Cale Birk is a District Principal of Innovation in British Columbia, co-author and imagineer of “PLC 2.0 – Collaborating for Impact in Today’s Schools”, “The PLC 2.0 Toolkit” and “Changing Change Using Learner-Centered Design”. As a former Principal of a model professional learning community school and high school educator, Cale helps districts and schools answer the question “What is our observable impact?”, the visible changes in practice at the classroom level that make the difference for students.
Having worked with organizations across Canada, the United States, Asia and Australia, Cale uses his background in project-based learning, Instructional Rounds and Visible Thinking strategies to design interactive learning experiences and professional development sessions with ready-to-use tools and protocols that teachers and administrators can take away to make their collaborative work have the observable impact where it matters the most–in classrooms with kids.
In addition to writing “PLC 2.0 – Collaborating for Impact in Today’s Schools”, “The PLC 2.0 Toolkit” and “Changing Change Using Learner-Centered Design”, he has has written articles for Education Canada, the British Columbia Principals and Vice-Principals Association, the North American Association of Secondary Principals, and given podcasts on leadership, learner-centered design and parent engagement.
- Suffering from “solution-itis”
- The power of using silence as a leader
- Human-centered leadership. Avoid doing things to people but with them.
- Defeating the imposter syndrome
- Resistant people help you clarify your thinking
- The only question you need as a school admin: What is the impact going to be in the classroom?
Full Transcript Available Here
Cale Birk is the coauthor and imagineer of PLC 2.0: Collaborating for Observable Impact in Today’s Schools, the PLC 2.0 Toolkit and Changing Change Using Learner-Centered Design. As a former principal of a model professional learning community and high school educator, Cale helps districts and schools answer the question, what is our observable impact the visible changes and practice at the classroom level that make the difference for students? Welcome to the show Cale.
Thank you for having me excited to be here today.
Absolutely. So you used to suffer from a disease called solutionitis, right? And you hit a watershed moment during a department lead meeting. Can you give the ruckus maker listening the story of that meeting and suffering from solutionitis.
I like to think of myself as a recovering principal now and as a result of this, but I think probably the best way to approach the story was that from most educators out there that are parents we all recall how much better parents we were prior to actually having children. And we likely used to be pretty judgy about the students that would come to our classrooms and the parents who were raising them. And then you realize of course, that when you have your own children, it’s a lot more difficult than it looks. And that’s really the same feeling I had about the principalship is that it seemed to be pretty easy. I mean you got to make all these decisions and really ultimately it was sort of up to you even right up to being an assistant principal I thought that that was pretty easy.
But once I became a school leader, I actually realized how much more difficult it was. And so I compensated for my own lack of capacity. And maybe I think a big part of it was lack of confidence and doing a great deal of research and school leadership curriculum and pedagogy to make sure that I had, or at least I looked like I had all the answers and so that I could solve almost any problem that came my way. And almost like a name that tune fashion where I could solve the problem in the shortest amount of time possible. And as a result, I started to see any sort of questions that came about these heavily researched solutions that I had as challenges to my authority.
And most people as a result would then defer to my position of authority and it led to a real lack of engagement of the staffs that I worked with and honestly, a lack of engagement for me. And it was sort of about this time that I began feeling, I think what a lot of school leaders feel, which was I was tired, I was burnt out. I wasn’t really making any impact on anyone and certainly not on the people that I was leading and most importantly not in the classroom and sort of just as I was bouncing off of rock bottom, I remember the moment that I was telling you about, which was having this department meeting, a coordinators meeting and I was dreading the meeting because we were going to be dealing with a pretty sticky topic that was coming up and really I didn’t know how we were going to solve it.
So there we were and the topic came up and as usual, the 12 other people in the room sort of deferred to me. They looked to me to come up with my usual sort of plan of action that was unlikely to work. They were so used to me just solving the problem, having solutionitis that they would just sit back and wait for me to do it. And so I had this moment where the question flashed through my head, which was for once, why not just shut up, meaning me just don’t say anything. And actually it was probably a little more vulgar than that other thought in my head. So the question came and I just sat there and I have to tell you, it was awful. It was 45 seconds of silence, which doesn’t sound like very much, but it was an absolute eternity where I was sweating and I was ready to jump in.
But I just kept saying, don’t do it. Don’t do it. And suddenly it happened. Someone else began to talk. And then another person began to talk and soon the whole room was talking and I wasn’t. And we came up with something, to me was a sticky sort of situation. We came up with a solution that was so much better than anything I could have come up with. And, and I think after the meeting, what was cool is one of the teachers our art coordinator came up to me and said that that was the best meeting, the best coordinator’s meeting that she’d been a part of. And I said, why was that? She said, because she felt that everyone had a voice. And so that was that watershed moment for me. And the thing that I learned that I needed to get a lot better at was that the thing I could do best was ask really compelling questions that invited people to start to think about their own solutions.
And instead of jumping to solutionitis, which really was me doing all the learning for the group, I actually realized that if you ask really cool and compelling questions, you start this amazing dialogue. And I think that was the moment that actually changed my entire leadership career was to recognize that actually we don’t have to know all the answers. It’s probably better that we just try and think of really, really great questions that might lead to divergent thoughts amongst our groups. So I hopefully moved a little bit further away from this concept of solutionitis.
That’s all I care about is questions, I love that story. It’s so important for the ruckus maker listening to hear. We’ve heard things like you have two ears and one mouth for a reason and use them in that order to their proportion.
You probably should think of it as like having five to 10 ears and then one mouth. It’s amazing that you had the courage to not jump in. Mastermind members know that I’m the absolute master of wait time and I’ll put that question into our leadership community and just stop because I know if I answer my own question or jump in too soon, the magic doesn’t happen. And if you let it breathe and take space, people need time to process something smart that they want to say. And I hope the ruckus maker caught this, but you said (1) They came up with a solution to a pretty challenging situation that was far better than what you could have come up with. So that’s incredibly important. And then (2) the one leader you talked to after the meeting found that to be the most engaging meeting you ever had. Right? And it changed everything for you. So kudos to you Cale. That is such an interesting thing. Last point I want to make is, I heard this on a podcast, but I’m going to steal it and take it. I heard this leader say that managers have answers, leaders have questions and I think that’s an incredible definition and distinction between those two roles.
And it reminds me of a quote from Warren Berger and his book A More Beautiful Question, which was if you look at the questioners and the non-questioners, who’s getting farther ahead? And that was another sort of light bulb moment for me is to think that is right. Like the people who ask these great questions, they tend to invite more and more and more great answers or at least possible answers. And that’s the thing too that comes with asking I think great questions is you have to embrace the ambiguity of the moment too.
Because sometimes some of these thorny problems I think that we have in leadership, they’re not sitcom learning are they? They don’t just end after a half hour and we come to a nice neat and tidy conclusion. They actually might, I love the words that you said, take a moment to breathe. And I think the more that we let those things spin out and iterate, the closer and closer we get to something that works for a lot of people. So I would definitely agree that the question and the wait time thing is hard and I think that’s the piece that took the longest for me to get used to is that there is that sweaty armpits sort of moment. When is anyone actually going to say anything? I don’t know about you, but I find they always do and it’s a pretty neat moment when you actually get started.
Yeah. Well the thing is you create intention, right? And so everybody’s feeling the same sweaty armpits as you are, and someone’s going to break that tension and as a leader, you’ve got to force that issue because it’s important to hear from your people and like you mentioned, you get that title in that position and people look to you for the answers, but the answer is already within them and the better answers are there too. So you just gotta make it happen. Let’s stick with questions because I find that really interesting and we’re just talking about how important they are. And sometimes when those questions come up, probably when we’re unhealthy leaders, we might take those personally when we’re unsure or maybe even scared, we might think that people are challenging or resisting, right? And we might attribute a negative idea to that.
You’ve mentioned to me earlier that you’ve eliminated the idea of resistance, right? Can you talk to us about the way you view that and how you view questions when people are asking those tough things or trying to poke holes through your thinking.
When I first started, I became a district principal of innovation. I had this fancy title, and, talk about impostor syndrome, I didn’t even really know what that title meant, that I became this position. And I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Business Innovation Factory. I’m out in Rhode Island and spend some time with some people that were real designers, and when I say real designers, designers outside of education and one of the things that was really interesting to me was to sit with a couple of these people and a quote that sort of stood out for me as I was sitting with the lead digital innovator for Estee Lauder.
And we were talking about kids in school and then this sort of stuff. And I was talking about doing some research for a book on learning experiences and he said, I’ve always found it funny. He said, in schools, you guys have your students right in front of you. He said, if in my position I had direct access to my clients, the way schools have direct access to their students and teachers, you said, I probably wouldn’t even have a job. He said, so if you want to learn about the experiences in your school, why don’t you just ask the people that were directly in front of you? And actually it was like a cold bucket of water in the face. Because I recognized he’s right. Like every day we have our kids in front of us.
We have our teachers in the staff room and in our classrooms. Why didn’t I talk to them about that? And with that he said, you are going to get some people that you might see as resistance. I spoke to another innovator who said that he was fascinated with the idea of resistance in schools because when they come to design products and these people design products for huge multinational companies, they actually look for the people who the product works the worst for. They look for what we would call the resistors. And when they find those people and they find what’s really bugging and bothering them, that’s the intellectual property that they treasure the most because they’re starting to find what doesn’t work for people so that they can make it work and make their product better than anyone else’s. And it made me think, why do we view people who have different points of view as resistors?
And the other thing that kind of struck me was there are times when I’ve resisted things, in fact, quite vehemently resisted things. But I don’t want to be characterized as someone who’s crazy or not on the team. I don’t want to be characterized as someone that we hope they retire or transfer to another school or district. I might just have a different point of view. I might need more clarification, more information. I might need to understand the philosophy behind it, but I’m not a resistor in terms of I might not go with the idea. It’s more the resistor that I need more information. So I’ve really tried to rethink that concept of resistance and think about it as really invaluable intellectual property that we can start to leverage and use in a way that helps us make better solutions. And it’s interesting because if we are to talk about resistors, if you go in our classrooms, those might be some of the students that we don’t see as being very successful.
We wouldn’t just marginalize, I think sometimes we do in our system, but we wouldn’t just want to marginalize those students. We want to find other ways to connect them. And we would call this universal design for learning. So why wouldn’t we do that for our teachers in our staff meetings or for our principals in our district meetings and recognize that resistance, however we see it manifest itself, actually it’s just people saying, I need to understand this in a different way. Can you help me understand this in a way that works for me? We would do that with students. And I think that’s why I’ve tried to change the thinking about resistance for myself and others and think about it as what’s the way that we can really connect with these people because we have a lot of things that we can learn.
So that’s really the way that I’ve tried to pivot on resistance. And as we move through some of the work that we’re doing with leadership, we’re trying to help leaders do that too. To think that when that great question comes, number one, you don’t have to answer that from the person. Other people can help answer it. But number two, it’s not a challenge to your authority. It’s that person out there that’s saying, I really just need to understand this in a little different way. So that’s kind of the way that we’ve started to think about resistance a little differently.
Empathy is what I’m hearing, be able to see somebody who’s challenging an idea, but understanding that they’re just crying out to say, I need more clarity. Right? And then you being able to give that. I love the frame of it too as intellectual property. Or maybe it becomes a proprietary process within your district. But the thing is if you can figure out the solution to these challenges, you’re going to really do something special. Because then the next thing that comes up, if it is a challenge or whatever, it just helps you iterate to make it even better. But if you’re able to address the concerns and get people comfortable with what you’re doing, right? What district wouldn’t want to understand how to do that at a high level. So that’s such a powerful reframe. All right, so we have resisters, the challenging with questions and things like that. And then sometimes people say stuff too that just triggers that imposter syndrome which you brought up a couple of times in this conversation so far. And in one of those things that somebody said to you, there was a veteran teacher, who said, that I don’t remember if it was a guy or gal, but said that he had blue jeans older than you.
I can still remember that moment.
And what do you do with that? Right. When a veteran teacher, probably with a lot of pull and authority in the school says I have blue jeans older than you. What do you do? How’s that connected to impostor syndrome and getting past it.
So you do the opposite. Pretty much of what I did at the time, which was get really flustered. I remember feeling offended. I remember I was standing in front of a staff of probably 75 teachers. I felt like I was being challenged publicly. I pulled the teacher in after the meeting and tried to flex my principal muscles behind closed doors and basically I did pretty much all the things that really indicated that I was an impostor. And so when I look back in that situation, kind of just as you were just saying the teacher who was a 35-year veteran who was the second oldest and probably the first most influential person on the entire staff, they were really, when I was talking, I can’t even remember the idea that I was mentioning, but they just, as we were talking about earlier, were just saying that I want to learn more.
And I think what the challenge, the biggest challenge wasn’t with what the teacher said. The biggest challenge was actually with me and my own level of comfort in my own skin. And that’s something that’s, I think it’s really difficult to say to someone, here’s how you should handle that situation. I think if we can really try and be empathetic and see through the verbiage and actually just think this person is just looking for more clarity in that situation, that’s really the best thing that we can do. But I cannot lie. It’s very difficult when you’re a brand new principal because there will be those challenges that come up. And I think if I could have done it all over again, I probably would have tried to laugh as best as I could because that would have put the whole room at ease.
And I would’ve tried to talk to the teacher at some later point and just try and ask more questions to understand what it is that they were concerned about, wondering about or thinking about instead of trying to put that positional authority spin on it. And one of the things that I’ve come to recognize is the positional title really doesn’t mean that much. The leadership comes from the actions that we have. And, and I thought at the time that because I had the big key in front of my title, the principal, that somehow I could bend this person to sort of what I was thinking. And now I look back and actually it was quite funny. It was a zinger and if I would’ve just laughed, it would’ve went away immediately and everyone would’ve thought, boy, that was great.
It would have done well. But I think really seeking to understand what has helped me a lot better than what I fumbled through in my situation.
Ruckus maker listening. If you get your first principal position and you get the I have blue jeans older than you, here’s how to respond. Well sir, I need you and those jeans on my leadership team because between the two of you, there’s an incredible amount of wisdom. So that’s a line from Cale and I that you can use. All right, well I’m really enjoying this conversation Cale. We’re gonna pause here for a message from our sponsors, but when we get back, we’re going to talk about observable impact.
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Alright, and we’re back with Cale Birk. We have discussed solutionitis. We’ve discussed impostor syndrome, blue jeans older than he was and how to reframe the idea of resistance. And now we’re going to talk about something that’s really important to you. And I love how you look at this, is this idea of observable impact.
So observable impact to me is interesting. I remember being a principal and even at the district level, we would spend a lot of time creating a vision and if we did it wrong, we’d have a few of us sitting around a table creating the vision. If we did it right, we might have our teachers involved, our students involved, our community involved, no parents, etc. Really, in the end I’ve been finding is that we ended up coming up with beautiful visions. I’ve never seen a vision that says we want to make really crappy students and we want them to be unsuccessful.
We don’t tend to have visions like that. They’re all gorgeous, they’re laudable and they have the right words. But no matter what process that people use to develop their vision in the end, if we can’t see it in the classroom then I don’t really know that it’s a vision then. So this has been the subject of the book that we wrote around collaborating for observable impact was the idea that if you have a vision that you can’t actually see that leads to positive and our definition of observable impact is really is it changes to practice that lead to positive student outcomes in the classroom. If we have a vision that doesn’t lead us down to those changes in practice, that make the experience for teaching and learning better, then I don’t know that the vision really matters all that much.
And I think when we’ve done this work over the last few months with schools, what we’re finding is that over and over we hear the same questions. Whose vision is it? What does it look like? What does it actually mean? And so the work that we’ve been trying to do is really to take, when we think about something like the four Cs, five Cs, eight Cs, whatever set of skills that make up the latest 21st century skills list. What we’re trying to do is really get down to grain size with district leaders, school leaders and teachers to say, when you say that you want a student to be a critical thinker, what would students be doing in demonstrating in the classroom? What would teachers be doing in demonstrating in the classroom if they were teaching this at a high level and what would the activities and assessments look like?
So that when any lay person walked into a classroom, they could say, I can see creative thinking happening and this is how I know. And I think that’s the thing to me that just kind of hit me about leadership is that if we aren’t having that observable impact in the classroom, that’s kind of on us and it’s on us because I think we need to clearly define when we see something that we want to have happen in the classroom. What would we actually see? What would we observe? And I think we’re very good in education at speaking education and using these big grandiose terms. What we’ve tried to really help people do is to think, imagine that our parents or a non-educator was walking into the classroom and you say that you teach effective real world communication or one of those things again that adorn our letterhead or websites or whatever, what would that person actually see?
What would they observe that says that this is taking place in the classroom? And what we’ve found through our research and now through our practice is that most people haven’t done this work. We’ve called it a curriculum. So we’ve tried to sort of nail down what students might be doing. But yet if you were to ask a group of 10 district leaders, school leaders, or even 10 educators, what critical thinking actually looks like, we’ve now found that you’ll get 10 very different answers. So what we’ve really tried to do is help people get down to that grain size so that they can say that I am having observable impact on critical thinking, creative thinking, whatever it is. And this is how I know. And we know that the work of connecting people’s actions to impact has the highest effect size in terms of student success, this is collective teacher efficacy of course.
And so that to me is really the thing that I’m most excited about right now. Really helping people to define what observable impact would look like in their context. It’s not us telling them this is what it should look like. It’s us discovering together with students, with teachers, with our community. This is what we would see in our classrooms so that we can take those things from the classroom to the board room. And any of us can say, this is what it looks like in our classrooms when we’re teaching our kids to a high level, in critical, creative, whatever, one of those four, eight tendencies that we have. So that’s the thing that we like to think about with observable impact in in our classrooms today.
I really like that and the part about how would you describe it to somebody outside of education reminds me of something called the Feynman Technique, which is named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist.
And essentially it’s when you take a complex idea and distill it down to like a fourth grader understanding and if you’re not able to do that in your communication, then you don’t know it that well yet. And so when you frame it that okay taking these complex education ideas and being able to describe it to a parent or a business leader or somebody from outside of education, that’s an incredible way to think about it. I love it. Is there anything else before we move on in terms of observable impact that has you fired up these days or anything else you want the ruckus maker listening to think about.
I think there’s two pieces to observable impact, which is sort of what can be perceived as shaking our finger at people for not having observable impact. And then the second piece is actually giving people the tools to be able to determine first of all what observable impact looks like and then what are the things that lead to that observable impact because now I’m hearing this phrase getting kicked around and people saying, yeah, but what’s your observable impact?
And what I would push people to think about is it’s not good enough just to say or ask people that question, what’s your observable impact we have to support people and how they can help to define and determine that. And that starts all the way, as I said, in the board room and goes all the way into the classroom including students. One of the things that’s interesting is a lot of people do use things like positive behavior intervention system, PBIS where they clearly in student friendly language define stuff like walking down the hall, going to the bathroom, raising the sham for students because it’s so important for us that we understand how students behave. What’s super interesting is to me is those things are pretty concrete skills, like walking down a hallway. I’m pretty sure most kids are going to figure that out at some point.
Critical thinking is not a concrete skill. Critical thinking is very, very abstract even for the most highly tuned adults. And so if we really want kids to learn about what critical thinking is, shouldn’t we define it in such a way, just as you were saying that they can actually understand it much like the same way that we would define it as, as we would for them walking down a hallway. And this to me is where I think as leaders we can’t just say, what’s your observable impact? We also have to help people get down to that appropriate grain size and have the tools to be able to do that. And I think that’s what’s got us fired up as well as we wrote two books. And one was really a practical toolkit for teachers and leaders to be able to use so that we don’t just, again, sort of condemn the education system.
And then say, see, they don’t even know their observable impact. We’re actually saying, no, we’re going to help people define it in such a way so that they start to feel good about defining it in those sort of really student friendly terms. But it’s not just for the students, it’s so that we know it when we see it and we observe it and we can make it better. So those are the things that kind of have me going right now. And what we’ve found is people have really appreciated, first of all the question but secondly, the support, which is to how do we actually do this? Because saying it is one thing as we know, but actually practically doing it in the lives as busy school leaders and teachers is another. And so when what we’ve done is we’ve really tried to do our ethnography and work with with teachers and say, does this tool work? How can we make it better? We sit, we listen, we take feedback and we iterate. Because if it doesn’t work for educators, well it’s not going to work. And that’s really the approach that we’ve tried to take. So that’s what’s got me going right now and it’s exciting and fun to work with.
And can you share for the ruckus maker listening if they want to continue to explore your work, check out the books, where can they go for that?
Yeah, amazon.com and the name of the book is PLC 2.0: Collaborating for Observable Impact in Today’s Schools. And the second book is just the PLC 2.0 toolkit. And I think first of all we’ve tried to make it a fun and easy read for people because we know we don’t really have time to read the sort of dead sea scrolls anymore. So we’ve tried to make it really condensed and the tools we’ve tried to make them condensed to sort of 45 minute tools that can be used at staff meetings in collaborative meetings. And we’ve tried to make the UX, the user experience very high for people so that they can actually walk away with something. They can go, I can use this. So yeah, if they want to check that out, that’s where they’re at.
Cool. And we will have that linked up for you, ruckus maker in the show notes so you can just click the link and grab those resources. Alright Cale, two more questions before we end this conversation. First one being, if you could put a message around the world on a school marquee just for a day, what would that message read?
Oh it’s such a great question and I think to me it would be, we have observable impact on our students. Just come look. And I think that’s the whole key is we talk about what is actually happening in schools. And I think our parents, our communities have a great deal of trust in terms of what’s going on in schools. And I think we have to really make sure that the learning that’s taking place in schools is highly visible and authentic, and so authentic that anyone just as we’ve talked about, a community member, a business person, someone who’s maybe had a really poor experience in schools can come in and say, wow, they actually are impacting kids and this is how I know. So that would be the marquee that I’d really want to fly and it’s not good enough. We would never have a restaurant that just has a big sign on it that says really great food because no one would believe them.
To me, the belief comes from when other people who are within the school system and within our schools, they are our advocates and they are our unpaid advertisers if you will, and I think that’s something that as leaders, it’s not good enough for us to say this is what’s happening in our schools. It should be, this is what’s happening in our schools and just come see for yourself. And that’s something that, to me, I think if I could be in my utopian system, that would be the one that had that banner flying and people could walk in and say, wow, look at the authentic learning that’s taking place. And even though I may not know a lot about what education necessarily looks like because it’s so explicit, I can see it. So that’s the marquee that I would fly.
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, Cale? And what would be your top three priorities?
How would I build my dream school? I think I would ask lots of questions. And as we’ve said earlier, I think it’s the skill that if I could say throughout my career in administration, it would be that is to truly ask questions of the community and have a really clear vision of learning. So asking questions is one, but asking questions with the goal of what would we actually see students, educators, and the activities and assessments that they’re doing in their classrooms, what would we see them doing and demonstrating? So asking lots of questions, having a clear and observable vision that’s actually doable. And then the last piece is really focusing on authentic learning experiences where kids don’t have to ask the question, why are we doing this? Because it’s so painfully obvious that we are doing this because it’s connected to you, it’s accessible by you, and it holds you authentically accountable.
And when I say authentically accountable meaning, but you’re not doing it on a test or a worksheet, you’re actually creating a product for someone that needs it or you’re performing it for someone in a way. And those are the things to me that I would really want to focus on for a school. But if we had schools that spend their time asking questions, have that clear and observable vision and really looked at sort of what’s that authentic learning experience look like, that doesn’t require kids to ask why, that’s the school that I want to work at. And probably more importantly that’s the school that I’d want to learn at whether I was a teacher, a leader, or even a student.
Cale, thank you so much for being a part of the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast. Of all the things we talked about today, what’s the one thing you want a ruckus maker to remember?
I think if I could have them focus on one thing, it would be don’t focus on action. Focus on impact and why I say that is in the busy lives of leaders and the educators today, I don’t think we have the time to just focus on action. I think if we actually look at which of our actions has the largest impact, where it matters the most, which is to me in the classroom, if we focus on those things, I think everything else falls into place. So there’s a lot of people that say that they’re big into action. I hope that they can think, okay, but which of my actions actually needs to be impacted I want to have in the classroom with students. So that’s the thought I’d like to leave with you.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast ruckus maker. If you have a question or would like to connect, my email firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. 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 can 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 hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership at betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, class dismissed.
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