How to Be Curious #LikeABuilder


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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number thirty-two.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey Builders,

Welcome to another episode of school leadership reimagined. I'm your host Robyn Jackson, and today we're going to do things a little bit differently.

You see, there's something that's been troubling me lately and I kind of want to talk about it frankly to you. Is that okay? I mean, can we get real today because I've noticed something lately that I think is holding us back as a profession and I'm worried, I mean, I'm really worried because if we don't change, if we don't address this issue, it's really going to be hard for us to stay relevant and continue to grow as a profession and serve our kids. And so here's the thing.

This thing that I'm going to talk about today is something I'm guilty of too. So I thought maybe today instead of kind of a prepared, you know, training podcast, we would have kind of a fireside chat, a confessional, an alter call of those don't even describe what I want to talk with you. I just want to have a frank conversation with you and hopefully at the end of this conversation we can just put this thing to rest once and for all.

So today we're going to talk about, and I struggled, I'll be honest for a good title, but you know, today I think we're going to talk about how to be curious like a builder.

Now before I dive in,

you know that I've got to spend a few moments first talking about builder's lab. And the reason that I want to talk about builder's lab is because I believe it is the best professional development that you are going to get if you want to move from being a boss or a leader to being a real builder. And that's because when you come to the builder's lab, you're going to spend three days working intensively with me to overcome all kinds of frustrations, frustrations, like feeling like you don't have control over your time or you or your focus.

You feel like you're being pulled and stretched and directions instead of working on what matters most. So instead of doing the thing that you came to do, you're putting out fires, you're dealing with issues that are distracting everybody from the most important goals of the school. Or maybe you feel like you don't know which fire you should attack first. You know, that something has to change. You're just not sure what it is.

Or maybe you're frustrated because you've had this impetus to change, but the people around you don't have that same sense of urgency. And so it's really hard to get people to buy into why you need to change. And so you're getting a lot of pushback, or you're getting a lot of growsing and grumbling behind the scenes, or people would just slow walking you towards that change.

And so you're just kind of, you're hitting a ceiling, your growth has slowed or stopped. You keep trying to find new initiatives. You have a sense of urgency, and nothing's working. You tried a lot of strategies and quick, quick fixes and, and it's, you're not yielding or seeing the results that you want to see. And now what's happening is that your staff has become almost numb to new initiatives because it feels like at this point, you know, you're just a lot of talk, but you're not seeing a lot of action happen. And I get that.

I mean, that is so frustrating. And I have coached hundreds of administrators, principals, assistant principals, even people at the district level who are facing those same frustrations. And here's the thing I've learned.

All of those frustrations that you're feeling can be solved by one of four things.

Either you need to give people better feedback or you need to provide people with better support, or you need to do a better job of being and helping other people be accountable. Or you've got something really, you know, messed up and possibly toxic lurking in your culture.

Those are what I call the four disciplines of buildership and if you can understand those disciplines and you can understand how to figure out not just the symptom of the problem but the root cause of the problem and then use one of those four disciplines and picking the right discipline to address that problem, the problem gets solved. You don't continue to just kind of bat around and solve all the symptoms and never get to the core problem.

Over the three days, we're going to look at everything you're facing. We're going to help you figure out what's the core problem and then I'm going to show you how to do all four of those disciplines and then figure out which one do you need to be using right now to deal with that problem.

Now, there are two builder's labs this year and I'm really excited about this summer I should say, not this year. We're probably going to do one more this year in the fall, but right now the two that are coming up are both happening in the summer.

The first one is happening in Palm Springs, California and that's June 24th through 26th. If you're a school administrator, an assistant principal, a principal, a district leader, someone who is in charge of supporting principals and assistant principals, this is the one you need to go to. This is where we're going to go with those four disciplines. You're going to walk away with your own builder's blueprint to looking at your biggest challenge. You're going to have a blueprint to how you solve that challenge.

Now the second one is happening July 15 through 17, and that's right outside of Washington DC in Arlington, Virginia and this one is a special one that we're going to be trying out this year called builder's lab - the coaches edition because for a long time we've been hearing from instructional coaches who had been telling us, listen, we love everything that you teach, but how does it relate to what the job that we're doing? Can you create a training just for us?

So we did that. So you'll get all of the goodness of builders lab, but you're also get specific support around how you manage that messy middle place that you occupy. You're not quite an administrator, but you're not really a teacher anymore. So if you're in a teacher leadership position, or you aspire to one, and you're a coach, and you want to know how do I give people feedback when they don't really welcome me into my classroom. Or how do I help people be accountable when I don't have positional authority or how do I get the principals on board because I'm doing all this work with the teacher, but I'm not getting the support or the attention from the central office that really would help make my work more worthwhile. So all those kind of political power dynamics that happen when you're in the, in the middle as a coach or as a teacher leader, we're also going to talk about ways to address those so that you can better serve.

You still going to learn about feedback, support, accountability, and culture. But with a specific focus on the unique intricacies of your job as the coach. And again that's happening July 15 through 17 right outside of Washington, DC.

So if you want to get tickets to either one and I strongly urge you to do that because these are going to be amazing events. I mean the focus that we have, I was just working with my team before I came in to talk to you about our plants are builder's lab and I'm so excited. I just, I really am excited you need to come to one of these builder's labs. You can get tickets for both of them by going to That's and I'll make sure that I put a link in the show notes in case you're driving or doing something else working out.

And that way you can just go to a, and you can get all the show notes for this episode.

Okay, time for my little rant. Well, it's, it's not exactly a rant because first I think I should start with a confession, and I'm not proud of this, but you might as well know this about me.

When I was a teacher and even when I was a school administrator, I was a terrible workshop participant

and that's ironic because now I lead workshops, so I am paying for my sins. Folks, believe me when I see some of the things that happen in some of my workshops, but I was not a good workshop participant. I hated it. District-mandated PD.

In fact, whenever I was forced to go to a workshop, the first thing I would ask is, is there going to be a binder. And people thought I just had a thing for binders. But what I really wanted to know is if they're going to give us some binder or a whole bunch of sheets to work on, then what I could do is take whatever book or novel that I was reading at the time, Xerox it three whole, I mean three-hole punch, is that right? Three-hole punch. Yeah, three-hole punched the pages and then, then what I would do when I got to the workshop, is I would take the materials out of the binder and put my novel in the binder and then all day people would think, oh, she's just really into this workshop. And all it was doing all day was reading and tuning people out.

Now, of course, this was in the dark ages before smartphones, but you know, a girl had to do what a girl had to do. And so I did that because I just hated going to workshops and I'm ashamed to admit this, but I just didn't think the presenters had anything valuable to teach me.

You know, I would just sit there and if I didn't have a binder and actually had to look like I was paying attention and be all surly. I'd be sitting there in my mind judging and critiquing every move, pouncing on their every mistake, rolling my eyes at every, you know what I thought dumb, you know, get to know you activity lineup and align, folds in half, turned to, you know, all, I hate it all.

And so I was not a good workshop participant, and as a result, I think they're really holes in my professional learning, and at the time I didn't see it that way. I thought you know what? These people don't really have anything to teach me. If they had something valuable to teach me, I would pay attention. And so I didn't even feel bad about being a bad workshop participant.

I felt like they're going to make me go to PD then they should do a better job of delivering the PD I used to hate. 

I hated when people use scripts. I hated when I asked a question because I was genuinely interested in, somebody said, let's put that question in the parking lot. I hated all of it. And so I would act out and workshops, not like, you know, I wouldn't do open rebellion.

I mean, I've taught some workshops where people, you know, open up a newspaper in the middle of the workshop, or people are obviously grading papers, a chat to be a little more sneaky than that, but I still wasn't compliant. And the reason that I'm telling you this, it's because I want you to know I'm not immune to this thing that I want to talk about today either. I have committed some of the same things that I see in workshops all the time. And so this is not a scolding or chastisement. I'm just saying. We kind of talked about this as a profession and we had to do something different. And so what I want to talk about today, it's, I want to talk about just a fundamental lack of curiosity that I'm starting to see in the profession now. As you know, almost like in cosmic, you know, Karma, retribution.

I was a horrible workshop participant. And then, and then years later I started making live leading workshops. And I have to tell you, educators are some of the toughest audiences out there. And let's be real. I made my share workshop mistakes. I always tried to do my best, but I still was learning. And so sometimes, you know, I look back now on some of the workshops that I gave 13 years ago when I first started and I just, at the time I thought I was doing the right thing.

Now that I know better, I look back at and I, I cringe. You know, kind of how you do. 

When you think about your first few years as a teacher, your first few years as an administrator, you have the same feeling. You did your best at the time, but you look back now and you cringe, you know?

But still, I also remember just how rude a lot of people were doing those workshops. And it's always a wonder to me that people behave and workshops or they exhibit behaviors and workshops that they would never allow from their students and they think it's okay. I thought it was okay. I did the same thing and I thought it was okay. I thought it was justified and I thought I was actually showing the workshop people, look, if you're going to take me out of my classroom and away from my kids, you better bring it or you don't deserve my attention. You have to earn my attention.

If you want me to be a better teacher and you want me to believe that you can teach me to be a better teacher, you need to show me something. 

I really felt justified in that, but now I know I was just cheating myself because I shut down and I felt like if it wasn't a high quality and in my estimation, high-quality workshop that it wasn't worth my time and attention and there are ideas that I never gave an opportunity to take root.

There are things that I didn't bother to consider that could have probably improved my practice. There were there I just missed things. Hi. Thought I was showing them, but I was cheating myself. Now the reason that I've been thinking about this a lot lately is because kind of two, three things. Um, first I just got back from the AACD annual conference. Um, you know, it's been a while. It had been a couple of weeks since I've been back, but I've been thinking about this since I got back because I saw it in sharp relief. Now there's nothing, this is nothing but the AACD annual conference. It's just that it's one of the bigger conferences and education. And I'm there every year presenting because AACD is one of my publishers. And so I'm usually there and involved in presenting. And I saw something, I saw it so much in such a concentrated manner at the conference that this thing that's been kind of bothering me in the back of my head over the last few months came to just ahead at the conference.

So I started noticing it, you know, months ago and seeing it and wondering whether or not this was really the case and thinking about it. And it just all came ahead of the conference. So three things I noticed.

The first is that usually when I go to the AACD conference, I get together with a lot of, um, it's an opportunity for me to catch up with a lot of my colleagues who do the same kind of work. People who are consulting and trainers all over the world. And one of the things we do is we get together, uh, you know, and we just trade war stories. You get it, you know, like, and when you get together with your principal colleagues, you talk about your crazy teachers, are you talking about your crazy kids and these stories and you trade stories and you know, if you're a coach, you get together with other instructional coaches, you do the same thing.

Well, we got together and we were talking and people started telling stories and they were just horrible. I mean, there was so horrible that we just had to laugh at it. Stories about going into a school district and being there and providing professional development, but the teachers were mad at them or the teachers were mad at the district and took it out on them. And teachers getting up and planning a walkout during the professional development or teachers, you know, picking a time of the day where they just get up and they all turn their back to the speaker. Um, or you know, working with principals, groups of principals who come and they eat the same things they complain about their teachers doing, they're doing in the workshop. I mean, I have a story. One of my favorite stories is I was doing a workshop one time and people were supposed to be kind of doing some writing and I got to one table and uh, there was a guy wasn't writing side, you know, stooped down and whispered, is everything okay?

And he was like, yeah. I said, okay, well then why aren't you writing? And he looked at me, seriously, guys. And he said I don't have a pencil. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? And so we've, we're telling these stories and had just started to kind of make me kind of sad because these are some really brilliant people who have a lot to offer in education and yet they have stories about people who jetsam at face value or people who were mad at the district for bringing them in and they took it out on them. And I'm not, the concern that I have is not that people are taking it out on them. Everybody's tough.

We're adults, we're grown, we can deal with it. 

But I thought about that was an opportunity that was missed to learn. That was an opportunity that those people, that audience mist to learn from some of the best thinkers in the field. That was an opportunity to take a classroom challenge that you had and find answers. That was an opportunity to, to sit down and be reflective on your leadership and to really grow from the experience. And I know maybe it was an under the ideal circumstances. I have issues with school districts who mandate PD in ways that are not thoughtful and respectful of teachers. So I don't want to diminish all of that. I'm just saying that given everything when you have an opportunity to learn, you should seize it and fight those battles another way. Don't cheat yourself with this opportunity to learn. 

Don't cheat yourself of this opportunity to grow as a professional or let these other things overshadow that.

Seize every opportunity you can. I mean, that's the way I think about it and that's why I look back at my own bad PD behavior with such shame because not because, not only because I was in many ways disrespectful and contemptuous and judgmental and all the things that you know I'm trying not to be, but also because I missed this real opportunity to learn.

So that's the first thing. Then the second thing is I know stuck my head in a couple of sessions or overheard people talking about sessions and I heard a lot of just judgment about the sessions. Now, to present at a conference. It takes a lot. You have to apply. You have to be accepted. You prepare your excited. Nobody came to that conference and did a presentation and gave people their worst work that came with our best. Now I get it. Not every, not everybody had information that was valuable. Not everybody had information that you found personally useful, but what I overheard a lot was just really snarky criticism about people who were brave enough to get up front and share their ideas.

Now, if you disagree with their ideas, have a conversation where you're talking about their ideas.

If you, if you thought that their presentation didn't hit the mark, certainly you have the right to say that. But it started to be really snarky and judgmental and you know, I don't know mean-spirited and it bothered me and it bothered me on one level because of the snarkiness and the meats spirit, it's spirit and death. I can't talk today, but how mean spirited it was. But the other thing that bothered me was I heard echoes of things. I've said those same things and I felt shame about it because I know that I too have done those same things and I know the spirit behind it. And I don't know. It made me feel a little bit ashamed because again, missed opportunity. The third thing that happened was that on the last day of the conference, I interviewed Ashton Kutcher on stage. So when the AACD announced, you know, who was, who are going to be the featured speakers, I, you know, I heard Ashton Kutcher was being invited and I thought, are you kidding me?

Really the guy from punked, what does he have to say to us? And so I admitted I did that and then I started thinking, I started seeing, and I saw his Senate testimony about his, his, his organization thorn is an anti-human trafficking organization. I saw the smart work he was doing there. I started noticing that he's a venture capitalist and he's very, he's invested in a lot of companies, made some really smart investments and he's involved in those investments. So it's not like he has a company and you know, he's the front and then the money guy and somebody else picks those investments. He's really involved in those investments. And then I started thinking back to, you know, Ashton Kutcher was one of the first people to figure out, you know, how to leverage Twitter. So, okay. So I started seeing why they may have invited him.

This is way before they asked me to interview him and I said, okay, well maybe there's something interesting I can learn. Well then, um, I got asked to interview him on stage and I had some opportunity to spend time with him before we went onstage. It's to kind of talk through what we wanted to discuss and I found him to be kind of smart and um, you know, not at all like kind of the characters he plays. And we had a really fascinating discussion about, you know, like some trends and, and thinking about schools differently and rethinking schools differently. So it was really excited to bring that discussion on stage and we'll be gone onstage. And we started talking some point in the conversation. I felt the room change, I felt, I don't know if I can describe it to you, but I felt people's attitude towards him change.

No, he had some criticisms about the education profession. He said that schools do not do a good enough job of helping kids find their purpose. I happen to be, I happen to agree with him, but the, the, the feedback that I got after that, um, that interview was that, who is he to come in here and tell us how to do our jobs? And so they, they miss it. And then he said something else that, that really ticked people off. I was asking him, you know what he's talking about, like providing kids with the more real-world experiences and person. He didn't call it real-world experiences, but you know, that's basically what he was saying. And I said, well, what would that look like? And he said, well, if I ran a school leader and he qualified it, he said, you know, I'm an aunt of one.

But if I ran a school, I have a call up Elon Musk. And I would say, would you give us, would you give my school, donate a Tesla to my school? And then I will. And if I allow my kids to play with a Tesla and learn on the Tesla, if they come up with some improvement to the Tesla, but you donate $5,000 in the school, do you know how many people got outraged by that suggestion? Like what Elon Musk, Elon Musk number, you're just some celebrity coming and that would never work in my school, blah blah blah, blah, blah. In the meantime are at the idea. And I was like, you may not can do that. I could just call Elon Musk up and ask him for a Tesla do that. I bet I could find it. And I just meet at least started figuring out how I could do that because I thought it was a cool idea or I got inspired maybe cause I'm not really a tech person, but maybe not Elon Musk, but maybe I could call up some other people and ask them to donate something and let the kids play with it.

And then, my mind immediately started going to all the possibilities that, that the idea unleashed. And frankly, something I had never considered before, but there were so many people just shut the idea down entirely because they felt like it smacked of privilege. I'm not getting into the privilege conversation right now, but just, I feel like, so what it was, I thought it was a good idea and maybe it's not something, I don't have Elon Musk number in my Rolodex, but if I need to get to Elon Musk, well I'll figure out a way to get to Elon Musk and maybe, you know, run nowadays there's Twitter nowadays or other things I could figure that out. And so I guess that's my point. All three examples have led me to see that as a profession we are, we've shut down our curiosity when we are confronted with ideas that are out of the norm or that are maybe, you know, feel, make us feel a little defensive or that smack of privilege or that are, are, you know, outside of the way we normally think or that had maybe, you know, weight it down by some sort of political issues, you know, whatever it is.

When we're presented with an idea, we're not open to hearing the idea and getting something out of the idea. 

We immediately smack it down and, and shoot the messenger while were added. And so what's happening is that if we don't start being more curious, if we don't start being open to hearing ideas all over the place and taking them in and using them, we are going to die as a profession. And so I guess that's a big difference between bosses, leaders and builders. Bosses don't expose themselves to new ideas. Leaders expose themselves to new ideas, but then you have very kind of, they spend a lot of time defending their point of view. And if the idea can fit into their point of view, they'll take it. But if the idea doesn't, they reject the idea out of hand without doing what I tell my workshop participants and do all the time, which is a treat every idea like you're eating fish, eat the meat, spit out the bones.

Doesn't mean that. If I hear an idea and I disagree with one part, but the idea is trash.

It just means that there's some parts of the idea that I can take and I can take something from this piece and something from that piece and I can learn from everybody. 

And so as a reformed, snarky workshop participant, I want to come to you today and I want to tell you that that is no way to grow. I believe that I limited my growth by doing that. And it wasn't until I started being curious instead of furious that I really began to grow and begin to develop my own ideas and began to really, you know, kind of make leaps and bounds as an educator too. Things happen, um, that I can think about. One is that there was a teacher, and when I first started teaching and my building, and she was hot, I mean, she, I shouldn't call it a horrible, that's not nice.

She wasn't a nice person to everybody. Um, and she wasn't, I said the kid, she wouldn't learn the kids' names, you know, she wrote, she would just hide the kids. Kids will kind of terrified of our, she didn't seem to like kids very well and so I completely dismissed her and we both taught the same subject in the same grade. And so I thought, oh, I'm not going to be like her. I'm going to be amazing. My kids are going to love me and I never would have these grade level meetings or these department meetings. And she didn't speak much. But when she did speak, I just started doing something else cause I was just like, she has nothing she could possibly teach me. She didn't even know the kids' names. Well one day I saw a paper from a student I had had one semester and then she got the student the second semester.

So I knew what that student could produce in writing and I was blown away by this kid's paper because I never got that kind of writing out of him when he was in my class. And so I swallow my pride and I went to her and I said, I happen to see the paper that the student produced and he never did anything like that for me. How did you get them to, to do, to write like that? And she looked at me really surprised because you know, I never really had much to do with her. And then she sat down and she showed me and guess what? I became a better teacher because I was willing to swallow my pride and my judgment and go and learn what I could from her. I didn't agree with everything she did. You know, I didn't take what she gave me into it wholesale, but she showed me enough that I could start developing my own.

And I guess that's how builders and learn everybody, if you listen to them long enough, has something to teach you. That teacher that you have totally written off that you think really the only thing that I can do is just hope that this teacher retires because there's nothing that she's contributing to my school. If you find yourself saying that you need to stop because even that teacher can teach you something. That parent that's coming in and cussing you out in the main office and you're just rolling your eyes, you know, that happened to me. I'll tell you that story. Another time. One of the parents that was probably one of our most vocal critics when I sat down and listened to her, um, she ended up playing a pivotable oh, I cannot talk today — a pivotal role in my transition from school to consulting.

And she actually was really helpful. And in my writing, my first book, if I had never sat down with her, hurt her out, listened to her, got to know her, got to understand her perspective, she, I don't know that I would've been able to write, never work harder than your students or whether or not the book would have been as good. I mean, that's the difference it makes so that that teacher that you've dismissed, you need to go and learn from that teacher, that parent that you just gets on your nerves can need to figure out. There's something that parent can teach you. Those kids who are in trouble or the ones you never, you overlook. Stop those kids has something to teach you. And if you walk through life with that kind of curiosity where if you look, you know, a friend of mine talks all the time about how everything can be a teacher if you let it.

And if you have that attitude, if you walk through life, if instead, if you heard something and it wasn't well presented, but you try to find some nugget that you could use to get better, then you would get better, you'd get exponentially better. It's almost, it's almost like a greediness when you've really given to, you know, 

Cultivating your curiosity, learning from everybody, getting curious instead of furious. 

Seeing everybody as a teacher, constantly learning. You get really greedy every time you have a situation. Every time you meet somebody, you just keep paying attention because you're saying there's a lesson in here somewhere and I'm going to get better as a result of this lesson. And what you will find is that when you do that, all of a sudden those problems that you've been beating your head against the wall for years, you're going to see them from a new perspective and you're going to come up with a solution.

Those, those things that you are not good at, you will start getting better at. You will grow exponentially just by choosing to be curious instead of furious. So that's my little rant today. Next week we'll get back to our regularly scheduled program. It's very ironic. I was going to talk about procrastination and how it can be a powerful tool and the builders told boxes a week and then I ended up putting it off. So you know, you all can clown me about that later on.

Now, before we go, 

I just want to remind you guys again about builder's lab. I mean seriously, this is the, I mean everybody comes to builder's lab, they go back and they were like, this is the best training of our regard and we put our heart and soul into it.

It's an opportunity to spend three days learning together. We keep it small so that we can have one on one support and feedback. It's just, it's really a transformative experience. And so we have two coming up.

One is builder's lab and that's just builders lab one that's happening in palm springs, California and that's June 24 through 26.

The other one is happening right outside of Washington, DC and that's in Arlington, Virginia. And that's builder's lab - the coaches edition and that's happening July 15 through 17 and you can get your tickets at both of those at

And then the second thing is so many of you have connected with me on LinkedIn and you have already given me feedback. The last episode, episode 31, I talked about whether or not we should do something on focus groups. And some of you already sent me feedback. Yes, we want to learn more about focus groups.

So I'm going to put that in a lineup. If you have a question about anything that you want to hear on this podcast, just reach out to me via LinkedIn and tell me your challenge and we'll see about making it into another upcoming show.

And then finally, if this has been helpful to you, if any episode has been helpful to you, would you mind doing two things? 

One is to write a review and if you're not sure how to write a review, just go to the show notes on and we have a link that walks you through how to write a review. That's a great way to give me feedback.

The other way, and it's probably the easier way, is to just share this podcast with somebody else who you think might benefit from it - even if it's not this episode. If you've had any episode that you really love, would you mind sharing it because we want to get the word out to as many people as we can so that we can support as many people as we can.

I would count it as a personal favor if you do that for me. So would you mind sharing the podcast with someone this week? I would really appreciate it. 

Next week...

we're going to be talking about procrastination and a lot of people feel like procrastination is a bad thing, but next week we're going to talk about how it can be a good thing and how builders are intentional about procrastination in order to help them get more done.

It's a really interesting take on procrastination, and I hope you'll join me next time where we're going to talk about how to procrastinate like a builder. Thanks for joining me.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

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