Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.


I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.


In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 8.31.18 PM

Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.



Relationships: 6 ways to encourage innovation through connections

As I’ve made the switch from a focus on students to a focus on teachers this year, I’ve been reminded that there are a lot of similarities between teaching students and teaching teachers.

First and foremost, it’s about relationships.

In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros referenced a New Yorker article that explained why “one-on-one interactions increase people’s willingness to try something new.”  In essence, the article explores the idea of seven “touches–” that is, interactions with people with whom you want to build a relationship.  Yes, this takes time, but if you are committed to change, you have to commit to connecting with the people who will make it happen.

While I admit I have an inclination toward risk in the classroom and in school, I recognize that this isn’t the case with everyone.  Still, I have an intense desire to help teachers try new things in the classroom, so I’ve been working diligently to develop relationships.  Below, I’ve included six things I regularly do to help build these connections.  I hope these may be of some use to you!

Just two of the rockstar teachers with whom I’ve built relationships: Cori Rockwood & Katie Bryant

6 ways to innovation connections-3



Couros, George. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, 2015. Print.

Gawande, Atul. “Spreading Slow Ideas.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 June 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.




Dream School 1.0: a draft vision

For a moment, I’ve pretended that my dream school exists.  I pored over photos to find glimpses of it in my own school, in schools I’ve visited, and in the activities my children participate in.  I didn’t capture everything of which I dream; in truth, this is a cursory look in draft form of my ideal school, but it’s a start.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/208406899″>Dream School</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user6516965″>Lori Lisai</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I envision an education that inspires, challenges, and exposes students to the wonder of the world through experience.

The school is just the catalyst for a deeper kind of learning that often happens outside of its walls–it’s a building, but as with any great architecture, it inspires.  Its learning spaces are amorphous–changeable depending on the needs of its inhabitants.  The learning is not confined to this space, and instead encompasses the idea that education happens all the time, everywhere.  We are always learning through our experiences.  My vision includes opportunities for all students to travel and see the world–provoking the deep empathy only possible with first-hand experience.

The school name needs an upgrade, and this is just the beginning of an idea.  Still, I would want to attend my dream school, so I can’t be that far off.

Thanks again to George Couros for the inspiration.  250 words–a different sort of challenge!

School change: building blocks to #empathy

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about school change and how best to make it happen: hours in meetings talking about how to inspire, talking others down from the ledge as they became so easily mired in pessimism, sometimes finding myself marveling at the problem as opposed to seeking out solutions.  It’s easier to say you can’t do anything because of X, Y, Z than to actually take steps to make change.  And it’s true that sometimes even when you spend countless hours trying to make systemic change, it fails.

Michael Fullan, the Heath brothers, and Dan Pink have all written at length about change and its one primary, deciding factor: motivation.  In “Change Theory: A force for school improvement,” Fullan writes, “If one’s theory of action does not motivate people to put in the effort–individually and collectively–that is necessary to get results, improvement is not possible” (8).  Interesting that he draws attention to the fact that change cannot beget results if only accomplished individually.  I have learned this lesson time and again as I carefully constructed the isolated island of a classroom teacher, head down, wading through the bull in an effort to create the best experiences for my students.  By the time I met with my colleagues at the end of the day to talk about standards, common assessments, or whatever other initiative was coming down the pike, I was spent and ready to watch some ridiculous Jib Jabs, not so much do heavy thinking on how best to align ourselves for the betterment of our students.

Stanford d.school’s form of inspiration

This idea of a culture shift–noted by both the Heath brothers and Fullan–is one that the Rowland foundation has likewise esteemed, and I recognize that shift as the ultimate goal.  So let’s talk about some small steps to get there, taking my call for empathy as the impetus.  I will attempt to build capacity through students first–Fullan’s second premise of the change theory.  Check out my Powtoon for my plan of action–one I hope will result in a move toward better understanding the world in which we live.


I will report out (share widely!) what our students propose, and how their ideas play out at our school.  I’d love to hear your ideas as well, and if you’d like to partner with us in this venture.  Authentic audiences, global connections around issues important to our students, and a lasting understanding of what technology can do to build empathy are all worthy goals for this venture.  Please join us!


Fullan, Michael. Change Theory: A Force for School Improvement. Jolimont, Vic.: CSE Centre for Strategic Education, 2006. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. London: Random House Business, 2011. Print.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010. Print.

“Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy.” Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy. The Rowland Foundation, n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

#sketchnote: Understanding Leadership

I come from a family of artists (case in point: my awesomely talented cousin), but my artistic prowess is best evidenced on stage.  This drawing thing doesn’t come naturally to me.  So I panicked a bit at the thought of creating sketch notes to visualize leadership.  I procrastinated.  I dreaded.  I thought about the beautiful sketch notes I’ve seen take shape on Explain Everything as I sat behind Reshan Richards watching as he gave them life.  And I realized that I needed clear thoughts in mind before moving forward.  I know, I know–sketch notes are messy, and I am the first one to sing messy’s praises.  When I finally started, I realized that sketch notes may just be the beautiful bridge between messy and clean…


I realized I had to go old school to try this, and when I did, I remembered why writing notes is so helpful to me as opposed to typing them.  They settle in that way–they take root.  Adding the element of visualization levels up the understanding, organizes the thinking, and leads to further insights.

Sketch notes felt like a natural fit in capturing the ideas expressed around leadership traits, styles, and theory.  It did take me a while, but I think it was worth it.  I might even be bold enough to try Explain Everything next time.



ASCD. “The Many Faces of Leadership.” Educational Leadership:Teachers as Leaders:The Many Faces of Leadership. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Busche, Laura. “50+ Awesome Resources to Create Visual Notes, Graphic Recordings & Sketchnotes.” Creative Market. N.p., 02 May 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Horner, Melissa.  Leadership Theory: Past, Present and Future.  In Team Performance Management, vol 3, no. 4, pp. 270-287. (1997)

Morrison, Nick. “The Eight Characteristics Of Effective School Leaders.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Saibel, Eric. “Cultivating a New Leadership Archetype.” Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, 29 Jan. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Lead the way: inspire, invite, appreciate

Vermont is in the midst of an educational whirlwind, and it’s about time.  While our little state leads the nation in many ways, it is in education that I hope it will make its mark in 2017.  Act 77 demands a new kind of schooling for students that is personalized and flexible, and educators are now tasked with how best to accomplish the goals of that law.  If there was ever a time when we needed strong leaders, it’s now.

I’d characterize myself as a reluctant leader, although I grow somewhat more comfortable with the idea as time passes.  Leading puts one in harm’s way–uses one as a target of nay sayers and snarky comments–which as a person who keenly feels things, is difficult to accept.  I am learning, however, to balance negativity with my desire to make education better for our students simply because we need strength in numbers to make this shift happen.

4843209038_80f3affb83_bWe also need inspiration, which is why I spend so much time scouring social media, newsletters, blogs and the like in search of educators doing amazing things around the world.  Because I personally need inspiration to be moved to action, I try to provide that in my role at school.  I also recognize that inspiration may produce the opposite effect in some people, causing them to shut down, so follow-up support is imperative.  I invite.  I listen.  I appreciate.  And I provide individualized guidance, tools, and feedback which I believe helps build a culture of perseverance–something we need to model for students.

People who know me well also know that I am prone to action, or at least the impulse to make things happen.  While I’ve been told that my model of efficiency isn’t a perfect fit in some instances, I think it’s what our education system needs.  If we don’t take action, nothing changes, and while we are doing a lot of things well, there are also many of our students who are unsuccessful and unhappy in our current system.  It is with them in mind that I push my colleagues gently out of their comfort zones.

Photo credit: Marc Gilbertson

I must remind myself often to balance compassion with my desire to bring about change.  In my quest to realize the bigger picture, I must remember that even small shifts take time, support, and guidance.  If I can uphold the overall goal in my mind, take stock of and celebrate accomplishments, and create clear and attainable action steps, I can begin to achieve the kind of leadership I hope to achieve, and perhaps be part of why our little state will lead the way toward lasting and effective educational change.


Leadership: listen & learn

Simon Sinek draws attention to the assumption that leadership and authority are often confused as one and the same thing, when indeed, they are anything but.  Steeped in the political climate where the man who holds our country’s highest office faces serious questions about his leadership abilities, I reflect on my own surroundings and the leaders with whom I work on a daily basis.  How are they leading in this time of transition in Vermont schools?  Are they, as Sinek suggests, “looking after those around [them]?”

Clearly, it’s true that people will follow others when they feel heard, and while we see this played out on the national level, I see it play out just as clearly in my school.  Listening to those around her is a strength of one leader I admire.  Although it takes patience sometimes to catch up with her, she is willing to hear all viewpoints and takes them into consideration when making decisions.  Her style is to talk things through, listen and synthesize, and ultimately clear the way to make things happen.

img_6597The thing is, sometimes you have to be willing to fight to make things happen, and this is where this woman wins me over.  On spunk, she is never short.  She is willing to take on the often male-dominated power chain in order to make progress, willing to have difficult conversations honestly, and in the end, doesn’t take any crap.  This woman has passion, and I know she yearns for opportunities to surface from the muck of everyday duties to feed the visionary that is too often sacrificed.

I wish I had a little more of what she has.  I’ve never been accused of not being passionate, but when it comes time to have those difficult conversations, I often freeze.  Hit me up in the car on the way home and I’ve got all kinds of things on the ready to answer those questions, but in the moment, my brain wants to mull it over, not defend.  I know it’s an area I need to address, and placing myself in situations where it’s necessary is the only way to retraining my brain.

This woman is also a people person–something likely learned from her involvement in the family business.  She knows how to read people, and more importantly, work them–  to identify characteristics in others that work well for the whole, and how to best support them in the name of progress.  Sometimes, it takes stepping back and letting others think they’ve devised the great idea she suggested.  Sometimes, it takes talking it through for an hour or two, and sometimes it just takes the support that she can give because of her title.

While the title is important, Sinek reminds us that the “power always belongs to the

photo credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

people.”  A smart leader is one who has a keen understanding of this fact, and makes decisions as such.  The leader I have described here is able to balance both the demands of a state in flux and the needs of a veteran and outspoken staff.  I appreciate the opportunity to learn from her and to incorporate those lessons as I make my own way.