The author of “Leading Beyond Your Title: Creating Change in School from Any Role,” Nili Bartley, shares reasons and strategies for generating leadership opportunities for students to lead. She identifies the value of teachers leading with their passions and learning the passions of others. Countless opportunities to create real change exist in every school just waiting for someone to take the lead.
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Steve: 00:34 Leadership in the classroom and beyond. Joining our podcast today is Nili Bartley, the author of, “Leading Beyond Your Title: Creating Change in School from Any Role.” Nili is currently a technology teacher and a digital learning and innovation coach in Massachusetts. Welcome, Nili.
Nili: 00:58 Thank you so much for having me, Steve. I’m honored to be here.
Steve: 01:02 Well, thank you for joining us. As I explored your blog and your website, I know that you see giving students opportunities to lead as being extremely important. So I’m wondering if you could expand on that for us.
Nili: 01:19 Yeah, I would love to. I could share my opinion like all day about the power in students leading but I think even better was to do something that we tried last year was to ask everybody in the school basically why they felt students leading was important. So I’d love to share that part first because I thought it was really powerful. So we actually took nine students out of our school to another district for their digital learning day to share a student lead PD session on their leadership experiences at our school based on helping to lead school-wide initiatives, clubs that they were running, which we have a lot of student lead clubs after school, which is pretty unbelievable, and their experiences potentially with project-based learning. And what we wanted to do was have them first, create a video to serve as the foundation for what they were about to share.
Nili: 02:18 So we had a few kids run around the building one day after school and literally just ask as many staff members and students as they could, one question. And that is, “what makes schools better when students lead?” And it was so clear, and I agree with this wholeheartedly, that the most common theme that we were hearing was, if you really think about it just in numbers, there are significantly more students than staff members and administrators in a school building. So for example, I think we have like close to 900 students, we have 150 staff members. if we don’t ask for student voice and we don’t ask them to help us lead, then I really believe we’re missing the boat. And to take that and carry it into the culture of every classroom is invaluable. If you don’t already have some sort of student leadership team or student cabinet, I would highly advise that because you can just bring your ideas and questions to them and then ask for their input.
Nili: 03:25 And I think that’s a really powerful way of getting their voice in terms of what you might wanna try with your staff, what you might want to design to be a part of the school. So highly recommend having some sort of student leadership team to join you in the decision making and the actions for your building. So for me, I try to encourage my students to constantly be teaching each other and to be teaching me and I think that when we open ourselves up to being the learner, then there’s certainly more room for innovation, more room for ideas that we wouldn’t have had in the room otherwise and then those ideas can be shared and scaled. I will share that I tried something brand new just yesterday that resulted from me not being able to get to students to collaborate with them on solutions that they were trying to figure out in time.
Nili: 04:22 So I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this experience, but you have students that are raising their hands. We used to use little Velcro hands and so they could keep working and typing with both hands until I got to them. But what was happening is they weren’t going around the classroom kind of yelling, “can anybody help me with this until Mrs. Bartley can get to me?” Because obviously that’s a little awkward, but they’re asking such advanced questions about the technicalities of their projects that they’re doing with co-spaces and coding that it takes time for me to sit with them to collaborate with them. So I created this help board, or I guess collaboration board using Jamboard. So it was up on the big screen and there was a column for their name, a column for what we were calling their struggle situation.
Nili: 05:07 The third column, a student who was willing to help put their name, and once the situation is resolved, they put a check mark. And so if I couldn’t get to a student, they were using this board and one got so excited he didn’t just put his name, he put, “so-and-so is here to help.” I had another student who didn’t even know how to help her classmate, but when she saw the question, figured it out just so she could help. I just tried it to see what would happen and they needed some reminders and it was very cute, but it put kids in a situation right off the bat – okay, I’m gonna try to get the courage to jump into this and do the best I can. And also really hit home the message that it’s okay to not know for sure how to do something and to ask each other for help. So I just tried that and that’s something that you can set up in your classroom really regardless of students’ ages.
Steve: 06:08 Yeah. So what lead you to to work on a book on leading?
Nili: 06:15 Well, I did a lot of writing, but I never really had the intention to write a book. So I had like 20 to 25 blog posts on a blog that I had titled, “Take It to the Classroom.” And this was really inspired because several years ago I had tried a student lead camp and I had tweeted about it, and a teacher in Florida said, when are you gonna write about it? And I thought I had already written about it in my 180 characters or whatever we were allowed back then. I think this is 2015. And that opened my eyes up to, okay, I’ll try this blog post writing thing. And when “Lead Like a Pirate” came out by Beth Hoff and Shelly Burgess, they were looking soon after to do a series of guidebooks that would take certain themes from their amazing book and dive a little bit deeper.
Nili: 07:08 And so they had noticed through my posts that there was this common theme of trying to empower others. And they reached out to me and said, this theme of sort of empowering others regardless of their roles and empowering ourselves, we would like you to kind of explore this further. So for me, I don’t wanna say it fell in my lap because I had written and they had obviously noticed something, but it wasn’t this, I have an idea to pitch and here we go. So I kind of had to work a little bit backwards and say to myself, alright, what do I have here in front of me that I can now write a book about and extend with more writing? So that’s kind of how it came to be.
Steve: 07:51 I noticed as I traveled around your blogs and your website that you make a connection between failing and leading and I wondered if you’d label that a little bit for us.
Nili: 08:05 Yeah. So I failed a lot when I went from being a classroom teacher for 12 years and then jumping into becoming a technology integration specialist for a K-1 building and a second and third grade building. So I was working with at least a hundred staff members instead of 24 students who were running into the classroom like, “hey, what’s next?” And they were eager to do whatever we were going to come up with together. I had been very much a pirate teacher. I had read “Teach Like a Pirate” and was incredibly passionate about using each letter of p.i.r.a.t.e., passion, immersion, rapport, ask & analyze, transformation and enthusiasm into play with my students and thought I’m just gonna be as passionate and enthusiastic as as I can in this new role and everybody’s gonna love what I am sharing.
Nili: 09:00 It didn’t work as well as I had thought. And I failed in a lot of ways by putting passion first. And what ended up happening, and I write about this, is that I was passion pushing instead of really investing my time to learn the passions of others. So there were definitely people who were like right on board with me and they’re like, let’s do this. But I really learned to slow down and to take rapport and let it really take the wheel. And I made it very clear, I think, at a couple different staff meetings so I could be right in front of my colleagues, to say like, I wanna be more connected with each of you and my biggest message was, I’m gonna show up. And that’s exactly what I did. So for the rest of my time there, the most important thing that I could possibly do is just show up and listen and listen to what my colleagues were invested in, the questions that they were asking. And it was much more of a team effort to the point where there are things that I did that although weren’t terrible, still kind of make my stomach hurt. So I’m much more conscious of not making those same mistakes. I’m much more sensitive about it, and I think that that makes me a better leader and more in tune with those around me.
Steve: 10:17 You want to tell folks a little bit about the various things they might find if they explored your book?
Nili: 10:22 Yeah. I’d love to do that. So what it really is, is about challenging the traditional definitions that come with our titles in education. So regardless of our roles, regardless of our titles, it’s really meant to be a resource of encouragement that we can all show up as who we are and offer all that we can. Because honestly, I really feel like the world deserves nothing less. It’s a part of the Lead Like a Pirate series, so again, the letters that I mentioned, the acronym for Pirate, each letter definitely makes an appearance in the book. But I’d say the one that stands out the most is definitely passion. And I’m really passionate about bringing our personal content and professional passions to school and asking our kids to do the same. And Dave Burgess writes about this in “Teach Like a Pirate,” and in fact, one of the last chapters in the book is called “Passion Up.”
Nili: 11:22 And so I found myself, after I was still failing – and that’s okay and still learning, but once I was having more success with making positive change within the cultures of our buildings, teaming up with my colleagues in an effective way, I would still often feel like in this role, you can definitely feel kind of alone and you may have people that are critical – near or far. And in more than one occasion, I was kind of asked to not be so passionate or to limit what I was passionate about. And it occurred to me, well, what if it’s not always me? What if other people, instead of like telling me to calm down, what if other people chose to passion up? What might the world look like then? So the book really does stand out in that way.
Nili: 12:15 It’s a pretty enthusiastic book. And the first section is really about student leadership and how pivotal asking students to lead with us can play a role in our own leadership journey. The first section really does tell the story of my experience with my last class of fourth graders before I changed roles. And it really talks about the concept of bringing the class out of the room. So a lot of times when teachers are asking like, “what’s the first step? What’s the best way to really kind of lead beyond your classroom and make an impact in the whole building versus just with your students?” I say, lead with your kids. So an example of doing the tutoring, we also, when they’re teaching other kids outside of our classroom, we also, that year, we did genius hour, we did ed-camp, we did a cardboard arcade, we tried this “Super You” curriculum developed by a rockstar musician and Broadway show creator named Lawrence Lane.
Nili: 13:19 And whatever we did, we were inviting people in and not just for the final product. Whether we were presenting our projects to the community, we invited people to see the messy. In fact, I didn’t even have kids really pick up after themselves at the end of the day because I was like, well, we’re just gonna start the next day into our projects. So I think that when you lead with your students and the hype sort of starts to spread in the hallways and people become curious, inviting them in to play the games you’ve created, to check out the projects you’ve done, when I say invite them to the messy, I learned this from Katie Martin, it really kind of – we talked about like that vulnerability, right? When they see that it’s hard and that we’re gonna fail a lot, and then we’re gonna struggle, it’s more inviting and welcoming and comfortable to then say like, “oh, maybe I can do that.”
Nili: 14:05 Whereas if we’re only sharing the finished, polished products, it could be a little overwhelming and scary to have the confidence to try something similar with students. The other thing is that when you are really trying these new things with kids, it’s so important to take as many videos as absolutely possible and to document what you do because then you can inspire future generations. So these kids in future classes kind of left a legacy of how they were leading with their ideas and their projects and their passions. And so for example, the next year, several of them came to a third grade class and they were like genius hour ambassadors and they were able to help people, not just through videos that we created, but just showing up face-to-face, continuing sort of their own leadership journey into the kids that were coming the years after.
Nili: 15:11 And so really, this story about leadership with our students together in the second part of the book is reflected in this section. So a lot of the first section is unleashing the superpowers and the passions of our students and getting them to see that they can lead beyond their own titles and then kind of putting that on ourselves. So what are we bringing to school? How are we leading beyond the classroom with our students? And then maybe in other ways as well, because we all have so much to offer. One of the things that I talk about is this question that I love to bring to teachers and administrators is what is one superpower that if you didn’t bring to school you’d be depriving those around you? Because we all have what it takes to lead with what we have to offer.
Nili: 16:04 And when we can figure that out and we know our purpose and we have enough confidence to act on it, then we can really make a difference within the culture of our building. One of the most effective things I did for myself in terms of clarity was I like wrote out the job description that I wanted once I was in that new role of technology integration specialist, and I showed it to my administrators. This is what I think I should be doing, this is my goal, this is what I would love to put into action, and it let me go beyond the job description that was written for me when I applied for the work and really let them see what my goals were in the building and how I wanted to make an impact. And we can do this from any role. Have your students define what they think their jobs or their roles are.
Steve: 16:53 I was just going there as I was listening. What a powerful for kids to inform the teacher of what they wanted to learn.
Nili: 17:03 Yeah. So we can do that as well. The third section is really just about gaining the courage to lead up. And this was really, really hard for me and there are certainly growing pains that accompany it, but being unafraid to approach our administrators with our ideas and strategies that align with their vision. This led me to having the opportunity to lead staff meetings and run ed-camps within the building. Building a crew – that’s like a huge pirate thing, right? But it only takes – it’s like that lone nut video – one person is crazy, two people equals a movement. It only really takes one person to join you’re crazy, right? And then when you have two people bringing an idea to administrator, you don’t look like the only crazy one.
Nili: 17:50 And so finding a crew, building on that crew. I had a student the other day, we have a no place for hate club, based on a program initiated by the ADL and everybody went around the room inspired by a colleague and they had to tell us why they’re there and she said, well, I show up because there’s power in numbers. And I’m like, yes, that’s absolutely right. So when you have people that support you and that have your back, maybe not necessarily because you have the same passions, but you’re all passionate, it can really make a difference in terms of being able to spread the positivity in the air, the ideas you wanna share, where people want to catch it and they wanna be a part of it. I’m really lucky that I walked into a building four and a half years ago where I joined a crew.
Nili: 18:41 This is an insanely thriving culture that I was really excited to join. And then you have that healthy pressure to be as awesome as you can be and really talk up your colleagues and administrators, which is a great responsibility together to try to impact the culture of your building. And so that last chapter, again, is really just kind of, I call it taking the leadership plunge and that’s exactly what it is. And knowing that regardless of what you’re doing, you can be a classroom teacher and throw out some videos, hang up some signs of some really awesome books or podcasts on the bathroom stalls. It doesn’t matter, right? And offer people for like a quick PD lunch. Rich Czyz, with his “Four O’clock Faculty” book has awesome ideas to kind of go rogue.
Nili: 19:30 And I think that we can’t get discouraged if no one shows up because all it takes is for like one colleague to say, “did you see
that really weird video that Nili put out?” And I think most importantly, whatever you’re going to end up doing with your own sort of leadership journey, invite your administrators in. When my colleagues and I ran an ed-camp that was voluntary, we had 20 people show up, and one of them was our principal. And that was incredibly powerful. It should not be an us and them, it should be a team environment as much as absolutely possible.
Steve: 20:11 Well, Nili, I thank you for sharing your passion with us in this podcast. I love it. I’ll put the link to your book in the lead-in to the podcast, make it easy for folks to find. And if you would take a moment – share with people how they might connect with you.
Nili: 20:35 Yeah. So as you said about the book, “Leading Beyond Your Title” is on Amazon, and I would love to connect through Instagram, through Twitter. My handle is @nbartley6, and just sending me a DM is the best way to contact me. And I’d love to connect, I would love to hear from you. And thank you again, Steve, so much for inviting me onto your fabulous podcast.
Steve: 20:57 I appreciate it much. Have a great day.
Nili: 21:00 Thank you so much. You too.
Steve [Outro]: 21:03 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what your pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and email@example.com.