Dear Administrators, Stop Stifling My Creativity-Give Me More Restrictions

As an English literature major in college, I had the privilege of meeting and working with some phenomenal poets. Within my writing workshops, these authors assigned very specific prompts with all sorts of restrictions.  I remember being tasked with writing a sestina and given the end words and theme to use, based on random class banter.  I dragged my feet back to my dorm that afternoon, certain of the impossibility of crafting an effective poem from all of the restrictions placed upon my creativity.

Twenty-five years later, that poem remains one of my best. I learned from these master writers that creativity flourishes when constrained.  Necessity is the mother of invention, is it not? When the constraints are a natural product of our reality (kids are hungry, homeless, lonely, unsafe) or because we know what best practices are (we must collect and analyze quality data, continue to read and study our art, be held accountable for performing) then they result in the type of teaching that is beautifully crafted for the exact students which we teach.  Our teaching becomes our best.

And yet, because teaching is an art, best performed by talented, creative, dedicated practitioners, canned curriculum and stiff teaching protocols are the opposite of the kinds of restrictions that lead to true excellence in education.  We want teachers to feel empowered to think outside the box and try new things, so we must encourage teachers to speak up, take risks, and get creative.  Teachers must be provided with a sense of decision-making autonomy.  

Still, all artists are constrained by the natural restrictions of their medium.  All artists benefit by allowing themselves to be honed and shaped by the wisdom of the giants who came before and by mastering the techniques that yield the best results.  While autonomy for teachers is key to a positive change culture, autonomy without accountability is doomed to fail. 

Just like the powerful poets I learned from in college, effective educational leaders empower their  teachers by providing choice and voice within a system that prioritizes the needs of the learners and requires evidence-based practice. Educational guru, John Hattie, calls these leaders “high-impact” (2015, p. 39). Effective educational leaders engage and empower all stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, support staff) to affect positive change outcomes in the learning environment through encouragement and regulation.  So, dear administrators, give me more research-based restrictions; help me to grow into the master teacher I long to be. 


Hattie, John. (2015, February, pp. 36-40). Educational Leadership, v72 n5.


If Not You, Who?

This blog is a veteran teacher’s reflections on the perspectives and practices that empower stakeholders to positively impact our learning communities.  

Post 1:

Want to Make an Impact? Start with Love.

As a third generation educator, I grew up on stories of my grandmother’s experiences teaching in a one room schoolhouse, deep in the Ozark mountains.  She taught all grade levels, all abilities- barefoot, hungry, impoverished students from households that could not prioritize reading, writing, and arithmetic over scratching a living out of the rocky soil.  So, when I hear that teaching is so much harder these days, I am skeptical.  

I have read Plato’s complaints about the difficulties of educating his day’s youth. Some of today’s challenges are unique, but the broad strokes remain the same.  Teaching is hard.  It has always been hard, and it will always be hard.   

Recent studies show that over half of teachers have considered quitting during the last few years. I know I have. The strain of counseling, clothing, feeding, protecting, and educating students in an environment in which some administrators and parents are making unreasonable demands can often feel overwhelming to the point of hopelessness. In these moments, I have been tempted to just keep my door closed, keep my head down, and solely focus on teaching content. Playing it “safe” however, only leads to ineffective instruction and a lack of job satisfaction. I did not become a teacher to clock in and clock out.

Whenever I feel lost in my role as an educator, I seek guidance from highly successful teachers. They all seem to have one thing in common- they engage with love. One teacher in particular, Leo Buscaglia, fully focused his instruction on the foundational concept of love.   His writing has greatly influenced my philosophy on education.  Buscaglia’s inclusive model of grace and acceptance guides my interactions with colleagues and students. It helps me to structure lessons that inspire and encourage learners to find their power and passion in what they study.  Buscaglia’s work continuously serves as a reminder that, “change is the end result of all true learning.” and that, “there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give.”

Key transformation does not come from rote memorization or didactic instruction. Our strength of character and high achievements grow from the natural process of engaging in authentic learning.  And the research is clear that we cannot focus on cognition unless we feel safe, unless we feel loved. I am changed because of the trust and love of those in my life who were willing to teach me, believe in me, and encourage me to find my truths within a structure that supported learning mastery.

I am who I am because teachers in and outside of the classroom provided environments in which I could push myself and experience success.  My competence as an educator is only possible because I was given the confidence necessary to maintain a sense of self-worth. That deep awareness of who I am centers my focus on what is right and good, ethical and moral. My strength of character stems from a deep, generational pool of love. 

When I am weary and feel like giving up, I draw on my beloved community; I draw on my experiences that guide those day-to-day actions that demonstrate integrity.  I know how to be a servant leader who works through collaboration and with transparency because of the loving models of traditional and non-traditional teachers in my past. I hone my craft with ongoing technical instruction, but it is the sense of a higher calling, a higher power, and a communal interdependence that feeds my drive toward constant improvement.

Whatever I do to support growth and change within my school system, whether it be promoting evidence-based practices, insisting on equity, or driving toward excellent performance for staff and students, I know that I must ground my work in love, which is the limitless well of strength and security from which all growth can take root and flourish.

Want to know more about teaching with love? 
Try out one of these books by Leo Buscsaglia:

Prepare for Anti-Racist Action

A Call to Action: Get Involved in Community Anti-Racist Work

A student from a High School in the American Midwest was recently disciplined for altering a picture to make it appear that two students had KKK hoods on in the school gymnasium. The two students who were depicted were not involved and did not know that the photo had been altered or posted.

While investigating the incident, school authorities became aware that the photo had been copied from the private group in which it was originally posted and shared on Facebook by a community member. Being aware that the racist photograph caused pain, school district leaders have connected with local organizations to support their anti-racist work, and have launched a call for concerned community members to become a part of the solution.

Each one of us can help with efforts to eradicate racism in our schools and communities. Please consider getting involved in a way that is accessible to you. For example:

  • Engage in a direct relationship with school and community leaders.
    • Empowering Education consultants and our collaborators encourage community members to be active at school board and city council meetings. 
    • Please call your superintendents, school board members and other school officials to discuss any questions or concerns you may have regarding individual or systemic biases.
  • Get involved in a community organization or group that is engaged in anti-racist efforts.
  • Continue your own education process in preparation for informed action. Contact us for consultation [email protected]

Ways We Hear

The same story that has the power to promote healing, if misunderstood, can cause much harm. Therefore, it is essential that we check our understanding with the speaker of the story before we act based on our own interpretations. This is especially true in cross-cultural communications. Too often the words being spoken mean something very different in the mind of the speaker than the way they are interpreted by a listener from another cultural context.

The story the neighbor told was “he got on to her”, the story the mother heard was “he got on to her.” The words are the same. The harm lies in the multiple ways meaning was made from the words “he got on to her”. The story teller meant he molested the child. The story hearer interpreted, he scolded the child. As a result of misinterpreting the story, the mother believed that her child had misbehaved and caused trouble at the neighbor’s house. The mother then scolded the child because she believed the child needed to be corrected.  That correction convinced the four-year-old girl that the molestation was her fault, that she did something wrong. In fact, since she could not figure out what she did wrong to cause herself to be molested, she internalized that her very existence was, and is wrong.

What is empowering education?

When we think of the word empower, at first it seems like a rather straight-forward concept.  Isn’t empowerment giving a person or a group of people control that they didn’t have before?  Isn’t empowering an individual or individuals making it possible for them to do something that they were not previously able to do?  As a matter of fact, Merriam Webster dictionary defines empower as …. to give official authority or legal power to … to enable  … or to promote self-actualization or influence.

When empowerment is framed this way, it seems as if empowerment is something that is done to a person, it seems to come from the outside.  In this way of thinking, power is given to the “powerless” from some external agent who presumably has the ability to impart power.  The recipient is almost a passive receiver… powerless until power is bestowed unto him or her to act … influence….. or have control over decisions that affect his or her life.

But what about the power that comes from within?  Isn’t empowerment about tapping into one’s own internal strengths?  Aren’t empowered individuals those who have a sense of their own agency and understand their capacity to be influential actors in their own lives?   Is empowerment about giving power to the powerless or about people’s realization of their own ability and right to act or behave in very specific and intentional ways that bring about desired outcomes?

What I have come to understand is that the concept of empowerment is complex.  Empowerment comes from both inside and outside.  People and systems are affected by the socio-historical contexts in which external and internal factors both constrain and afford power to exert control over various aspects of life.  We are empowered to the extent that our intellectual, cultural, social, spiritual political and economic capitals allow us to navigate various social contexts. 

The concept of empowerment has long been of interest to people in various professions disturbed about societal problems.    Empowerment particularly resonates with people concerned about social justice and equity.

When my business partner Karen and I set out to create an organization focused on supporting educators in transforming schools into learning communities that meet the educational needs of all students, the concept of empowerment was central.  We understand that education is a tool for bringing about social justice and an equitable society.  As such, empowerment is both a valued outcome of a quality educational experience and a necessary ingredient of effective educational systems.

Karen and I certainly had our ideas about what empowerment meant to us.  For us empowerment has to do with one’s sense of agency and self-efficacy.  Empowered individuals (and systems) are people who see themselves as agents of change.  Empowered educators believe in their own capabilities to exercise influence over events that affect student learning.

Effective educational systems are organizations within which individuals are empowered to address current needs in education and solve future challenges. While there are most certainly external factors that exert control on school systems (such as, educational mandates, political climate and cultural histories that make up the cultural-historical context in which schools operate) it is within the internal capacity of a school system, and the individuals of that system, to experience empowerment.  Empowered educators understand and maximize internal and external assets of the context in order to manage the actions necessary to effectively meet educational demands and thus create empowering education.

Empowerment scholars John Lord and Peggy Hutchison in the article The Process of Empowerment Implications for Theory and Practices summarize empowerment literature that conceptualizes “…empowerment as existing at three levels: the personal level, where empowerment is the experience of gaining increasing control and influence in daily life and community participation (Keiffer, 1984); at the small group level, where empowerment involves the shared experience, analysis, and influence of groups on their own efforts (Presby, Wandersman, Florin, Rich, & Chavis, 1990); and at the community level, where empowerment revolves around the utilization of resources and strategies to enhance community control (Labonte, 1989)” (p. 4).

It is with this framing that Karen and I envision Empowering Education.  We understand that empowered individuals and organizations operate from a position of strength and believe that they are able to shape the future, while effectively addressing the needs of the present. Empowering education is about individuals and educational systems learning how to tap into their internal assets and how to leverage external resources. Empowering education is about  effectively navigating various social and political contexts and negotiating relationships to bring about educational equity and positive outcomes for all students.

Empowering Education Consultation and Systems Support Services

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