His work focuses on leading and learning in the digital age as a model for moving schools and districts forward. This has led to the formation of the Pillars of Digital Leadership, a framework for all educators to initiate sustainable change to transform school cultures. As a result Eric has emerged as an innovative leader, best selling author, and sought after speaker. His main focus is purposeful integration of technology to facilitate student learning, improve communications with stakeholders, enhance public relations, create a positive brand presence, discover opportunity, transform learning spaces, and help educators grow professionally.
Eric has received numerous awards and acknowledgements for his work. He is a CDE Top 30 award recipient, Bammy Award winner, NASSP Digital Principal Award winner, PDK Emerging Leader Award recipient, winner of Learning Forward’s Excellence in Professional Practice Award, Google Certified Innovator, Adobe Education Leader, and ASCD 2011 Conference Scholar. He has authored and co-authored the following:
- Uncommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids
- Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times
- Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals
- What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science
He has also contributed on education for the Huffington Post, co-created the Edscape Conference, sits on the FEA Board of Directors, and was named to the NSBA “20 to Watch” list in 2010 for technology leadership. TIME Magazine also identified Eric as having one of the 140 Best Twitter Feeds in 2014. He now presents and speaks nationally to assist other school leaders embrace and effectively utilize technology. His blog, A Principal’s Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2013 and 2011 by Edublogs. It was also recognized with an Editor’s Choice Content Award in 2014 by Smartbrief Education.
Eric began his career in education as a Science Teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School where he taught a variety of subjects (Biology, Chemistry, Marine Biology, Ecology) and coached several sports (ice hockey, football, lacrosse). He then transitioned into the field of educational administration as an Athletic Director/Supervisor of Physical Education & Health and Vice Principal in the New Milford School District. During his administrative career he has served as District Affirmative Action Officer and was the president of the New Milford Administrator’s Association. During his tenure as high school principal he successfully implemented numerous initiatives including a new teacher evaluation system (McREL), Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), oversaw Common Core implementation, and initiated a new grading philosophy. Eric received his M.Ed. in Educational Administration from East Stroudsburg University, B.S. in Biology from Salisbury University, and his B.S. in Marine/Environmental Science from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
You can follow Eric Sheninger on Twitter: @E_Sheninger.
Eric shares a little about his family, background, and hobbies, including being raised by a Mom and Dad who were both school principals, and how he wound up in education despite earning degrees in marine biology and fisheries biology (3:00)
Why and when Eric made the change from teaching to school administration (8:27)
Eric’s biggest challenge in the early years of being a school admin (9:48)
What true leadership is all about (12:00)
How Eric overcame those early admin challenges and became better through them (12:50)
How a student’s courage to speak frankly completely changed Eric’s education career (18:16)
Eric’s advice for teachers and admins who want to radically change their ways (22:21)
How your impact on a school will change when you move from teaching into administration, and why admins need to strive to be a leader, not a manager (25:47)
The best leadership advice Eric has ever received (33:43)
Earn the respect of your teachers by giving them solid, instructional feedback (34:12)
Two books that had a massive impact on Eric’s thinking (35:07)
Eric’s advice for school administrators on working with students (35:42)
His advice for school administrators on working with the teachers in your school (36:32)
What Eric would say to his younger self if he could travel back in time to when he was just starting out in school administration (37:32)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Eric Sheninger
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Educators Lead Ep. 46
Leadership Is About Taking Action, Not About Power, Position, Or Titles
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/ericsheninger/
Welcome to Educators Lead, where we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host, Jay Willis, and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: Eric is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education. Prior to this he was the award winning principal at New Milford High School. Under his leadership his school became a globally recognized model for innovative practices. Eric oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement. Eric has received numerous awards and acknowledgments for his work. He is a C.D.E. Top 30 Award recipient, Bammy Award winner, an S.S.P. Digital Principal Award winner, P.T.K. Emerging Leader Award recipient, winner of Learning Forward’s Excellence in Professional Practice Award, a Google Certified Innovator, Adobe Education Leader and an A.S.C.D Conference Scholar. He has authored or UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, Communicating and Connecting With Social Media (Essentials for Principals), and What Principals Need to Know About Teaching Learning Science. He’s also a contributor on education for the Huffington Post Co, co-created the Edscape conference, sits on the F.E.A. Board of Directors and was named to the N.S.B.A. Twenty to Watch list in 2010 for technology leadership. TIME magazine also identified Eric as having one of the 140 best Twitter feeds in 2014. He now presents and speaks nationally to help other school leaders embrace and effectively utilize technology. So you’ve been busy! That’s just kind of a little bit of the picture, Eric, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Eric Sheninger: Yeah well, it’s ironic that I’m even doing this podcast today because I never thought I was ever going to become an educator. Even though my mother was an elementary teacher and my father was in elementary principal, 20 years at the same school, I just saw myself not going down that path. I went to college, really wanted to become a marine biologist, fisheries biologist. And that’s what my bachelor degrees are in and why I was doing graduate work in fisheries biology. I had the opportunity to be awarded a graduate teaching assistantship. So I began teaching college level biology classes and at that point in 1998-1999 and I’m like wow my calling is really to be in education. And so at that point, I came back home and I began to study to become a teacher. Ironically enough, in my first teaching job I was able to teach marine biology so my bachelor’s education came in handy because I was really fulfilling not only a dream of mine, but my calling at the same time. Which was to help students develop a passion for science. And, as I was teaching, I also coached three sports – ice hockey, lacrosse, and football, and it was those combined experiences, in the classroom and coaching, that really empowered me to go, “You know what? Right I’m working with a limited amount of kids. What if I can impact more students and what if I can help other educators really begin to transform their teaching learning?”
And that’s when I decided to pursue following in my father’s footsteps. And pursue a career in administration. And that’s when I came to New Milford in 2004. I started off as the athletic director and supervisor of instruction. Two years later became the vice principal. A year later became the principal. That is where I would say a lot of the magic in terms of my specific resume and credentials really occurred. Because it was that time where as an administrator, I really was tested in terms of how I was trained. And what I thought a school should be. It’s interesting for many people to know that I was not always this technology social media evangelist. I didn’t believe in any of it. But 2 years into my principalship I had some light bulb moments and that’s when I began to change. And it turned as a school we began to change and we transformed every aspect of our culture over a 5 year period from 2009 to 2014. And in doing so, we transformed a school that traditionally worked better for adults into one that worked better for our kids. And that was the secret to our collective success – creating a school for our kids. And in doing so, we shared our work, we used social media to our advantage to tell our story and the rest is history. I was then asked to come work for the International Center for Leadership in Education…painful decision because I never thought I was going to leave the principalship. But I took on this position, because I’m a true believer that many schools need to change. And that I, my work, my team can help schools, educators, teachers, leaders, begin to initiate sustainable change leading to transformation that is going to prepare kids for their futures. And that is the long and short of my journey.
Jay Willis: So at what point was it that your kind of made the decision to go into education – it was while you were you were pursuing the biology degree and you were a student. What was it exactly that was the trigger?
Eric Sheninger: It was whem I was in graduate school as a graduate teaching assistant, teaching biology lab classes. And it was that aspect where, what I was there for was the science. I was studying fish at a small stream in the middle of nowhere. But, that ability to work with undergraduate students and teach the lab course, I just…it was fun. And what was fun seeing how I was able to take my knowledge I’d imparted to them where they were able to actively apply what they were learning. So it was at that point that really was the catalyst for my career change to teaching.
Jay Willis: So was there kind of a point in time that you can point to where you kind of made the decision to move in to school leadership?
Eric Sheninger: Yeah I think it was probably about 2002 to 2003 when..I had numerous years teaching under my belt, and I was coaching. And they say coaching is teaching but it’s also…like you look at coaches, and many coaches have characteristics that embody good leaders. It was then that I’m like, I think I can do more for the profession. I’m having success – and two sports I coached by the way I have never played, lacrosse and ice hockey coach – and in our second year of the program’s existence (which I started the program), we made it to the playoffs in New Jersey. And for lacrosse, freshman lacrosse we had 3 or 4 years of winning seasons. So I’m like listen this is something I think is not just in my blood, it is something I truly wanted to pursue and help more kids in the process.
Jay Willis: So along the journey what do you think are some of the biggest struggles that you encountered from the journey from being a teacher to a school administrator?
Eric Sheninger: I think the struggles initially…lack of experience. And it wasn’t that I was not confident in my ability, the perception was others were not confident in my ability initially, whether it had been as a classroom teacher or as an administrator. And I’m not saying I ever got any bad observations or evaluations. I always did very well. But there was always that perception and talk and things like that. It really reared its ugly head when I became an administrator. Because I was relatively young – when I came to Milford I was only 29, and when I took over the principalship I was only 32. And the majority of my teachers had been there for a very long time. We’re talking 30 some even 40 years. So there was a lot of skepticism as whether I had the credentials, the knowledge, the experience, or the fortitude to be the building level leader. As they say with the principalship, especially in high school, “high school is the tail that wags the dog in terms of the district” and there’s a great deal of pressure on high school principals to meet certain expectations that are determined by Central Office and stakeholders.
So it was overcoming that gap in terms of what my staff felt I could do or was qualified to do but in time , leadership really comes down to – whether you’re in a classroom or you’re running a building or district -. it comes down to the example that you set. Leadership is not about position, power or titles. Leadership is about action and those leaders in our classrooms, our schools, our district, lead by action, and they model the expectations. That really is the best way to build consensus and ultimate embracement for needed changes in our school. And my thing was I tried never to ask my kids to do things that I was not willing to do. And I never asked my teachers as a principal to do things I was not willing to do. So I think that modelling, that leading by example are really things that helped put me in a position to be successful.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So what are some ways that you feel like you grew through some of the struggles, I mean obviously you kind of had to battle people who were more experienced looking at you like, “Who is this young kid with all these great new ideas?”, and probably maybe kind of rolled their eyes and so you had that as a little bit of an uphill battle. How or what are some ways you overcame that?
Eric Sheninger: Well it’s interesting because when I started to explain and articulate some of the ideas that I had, I was the only one drinking the Kool-Aid. There wasn’t really embracement for a lot of changes because..think about schools – unfortunately the status quo reigns supreme. “If it’s not broke why should we bother fixing it?” “This too shall pass.” So I had to to make it clear through action, first and foremost, with every students best interest in mind that the work they were engaging wasn’t about working harder, it was about working smarter. Becoming more effective and efficient and ultimately getting results. So initially, I knew that I couldn’t tell people what to do. That builds animosity and resentment. I had to take people to where they needed to be…successful change happens not by mandates, directives, and forcing educators to do something that they might not necessarily believe in. The key to change is when they see the value in the change itself, the intrinsic motivation, and they want to change not because the leader is compelling them to but because they want to. That’s where you start to see wide scale, shifts leading to change leading to transformation.
So I took pride in the fact that initially, I worked with a portion of my population that really believed in this new vision, that wanted to learn how to un-learn and to re-learn everything that we were taught during our training, and begin to unpack the entrenched culture in our building, and figure out ways that we could make it more student centric, while pairing student agency, voice, choice and ownership with accountability. So as we worked in sort of a small cohort, it wasn’t me saying that I wanted or needed you to do this; it was the actions of my teachers who embraced change not because they had to but because they wanted to. And as they began to model expectations, the dominoes began to fall. Where 5 teachers became 10, 10 became 20. Until eventually, every teacher was modelling and embracing to a certain extent the changes that we had hoped to see in every classroom. I think with change you have to be patient, you have to understand that there will be bumps in the road. That you will fail but failure can’t result in excuses. An acronym I see all the time for fail is first attempt in learning. So that’s sort of the mantra that we embraced and we stopped focusing on excuses.
The one thing I learned early on Jay was that if it’s important to you, you’ll find a way; if not you’ll make an excuse. In education, we make way too many excuses not to move forward and not to change. Time, money, lack of money, mandates, and directives you name it. The challenges, the obstacles morph into excuses. And we hide behind them. We began to focus, even though it was hard at times, to focus on the solutions to every single problem. As opposed to always falling back on excuses. So with patience, commitment, flexibility, giving educators autonomy to make radical decisions that were innovative without the fear of failure. And constantly learning…we looked at it this way – no classroom, no school district is perfect or ever will be perfect. Our ultimate goal, as hard as it was at times, was to continually grow and improve. And by doing so if we were constantly learning, reflecting on our practice, and understanding that we didn’t always have to have all the answers, but we had the willingness to seek out those answers to the problems that we had. That is a school community that we would experience success and in a nutshell that’s what happened.
Jay Willis: So comparing yourself now to when you first became an administrator – what are some of the ways that you feel like you’ve grown the most?
Eric Sheninger: Well, I always thought the buck stopped with me, that I had to make all the decisions. Keeping everyone happy was a priority; not to rock the boat. And to fall back on the training that I received. To more or less manage, not lead, manage a school the way in which schools are supposed to be run, and that is a focus on conformity, compliance, control, and rules to make sure there’s conformity, compliance, and control. It took a student in 2009 to have the courage to tell me how I was creating a jail out of what should be a school.
We lead and teach the way in which we were taught. And you think about certain aspects of our jobs, whether as a teacher administrator. We kind of do things the way they’ve always been done, rarely questioning their effectiveness. Like giving out homework, just because we were given homework. The way we grade, the policies that really exhibit a distrust of kids. So when that student told me the error of my ways; it was a wakeup call for me. In 2009, it was that conversation with the student and the fact that I read an article in the newspaper about Twitter and I swore I would never use social media because my excuse was I don’t have time but it was those two events that put me on the road to deeper reflection and change. It was then where I started to learn how much I did not know. And I learned about the possibilities, the opportunities, that I as a person in power, control, and position was holding back my students, my teachers, and my school from being engaged.
And it really was a learning journey that was driven by social media that presented this doorway to a world I never knew existed. And once I stepped through the doorway I saw a whole new world where teachers, students, administrator were doing amazing things with technology and getting results. Because we weren’t doing any of that, that was the kick in the pants that I needed to change. I have no problem openly talking about how in terms of our culture, I was the problem; I was the one that gave people permission to use excuses not to change because I was the one using the excuses. So it that was a big turning point, taking control of my learning and embracing not just innovative practices, but taking risks knowing when I took risks that I could fail. And if I did fail, not having that be a hindrance to my growth and using that as a further catapult to constantly getting better.
Jay Willis: So what advice would you have to that school administrators who might find themselves in the situation where they’re really into rules and structure and maybe they’re saying, “Eric, what you’re saying is good and I agree with you. Where do I start though? Because I don’t want mass chaos. But I get what you’re saying and I think there’s value to it and I want to start somewhere. What do I do?”
Eric Sheninger: And I think it’s a great question Jay and my response would be you start with your students. You’ve got to build that relationship with your kids. And when you can build a better relationship with your kids, they’ll open up to you and they’ll tell you issues they have with their formal education. I mean that’s what it was for me. We were not engaging our kids in critical conversations about the work that was taking place in our school. Students at all levels, if you build those good relationships where they don’t fear any retribution for being honest, the kids will eventually tell you what works for them and what does not. And you don’t take every piece of advice or suggestion from your students. But I will tell you one thing – when students begin to understand and see that you actually value their input, their opinions, and when you begin to implement some of their ideas that work to combat the control, the compliance, and the world…that’s half the battle.
You want to get kids to come to school. You want kids to learn. You want them to achieve. But if there’s a disconnect with the school world and the new expectations and needs of our students, we’re never going to really see the results that we want. And we’re in education because we want to help kids. And starting with them and allowing our not only number one stakeholder group, but our ultimate boss play a more active role in transforming school culture, that is the best place to begin. Going from there, getting a pulse as to where are those pain points across our instruction, our curriculum, our extracurricular activities, our physical plant, things like that. Talking to teachers, talking to community members, and having everyone sort of provide some input as to where a school could improve. Because there’s a perception that just because… if a school doing well based on test scores it’s a successful school. But I think some kids and some teachers would beg to differ. Standardization has created a culture of compliance. So having people open up and be honest and have real honest discussions, where input is valued, I think that is the number one place to start for leaders who don’t know where to begin.
Jay Willis: So I know some of our listeners who are currently teachers but they’ve just kind of got the itch to go to school leadership. They’re thinking about moving to “the dark side” as some people refer to it. And they’re kind of worried about losing that connection they feel with classroom students, and I’m sure some of that happens, but, speaking to that concern, how do you feel like your impact is different as an administrator and why is it worth it?
Eric Sheninger: Well it is different because number one, real change comes at the classroom level. It comes from our teachers; it comes from our kids. I initially was naive in terms of thinking that it’s the leaders that drive the school or drive change. No way. Leaders, administrators, people with titles and positions might begin the visioning process and put a plan in place. But who actually implements the vision or the plan? Our teachers and our kids. So I think the best thing for leaders to do that are apprehensive of losing that connection to the kids is to really focus on being a leader as opposed to a manager and one thing that I did is spend 70% of my day in classrooms. Now granted I wasn’t having as much of the direct, intimate contact with kids. But I was in classrooms, providing feedback to teachers, making better observations as to whether or not kids were learning. And just that presence with the students seeing me, the teacher seeing me, I still felt that I was connected to the student body. And we made other changes to be more visible, just in general during our school day. We ate lunch with our kids as administrators. With technology we can do our work anywhere. We relieved some of our teachers of hall duty or other non-instructional duties. So we were in the hallways more. So it’s just that presence, the visibility, and being available to our kids if they have a concern, if they want to have a conversation. So I think there’s ways a lot of leaders fall into the workload and paperwork trap and the excuses morph – “I can’t get out of my office, I’ve got too much paperwork…” And we can’t let those managerial aspects that can be controlled overwhelm our desire and ability to really be visible and engaged with your kids.
Jay Willis: So I have a couple other questions before I’m going to run through some rapid fire questions here in a second if you’re ready for those? Okay there’s this one question, in reading through your introduction, you have really had a successful career. And so one of the questions I would have is, “What do you feel like what would you attribute your success to? I mean what would what do you feel like separates you, sets you apart from others in your field?”
Eric Sheninger: I don’t feel anything sets me apart. My teachers and my students made me look really, really good. It was their work – they embraced these changes and again my success is directly attributable to the changes that my teachers and kids implemented. And all I did was shared their successes. And yes I presented some of my own original ideas and thoughts so I’m think it was combining the work that my teachers and kids were doing. But being able to articulate and provide evidence of how our changes actually impacted learning and achievement. And I think that my opinion it was those two elements that really worked in conjunction to result in my success. Which is our success. But as we were going along, people wanted to know how we do all this, how are we getting results? And we really focused on being transparent. We became the storytellers-in-chief, we were consistently working on ways to improve communication, enhance public relations, build a positive brand presence. But when it came to technology, we didn’t want to be another one of those statistics where all right they’re using all this technology but it’s not impacting teaching, learning, and leadership. And I think we were able to affectively articulate how it was.
And now I’ve taken that message further. In my new role with ICLE, we’re now working with educators, administrators on how to replicate many of these strategies that we developed when I was a principal. So that other schools and districts can begin to scale out these changes that are adapted to meet the specifics of their respective communities. But in turn, they can experience the type of transformation that benefits kids that we did so.
So that is my long winded answer about my success. And again, good leaders know that their success is directly tied to the people that they work with. And leadership really is about building a culture where everyone feels that they’re a leader in their own respective ways. And if you can build on that leadership of the collective, well then everybody gets to experience success because it’s not a one man or one woman job; we’re all in this together. I firmly attribute all my success to not just the people that I’ve worked with but the people I work with now at ICLE and Houghton-Mifflin see early on as well as the support that I get from my family. And we can never underestimate how our family sometimes are the biggest influences on our success with the support, understanding and sometimes harsh and critical feedback that they give us to help us improve.
Jay Willis: Yeah, I laugh because my wife’s good at that too.
Eric Sheninger: Yeah that’s sort of my not to my wife, who pushes me to be better every day.
Jay Willis: Yeah. I love it. The message I keep getting over and over interviewing top leaders is just that servant heart really; the people who seem to really be the best leaders are the ones who are focused on serving the most people. They’re trying to constantly help as many people as they can. So that’s great. Here’s just a couple rapid fire questions if you have just another two or three minutes. Alright; so what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Eric Sheninger: Leadership is not a popularity contest. And if you’re aiming to please everyone that you are working with you will never succeed. So just knowing that you’re going to make difficult decisions that are going to rub people the wrong way, and that’s OK.
Jay Willis: What would you say was your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Eric Sheninger: I think my biggest strength, and it’s not very glitzy or glamorous, was my ability to provide solid instructional feedback to my teachers that helped us develop a relationship of respect. I worked extremely hard to provide feedback to all of my teachers, regardless of years of experience and regardless of how effective they were. And I worked extra hard to provide feedback to my most effective teachers and I think that went a long way toward building a culture of respect and trust that laid the foundation for many of the future changes that have been connected to my work.
Jay Willis: Is there a book or two that you would recommend for other school leaders that have made a big impact on you?
Eric Sheninger: Oh, there’s many but two books that really shaped my thinking were not education books, but more for the business sector. One was Drive by Dan Pink. And the other was Linchpin by Seth Godin. Amazing books that really helped shape my thinking. That I even referenced in my book on digital leadership.
Jay Willis: So what advice would you have for a school administrator as far as working with the students that they serve?
Eric Sheninger: My advice would be the same as what we talked about before – we work for kids. Kids don’t come to school for us. If we’re going to set the stage to have kids coming to school more excited to learn, we have to create a school that works for them. So have the students became active players in transforming the learning culture and in the end, when you get the kids all board, Even if some of the adults aren’t on board with the changes…I’ll tell you right now, it’s very tough to deny what our kids want, need and expect today.
Jay Willis: So kind of along those lines what one piece of advice and you mentioned relationships of course earlier but what I guess, one piece of advice would you have for an administrator working with the other teachers?
Eric Sheninger: I think one thing when you’re working with teachers is to make sure that everyone at least has an opportunity to provide input on changes. You can do that multiple ways whether it be traditionally through committees, but you can’t have everyone on a committee…But now you can use digital tools. Things such as Today’s Meet or even Twitter with a hash tag to just get out there and allow everyone to add their input to the changes that are going to take place. I think often we talk about consensus, distributed leadership, well what we need to do is not just talk about it, we need to show it, model it. I think those are some ways to really get the teachers on board.
Jay Willis: So last question if you had a time machine and you could go back to the point in time when you first made the decision to go into school leadership, what advice would you go back and give to that younger version of yourself?
Eric Sheninger: I would say, don’t be so stubborn. Make sure you actually embrace good feedback that’s given to you, even if that could be critical. And take more control of your learning in authentic ways. I think the younger me was pretty much stubborn and set my ways, had a one dimensional view of leadership and education, and I think I would say to be more reflective, more open to other ideas. And luckily that’s eventually I think the person I evolved into. But if I’d done it sooner, I might’ve done some more even more amazing things.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So finally if one of our listeners wants to reach out to you after the show what’s the best way for them to connect?
Eric Sheninger: The best way is to check out my website EricSheninger.com You can email me right there. You can contact me, you can see the books I’ve written, topics that I present on. Or, if you’re on Twitter @e_sheninger
Jay Willis: Awesome. Edu Leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of Today Show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word “Eric” Into the search tool to find his show notes. Eric thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Eric Sheninger: Jay. Thanks for having me here.
Jay Willis: And that wraps up another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders three days a week to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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