ELENA AGUILAR is an accomplished educational presenter, speaker, and author. She strives to help leaders learn, be their best selves, and serve students well. In 2018, Elena published Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, and in 2020 she released Coaching for Equity: Conversations That Change Practice.
Questions That Guided Our Conversation
1:15 – Why don’t you start by telling us a little more about your current context in education?
2:27 – First things first: how are you doing right now? How are you handling the home quarantine and social distancing?
4:37 – It’s story time! Please share with us about a low moment or an experience of adversity that you’ve faced in your teaching or education career, and describe how you overcame it.
08:48 – In 2018, you published Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. This seems like an especially timely focus today, with educators everywhere having to reinvent their practice and respond to challenges on a variety of levels. What are some pieces of wisdom and insight that you could share from your book that might provide educators with some hope and encouragement during a very challenging time in our schools?
18:46 – If you could offer one practical strategy or bit of advice to educators around the challenges of building equity, what would that be?
21:24 – How are you looking to grow professionally and improve your practice right now? Can you share about a specific professional goal or project that you’re currently working on?
22:41 – Outside of education, what’s another area of learning for you? What is it that ignites your passions outside of the classroom and brings you alive as a human being? Tell us why this area interests you and why you enjoy it.
23:39 – When it comes to writing, are you the sort of structured or disciplined writers that follows the same writing time each day?
JONATHAN ALSHEIMER teaches seventh grade history at the legendary Fred M. Lynn Middle School. He’s a family man, keynote speaker, and the author of #NextLevelTeaching: Empowering Students and Transforming School Culture. As much as he enjoys speaking to teachers about education, it’s a thrill for him to share his story with students and motivate them to overcome adversity in their own learning journeys.
Early Struggles with the Game of School
Although he grew up in an education household, Jonathan freely admits that he struggled to play the game of school. As a kid, test-taking was difficult, and he remembers adopting a facade of confidence to cover up those insecurities. To be successful, he realized he would need to work hard and never give up, and he carried that never-quit ethic into athletics and throughout his school and college career.
He’s found strength in being honest about his academic journey and enjoys encouraging students to keep pushing, keep grinding, never give up, and overcome those challenges that today seem insurmountable. “Be that teacher that you needed when you were a kid,” he says, and it’s something he keeps constantly in mind regarding his own practice. We need to see past the data and the test results to recognize each child for who they are and the journey they’re on.
Next Level Teaching
One of the biggest motivators behind his book, Next Level Teaching, traces back to a major language arts test that Jonathan failed in high school. As painful as that failure was, it’s only made him more determined to become first a Master of Education and now a published author. He’s walking the walk — living out his message that hard work and determination can overcome the demons of failure and adversity. To the doubters and haters that second-guessed his potential, this book is a mic drop.
One of his hopes for this book is that it inspires teachers to reach out to learners and classrooms beyond the door of their classroom. No, one teacher won’t completely revolutionize an entire school and culture by themselves. But our influence goes much further than we think it does, and it’s when committed teachers truly take ownership of their communities that we start to see systemic change.
Bring the energy, bring the passion, engage with kids, and love on students beyond your classroom and throughout your building, Jonathan urges. Take those opportunities during supervision duties or athletic events to connect with kids on another level and communicate care. Be “that teacher” that we all look back to with fondness, the one who believed in us and made a difference beyond the academics.
To teachers who struggle to connect with their learners, Jonathan encourages them to view each student as their own child. How would that relationship change the ways you relate to that hard-to-reach kid?
Kids need to feel empowered; when they feel that they can’t win or don’t matter, that’s when they withdraw, isolate, and tune out. Teachers should rethink “throwaway minutes” and use that time to build quick connections and trust. When kids love you and they love your classroom, they’re more likely to learn. “I’ll throw away 30 minutes today to gain an hour of focused instruction next week,” Jonathan says. Find their interests and connect with them there, and you’ll be on your way to building a positive relationship.
What Else is Setting Jonathan on 🔥 in Education: TeacherFit
One thing that Jonathan is hyped about today is TeacherFit, a health and wellness program for teachers. It’s simple, affordable, and has the capacity to significantly improve the health and wellbeing of an entire staff community. Even better, TeacherFit gives Jonathan great mentoring opportunities with students. He’s been working out after hours at school, and students have been joining in. It’s been another great on-ramp for relationship-building with students, and it’s improving the health, wellness, and community culture at Fred Lynn Middle School.
A Professional Goal: More Speaking to Students
Jonathan’s new book has taken a lot of his his focus and attention over the last year, but he also continues to build his capacity to speak to students. He is speaking at schools in Texas and Kansas in January and anticipates more opportunities in the months to come. Some of the feedback from schools and students has been incredible, and to hear that his message is giving hope to the hopeless pushes him to do more. There are kids that need to hear that message of hope at virtually every school.
Personal Passions That Bring Jonathan Alive
“I’m all about getting out there and living life,” Jonathan says. “I wanna DO stuff in life.” He’s committed to living a life with no regrets, visiting new places, and trying new things. He’s already tried white water rafting, climbing mountains, and mixed martial arts fighting, and he looks forward to experiencing a shark cage next. It’s all about living life to the fullest and modeling a spirit of risk-taking for his learners, and his experiences make for great stories, illustrations, and connection points in the classroom as well. “You can be okay with what you got or you can push life to the max,” he tells his students.
His Key to Productivity: A Relentless Spirit
Instead of an app or routine, Jonathan points to his relentless spirit as his key to productivity. It’s a value that kids need to learn to nurture and grow within themselves over time, he says. That said, it’s also important to take some time for yourself, and Jonathan credits his amazing wife for helping him find balance between work and play. Next Level Teaching isn’t about spending money and hours on Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s about acknowledging that you as the teacher are the single most important factor for learning in the classroom, and that being the case, we need to care for ourselves properly.
Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice
Over on Twitter, Jonathan recommends following his principal, Hamish Brewer. Hamish has been absolutely inspirational, genuine, and he really does walk the walk at Fred Lynn Middle School. Connect with Hamish on Twitter @BrewerHM.
When asked for an edtech tool pick, Jonathan goes to iMovie. It’s nothing new, but kids love it, he says. It’s such an easy and powerful way to energize learning activities and engage students in the act of creation.
This episode released during the Christmas season, so when prompted for an all-time favorite Christmas movie, Jonathan went with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It’s one of those family classics that never fails to deliver laughs.
We sign off on this inspiring conversation, and Jonathan gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with him online. See below for details!
VERNON WRIGHT is an education leader, speaker, host, and editor. He’s a voice for the people, he pours into relationships, and he lives to serve, motivate, and inspire in authentic ways. He has served in education for over fifteen years as a teacher, teacher leader, campus administrator, and central staff leader.
Leading Before the Title
Early into his administrative career, Vernon found himself working for someone who had low visibility, little situational awareness, and almost no emotional intelligence. This leader was invisible in their building, didn’t give voice to staff members, and refused to take action when necesssary. As a result, staff members in the building would seek out Vernon for insights or support, even though in theory they should have been checking in with his superior.
When he asked them why this was happening, they responded that he was visible, he listened to others, and he was a leader of action. Vernon realized through these affirmations that he was leading above his title, and it was a lesson that he has taken with him into every leadership context since. The experience further solidified his core leadership values and helped him understand the nuances of coaching and dialogue, even with people who are at the same level of authority or higher.
Welcome to the #ZeroApologyZone
Vernon is pioneering a movement among educators that he calls the #ZeroApologyZone. It’s characterized by the words “Believe. Study. Hustle. Manifest. Repeat.”
Believe. What do you believe about yourself? What do you believe about others? What do you believe about your purpose?
Study. We need to study to show that we are ready to have an impact. We need to prepare. If we want to increase our influence, we must increase our competence.
Hustle. Take action. Move from being interested to committed.
Manifest. Show outcomes and evidence of impact. Do work that is visible and makes a difference for others.
Repeat. Once you’re able to work through this process with positive results, why not do it again? As long as it is bringing impact and benefiting others, this is a cycle worth repeating.
Vernon calls this cycle the #ZeroApologyZone because all too often, we apologize for things that we shouldn’t apologize for. When we become a voice for the people, when we advocate for equity and justice, when we do good work in education, we should never apologize for ruffling feathers along the way.
Who are you? What are you all about? What do you stand for without apologies?
Identify those things, and you’ll be well on your way to creating your own powerful mission and vision statement. You’ll build that emotional intelligence that not only understands who you are in real time, but what is really at your core, your essence, your spiritual DNA.
Connect, Impact, and Scale
To take our journeys of personal and professional growth to the next level, we need to think in terms of connect, impact, and scale.
Connect: we need to reach out, network, dialogue, and understand the mission, vision, and purpose of the people around us.
Impact: once we understand others and build authentic connections, we’re in a position to better support and collaborate.
Scale: we don’t limit our influence to vertical 1:1 relationships, but expand that influence horizontally. When we support one person, others can and should benefit as well. In the age of the internet, we have all the tools we need to share great learning and leadership with audiences around the world.
Why YOU Should Create Content
To educators who doubt the value of sharing their own message, Vernon says that what seems obvious to you may not be obvious at all to others. What may be commonplace wisdom to you might be someone else’s breakthrough, but it requires moving from a consumer to a creator in order for the world to share in your learning.
Content creation is sometimes perceived as selfish or narcissistic when actually the opposite is true. Sharing information, ideas, and experiences is actually the selfless thing to do, because it requires courage, time, and energy to share, and it allows others to benefit from your ideas.
Real Leaders Mentor and Elevate
When you share your ideas and pour into other people, you’re building a legacy that matters. Legacy requires impact and evidence, and when people tell Vernon they are a leader, the first question he asks is “Who are you mentoring?”
Real leaders are always looking for opportunities to impact, influence, and elevate the voices of others. A scarcity mindset says that if we elevate others, we might lose some of the spotlight and audience ourselves, but actually the opposite is true. In contrast, an abundance mindset says that as we elevate others, others will elevate us.
You were put on this earth for a reason. You are not alone, and your existence is not pointless. Your voice and your perspectives are wanted and needed by others, and to believe otherwise is a lie. The greatest fulfillment in life is not found in wealth or fame but in the connections and impact we make on others. If we can reach one person, that act of contribution was worth it.
What is Disrupt Ed TV?
Disrupt Ed TV shares inspiring messages for educators through a number of mediums and platforms. The organization is made up of a team of education leaders who address the most important issues in education, each from their own perspective.
It’s been a phenomenal experience for Vernon, both personally and professionally, and he is deeply grateful to the founders of this project for allowing him to partner with them. He regards his decision to join Disrupt Ed TV as a watershed moment in his journey, a door that he walked through that significantly altered his future.
Walking Through Doors and Watershed Moments
Walking through a door is taking action, and action is the key that unlocks the door of opportunity. It’s committing to step forward, to manifest, to move into our destiny. If we don’t take the action, we leave all the amazing opportunities waiting for us on the other side of the door.
Are you committed to being a lifelong learner? Are you committed to constantly pushing your journey of growth forward? In order to grow it, we need to show it. We can’t ask for growth and innovation from our team unless we’re pushing ourselves first through demonstrated action.
Professional Projects on the Go
Vernon was recently privileged to speak at Rewire, a star-studded education conference that took place in Tabernacle, NJ. He is also developing a line of apparel that amplifies his message, and he invites listeners to join the #ZeroApologyZone at thewrightleader.com.
We’re all walking billboards, he reminds us. What is your billboard saying? We can either choose to craft our message and brand with thought and intentionality, Vernon says, or we can allow others to craft it for us. Do you know what your brand is all about?
Vernon is doing a lot of coaching and consulting, and he invites listeners to reach out by DM if they are interested in engaging his services there. He also enjoys ongoing partnerships with people like Aubrey Patterson at Nohea Kindreds and others like Sarah Thomas and Mandy Froehlich at EduMatch.
A lot of people see the public successes but miss the private hustle, Vernon points out. If you’ve been hustling for some time in private, it may be your moment to start manifesting in public, which helps you connect, impact, and scale your message even further.
Personal Passions: Personal Coaching and Consulting
Vernon lives to take people from version 1.0 to 2.0. To that end, he is passionate about increasing scale in order to reach more people with the message that 1.0 is not good enough. Listen to the small voice inside, he urges, that wants us to take things to the next level. If you’ve been waiting for your sign that it’s time to grow, consider this conversation the sign.
Productivity Hacks: Goal-Setting and Vision Boards
There are two things Vernon does on the regular that he encourages all educators and thought leaders to do in order to maximize their productivity.
Write down your goals and be very specific.
Review them, meditate on them, and reflect on them daily.
Mix in a dash of hustle, and you will realize your goals. It’s about being focused. Vernon has found from personal experience that as he codifies his goals and makes them his Magnificent Obsession, things begin to line up. Make your goals SMART and again — review them daily.
Vernon also recommends using vision boards that can be referred to regularly, from morning to evening. Every time he passes by his vision boards, he is reminded of where he is headed, even if just on a subconscious level.
Voices & Resources That Inspire His Thinking
Over on Twitter, Vernon recommends following DisruptEdTV @DisruptedTV. DisruptEd was the organization that first allowed Vernon to find his voice and grow his influence, and he’s grateful for the opportunities they’ve given him and their continuing influence in education. Two other must-follows that are also connected to DisruptEdTV are Evan and Laura Robb. Follow them @ERobbPrincipal and @LRobbTeacher.
The edtech tool that Vernon finds indispensable in his work is the GSuite, Google’s suite of cloud-based applications. In particular, Vernon is a big fan of the power of Google Slides to facilitate creation, collaboration, and communication from any device or location.
Going back to Ed Mylett, Vernon is a huge fan of Ed’s podcast as well. Although he doesn’t speak directly to education, Ed is another thought leader who challenges you to take your impact to the next level.
Not surprisingly, Vernon’s first YouTube channel shoutout goes to DisruptEd TV – a must for every serious educator. And Vernon also points to Ed Mylett’s YouTube channel as a place for guaranteed inspiration.
When he’s got some down time for Netflix, Vernon is all about learning. His Netflix selections of choice are inevitably documentaries.
We sign off on this legendary conversation, and Vernon gives us the best places to connect with his message online. See below for details!
When asked about an experience of adversity on his education journey, Trevor thinks back to his first five years in the profession. There were many forks in the road, he says, where he found himself questioning whether or not he even wanted to stay in education. It took him a while to move from substitute teaching to a full-time contract, and even then it was a real challenge to juggle all the responsibilities of a classroom teacher: lesson planning, unit design, assessment, parent communication, coaching, and other duties.
Trevor credits his local community of colleagues and professional peers who gave him advice, encouragement, and solidarity during those early years. Although his professional learning network has evolved far beyond the bounds of his own building, he continues to appreciate the power and importance of collaboration today.
First and foremost, Trevor says, he never proposes that other teachers must do things his way. “Teaching is an art with incredible nuance and subtlety, and there’s simply no lockstep approach or prescriptive framework to what makes a good teacher.”
That said, Trevor readily admits that inquiry-based learning is where his heart is, and he loves nothing more than helping other educators see what is possible for learners. Education has changed a great deal in the last decade – not just because of our access to phones but also in terms of the amount of prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom. It’s no longer about how much students know, but about what they can do with what they know.
Inquiry-based learning challenges teachers to facilitate experiences that help our learners to explore content and then create products that have an impact on others. Inquiry also challenges students to investigate the “un-Googleable” questions, the sort of questions that Google Home and Alexa cannot help them with. These are the kinds of vast, broad questions that students must chew on and wrestle with over extended periods of time. Inquiry encourages the development of the 4 Cs: competencies that are absolutely critical in today’s workforce. As a framework, inquiry provides the space and common language for students to become creators, problem-solvers, and active agents of their learning.
Inquiry and Curiosity
Children enter the school system full of curiosity, chomping at the bit to learn, to play, to read, and to interact. Sadly, students often leave high school with that curiosity and joy of learning greatly diminished. “Curiosity is at the heart of how we can better meet the needs of all of our learners,” Trevor points out.
We need to look at our curriculum with an eye to integrating inquiry approaches – it never needs to be a situation of all or nothing, inquiry vs the curriculum. Inquiry-based learning, when properly applied, allows us to explore prescribed curricular outcomes through the lens of curiosity and creativity.
Understanding the Types of Student Inquiry
In the swimming pool illustration, Trevor divides the types of student inquiry into four levels: structured, controlled, guided, and free. Although it might seem tempting to jump quickly into the deep end of the swimming pool, Trevor cautions against initiating free inquiry without giving learners the necessary tools, understanding, and vocabulary. To move too far and too fast into inquiry is to invite chaos and confusion for teachers and learners, so strategy and forethought is required here.
Ideally, a school can work together on strong and structured units of inquiry-based learning so that all learners in the community become familiar with a common language. Frame those first units of study around central, unGoogleable questions. Use provocations to spark rich and engaging entry points to new areas of interest and study, and allow space for students to pursue side paths and related questions along the way. For help in getting started, visit TrevorMacKenzie.com for a large collection of free inquiry unit planning templates and other resources.
Inquiry and Assessment
When first introduced to inquiry-based learning, educators often have questions around assessment. To help guide teachers through these challenges and demonstrate what assessment can look like in the inquiry classroom, Trevor is currently working on a book that speaks directly to the mindset shift he has experienced around assessment in his own practice, and he goes on to describe some of the changes he’s made in the classroom.
For example, he no longer puts any numbers or letter-grades on formative assessments — he only offers feedback. He also makes sure that students are invested in the assessment process through the co-creation of criteria, the inclusion of student voice, and by making sure that assessment occurs in the classroom, by and with students — instead of something done to them. Assessment done properly infusescourse content instead of taking the shape of something slapped on to the end of a unit of a study.
The Power of Grading Conferences
I just spend the last two days writing my report cards WITH my students.
I asked them about their strengths.
I asked them to share a future learning goal.
We looked at their body of work and we selected a grade. Together.
Speaking to the power of the conference, Trevor says that the simple decision to sit down with each of his learners to discuss their assessments for the term was one of the most helpful and practical moves he’s ever made in his practice. He immediately noticed the empowerment and sense of agency that the conferences gave students. For a change, many of his students actually wanted their parents to read their report cards because they had a direct hand in crafting those comments. Even more importantly, the process broke many students out of a fixed mindset regarding what past report cards and the education system had told them they were and were not capable of as learners.
Could Inquiry Reshape Professional Development?
Sadly, Trevor says, professional development is often not designed by teachers, and as a result, there can be a disconnect between philosophy and practice. Make sure that teachers have a voice, and make relevance and immediate application high priorities in the design of professional development activities, he urges.
What Else is Setting Trevor on 🔥 in Education
Beyond inquiry, something else that is setting Trevor on fire in education today is the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s taken some hard looks at cultural responsiveness, systemic biases, allyship, identity studies, and the unpacking of his own personal biases. Educators who greatly impress Trevor in this space include Gary Gray Jr., Liz Kleinrock, and Cornelius Minor. If we want our students to truly understand themselves as learners, people, and human beings, we owe it to them to help them understand the biases, narratives, and historical forces that shape our understanding of ourselves.
Serving with Presence
As much joy as he derives from working with learners in his classroom, Trevor is also passionate about teaching teachers and working with other educators around the world. Balancing the two consituencies well and being fully present in every context requires intentionality and mindfulness. “As I enter the classroom each and every day, I’m asking how I can be present and mindful of what’s immediately before me,” Trevor says.
A Personal Passion: Cycling
Trevor is an avid cyclist, and on many mornings he is up early and out of the house on his bike before school. He also enjoys a good community of fellow cyclists in his area that he enjoys biking and racing with. Cycling gets him going, fires him up, and keeps him healthy so that he can serve others well.
A Productivity Hack: Early Mornings
Trevor’s best productivity hack is to get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning, and he’s been inspired by other creatives to work before the rest of the world is awake. It’s the perfect time to tie up loose ends, complete tasks, do important reading, or write reflectively. With small children at home and students at school, the early morning is simply the best block of time in the day to be productive and undistracted.
Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice
Over on Twitter, Trevor recommends following @TheMerrillsEdu. The Merrills are an amazing elementary teaching couple who take creativity to a whole new level in their practice. Make sure to give them a follow!
No edtech tool has revolutionized Trevor’s assessment practices more than FlipGrid, where students post video responses and interact with each other’s ideas. Microsoft recently acquired this legendary platform and made its features absolutely free for educators, increasing equity and access for all learners in the process. Make sure to connect with Flipgrid on Twitter @FlipGrid.
As for YouTube channels, Trevor is going back to one of the faves he mentioned previously: Gary Gray Jr. Gary is an important voice in the conversation on equity and he keeps things real on his channel.
Although his kids are still too young for the chills and thrills of this popular series, Trevor has been enjoying Stranger Things whenever he does find the time for some entertainment on Netflix.
We sign off on this terrific conversation, and Trevor gives us the best ways to connect with him online. See below for details!