on being who I am, as authentically as I can, and continue to focus on this as life progresses. I’ve watched many of my adult friends fall victim to worrying about what others might think and making decisions in response to that false limitation rather than their real life. I see how much the need to belong can get conflated with wanting to fit in when people aren’t clear about who they are and what they believe. I’ve watched people try to feel internal gaping holes in their heart and soul with surface level friendships and doing things they really don’t want to do but feel like they need to do. I’ve watched people battle between public personas and private desires, living a life that they believe to be approved by others although they find themselves unhappy more times than not. Seems age does not make one immune to the peer pressures of life after all, despite often being articulated as teenage problem. Thinking for one’s self is a necessary prerequisite for living as one’s authentic self.

I didn’t always value Momma’s teachings as I was growing up, and I often wondered why she found it necessary to say the same things over and over and over again. I get it now. She wanted to make sure we heard it, processed it, and gathered meaning from it. There were so many times I am sure she found herself uncertain as to whether or not I was listening, but clearly, I took it all in, and am so grateful that I did.

In this season of my life, I am focused on living more authentically each and every day, aligning all that I say and do, with my heart and mind. I want to be sure that my thoughts are my own and my decisions are not driven by what others might think, but by MY purpose, even if others do not understand it. No matter what I experience, whether it be rejection. criticism, or affirmation, I hope I always remember what Momma said, “You’ve got your own mind. Think for yourself. You ain’t everybody else,” and my goal is to live, work, and love accordingly! I got my mind made up because that’s where the power is!

Y’all be easy!

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Be Ready When Your Name Is Called

Growing up in Black southern Baptist church comes with a lot of traditions. In August, we have revival, also known as “August Meeting.” From one Sunday to the next Sunday, guest preachers offer a nightly sermon and gospel choirs from all around sing and bring the house down with their talented members. After any service, the parking lot is where you can find people chatting it up, kids running around playing, but being told not to scuff their Sunday shoes, and hear reactions to the sermon. If it’s one of those Sundays, folks might be making their way to the fellowship hall or the basement to eat Sunday lunch. But on Easter Sunday, things are just a little bit different.

Easter Sunday was when Momma got us a new dress and new shoes. It’s when everyone wore their very best to church, kind of like dressing up for Jesus. It’s also when every kid had an Easter speech memorized and went to the front of the church to recite it. We’d practice for a week reciting our Easter speech which had been given to us by the person who worked with the youth. As you got older, the speech got longer, but there was one rule back then: No reading from the paper. You had to memorize it, and even if you missed a word or two people would give you a “mighty hand clap” and a few good Amens. Walking in to church on Easter morning was a bit stressful, so it was good to be dressed up in your new digs. You never knew the order of the program so as Momma would say, “Pay attention and be ready when your name is called.”

That lesson-“Pay attention and be ready when your name is called,” has stuck with me. Despite our efforts to try to predict life’s events and the order in which we think they should occur, we can’t. We don’t know when the next opportunity is coming, and that’s ok. Our job isn’t to have some exact linear progression of what we do in life from one step to the next, and for those of us who have a need to feel like we’re in control of something, this can be difficult. Our job is simple. No matter what is going on around us, we all better be ready when our name is called.

I’m sure many people reading this might think I’m referencing professional opportunities, but the truth is I’m referencing any opportunity. An opportunity to speak the truth, to offer a perspective to someone that they may not have otherwise, to make a difference, right a wrong, extend mercy, offer grace, or promote justice-whatever it is, it’s important we do what Momma would tell us every Easter Sunday-“Pay attention and be ready when your name is called.”

I can’t predict what life holds for my future, and neither can anyone else. I don’t know what the next minute will look like, let alone the next day, month, or year, but in this season of life, I’ve got a strong feeling that I need to take Momma’s directions seriously. My goal isn’t to try and predict what might happen. No matter what I encounter, I have just one job: Pay attention and be ready when my name is called, because that’s how I can make sure I fulfill my life’s purpose.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Laughter Is As Good As Crying!

When I was a junior in high school, my French teacher called Momma. While I had hoped she would share the news of my good grades, that wasn’t the case. She wanted to let Momma know I’d taken on the role of Class Clown, giving an extra effort to make sure my classmates had humor in their lives. Momma didn’t take to well to that, and she certainly didn’t find it funny. Momma’s reaction to my misbehavior terrified Ms. Fields. I believe my teacher was afraid for my life after disclosing the news to my Momma, who she knew well, having taught both of my older sisters. So much so, that she tried telling Momma that I wasn’t the only one acting up in class. It’s just too bad Momma wasn’t their Momma too, or they too, would have been subject to the discipline I received. It was simple: “Stop. If I get another phone call, you are off the basketball team.” Momma didn’t believe in the three strikes rule. She always said, “it only takes one time to do anything right.” That second call never came, and I got a certificate from Mrs.Fields for good behavior at the end of the semester; a sort of thank you for stopping the disruption of my class with your jokes and silliness.

Over the years, Momma has had to help me learn how and when to utilize my strongest skills and talents. Be a leader. Leaders aren’t bossy. Take pride in your work. Don’t put your name on anything that doesn’t represent your values. Do it right-not fast. Take your time. Don’t rush quality. Do your best. Don’t half do anything. Know when to say what. Timing is everything. Eventually, I learned how to use my humor for good and not disruption. In college, I used it to win a stand up comedy contest and won myself $200.00. I’ve always loved making people laugh, and thanks to Momma, I know that nobody finds disruption funny.

As I’ve matured and endured adulthood, laughter has become very important to me. It’s no different than making sure that I allow myself a good heart washing (cry) when l need one. It’s all about being tender enough to feel AND heal. I’ve used humor to break the tension in a room where everyone was clearly uncomfortable. There’s no greater joy than watching a frown become a smile, a burrowed brow relax, and tears fall from the eyes of someone who has a smile on their face. We all need a good dose of laughter and we need it routinely. Because everything doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be so serious all the time. I’ve yet to find that doom and gloom and grumpiness brings any joy to anyone’s heart.

But laughter can change a tone, open a heart, break the ice, and lower cortisol levels. It’s an important part of living life to the fullest extent possible. My conversations with Momma or my sisters are rarely without laughter. We always find a way to get a good laugh in, and I may or may not be the ring leader in cracking jokes. It’s not being funny that I enjoy; it’s making other people laugh that gives me great joy because I know it will give them the very same.

In a world where every social media feeds and news reel are often filled with all things serious, sad, and some downright scary, we need more laughter in our lives. We need to do the things and spend time with the people who put joy in our hearts. I’m convinced that allowing ourselves to feel joy plays a significant role in our ability to handle tough times, challenges, and move forward with resilience when we most need it. It’s how we stay hopeful and push ourselves to get through what we go through, because we know that joy is always on the other side of struggle.

In this phase of life, I’m not trying to avoid crying. I just want to laugh equally as much, because life is too short to not spend as much of it as possible with a smile on my face and joy in my heart!

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: You’re Worried About The Wrong Thing

One of the biggest battles I’ve fought in my life is worrying. As a young child I worried about many things. Sometimes I worried about having money for unexpected expenses, our car breaking down, and how Momma was going to make ends meet when something unforeseen happened. For years, even into adulthood, I was plagued with anxiety about car trouble. I don’t know this to be certain, but I’m convinced it’s from the many issues we experienced with car trouble as a child. When my two door fuchsia Saturn conked on me because I had a friend connect two ten inch Kicker speakers in a plexi glass box to my alternator so I could be one of the only girls on campus with a booming system in college, I cried. I remember calling Momma and crying profusely as if the problem couldn’t be solved. My car got towed to a mechanic, who put in a new alternator, and let me know not to hook up those speakers to my alternator for a power source or I’d be back at his garage again. Momma talked me through that one like she always did, and with age and experience, my trauma response to car trouble has subsided. It also helps to know that money is no longer a struggle.

I can remember my Momma saying then, and many other times in my life, “You’re worried about the wrong thing.” She was right. It wasn’t that she was minimizing my concern, but rather helping me to realize that worry attached to everything that makes you uncomfortable isn’t productive. In fact, it’s debilitating. Momma’s take was that when we worry about the wrong things and not the right ones, our efforts are focused on symptoms of a problem, but not the root issue. And like Momma says, no matter the problem, if you don’t focus on the root, it’s coming back.

I can’t help but think about how worried American policy makers seem to be about the wrong things in public education. Bills and other potential legislation are focused on censorship this season: banning books, what students are taught, and what teachers can say or do in their classrooms abound. People are giving real energy to this; folks are showing up at board meetings to express their concern over the bad books, CRT, and face masks. COVID isn’t the only pandemic we are facing. Public education is under attack and some folks are too blind to see what is happening right before their very eyes. Momma would say they’re worried about the wrong thing, and I’d have to agree.

This nation is facing a teacher shortage like never before in a time where our students need the best and brightest minds in our classrooms to lead them. Imagine if the focus was on elevating the profession, raising teacher salaries, fully funding the base student cost, and making sure we recognize the impact of poverty on student learning and then doing something about it? What if we were using this time as an opportunity to right the wrong this nation has done to the profession that I see as a cornerstone to our democracy-public education? How might we incentivize young people to choose teaching as a profession, and to stay in it because of the noble work it is, and because it is valued by the American public as it deserves to be?

Public education has been made a political pawn in the nation’s messiest argument of my lifetime, and a result, the children suffer, and the profession is under siege. I often remind folks, our children are watching. They are watching how the world treats its’ teachers, how people treat the profession and the leaders of it, and what being a member of the profession looks and feels like for those of us who are still choosing it. No matter what advocacy or recruitment tool we develop, there is none greater than what we put on display for our children everyday. In my mind, we are indeed worried about the wrong things.

Four years ago, I wrote a book that called for a reshaping of the public education narrative, for educators to take their rightful place in the policy reform and advocacy arena, and shared with the world how I fought back from feeling demoralized as an educator. Today, I believe in what I wrote even more than I did before. I remain committed to the profession I love, and intend to dedicate my entire professional life to public education. I do not underestimate its power to change this world and do so for the better, and I am forever grateful for how it changed my life’s trajectory. For all the divisive issues plaguing our profession, and for every person who asks me what I think about it all, I’m going to give them Momma’s classic response, “You’re worried about the wrong thing.”

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Check on Your Friends!

Attention: Please replace all your social media where you have posted this phrase: Check on Your Strong Friends!

As a child, I often experienced anxiety and frustration when doing my homework with Momma. This was especially true when Math proved to be a bit challenging for me. Often times in elementary school, Momma would offer an alternate way to solve the problem, different than the way my teacher had shown me, and make an attempt to teach me the same method she used. Immediately, I would launch into my routine response, “But that’s not how my teacher said to do it.” In spite of Momma’s working with me and emphasizing that it was safe to solve the problem in the way she had shown me, I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. In my 8-year-old mind, it was wrong, and I didn’t have the skills or the experience to work through what I was feeling. Momma did a lot of talking to get me through those moments. She wouldn’t let me lash out, and in other moments, when she suspected I was keeping something bottled up inside, she wouldn’t let me keep it in either. Momma’s way, one which I have grown to treasure, was to talk. We talked about the hard things and we talked through the harder ones. We didn’t avoid what was emotionally strenuous. We dealt with it head on and talked until we felt better. We still do.

What I appreciate the most about being raised this way is that I’ve been blessed enough to recognize when I need someone to talk to, and that my need is not a disservice to the love I have for Jesus in my heart or a symbol of me lacking faith. As my sister would say, “Everybody needs to lay on somebody’s couch and talk sometimes.” In my early 20’s I went to counseling. I found myself at a point where I couldn’t help myself work through the anxiety and depression I was experiencing. For three years, my counselor, Gus worked with me, listened to me, and helped me get back to a healthy mindset and healthy heart place. I am forever grateful for his support, and I am not ashamed to say I needed help. I am quite the opposite, and most thankful that I got the help when I needed it.

As I’ve worked my way through life, and on to adulthood, I’ve often had others tell me how strong I seem, that my personality is bold, and because of that it has sometimes been assumed that I am not tender. As I have moved into leadership roles, I’ve found this to be especially true for me, and countless other Black colleagues, who also are in leadership roles. Just as some people are given an automatic level of credibility, and assumed to be kind, we are often assumed to be just the opposite. Words like intimidating, bold, and forward come to mind. Our self-confidence is unexpected, and because of that, it is often interpreted as aggressive. As I’ve thought long and hard about the deaths of Chelsie Kryst and Ian Alexander, Jr., and watched other people’s commentary on their deaths, I’ve felt compelled to write this blog post. Both were described as pure sunshine, talented, and warm. It’s apparent that both touched the lives of so many people. My heart breaks for their Mothers, Fathers, family, and friends who knew and still love them. For those of us who are outsiders, I offer this sentiment: There is no such thing as strong friends.

We are all human, and because of that we are all weak (at some points and in some ways). The fallacy of “Check on your strong friends” creates an illusion that our work is in determining who is strong and who is weak. Let me be clear: This is a false narrative. Check on ALL of your friends. We do not know what people carry internally and, no matter how strong you think someone is, your perception isn’t what needs to be the measuring stick against someone else’s needs. Secondly, “Check on your strong friends,” is the epitome of passing judgement. Who are you (myself included) to declare anyone as strong? Does that mean everyone else who you don’t deem as strong is weak? And what does that even mean? If you care about someone, talk to them. Call them. Visit them. Connect with them. And most importantly, make it safe for them to talk to you-without your judgement or moral assessment of how they should be doing or what they need to do.

There are battles we all fight that are lodged between our rib cages and our hearts. Some we find the courage to speak aloud, while others we do not. The human condition is weak. Over time, and if we live long enough, our bodies deteriorate, our minds slow, and our hearts eventually stop beating. It is only our souls that are strong enough to last for an eternity. There are no strong friends; there are only strong souls.

Each and every day, I am working to suspend judgement. I want to love without condition, and make it safe enough for others to know that about me without me ever saying a word. It is a work in progress, because just like you, I am human, and I am weak. Judging others is easy. Loving others is harder. I pray that love will always and forever be my guide, and I hope it will be yours as well.

Y’all be easy.

Latoya

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Family Lessons: We All Belong!

One of my favorite memories growing up was getting new shoes. I almost always took off my old ones, put them in the box the new shoes came in, and wore the brand new ones home. I particularly loved sneakers, and truth be told, I still do. I take pride in taking care of my sneakers, and having a variety to match my outfits. I still believe that shoes can make us feel better, give us a new sense of energy, and that hasn’t changed since I was a child.

In the fourth grade, I got a pair of high top pink and white L.A.Gear sneakers for Christmas. I loved those shoes. I felt sure I’d be the best player on the basketball court with those on my feet at recess, and even if I wasn’t, they made me feel like I could be. In my youthful mind, I believed they made me faster, and because of that I played with a belief in my speed and abilities that I didn’t have before I got those shoes.

My sisters could probably tell this story best, but I’m going to make an attempt to tell it here. High top Converse Chuck Taylor’s were all the rage my 6th grade year. I begged Momma to get me a pair, and my persistence paid off. But I just couldn’t get any pair; there was one requirement that had to be fulfilled. They HAD to be hot pink. Luckily, they had a pair in my size and in the right color. It was indeed my lucky day. I wore those shoes home just like I always did, and when I got home I felt it necessary to show my sisters just how much power these shoes had. I still remember jumping up and down and simultaneously exclaiming, “See how they make me jump higher? I’m jumping higher!” My sisters chuckled, but that didn’t matter to me. I was convinced that I would now be able to jump higher and my basketball skills would definitely be elevated because of these shoes. Nothing could change my mind.

My sisters and I laugh when we recall that story now as does my Momma. However, there’s definitely a lesson in all of this in my mind, and that is, we ought to put on the things that help us to be our very best selves. Whether that be shoes, self confidence, or an assurance that we belong, we all need to put ourselves in position to be our best selves daily. I still believe that when I am intentional about my dress, and especially my shoes, I set myself up to be my best self. When I believe I look good, I feel good, and consequently, I do good.

To be clear, this isn’t a post about material things. It’s about self love-not the kind of ego driven love of self, but the kind you need to have self confidence. There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately that I think folks have twisted up: Humility is not the result of being uncertain about who you are or lacking self confidence and confidence isn’t about being self-centered. Instead, humility and confidence are the very two elements we all need in order to know that we belong, and so does everyone else. That balance between confidence and humility is what’s most important, and contrary to popular belief, you can have both. We’ve all been victims of the idea of fitting in, and fitting in doesn’t require confidence or humility. In fact, it pushes people in the opposite direction.

In this life, it is necessary that we have the confidence to attack our fears, take on challenges, persist in the face of difficulty, and do it with a belief that we can accomplish what we set our mind too. I fear, that far too often, we mistake those who have worked on themselves, their esteem, and their confidence to be their authentic selves as being self-centered rather than self-assured and comfortable in their own skin. I worry that so many folks shrink themselves because of this, working to make themselves appear unsure of who they are because it resonates better with the insecurities that others possess, allowing them to “fit in”-whatever that might mean. For me, belonging matters most,and I have done a lot of work to get to this point. My only regret is not having done so sooner. I know now, that self acceptance comes before the acceptance of any other person or group. Because of that, I choose to embrace my quirks, imperfections, and all that makes me…me, which allows me to do the very same for others. That’s the kind of peace and love I want to give and receive in my life.

In this season of life, I am on a mission to live as authentically as possible, and I hope the very same thing for every other human being I interact with in my work and my life. The idea that we allow what others might think drive who we are and what we do is perplexing to me, but I understand that human are social beings, and because of that the idea of fitting in takes a front seat in many people’s lives, but what we need to focus on is belonging. We need to tell ourselves we belong-regardless of what others think, and so does everyone else.The freedom to be yourself with yourself can not be underestimated. It elevates your peace, reduces your worries, and simplifies what really matters.

Imagine a world where everyone felt they belonged. How different would our lives be? How would that impact our work and our world? In this era of my life I’m not focusing on fitting in because I KNOW I belong, and it gives me such peace to let go of that part of life.

I belong. I say it to myself regularly, and especially on the days and in the moments when fitting in tries to rear its ugly head. In some of life’s hardest moments, my Mother has always offered the best advice: Be Who You Are! My goal is to live that way to the fullest each and every day, and give others in my life the freedom to do the same!

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Joy is a Gift to Share!

One of my most prized possessions growing up was my bicycle. It was the old school type. A white banana shaped seat, wide handle bars, and a beautiful baby blue color. I cherished that bike. Santa Claus delivered it on Christmas Day 1984. I was seven years old. It snowed that Christmas, and Momma let me try and ride it in the snow because I was just that excited.

For as much joy as that bicycle brought me, it also brought me tough love, punishment, and hard life lessons. I seemed to struggle with self control when allowed to ride the bike. Whether it was not coming in on time, using Mother’s dishwashing liquid to wash my bicycle, or riding it beyond the areas I had been told to remain in, I always seemed to push the boundaries when on that bicycle. It was no trick bike, not made for jumping curbs and popping wheelies, but of course I had to try it. That usually resulted in a blown tire and ruined inner tube, which meant I had to wait until my uncle had time to come over and fix it before I could ride again.

Each time I violated Momma’s rules for me on that bicycle, I was punished for what felt like an eternity, but usually meant no bike riding for one to two weeks. That bicycle taught me about taking risks, calculating the cost of each one I was willing to take, and deciding if it was worth it. Most of the time, I decided it was absolutely worth it, even knowing I’d be punished. I imagine Momma’s frustration having to keep telling me the same things over and over again only to have me repeat the offense. However, I am grateful that she did not give up on me. I graduated from that bicycle years later and got a ten speed. I was grateful for the upgrade, but it didn’t bring me nearly as much joy as my banana seat blue bike. By then, I’d gotten into sports and my main objective for going outside was to play basketball.

I knew just how much joy that bicycle meant to me when I arrived home one weekend from college and saw that my bike was being ridden by a neighborhood kid. Momma had placed it at the community dumpster, and some lucky kid was trying to ride it. My heart sank. How could she? No I couldn’t ride it anymore, but I loved my bike! It brought me such joy, and even just looking at it made me reflect on memories of riding it down the hill with the wind blowing in my face feeling free and fearless. As I walked in the house, I approached Momma and said, “My bike. You threw it away!” She replied, “You can’t ride that bike anymore. It was time.”

What I learned from this experience is that one of life’s greatest gifts is joy, and our greatest opportunity lies in sharing that joy with others. Seeing another kid trying to ride that bike should have made me happy that day, but I was too young and inexperienced to understand that. Now I get it. Joy is meant to be had and to be given away. Feeling joy is great, but sharing it is even better.

As of late, I’ve been trying to think about what makes me happy and what brings me joy. I want to make sure I am clear about those things because only then can I live my life accordingly. Now I know that joy isn’t derived from possession of material things, but from an experience. It comes from what we’re doing and who we are doing it with, not from what we have or possess. I can’t help but think that we’d all be better people and friends if we could answer that question clearly: What brings you joy? Because then we’d be much more deliberate and intentional with our time and our connections. In this season of life, I’m on a quest to discover that for myself with such precise clarity that I can articulate it without pause. I’m not there yet, but I’m definitely closer than I’ve ever been before.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Be Who You Are!

I was my Momma’s hardest child to raise. I was the one to always push the limits, to do the opposite of whatever my Momma said, and to add levity and joy to almost every classroom I entered as a student. That ended in 11th grade. Mrs. Fields, who had taught both of my older sisters, called to tell Momma she didn’t think she’d approve of the way I was cutting up in class and making everyone laugh. She was right. Momma didn’t approve. That was the last phone call Momma got about my behavior at school. She made it simple. Stop or you will not play basketball. No threats. Only promises. I knew that, and because of it, I made sure Momma didn’t get anymore phone calls.

Momma never compared us to one another. We all had different interests, talents, gifts, abilities. She connected with us on an individual level that allowed her to nurture each of us in just the right way. Whatever we were interested in, and as long as it was positive for developing us into self sufficient and independent young women, she encouraged it. Momma had one rule: Always do your best.

I get it. Lots of parents have that rule and yes, it is cliche, but here’s where my Momma differed. She always followed that with, “whatever YOUR best is,” meaning that she understood clearly that everyone’s best is different. That’s why when I told my Momma I wanted to be a teacher she responded, “That’s great. We need great teachers.” My older sisters chose business and engineering as their career fields. Momma never steered us in toward any particular career. She simply asked that we do our very best at whatever we chose to do. It wasn’t about being the best. It was about doing our best, whatever that was. There’s a difference.

My Momma is the most unselfish person I know. She never brags about how much she does for others, but when it comes to servant leadership she’s at the top of my list. I think that’s why I find it a tad bit irritating when folks self describe themselves as servant leaders. Shouldn’t other people be the ones who decide that? I digress. My mother’s unselfish acts have always been an example of what unconditional love looks like, sounds like, and feels like. More importantly, Momma’s example has taught me how to love others and what it means to know that if you need help, support, or just a listening ear, you have someone you can consistently depend on for that.

Momma has always valued belonging over fitting in, and here’s what I mean by that. She never pushed us to be a part of certain social networks it put pressure on us to engage in certain social circles. Some parents feel an enormous pressure for their children to be a part of certain social groups, and struggle with disappointment when they are not. My Momma just wasn’t wired that way. Momma encouraged us to select friends who accepted us just as we were, not because of what we could do for them or what they could do for us, whatever that might be. For Momma, belonging was key, and she taught us that there was no criteria to belong. If God put you on this earth, you belonged and were good enough (not better than anyone else), with or without other people’s endorsement. Because of that, I’ve always been comfortable with not fitting in, and in many cases I haven’t cared to fit in anyway. My goal has never been to be like everyone else. Momma used to tell me, “I want you to be who you are and do your best,” and those words have given me comfort and security throughout my adult life.

When my sister had her second child, I was blessed to be in the delivery room. I count it as one of the top two miracles I’ve witnessed, my niece’s birth and my Grandma’s death. I apologized to Momma for how hard I’d been to raise after that. Momma knew she had a strong willed child on her hands when it came to me, but she taught me to use it for good, and today I attribute that to my determined spirit. It has helped me get through tough situations and given me a sense of confidence knowing that if there’s something I wish to accomplish, I’ve got the tenacity to endure whatever may be required.

I imagine the world to be a much kinder and loving place if we were to love each other for who we are, accepting one another, not because we fit in, but because we all belong. There would be a lot less group think and we wouldn’t see those who think differently than us as contrary. Instead we’d value the diversity that life can offer us when our hearts and minds are attuned to people being just who they are and not who we think they should be because that’s the beginning of unconditional love.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Watch Your Words

I have vivid memories of my Grandma Moa. I’d write the pronunciation for you but can’t seem to quite get it right. At any rate, I spent a lot of time with Moa as a child. Even when I got into my teenage years, a time when many pubescent hormonal lads are too cool for anyone, including themselves, I still enjoyed hanging out at her house. We did all kinds of things together. We tended to her four o’clock flowers, walked to the grocery store and back, and visited with her friend Beatrice. Moa never had a driver’s license, but she was fiercely independent. She loved to ride in the car. She said it was good for getting earth air, which meant the windows should be rolled down, and many times just before we were dropping her off she’d share that she could ride to New York. She exhibited a heightened curiosity when we were in the car, taking it all in as we traveled down the road. No matter how many times we traveled the same routes, to church, the mall, or the grocery store, she seemed to practice the same awe. She was curious about the world around her, and having a sixth grade education did not limit her way of living.

She read the newspaper cover to cover every day, and when she came to a word she was unsure of how to pronounce, she’d call a family member for help, spelling the word over the phone, and then practicing it by repeating what you’d said. She had the birth weights and stories of how she named each of her 10 children memorized, and she called in everybody’s birthday to the local radio station for a chance to win the dozen doughnuts they raffled off each day. I know everyone thinks their Grandma is special, but mine was clearly one of a kind.

Moa taught me to be intentional with my words. She had a number of sayings , but many of them revolved around using your words with care and intention. “Never say what you won’t do. Don’t talk about other people because you might be talking about yourself. The only way to keep a secret between you and someone else is if one of you are dead.” Moa knew that words, once said, could not be retracted. She was careful with what she said and would guard anything you told her in confidence as if you had died. You could be sure it would never be repeated. There were so many lessons in those three sayings. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to better understand the value of each of her wise offerings.

Moa was right. None of can be certain of what we won’t do, and that’s what I believe is at the heart living and loving in a way that doesn’t render judgement upon other people. Life is tricky and uncertain. Our interactions cannot be predicted and we can only hope to behave in a way that won’t result in regret. Our fragile state as humans doesn’t allow for us to use the word never when speaking about ourselves and our future hopes and dreams. We really don’t know what’s ahead of us and we’d be wise to not put ourselves in a box that later feels like a prison.

Moa valued trust. She’s honestly one of the few people I know in this world who actually could keep a secret. I don’t have any recollections of her gossiping about other people. In fact, when I’d call her and ask, “What you know good?,” her response was inevitably, “All on myself and I’m not telling.” She carefully chose her relationships and their depth. She didn’t offer depth to just those who were willing to listen because I believe she knew that humans needed people to listen, but more importantly to care. She clearly didn’t confuse listening with caring, and I recognize now that the two are not the same.

One of my goals as of late is to be present and curious. I’d like to be as curious as Moa was every time we were riding in the car, as if it were a brand new experience with lots to see and enjoy. I want to exhibit a curiosity in others that doesn’t wane when the phone buzzes, a cheer is heard from television, or the clock ticks. There is so much to take in when we practice curiosity with care. Questioning can indicate curiousness, but it’s not necessarily indicative of caring. It could be plain and simple nosiness, cloaked under the cloud of asking lots of questions.

Everyday I hope to notice something I didn’t notice before. Practicing curiosity with care can make me a better person, and hopefully a better daughter, sister, and friend. It means entering conversations with others with an expectation to learn something, no matter how regular the interaction. Moreover, it means being more curious about the world and people who I desire to connect with deeply, and carefully selecting those who demonstrate care as much as they do the ability to listen.

One of the most significant experiences of my life was being with Moa when she made her way to heaven. This February will be 15 years. I am still learning from her, and her words seem to come to me exactly when I need them. Her love, which she said we had just because we were hers, is something I value greatly, and something I want to give away to those who are curious enough to care even more in my lifetime.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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Family Lessons: Interdependence Makes Us Better.

My Grandaddy was the oldest of 17. That’s right. He had 16 brothers and sisters. A pair of his siblings were twins, named Mary and Joseph, his mother having named each of her children after someone in the Bible. Granddaddy was what I’d call an entrepreneur in his day. He was a farmer, not a sharecropper, because he owned his own land. He sold milk, eggs, and butter on the weekends, and worked at a local mill during the week. He also had a vineyard, and was said to have gone to jail for selling moonshine three times. Each of his children had their own cow, which they were responsible for milking and caring for per Grandaddy’s expectations. Momma said she named her cow Fred because she was so young when he was “given” to her she did not realize cows were girls. She tells us stories about getting up early in the cold, milking cows, helping Aunt Gloria fetch her cow who liked to run away from where she was supposed to be, picking cotton before breakfast, and growing up in a time where people lived off the land and had a mutual respect and interdependence with it.

Other than these stories, I can offer no similar recollections. From one generation to the very next, things can change, and they did for us. However, these stories offer me something greater than just knowledge of family history and traditions. They help me understand the value system I now hold dear and give me an immense amount of respect for my family and all they’ve experienced. That interdependence, the land and its people or the people and their land, is something that’s missing in our world today. In Momma’s time, people believed that community and mutual interdependence were necessary for success. Within families and among neighbors, people helped one another. From borrowing an egg or cup of sugar to sharing a meal, interdependence was not only necessary for survival. It was expected and enjoyed. Today, society seems overrun with a focus on self. Personalization seems to be the marketing genius of every new product. Even the ads on our phones are “made just for us” thanks to an algorithm that takes note of our likes, purchases, and technological behavior.

Before anyone makes an assumption that this is an anti-technology post, let me make a point of clarity. It isn’t. This is a pro-community post. In the midst of all the technological changes of the world, it seems to me that the connection we so desperately need and many are seeking, won’t be rectified by going live on IG, TikTok, or even with the opportunity to FaceTime our friends and family. If there is one thing I’ve learned through this pandemic, it’s that we need to be in the physical presence of one another. While those substitutes may help us bridge the gap in the short term, the human condition won’t be sustained and the disease of loneliness won’t be healed with these methods. Good old fashioned living room sitting, chatting, and sharing the same physical space honors the interdependence that human beings need to thrive.

I imagine the world we live in would be quite different if we were to honor the fact that we need to be in relationship (romantically or otherwise) with others to thrive and that those interactions serve us better when we share the same physical space with others. So how do we move from a world where we count our friends by the number of followers we have and who we are connected to through Facebook to the ones who sit with us in our grief, share with us in our joy, and enjoy our company in the physical sense?

I don’t have the answers, but here’s what I’m going to try in 2022. I want to spend more time in the company of those who are important to me. When safety allows and whenever possible, I’d like that to be time where we are physically present one with another. I intend to share more laughs, smiles, and story swapping over coffee or cocktail with the persons who I believe I share a sense of interdependence with and need in order to thrive. The list isn’t long, but it doesn’t have to be if the quality of the connection is solid and strong. I’m convinced that if we all did more of that, this hyper sense of individualism that America seems to be infected with right now would shift. Instead, we would see and understand that our humanity is connected to that of our neighbors and friends, and that no matter what we achieve individually, we are only as valuable as the community we are connected to is. Just like Grandaddy needed that land to feed and take care of his family, we need each other too, and when we honor that need, we all can thrive.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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2021 Reflections

A year ago I remember hoping for things to transition back to normal-whatever that means. Right now I’m simply looking forward to moving on and coming out better on the other end of things when this pandemic era of living is finally done. There will be no return to normal. None of us will exit this thing untouched. We’ve all been changed by it, and to say otherwise is to deny the reality of a trauma we’ve all shared.

But the world is sick, and I’m not just referencing COVID. I’m certainly not making light of the 800,000 plus Americans who have lost their lives to this pandemic. It’s tragic and certainly a grief we all share. Beyond the obvious illness of the COVID virus, there’s more disease. Hearts and minds are not well. Rugged individualism has perpetuated a new line of behavior that permeates our lives, our schools, and our legislatures. Book banning, infighting over masks, and disagreements about what being American has meant and should mean continue to cause strict division. Common ground is scarce. Differences of opinions, beliefs, and perspectives about who is responsible for what, and most shockingly, what is truth and who gets to tell it, suffocate the timelines, social media feeds, and conversations at American dinner tables, and show up at public comment opportunities of all kind.

A debate usually consists of two concepts, both which usually represent opposites, but possible and realistic perspectives. Weighing the pros and cons of both concepts, using experiences to connect one’s position to the lives of those listening, and understanding how our experiences influence the values we propose to hold dear all makes sense. Yet, what seems to be under debate right now is whether or not America will own its truth-all of it, the good, the bad, and the painfully ugly.

As a child, I remember my Momma distinctly using two phrases that seem to be applicable to these times we are living in right now: 1. “A lie don’t care who tell it,” and 2. “An excuse is whatever you want it to be.” It took me years to fully understand the meaning of these colloquialisms, but I feel as if they are playing out right before my very eyes right now. The people are divided on every issue you can think of-from vaccinations to voting rights. Some of the same battles of the past that the people already decided are back in the debate circle-Roe v. Wade, voting rights, etc. It’s absolutely perplexing to me, and it echoes that nothing is final-not even justice. Freedom is an eternal battle that must be fought continuously in order to ensure that is available and accessible for all. The thought of that alone exhausts me, but there is no time for fatigue.

Over the last year and a half, and throughout this era where everything seems politicized-even when it’s clearly not a matter of politics, I recognize a few things in ways I did not before. The mind is fragile. Group think is powerful. The battle between good and evil is a real thing, not just a thematic concept in the books we read. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves going through the motions of life without thinking about how we are being influenced, and more importantly, how what we do or fail to do, and what we say or lack the courage to say, impacts the lives of others.

Even with all of this heaviness, I have no desire to go back to the pre-pandemic world. Clearly we need to do something different, especially if we want healing. Healing of all kinds-physical, mental, spiritual, societal healing that America so desperately needs. Healing never comes from ignoring the wound, neglecting the sore, or pretending it doesn’t exist. Doing any of those things creates a breeding ground for infection.

Healing comes from dealing with the root issue, facing it head on, with courage, honesty, and love. Momma says if you don’t get to the root of a problem it’s definitely coming back. I recognize I have an incredibly tiny part in the grand scheme of things, I’m taking my part seriously, because in my little corner of the globe I only want to live in a space where love and truth are honored and not debated, because those are the only absolutes in this crazy world.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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My Break Up With Social Media: It’s not you. It’s me.

90 days ago I decided to take a break from social media. I’m glad I did. My thumbs are in much better condition because they haven’t spent the last quarter of the year scrolling up and down to see what everybody else is posting on whatever their favorite social media platform happens to be these days. 90 days with no TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or my fave-Twitter. Interestingly enough, I missed Twitter the most, and I use it for social purposes the least. It’s more of a professional platform for me, and I’m looking forward to joining my PLN again tomorrow. The others not so much.

I made a decision to deactivate my Facebook page near the conclusion of my hiatus. I determined Facebook was mostly responsible for my decision to detox from social media and so maybe staying away from it might work best for me. Prior to the hiatus, social media started to feel like I was spending time bathing my brain in bad vibes. Even when I made attempts to post something positive every morning, I still found myself sucked in and watching the comments on various posts, which tended to land on the negative and complaining end of the spectrum. At the same time that I broke up with social media, I started seeing stories on the news about the Facebook whistleblower. I was intrigued and felt affirmed in my decision. I’m happy to report that I don’t miss Facebook. At all.

I couldn’t help but notice all the ways I had used social media as an escape, often spending countless hours scrolling and looking…at other people, their experiences, and their stories. A few weeks into being off of social media and I found the stack of books on my bedside table had dwindled to two instead of six. Suddenly, I had time to read. I’d also somehow found time to make new music, reimage my computer, listen to podcasts, and enjoy two new television shows. Each week I decided to start my Mondays by writing a thank you card to people whose friendship and connection had been important to me during the pandemic. I enjoyed the messages I got from each of them after being surprised by receiving my card. That was a really good feeling.

I worked to be more present in my conversations and with my thoughts, ideas, joys, and thinking about my future goals and aspirations. I started journaling again for the first time in years. I enjoyed simply sitting in the quiet, taking naps on the couch, and sitting out in the sunshine on warm days listening to music. I was taken aback by how often I initially reached for my phone at first, especially in those “there’s nothing else to do” moments. I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to scrolling and looking, and now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder how much of my life I’ve probably missed because I was so busy looking at everyone else’s.

My goal isn’t to condemn those who enjoy social media and use it to stay connected to family and friends. I, too, want and need that connection. I just want it in person, being present, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, rather than virtually. It seems to me that life is comprised of a series of exchanged experiences, and I want to savor the ones that bring me joy and happiness, with the people I love and care about the most. No matter how many likes or hearts a posts might receive, nothing can take the place of an exchanged smile, a shared laugh, or an offered hug.

It’s a new season of life for me. I have no idea what the future holds, but I promised myself I won’t miss it looking out when I need to be looking within.

Until next time,

Latoya

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What I Know For Sure…

In this era, it is easy to allow the cloud of uncertainty that seems to hang over the world right now to seep into our daily lives in big and small ways. If we aren’t careful, we suddenly become unsure of what we want to do with our time, how we want to use our gifts and talents, and who we want to spend time with nurturing friendships and relationships. The ambiguity of the future grows with each passing year of life for me, continued technological advancements, and now, a global pandemic that I believe we all anxiously await to end. The idea of not knowing is instinctively uncomfortable for human beings, and this is one time when none of us can pretend that we know how things will end. This kind of atmosphere can make clarity feel unattainable and little pockets of doubt can creep into our hearts, our minds, and our spirits if we aren’t cognizant of what is happening around us. For me, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to focus on the things I believe I know for sure. Challenging times have a tendency to precede clarity, and right now is no different.

So, I’ve started a list of things I know for sure. A small, yet comforting gesture, in a time like this, and as I sit enjoying a late cup of coffee, I felt it was worth sharing.

8 Things I Know For Sure:

1. Pride will make a fool out of you if you let it.

2. The mind is fragile and must be cared for and protected as much as the body.

3. Love is still and will always be the most healing form of medicine available to us.

4. I must always be sure about who I am, what I believe, and what I am not willing to do if I wish to be a leader.

5. Relationships don’t just matter. They are the lifeblood of humanity. When healthy we flourish, and when toxic, we struggle. We need each other to survive and to live a life that has meaning and purpose.

6. Quiet time-time to be still in mind, body, and spirit is very important, especially when the world feels like chaos is all around us all the time.

7. Changing someone’s heart is far more likely than changing someone’s mind. Hearts are changed through experiences though, and not opinions.

8. It’s important to make time to do the things that make you happy, to be with the people who give you good energy. The less you allow what others think to influence how you live your life, the happier you will be.

So no, I’m not sure of where we are headed with this pandemic, and I’m not comfortable with the sickness and death we’re witnessing, and I don’t know when things will get better. But what I know for sure is this:

Things will get better.

As the old hymn goes, trouble don’t last always.

The way of the universe is that that nothing lasts forever-and that includes the chaos of this world and COVID-19.

The best is yet to come, and I have absolutely no doubt about that.

Until next time! Be you, be true, and be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Love and Leadership: A Recipe for Success

I was recently speaking with a writer who was working on an article that highlighted advice and wisdom for new leaders. We talked about all the things you’d probably predict: trust, relationships, and communication. At the end of the interview she asked me if there was one central piece of wisdom that I thought every leader needed to know, and I answered: “Make sure love is at the center of everything you do.” In that moment, the thought came from a very natural and casual place, but after reflecting on that quite a bit, I’ve determined that love is a critical component to effective leadership.

Now there are a few points that I should clarify so that my sentiment isn’t misinterpreted. When love is at the center of your leadership, it doesn’t mean that you don’t address hard things or difficult situations. It means because you care deeply about helping those you serve become the best they can possibly be, you do the exact opposite. You challenge them, encourage them, and push them to grow, even when it is difficult. That’s real love; love with purpose.

I believe that it would be hard to find joy in leading if one does not love people, love the idea of serving for a purpose far greater than one’s self, and love the idea of having a positive impact on the lives of others. I’ve never been in love with the idea of being in charge, the boss, or the person who bears the weight of making the final call on major decisions. In fact, those are my least favorite things about leadership, and quite frankly I find that the idea that one is in charge is a grave fallacy that brings many of the wrong type of people to leadership.

What I love about leadership is the opportunity to help others, to support them in their growth and achieving their highest potential, to point out something great that they may not see in themselves, and bring people together around a common goal to make a difference in this world. I believe that’s what all good leaders love about leadership. They love the people and the purpose in equal measure.

I fell in love with leadership as a youngster. I loved the idea of bringing people together. Sometimes that meant getting everyone to agree to play kickball on the playground in elementary school, or encouraging classmates to bring in their can tabs on aluminum soda cans so we could see what a million really looks like, or serving on student council. What I found is that I enjoyed is people, talking to them, supporting them, encouraging them, and most of all helping them. Helping others bring such joy to my heart because it is one of the simplest ways to give and receive love.

In a recent conversation with a colleague who was moving to a new school and somewhat saddened by it, I shared with her that the emotional pull she felt was absolutely normal. It’s the result of her investment in other people as a leader, and their investment in her. In fact, it’s the way it’s supposed to be, especially if love, a love for people and purpose, is at the center of all we do and why we do it as leaders.

I want to encourage leaders who are reading this blog post to think carefully about the role love plays in your leadership. If love isn’t at the center, it’s not worth doing. Let love be your guide!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Public Education’s Pandemic Opportunity

“Let’s be good stewards of the unknown by embracing this time as a time to reimagine our profession, to bring back the joy to teaching and learning, and to do what our children need us to do: be steady. This will not be an easy task and it won’t be perfect. Let’s all lead during this uncertain time with the certainty that our profession and public education is a cornerstone of America’s democracy.”

From my blog post, Leading In Uncertain Times: A Call for Unity, July 26, 2020

There should be no doubt now. There should not have been any before the Corona virus took hold of our lives, our work, and our socializing. Public education is an essential cornerstone of American democracy. Our approach and operation moving forward must be one that honors the clear indication of the needed change to the way we conduct teaching, learning, and leading. Here are a few insights that come to my mind in this regard.

1. Leaders must become comfortable and competent at leading change. The future of public education is uncertain and the ability to adapt to the social and structural changes occurring in our world is going to be a critical component in leading effectively. Leaders who are future focused, visionary, and willing to utilize innovation and flexibility to produce better outcomes for both students and staff will outlast those who maintain a fixed mindset centered heavily on the management of people and operations rather than the creation of new opportunities and experiences.

2. The voices, needs, interests, and passions of students must be honored in the way we approach the teaching, learning, and assessment practices. Caring and trusting relationships and authentic connection with each student is of critical importance. If we don’t provide students with the personalized experience they desire and deserve, they may seek other avenues to equip themselves with the skills, knowledge, and characteristics they need and desire. Students will demand and develop a sense of community with or without pubic education’s invitation. To combat this, we must work to ensure a sense of belonging and affiliation for every student we educate coupled with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in authentic ways.

3. The post-pandemic successful teacher must be provided with personalized professional learning opportunities and given the flexibility to innovate in his or her classroom. Further, the voices of teachers must be honored in what we ask of them and how we support their efforts to provide students with high quality, meaningful, and relevant learning experiences. These teachers will demand a sense of community and an opportunity to lead from their classrooms to improve their professional experience and the learning experiences of students.

Our ability to look forward towards a brighter and more equitable future in public education matters more than it may have ever before. The consequences of missing and failing to seize the opportunity before us are large and serious. Let’s make sure we’ve learned from our past, but more importantly, let’s ready ourselves for a better future for all of our children, those who serve alongside of us, and do so by redefining success for ourselves and our students.

Until next time-Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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An Open Letter to America’s Educators for the 2021-22 School Year

Hey y’all,

I hope you are all taking some time to relax, refresh, and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit this summer. After teaching and leading during a global pandemic, I believe self-care isn’t just a good idea, but necessary to be your best self. If I’ve learned nothing else during COVID-19, I’ve learned to protect my mental health and to take mine and that of others seriously. Our wellness-mind, body, and spirit-matters.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing to plead with each of you. Please promise me that you will not return to the past, “go back to normal,” or relish in the comfort of teaching, learning, and leading in the same ways you did pre-COViD. I feel compelled to remind you of the enormous opportunity we have before us. We know that many of those practices and routines we were allegiant to pre-COViD were not working-for our students, our families, or us! Yet, it can be so tempting to seek comfort, and especially so in times of uncertainty.

I’ll be the first to admit it: the future of public education is unclear. However, I hope we embrace this as a chance to create the future we know our students, their families, and our fellow educators so desperately need. This is an opportunity to finally abandon a system of mass learning, teaching to the middle, and conditioning students to care more about their G.P.A. than their passions. Let’s use this as an opportunity to design an education system that helps children find the intersection of their most competent skills and passions, to design meaningful and relevant learning experiences, that have timeless value and enduring lessons.

I know what you’re thinking. How do we do that? What about the tests? What about school report cards? What if it doesn’t work? What if we fail?

I’d like to counter those thoughts by asking these questions: Why not? What if we improve the system for all involved? What if we redefine success? What if we create a new way of thinking about public education, it’s’ purpose, and value? What if we create a spark that draws the best and brightest minds to our profession? What if are children end up more ready for life that they’ve ever been before?

As much as we find comfort in routine, I hope we find the courage and execute the bravery it takes to chart a new course. We are either held hostage by our fear or made free by our courage. I’m choosing courage. Who’s with me? Our children deserve it. Our families deserve it. Our profession deserves it. We deserve a new day in public education. Look forward!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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The Power of Pausing

The last three weeks have been an important time for me. I’ve had an opportunity to pause from the daily grind and routine. I knew I was in need of it, but I had no idea the extent to which I needed a moment to clear my heart, my mind, and be still and quiet. For the first time in a very long time I did not present at the South Carolina School Administrators Summer Leadership Conference. Instead, I was able to spend my time reconnecting with others I had not seen in person in quite some time, attend sessions as a learner, and make new connections as well. At the start of June, I was talking with a friend about how exasperated I was feeling, and I shared with her that I was uncertain if that feeling was due to COVID-19 and working during a pandemic, over extending myself in my desire to help anyone that asks for assistance, or if I was just in a season of being overwhelmed that was lasting a bit longer that I desired. My friend very simply encouraged me to put boundaries in place to take care of myself and to provide myself with time and opportunity to receive as much as I was giving to other people, work, and areas in my life. I needed to pause and be still. My mind, body, and spirit needed a clearing and a reset. The last two weeks have been exactly what I needed, and I’ve learned so much from pausing that I felt compelled to share it here in this blog post.

To clarify, pausing and stopping are not synonymous. There’s an important distinction between the two words that needs to be acknowledged. To stop means to come to an end, to close, but pausing is a brief interruption. Pausing allows us to remain engaged and committed to our purpose and life’s work while simultaneously taking a brief period to renew our mind, body, and spirit in ways that feed our hearts and souls what is needed for us for us to continue it journey. Think of a hiker who desires to complete an arduous trail hike. Pausing for water, food, or to observe nature allows for rest and renewal, and without it, the hiker’s ability to finish the journey is compromised. Leaders must do the same thing if we intend to complete our journey.

Secondly, pausing allows us to be fully present. When we are not at the mercy of email, the next meeting, the next due date, or deep in the throes of planning for the next big assignment, we can be fully present. Our undivided attention can be given to those things which are most important. We can fully engage without a lingering feeling that we are compromising our dedication to all the other things we need to get done. What a gift it is to be able to be fully present and in the moment. When we spend too much time anticipating what’s next, we can miss some of the most powerful experiences and interactions in our lives.

Finally, the benefits of pausing and what it can do for us afterwards is far more valuable than I ever realized. I feel with great certainty that my professional and personal interactions will be approached with a greater sense of positivity, and that my productivity levels will be much better than they would have been had I not had an opportunity to simply still my mind, body, heart, and soul.

I want to encourage leaders near and far to be sure to recognize when you need to press pause, and even more so be willing to do so. The people we are called to serve, care for, and lead will thank you for it, and you may find that you are a better and more present leader when you press pause too.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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A Moment of Clarity

I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting and thinking over my last 22 years in education recently. I’m not sure if it has been initiated by COVID-19 and the challenges educators faced this school year, the last 18 months in my new position, or just the journey of life that pushes us along with age and experience. But what I now have concluded and know for certain, is that it’s time for me to explore, innovate, grow, and move forward on my own terms.

I’ve gained so much clarity about my journey which is far from over, and here are a few of my latest thoughts:

1. Don’t waste time waiting. If your value isn’t being seen and added to, move your feet.

2. Because time is so precious, I can no longer engage in inauthentic relationships, personally or professionally. My time and my talent are too valuable for meaningless interactions and surface relationships.

3. Investing in my own development must be a priority. I must balance the pouring out to support others with pouring into my own growth, and use boundaries to help make sure things don’t get out of balance.

I’m clear about that and ready to move forward with purpose. I encourage all of us to think forward, and caution us all to not spend too much time reflecting or living in the past! Time flies, but it doesn’t move backwards!

Until next time, be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Latoya

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And Again…

#DaunteWright

How many more? When will it happen again?

I am tired. I am sick of it. I am sad. I am hurt.

I cannot believe so many White folks who I thought knew and cared about me have said nothing.

Ignorance.

Not watching the news right now.

But the day the Capitol was attacked. I heard from almost all of them. Wonder why?

Dear God,

Make it stop. Please.

Latoya

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Education-An MVP of the Pandemic

This morning I participated in a Twitter chat, #pd4uandme after a little nudging from a colleague. The conversation was about naming educators in our lives who we saw as Most Valuable Players this year. I struggled to identify an individual because the year we’ve had in public education leads me to believe that every educator has been an EDU-MVP in the wake of this pandemic. I tried to think of one EDU MVP and immediately my mind was flooded with so many people, starting with my work family and all the way to my Edu PLN. It’s just too big to name one person. It’s been tough, but we’ve managed…by staying CONNECTED. Education is one of the Most Valuable Professions and has proven itself so during this pandemic.

I hope the spotlight on public education continues to shine in a way that honors our worth, promotes the recruitment & retention of excellent educators, & continues to elevate the profession-when the pandemic is over. Educators are integral to our democracy!

I hope folks will talk about the way educators stepped up and learned to pivot at a moment’s notice as much as they talk about learning loss. Our students need us and we’ve got work to do, but let’s be clear: It’s not because we haven’t put forth exceptional effort.

If I were forced to give an EDU-MVP award, I’d give it to the profession as a whole. When crisis arrived, we answered. We taught-by computer, cell phone, tablet, in 😷, provided meals to students & families, & mental health & SEL services. This shouldn’t go unnoticed.

When I think about how valuable educators have been to society during this pandemic & how valuable we are in general, it brings me great sadness to think we were first to serve, but in many cases will be last to be vaccinated. Our profession deserves better.

I don’t mean to get on a soapbox & don’t care to debate. I just hope we are the topic in conversations about how to honor, elevate, and uplift our profession post pandemic-not just in the ones about how we’ll be punished if the children don’t do well on the test.

We’ve proven ourselves to be much more than test scores.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

@latoyadixon5

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Time to Tell the Truth

There isn’t a single soul who should be surprised, astonished, or even shocked by what happened in our nations’s capitol this week. We all had more than context clues; we had evidence of what was to come long before it transpired: “Proud boys. Stand down and stand by.” Tell the truth.

The disrespectful and vile behavior of those individuals who chose to stain the hallmark of American democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, should be called what they are: domestic terrorists. Tell the truth.

And we all know that if those rioters who immersed themselves in the destruction of the consecrated halls and offices of the people’s house were not White, there would have been a lot more blood shed and a slaughtering of Black and Brown bodies left for dead. Remember, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts?” Tell the truth.

The time to use precise language about what happened this week is now. There is no need to construct vague sentiment that doesn’t put you in a predicament of having to defend your position or opinion. Right vs. wrong isn’t a matter of opinion, and the fact is that what happened was wrong. If you have difficulty seeing this, consider the wise words of my Mother: “There is no right way to do wrong.” Tell the truth.

We know the consequences of not telling the truth. We saw them live and in living color on our televisions and social media feeds this week. When those who call themselves leaders embrace lies-big or small-they should not be surprised that those who follow them believe them. And further, when those followers act on what they’ve been sold as truth, sentiments like, “Enough is enough,” isn’t good enough. One’s retroactive concern for himself is about the only transparent thing I’ve seen from these newly enlightened individuals.

Courage is not convenient, but it is precisely the way one can cement his legacy on the right side of history. And that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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The Truth About Leadership: Part 3 – Resilience Is Required

One of my biggest challenges as a leader has been strengthening my resilience. From the outside, it may appear that I have approached challenges with vigor and persistence, pushing through tough situations and times with a smile. On the inside, there’s a different story. I’ve had to learn over the years not to replay my mistakes in my mind over and over and over again in an attempt to analyze where things went wrong. It’s taken me some time and a ton of experience to understand that healthy reflection includes resilience instead of a long period of deep self-disappointment. Acknowledge the error. Make note of what you could have done differently. And most importantly, move on, and do so with haste. In the early years of my leadership, mistakes seemed to linger longer than they should have and in ways that were not productive. I struggled greatly with being a perfectionist and became a pro at worrying about everything and anything. In 2017, I found myself in a toxic relationship with worry. Even now when I tell folks that they tend to look at me rather puzzled. They almost always say, “I’d never know it. You seem so confident.” But we all know things are not always as they seem. While my confidence is at the best level it’s been in my leadership journey, it hasn’t always been that way. I remember turning 40 in 2017 and thinking that I had spent what could potentially be half my life worrying, and on my birthday I decided I’d worry no more. My relationship with it had made me a leader who lacked resilience and I began to focus on bouncing back rather than being all consumed with making an error.

Here’s the truth about leadership: If you are a leader, you are going to make a mistake. The best thing you can do is spend time working on how you will move on and beyond your errors rather than wallowing in them. Analyze your relationship with reflection and make sure it isn’t toxic. We have a tendency to misrepresent what it means to be a reflective practitioner. Here’s what it doesn’t mean-over indulging in guilt, which can manifest into self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Self-doubt and humility are not synonymous, and all too often leaders operate as if that is the case. Humility means you recognize everything is bigger than you, including your purpose, and it is precisely the reason we ought to be more resilient in our leadership journey.

As a young student in elementary school, my teachers often wrote about how conscientious I was-it’s how I learned what the word meant (report card comments). It’s my nature. I want to do a great job and I was reared to always do my very best. Momma wasn’t having it any other way. But I have finally learned that my conscientiousness cannot be a handicap to my confidence. Leaders must believe in themselves, and we demonstrate that by practicing vulnerability and resilience in equal measure. It makes us more authentic and most importantly, it gives us freedom rather than fear. And we all know that freedom feels better.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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The Truth About Leadership: People Will Use You…If You Let Them.

I recently started thinking about how it is possible for someone to admire and enjoy your insights and ideas, and not be fond of you as a leader or as a person. If we can all learn from someone, it means we can even learn from people we don’t like or who don’t like us. And this is exactly why we must not confuse those, “I want to pick your brain,” requests for anything other than what they are-an exchange of ideas. Coming to this realization often leaves us feeling disappointed, dejected, and even used. That’s right. I said it: used.

As a leader there will be times when you feel used, undervalued, and like a pawn in someone’s game of chess. That’s why you cannot confuse someone’s desire for your insight, knowledge, and expertise, with an invitation for a friendship or an attempt to build a strong and trusting collegial relationship. Quite simply they want what you think, your ideas, and quite frankly may not give a damn about you as a person at all. When one comes to this realization it can hurt, especially if you’ve presumed that one had good intentions in asking for your insight.

The reality is this: Leaders who intend to be successful might work especially hard to have folks with right strengths, talents, and skills around them to help carry out their vision. Building a strong team with diverse experiences can help expedite success, but just because someone ask you to be on their team doesn’t mean they can fully appreciate you beyond your ideas and input. After all it is work, and that is the primary purpose of our professional experiences. And while we should not take it personally, we often do-at least I do. I tend to believe that when someone ask for my opinion, it is because they value me as a person and a professional, but over time I’ve learned not to confuse the two, and how important it is to not blend my personal identity with my professional reputation. While both impact each other, they are not the same. I am not my job. My job is not all of me. Each has its’ rightful place, but must remain in balance for an equally harmonious professional and personal life.

I hate feeling used. But I realize I am in control of the offerings I make, the connections I develop and sustain, and the insights I share and how I share them. I’ll be operating with a lot more intention in the coming year. Sharing, caring, and connecting with intention and deliberateness. While this will help me to make sure others do not take my intellect for granted or that I end up feeling used, it will mostly be a bold demonstration of self-love. Loving myself enough to know not everyone deserves access to my intellect. And I mean that in the most humble way of all.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

@latoyadixon5

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The Truth About Leadership

This is part one of a multi-part blog series. If you are so inclined, I welcome your feedback.

I’ve been thinking about something lately that I can’t seem to get off my mind. It’s the idea that too few people write honestly about leadership. It’s all sunshine and rainbows, but not really. The truth is that leadership is incredibly hard. It is challenging, some days more than others, and it does not always feel great or good. Sometimes it can feel scary or unnerving and other times it can be purely exhilarating and full of joy. But nobody writes about the scary and unnerving times. It’s all about how to be great, how to lead with courage, how to set a great example for others to follow. Sure we all need encouragement and being positive is necessary, but sometimes I just want people to tell the truth about leading. It is tough, and the only way out of the tough parts is through. I’m not going to wait any longer for someone to be real and write about the rawness of leadership. I’m doing it. Here goes nothing. In this blog series, I’ll be writing about the hard parts of leadership because there are too many leaders who feel alone in their experiences because so many simply won’t tell the truth.

Nothing is more demoralizing than a leader who lacks authenticity. One who does the things they think they are supposed to do because they want to be sure they live up to the idea of leadership that others promote. During my time in leadership, being committed to being authentic has been a blessing and a curse. Some appreciate it. Others are uncomfortable with it, and usually they are uncomfortable with the opinions others have of them as well if they aren’t all glowing and positive. But the truth is that if you are a leader, you can guarantee that you will be criticized, not liked by some, and it will not feel good. I’m not writing to tell you that you should not care when others don’t care for you. I’m writing to tell you that it is normal to feel concerned when others criticize your decisions, your leadership style, etc. But that concern doesn’t have to be coupled with conformity. Want to get yourself in a rat race that you’ll never win? Try pleasing everyone. You’re sure to burnout fast. By doing what you believe to be the best thing for the people in your organization and those you serve, you lead. You stand on what you believe in and you accept the criticism where it is warranted and respect the differing opinions of others as leaders should. But make sure you don’t fall victim to losing your authenticity as a leader-what makes you….YOU.

In my experience, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and observe many leaders. Time and time again, I’ve watched folks lose themselves in their leadership. Either taken over by ego or reduced by a few loud voices of criticism, they begin to not even recognize themselves. While leadership and the experiences that come with it are sure to impact you, and if powerful enough maybe even change you, your core values must remain solid. The moment you find yourself shifting in what you believe to be right, just, and equitable for all, or consider taking action in a way that contradicts what you believe, you must reconsider your leadership journey. It could mean you aren’t in the right environment or it could mean you’ve allowed the pressures of leading rather than the privilege of leading to drive you. Because leadership is a privilege, and those who lead should never forget that. In those times when I have faced criticism, I’ve had to work to remain balanced and find the sweet spot between taking it too personally and disregarding it all together. It’s the middle ground of giving consideration where it is warranted, but not allowing it to produce a level of self-doubt that negatively impacts me and my ability to lead that has worked best for me. And finding that balance is a never ending journey.

Real leaders reckon with remaining authentic and true to themselves all the time. I am not sure why few share this experience and so many resort to telling the sugar coated stories of leading. My leadership journey, while full of great experiences, has equally been filled with sleepless nights, stressful days, anxious nerves, wonderings of regret, fearful and tearful moments and conversations, and more. That’s because leadership is hard. It is not easy, and it is especially not easy if your greatest goal is to be an authentic leader who accepts yourself, your flaws, your mistakes, your errors as well as you accept your accolades and accomplishments. This is a mammoth task. It requires a level of personal and professional security that is solid enough withstand the winds of change, the voices of criticism, and the uncertainty of it all.

But I am determined to be as authentic of a leader as possible. I’m not afraid to admit that leadership is the hardest task I have ever embarked upon, and it’s been a challenge at every level, big or small, school, district, or state. However, I recognize that what has kept me in it is remaining true to myself, my core values, and real in my relationships with others. That is the stabilizing force in the journey-the authenticity- of it all. I implore others who lead to join me in telling the truth about leadership. It will help all of us.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Certain In Uncertain Times

Since March and the pandemic began, I’ve struggled. Every social pattern I’ve had has been disrupted: family, friends, associates. My sleep overs with my nieces, shopping and dinner out with my mom & sisters, and time with friends laughing and cutting up …gone. And to make things more interesting, I started a new job last January. A new job means “new” people, new relationships, new vulnerabilities. It’s been a struggle, but it did not make sense to me until today. I just finished reading Brene’ Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s the best self help I’ve received since March.

Self-doubt is dangerous. It’s especially dangerous when one feels that everything is uncertain and unpredictable. It’s easy place to go when we are “new” at something. In some ways, second guessing ourselves can feel safer than believing in ourselves. It means if things go awry, I can say, “I knew it would.” But I’ve never been one to be afraid of failing, until recently. I’ve checked all the boxes, attained all the degrees, and built a reputable career. And all of a sudden, I get a new job and a pandemic ensues. Timing really is everything.

Here’s what I recognize: I must dig deep into what’s always worked for me: Believing in myself. Self doubt didn’t earn me-a kid of poverty, of a single parent, who grew up in government housing, on free lunch every year, struggled over and over again-any thing I’ve ever accomplished. Believing in myself, however, did. And that should never change-pandemic or not. And further, I am more than the sum of my accomplishments.

I’ve not blogged in some time, but I’m ready now, and I implore you to join me in not making these uncertain times make you uncertain of yourself. You are enough. I am enough. And it will all be ok.

Now, go read that book I mentioned. And enjoy every moment of life because if anything should teach us that life is too short, a global pandemic ought to be sufficient.

Thankful,

Latoya

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Detoxing: A mind, body, & spirit experience.

During the time I have been detoxing from social media, I have found myself alone with my thoughts. I can’t fill the empty spaces with scrolling or reading a feed of some sort, so I sit and I think, and reflect, and gather my feelings. It’s amazing how much social media can add to our emotional lives and at the same time, lead us to a place where we know our feeds better than ourselves. In this month of cleansing my mind by taking a break from social media, journaling, and meditating, I have found myself nose to nose with some of my deepest fears, aspirational goals, and emotional needs. I can’t hide from what’s inside by distracting myself by absorbing the thoughts, opinions, and reflections of others posted for all to see. In this season, I am alone with my thoughts and feelings. And for now, I think that is a good thing.

I’m not one to watch much television, so aside from my binge watching of Season 5 of Greenleaf in two days, I’ve sat quietly quite a bit. Sometimes sitting outside staring up at the clouds and letting my mind be free from its’ usual distractions. Other times, sitting on the couch and taking a minute to just be still. Something I rarely do as my type A personality views time spent idle and unproductive to be one of life’s many ways to practice a lack of discipline. Yet, I have found that this time of stillness has been much needed. It has helped me to clarify what is important to me, to set my intentions around how I wish to spend this next phase of my life, my career, and determine which personal relationships I need to nurture more. I remain a solid believer that my need for deep, meaningful, and authentic relationships is at the core of who I am, and there is no substitute for that-social media included. I need human interaction, and it appears it may be more beneficial for me to invest more consistently in those relationships and friendships no matter how few they may be in quantity.

I recognize that our empty moments, a minute filled with silence, a pause in the daily grind of life does not have to be filled with scrolling, trolling, or news feeds. It’s more than ok to be still. It’s required to think clearly, to live with intention, and to stay true to one’s self.

I’m posting this blog using an automatic button on WordPress that will post it to Twitter for me, but I won’t be back on social media until next month. And somehow, I know I’ll be better for it in all ways possible.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Again.

It has happened again. Jacob Blake. And no, I didn’t watch the video. And I haven’t watched anything about Kyle Rittenhouse either. I’ve read about it, but I can’t watch trauma. It doesn’t help me. Writing does, and so I write. Here’s the full quote that this series of blogs has been centered upon:

Write hard and clear about what hurts. Don’t avoid it. It has all the energy. Don’t worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.” -Ernest Hemingway

The crying part is a definite. Putting my feelings into words seems difficult these days. All I know is that it is a deeply painful time to be Black in America, and acknowledging that pain doesn’t make me ungrateful to be American. It makes me sad and hurt and sick of the attack and murdering of Black and Brown people, and for those who advocate for equal justice with us and for us, but may not look like us. Murder is wrong. There is no debate about that. What will it take for us to all agree on that simple fact? Murdering someone is wrong.

7 times. 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Four numbers I will never forget. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and now Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum. What does it say about us when we are working to convince a segment of our society that murder is wrong? Why are we in the midst of a debate about what warrants a violent attack on another human being? There is nothing in my heart that warrants taking another human life, and the idea that folks feel comfortable in justifying what is inhumane and undignified scares me. We are in a dangerous place.

I find myself in a space between fearful and hopeful. I am afraid that it will not end, and that things will get worse before they get better. I am fearful for my friends and my family members. I am fearful that we too, may find ourselves in a dangerous situation subject to the act of violence, harassment, and expression of racism by someone else. But I know I cannot wallow in fear or allow it to lead me through life. And so I hope that others can clearly see that America’s soul is on the line, and quite frankly so is everyone of ours each and every day that we are a part of this world.

I am hopeful that courage and conviction will smother prejudice and bigotry, that love will outweigh hate, that speaking up will override silence, and that good folks, of all races, creeds, and colors, will refuse to give in to a way of the world riddled with too many lives lost at the hands of hatred. I am hopeful that the old will learn from the energy and effort of the young, and the young from the sacrifices of the old. I am hopeful that good will win over evil, that compassion and empathy will override power and privilege, that justice will ring true in our hearts and our lives when we say “with liberty and justice for all.”

Do not give up friends. We cannot relent and we must not retreat. We cannot ignore it. We cannot pretend it is not so. We must press on and continue the work to change it.

And when we feel alone, we must know that our collective spirit of hope, change, justice, and equality has the power to change this nation-one conversation, one decision, one interaction, one friendship at a time. Stay on the battle field. Our children are watching and they need us to plow the ground. For we shall reap what we sow. Let it be love and light.

Until next time-be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

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Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

A little more personal than usual, but a much needed release. Check out my latest blog post: Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

Summer has always been my favorite season. Even as a young child, I yearned for the time of year when Momma would let us wear shorts. In our house, you didn’t wear shorts before May 1st. That’s how Momma knew all the potential “cold snaps” had passed. I know cold and April don’t seem to coincide, but that’s how it worked for us. Fast forward 40 years and my nieces are granted the opportunity to wear shorts when they ask-May or not. At any rate, this summer has been a real struggle, and it’s not just because of COVID-19.

Obviously, practicing social distancing has impacted my life. Other than my travel to work and a few socially distant visits with my family, I’ve pretty much been at home. I have gone to the grocery store or drug store as needed wearing my mask, of course. Otherwise I have been at home. I’ve tried to spend more time outdoors and I’ve taken up weighted hula hooping which as been fun and good for my mental health. But beyond COVID-19 and the changes it has forced on us all, I’ve undergone other changes.

I started a new job in January, making the transition from my old job to this one over the holiday break, and I have taken no time off, other than our granted Spring Break, since then. I’ve worked hard to support the work of our district, helping plan for reopening, supporting principals as they work to get ready for the school year, working with my instructional team colleagues to plan and execute professional development. I’ve put together more documents and plans in the span of three months (June-August) than I can remember in a long time. I’ve worked long hours, weekends, and evenings to get things as ready as possible for our district, as have many of my colleagues. And when I find myself saying I am so tired, I feel tremendously guilty. We are all tired. All of us. And I am particularly tired of COVID-19.

My usual travels in the summer have been non-existent. For the last three summers, I’ve traveled to Nova Scotia for what I call my Zen Retreat. There on Locke’s Island, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, there is real spotty internet, and not much to do. It is beautiful, and still, and quiet. It forces me to stop, and I can feel my mind at ease while I am there. While there I’ve hiked in Kejimkujik National Park, visited with friends, and been able to simply stop. Of all the places I’ve traveled in my life, it is by far the place where I have found the most peace-mentally and spiritually. And I can tell I have not had that experience this year.

My social interaction with friends, nights out to dinner, travels to the beach or Mountains, gatherings for fun nights of laughter have been missed. I think if I have learned anything during this pandemic it is that we need each other to thrive-not just to survive. Yesterday, I hosted a virtual check in for educators who wanted to just chat and be encouraged. We spent two hours doing just that and I have to say, it was uplifting and as much for me as it was for them. I needed it. I am because others are. My relationships with others serve as a source of energy, inspiration, and much needed stimulation for me. There is no doubt about that.

Each day, I try my best to be positive. Some days I am better at that than others. I try to post something uplifting each morning and set my intentions to have a great day, to be still in my mind and heart, to be a servant, and to give my all and my very best. So many mornings I see that my post has helped someone else and that gives me so much joy and energy to keep going. And in this time of heightened uncertainty, where we can’t be sure of anything other than ourselves and our hearts, I hope we all recognize that at the core of our humanness is a need for connection and relationship. I hope we will all pick up the phone, call a friend, send a text, and have virtual happy hours. I hope we will not become desensitized to COVID-19 and how it has altered the way we work, live, and socialize. I hope we will not let isolation become the norm. I hope we will check on each other regularly, especially our strong friends.

This is a marathon and the road ahead is long. But I’m encouraged because I have an opportunity to strengthen relationships, to build new ones, and to gain clarity about what really matters. As we embark on a new school year, I am exhausted. I am weary, and I am tired, but I am hopeful. And it is that hope that better days are ahead that keeps me going.

The best really is yet to come.

Until Next Time, Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Leading Thru Uncertain Times: A Call for Unity

My journey in leadership has not been without challenge, and I’d be dishonest if I said there weren’t times when I was uncertain about my abilities. With experience, both the good and the bad, I’ve learned that doubting yourself every now and again isn’t abnormal. In fact, it helps keep you humble and lead with the same grace you want extended to you when, not if, you make a mistake. If there’s one thing I’m more comfortable with now than ever before, it’s the realization that perfection is not required of leaders. For many of us, we enter this work believing that our job as the leader is to make sure errors don’t happen, to remove obstacles, to avoid pitfalls, and do it all with flawless execution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it has taken me many years to come to this realization, I now know that our job is to demonstrate grace under pressure, to set an example of what resilience looks like when things go awry, to be the steady in the times of uncertainty, giving those we serve comfort and reassurance that things will improve and eventually, all will be well. That’s true leadership. It’s our ability to deal with imperfection, uncertainty, and the unexpected that makes us leaders.

In this present time of a global pandemic, this ability to lead under pressure, could not be more important. The country is looking to America’s educators to help return society to the first step of back to normal. Understandably, many educators, like parents and children are afraid. We are living in a world of unknowns, and the lack of control we now have over our everyday lives and our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones is considerably different than it used to be. Dealing with COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for me. My socialization has been severely restricted. I’ve not been able to see my family on a regular basis, and I’ve missed many social events with friends and colleagues as we are all trying to do our part and stay safe. While my natural tendency is to plan ahead, this pandemic has taken away every measure of discipline I’ve worked so hard to establish. But I’m not giving up, and giving in isn’t an option either.

What leaders need to do now, more than ever, is simple. Unite the members of your organization. In a world where a public health crisis has been over politicized, folks are feeling forced to take a side. Instead, we need leaders who can pull the group together with a focus on what’s right-not who is right.We need to turn our attention away from attacking each other about our personal and political beliefs as educators, and apply that energy to those who are attempting to destroy a foundational cornerstone of American democracy-public education. Educators and those who understand that public education benefits our entire society need one voice, and they need it now. I fear that while many are focused on who is right, those who set policy, administer funds, and decide the future of public education will have stripped the very thing that we all love so dearly, and we will have missed it because we were too focused on who was right instead of what was right.

I challenge every leader, from superintendents, to principals, to teachers to find a way to focus on protecting the institution of public education by working to make it look like it can and should be. This is our chance. The uncertainty we are experiencing has opened a door for us to finally move away from a structure that no longer fits the needs of our children or our country. We have an opportunity to think about teaching and learning in new and unprecedented ways. If we are strategic, and more so united, we can do more than preserve the institution of public education. We can make it a system that works for ALL. We can reduce inequity. We can move away from the billion dollar standardized testing industry that drives our daily operations. We can focus on what children really need, addressing the whole child in a way we haven’t been able to before. We can do this.

Let’s be good stewards of the unknown by embracing this time as a time to reimagine our profession, to bring back the joy to teaching and learning, and to do what our children need us to do: be steady. This will not be an easy task, and it won’t be perfect. Let’s all lead during this uncertain time with the certainty that our profession and public education is a cornerstone of America’s democracy.

We’ve got this.

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Moving Beyond Conversation: The Power of Courage & Conviction

This is the fifth blog in my series inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s quote: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

In the days following the death of George Floyd, many of us have shared our perspectives about the importance of speaking out and speaking up, along with the detrimental impact of staying silent. I applaud those who have been courageous enough to enter into conversations about race, systemic and structural racism, and it’s traumatic and tragic impact on Black and Brown people in this country. These conversations matter and they are important. They matter more than any statement an organization releases, any text message you send to your Black friends and/or coworkers, or any social media post you make to demonstrate your commitment to anti-racism. But make no mistake, conversations alone won’t bring the kind of change we need to heal this gaping wound in America’s soul. It’s going to take many conversations-not just one to say you care and you’re sorry. And more importantly, it is going to require conviction.

Conviction is the internal signal that we must act. It’s what doesn’t allow us to stay silent. It’s what makes us speak up and take action, when we know the consequences will be great-loss of friends, connections, advantage, and in this situation, power and privilege. Conviction has no connection to fear. It is rooted in an internal and spiritual courage that starts in the soul, travels to the heart, and manifest in the ways we carry ourselves, live our lives, and ultimately the way we think about and treat other people. Conviction-an unrelenting spirit of what we must do, coupled with the hope that our courage will not fail us. When we are convicted about something, about saying something or failing to speak up, about doing something or failing to act, the internal agitation of our heart, mind, and soul will not allow us to escape. We can’t talk our way out of it, negotiate our minds into a different perspective, or substitute our thoughts and feelings with something else. Conviction gives us no choice but to give-give into what we know at our core is right, and more importantly to act on that.

In the days, weeks, and years to come, we don’t just need the courage to remove the names of buildings that are named after those with a legacy of racism and bigotry or to take down statues that have stood for centuries as a symbolic refusal to let go of a dark past filled with hate. We will need folks with both courage and conviction. People whose hearts and souls won’t allow them to gloss over the issue with a conversation. Those who will be awake at night if they don’t act. Those who won’t be able to look at themselves in the mirror if they don’t contribute to the change. Those who worry they may end up living an inauthentic life because they failed to follow the path of their heart and soul. Change won’t come from conversation alone. This kind of change-a new way of thinking, living, and loving one another-requires courage and conviction. I’m leaning into it. I hope you will too.

Until next time,

Latoya

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The Cost of Courage: Freedom

This is the fourth blog in my current series inspired by this Ernest Hemingway quote: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

In the wake of all of that has happened recently in our nation, I could not help but think of a quote I penned some time ago:

“We are made free by our courage or held hostage by our fear. I choose courage.”

Latoya N. Dixon, Ph.D.

But courage comes with a cost, and I don’t want to fail to acknowledge that. In one of my previous post, I emphasized the implications of being silent in the wake of racism, prejudice and bigotry. While a failure to speak up contributes to the continued mistreatment of those who are victims of hateful thinking, many of my White friends, much of whom view themselves as allies, have shared how difficult they find it to speak up sometimes. This seems to be especially true in their work places and social circles, in spite of social media postings that point to their intentions to live with open minds and hearts. It seems too simple to boil this down to a simple lack of courage, and that’s why I think it is fear that holds these folks hostage.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can shift thinking, change decisions, and imprison us from living our true and authentic lives. Fear is what keeps us doing things that bring no value to our lives, in relationships that no longer serve a purpose, stay with a job that brings us little to no joy, and in “friendships” that contribute to keeping us fearful rather than giving us the freedom we need to be our authentic selves. As I get older and wiser, (My momma has always said that wisdom comes with age and experience) it has become incredibly important to me that my friendships are authentic and genuine, and because of that my list of friends-real friends, isn’t very long. Authenticity is so very important to me. It means we can be exactly who we are, share our hopes, fears, and imperfections, and mostly it means we are not judged for what we are not. I’ve often wondered how it is that these inauthentic friendships most folks work hard to maintain drive their inability to act with courage. To this end, I have more questions rather than answers, and I’d love to hear from those who struggle with this in an effort to help them find their courage and act upon it.

I imagine that if the majority of us had courage, why did it take so long for the nation to see the intentional and consistent mistreatment of Black and Brown people? Why is it that what has been a lifetime trauma for my Black and Brown brothers and sisters is a new awakened grief for some? What is it that they have been watching? Did they not see what happened to Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean? Did they not know of the practice of lynching used to keep Blacks fearful and “in their place (Emmett Till)? Were they unfamiliar with the assassination of Blacks who fought for Civil Rights in non-violent and peaceful ways (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr.)? This is a blatant stain on the history of America, yet it seems it is almost as if some just saw it. The issue of peaceful protesting isn’t new either. Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail was a response to eight White clergy from Alabama who criticized King because they believed him to be an extremist and thought his encouragement of protest would cause violence. Two days after Dr. King was released from jail he delivered a sermon in which he outlined his frustration with Whites who suggested his suggestions were too progressive, and his timing was too soon:

“And that’s all we’ve heard: ‘Wait for a more convenient season.’ But I want you to go back and tell those who are telling us to wait that there comes a time when people get tired.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But don’t take my word for it. Research the letter from those clergymen for yourself, and then read Dr. King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail. You’ll quickly see how fear is often seen as the antidote to courage. It was then and it is today.

My challenge to every person (especially educators) who personally and publicly denounces racism is to act with the courage that can create a future we can be proud of and that can help heal the wounds of America’s soul. Being brave isn’t hard when it is about doing what is right: Treating every human being with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and doing so consistently, regardless of context, space, or time. Courage is the critical piece to moving toward a more perfect union, where justice is established and maintained, and domestic tranquility is real and not just ideal. And if folks who need to find it, can tap into their personal courage, attach themselves to others who are also willing to be courageous, their collective voices can shift this ugly place we’ve been in, things can change, people can change their minds, and their hearts. No matter how divisive things may seem, we are in this world together. Any separation is by choice. But courage is also a choice. And that ‘s what I am choosing. Will you join me?

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

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The Price of Selective Silence: Collective Grief

The selective silence of White folks is a major contributor to the collective grief of Black people. It sends a message that the pain my Black and Brown brothers and sisters experience watching our fellow people be killed in the streets of America for no reason is not more painful than the discomfort felt by White people when there is a desire to talk about racism, prejudice, and bigotry. Instead of confronting it head on, some have just carried on business as usual. This repressing of oppression is traumatic for people like me. It’s a constant consideration of someone else’s discomfort over your own personal pain. It is such work to try to figure out how to get through the day, deal with your own grief, without making someone else upset because you’re sad and hurting. It’s emotionally complex enough to cause physical ails and loss of appetite. Anyone who has ever experienced deep emotional pain-the loss of a loved one, an ending of a relationship, or deeply hurt feelings knows exactly what I mean

The grief we are feeling now isn’t due a singular incident or happening. While the death of George Floyd opened the eyes to what racism in America is for many, (i.e. being murdered in the street), it is not this incident alone that brings me such deep pain. It is a collection of experiences with racism and prejudice. It’s the time my White friend invited me to her birthday party in 3rd grade and at the 11th hour her mother called to say too many people were invited and I didn’t make the cut. It’s my sister’s story of waiting for an office hour appointment with a professor and overhearing him use the N-word. It’s being asked by a candidate running for office in my local community, “Are all the Black principals as smart as you are?” It’s being told by a White friend that her parents were disowning her because she was in a relationship with a Black man. It’s my White friends who are open enough to tell me the jokes that are made in their presence, at the Thanksgiving table, at work, etc, but are afraid to speak up in the spaces where it matters most. It’s their assertion that they don’t feel that way, but their cowardice to say something when they see something. It’s social clubs and organizations that clearly have an understood rule regarding what you must look like to become a member. And… it’s the murder of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Botham Jean-to name a few. When you mix these personal experiences, with this collective national trauma, and a national rhetoric of hatred, it’s an exact cocktail for a pain that runs deep and wide. It hurts-and even writing that seems insufficient to describe how raw and real the hurt is and what it feels like to carry it daily. What the nation has now seen clearly, we already knew very well. Your initial grief is our lifetime of trauma. We’ve already gone through all the stages-sadness, anger, resentment, exhaustion. This isn’t new to us, and we need you to recognize this-and not call it playing the race card. This isn’t a game. It is as real as watching that officer take his knee and press it into George Floyd’s neck while his colleagues stood as bystanders.

This selective silence, especially in the spaces where it matters most sends a deafening message to people like me. I cannot begin to describe the pain I feel from those “friends” who have said nothing. There are no words to illustrate what silence feels like in a time like this. It certainly isn’t safe, and it has led me to evaluate several of my friendships. I’ve tried to reconcile why this is so. Perhaps you care, but not enough to risk your privilege and place in the world. Not enough to lose your advantage at work, at church, and in your community, but I need you to know that your private propositioning won’t help our public crisis. What we need from you now, more than ever, is courage. Nothing is more deeply painful, hurtful, and disappointing than those who see racism and say nothing. It’s not about a blanket statement either. While many organizational leaders have produced those and I think they are incredibly important, your actions in subsequent events will tell the ending of the story. What will you say when you hear an inappropriate joke next time? How will you respond when you see racism happening? Can you be counted on not just to pray it away or to offer private condolences, but to speak up? This lack of courage is the test of America’s soul. If selective silence continues, and does not lead to collective courage, our collective grief will be our never-ending story.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There were those who were willing to be brave and vulnerable because they believed in the dignity of all human beings. Look them up: Judge Waites Waring, James Reeb, and Jonathan Daniels to name a few. They sacrificed their lives to support the rights of fellow human beings because they weren’t afraid to do what was right. It’s not about whose side you’re on, but about being on the side of what is right. Unity and treating every human being with dignity is a human rights issue. Very simply, racism is wrong. It hurts. It kills. It is traumatic. It’s really that simple.

As educators, we cannot afford to overlook this or pretend like it doesn’t exist because we didn’t do it. We must act now with the courage of our children. We must approach it with clear heads, even clearer hearts and commit to a collective courage that can heal us all and help heal our nation. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s love our way through this. It is the only thing eternal.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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When Change Comes

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway

When change comes, I’ll tell stories of how the pain led to the love. I’ll be reminded that no matter how deeply things can hurt, the love that can follow can run deeper. I’ll look back and think, we held on to hope, we held on to our faith, and those of us with pure hearts and genuine intentions held on to each other. When change comes, there will be rejoicing where there is unrest, community where there is rioting, and peace where there are protests. When change comes, we will think about how in the midst of pain, there is a story to be told and that we are allowed to control the ending. When change comes, I will no longer feel the pressure that my Black and Brown people feel to be twice as good for a single chance. I will be enough. We will all be enough.

When change comes, the freedom to feel hate, to express it in your bumper sticker, on your website, in your social media feed, will be extinguished. Change will not allow hate to lead the conversation, let alone be a lingering visitor who always overstays his welcome. My friends will love me for who I am and not for what I can do for them. Humanity will be what centers our ability to treat others with dignity and respect instead of money, greed, network, and connection. I will not carry the burden of waiting for my four nieces to experience their own evolution with the pain I have known as racism and prejudice, that my mother has known, or my grandparents knew. Instead, I’ll watch them grow into beautiful, intelligent, young ladies without the trauma of carrying a lifetime of worry about racism and prejudice. There will no need for them to wonder if they will get a fair shot, an equal opportunity, or a chance that they more than deserve.

When change comes, our education system will not highlight turn around principals who pour their hearts and souls into schools of concentrated poverty in hopes that education will be a part of the cocktail of medication needed to change their lives. There will be no more haves and have nots. There will not be people who suffer the consequences of redlining and ecological impacts like chronic asthma and other underlying health conditions because their neighborhoods are built within feet of the city’s landfill. When change comes hunger will not be an issue in the richest and most industrialized nation in the world. People won’t die because they cannot afford medicine because they do not have health insurance or a job that pays a living wage that is less than what they would receive being unemployed. When change comes, an achievement gap, centered in American education’s original sin of segregation, will be healed. Families will choose schools before they choose neighborhoods. Teachers will teach where they are needed and not choose their schools because of a worry that the test scores won’t manifest in a way that demonstrates their sincere efforts and hearts. Educators will be treated like the important people they are and there will be no need to question if public education benefits all of society. When change comes, my sisters and I will not be statistical anomalies. We will forever be examples of the rule and never thought of as an exception.

When change comes, we will feel better. People will be better. Love will be more abundant and present than it ever has before. Peace will be ever present and will be as pervasive as the hate and evil rhetoric that is front and center for the globe to see in America today. When change comes, we will know that justice and mercy, grace and hope, are not for some, but for all. There will be no question as to whether America’s foundations like life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are conditional and only for some, and not all. But change won’t come, unless we will it so. Change is on us. All of us. We have a responsibility-now more than ever before-to be the change we know the world needs. The time for wishing for change has expired. We are well past due. And it won’t be easy. It will require courage and bravery like never before. We cannot operate in our safe circles and keep our intentions and feelings to ourselves. We must carry each other to the other side of this thing. One step, one idea, one person, one relationship, and one conversation at a time. We’ll have to make sure our vulnerability does not turn into vitriol, our longing for love does not turn our hope into hatred, and that the slow tendency of progress does not cause us to lose our persistence in the fight for what we know is not only right, but also desperately needed. And if we can do this, together, change will come. I believe that. I need to believe that. I have to believe that.

Until next time-be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Pain on Paper: The Murder of George Floyd

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

-Ernest Hemingway

Stop killing us. Stop killing us. Stop murdering us in the open streets of America. Stop strangling us. Stop shooting us. Stop choking us. Stop using your knee to cut off our airways while we are restrained and handcuffed on the ground and begging for our lives. We raise hell every time you raise the price of a Black American’s life.

I cannot watch the video of George Floyd being killed. My psyche cannot take another mental image of a fellow Black American dying in the open streets of this country at the hands of those whose motto is to protect and serve. The fragility of my emotional state is not due to a lack of mental instability, but due to what seems to be a constant loss of Black life due to hatred, racism, and pure evil. Seems I have spent much of my adulthood trying to reconcile why the unwarranted deaths of Black and Brown people in this country continue-whether it’s the way we’ve been disproportionality impacted by COVID-19, the killing of unarmed Black and Brown persons at the hands of authorities, or the infant mortality rate of Black babies-it hasn’t stopped. In the beginning I asked the question, Why?, Why are they killing us?, but I am far beyond this question now. I’ve come to realize that there is no good why, and so it is not the question that needs to be asked, but the demand that needs to be made. Stop killing us.

I often ask my Mother about the things that trouble me most, and this topic is something we have discussed often. I’ll never forget how she enlightened me on how this kind of vitriol hatred that turns into murder happens: “The only way you can do things like this is to not see another person as human. We are not human to some of them.” The realization that we are seen as something other than human by some stings to the core and eats at my very soul, but doesn’t seem to touch theirs. These are the people who claim Jesus as Lord, as do I, who do not believe in abortion, who believe that their views are not just right of center, but righteous. They use their single religion issues-abortion, gay marriage, and more-to cast their votes, and at the same time can sit idly by while the mistreatment of Black and Brown people is clearer than it was in the age of the Civil Rights Movement. No one was with cell phone to film Bloody Sunday. No one videoed and posted to Facebook the assassination of Martin Luther King. No one posted the recording of the four little girls who were murdered in Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church to Twitter. Yet, change came. Or at least we thought it did.

Fast forward to 2020 and there is no doubt that Emmitt Till’s accuser lied. She admitted it. And there is no doubt that George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Keith Scott, Jordan Edwards, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, and Ahmaud Aubrey-who was hunted like an animal, just like Momma said, were all murdered. We saw it. We don’t have to wait for an advancement in technology or the admission of one whose days seem shorter and closer to ending to make things right by owning the truth. We have the truth. We know the truth. ALL OF US. We don’t have the inconvenience of determining the truth about what really happened to these people. The truth is before our very eyes, and yet there is still a lack of consensus among us. The need to choose a single side divides us, but what is right is not complicated.

Patriotism has many faces. It’s the tears that ran down my Daddy’s face, an Air Force and Vietnam veteran, when he stood at attention to listen to Proud to Be An American. It’s the fury I feel that we are all supposed to be equal and free and we are not. It’s the pride I feel when I watch the Olympics and see Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Simone Manuel bring home the gold. It’s the anger I have when I am treated as an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not about which side I am on or if I can feel the complexity of all that I feel and still clearly believe that murdering someone is wrong. I can do exactly that.

As I process all that is happening in our world, I wait. I wait for the day when my psyche isn’t fragile because of the videos circulating of Black and Brown people being murdered, and wondering about the deaths that I haven’t seen because they weren’t videoed. I welcome a fragile psyche due to heart break, loss of a loved one, sadness for a change in life that wasn’t expected, but the traumatic experience of watching Black folks murdered in the street on repeat-and waiting for justice cannot be ignored. I don’t want to wait for the arrest. I don’t want to wait for the trial. I don’t want to wait for them to be punished, to be sentenced to death, to be sent to prison. I’m tired of waiting.

I want them to stop killing us.

-Latoya

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Authenticity-What Public Schools Need Now

It’s taken me so long to get here. From the start of school closure on March 16th here in South Carolina until this past Monday, May 18th, I have struggled. I am now a full time insomniac. I take short naps at night, and wake up almost like clockwork at 2:00 a.m. No melatonin, Benadryl (don’t judge me), or chamomile tea does the trick, and yes, I keep trying it. Yesterday, I felt like myself for the first time. I was able to be intellectually present all day for work and didn’t find myself overwhelmed by the immediacy associated with COVID-19. I finally hit my stride. My brain was working the way it is supposed to, and I have to admit, I did get a nudge from my superintendent after I did not seem present as a thinking partner in a meeting the previous day. While I can think of lots of reasons for my quietness or lack of intellectual commitment during the closure, I know much of it has to do with this global pandemic experience. Yet more of it, has to do with the fact that I am not getting what I need-authentic interaction with other human beings.

I am a people person. I love people. I like to help. I love an underdog. I like to be the person who you can depend on when nobody else shows up for the work. I like to be the one who goes the extra mile when others decide it’s not worth it and sleep instead. And I enjoy working hard not because I want to show anybody up, but because it gives my life meaning. It helps me fit. It makes me matter. It fuels my passion and my purpose. When school closed, my main source of authenticity-my relationships and interaction with other people went from real world to a virtual world. Now I smile just as hard over Zoom as I do in person, but the warmth that is generated in a conversation when you are sitting in a room across a table from someone thinking through something important cannot be felt. The energy that I bring to a room, that I feel in a room, is simply absent in a Zoom or WebEx meeting. And it’s not because of Zoom or WebEx. It is because I feel alone. Isolation is the greatest enemy to progress. Our growth as humans is centered on our experiences, our mistakes, and what we learn from interacting with others. We are social beings and in the absence of other people, over an internet connection, and the physical state of being alone, my spirit suffers.

I’ve come to realize that it isn’t just my relationship with other people that I need, but it’s the authenticity that comes with that. I want to feel deeply connected to others. I want the work that I do to make a difference and touch my heart. We shed tears at a high school graduation because in the moments of struggle we often experience through our learning and teaching journeys, we carry each other. What resonates with us, within our heart, and deep in our souls is that we were able to care for our students enough to help them pull through those tough moments, and they were able to feel that care and give it one more try. This deep feeling of connection sustains us as educators. It’s the reason we return after a terrible day, a tough week, a failed lesson, and after COVID19.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen for our public schools if we centered our efforts around providing students with authentic and genuine learning experiences. What if we made every effort to develop children from the inside out? What if we spent our time really digging into what makes them feel like they matter, that they are cared for, and that life AND their learning have purpose? In the quiet moments of COVID-19 I have come to realize many things, but one thing stands out the most. I love being a leader because it is one of the most rewarding challenges in spite of being one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. The authenticity of the experiences I have had have helped me develop courage, given me clarity about who I am, how I desire to make my life have purpose and meaning, and why my relationships with others matter. I’m not in hot pursuit of accomplishments, but in need of deep and authentic connections with others. I may be wrong, but I can’t help but believe that this internal need for a genuine connection with other human beings is what keeps me going, and it is what I believe could help us make the public school experience everything we all know it should be for every child who walks through our doors.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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The Critical Condition of America’s Public Education System

I am concerned. Here we are amidst a global pandemic, and some are now clearly able to see the cost of America’s original sin against public education: inequity. In the last six weeks the words digital divide, rural broadband gap, and equity have smothered the American education landscape. I want to believe that we all know the truth: This isn’t a new problem. It wasn’t brought on by COVID-19, and it won’t end when and if it is eradicated. The only thing that will eradicate the inequity that our public education system, and more so, our students suffer from, is for us to confront inequity head on and take action to create a new and more equitable system. Our response to this time in history will either exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots or help to close them. It’s on us. And I mean it’s on ALL of us. Educators cannot do this alone. This requires the collective effort of educators, policy makers, broadband suppliers, the business community, the faith-based community; local, state, and government officials are also included. We have an opportunity to step forward in way that could change the trajectory of public education in this country and more importantly, the lives of many children. What will we do?

Right now, it is incredibly important we move from words to action. We must move beyond shining a light on inequity and closer to doing something about it. We can design a system of public education that doesn’t work against the very core of its’ mission: to provide a quality education for all students. While a change of this substantial shift cannot occur overnight, there is no time like the present. We can begin now, and to not do so, will only contribute to a further deterioration to the essential purpose of the system. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and more so with the onset of this pandemic. I have ideas about how we might do this, and I’d like to share them with you here in this blog.

  1. The system must be student centered.

We must create a system of education that focuses on the individual needs, strengths, talents, and opportunities of students. As we move forward, standardization must be in its’ right place and removed from the places where it has not and will not serve us well. We must reduce the variation in instructional quality as much as possible. We can do that by not duplicating efforts. If we can agree on what students should know and be able to do when they leave our system, then we can design curricular content that is available to every student. Instead, what we currently have is a system where teachers across the country are designing thousands of lessons that are so supposed to ultimately have the same learning goal at the end. We have numerous versions of how we teach converting a decimal to a fraction, how to understand the relationship between causes and effects, etc. In a student-centered system, our focus would shift from pushing out instructional content to focusing on providing quality feedback to students to make sure they are learning and mastering the skills and processes they need to be successful. We’d walk away from the over dependence on standardized testing to inform us on how the system is working, and move to a system where students are at the center and have choice about how they demonstrate to us that they’ve achieved the learning targets we’ve set for them and they’ve set for themselves. Our focus would no longer be on making sure every student gets the same thing. Rather, we’d focus on making sure every student gets what he or she needs. What we can standardize is the belief that a personalized education serves students much better than a standardized one.

2. The system must have the right drivers.

Our students must be motivated to learn by having the opportunity to participate in meaningful and relevant learning experiences. Grades and assessment ratings can no longer serve as motivating factors for our students. With grades at the center of everything we have done with students and a hyper focus on rankings and ratings, we’ve reduced at worst and eliminated at best, the joy of learning and its’ ability to be deep and meaningful. Instead, the effort our students put forth is driven by the grade they desire, and for many, grades are not enough. In the end, our students find themselves searching for purpose and meaning, wanting to be a part of something greater than themselves. Eventually the threat of failing grades, not being able to get into a good college, is not sustaining. They enter adulthood and the workforce where there are no grades and no rankings. They find themselves challenged because they’ve been subjected to a system where their motivation was centered on the grade they received in terms of their effort, rather than on their ability to make a meaningful difference in their organization, their community, and the world. Allowing our students to be driven by exploring their passions, finding their purpose, and experiencing deep learning around those things that touch their hearts would create drivers that are sustainable over time.

3. We must invest in public education.

The impact of the negative narrative that has shadowed public education has caused our students to suffer, and even more so, our educators. The shortage in teachers, the mass exodus many have made from the profession, and the lack of investment in those who serve students, and in a larger sense, society as a whole is clear. Our focus on inputs to the system must be greater than the focus on outputs. We must put forth the effort that public education and its’ educators deserve to help them become skillful practitioners. That might mean more incentives for students to explore a career in education, paying teachers more competitive salaries, and a more robust and personalized professional development system. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the return on our investment will be directly related to the degree and intensity in which we invest in the system itself and its’ providers.

I am hopeful. I hope we take an opportunity to make meaningful changes that can benefit our students and the public education system for years to come. We need the commitment of everyone who benefits from a strong and successful public education system to help us remedy the inequities that have plagued our system for far too long. While inequity may be America’s original sin when it comes to public education, it’s not too late for us to repent-to turn away from the old ways, and to look forward towards a future that is brighter for ALL children.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Redefining What Makes A School Great in the Wake of COVID-19

Our public schools are more than teaching and learning hubs for our children. Many students receive a variety of services beyond instruction at school. These include access to mental health counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, art, music, physical education, access to a nurse, food bags on Fridays for those students who we know live in food insecure situations, & breakfast, lunch, and snack at school during the weekdays, to name a few. This ecosystem of services is essential to the healthy development of a child and those are the things you won’t find on any school report card. For example, our school district served 18, 474 meals last week, we handed out paper pencil learning packets, and we delivered meals to those who didn’t have transportation to come pick them up. There’s no rating for that.

It’s high time America recognizes its’ public schools for the incredible work they do. When an epidemic or crisis hits, the school buildings become shelters over night, buses are suddenly used to transport anything-people, food, materials-that will help the situation, and educators stand on the front lines to fill the gaps. As much as some may attempt to use this as an invitation to the idea that brick and mortar schools are no longer needed, everything about how the public school systems and educators have stepped up and stepped in right now says different.

We are an essential part to the success of our country, the continuation of our democracy, the future of our children. Let us not forget that our children our watching during this time. They see us, the educators, working as essential staff to make sure they have food and keep learning. Let us not grow weary about the children and what they are missing right now. We’ve never needed standardized testing to tell us what our children need, and we don’t need it now. They need the opportunity to create, play outside, collaborate, problem solve, read, and write. They need to connect and build strong and trusting relationships with caring and nurturing adults. They need encouragement and support as they face this new situation, just like us.

I’ve never been more proud to be a public school educator. I pray for strength, safety, guidance, and wisdom for all of us, and I hope the rest of the country can clearly see our value and shift the narrative that’s contributed to teachers being underpaid, schools being underfunded, and efforts to dismantle and privatize the important work we do for ALL children. When this is done, let’s work on those things. That will be the best thank you of all.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

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New Resource Alert for School Leaders

“The real test of leadership isn’t about what you can accomplish, but how well you can drive the improvement of someone else’s knowledge, skills, and capacity.”-Latoya Dixon, Ph.D.

Over a year ago, I started working to put together a practical tool for school leaders to use to support their improvement efforts. So here we have, The Instructional Leadership Workbook: A Practical Guide to School Improvement.

I debated about releasing it for some time, but ultimately decided to share it as a resource on my site, Leadership With Latoya. It is not a perfect tool, but I hope it might help school leaders who are looking for a practical way to approach instructional leadership, desire to pull all the pieces together, or looking for a way to organize their efforts.

The workbook is designed to be used, that’s why it’s available in Word. The hope is that you can type directly into it or print it and write into it as you plan. The formatting isn’t perfect and it potentially has errors, but I am not sharing it because I aim to be perfect. I am sharing it because I have a deep desire to help school leaders everywhere be their very best. That’s what Leadership With Latoya is all about, building community and supporting leaders, one leader at a time.

If you are willing to give it a look, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what parts work well for you and what is missing. My goal is to make this site a resource hub for leaders everywhere and your feedback will help me do that. You can send me your feedback directly at leadershipwithlatoya@gmail.com. Here’s to leading well!

Latoya

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Courage: The Ultimate Challenge of Leadership

It’s not uncommon to chat about leadership with my sisters. While we all work in different fields, we all find how we work with others more effectively to be incredibly intriguing. We see many commonalities in our work with others because working with people, helping them reach their highest potential, supporting their efforts, and acknowledging their hard work isn’t all that different, regardless of the professional field. Over the years we’ve shared insights, challenges, successes, and of course…books. We all love to read and I’d go as far as saying we’ve been in our own exclusive book club for most of our lives.

This week I read Michael Fullan’s book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail. It was an excellent read and I can’t recommend it strongly enough if you are a student of leadership and aspire to be an excellent leader. As I shared some of my learning with my sister over a phone call, I found myself coming back to what I have found to be one of the greatest challenges for leaders: courage. It’s no secret that leaders are charged with making hard decisions, conducting courageous conversations, and nudging folks beyond their comfort zones. This is incredibly difficult work, and making sure your nudge is seen as well intentioned and a result of your caring about the folks you serve as a person and professional can be tough.

Human nature is one that responds well to routine, predictability, and comfort. When we are pushed beyond this, it’s natural for us to resist-and that resistance can manifest in a variety of ways: explicit refusal, indirect avoidance, an uptick in anxiety, or paralysis. And we name this in different ways, feeling overwhelmed is a common one. For those of us who are leaders, our challenge is to not let these facets of human nature drive our efforts. When we are challenged with leading others to a new level of performance, shifting a culture, or achieving their highest potential, it’s not hard to succumb to a sense of empathy that alters our leadership. What we know we need to do gets tangled up with what others feel about what we are asking of them, and we lose the ownership of leading others through these tough and challenging places. Our challenge as leaders isn’t to disregard what others feel, but to help them move forward in spite of what they feel. We do this when we acknowledge the difficulty in something and accompany that acknowledgment with an affirming confidence in their ability to achieve it. It might sound something like this: “I know this is really hard and a big shift in the way we’ve always done things, but I also know you are more than capable of doing this. I believe in you and I am going to help you get through this. You can do it.”

But far too often I’ve watched leaders struggle with how to respond to the difficulty of change and people’s reactions to it. Their empathy turns into sympathy and they change their expectations or shift the need for change to those above them, losing all ownership of the very things they are trying to implement. One thing is for sure-when you don’t own the change you’re in charge of leading, neither will the folks you serve. Courageous leaders operate differently. They acknowledge feelings of others, but they are willing to endure the process of change, and understand that shifting anything-a culture, a practice, a perspective, is a process. It is a long and arduous process, and to shift anything you must stay with it long enough for it to move. Leaders who lack courage quit too soon, give in too early, or become inconsistent rather than persistent, because they lack the stamina that courage requires.

Courage is born in the moments when we decide to not give up or give in, even when things feel hard, difficult, or uncomfortable. It is our ability to “stay with it” that is the ultimate test of our leadership. This development of endurance takes practice. It isn’t something we acquire when given an opportunity to lead. Like a marathon runner, we must train, pushing ourselves for ourselves, so that when the time comes, we can continue without faltering. As leaders, having a strong sense of who we are and what we believe is instrumental in the development of courage. When we know what we believe and what we stand for, we can demonstrate a strength that supports us in moments of struggle. For in the end, it is not our intelligence, our charisma, or our abilities that get us to the victory line, but our steadfast courage that will carry us all the way there.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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The Cognitive Conditioning of America’s Educators

I’m afraid we’ve been brainwashed. I think most of us with 20 or more years in this field remember the age-old interview question, “What is your philosophy of education?” I can remember answering that question too. My answer then isn’t different from my answer now. I believe education can change the lives of children. I believe it can and does make a difference. I believe that for all children, but especially for children of poverty, education is the gateway to economic mobility, and gives all of us an opportunity to make the world a better place. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it has the power to break generational strongholds of poverty, trauma, and more. Without my education, from Head Start to my Doctorate of Philosophy degree, my life would not be what it is today. And I am willing to bet, if this question was posed to educators across the country their responses would be similar to mine. Yet, when we begin to have vigorous debate about the value and use of high stakes assessments, our philosophies are often overshadowed by a narrative of weaponized accountability, competition among schools and districts, and our perceived need to sort, sift, rank, and label schools and students. 

You might wonder why I am concerned that our colleagues have been brainwashed. There are lots of examples I could give, but here are a few that particularly trouble me. With the reauthorization of the ESEA, also known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, states were given the opportunity to exercise flexibility in meeting the requirements of federal accountability. Yet, few states ventured away from the assessment systems brought on by all of the previous named pieces of legislation, like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I can’t help but wonder if the redundant inoculation of a narrative that has said we must label our schools to hold them accountable, and we must use high stakes testing to do so, and to prove our worth and validity as institutions of public education and recipients of public tax dollars, has led us to believe that there is only one way to measure success in our schools. This particular mindset troubles me because it creates a false positive, a perception or belief that a few days of high stakes testing can paint the wholistic picture of a school’s or district’s success. I learned early that 175 days are greater than 5 days, and I choose to believe that an absolute measure of our schools are better captured across the majority of time we spend instructing students and students spend learning. This isn’t the only thing that has led me to believe we’ve been conditioned to quantify the complex efforts and skills involved with teaching and learning in absolute fashion. There’s more.

This year, in South Carolina, there is a proposal to eliminate additional testing, not required by the federal government. This means we will no longer test Social Studies at the elementary and middle school level, and Science will be assessed once in middle school and once in high school. This proposal has brought on an onslaught of concern, specifically from Social Studies educators. In short, some of these folks have expressed concern that if Social Studies isn’t included in our high stakes assessment and accountability system, then it may not be taught. This is the epitome of the “tail wagging the dog.” I can’t help but strongly challenge such thinking. What students need to know and be able to do should not be determined by what is on the big set of tests at the end of the year. We know from a variety of research that our students must be problem solvers, collaborators, creative, persistent, authentic engagers of literacy of all kinds, kind, healthy, and whole people to become successful adults. If that is so, then it suggests to me, that reducing our practice as only valid if children participate in a high stakes assessment related to the content we have taught is counter intuitive to what many of us would articulate as our philosophy of education. With or without a high stakes assessment, what we teach students and the skills we want students to know and demonstrate are important. We don’t need a highly consequential assessment to prove that. I trust educators as professionals, who love the whole child, and want children to have the instructional and educational experience they deserve-tested or not.

So why then, have we allowed our philosophies to be disrupted by those who haven’t done the work we do? Why is it, that we buy into someone else’s philosophy, be it corporate or individual, about how we prove that we are doing good work? The futures of our students are the ultimate measures of our efforts. What they become, or fail to become, is a reflection of our work and the work of other important stakeholders such as parents, community members, etc. We do not do this alone. Yet, there are those of us who have allowed the assertions of others to define us. We have been conditioned to believe that if it doesn’t show up on a high stakes assessment as positive, if it isn’t colored in green, if the grade doesn’t show up as an A, if the rating doesn’t say excellent, then our work and our efforts are to be questioned and perhaps, viewed as ineffective or less effective. I whole heartedly reject that, and I hope you will too.

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tiger football coach, and two time National Champion, said it best: “Best is the standard.” Our job isn’t to try and be better than other schools or districts. We shouldn’t rests our efforts on how much better or worse our students perform than the school next door, or the state across the border. As educators, we must define best for ourselves and by ourselves. A failure to subscribe to our own educational philosophies has the potential to lead to a brainwashing of sorts-an adoption of a belief that we didn’t originally subscribe to when we started doing this important work.

My charge to educators today is to think for yourself. Make sure your efforts are aligned to your educational philosophy, not the accountability system of the school report card, or the mandates of those who choose to put our schools, districts, and states in rank order and label us because of a perceived belief that it will incentivize better performance. Tell them to apply this same thinking to the work of doctors, hospitals, engineers, IT work, and business. Produce a report card based on a few days of interaction with customers, patients, or clients. Use that data to rank, sift, and sort these entities and publish for all to view and make judgement of quality of their work. I can guarantee you that Apple isn’t trying to be better than Samsung, and Kroger isn’t trying to be better than Publix. They are all trying to be the best they can be…because best is the standard. Decide for yourself.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Four Dangerous Assumptions of Accountability & School Quality

Accountability is important. We all need to take personal responsibility for our actions, for our work, and for our impact on others. We need to know how children are performing, how we can help and support them in improving their achievement, and opportunities to identify areas where they are gifted and strong and where students need to grow. It’s unfortunate, but the weaponizing of assessment in school reform has led to a number of assumptions about school accountability systems. In this blog, I am going to attempt to outline some of my concerns in this regard.

Assumption 1: Accountability scores are equivalent to school quality.

Far too often, school report card grades or scores are driving home values, community growth, and an assumption that the quality of what is happening in classrooms is far greater in those schools with high accountability scores versus those schools with low accountability scores. Quality and accountability should not be conflated, but seems to be regularly in discussions of school reform and improvement. We cannot assume that the score is a solid indication that quality instruction, quality relationships, and quality decisions are being made in a school with high accountability scores, and that the opposite is true for those schools that don’t perform so well in the accountability system.

Assumption 2: High accountability scores are an indication of high teacher quality.

We know, from scores of research, that our students from higher socio-economic families present an advantage in terms of their performance on achievement tests in comparison to their counterparts. The background knowledge and experiences they bring to school reduce the need for teachers to provide explicit direct instruction around academic vocabulary, to scaffold learning, or fill in content knowledge gaps. Simply put, we can surmise that students perform well on the achievement measures if the accountability scores are high, but we cannot assume that those scores are due to a higher degree of teacher quality in comparison to their low achieving counterparts.

Assumption 3: Schools that fare well in the accountability system are doing something dramatically different from those who do not score as well.

It pains me to hear folks talk about accountability scores in this regard. As educators, many of us have probably been privy to a conversation among our colleagues, where one asks, “What are y’all doing to get those scores?” This question is fatal flaw in school improvement efforts because it often leads to a desire to replicate a practice with no adaptation for the context and deficiencies under which a school’s students and teachers might be operating within. The “Simon Says” approach to school improvement does not work. Every school and its community is unique, and we must be certain to account for context in our efforts. Not doing so, in my opinion, is the equivalent of providing a Band-Aid for an infection rather than an antibiotic, and expecting the same healing the Band-Aid produced for a scrape for a bacterial infection.

Assumption 4: More effective and impactful leaders are in schools with high accountability scores versus those in schools with low or average accountability scores.

This one hits close to home. I’m biased and I know it, and it’s because I led a low-performing school, and did so with the highest degree of effort and instructional leadership. To support our students in the midst of a math teacher vacancy, I taught 8th grade math for two periods each morning, and served as co-principal for the rest of the day. I can attest that the challenges we faced in our school were exacerbated and atypical, but we knew we would still be held to the same accountability measures as more affluent, resourced, and advantaged schools. Let me be clear, I have no problem with a standardized accountability expectation. I just want to be sure that the assumption that high performing schools are an indication of high leadership effectiveness is a dangerous one. It is simply not so. One should not assume that there is a phenomenal school leader in every “Excellent” rated school, and conversely, the assumption that there is a highly ineffective leader in every “Unsatisfactory” rated school should not be made. You have to see the work to know the impact and a report and statistical analysis of achievement data cannot provide us with conclusions about leader quality, teacher quality, or school quality.

What troubles me most is the impact these assumptions have on schools, but also on families. The family that assumes they are moving into a great area with a great school only to find that the culture is toxic, in spite of the achievement scores and accountability performance. Further, that the teacher quality is not exceptionally different than that of the previous school their child attended that had lower accountability scores. When folks lean into these four dangerous assumptions, it perpetuates the false narrative that are public schools are failing and that some schools are exceptionally worse or better than other schools. A deficit mindset sets in, schools and families begin an intense focus on what is wrong, and what is right, losing the balanced mindset that we all need that considers all factors when we think about how well or unwell a school is faring. Instead, we need to view accountability scores for what they are: a statistical analysis of student performance on high stakes assessment-not a report on teacher, leader, or school quality. Keeping accountability in the right perspective and communicating about it in a way that makes sense and is honest and transparent regarding what it is and what it isn’t is critically important in the current public education climate and teacher crisis. We can do better, and we should.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading For Improvement-Part 10: See the connections. Share them explicitly.

School improvement requires a sense of mutual interdependence. In the context of improvement, it means we recognize how one person’s actions affects another person’s experience. To be more specific, we know that when everyone puts forth his or her very best effort, we all benefit. One of the most important things leaders should do in the improvement process is help members of the organization see the connections among their efforts. Show each person the connection among processes, skills, knowledge, and efforts. Once we can articulate this, we can create a sense of purpose for the team-a purpose that is greater than one’s self. This creates commitment to the work, but more importantly to the organization and its’ members.

This expanded commitment can drive consistency in efforts, fidelity of implementation, and quality of work. When we know that our inconsistency and lack of fidelity to implement the changes we have all committed to can negatively affect the organization and our colleagues, we are more likely to stay true to our change efforts. We want to be sure we can say to our colleagues that our efforts are up to the challenge, and the desire to be a committed and dedicated member of the team can carry us in moments when we feel we cannot carry ourselves. This connection to the collective work and our colleagues can be an instrumental facet of our improvement efforts. At the heart of change is connection, an understanding that what we do or fail to do, is directly connected to the organization’s future or the future of those we serve.

The power of connection is a central theme to improvement efforts. When we make explicit effort to connect to each other, to our work, to our organizations-we are able to learn, grow, and thrive. Conversely, isolation is sure to sabotage our efforts. That’s why leaders must paint the picture for others. Name the connections. Ask others to share ways they are connected to the work and their colleagues. Ask them to name and claim the impact of their efforts and their connections. Connected people are able to take on the challenging work of improvement because they know they don’t have to do it alone!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement Part 9: Celebrate the change-big or small.

When we press for change, we have to be sure we don’t take on a deficit mindset. It means we must focus on securing small wins rather than thinking about what we are yet to accomplish. These opportunities to celebrate, small or large, are critical to the process of continuous improvement. It is in these moments, that we affirm the hard and challenging work of others, we uplift and encourage them, and we say with our words and actions that the work matters. Our acknowledgement of effort and improvement creates a sense of pride that can only come from working toward a goal and accomplishing it. That sense of pride is what helps us believe in what we’ve yet to achieve and keep going on days and moments when we realize that in spite of all the effort and desire we put forth, there are no guarantees that our work will result in the changes we are hoping to see.

Celebration doesn’t have to be massive, but it must be for the masses. That means we celebrate the efforts of everyone because we approach success collectively, the same way we approach the hard work. As a young principal, I can remember being so excited about making certificates for our entire school staff. I made them to celebrate the improvement of academic achievement we experienced after embarking on the Professional Learning Communities work for two years. Each certificate had a picture of each staff member along with his or her name and a line describing the reason for the recognition. What I did not realize until much later, is how much those certificates helped sustain our improvement efforts. Years later, I saw those same certificates hanging behind the desks of teachers, in the nurse’s office, and the custodian’s closet. That small token of celebration had sustained folks on days far beyond the day I handed it to them.

We must never underestimate the joy that comes from winning. In the school improvement arena, winning means our actions translate into all students learning, improved teacher practice, and that our schools and the people we serve are better because we were willing to do our jobs with love, care, dedication, and commitment. When we win, when we meet our goal, when we make positive progress, we celebrate to acknowledge the hard work of all who serve. Plan on winning and don’t forget to celebrate!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Let’s Stop Weaponizing Assessment

It seems that using a balanced approach to do our work as educators is an overlooked perspective these days. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to choose an extreme to support our position on literacy, accountability, and assessment. This either/or mentality in place of a both/and approach is troubling. When we fail to honor the continuum of concepts and pedagogical methods by forcing others to choose a position, we lose the opportunity to honor the fact that all of our children come to us with different and unique needs and gifts. What they need, when they need it, and how they need it simply can’t be so stringently defined. Simply put: it depends. There are far too many factors that contribute to each child’s learning journey for us to narrowly define our approach to instructing and assessing them.

With such extreme thinking, we’ve been forced into two camps when it comes to assessment. Camp A: We give too many tests. Tests are stressing our students out a great deal and our teachers are only focused on teaching to the tests. We are constantly assessing students to try and predict how they’ll perform on the big high stakes tests, and many of our students still aren’t demonstrating college and career readiness. Camp B: We have to know how our children are comparing to others in our schools, districts, state, and across the nation. These tests help us hold the educators accountable. We can see who is getting the job done, and who isn’t. We can see where large achievement gaps exist. If we don’t tests our students, how will we know how they are doing? Both perspectives are problematic, in my opinion, and it’s because we’ve weaponized assessment.

Assessment is an essential tool for effective teaching and for learning. When used as a tool rather than a weapon, it can help educators guide their instruction, create formative learning opportunities, diagnosing student misconceptions, and serve as evidence of mastery. It can also prove to be just as useful to students, building their agency in knowing what it is they know and are able to do and identifying areas where they need more deliberate practice and support. Instead, assessment has become a weapon in the accountability arsenal, a far cry from its’ original intent and purpose I believe I’ve outlined here.

Why? Why has assessment been weaponized? Why has its’ weaponization forced us into two camps of thought, neither of which is balanced? I believe there are many reasons for this. 1. It makes accountability easy to measure. It’s a convenient way to articulate the impact of teaching on learning. 2. It’s makes comparing student performance much easier than it would be if we used an assessment approach that wasn’t so easy to quantify, such as performance assessments. 3. It’s a big business. A 2012 article from Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute estimated that states spend about 1.7 billion annually on standardized testing, and in 2015 Chingos wrote a follow up article noting that in the grand scheme of things this was minimal, considering that our public education system spends an estimated 600 billion per year. He went on to explain how if the 1.7 billion was repurposed it would do little to improve teacher salaries, class size, supply budgets, etc. His conclusion is simply that we shouldn’t retreat from assessment. It helps inform policy makers and shapes their decisions, helps measure the performance of schools and educators, and enables scholars to take on research targeted at increasing academic outcomes. There is, however, a follow up to this, the growing evidence-based intervention products that are consuming the budgets of schools and districts in their attempt to improve student learning on these weaponized assessments. I wrote about the intervention overdose in an earlier blog. If you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know what you think.

I can’t help but think what might happen if we invested the dollars in intervention materials in a different way, and I’m not referencing salaries here. We can professionally develop our teachers to build their assessment literacy capacity, to work with and coach them on how to use the information from the assessment to shift their practice in a way that leads to student mastery. We can help our students develop agency, and support them in being able to speak clearly to their strengths and opportunities and their plan for growing their knowledge and skills.

I believe that the ultimate job of the teacher is to be a diagnostician. They must identify and correct misconceptions in thinking and understanding early on and this is a skill that takes practice and development. Instead, we continue to invest in outputs, gathering more results to compare, rank, sort, and hold schools and educators accountable, rather than focusing on inputs-developing the capacity of teachers to be masterful diagnosticians and improving the agency of students. That’s where our efforts and investments should be in my opinion. Thus would help end the weaponization of assessment.

I want to be clear. I don’t believe assessment is a bad thing. This isn’t an all or nothing issue. We need assessment in the educational process. No doubt about it. We just need to return to a more common sense approach. One that honors the teacher as diagnostician and the student as an agent of his or her own learning.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Let’s Elevate the Teaching Profession Now!

If you’re an educator, you may have heard folks talk about the dwindling teacher and principal pipeline or the decrease in the number of students choosing education as a major at institutes of higher education. Maybe you are aware of the vacancies in your own school, district, etc. that seem to be more challenging to fill because perhaps the demand is greater than the supply for your particular district or school.  If you’ve read the recent articles related to teacher shortage, you may see mixed reviews. In an April 2016 US News article by The Hechinger Report, the case was made that the shortage varies state by state, district by district, and school by school and in some places there is no shortage of educators to serve students at all.  As you might guess, it all relative to the geographic area and/or subject matter that is being referenced.  

I’ve yet to meet anyone who did not think that being an educator was a noble and honorable way to serve others. There may be some, but I’ve not had that experience. Responses vary from “I don’t know how you do it,” to “Thank you for what you do because we need good teachers and principals.” While the majority of those I’ve interacted with collectively express a healthy level of respect for educators, I find it quite interesting that even with that level of respect, there seems to be a challenge in the recruitment and retention of educators affecting schools and districts, and most of all children, in many places. So upon further inquiry, reading, and research, this interesting tidbit of information stood out to me. Richard Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted in the article noted above as follows: “Turnover is the big driver of the shortages,” he said. “The problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough new teachers. The problem is that we’re not retaining enough of the teachers we already have.” If the root of the issue is retention rather than recruitment, what can we do about it?

So what is it that we can do right now to assist with elevating the profession?  Can we shift the conversation to what an honor and noble opportunity it is to teach young people? Can we spend our time in informal conversations in the grocery store, in conversation over dinner with friends, with each other in the teacher’s lounge or work room talking about how proud we are to be a part of a field where our work is as critical to a student’s ability to change his or her own trajectory as a doctor’s ability to save a life in the emergency room? Can we relish in the moments when we can affirm without a doubt that we are making a difference or have made a difference and publicly document and share it? As educators, do we have a responsibly to elevate our profession by speaking openly and honestly about the value, nobility, and honor that comes with our work and being acutely aware of our participation or silent intake of conversations that emphasize the opposite? If we shift the conversation and reshape the narrative around our own profession, will that impact our ability to retain great teachers?

I’ve never met a person who didn’t want to be a part of a winning team or didn’t enjoy being around positive people, working in a fulfilling and positive environment, and being absolutely certain of the difference being made by serving a purpose greater than one’s self. I’m convinced that our narrative, now more than ever, has to shift. Let’s all do our part to elevate the profession!

-Latoya

@latoyadixon5


About That TPT Tweet

So I tweeted this one day last week…

The next morning I woke up to quite a bit of activity to this tweet. Reactions ranged from overwhelming agreement to absolute dissent. Some people saw my tweet as me shaming and judging teachers in a negative light, and others informed me that I clearly was not connected to what teachers are experiencing right now. Luckily, I’ve got thick skin and a great sense of humor, and in spite of those who thought I was shaming and judging teachers, I’m still glad to have started a conversation we clearly need to have in the teaching community. Before I go on to give further explanation on my thoughts and opinions behind this tweet, let’s define curriculum for the purposes of our discussion. Here’s a definition I really like:


“Curriculum is a standards-based sequence of planned experiences where students practice and achieve proficiency in content and applied learning skills. Curriculum is the central guide for all educators as to what is essential for teaching and learning, so that every student has access to rigorous academic experiences. The structure, organization, and considerations in a curriculum are created in order to enhance student learning and facilitate instruction. Curriculum must include the necessary goals, methods, materials and assessments to effectively support instruction and learning.

Rhode Island Department of Education

You may have noticed some of the things I did NOT tweet: 1. TPT is bad. 2. Teachers should not use TPT. 3. Teachers need to create their own curriculum. 4. Teachers who use TPT should feel ashamed. 5. Teachers who use TPT are ineffective practitioners who do not vet the things they utilize to design learning experiences for their students. I felt the need to make sure I shared what wasn’t said to perhaps clear up some of what has been assumed. Now, here’s my view of TPT and the impact on our professional work, and yes-it’s my opinion, so it’s o.k. if you don’t agree with it. I just felt the need to expand on my thinking 8,000+ likes later.

TPT is dangerously convenient. Before you decide to blast my Twitter feed because you think I am being judgmental or shaming teachers (so not me) just hear me out for a minute. Like anything else that makes designing learning experiences for our students feel easy, supplemental resources from textbook publishers included, we have to be careful about what we use to teach students what they should know and be able to do and how we use what we’ve selected. As academic practitioners, we must be critical consumers of ALL curricular resources, and not be driven to rely on sources that are designed with convenience, rather than quality, in mind. While many educators may vet what they select, the source itself has no vetting mechanism, and that is something I find troublesome. While I imagine that to be true, that’s not the point I am making here. Collecting unvetted resources and then putting them out to be shared and utilized regardless of quality isn’t very responsible of the source. There is no repository of content for sell, regardless of quality or effectiveness, in any other professional sector. Lawyers don’t have a LPL website to purchase written briefs do they? Architects aren’t buying blueprints from one another on an APA site? And no-we are not lawyers or architects, but we are professionals and I don’t think expecting some system of vetting to improve quality and effectiveness is an unreasonable expectation. Now I get it- TPT is a brilliant brain child of someone who is an entrepreneurial genius. Clearly. Essentially, someone has monetized the most critical aspect of our work: selecting what and determining how we will teach students the content and skills they need to know for any specified course of study. While I know first hand what it is like to work in an under resourced school or school system, and how difficult it can be to find quality curricular materials, I still don’t believe the quality of curriculum should be compromised, and more importantly, I don’t hold schools and districts responsible for this. The problem is so much larger. I believe unequivocally that state and federal legislators and policy makers need to sufficiently fund schools and adequately compensate teachers. No educator deserves to have to piecemeal a curriculum and no student in our public education system in this country deserves a piecemeal learning experience. If the nation cares for its children the way it should and proclaims it does, we must invest in public education in the right ways that result in adequately compensated educators and properly served children. As a public educator, I exercise this belief every time I select a candidate for a local, state, or national office. That’s why I vote with public education, students and educators, in mind every time I step in a voting booth.

Secondly, TPT as it is structured currently, can be a deterrent to building collective efficacy. Professional collaboration around the design of teaching, learning, and assessment experiences is an effective practice for improving teacher practice and student learning. Entering the arena of selling your instructional materials that were specifically designed for your students to meet their specific needs might make an educator some much needed extra money, but it also might cause educators not to share the load with their colleagues. It forces a sort of “my stuff” mindset. Many folks commented in the response to my tweet how they have had their work or known someone who had had their work essentially “stolen” and posted to TPT without their permission. They were also lots of mentions of plagiarism as well. Now I am clear that TPT isn’t the only reason why collaboration around the work can be a challenge for many department and/or grade level teams. There are all kinds of factors that impact that: time to collaborate, ability to build strong professional relationships with colleagues, trust, etc. I know that is a multi-faceted challenge. I just don’t know that TPT helps that kind of challenge, and I believe that the power of our work is in our collective ability to do it together. I whole heartedly agree that teachers need time to work together, support to do so effectively, and high quality resources to impact student learning in positive ways. I recognize that these things aren’t always present for educators, with or without TPT in the mix, but they certainly should be whenever possible. Collective efficacy has been deemed one of the key elements in the public education space for improving teaching practices, assessment design, and student learning. I believe it to be a critical aspect of our work as educators.

I can only speak to my experiences, and I can say without a doubt that I’ve witnessed misuse of curricular resources, TPT and others alike, as I am sure many of us have. I think that misuse, however, is rooted in convenience and capitalizes on the nation’s failure to invest in public education and teachers they way it should. When we make our selections for curricular resources having prioritized convenience rather than quality and effectiveness, I find myself concerned. Our students deserve a well-designed and high-quality learning experience that meets their needs and helps them reach their full potential. As practitioners, it is our professional duty to ensure that we are critical consumers of any curricular materials or resources that we use to provide our students with learning experiences they need and deserve. I believe that is likely the intention that the majority of educators have, yet I also know that our intentions are not always aligned to what we execute in our daily practices. We must be intentional and deliberate in our work because the work we do matters that much.

Finally, I realize that most of the people who responded to my tweet, positively or in dissent, don’t know me. But for the people who do know me, I mean really know me, and have worked with me as a teacher, principal, state level education leader, & instructional leader in my current district, they know this about me: I would never shame teachers. I love this profession too much to do that, and it’s just not who I am at all. I’ve dedicated 23 years of my life to public education, and I plan to fulfill my mission to have a complete career in public education until I retire. If anyone who read that tweet or reads this blog feels judged or shamed, allow me to issue you an apology: I am sorry to have made you feel that way. It certainly was not my goal.

I believe in public education and am passionate about this work because of how public education changed my life. Perhaps that’s a story for another day, but know this: I’ll never stop pushing for excellence in all we do in our work. Our children deserve it.

Y’all be easy,

Latoya

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