Missy’s transition into special education after spending nine years teaching 9th and 10th grade English, and why getting a master’s degree in Educational Leadership was critical to achieving her career goals (2:00)
The one career move that helped Missy break through outside limitations and become the most effective principal she could be (2:30)
What it’s like earning a master’s degree with three kids less than 4 years of age! (7:40)
The key factor that changes an education position from work to something you love (12:25)
Missy’s two worst moments as an educator (13:10)
Why a mindset shift is crucial for moving into better opportunities
Why it’s so important to find the environment that supports your goals (17:05)
Why you and your position must be a great fit for you to reach your maximum potential (21:00)
As you improve your skills and leadership, your position may not grow with you, and you’ll need to move on (22:00)
Why you need tension in your role (but if there’s too much, you can’t perform and you’ll need to move on) (23:00)
Missy’s best moment as an educator involved an encounter with furniture delivery driver (23:25)
Your unwavering belief in and encouragement of a student to do their best can profoundly change lives (27:30)
The two amazing books Missy is reading right now (29:30)
Her favorite quote: the definition of discipline (30:15)
Her most important piece of advice if you want to become a school administrator (32:00)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Missy Emler
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Podcast Session #2
Title: One Educator’s Belief in a Student Can Make All the Difference
Show notes: educatorslead.com/missyemler
This is the Educators Lead podcast with Jay Willis, Episode #2. Let’s go!
Intro: Alright. Missy is the Director of Innovation at CESA 3, a regional service agency in Southwest Wisconsin. She is also the host of On the Vendor Floor Podcast where she strives to engage educators and entrepreneurs in conversations that enhance learning. Prior to this role, she served as the Pre-K to 12 principal at a small rural school. That’s just a brief introduction, Missy, but tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path.
Missy: Well, Hi Jay, thanks for having me. I am absolutely passionate about education. My husband often yells at me because he says all I ever do is work. But his passion is hunting, and my passion is work and school and learning. So, I don’t even think it’s working most of the time, but I have to unplug every now and then to make him happy. My career path started with me as a 9th and 10th grade English Teacher. I taught English for 9 years. And then I became a Special Education Teacher, shortly after earning my Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. So, I had gone through my program internship in the district where I was teaching English and did, you know, 300 to 400 hours of administrative duties and I really loved it, but I needed to move on out of that district if I really wanted to get into principalship because I had grown up in my first district and I just felt like that just going to limit my opportunities. So, I went on to another district where I became a Special Education Teacher and I truly, truly believe that that is the one position that made me the most effective principal that I could be. So, I felt like everything I’ve learned that mattered happened in that Special Education classroom. And then I became a head principal, a Pre-K to 12 principal, with only about 400 students in my district. However, I was responsible for the curriculum, the technology, the testing. Pretty much everything.
Jay: You wear a lot of hats.
Missy: I wear, like, every hat as a Pre-K to 12 principal. And in the small district I absolutely loved it. But then I was recruited by our local regional service agency and so now I work at CESA 3 in Southwest Wisconsin as the Director of Innovation. And I do mostly training of principals and teachers.
Jay: Ok. So, at what point, or was there a specific point and time that you decided to move into school leadership or was it a kind of gradual thing, or was it kind of your expectation from the beginning? Or was there a kind of an event or a specific point in time that caused you to think about that?
Missy: Well, I think I grew up knowing I was a leader. And though leadership was just natural, I was in every leadership position possible throughout my life. You know college, I was the class president of our senior class in college so, it was just a natural process but once I started teaching, my principal in an evaluation said to me, “Missy, you’re going to be a principal someday”. And I said, “Really?” And I, it didn’t catch me by surprise, but it was just the way she looked at me and it was sort of like a demanding evil eye. You’re going to be a principal someday, and then she went on to say something else like, “There are not a lot of women in this field and we need people like you and I. So keep that in mind and keep learning what you can learn here but when you’re ready, I want you in administration.”
Missy: So, my very first year of teaching and then evaluation that’s what she said to me and so, it was like, four or five years later when she was leaving the district, she was retiring, she was retiring and then going back to do curriculum work in a different district very part-time. And everybody in our district was scrambling, like who’s going to be the next principal, and it was in that moment that I decided I needed to start the schooling for my admin licensure because I didn’t want to miss out on the next opportunity. And I had only been teaching like four years. So, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out at that point. But, I really feel that her leaving and somebody else coming in as the principal really sparked a fire like, you can get it the next time and there will be a next time and so definitely get your butt in gear so that’s what I did. So, I started. I started my admin program. I think it was year four of five of my teaching career so not too far in did I realize that.
Jay: Ok. You know it’s funny, just thinking of my own personal journey. It’s amazing how many skeptics you run into whenever you have kind of a goal or passion or something that you want to pursue. And it really is that one voice, that one person. When I look back, a lot of my greatest successes have been sparked by that one person who just believed in me. Times when I didn’t even believe in myself. Who kind of inspired me to actually press on and pursue that thing that I want to pursue.
Missy: Right, well its funny you said that, because, I show up for my first educational leadership course and my high school principal is my professor. And he said, “I knew, I’d see you here someday”.
Jay: That’s awesome. That’s awesome.
Missy: He was a believer from very early on for me as well.
Jay: That’s great, so tell us about the journey to becoming a school administrator. I mean, you’ve kind of shared some of that but I guess a little bit more of the details. You kind of mentioned that you had to take more classes.
Missy: Yes, so my husband worked nights when we first got married and I did not like being home by myself so I decided to take a couple of classes. And I knew at that point that I would likely pursue educational administration. So, I did all the pre-requisites. And a semester or two, prior to actually entering the educational leadership program. So I was pretty much done with the pre-requisites, but then it was time to enter the program and I did that and, the thing that I remember most about the program was that I started the program when I had a baby that was 20 months old and a baby that was two months old.
Missy: And then, I started the program in June and then August. Or in the following August. So, I had another baby. So, you know, first semester.
Jay: Oh my goodness.
Missy: Yes. So I had three kids. Three and under and all when I was getting my masters in educational leadership. And I remember taking a personal day to do my homework. I was pregnant and I took my two oldest ones to day care and I stayed home and wrote like tons of papers like I had all these observations that I needed to do of my colleagues teaching and I had all these notes. But I had to produce some reflective papers. I had to have some research papers. I just remember taking a personal day to do homework because I was so far behind. And my kids were crawling on me all the time. And there was no way I could sit with my laptop with two babies, two and under, and feel good about that. But, as I pressed through, I knew that those babies would eventually be older. I really was ok with the amount of time I had to spend on that program, because I didn’t want to miss the baseball games when they were older. And I didn’t want to miss other things, and my family was super supportive and helped me out whenever they could. So, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out on a lot because they were just there with me as I did it.
Jay: Yeah, so what was the thing inside of you that continue to motivate you in those times when you know, maybe you’ve got a sick kid or two, and you’re trying to juggle all that. A job, classes, like what kept you going?
Missy: For me, that’s a really interesting question. You know, I don’t really know. I don’t really remember being like tired. I was so motivated by the learning. I absolutely feel like I learned a lot of practical things in my master’s program. And lots of people say their master’s program was just a bunch of theory. And for me, it wasn’t bad at all. We had real conversations. We had real opportunities. And for me, I really enjoyed the work. And so, the one thing that happened to me in my master’s program was that, I started to suddenly feel trapped in my classroom. My perspective changed so dramatically and so rapidly that existing inside the four walls of my classroom was suddenly challenging because I had started to become a system’s thinker. And, you know, I was looking out for all students. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t serving the students of my classroom because I absolutely became a better teacher through my master’s work. But, my motivation was to impact the system. And somewhere along the line in that program, there was a shift. And it wasn’t a shift that I don’t – I think I cared about all students my entire career. But it was knowing how to behave in a way that had a positive impact on the system, so that, you know, I ask harder questions. I asked questions that other people haven’t thought of. Not because I didn’t agree with what was being proposed, but I just wanted to push the thinking so that we were more certain our other ideas would work.
Missy: And then, when I went to the Special Education classroom, that job came with a case load of 25 students. But I was also given an additional stipend for curriculum work.
Missy: And I was responsible for us starting a new standardized testing suite at the time that I took this job. And we also got a new curriculum management software. And my job was to roll both of those things out to my new district. And part of the reason that I did that was because in my previous district where I was the English Teacher (and doing my internship hours for my admin program) I had already rolled those programs out to that district, just part of my internship. So when I went to my new district and had to do that again, while managing 25 students in the Special Education case load, I don’t know how I did it. Thinking about it now, it was just absolutely a crazy amount of work. And I didn’t even realize how much work I was doing. Because I was so motivated to make things better. It was great. I loved it.
Jay: That’s great! So I guess if you’re passionate about something then it doesn’t really seem as much like work.
Missy: Right, Well. And there’s another key factor. If you feel supported in doing the work, and if you feel trusted and respected in the work that you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work. But when people question whether or not you are leading them in a direction that is good for everyone, and when people question that, the motivation factor goes down. And if you have to fight for every single thing that you’re working towards, for every single accomplishment that you can see, but you have to fight to get there, that changes things too. And that becomes more complicated. And I’ve been in that situation as well.
Jay: So tell me, what would you say was your worst moment? What’s been your worst moment as an educator? Whether as a teacher or a principal. Just take us to that moment in time that you would say was your worst.
Missy: So, I’m going to take you to two. So the first one was, it was the spring of the end of my internship. So, it was the spring of 2009 and I was finishing up my educational leadership courses. And I had just finished up my intern hours. And I was actually applying for the position in the district that I was teaching in and if you have ever read the book Good to Great by Jim Collin, he convinces anyone who reads that book that it is best to hire within, in order to get the flywheel going because you can save so much time in promoting from within because they have the history and they know the processes and procedures and systems. And I had applied for the position in the district that I was serving. And I didn’t get it. And that was devastating. Because, I had spent so much time working to better the district. And I had given them so much. And it wasn’t that I felt entitled. It was that I felt prepared and capable. And so when the people that feed you don’t see that in you, it changes how you see them. So, ultimately that moment was devastating and it was a lot of tears and my husband wasn’t quite sure what to do with me that day. But, and then of course it was a Friday, so I kind of fretted about it the whole weekend. Then I went back to school and life went on and ultimately they knew that I would find another job and leave. And I had been looking for another principalship. I can’t move, though; I’m very locked geographically because of our family and the commitments that we have here. So there wasn’t a principalship that was suitable however, my colleagues that I had gone to school with said “Missy, we want you in this district. Will you please come work with us?” And then the superintendent called me and it was like I hadn’t really even applied but I had an interview. A conversation interview and he said “Yeah, I want you to come here.” And they just convinced me. That was just a good thing.
So, I went back to the Special Education classroom and that really entailed getting another master’s degree. However, it was a competency-based program so I was able to demonstrate the competency and I only had to take one class in order to get that licensure. And I believe that I have a Special Ed mindset. I believe in serving all students. So what is essential for some is good for all. And that was sort of how I operated. So, that was quite easy to demonstrate the competency in those areas. But that was a turning point because that job in Special Education, as I mentioned before, was absolutely the best experience I’ve ever had to prepare myself for principalship.
So that was the one moment. But amazing things came from that. And the second moment that was awful was when I realized that I was, when I was in my principalship. I had been there like; I was there for a total of two years. And the second semester of my second year was very hard. Everything was a battle. So I had done a lot of things. I was basically hired in that principal position because they wanted somebody who was knowledgeable in Special Education because they did not have a Special Education Director. And the laws were changing. And so obviously, I had that. I was a Special Education Teacher and I had that knowledge and I came from a district that you know, is known for complying in best practice so that was hands down. They thought they were getting a gold mine. And the other reason I was hired was because of my technology background. I have always been ahead of the game in terms of tech integration. And tech for the purpose of learning. And so, you know, they are getting everything they needed. So I entered that district and they didn’t have wireless. Their teacher computers were seven to ten years old. And I came out of the classroom where I had a document camera and an interactive whiteboard. And then that district, it was “either/or” because “you know they do the same thing.” Oh I just laugh when I think about that. No, they don’t do the same thing and we will try to work on that.
Anyway, I’ve brought them up to speed and we move really quickly with the technology integration piece. I was able to secure a significant grant to get interactive whiteboards in all classrooms. Even though I don’t know that I’d make the same decision now. But it was a way to move forward and with that, I had to get everybody new computers. And so I managed to advocate so heavily for teacher laptops instead of teacher desktops that at many, many times, I thought I was going to lose my job. Because, I would not let them settle for mediocrity when the world is moving at the speed that it’s moving. I realize that I was costing them 50 dollars more per computer. But I was saving them in the end from being lost in the abyss of outdatedness. But the moment that was awful, was when I realized that I could fight and kick and scream and fight for everything that I knew this particular school needed. But I would always have to fight, kick and scream. So it was almost like the people that I was working with – my superintendent was a challenge because he wasn’t in the same place as I was with technology or Special Education and he had many other leadership qualities that I am so thankful that I worked with him for. But no matter what, moving forward in the areas that I was hired to move us forward in, I would’ve always had to get through him. And that would’ve always been difficult. So at some point, in that process, I gave up the fight and I became compliant and it was in that complacency that I realize I can do this. And, honestly the next day, the regional service agency that I work for now called me and said, “We need a Director of Innovation, and you had done so many amazing things at that school that we really want you.”
Jay: Wow! What great timing.
Missy: That’s how I ended up where I am now. So it’s hard when you know that you’re doing really great things and you can see the progress. But when people aren’t ready for you, it’s difficult.
Missy: So, you have to, when you’re looking at getting into an administrative role, you have to make sure that it’s a fit. So initially, I was a great fit for them. I brought everything that they needed to them. Through my skills set but in the end, I’m not sure that they could support me in my growth. And that’s where the conflict came. And I care so much about that district and they are still making progress and their administrative team reaches out to me more now than they ever have and so I’m still having an impact on that district. But in a role that I don’t feel as conflicted in. It’s a really great fit.
Jay: So, your story seems to be. just what I’m picking up from all this messages, it seems to be, as you grow, you need to look for opportunities that, as you grow as a leader, you should look for opportunities to accommodate that growth, or else you’re just not going to be content staying where you’re at. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
Missy: Yes. And as a leader, it’s not, it’s definitely, I want to keep growing. And I want to create a culture of learning because I’m growing and learning. But for me, in order for me to feel like I’m accomplishing my goals, the people around me have to be learning also. And so the conflict for me, definitely comes in when I’m fighting for people to do the very thing that I want them to do. And the only thing that I’ve ever asked anyone to do that I’ve worked with, is learn. Yeah, you absolutely have to be in an environment that honors and respects what you bring. And is willing to take what you bring without pushing back too much.
Missy: There’s always going to be push back. But when they push back to the point where the leader questions if they are actually serving the common good. Then we’ve pushed too far and progress can’t be made.
Jay: Yeah. So, we’ve talked about your kind of worst moments as an educator. What’s been your best moment, if you are to choose one of them or even two as you did before? What would you say has been absolutely your best moment as an educator?
Missy: So, I have to say. Oh, boy; this is a really tough question. It’s hard to pick just one but my Special Ed experiences absolutely impacted everything about what I do and how I do it. And I was the lucky teacher that got “dropped-in” students. And a dropped-in student is a student who had dropped out of another school. And those students, you know, everybody else in the building is like, “Here we go again”. And “when are they gonna leave? They will never stick it out” And I look at this kid in the eye and I said, “If you’re dropping in to my classroom, you are going to graduate because there is no excuse for you not to graduate. Because I’m here. I’m your best advocate. And I know you can do it.” So, we look at the file, I really started to understand what this student’s learning difficulties were. And they were extreme learning difficulties and what had happened is, in his struggle to learn, he had become unengaged in a behavior problem. But ultimately, it was his learning struggles, like he really had to work hard to overcome his learning disabilities. His reading disability transferred into his area of math and it was a challenge.
But a year and a half later, I got new furniture. I had to leave school, you know, they’re going to be there between noon and five. But I managed to get them to call me as they were driving into the town where I was working because I just lived across the street from the school. And they called me and I said, “Ok, I’ll be right back. I’m gonna go let the furniture guy in” and my teaching assistant stood there for me. And my colleague covered for me and I went and let the guy in to drop off my furniture. And he looked at the name on the slip and he said, “Melissa Emler, are you a teacher over there at that school?” And I said I was, and he said, “Well, I had to say thank you.” And I said, “Really? Why?” This is the delivery guy. What does he know? And he said, “Well, you’re teaching my son and he tells me you’re going to get him to graduate.” And my eyes teared up because this was the student’s dad and I was like “Oh my gosh, who knew I would see you?” And I did not have the best relationship because all this guy wanted was for his son to walk across the stage and he had dropped out once and he really didn’t believe that his kid was going to make it. And I said,”I’ll get them there. I will get them there.” And two months later, it was graduation and the kid walks across the stage and I’m going to the line at the end and I say, “Congratulations” and I give everybody a hug. And his dad finds me at the end of the line and he said, “You really did it. Thank you”. And that was the best moment. And I don’t believe in hand holding and he definitely earned his walk across the stage and I earned it too. But, he definitely earned it and he continues to hold a steady job. And he’s doing really, really well in life. So, I’m feeling really good about that. But it’s just because I really believe in every kid. I really do.
Jay: That’s great! And you know that story, that same thing that propelled you and gave you the confidence to move in to school leadership is the same thing that helps the students actually graduate.
Jay: I mean, just, the take away for me is if I can be that one person that speaks in this someone’s life and says, “You can do this! And I believe in you” I just think that it’s so powerful and I feel like most of us can look back at our successes and see than one person who just believed in us. And who is just relentless in their belief in us and how that helps us keep going when we really did not believe that we could do it ourselves.
Missy: Right. The real key when you’re in leadership is to make every kid believe that you feel that way about him or her as an individual. So I really am a system’s thinker and I tried to make the system better. But all of my students, even when I was a principal, those students that needed me to believe in them trusted me to do that. And they knew that I believed in them, that I believe in him or her just as much as I believe in the student who would be the valedictorian or the star athlete or whatever. And the star athlete or valedictorian, they knew I believed in them too. So the trick when you’re in leadership, it’s for every student to believe that you believe in them as an individual.
Jay: Yeah. That’s great. For the last section of this podcast, I have a few rapid fire questions. Are you ready?
Jay: So, first off, what is your biggest strength as a school leader?
Missy: I’m an innovator. I like to do things new but better.
Jay: Ok. What is your biggest weakness?
Missy: Oh, I think things can be done faster than reality.
Jay: Yeah. I think a lot of high performers probably feel that way.
Missy: Yeah, we need more time. I need to realize that.
Jay: Yeah. What one or two books that you most recommend to others school leaders?
Missy: Well, I’m reading a really good one right now called the “Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros and it keeps me up at night because it is so exciting. So that’s definitely the new one on the forefront that I have read, that I loved. But, the other one that I think is going to stand the test of time, that has really impacted my thinking is “Professional Capital” by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves. It’s Amazing book about respecting the profession of educators and what we can do as a community of educators to raise the level of respect that we receive.
Jay: Sounds like a good book.
Jay: What is your favorite quote?
Missy: Doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, as well as can be done, and doing it that way all the time. The definition of discipline.
Jay: That’s great! What one piece of advice do you have for other edu-leaders out there working with the educators they lead?
Missy: Learn. You have to learn. If you don’t learn, no one else is learning. And that’s the whole basis for why school and education is in existence. So do what you have to but definitely learn.
Jay: Ok. So kind of along the same lines, what advice would you have for edu-leaders working with the student population that they serve? Maybe you have the same answer.
Missy: Yes. But before they can learn, they have to believe that you care.
Jay: That’s great.
Missy: You have to care about them.
Jay: That’s great. So, I have other questions after this but how can people connect with you?
Missy: Well, everything I learned since my admin school licensure finished up, I learned on Twitter. And I used to say that really jokingly to get people to join me in that space but I really truly believe that everything I learned, I learned on Twitter and you can find me at @melissaemler and I could connect with people there. Otherwise, if you want to drop me an email, I’d love to connect with people via email too. And you can connect with me there at missy(at)melissaemler.com.
Jay: Ok. That’s sounds like a good book title. How I learn, I learn on… what was exactly the quote that you said?
Missy: Everything I learned, I learned on Twitter.
Jay: That’s it. That’s sounds like a book. The next book. Bestseller, right there.
Jay: So, lastly, the final piece of advice that you would have for a school administrator or someone who wants to become a school administrator one day.
Missy: You have to know your community. And know the people in the community. And that’s probably one thing that I could have done better. But, once you know the community, you need to care about the community. And the more you can care about the community, the more sustainable our work will be.
Jay: That’s great. Edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources, visit educatorslead.com and type the word Missy into the search tool and her show notes will pop up. Missy, thank you for sharing your journey with us today on Educators Lead.
Missy: Jay, one more thing that I almost forgot!
Jay: Yeah. Go ahead!
Missy: I have a freebie for your listeners. I did a lot of work for social media presence for our school. And so, every month, I put out fifteen Facebook post suggestion for your school. And I will send those over to you so you can link them up in your show notes as well. But, I do send those out, you know, every month, if they want to get on my list and have those show up in their inbox every day. Just drop me an email at missy(at)melissaemler.com. I will definitely send those over to you so you can link them up to the show.
Jay: Yeah. That will be great. I’ll put that in the show notes. So, very good! Well, thanks again Missy! And that represents 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 weekly 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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