Maureen O’Shaughnessy, EdD, is a career educational activist with over 30 years of transforming learning in schools to better serve all students.
She is the founding director of Leadership Preparatory Academy, a nonprofit progressive micro-school in Washington State. With a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate degree in educational leadership, she has an extensive understanding of the components needed to transform the education system.
Dr. O’Shaughnessy is the author of Creating Micro-Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids: A Step-by-Step Process that Empowers Frustrated Parents to Innovate Education and has served as head of school and principal internationally in countries such as Kuwait, Hungary, and Ecuador. Weaving in a strong emphasis on service and leadership at each school, she has been an educational change agent across the globe. And now as founder of Education Evolution, she aims to disrupt the education climate as we know it to help ensure each child is seen, heard and valued and met where they are academically, socially and emotionally.
Daniel: I think it's easy to believe the myth that bigger equals better, but you can actually build better without making things bigger. The other day I went to this greenhouse called Carol Watson Greenhouse outside of Syracuse, New York. I went there because my time in Belgium and the Netherlands, one thing that I took away with me is that they had terrariums everywhere. These pieces of glass, where they built these beautiful gardens, these scenes, maybe even jungle scenes in these very small spaces. So I went to Carols and I got this terrarium in this tiny, tiny suculuent . It just went really minimalist, very simple with it. Just dirt and the plant and the glass. And I love it. It reminds me of my time in the Netherlands. It reminds me that you can make things better without making them bigger and that's what we talk about today in today's show. It's easy to talk about scale.
Daniel: A lot of people talk about 10 X. I talk about those things. I dream big dreams, but that's not the only way of thinking that it's just one way. So today we think about going small and my guest is a expert on micro schools. We're going to jump into what it's like to build a micro school at the top of the show. We'll talk about how she came back to school in the fall, during the pandemic. And there's a part after the break, towards the end of the show, where we talk about her motto, I love the motto and how that integrates into what she does as a school leader. Hey, it's Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our show sponsors.
Daniel: You didn't have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn firstname.lastname@example.org. Hey, Ruckus Maker. My friends over at SMART have developed a research backed tool that will show you not only your strengths and weaknesses, but where you should strategically focus your energy in order to drive better results for your students. This tool is called the ed tech assessment tool, and you can take email@example.com/profile. Take the ed tech assessment firstname.lastname@example.org/profile. I believe that school leaders are doing the best they can, but is it possible to be just a little bit better? According to Demetrius a school leader in California, the best part of the Mastermind is the hot seat. I learned so much from the challenges that we all shared during hot seat, because the feedback that our members give is so insightful and valuable Lauren, our principal in Washington, DC, remarked that the best part of the Mastermind is access to tremendous thought. Partnering. If you would benefit from getting connected to other elite school leaders and would enjoy discussing education and leadership deeply each week, then we welcome your application to the Mastermind. Apply today at better leaders, better schools.com/Mastermind.
Daniel: Hey, Ruckus Maker. I am joined by Dr. Maureen O'Shaughnessy, a career school innovator with over 30 years of transforming learning in schools to better serve all students. She's the author of Creating Micro Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids. That's linked up for you in the show notes. She's the founding director of Leadership Prep Academy, a nonprofit progressive micro school in Washington state and micros school coalition, a cooperative of micro schools across the globe. Maureen offers consulting and the build your own micro school class guide in schools to open across the United States. She's been interviewed by Good Morning America and many other media sources and now has founded The Education Evolution Podcast. She aims to disrupt the education climate as we know it to help ensure each child is seen, heard, and valued and met where they are academically, socially and emotionally. So Maureen, welcome to the show.
Dr Maureen: Thanks, Danny.
Daniel: So pandemic's been crazy. I mean, everybody already knows that. You've had an interesting start to school. One thing that you mentioned to me is that you've not given up on in person and you've not given up on SEL during the fall. So I'd love to just hear what you learned by opening up school and not giving up on some of those components.
Dr Maureen: Well, I think the biggest thing we learned actually came about in the spring because we were a tight community, lots of really strong student teacher relationships and we pivoted seamlessly to remote learning. We practiced it before we did it. It was smooth, but we watched kids, even though they were really connected to their classmates and their teachers, we watched mental health issues, skyrocket, and just kids. Really, if they already were anxious, becoming so much more anxious, like what's this mean, what can I eat? What can I do? What air can I breathe just the uncertainty, driving them crazy. And so this fall, when we were opening our doors, it was like, we have to, because Washington state is in a place where we can do this and we're small enough that we can have six feet apart, outdoors, masks. We have to have part of our time in person that human connection that normalcy, those facial expressions, even though they're half hidden behind a mask, all of these pieces are so important.
Dr Maureen: So we just learned that human connection and not behind a screen is really healing and necessary. We were determined, but first we're going to be outdoors all day, every day in the parking lot and with canopies up. And then it's like, wow, it's noisier out here than we realize when we're just walking through the parking lot. And, Oh, rain, even with the canopies, that's not working so well. So then we shifted and tried remote mornings where you could be indoors and have good tech and then outdoor afternoons, but there were the fires and the air quality. And so then we shifted to half the number of kids, middle school, two days, high school, two days, and the other days, remote and indoors windows open way more than six feet apart and that kind of was our sweet spot where we weren't giving up and our families weren't giving up. At the same time, we had remote for kids that live with grandparents and needed to stay separate, but that mental health piece, that connection piece is trumping any academic gains this year. We just want our kids to be well.
Daniel: Wow. I appreciate your heart there. And it's so needed. I'm curious, talk to me about the staff, how did they respond and react? How did they evolve during this time?
Dr Maureen: This is our eighth year as a micro school and it's been a process of really getting the right people on board. If not for thanking them at the end of the year, helping them find a more traditional setting, but we have to be learner centered and we have to be coaches as opposed to more of the traditional lecturing kinds of teachers to be a good fit. So we already had teachers really engaged and all, but one teacher coming back. So we knew the kids, we knew the teachers, it took a lot of flexibility on their part. We work hard on building our team and our relationships. It took a lot of candor and addressing our fears and what do we need to feel safe? We did have a new teacher on board that was like I have elderly parents. I don't think I can do this and when that happened over the summer, we gave a very generous severance package and try it again because kids' mental health means we need that person present. We do have a senior teacher that's over 60, that's doing a lot of remote support for us, but everybody else, we really need to be present for the kids and they're flexing, they're doing it and it's an ongoing conversation. Even now .
Daniel: I have an idea of what a micro school is, but you're the expert. I'd love to ask you, what is a micro school.
Dr Maureen: I always hate how I sound with his answer, that everybody asks this question. It is a small school, Danny. So it's like, Oh, I wish I had something that sounded eloquent. It's truly that one room school house from a hundred years ago. Multi-age that being small. I get to do so many things I didn't get to do when I had a school with a thousand kids. So it's small and that opens up the doors to be personalized, to be competency based, to be multi-age to really pay attention to the whole kid. So it's a small school and hopefully an innovative one. That's really using what we know today about learning to impact our learners.
Daniel: I work with a community of people like us actually, educators that also run their own businesses. So we call them edupreneurs. And within the community, we're reading a book right now called A Company of One by Paul Jarvis, which I highly recommend. I'm sharing that to say, I think your definition is just fine because one of the big ideas that we were talking about today that I think is good for everybody ,folks running a business ,folks, running a school, if you're a leader, you're a leader, but it's the idea of questioning growth, growing for growing sake. Two ideas that he shared that really impact me is how do you build better instead of bigger? I think that's really great. The other idea was having an upward limit to your goals, right?
Daniel: So that's why I love the idea of a micro school. It's gone back to the basics. Like you said, the one room, school house, why do we need this place that is absolutely massive. And for me, it looks like this serving 60 leaders within the school leader Mastermind, and that is going to scale and grow, but I'm not going to be the one leading that. So I'll have other coaches that have worked side-by-side with me serving. So we can still live out the just cause to connect, grow, and mentor any innovative school leader who wants that development. But it also respects my time and the ideal life that I want to live and not to grow just for growth sake. So there's sort of long-winded, but I wanted to share that because I think it would be a value to you and to the Ruckus Maker listening, just those ideas. I think it fits nicely with micro schools. So maybe this is a good place to follow up with, what have you seen as some of the benefits of running a micro school and then the opposite, what are some of those challenges?
Dr Maureen: I love what you're saying about making sure that we're really focusing on growth and building for better, that is so important. And truthfully at a deeper level, challenging the status quo, why do we do this? Does it still serve? Why do we talk at, why do we have summative assessments that drive? Why, why? And is this still serving us and getting beyond bigger is better. Just these assumptions. So love that benefits of a micro school. Some of them you already see, you see in Montessori where kids get to drive their learning and they get to explore, and they have that agency. I want to go this way. You're that voice and that choice, or you'll see them in an elementary school where the teacher loops and is your third and fourth grade teacher. So there's that consistency and the teacher already knows you and your strengths and that you aren't good at self-initiating, task initiation will give you an extra little prompt.
Dr Maureen: You just hits the ground running with you. So, community, flexibility, personalization, nimbleness, to be able to pivot. A lot of schools around us in Seattle tanked when classes went remote and it was seamless for us and we were synchronous all day and still are with our remote learners. And Hey guys, turn off your cameras and everybody go find some liquids and we're going to measure the viscosity and just keeping the kids together. Going so small means community. It means relationships, and we need that more than ever. Small means limited resources. It means scrappy, especially like our micro school has a sliding scale for tuition. So it means when you're going to have like a one to five teacher, student ratio, you're not going to be having capital campaigns and building beautiful new buildings. You're not going to have football fields and worrying about what lights stay on at night and you're not going to be buying the property next door as investments and worrying about your endowments. So in bigger schools, those were all pieces of the puzzle that I had to factor in, but less resources kind of draws everybody together. We're all in this together. Parents are like, Hey, we have some canopies that our business doesn't need, or Hey, we can drive on Fridays or yeah. I'll pick up lunches to appreciate your teachers if you guys put the order in. So ,it's okay. We call ourselves happy and scrappy. It works.
Daniel: Scrappy was what came to mind for me as well. So yeah, those are a lot of positives. What do you think in terms of the some of the challenges too?
Dr Maureen: I think the challenge is getting families and kids to buy into this model. We are so locked into what I had when I was in high school or public schools should pay for, I pay property taxes and not into like, well, wait, what are the outcomes? And what outcomes do I want for my kid? Same with students. It's a challenge because they're like, I don't want to be different than my friends and I'm failing everything or I'm bullied but I'm fitting in, I think, and I don't know, this is odd and different and what will people think? So I think that's the hardest part. I hear that from micro schools that have been open, Jackson Hole Community School, open since 2004 and they're like, yeah, getting buy-in to do something different in a community that does not deeply dissect what education is and could be, is an ongoing challenge.
Daniel: And that mindset piece, I think, is a good point to answer this question too. Talk to me about how it was a bad idea to start from zero and perhaps starting with what you have going already. So for the Ruckus Maker, listening, they write in and they're like, I'm going to run with this idea. So if they want to go all in on the micro school and potentially start one. Talk to us about starting with what they have going already versus starting.
Dr Maureen: Absolutely. The first micro school I created was when I was a teacher in a high school of 2000 kids in three grades. We created a school within a school that is in spite of tons of bureaucracy and craziness. That is the easiest. You have the funding. We had a ton of portables cause we were overcrowded. We had the teachers, we had some teachers with Voke funding or chapter funding that had an assistant with them in a smaller class size. So pulling together a group of teachers that wanted to be more interdisciplinary, more hands-on more relational. Having a pod of portables near the parking lot. It took a lot of work and it took a lot of coordination, but we had them five of the six periods and then sixth period, they could go have Japanese or drama and get the cool big school elective.
Dr Maureen: They were on campus and they could do afterschool activities and whatnot. So that's a lot easier than coming up with your own facility, your own kids, your teachers, your funding in the late summer. I started, build your micro school course and before it became evergreen, I ran a group through it and two, actually three people that had really good success already had a business. Sonya had the Bullet Garden Project in New Jersey, a nonprofit kind of countering food, apartheid and pivoted to create their place discovery learning center. Nana had a cognitive therapy practice that was really play therapy and experiential that she built on. Tracy had the Grange and had all these micro businesses with 20 somethings working in there and then add it in boat, building classes for kids and then a boys middle school. So all of those, again, aren't starting from scratch.
Dr Maureen: They have their tribe, they have their mission. They have a lot of the resources. I started lead prep from scratch. Crazy hard, insane, doable. But if you can build on something that already exists, I think it's much better for everybody's sanity. What was the hardest part? Getting people, it still is to believe in something that's unfamiliar. For me it meant moonlighting at a community college and using my life savings and just all those things and scariness educators aren't necessarily business people. So like, Oh my gosh, I have to get a fire inspection. I have to get a business license and I have to set up a corporation and a nonprofit five Oh one C3, high learning curve. And, Oh my gosh, this is scary. Business owners edupreneurs know starting something is pretty scary, but it was pretty cool too.
Daniel: Yeah. I love this story. Something else I love is your model. I want to talk about that right after a break. So this is a good spot to pause and get a message from our sponsors. Today's show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder develops the skills and habits all students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom, learn email@example.com. SMART has an incredible research backed tool that allows you as a leader to self-assess your capabilities at the school level or broader to help you with planning and prioritizing discover your strengths and best area of focus across five different modules, including leadership and remote learning.
Daniel: The tool inspires collaboration with your colleagues and provides massive value. Whether you complete one or all five in the modules, you'll get a personalized report that shows where you stack up against other Ruckus Makers in maps. Some areas of focus that will have the greatest impact for you. Take 10 minutes and get started with this ed tech assessment tool. Today. I suggest beginning with the strategic leadership module, check it firstname.lastname@example.org/profile. That's SMARTtech.com / profile. We're back with Dr. Maureen O'Shaughnessy and she's the author of Creating Micro Schools for Colorful Mismatch kids and has a new podcast to check out education evolution. All this stuff will be linked up for you in the show notes. And the micro school she started has a brilliant model that I love so much. I want to talk about it. It's seen, heard, valued and thriving. I think I got it right, correct me if I'm wrong. Nope, that's it. Okay, cool. Tell us more about your motto.
Dr Maureen: It's always pained me as an educator maybe because I started in elementary where you really do get to see and know those kids. It just pained me when kids are invisible or when they don't have a voice, and truthfully are we valuing them when they're a widget? Okay, 9 o'clock you're in this class, 10 o'clock you're in this class, this is the homework due, sink or swim. I don't think large schools and teachers dealing with 150 kids a day really can value, can see, hear, know, or value a kid. And to me it's like, what are we doing to value kids? What can we do differently to value them? And then the outcome cranking kids through, and they have enough graduation requirements check they're done. What if they're not thriving? What if they barely made it through? What if they feel stupid?
Dr Maureen: Because they had 62% every year in math and that 38% gap got bigger and bigger and bigger. They're not thriving, they're surviving and there's a Gallup Poll Data on engagement, how it drops between middle and high school. There's so much information. The increase in mental health issues. As adolescents get closer to college age, there's a lot of indicators. Our kids are not thriving. And what's the purpose of high school? What's the purpose of school at all, if we're not loving up these kids and then if they're not going out and thriving and loving up the world. We're seeing more hate crimes or seeing more serial murders. School could be a part of helping kids thrive and it's not happening often enough.
Daniel: I think that potentially, not necessarily a critic, I'm not necessarily a cynic, but somebody who's just questioning what they're hearing because your school is on the smaller side. I know you have experience in bigger schools, but what would you say to somebody who's, I guess, wrestling with the idea, how do I take some of these awesome ideas that Maureen's doing in a micro school and then apply it to my massive setting?
Dr Maureen: I think that, yeah, it's easy to say. Well, yeah, that's, that's great for her, with her tiny student teacher ratio in school, but everybody can take a step. A year ago I was doing a presentation in Ecuador, in a inclusion schools conference. I was just saying, what are you going to do? And we went around the room at the end of each of my workshops. What are you going to do immediately when you get back to your school? So it's really easy. It's a cop out to say, Oh yeah, I'm not young enough or I'm not this enough. We have a ton of cop outs. So it uses a culture, but what can you do tomorrow? And right away find kindred spirits who else feels this way and wants to have this connection and then where do you have some windows of opportunity?
Dr Maureen: Like a lot of middle and high schools have advisories and kind of you use that when the counselor needs to come in and talk about the SAT test or about classes for next year or when you need to work in something extra or have an assembly. What if you really made those advisories a chance for student teacher connection and did a lot of team building, a lot of check-ins with kids, a lot of mental health kinds of things, improv and fun. Advisory oftentimes is, Hey guys, get your homework done. Come see me if you have a question about your credits and there dead time. A lot of people have resources that before after school time, you all know the teacher in your building, that has swarms of kids after school and stays open longer and it's that hub. It's that connection. It's those relationships teachers are doing it. Find them, make it official and support them. It's really hard to go against the grain and do something different. Sometimes colleagues are resentful and I did a whole doctoral dissertation on that. So support these cool changes and don't let them be shut down because it might make another colleague uncomfortable.
Daniel: This might be a risk. I want to ask you about your artwork in the background. So you'll have to describe it for the Ruckus Maker listening, partly because I'm a little bit jealous because this is my new space. You can see it's bare. Like there's things I want to buy, but the supply chain and I haven't gotten to it yet. Oh man, it's thinks the office is like, what's going on on those walls. So you have a picture, a painting behind you. Can you describe it to the Ruckus Maker listing? I'm hoping that it has some meaning to you, but I could be really off.
Dr Maureen: No, you're totally on it. Is this beautiful. I love blues and greens and it's not really tie dyed. There's an artistic word for when it's a blend of different shades. I actually saw this when I was working in the Philippines. I have a daughter with, ADHD, autism, a chromosome variation. She's super tall so all of her uniforms had to be specially made she's 6'3 now, but she was like 5'11 in fifth grade. The seamstress, her husband does this beautiful art and he had this on his wall and I'm like, Oh my gosh, I love the colors. I love it and I was moving back to Seattle and going to be the principal at a large Catholic high school. I wanted to have something in my office that really spoke of caring and the whole human. I really want to talk about how I lead and it says in light blue, you can't really see it from there, make me a channel of your peace. And that was my theme for the year. It's still, I want to be a conduit for peace, for kids thriving. It's, from my time in the Philippines, it was in my office in the last big school I worked in and it does have meaning for me. Thanks, Danny.
Daniel: How is it? Like I said, a bit of a risk, but, um, I think we get to know you a bit better and, uh, there's always a story there. For the Ruckus Maker, listening I think bringing your full self to your leadership and to your school and sharing these stories. Even telling your staff, here's why this is up in my office. It just makes you more human and you connect and build those relationships. And that end of the day, I think, I believe that it makes you a more effective leader. Thank you for going there with me because you could have said shut up, Danny. I don't want to talk about the painting.
Dr Maureen: No, thank you. I agree. Being human is one of the best gifts we can give our teachers and it gives them permission to be human too.
Daniel: Yeah. So Maureen, what message would you put on all school markies across the globe if you could do so for a day?
Dr Maureen: Is each of your students thriving? If not, what are you going to do? What are you willing to do about this immediately? How's that?
Daniel: Love it? Here's the last question. You're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?
Dr Maureen: Wow. I really believe in synergy. So I would get some people that I think are amazing and whether it's as consultants and there are some cool people doing stuff around the US. Big Picture Learning does a lot of cool stuff. I would be pulling from all these sources and get a tribe of people that are equally on fire, but maybe that have complimentary skills. So I get together this group. And now I've forgotten the second half of your question.
Daniel: Well, we love the synergy part and it's really just about like, what would be your priorities then building that school? The top three,
Dr Maureen: I really believe in UBD or reverse engineering. So I really want the priority to be what's our outcome going to be, what's our central question as a school,so that we're not just like, Oh golly, I like this. And I like that. And we have all these random ideas. Where are we heading? ? Cause if you don't know where you're going, , any route will get you there. They say an a won't get you there. So very clear on where we're going and really clear on what tools we see. Are we a flipped school? Are we a nature-based school? Who are we so big picture vision? Who are we? And then parameters, who are we not okay. Like our school's not in elementary. We don't have kindergarten kids because you can't be everything to everybody. Getting that clarity, that container, then there's actually a ton of freedom to evolve. So that's an exciting question.
Daniel: Thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of everything we talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Dr Maureen: That you can be the one throwing starfish back one at a time. Making a difference so that kids thrive get on it, do one thing every day that is helping kids thrive.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel @better leadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you, you subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway. From the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using the #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class
- Mental health must trump any academic gains this year
- Benefits and challenges of running a micro-school
- How to avoid copping out when the shoe doesn’t fit your school
- Kindred spirits are your windows of opportunity. Find them, make it official and support them despite uncomfortable colleagues.
- Valuing outcomes and not requirements
- Indicators that determine if students are thriving and not surviving
“Our kids are not thriving. And what’s the purpose of high school? What’s the purpose of school at all, if we’re not loving up these kids and then if they’re not going out and thriving and loving up the world. We’re seeing more hate crimes or seeing more serial murders. School could be a part of helping kids thrive and it’s not happening often enough.
Being human is one of the best gifts we can give our teachers and it gives them permission to be human too.”
– Maureen O’Shaughnessy
Maureen O’Shaughnessy Resources & Contact Info:
- Creating Micro-Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids.
- Education Evolution on Apple Podcasts
- Education Evolution | Alternative Education Podcast & Teaching Resources
- Micro-School Coalition: Welcome to MSC
- Education and Micro-School Consulting and Growth Strategies
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