Dr. Towanna Burrous, President CoachDiversity Institute, is a best-selling author, trainer, and certified professional coach based in Washington, DC. As a much sought-after executive coach, Towanna and the Coach Diversity team deliver training, curriculum, and customized diversity and leadership programs for corporate and individual clients.
Coach Diversity Institute Ranked No. 524 on the 2021 Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Towanna is a trusted partner and problem solver for many clients tackling morale, employee retention, employee engagement, employee performance, and development. She has a Doctor of Education from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Howard University.
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Stop Playing Small and Lead as a Fearless Disrupter
I want you to go back and think about detention. Whether that’s detention that you may have experienced as a naughty, naughty student or as a teacher. Maybe you assigned attention or a principal assigned one to some kids playing around the hallway or whatever. But how is that space and time usually utilized? Today’s conversation with Dr. Towanna Burrows she moved from the city to the suburbs, found herself in trouble and in detention for math class. And her experience in detention was uncommon. It shouldn’t be. This is one of those things you’ll hear, and it’s common sense and maybe listening, you’ll be like, oh, yeah, that’s how I run them. But I think too often detention is all punitive and maybe kids get some work done and that kind of thing, but it’s not necessarily about relationship building.
So that got me thinking, If this was an insight for me in all the years that I’ve had in education, all the good things that you listen to me for, maybe it’ll be an insight for you too. And then I got to thinking too, there’s times when we sort of give detention to our staff. They don’t get detention, but we have to have hard conversations. And there’s time. That there’s discipline involved and that kind of stuff. And yeah, there’s a punitive side to it. But how do we take some of those, I want to call them icky, but just hard conversations and hard experiences. How do we flip those into relationship building ones? I think that’s an interesting idea to noodle on today as a Ruckus Maker. Hey, I’m Danny. I am a principal development and retention expert. I founded BLBS back in 2015 because I wanted to change education and I wanted to change myself. I’m also a bestselling author and I host two of the world’s most downloaded podcasts. This is one of them. And this show is made for Ruckus Makers, which means you are invested in your continuous growth. Never give up, always keep learning. You wanna challenge the status quo, and you wanna design the future of education now. And we’ll be right back after a few messages from our show sponsors.
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Hey, Ruckus Makers. I am here today with Dr. Towanna Burrows, who’s the president of Coach Diversity Institute. She’s a bestselling author, trainer, and certified professional coach based in Washington DC as a much sought after executive coach. Towanna and the coach diversity team delivered training curriculum and customized diversity and leadership programs for corporate and individual clients. Coach Diversity Institute ranked number 5 24 on the 2021 Inc. 5,000 as one of the fastest growing private companies in the United States. Towanna is a trusted partner and problem solver for many clients, tackling morale, employee retention, employee engagement, employee performance and development. She has a doctor of education from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master’s Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Howard University. Dr. Burrows, welcome to this show.
It’s so great to be here with you. It feels like the year is in the summer already, right, Danny? It’s like we’re just closing the first quarter. I feel like it’s August.
For sure. And where I live in Syracuse, New York, it depends. Like it might snow tomorrow. And then tomorrow in two days it’ll be like 80. So who knows? I hear what you’re saying. I wanna start in, if you could bring us back to seventh grade. You had a seventh grade math teacher change how you showed up as a student and fall in love with math. What’s the story there?
Oh I will never forget Mr. T. Mr. T inherited a very disruptive girl from the city. We moved from the city to the suburbs, and I was a city girl. And I entered this little classroom kind of like a disruptor in a negative way, but he also recognized the power of my influence as a negative disruptor. And he decided to put me in detention and said that I had to stay after school for four days where I could just be completely captivated by his attention. But I’m gonna tell you something. We spent those four detention hours, getting to know one another, building respect. He needed to kind of break through the barrier that I had, the wall that I had set up for being very, feeling like I didn’t belong, feeling like I didn’t belong in the suburban community, felt like there were no identities that it looks any familiar to me. But he recognized I was pretty smart. And so this teacher broke through the ice, made me fall in love with math, and we started with algebra, fell in. Love it. And I never stopped loving math since then. Mr. T was so special to me. And he got the job done.
That’s great. I could relate a little bit. I loved math as well. Middle school, high school, straight A’s. And then I get to the University of Illinois. I’m not doing so hot in math. I got my first D ever. Calculus BC or whatever it was it was cumulative. I struggled. So that was hard for me. But the real reason, I just wanna share this ’cause it’s funny. The real reason I switched from math to English. There’s two, one I did this recital of a poem in class. The professor was blind and he had all his poems memorized. The Raven by Agar Allen Poe. And he loved my reading. And that, like, that really meant something to me. So that was number one. And I was like, okay, that’s cool. But number two, I don’t know what it was like at at Howard in the University of Pennsylvania, but I noticed something similar about all the guys that came outta Ult Guild Hall, which was the math place. Now they had plaid on, which I am wearing. I’m aware of that. And they had pocket protectors, thick glasses. But I noticed that all of them, zero, none of them ever had a date. And so I was like, okay, I’m done. No more math. I’m going to English. And that’s literally how I picked, what I was gonna teach. Back to Mr. T, seventh grade, he sees something in you that you’re very intelligent and obviously a leader, although you’re you said you were being a negative disruptor at the time. You said he spent those detentions actually getting to know you, which I think, I don’t remember hearing that in the intro call. And that’s so wise of him to build that connection. Most teachers, use detention like you’re in trouble and some type of punishment. But do you remember, like, how’d he get to know you during detention?
His first objective was to get me to understand that he was on my side. He wanted to give me comfort and knowing that he wanted to see me succeed. So his idea was to let me figure out how you think. Let me figure out what’s important to you. I was very mature for my age. I grew up in the city of Washington, DC There’s a lot of crime, a lot of drugs and a lot of need to protect and defend. And so in his space, he recognized the challenge and he leveraged it because I was extremely wiser than my peers in the classroom. And so our conversations were so branched off in so many different ways. We talked about building relationships, friendships, and family situations. And I think around math as I was practicing math is about representing repetition.
And especially in starting in algebra, you’re repeating the same formulas again and again. And with that repetition in between, we just strike up different types of conversation. He was masterful at getting to know me and respecting and appreciating what I brought to the table, what I brought to the classroom. And once he validated me, and saw my true self behind the defensiveness, I recognized that leadership was natural. And he showed me how, he showed me why. And our relationship continued as I moved into eighth grade. And then of course, I would always visit back at middle school when I moved into high school. So that relationship lasted on time. Now, one thing he did have going for him is that he had a son who was also in the seventh grade with me. And he, his son and I were already good friends. And I guess it just became, tell me a little bit more about that girl Towanna so he had some insider tea, I guess you could say as well.
That’s great. Thank you for sharing. And will you talk to me about playing small and how you think about that concept?
Talking to me about playing small kind of bridging off that story about Mr. T. was an example of me playing small and not recognizing it. I think the fear of not getting it right, the fear of success. Sometimes if I am successful, then I will be held accountable to succeed at this level again and again. And do I have the stamina to produce at this level again? Again, playing small was something that was comfortable. So my opinion about playing small is meeting students where they are regarding how they view their spaces, what do they want to sign up for, what are they willing to be accountable to meeting them there, and then building the blocks of confidence that would allow them to explore more or do more. But playing small is something I’m very familiar with. But again, it comes down to those common fears.
Do you ever see that when you’re working in supporting leaders or you’re working at Coach Diversity Institute?
Absolutely. I think many of the sessions that I’ll do, I have a slide that I call common fears. They typically don’t associate common fear with how they receive feedback, their willingness to push accountability because they have a need to be respected. They have a fear of not being right. There’s so many fears. And so when you break down the common fears as it relates to how you lead, you start to notice the common denominator, which would then reveal how you work within that fact that fear is a constant companion. It’s going to continue to exist. The question is, how long will you allow fear, that type of fear to control your moment.
Let’s talk about your work at Coach Diversity Institute a bit. And I know you support leaders in making cultural shifts. Can you talk about what that looks like when you are working with schools?
Some of my favorite clients are actually the school districts. And I I get great pleasure working with educators and especially the, the leaders of the school systems, the work that we typically do is getting them to use the coach approach to the classroom, or the coach approach to helping teachers as they design their learning for the students To better connect to students and helping them to increase that level of professional development that’s needed. Especially when today and time where you are working harder with less resources. I mean, that’s consistent in education. And because that’s a common theme or consistent theme, and that’s not really going anywhere. What is it that you can do or what you need to do to increase engagement and performance? And it starts with, very similar to what we said earlier, is making sure you’ve communicated how much value your teachers and your staff bring to the classes, bring to the schools.
The value conversation, the appreciation and respect conversation is something we need. We’ve had to uptick when we work with educators who are in the leader’s position, we’ve got them to understand the coach’s approaches, changing your language so that people feel valued, respected, and appreciated. Especially when you can’t do much more. There are no raises or bonuses or anything like that. What do you do? You increase the validation, you increase that support. And I’m not talking about that corny, rah rah, we can do it. It’s truly understanding that we need you or without you. But on an individual basis, what you do specifically to this team, what you deliver specifically to the classroom is what I’m talking about.
I’m listening to you. I think so if I reflect back and correct any errors I make, but it’s that specific praise that lands with people. Versus generic and let’s be excited or whatever. But like, here’s exactly what you’re doing in the larger scheme of things, maybe even how it’s connected, mission, vision, values and why it’s why it’s so important. We’re talking about coaching. With school leaders and their staff, maybe the leader’s, a natural coach, maybe not, but I assume there’s some common missteps and misses that are made. What do you think those are?
We find most frequently when we talk to leaders about, oh, I’m so busy. I don’t have enough time for all this individual support or this individual engagement. And I always remind them, if you don’t have time to do this, you will never have time. And so let me teach you how to get time back. You get time back by keeping people accountable to why they were hired, connecting them to their passion, connecting them to their purpose as to what makes you wake up in the morning to show up here every day and tying those values to that calling or that purpose. And then if you don’t do that, you’ll never get time back because then you end up load balancing what other people feel that they don’t wanna do anymore. ’cause They’re not motivated, can’t do it anymore, because they don’t feel supported. And then you, as the leader, are load balancing. So multiply that by all the teachers you have, or all the people you have in school now, what used to be you being a hundred percent leader focused vision there for the system, you are now managing classrooms, helping support individual teachers or staff members who have decided, I’m only feeling like 80% today. That time is sucked up because you are not connecting. And getting them to be more accountable by tying, like I said, tying the vision and purpose together.
I’m enjoying our conversation, Towanna. We’re going to take a quick break for some messages from our sponsors on the other side. I’d love to ask you about uncovering unseen diversity that exists in your organization. The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast is proudly sponsored by Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership. I know many mastermind members and many Ruckus Makers who listen to this show that have gone through the program and have loved the experience. But don’t just take it from me. Let’s hear how some of the Harvard faculty describe the impact in their heart. For this program,
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Learn more about the program and apply at BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/harvard. In post pandemic classrooms, student talk is crucial. And when classrooms come alive with conversation teachers and students both Thrive, Teach FX helps teachers make it happen. The Teach FX instructional coaching app provides insights into student talk, effective questions, and classroom conversation quality. Teach FX professional development compliments the app and empowers teachers with best practices for generating meaningful student discourse. Teachers using Teach FX increase their student talk by an average of 40%. Imagine that 40% more ownership over the class by students. Ruckus Makers can pilot Teach FX with their teachers. Visit teach fx.com/better leaders to learn how that’s teachfx.com/betterleaders. If your students are struggling to stay focused and your teachers are showing signs of burnout, you need to act now. The good news is that there’s a path forward. It is possible to lay the foundation for learning and to re-energize your teachers, and that’s found in executive functioning skills. When students get practiced with these skills, they can better self-regulate and they are more successful academically. Our friends at Organized Binder have released a new self-paced course that will teach you how to teach these executive functioning skills and set your students up for success. The goal of this course is to help your students be more successful and get teachers back to the work they’re called to do. Learn email@example.com/go. Help your students be more successful and get your teachers back to the work they’re called firstname.lastname@example.org/go.
We’re back with Dr. Towanna Burrows, president of Coach Diversity Institute. And before the break, I was asking you about uncovering unseen diversity that could exist within organizations. How do we do that?
It’s funny how you bring this up, Danny. I recently created an image of an iceberg. We’re all from the image with the iceberg. Above the waterline are all the visible diversity traits that we typically see race, gender and so that’s above the line. It’s what’s below the line that makes the difference for anyone contributing on your team. So that’s culture, marital status and education. It’s a bunch of things that exist that you don’t really discover or know until you connect with someone and have a conversation similar to how Dr. T had with me, got to know me through who I was invisibly like, what you don’t know you must ask questions about. I tell the students in my classroom again and again, that as leaders, it’s important that you live below the level so that you can get to know a bit more.
Covid impacted us and taught us a lot. It taught us how to be ready in ways that we hadn’t considered before. But now that we’ve experienced a pandemic, and now that we know that there are some people who suffered silently, people who now have no family members to go to, they live alone and they have no one anymore. That type of invisible diversity now exists. We have people who have relocated to places that they never thought they would live. Their economic status has significantly changed. There’s so many invisible differences. And so how we communicate to someone is one, to never assume that just because your household is great, that someone else’s is instead that you survived Covid, that someone has survived it. In the same way that my culture and the language I choose to use casually or professionally, that my variation, whether I code switch or whether I decide to mask who I am, all that matters. And not everyone, no matter how much we look alike on the top surface on layer one, we are still not the same.
Can you tell me, maybe like a fourth grader, why it matters so much. The surface level you could see somebody’s gender or race, that kind of thing, but why does this below the surface matters so much?
Towanna (22:51):I can use my son who’s in actual seventh grade, and I think that’s so funny. He’s in seventh grade right now,
Danny (22:59):Hopefully not in detention.
For example, the walk from the bus stop back home, you’re with your friends, imagine if you’re having a conversation and everyone’s talking about their plans for the weekend. What he knows based on communicating with him, so he’s situationally aware, is that I happen to know that one of his playmates or his friends has a challenge at home, and that the family is going through a transition. How you position your conversation to talk about your weekend and the excitement of that may be very different now that you are situation aware that someone is not as excited about their weekend. Of a single parent household versus a two-parent household, that sounds very different. And what you’re celebrating and getting excited about. Another way is looking at affordability. Like we talked about economics, sometimes what a household can afford or not afford. How you have those conversations with your friends and being mindful that everything that you’re excited about someone else may not be. it’s just the mindfulness of understanding who your friends are and being aware. Now my son is very much aware and situationally about what others are going through, and unlike everyone’s not the same, but he just happens to be the type of kid who wants to know how he could be a better friend and be more sensitive.
That’s a clear example. It brings me back to my childhood too. My mom, a single mom, raised us. And it’s certainly a function of privilege. We were able to stay in the house. And so, but the community where we were in everybody had the new Jordans. I never had a pair of Jordans. When I became a teacher, the first check I got and deposited, I went and bought a pair of Jordans because it meant something to me. But also the friends, they had lake houses for the summer. I couldn’t even imagine I got invited, but you know what I mean? So that’s still privileged. I was different than my peers is what I’m trying to say. Appreciate what you’re sharing there. I’m guessing part of like, diving in deeper too. And actually I want to just highlight that Doc Jones said something and he said we’d love to hear more about how the efforts effectiveness to create windows and mirrors for our students ties to what is below the water, or rather than just addressing what we see. I don’t know if you have anything for Chris on this, but I hear what he’s saying.
So the idea that when you’re working with your students, getting them to listen for what they’re not saying, okay, what your peers train. We teach our students who are educators in the classroom, we teach them to listen for what’s not being said. So all the, and, and it’s beyond body language. It’s mostly incomplete sentences and or the metaphors. Sometimes the use of metaphors also show you the way, but there are so many things that we are, we are typically listening for what’s common versus what’s not being said. And I see the way to tie it together is to think through potentially by asking questions. Like, I heard you when you said this before I misunderstood, can you please elaborate more or tell me more about what you met here. Fill in the blank. The more we get talking, the more you’ll learn.
We have lost the idea of the benefit of patients waiting for the answer to come. And so we ask great questions as educators, how we lose patients in that questioning process when we’re so busy and there’s so much to manage. We forget how powerful open-end questions are. And so, if at all, look at ways to ask open-ended questions to get the definitions of terms, to understand what you don’t understand by just simply asking, can you tell me more about what you mean by that? Can you share more about what makes you, what makes this so meaningful to you? Those types of questions will create that opportunity to share.
Yeah, so the open-ended, tell me more, is a great example. Being patient. I don’t know the language you just say, but basically, why does this matter to you? That’s like significance.
Yes, meaningful. Because it’s in the meaning question. Like what makes this important to you? You’ll learn and you will hear, you’ll hear fears, you’ll hear disempowering thoughts or different empowering statements. You’ll hear values, you’ll hear all types of excitements and or disappointments. And so what makes this important or what makes this meaningful will create that conversation. The other thing is, I tell leaders all the time, how you get time back is to get people to be clear on what they want. Most people come to you expecting you to deliver the answers to them. Tell me exactly how to win. Tell me exactly how to get this done. And you’re still doing the work, but they’ve been hired to do that and you’re doing it for them. So every time I tell you how to do something, I am now losing money. As an organization or as a company, I am paying you to do everybody’s job. The more accountability I push out, the more the company got a return on its investment, employee by employee. So what would you like to walk away with if this time together is successful? A beautiful question to ask. Yep. Because again, it helps you to narrow down on time or move them to someone else that can be more helpful.
That’s brilliant. I love that question too. Towanna, if you could put a message on all school marquees for a single day, what would your message be?
Oh my God, at this time we’re living in Danny. I can’t tell you what, how much is singing through my head right now. I can tell you that if I had a school marquee across the globe, I would say, oh, I should not have mentioned the globe. The world is in such a strange place right now. I would probably say fear. A constant companion, fear’s a constant companion.
It’s amazing you’re bringing that up. ’cause That’s actually the topic of an email I’m sending out today to school leaders. So thank you for sharing that. Let’s talk about your dream school Towanna. If you were building your dream school, you were not constrained by any resources. Your only limitation was your ability to imagine. How would you build your dream school? What would the three guiding principles be?
Okay, so my dream school would be a school that is very focused on technology. As a mathematician, as a scientist and mathematician, I’m always gonna be focused on what’s to come problem solving. My school would be built on problem solving skills. I would give them skills that help them to use their hands whether it’s craft, some type of craft or farming. I would also have them be introduced to technology. So learning will be wrapped around using your hands. I think that with the idea of priorities is to evolve the student to be the best student for their next grade. So instead of just focusing on the grade you’re in, I wanna build a student that’s preparing themselves for leadership at the next level. And so using their hands, exposing them to what’s to come. Problem solving, what’s to come. It would be the gift I would give back with the world
Brilliance. We’ve covered a lot of ground today, and everything we discussed. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Oh my God, do it. Even when you’re scared, Ruckus Makers when to be, again, I’ll talk about being a disruptor. In the beginning it was a negative thing. I became a positive disruptor. I was scared. I did it when I was afraid. I did it no matter what, because I knew that it was my purpose. And your purpose is always gonna be wrapped up in some type of fear. And so I say just do it. Do it anyway.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@BetterLeadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @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 at alien earbud, 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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