Tell your story or someone else will! How true these words ring in a world of instant information and communication. Educators, I believe, are by nature humble people who work to serve others and support students. School leaders are no different. These educators never seek praise or admiration for their outstanding work—work others could learn from.
As I began my leadership journey in administration and met talented school leaders, I was in awe of their skills and innovative ideas. You can read a book or sit in a workshop and learn, yet when you talk one-on-one or in a small group with like-minded individuals, the learning compounds immensely. In Kansas, we have a considerable diversity of school district sizes. Folks can easily think that the district’s size may reflect the quality of the school leader or the effectiveness of a school leader. I cut my teeth in a large suburban community as a teacher and instructional coach; I learned much and am thankful for those experiences and relationships. Yet, moving to a smaller neighboring district as an administrator, I experienced some of my most significant growth due to the connections and community I gained through the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals (KASSP). I thrived on stories of community engagement and the real-world learning experience.
Sizing Up the Stories
The leaders I met were full of love and passion for student success, school culture, and community engagement—leaders such as Joe Gerber of Halstead, KS, whose booming voice carries the warmth and care for students that only a loving father could provide. Meeting him (and many others) ignited a desire to know more about what made leaders like him thrive in a challenging job: “How do you handle … ? Why did you … ?” I had so many questions that I’d pepper everyone I’d meet with them until I’m sure I became annoying. But I had to learn how they were meeting the needs of their schools and communities—such as Jacque Feist of Dodge City High School in Dodge City, KS, who shared stories of community engagement and providing real-world learning experiences for students. I realized that school leaders need to listen to and learn from others.
I was in my third year as a building leader when I heard George Couros at a KASSP workshop speak to what I knew to be true: “We need to make the positive so loud that the negative becomes almost impossible to hear.” Shortly after that, I took on a new role with KASSP as the communications director. The position’s purpose was to promote, learn from, and share the work and ideas of Kansas school leaders.
I’m not a wait-and-see kind of guy—I’m a jump-in-headfirst-and-go type of person. So, after doing some primary homework and learning all I could from YouTube and other podcasters, I started down a path with the driving focus to tell the stories of school administrators across the state of Kansas. I started a podcast titled #ListenUp to celebrate great schools, their leaders, share positive stories, and dive into deep learning.
The Podcast Process
Although podcasting was new to me, learning from podcasts was not. I have made podcasts one of my primary sources of learning both professionally and personally. They provide access to a wealth of information and content in entertaining and insightful ways. Podcasts allow for long-form conversations and whole dialogue and discussion, which is becoming less and less common. I don’t want the Twitter version of a leader’s beliefs and values. I like the whole story. Early in my leadership journey, I listened to Jethro Jones’ “Transformative Principal” podcast and Jocko Willink’s “Jocko Podcast.” Both shows helped me see how a leadership story can be told by having meaningful conversations with guests and diving deeply into their lives and experiences. I wanted to do the same thing for Kansas school leaders. Talent and wisdom abound in the state, and these humble folks need to have their school stories shared.
Great stories start with people, and when people tell their story, the impact echoes authenticity and meaning. The first few podcasts were a little rough. My original goal was 5–7 minutes of quick tips and ideas for busy school leaders to learn from. The first episode was a lesson in planning and organization. After reaching the 5-minute mark, we had not even started down the path of deep learning or inquiry. I knew I had to change the show’s format to allow for a more in-depth experience. The podcast grew and grew … from the first show lasting nine minutes to an average show lasting over 35 minutes, and some are much longer. I let the conversation drive the show. Learning is not bound by time but by the energy and passion of the guest.
Pulling Out the Leadership Lessons
My guest drives the topics, and it is my job to help draw out the leadership lessons for the audience. Each episode is unique. I have recorded over 60 episodes released over the course of three years. I am a building principal, and hosting a podcast takes time. I am very conscious not to take time away from my building’s needs and supports, so all shows are recorded early in the morning or in the evening. I keep it simple and raw! There are no scripted questions or direction outside of the stated purpose of “sharing great Kansas leaders’ stories.”
Once I publish a show, I share it with the school leader’s local superintendent; this is where things get exciting for the principals. For many, the show airs on local media or on social media outlets to promote their school. School districts then post on their communitywide newsletters about the #ListenUp podcast and how proud they are of their principals and their ability to communicate their school story. It has become a source of pride for the district. Boom! Mission accomplished!
Finding the Focus
The focus must be on the guest, not the host. #ListenUp is about the guest and their school story. For the first two years, I intentionally did not say who I was. I did not—and still do not—want to make the show about me; it is about Kansas leaders and the lessons they can share. It was exciting to go to KASSP events and hear people talk about the podcast and how much they learned from their colleagues or see a Twitter post about the latest episode. The impact was noticeable and brought a following within Kansas school leader circles. Friends encouraged each other to be on the show. They eased their friends’ nerves about the process and explained the fun they would have. You could see the pride in the leaders’ eyes as they talked about the show and the lessons they learned from a colleague’s episode.
When we can take a few minutes to encourage one another and learn from one another, we can regain a sense of the “I got this” mentality. Being a school leader is HARD; it is emotionally and physically draining at times. Craig Groeschel, the author of Winning the War in Your Mind: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, says, “Our lives are always moving in the direction of our strongest thoughts.” As building leaders, we can feel lonely and isolated, like being lost in the wilderness looking for a way out. We can feel like we are the only ones dealing with the situations we face. By listening to the stories of our peers and learning from their authentic and brave conversations, we create a community and sense of belonging that can help us surpass our most challenging days. Allowing positivity and supportive affirmations and stories to drive our thoughts can move our minds in a direction to be the leader we all aspire to be.
Trevor Goertzen is the principal of Spring Hill Middle School in Spring Hill, KS, and a 2021 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.