Dr Shira Lewibowitz is a dynamic educator, author and entrepreneur, Shira is CEO and founder of both Revabilities and Discovery Village. Rev Abilities is a Professional Learning Academy helping educational business owners and directors bring their vision for learning to life so they can increase their income and improve the lives of their students. Discovery Village is a premier project and play based childcare center and preschool located in Tarrytown, NY. Shira is co-author of The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness. Her upcoming book, to be published summer 2022, is titled Havens of Hope: Ideas for Redesigning Education From The COVID-19 Pandemic.

Shira holds a Ph.D in Education and is an experienced school leader who served for 20 years as a principal of nursery through eighth grade independent schools in the greater New York City area. She is a faculty member in the doctoral program of education at Northeastern University; co-author of The Coach Approach to School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness; a national faculty member for the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development; and a leader of professional development for educators. Shira has been working with childcare centers regionally and nationally on how to navigate the health, financial, and educational challenges facing early childhood centers in the age of COVID-19. Throughout it educational programs have not only navigated through but have become dramatically better. At Revabilities, Shira shares the insights and inspiration that sparked their success.

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Show Highlights

Turn devastation into hope by going off script to create an oasis for learning grounded on the wellbeing of your community.
The highway to happiness protocol for curiosity and exploration to flip the magic “up” where kids need it most.
Insights when countering the negative, LOUD story of what goes on in education with hope and positivity.
Teaching children to play and explore within the constraints of any environment is the necessary path.
Overcome the two simultaneous narratives to every crisis to ensure your team comes out stronger.
Examples on how to get teachers and parents comfortable with the evolution of change happening daily in education and the uniqueness of your school.
Approach creativity in your leadership and switch your mindset from a matter of “if” to a matter of “how.”
“When we say there is no other choice than to figure it out and to be present for our students, we do that. Figuring things out requires us to level up in ways that are profoundly uncomfortable and stretch ourselves in ways that, frankly, education doesn’t support.”
- Dr Shira Lewibowitz

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Read the Transcript here.

Trade Negativity For Hope


Daniel: In the last few years educators and Ruckus Makers alike have been incredibly challenging. Are there any stories out there where schools thrived throughout the challenge of COVID 19? Is it possible that some schools got better and better as the days went on? It turns out that today’s guest, Dr. Shira Lewibowitz, actually experienced a school where it got better and better and better and created magic for their students, even throughout the horrific pandemic. We’re here to tell her story today. Hey, it’s Danny 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 a few messages from our show sponsors. Learn how to successfully navigate, change, shape your school’s success, and lead your teams with Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership. Get world class Harvard Faculty Research specifically adapted for pre-K through 12 schools. Self-paced online professional development that fits your schedule. Apply for the upcoming cohort at BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com/Harvard.


Daniel: Teachers use Teach FX to record a lesson and automatically get personalized insights into their classroom. Conversation Patterns in teaching practices. See for yourself and learn about special partnership options for Ruckus Makers at TeachFX.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, which equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid or traditional educational setting. Learn more at OrganizeBinder.COM.


Daniel: Dr. Shira Leibowitz spent two decades as a principal of pre-K through eighth grade schools before opening her own child care center and joining the faculty of Northeastern University. She is co-author of the best selling book, The Coach Approach to School Leadership, and her latest book, Haven’s of Hope: Ideas for Redesigning Education from the COVID 19 pandemic is now available to a Ruckus Makers . Hello, Shira, and welcome to the show.


Dr Shira: Thank you, Daniel. I’m so happy to be here.


Daniel: In June 2019, you just opened a new school in New York City, no less. But the entire time you have shared with me that your school experience kept getting better and better. Juxtaposing that with people who are really, really struggling. Tell us that story. How did you keep getting better?


Dr Shira: Absolutely. My background is I spent 20 years as a principal of pre-K through eighth grade schools and in July 2019 opened a child care center and preschool just north of New York City. It was grounded in being everything that I believed education should be for all the years and was challenged to implement in traditional schools, made progress, did some good work, and really had this dream to have my own school that I could design as I wanted. We were doing that. We were building up. We were getting the school to a place that I was feeling really good about until March 2020, you all know what happened. I was in early childhood. We were called “Essential” and never went remote. We never shut down. We had kids through everything. Lots of the stress when we heard from the K to 12 space in the really challenging 2021, 2022 school year. As people came back, we experienced first and very dramatically and I committed to giving heart to whatever kids were going to show up. In the early days it was just six kids. We dropped from 100 to 6 overnight.


Daniel: Wow.


Dr Shira: This is an independent school. This funding is to pay salaries. I was cutting into my own savings. We did have to end up furloughing for a while in the early days in New York, just north of the city. It’s hard to remember back what that was, but we literally felt if a child touched another child’s toy, they could die. It was crazy so we made a decision that we were going to create a place that was an oasis from the outside as much as we could. We focused on wellbeing, on play, on helping kids feel emotionally good and helping parents feel emotionally good and safe as much as we could. And in that freeing of ourselves from whatever expectations we had of ourselves and being able to be present, really fully present with kids, we stepped back and saw this magic happening that we had never experienced before. In the worst of times, we were seeing this beautiful child led Learning and reflecting back. I believe it’s really because we allowed ourselves to be authentic who we were. We weren’t trying to follow a script. There were no scripts to follow. And in that freedom, we found good results, this great environment, this great community and learning that stemmed from where we were and who we were and primarily where the kids were. And it was amazing.


Daniel: Sounds amazing. We’ll unpack it a bit. I have this framework I call the ABCs of powerful professional development in the stands for authenticity. To reflect back to you, you said you were able to show up authentic as a school, and that led to freedom and so that’s a gift. It can feel scary sometimes to show who you truly are, to act the way that you feel like you’ve been creating and lead in that way and that kind of thing. When you lean into who you truly are, there is such great freedom. If you could get past that initial fear things kept getting better. You said there was magic, which is wonderful. I know that you experience something called the Highway to Happiness. Can you describe it?


Dr Shira: So that was the moment that kind of changed everything. I’m standing in this classroom. It was at a point where I there was a short period of time, about six weeks, that I had to furlough most of my staff and we were able to get them back. It was me and one other administrator and one teacher in this one classroom. Everything else was closed to dark and the kids were leading their own learning now. Kids, this is preschool. Preschool and toddlers. I don’t have any infants coming at the time. They were designing and building. They had built a farm because they were into animals and then they broke down the farm and they built a car wash and they propped up this hose to really wash little cars, toy cars. They were really intrigued with water because COVID, we were washing our hands minimum every half hour. We had this commitment that every single COVID protocol would be playful. We played with washing our hands and we played with the soap suds and we made it a game. They were getting really into water. That exploration lasted about six months into water. We explored so much about water. This was the beginning of it. They’re washing the cars and one of the other children decided, we wash the cars now we can do something with the cars. So he took cardboard and he designed this. He called it in his words, four years old, “the highway to happiness” and the clean cars would drive down the highway to happiness. At the end, he had just glued a picture of a sunrise. And you would get to that sunrise and you would be anywhere you wanted to be, real or imaginary. We were all playing with where would we go when we drove down this highway to happiness?


Daniel: Such a beautiful image, I love that. That it ends there with the sun. The thing with these young students in their exploration. It’s like imagination, it’s curiosity. I never served in an early childhood setting. I did student teaching through instructional coaching in the central office. Local school administration was all six through 12. But I did get to work with pre-service teachers once at the University of Illinois, and it was with the early childhood ed folks. And I’ll never forget. Why can’t we have most classrooms like these preschool and kindergarten classes where you said six months of exploration of water. Right. And probably why does this happen and why does that happen? You keep investigating. I don’t know if there’s anything that you’d like to add, but how you sort of stoke that curiosity, imagination, it seems like a natural component. But for me, the Ruckus Maker listening, who is leading at a secondary level, like how can they take what the magic, like you said, and maybe implement it into their setting?


Dr Shira: That was my mission. Through all my years leading, I was mostly at a lower school principal elementary in my 20 years as a principal pre-K through eighth grade. So middle school and I started my career actually teaching high school and I teach doctoral students and education. I’ve taught or led literally every age from infant to doctoral students. Throughout my career, I always wanted to bring that play and project and childhood exploration of great early childhood education up through the grades and and hit it in pieces at places never as fully as we can in the early childhood space. But what I would say is we spend so much time in education pushing down, saying to middle school, they have to be ready for high school, saying to lower school, they have to be ready for middle school, saying to early childhood they have to be ready for kindergarten. What if we flipped it? And what if we pull the magic of where our kids are up? What if we pull that curiosity up? Because what’s a four year old? There are scientists. You’re exactly right. They keep asking why and how and what not. Exploration of water you could do at any age. You could bring in literacy, you could bring in math, you could bring in science, you could bring in the arts, you could bring in culture. You can bring in anything into those explorations that stem from children’s learning. I know in much of education and experience this pull to standardization and this pull to perform in particular ways. There’s not that freedom that, paradoxically, we had when we were present during COVID, when the only thing that mattered was that we kept kids safe. That. Nothing else mattered, like getting ready for kindergarten was thrown out the window. What we saw was they were more ready when they let them be. What I would say to Ruckus Makers at any age, working with any age. Play with that exploration as much as you can, as much as you can within the constraints of the environments in which you are playing is the pathway to discovery. And that starts in early childhood.


Daniel: Play is the pathway to discovery and we can pull it all the way up. Thank you. Obviously, the context of COVID was difficult, devastating and challenging at times. Every corner you look around, how do you turn those experiences that are so hard into ones that are hopeful and optimistic?


Dr Shira: What we learned when we were challenged in ways we never imagined is that there was so much more within us than we ever imagined. There were these two narratives that I heard happening, and this was from the early days, and everything happened for early childhood faster because remember, we never closed. We were called “essential” or many of us, and we were allowed to stay open when it was us in the supermarket. So that was that. Everything else was closed. The schools were closed and shifting to remote learning was hard, but hard in a different way than coming to work each day when we didn’t know what that meant. There were these two narratives, first, among early childhood educators, as well as the K-12 space. One was, this is horrific. This is horrible. This isn’t what we signed on for. This is devastating. And there was this other narrative which was that we can figure this out. And if we were ever called to be here for our students and for our teachers, it’s now when they need us. And who can we be through this and who do we want to become coming through this? And then in the following school year as the K-12 reopened and experienced all the challenges of COVID protocol and staffing shortages and shutdowns and quarantines and everything that early childhood had been experiencing, first that was a different challenge, and we faced that, too. We faced staffing shortages so that schools are facing so that that became a whole different challenge. In the early days of COVID, we were overstaffed and I own the center financially. That was really hard and really scary in terms of education. We could do a lot more, staffing shortages created a whole different problem. Again, we heard these two narratives in the field, the loudest one being the massive exodus of teachers. People are leaving. People have had it. People do not want to be in this field anymore. And that’s real. And it’s frightening and it’s understandable. And there’s this other narrative underneath of people saying, if ever there was a time we were needed, it’s now. If ever there was a time we had a voice. It’s now. People are hearing our pain and our anger and our need and and what education deserves, what our kids deserve, and for our kids to deserve that, what our teachers deserve, what our leaders deserve. How can we take that enormous, legitimate, real, authentic emotion and take it to create what we want to see in the field? And those two stories are both real and they’re both happening simultaneously. And for me, each day, it’s a decision to say, I want to live the narrative of hope. I want to be the person who faces adversity and comes through stronger and with others, certainly not alone. None of us alone can really make the massive changes we need. But together with others, we can change the field.


Daniel: Yeah, I love that. It’s the idea that we’re all in this together, better together. This challenge actually creates opportunity. Maybe this is actually the best time to be an educator ever, because there is so much opportunity as a result amidst all the challenges. These are some really helpful reminders for the Ruckus Maker listening. I am really enjoying our conversation. We’re going to pause here just for a second to get in some messages from our sponsors when we get back. I would love to talk about switching your mindset from a matter of if to a matter of how to learn how to successfully navigate, change, shape your school success, and empower your teams with Harvard certificate and. School management in leadership. Get online professional development that fits your schedule. Apply for our upcoming cohort at BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com/Harvard. Courses include leading change, leading schools, strategy and Innovation. Hey Ruckus Maker, Teach FX has been an incredible sponsor over the years and they do great work helping educators be mindful and reflective about how they’re talking right and how much talk they have in a classroom impacts student learning. Now, don’t just take it from me. That Teach FX is awesome and it surely is. But check out what some real educators have to say about using teacher effects in the classroom. Overall, Teach FX is great at helping me become a more reflective teacher and continuing to build my lessons based on what the students need. I will be the teacher I want to be when I’m no longer a teacher and I’m truly just a facilitator of class. I think that Teach FX is a tool that will allow me to get there more so than like any other tool I’ve used.


Daniel: 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 more at Organized Binder.com. All right. We’re back with Ruckus Maker Shira Liwibowitz. I was sharing it before the break. How do you switch your mindset from a matter of if to a matter of how?


Dr Shira: I have a book that came out this past summer Haven of Hope Ideas for Redesigning Education from the COVID 19 pandemic. In addition to leading through pandemic, I wanted to tell the story of others who were facing the challenges with exactly that mindset of not if, but how. And there is one quote in the book which is exactly that, and it’s from Josh Kaplan, who is the head of school of a small, independent school focused on sustainability, outdoor education in New York, Hudson Valley. The quote is Leading through pandemic was never a matter of if. It was always a matter of how. And that’s a choice. When we say there is no other choice than to figure it out and to be present for our students, we do that. Figuring things out requires us to level up in ways that are profoundly uncomfortable and stretch ourselves in ways that, frankly, education doesn’t support. The education system is so much about standardization, about the same about things being similar and routine. And I get it. Kids need routine. That’s true. And we have that. But that leveling up and figuring out and willing to try things that we haven’t done before becomes a mindset during the pandemic when we were open and everyone else was closed. For me, it was not a matter of if. It was a matter of how I wasn’t going to close. We were allowed, even encouraged to stay open if we could. We figured it out and we figured out hard things. There are certain statements that came to me that I repeat over and over and over again. So one of them was, “if something works, it’ll work until it doesn’t, and then we change it.” And so there became this comfort of we’re ready to change again and again because things were changing again and again and again. To get teachers and parents comfortable with these are the rules today, but they could be different by tomorrow. This is what it’s expected today, but it’ll be different by tomorrow. But there’s a certain core that remains, which is we’re going to focus on the well-being of these kids and we’re going to be present for them and that we won’t compromise on the rest. We’ll figure out we did things different than everybody else did in certain ways. One example, which is very much a pandemic example, irrelevant now, but relevant in how we can think things through differently to get to where we want to get. So everybody who was not in early childhood centers were not letting parents in. I couldn’t imagine dropping your child off someplace during a pandemic that wouldn’t let you in to actually see what the protocol safety protocols were, to see what the cleanliness was, to feel it yourself. And so one of the early days of the pandemic, a mom essential worker was dropping her daughter off, two years old. And both of them are crying at the door about the trauma, the stress, the pain. I said, you just come in. I turned to my director and said, “We’re not doing this. Parents can come in if it’s safe enough for their kids, it’s safe enough for them. If it’s safe enough for them to go to the supermarket next door, it’s safe enough to come here. We’ll figure it out, because what mattered was taking care of them and taking care of them.” And they knew their kids were okay. They could see it, they could feel it. They could be part of that. And that’s a long answer to a concise question of it’s a choice that we’re going to do what’s right for our teachers and we’re going to do what’s right for our kids. And there are always constraints. Many of the constraints now are about the systems they’re invented and constraints they’re not real. But we have to contend with them anyway.


Daniel: I call myself an unorthodox leadership coach and I tell people why follow the rules when you can make them up. One thread I’m hearing in this conversation, which I’m so appreciative that you’ve pulled out, is that you have the opportunity to choose every single day, every single moment is an invitation, and it’s up to you on how you decide you want to move forward with that. I highly recommend Sherry’s book Haven of Hope: Ideas for Redesign and Education. From the COVID 19 pandemic, and that will be linked up in the show notes. Our Ruckus Maker listening can get their hands on a copy. I think that also sort of brings us to the next question, which is you invited parents in when it was maybe against what was recommended at the time or what other schools were doing. And so my question for you is, how can school leaders stand out by highlighting what they stand for?


Dr Shira: Vision in most schools is done in a way that they can paralyze us. What’s a vision, a real school vision? How many school visions do you have? How many strategic plans? How many vision, mission, core value statements do you read? And by the time you get to the end of it, you can’t remember if this school or another school, they sound exactly the same. How can you get to the core of what you really believe and have that infuse everything in your school, stand out by what you stand for? And so for me, it’s one word. We got our vision statement down to one word, which is well being. We’ll expand that out. But what do you need to succeed in life? You need to be able to get to a place of well-being regardless of what’s happening around you. And that means you’re not always happy. When we talk about schools and parents wanting kids to be happy and kids wanting to please act like they’re happy even when they’re not. What if we allowed kids, kids to feel whatever they feel and to help them face those emotions without being overwhelmed? Because that’s well-being. And what if we thought about well-being in terms of over a lifetime? What do you need to be? Okay, you need financial well-being. So you need skills to have a career. You need relational well-being. So you need to know how to get along with others. You need physical well-being. So you need to know how to take care of yourself. You need spiritual well-being and whatever that means. But, but, but this feeling that you matter in the world, that there’s something important, so that one word well-being becomes everything. And it’s been so powerful in my school because it connects to any interaction between any two people, teachers and each other, teachers and students. And then it also becomes a big conversation. It’s how we promote mental, emotional well-being for ourselves, for our communities, for our planet, as we’ve extended a focus on the environment and caring for the planet so one word can be expanded out. I learned that in the early days, as we were figuring out how in this child care center where kids touch everything and play with everything and social distance does not exist. With toddlers, it was impossible. How do we keep them safe? I started looking at Montessori and Montessori individual materials and reading a lot more about Montessori from the pedagogy, I came to have this much deeper respect for the vision underneath. The vision can be expressed and this is where I learned it really and came to my one word: well-being. But Maria Montessori, I believe you can take her philosophy down to first one word when she started and another word, another word as time went by. When she opened her first school in 1907, the word was independence. This was about helping these children become independent because that’s what they needed. And so much of the history in her life combined together as to why that mattered to her. Then she was in Europe during World War One, in World War Two, and it became all about peace. Those really Zen Montessori classrooms where kids are really calm and there’s the calming music, not many realize that she believed that peaceful classrooms contributed to world peace in a dramatic way. We’re warriors for the good we want to see in the world became incredibly powerful and important to me in terms of thinking about how to stand out. It’s not about the extra enrichment class you have or the extra program you have. It’s about who you are at core and what gifts you’re giving these kids that will last a lifetime and that can be pulled down to something so simple but so powerful.


Daniel: You can’t discount the power of one word as a guiding light guiding a star. I have a personal philosophy. It’s just four words, Being intentional catalyst and that. It then sees the change that’s happening all around me at all times, and then it’s up to me back to the threat of choice based on my energy. Do I want to accelerate change for good in this moment or for evil or negative? And so that always snaps me back when I’m in the wrong state of mind and it’s an encouragement when things are flowing. Appreciate you riffing on the idea of the one word. Thank you for that. Sarah, if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message read?


Dr Shira: Take care of yourself. Focus on well-being. That’s the core. Be well. During the pandemic, I had this. This one salutation, which was. Be healthy and helpful. Maybe that’s it, actually. Maybe I would go back to that. Be healthy and helpful.


Daniel: . It’s a good message to put out there. You’ve been building a dream school, but I still want to challenge you to go through the thought experiment here that I ask every guest. But if you were building a school from the ground up, you’re not limited by any resources. Your only limitation was your imagination. How would you build your dream school? And what would be the three guiding principles?


Dr Shira: For design with kids and teachers? Focus on well-being. Be honest about what’s working and what isn’t. Don’t take it personally. And when it’s not working, just fix it.


Daniel: Sarah, thank you so much for being my guest here on the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast. We discussed a bunch of great ideas today. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?


Dr Shira: I want a Ruckus Maker to remember that you matter and that whatever adversity you’re facing, whatever challenges are before you, you have a difference to make in this world. Oftentimes, it’s through the hardship that we find, the blessing and the strength. It’s not an accident that it’s during horrific times in history that the greatest educational movements were born. And we do stand at a moment where we can create something new and magnificent. When it’s hard, remember that you were an integral part of creating that.


Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker . If you have a question or would like to connect my email [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at. @Alienearbud. If the Better Leader 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 at @AlienEarbud and using the hashtag #blbs. Level up your leadership. Betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”




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