What Does It Take to Be Successful?

We all want to be successful.  What that means is unique to every individual.  A concert pianist? an effective educator? A respected community member? A good daughter?  The list goes on.  

So, what does it take to be successful?  

In 1907, Harvard psychologist William James wrote that humans make use of only a small part of our mental and physical resources. He continued that there is a gap between potential and its actualization. (Duckworth, Grit, 2016)

So here is another gap to close -- between potential and actualization.

Lucky for us, Angela Duckworth explores this topic in Grit ( 2016).  She conducted several studies in her examination of this gap. Long story short: she concluded that passion and perseverance are critical to closing the gap. “Grit still predicts success,” she believes. (12) She describes passion as “sustained, enduring devotion.” (58)  

Translate that to your quest: what is it that engages your sustained, engaging devotion?  “It’ will demand that you devote time to it, that you engage in practice to be better at it, that you both love/hate it.  If you are devoted to “it,” you will persevere in it.  Doggedly -- okay, maybe with some interruptions.  But you will be dragged back to it.  You will persevere because you must.

Perhaps because she is a scientist, Duckworth has a formula:

More details in a future blog.  If you can’t wait, contact me (klearn@mbaea.org).  :)


Be an Ally

Ally: to join (yourself) with another person or group, in order to get or give support

I have been meeting with a teacher who has a very challenging class regularly since the beginning of the year. The first few meetings were all the same, in a very stressful state, she expressed all her concerns and needs and was not ready for any solutions.  By our third meeting, discussing the same group of students, the conversation was again turning down a negative road and deep into “the home life” conversation. I stopped her and suggested that we discuss what our goal is for meeting. My goal was to support her in changing her mindset, to collaborate with her on preventative behavioral strategies she could use and support her in setting up some changes in her classroom that would make a positive impact on these challenging students and her whole class.   I quickly learned that her goal was to give me all the reasons why she could not work with these few students, prove to me that the situation was out of her control, that she was doing her job and that at least one of these students, if not more, needed evaluated and placed in a special education behavior program.

As I listened to her concerns about the students, I took notes and stayed quiet.  At the end I had a list of 3 main behaviors that were disrupting the classroom, keeping her from teaching and the students from learning.  As we looked at the list and prioritized what behaviors she felt were most important to focus on, she became agitated and asked me, “You think I am doing something to make this worse don’t you.”   I was surprised by the statement and wondered why she asked that. Was it my body language? Was it my silence? Or was it something she had been struggling with herself?    I assured her I was not thinking that and I was not here to judge, I was here to help and support her in improving the situation.  

We talked in detail about each student and each behavior for another 20 minutes or so, trying to stay very solution focused in our conversation.  Putting the work into building strong relationships with each student became the clear first step.  I was feeling like it was going well, until…

“So, basically you are telling me I am not only a teacher now, but I am supposed to be a parent, a counselor, and a friend to all these kids?”

I was thrown off by this and hesitated to answer. I wanted to give a long detailed answer that would make her understand that students are changing and their needs are changing and we have to change and adapt and learn new strategies and ways to reach them if we are going to make a difference and do our job.  Instead, after a pause, all I said was “Yes.  You need to fill those roles with some of your students.”

While she was not receptive to the idea at first, since that meeting, she is open to trying some relationship building strategies in her class.  It is a work in progress but she has started to change the narrative in her head.

Eric Jensen refers to this as the Relational Mindset – Why the types of relationships you have (or don’t have) with students are one of the biggest reasons that students graduate (or drop out).

As his research tells us, the need to connect is hardwired. When students feel connected, they stay in school, achieve more and are more likely to graduate. Whether you want to be a role model or not, you are a role model.  Here’s the proof:

Effect Sizes:

  • Teacher-Student relationships:   0.74
  • Teacher Empathy and warmth:  0.67
  • Teacher Respects Students:  0.61

Building relationships with students and showing that you care can result in a year and half of growth! Of course, quality relationships are not a make-or-break situation for every single student and every school.  But for students, especially those from poverty and trauma, connections are the only reason they even come to school.  Good relationships diffuse stress for students just like it does for us. Can every student in your class say, without question, that you are an ally (not an adversary)?  Do they feel like they BELONG in your class?  Do students feel SUPPORTED daily?  Are you EMPATHETIC to the world of your students?

How do teachers find time to do this?

Personalize the learning: Greet students coming and/or leaving, smile at students whether they are your favorite or not, make eye contact and share:

  • Share good, bad and maybe silly or embarrassing stories about yourself. 
  • Share an everyday problem, students from poverty need to know how adults solve everyday problems in the real world.
  • Share your personal goals and share progress on goals
  • Always use personal courtesies (please, thank you, pardon me)

Connect everyone for Success: Connecting with people is one of the few elements that genuinely make people even happier than money (Psychologist Daniel Kahneman 2012).

  • Split classroom time equally between social time and individual time
  • Cooperative learning effect size 0.59 (over a year’s growth)
  • Visit the students neighborhood, go to a game or community event
  • Ask about their personal lives and give them respect for it (hobbies, families, interests)

Show Empathy: the ability to understand and share the same feelings.

  •  Seek to understand. Listen more and talk less.  It is not about judging a student’s situation or fixing it, it is about listening and showing you care
  • Empathy does not mean you will let them off the hook for bad behavior, it means you care.  It means you want to help them get better so that they know better options for next time.

Quick-Connect Tools to quickly build relationships with students.

  • One and Done: Do one favor, make one connection, or show empathy that is so powerful that an individual or whole class remembers it.
  • Two for Ten: Identify one or two students, who most need a connection, for ten consecutive days, invest two minutes a day in connecting time to talk about anything.
  • Three in Thirty: Ask just enough questions, through any conversation, to discover three things about every student you have in class.

Connect early. Connect late.

  • Connect Early:  during the first few minutes, either right before you start or once class has started, make the “rounds”.  Take a minute to check in with them emotionally.
  • Connect Late: Watch students’ non-verbal cues and body language and be ready to “check in” when those cues tell you something is wrong.

Writing assignments:

  • #1 (from student to student): “What my peers don’t know about my life away from school…”
  • #2 (from student to teacher): “What I wish my teacher knew about me…”


Be an Ally, not an Adversary!


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True Reflection

This quote alone makes one think…reflect, perhaps…on the meaning. I have always been told that I will learn more by doing than by watching, and I truly believe that. However, I have never been told that I will learn more by reflecting than by doing. What exactly does this mean?

Last week I had a very fortunate opportunity to witness a true reflective moment that completely changed the pulse of a PLC team. A moment that seemed so simplistic yet was so impactful. A moment that will have a long-term effect on the culture and safety of the team. A moment that all began with a personal reflection by the team leader.

To begin this particular PLC meeting, the team leader shared that she had attended a recent training in which the participants were asked to do some reflecting. In the past, when asked to do this, she would write things down because that is what she was supposed to do. She was “doing”. However, at this training, she did more than just “do”. She did a true reflection, and this reflection allowed her to truly understand herself as an educator.

The team leader then proceeded to share an appreciation about each team member, and these appreciations were specific to their role as a team member. Each team member had the opportunity to hear how a particular talent, skill, or knowledge they possess has contributed to the success of the team. Through this small yet powerful gesture, the team leader encouraged her team members to reflect on what they, too, had done.

During the last five minutes of their time together, the team leader pulled out personal journals for each team member and they all independently reflected. They reflected on how well they did with their identified norm for that meeting. They reflected on their contributions to the team. They reflected on the impact their work has had on student learning. They did not just “do”…they reflected on what they had done.

Walking out the classroom door after that meeting left me with a new-found respect for the power and purpose of true reflection. Each and every day I make choices; I implement actions, I speak words, and I provide guidance to others. Each and every day I am doing, but now I make the commitment to start reflecting. Reflecting on what I have done, what went well, and what could have been done differently. It is through this reflecting that I will truly be learning.

As author Sonya Teclai wrote, “Self-reflection is a humbling process. It’s essential to find out why you think, say, and do certain things…then better yourself.”  Today I take the pledge to better myself and learn more about my impact through true reflection. Will you join me?


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Preventing Resistance through Proactively Building Consensus


Accept the fact that resistance will be a common phenomenon experienced in building multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and/or professional learning communities (PLC). However, resolve to minimize the extent and intensity of resistance through knowing the common causes of resistance and proactively building and revisiting consensus in your district, building and teams.   

MTSS and PLCs are highly effective solutions to improving learning, but both involve technical change and social change. Technical change refers to changes in the procedures or routines of how jobs are performed.  Social change, on the other hand, impacts the relationships within the organization.  Each of these aspects of change introduce reasons for individuals or groups to resist.  In her article, Ten Reasons People Resist Change,  Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies the following reasons for resistance:

  1. Loss of control - change threatening aspects of autonomy

  2. Excess uncertainty - change involving a lot of unknowns

  3. Surprise, Surprise - privately planned and suddenly announced change

  4. Everything seems different - multiple confusing or distracting changes

  5. Loss of face - change that threatens individuals associated with past leadership

  6. Concerns about competence - change that raises concerns about ability to do the work

  7. More work - overload during transition due to change

  8. Ripple effects - change affecting stakeholders more distant to the direct change

  9. Past resentments - historical bitterness to the impact of previous change

  10. Sometimes the threat is real - change poses real loss, such as job cuts

The complex changes presented by MTSS and PLCs make these reasons for resistance inherently relevant to any leaders who are being honest with themselves.  The extent and intensity of resistance can be minimized by using leadership teams as guiding coalitions for consensus leading up to and throughout the implementation of MTSS and PLCs.  

Consensus involves planfully building shared understanding about the “why” and “how” of implementing MTSS and PLCs. Some aspects involved in executing MTSS and PLCs are dictated by the research on implementation fidelity or by legislation.  This mandatory nature does not eliminate staff resistance due to misconceptions about the research and fidelity requirements or resentment of the laws.  Recent history of No Child Left Behind evidences resistance to federal law.  Closer to home, some elementary classroom teachers resist Iowa’s choice of FAST as the state endorsed universal screener.  Leadership teams should provide quality training for comprehending the vision for and research about successful MTSS and PLCs.  Thus, leaders and staff share accurate and common rather than misinformed and different interpretations as they make decisions about the discretionary and contextual aspects of MTSS and PLCs.

Consensus is even more relevant to staving off resistance to the many decisions that districts and buildings get to make about the local MTSS and PLC processes.  Examples of decisions include schedules, team memberships, new job responsibilities, interventions and purchased materials. Many of these decisions change technical and social perspectives for the staff, thus creating resistance due to more work, teacher self-perception of competency, excess uncertainty, confusion, distraction and loss of control.  Consensus is NOT unanimous consent of our staff members about decisions. Rick Dufour explains consensus as the point at which “all points of view have been heard and solicited and the will of the group is evident.”  Participation in and the opportunity to voice input increase buy in, quality of plans and compliance with decisions.  Proactive consensus building also reduces anxiety and resentment.  Although attending to consensus isn’t the absolute vaccine for resistance it is an effective remedy for lessening it.


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The Brain Rules!

Yes, the brain does rule!  We hear a lot about keeping our brains healthy and active to ward off disease.  But did you know there are 12 simple rules that will help you survive and thrive at work, home and school?  I am currently reading Brain Rules by John Medina.  Those of you who know me, realize I love this kind of book.  I am a bit of a nerd.  I want to share with you what I am learning about our brains and simple things you can do to keep your brain in tiptop shape.

 Let’s start with the first 4 rules. 

Rule #1: The human brain evolved too.

We actually have three brains in our heads.  The "lizard brain” or brain stem was first and its sole purpose is to keep us breathing, our heart beating, regulating sleep and wake times.  On top of your brain stem is your “mammalian brain” which functions include fighting, feeding, fleeing and…well I’ll skip that for now.  There are many parts to this brain that help with emotions, memories and senses.  Now for the most evolved part of our brain, the “human brain” or cortex.  Each region in our cortex has specialized functions for speech, vision and memory.  This brain made the difference between us and animals.

Rule #2: Exercise boosts brain power.

Our brains were actually built for 12 mile walks a day.  Exercise improves our thinking skills; it gets blood to our brain; diminishes are risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%.  I guess it’s time to hit the gym or the sidewalk.

Rule #3: Sleep well, think well.

You don’t need to tell me twice to go to bed.  I love a good night’s sleep.  Turns out not sleeping hurts our attention, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, executive function and motor dexterity.  We have all had some experience with loss of sleep and it’s not pretty.

 Rule #4: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way. 

Our brains were built to deal with short-term responses to stress.  Unfortunately in today’s society chronic stress is a major health problem.  Chronic stress releases adrenaline and cortisol.  Adrenaline scars your blood vessels leading to heart attack or stroke.  Cortisol damages cells in your hippocampus, which disturbs your ability to learn and remember.  Stress affects productivity at work, home and school.  Yoga anyone?

 Reflect on these 4 rules and how can you make a difference in your daily life to help with your brain health.  I’ll be back next month with 4 more rules.  I would love anyone who wants to join me in reading this book to post your thoughts and comments on this blog.


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Here I Am Ready

With any beginning there awaits new things to create that never existed, paths that inspire journeymen, and lives along these paths deserving of goodness. As for myself, this year has given me opportunities to work with people I’ve never known in places I’ve never visited for children I’ve never met performing a level of support that has never been done here. With this acknowledgement brings a sense of urgency for creativity and a purpose driven mindset more than ever before. This can easily, at any given moment, flood me with an anxiety that such work is meant for someone else or another time. I often remind myself that these thoughts do not prepare me for tomorrow, but rather zap me of today’s strength. For me, strength can come from simply stating:


“Here I am.”


To say that I am here provides me the chance to influence and inspire an action and the ideas behind it. Whether in a meeting or coaching, my presence shows a commitment and a willingness to share in the experience and grow together. This growth comes from learning what is best to help a child that we, as adults, can accomplish. When commitment and learning are in tandem, I begin to tell myself:


“Here I am, ready.”


Ready to commit to a purpose that is greater than my singular actions. Ready to use my imagination as my tool of compassion. Ready to work together with educators and colleagues to better a new generation. Ready to impact the lives that cross my path upon this journey.


“Here, I am ready.”


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One Word

As educators, we have word power; what we say to our colleagues or students carries weight, importance. A simple “How’s your day?” to a lonely student might change his day.  It works for colleagues too if you stop to really listen to the response.


Think about learning to drive.  I conjure up memories of my father sternly sitting beside me in the family’s only car.  What I interpreted at that time as impatience was probably his fear I’d total the family’s only vehicle.  Then I remember my Driver’s Ed instructor, who terrified me with his gruffness and foot inching to his brake.  Learning to drive was a painful and memorable process (it took place 50 years ago)!  I was discouraged and defeated again and again.I thought I’d never get a driver’s license.

As I think about that situation,I remember thinking that I would never be a good driver.  I wish there had been an adult to say, “Yet.  You might not be a good driver -- yet.  But you will be.”

Zoom ahead to 2016 (pun intended).  I can’t organize google docs efficiently -- YET.  I can’t play the piano -- YET!  But I can learn how to do both and many other things.

In classrooms today, some students sit listlessly with their heads down.  Or maybe they are fidgeting in their seats. Or trying to sleep.  Or alert but confused.  Some students are defeated; they no longer believe they can learn to read or to do mathematics or complete a science experiment or remember the words and melody of a song.  You get the point.   

Enter the word “YET.”

When a student murmurs, for example, “I can’t do multiplication,” an educator needs to add “yet” to that sentence and teach then student to add YET to that sentence.  “I can’t do multiplication YET.” Or “I can’t read chapter books YET.”  Or “I can’t do 10 jumping jacks YET.”  

Three second grade teachers at L & M Elementary School routinely use “yet” and teach students to use it as well.  They are excited, but not surprised, at the results.  

L & M Second Grade Team:  Kristen Brant, Brooke Morrison, Laura Harned

L & M Second Grade Team:  Kristen Brant, Brooke Morrison, Laura Harned

Brooke Morrison summed it up for the team saying, “Students' academic attitude, social goals, and behavioral expectations have all been positively impacted by Growth Mindset. No longer do we hear "I can't read this." I ‘see’ students trying hard on their own first, then seeking help from a classmate, "Can you help me with this word? I can't sound it out, YET!" It has helped create such a collaborative, "safe to fail" environment in my classroom that is such an awesome place to work and learn!”

So, let’s join a new revolution:  the power of YET.


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Thoughts of MTSS in the Education Field

Thoughts of MTSS in the Educational Field…

  • To be perfectly blunt, everything's so new to me that I don't recall what the acronym is for.
  • My perception of MTSS is a strategic and tiered approach in assisting students who display significantly discrepant levels of academic and behavioral concerns.  MTSS attempts to utilize universal, targeted, and intensive approaches and interventions in getting a student what they need to be successful in all academic settings regardless of challenges the child may have.
  • What is MTSS??
  • My interpretation of MTSS is to give kids the assistance and tools they need to be successful academically, socially, and behaviorally.

According to the Iowa Department of Education MTSS is…

“Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) in Iowa, also known as Response to Intervention or RtI, is an every-education decision-making framework of evidence-based practices in instruction and assessment that addresses the needs of all students. As an every-education process, MTSS allows educators to judge the overall health of their educational system by examining data on the educational system as well as identifying students who need additional supports. Those supports are provided in both small group and individual settings, and are monitored to ensure they support all learners demonstrate proficiency in the Iowa Core standards and leave school ready for life.

Many Iowa schools are successfully implementing components of MTSS. Together, we will move MTSS to consistent statewide implementation in every Iowa classroom.”

It is clear that there is misconception and lack of knowledge in the school buildings with what MTSS really is and the work that it can accomplish. It is also clear that there is a wide variety of knowledge base on MTSS in the school buildings. WE (AEA/LEA’s) need to be practicing what MTSS is at the building level for teachers and students, so it can help all students in the educational system. 


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Risk Takers Needed

Don’t be fooled, this label applies to every person that is reading this post. Even the most conservative and safe amongst us is a risk taker. As with everything, the term is relative to our situation and personality…but the “absolute” I need you to accept is that “WE”, “YOU”, ” THEY” are all risk takers.

You’ve taken a risk thousands of times throughout your life. Jumping on a bike for the first time (the dang thing won’t even stand up without me on it…how’s it not going to tip when I start riding?) Asking that boy or girl out to the movies…reaching over and holding their hand. The first time you spoke up and disagreed with something your mother or father-in-law was talking about.  All, risks. Certainly some paid off and some fell flat.

We tend to avoid taking risks because of the obvious consequence that we might fail. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward…or failure.

The problem is, “risk taker” has transformed into something that only seems applicable to someone who does it on a larger scale.

If I ask you to give me the names of some major risk-takers, names like George Washington, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk would probably come to mind. The potential for being executed, financially bankrupt, or a worldwide laughing stock are certainly large risks to take, but they aren’t the type of risks most people need to/or will take.

We need risk takers now, more than ever, especially in education. I hate the term “teaching is a noble profession.” No it isn’t! Teaching is a noble “vocation.”

A vocation is a unique calling, not something every person is cut out for. Teachers wield some of the strongest influences in regards to the growth and direction of our country and this cannot be understated. Because of this we need educational risk takers now more than ever. Here’s why: 

What is your answer to the following question?

“Can you guarantee to EVERY parent of the students in your room, that their child is learning at high levels. More so, could you prove it?”

I know what my answer, as a teacher, would have been. NO.

If you had the same answer and truly view education as a vocation that strengthens and betters the future of our country, than you have begun step one of a very important process to successful risk taking. Notice I said “successful.” The concept of a risk is that there is no guarantee for success. So, the key then becomes in mitigating as much risk as possible before taking your risk. I have found that following a simple formula can have a tremendously positive impact on the outcome of your risk. This equation is something that I have developed over the past few years and has proved to work very successfully regardless of the “risk magnitude.”

Successful Risk-Taker equation:

Awareness + Acceptance + Ardent Action = Reward

Step 1: Awareness

You are now aware of the problem and I am assuming that you see it as an issue that not every student in your classroom is learning at high levels (this includes the gifted students that might be cruising through your course with very little challenge)

A problem needs fixed. That’s our typical mentality as humans. You can’t fix a problem until you are aware of it. Awareness is important, but it is sometimes is the step we all get stuck on. This can easily turn into gripe sessions if we don’t move past awareness. Remember, awareness doesn’t mean jack unless you decide to do something with that information. Your mind needs to quickly shift towards to the next part of the equation “acceptance.” However, going into this next phase, you need it straight in your mind that you will have to do things differently.  Otherwise, don’t expect to see a different result. What needs to be done differently? That is for the next step…for now, just being aware of the problem is key.

Step 2: Acceptance

The above image is from inside my wallet/money case and I think it sums up step 2 of the risk taking process “Acceptance”, perfectly.  “Did you do what you wanted with this life or did life do what it wanted to you?” Acceptance means you have identified the problem, and although it it’s not going to be easy, you are willing to stay true to who you are and work to fix the problem. Regardless of what others might think or say.

Before you can accept, sometimes you need to reflect on your current state: “What do you expect out of yourself as an educator?” “Do you still view what you do as a vocation?” “Do you believe you have a valuable impact on students?” “Are you giving students your best? “

If you are searching for “that something different” in order to change your response to the answer I posed about EVERY student learning at high levels found above, I suggest utilizing the PLC process with fidelity.

PLC’s, or Professional Learning Communities, are where teachers work collaboratively and humbly to share data, strategies, interventions etc. to produce high levels of learning for all students. PLC’s have statistically shown to have some of the greatest effect sizes on student learning.  

However, Awareness and Acceptance are the easiest parts of the equation to work through. Without the final, most important variable, your risk will most likely fail.

Step 3: Ardent Action

An unwavering commitment and dedication to what you have accepted is absolutely the secret sauce to the equation. The idea that you might need to have some difficult conversations, not remain everyone’s best friend, and perhaps accept that the way you have done things in your classroom might not be the best way to do things moving forward cannot scare you away from the target of success. “Did you do what you wanted with your life or did life do what it wanted with you?” This is a call to leadership, belief, and commitment to what you are doing. I can’t think of a more noble cause than pursuing high levels of learning for all students. If you keep pushing your team, asking the hard questions, searching for the “right” answers you really won’t have any option but to succeed (Reward.) Success breads success and what initially might have appeared as taking a significant risk…probably won’t feel like much of a risk in hindsight. Lead by example and always keep the focus of “why you are doing what you are doing.”

Awareness + Acceptance + Ardent Action = Reward

This equation can be applied to almost any situation, whether educational, personal, entrepreneurial, etc. Most people that appear to take larges risks, when asked about how they had the courage to do so, respond that they really didn’t see much risk in what they were doing. Why is that? Because they knew they controlled the most important variable of the equation “Ardent Action.” They controlled the laser focus and intensity with which they are going to approach their problems or challenges and would do whatever it took to get the “reward” they desired.  The more you work through this process, the easier it becomes to implement it with “larger risks.” I would find it hard to believe that George Washington’s first major risk-taking experience was to sign up as general of the revolting colonists against the strongest military force of that time.  The problem was identified, he accepted a solution that fit with is own personal beliefs and ideals, and took ardent action. His rewards can be seen almost everywhere (including my wallet).

I have quoted Einstein and Alexander the Great in this post but I want to leave you with a thought about risk-taking and the rewards it can elicit.  These are from the wise philosopher Steve Harvey :)

Jump (Taking The Risk)


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