Meet Shawn Berry Clark: Pushing the Boundaries by "Being Who You Needed When You Were Younger&q


We all have a story. And chapters in my story are constant reminders that boundaries are meant to be tested, stretched, and pushed. I could have given up early in life. You could definitely have referred to me as a juvenile delinquent (cutting school, breaking laws, abusing alcohol) and I never graduated from high school. In fact, I dropped out of high school twice. During my repeat senior year of high school I got pregnant, found a “reputable” attorney in the yellow pages and relocated to New York, where I made the painful decision to put my child up for adoption. That moment in time launched my journey of pushing boundaries - I was bound to go from GED to Ph.D..

Hoping that my daughter would one day want to meet her birth mother, I did not want to be an embarrassment to her. My dream was that if she ever wanted to meet me, I would be someone she would be proud of. I was going to be someone who made a difference in the lives of others.

My road towards making a difference took many twists and turns and pushing boundaries often came with consequences. I didn’t start out as an educator. It wasn’t until I had a son four years later that I decided to become a teacher through an alternative certification program. Making sure that I was a teacher and leader that I wanted my son to have shored up the determination to model my expectations,

I wanted to be whom he needed in the classroom.

My main drivers for pushing boundaries in education are my children and being who I needed when I was younger. Even though I missed dozens of days in school, no educator visited my house or demanded to meet with my parents or called me to ask if I was okay. I needed someone to reach out to me and I still wonder how many students go through school without advocates, saviors, supporters, or heroes.

Upon entry into the world of education I noticed almost immediately a lack of feedback among colleagues and between teachers and students. In my first teaching job I taught behind one way glass mirrors and observation booths so I was watched at any moment. The spectators (parents, professors, or college students on the road to becoming teachers) observed me but no conversations followed regarding my practice.

It was like there was a sign on my “cage” that read Don’t Give the Bears Feedback.

As a teacher in an elementary school a few years later, I thought I brought my "A" game each day but I was only observed one or two times each school year. I was proud of the relationships I built with my students and the learning my students were experiencing in this Title One school but no one came to witness our story. I craved feedback because I knew I could be an even better teacher for my kids.

Withholding feedback was something I vowed to never do when I became an administrator at a challenging middle school (and Director of Curriculum and Instruction 10 years later). We created a system of feedback focused on using video for classroom observations, validating assessments, overhauling grading policies, and interviewing students about their learning (#justaskthem) - all initiatives that called for the pushing of boundaries. The middle school I worked for went from having an accountability rating of "at-risk" to "excellent" in under four years and I think having a system of feedback was instrumental in our success and the achievement of our students. Parts of the journey are chronicled in my book Using Quality Feedback to Guide Professional Learning: A Framework for Instructional Leaders. Feedback has become an integral part of my practice - not just giving it but soliciting feedback from others. I am that person who speaks up in meetings and conversations on behalf of students - I push the conversation by disclosing what I know and providing feedback that may cause us to question what we do.

  • Don't withhold feedback for fear of getting dunked (see Rebecca Coda and Rick Jetter’s book Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank: How to Prevail When Others Want to See You Drown).

  • No one has arrived - everyone has room for growth and feedback (both critical and positive) helps us become better (see Kim Scott’s Radical Candor podcast if you want to improve on caring personally while challenging directly).

  • Find your tribe. If I hadn’t decided to share my story with Rick Jetter I would have never joined forces with an active PLN like #pushboundEDU, who support each other to do things differently.

  • Share your story and take time to listen to other’s stories - especially students - you can't be who they need if you don't know their story.

After hiding my story and my past for decades I will be silent no more. My main message is simple...Be who you needed when you were younger. And if it takes pushing boundaries to accomplish this, don’t hold back - because our students are counting on us!

Shawn recently left a district office position to take on the challenge of being a transformation coach assigned to “failing” schools in South Carolina, which allows a closer connection with students and staff who need her most. She co-authors a blog with her accountability partner called Classroom Confessional and you can follow her on Twitter @shawnblove. Shawn will be co-presenting on Using a Formula for Change at the AASA National Conference on Education in February in Nashville and on Professional Learning Communities at ASCD's Empower18 Conference in March 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.



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