Bright Spots: The Podcast
Amanda Sarles and Leading Change (Ep. 1 Pt. 2)
Hosts and Guest: Cameron Yee and Aly Nestler with Amanda Sarles
Table of Contents
[00:00 - 02:57] (2:57) Introductions and the start of the school year
[02:58 - 11:35] (8:37) Amanda’s experiences teaching in international schools
[11:36 - 13:10] (1:34) Returning to the United States
[13:10 - 18:56] (5:46) Joining the WREN Coordinating Body
[18:56 - 22:50] (3:54) Becoming a design team lead
[22:50 - 30:53] (8:03) The Siuslaw change project and its focus areas
[30:53 - 32:54] (2:01) How continuous improvement has affected Amanda’s teaching experience
[32:55 - 35:15] (2:20) Conclusion
Cameron Yee 0:11
Hi, welcome to Bright Spots: Highlights from the Western Regional Educator Network. This is the session where I and a WREN staff co-host visit with one of our network members. So joining me today, on Zoom, is Lead Continuous Improvement Coach Aly Nestler, who you got to know a little in the previous session, and Amanda Sarles, a music teacher from the Siuslaw School District in Florence, Oregon. Amanda is one of the founding members of WREN's Coordinating Body, which is the equivalent to a board of directors, and she's also Team Lead for WREN-sponsored change projects in her district. Thanks for being here!
Amanda Sarles 0:45
Thanks for having us!
Aly Nestler 0:47
We're excited to be here!
Cameron Yee 0:49
How's the start of the school year been? This is like, the second week for you, right?
Amanda Sarles 0:53
It is the second full week. I have to say the start of this school year feels different. It feels more positive, it feels more hopeful, it feels more forward moving. It feels like school has become part of the routine again, as school during the pandemic became kind of an optional construct in our society, just for safety reasons, you know. And last year still felt like we were still trying to get into this idea of school and the regularity that it brings to families and communities. But this year feels like everyone was ready to come back. It feels like we, you know, we're ready to make a difference in the world and create functional humans and, you know, be a part of our community, and give and take and learn and grow. And it feels, it feels more pre-pandemic than it does post-pandemic. Not to say that there aren't, you know, great, great improvements that we have made and can continue to make post-pandemic, but just the joy that comes back at the beginning of a school year, you know. I love, I know it's cliche, but the whole, you know, bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils, like that just speaks to my soul. Like it's time to sharpen the pencils and get started. So it feels positive. Yeah.
Cameron Yee 2:36
Well, it’s really great to hear that. Aly and I both have kids in school and so I think I can echo some of your sentiments. It feels a little bit more like, you know, this is the way it was. And I think that kind of segues into – well, I also want to give Aly a chance to ask any questions, because she's my co host!
Aly Nestler 2:55
That's right. I was hoping that you might share with us and the listeners kind of a little bit about your background in education. Just a little bit about your local context.
Amanda Sarles 3:09
Well, my background in education. I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and as an undergraduate, was studying to be a music teacher, and then decided that I didn't like to get up early. And so by the time I graduated, I was not seeking employment in the school setting. And so there began my journey of what should a person who is really supposed to be a teacher and knew they were supposed to be a teacher, but wasn't quite ready to accept that calling and career, what are they supposed to do? So I did lots of things, working with children and youth, mostly in church settings. And then eventually, in 2009, which I had been postgraduate working for several years at that point. And in 2009, I had the opportunity to be an international teacher. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” I had been looking at international work, it appealed to me. I grew up moving around as a kid, so like replanting myself in a new community felt normal. Staying in one place very long feels very different for me. And so I thought, yeah, I'll pick up and move and so signed up to teach English at a school in South Korea, which thank goodness that fell through because I would have been the worst English teacher. I mean, my background was in music education. I don't even know how to teach English. Like I do, because we have to, you know, diction and and phonetics and singing, but oh, it would have been a disaster. So I'm really glad that plan was thwarted because literally a landowner hadn't paid taxes and the government cancelled our visas. It was a big hullabaloo.
So then it was I'm at the conference to go teach at the school in South Korea and they said, “Well, pick a new school.” because it was a network of international schools. And so I was like, you know, I'm going to try to find music this time now that I get a do over. I'm going to actually try to find something I might be able to teach, that would be successful for the students, mostly. And there was a school that had a music teacher opening, and I went, all right, “Sign me up.” And that school was the International School of Kabul in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Now, at the time, I wasn't really aware of Afghanistan. I knew it had been something that all the presidential candidates had talked about. I knew it was at war. I knew things were happening there. I knew it was dangerous. But it felt right. And there was just something about that feeling of this is where I'm supposed to be. And so then I had to convince all my friends and family that I wasn't going to die. Literally, like there were big interventions. But I just knew it was where I was supposed to be. So I ended up starting my teaching career teaching K through 12 music at the International School of Kabul.
So I got to teach everyone in that school. And it was lovely. It was perfect. It was exciting. It was so challenging. The majority, and I mean, 95% majority of the students were English language learners. Emerging bilinguals would be the next step for them. They came to our international school to learn English for the first time, many of them. Many of the high school students, they had been in refugee camps in Germany and in Pakistan and in India, when the Taliban had taken over, and their families were moving back to Kabul for the first time. So this was their first time in formalized education in years! They were desperate for an education, because getting that education, and that recognized American diploma meant that they had hope for a future and they had access to higher education. And it was really an honor to be a part of their education journey.
And I was the choir teacher. I did after school clubs, we did musicals, we performed the school's first musical. It was an exciting time. I learned a lot about working with students in active trauma. I learned a lot about working with students who were learning English and subject matter at the same time. I learned a lot about keeping an open mind. And just finding people who were different than me, who had a life completely different than me, finding how interesting that was. And yeah, it was just a really exciting time.
So I taught there for three years, and eventually made the decision to leave because it was actually very dangerous, life endangering. We were very close to emergency evacuation more times than I can count in my last year there. And so realizing that living in that active trauma is difficult. And so I didn't feel ready to come back to America because that felt like a big transition back, you know. Active warzone, teaching music focused on the classroom, trying to survive, come back to America, where I need a mortgage. You know, it felt like a leap I wasn't ready to make and ended up at the International School of Uganda in Kampala, Uganda.
Personally, it felt like it would be a great step of living in a country that's not in active war, but also professionally, getting to hone my skills, because after teaching the whole school K through 12, which is a huge span, I wanted to see if professionally, I would be effective and satisfied teaching elementary music, because I felt like that's where I was most suited. And that's where all my knowledge was, in the tricks of the trade. I felt like elementary was where I could really make the most impact.
And so the position at the International School of Uganda was K through 5 music. So there I went, I moved to Kampala that had its own host of exciting challenges. It was an IB school. So I got to learn the world of the PYP, the primary years program, the International Baccalaureate system, loved teaching in an environment that was transdisciplinary. And it was just, it was just wonderful. It was just wonderful. Teaching and learning. We did a lot of performances. We had choirs, the other international schools in Kampala, the music teachers got together and did an elementary music festival. And that was really big fun. And the students just absolutely loved getting to meet students from other schools and making music together. At the International School of Uganda, it was an international school in the truest sense of the word in that my last year there, we had students and teachers that represented 63 different nations all over the world. And one of our biggest events of the year was our festival of world cultures. And it was like the Olympics had landed in our school. It was just, it was the dream. It was the dream of celebrating world cultures, because it was very authentic. It wasn't forced, it was part of the culture of the school. It was just so exciting. It was just such a celebratory time of all of our differences. And how exciting that made us as a school.
Cameron Yee 11:34
And then after Uganda, was that when you felt like it was time to come back to the United States?
Amanda Sarles 11:41
Yeah, it was time to come back. And so I came back in 2015, and landed back in the South in Tennessee, where I'm from, which was home. And I realized that I was different from my home culture and I needed to find a different community, a new community. Tennessee will always be my home. Nashville will always be where I was born and raised. I realized I needed a new experience.
And I ended up in Oregon because one of my co-teachers from Afghanistan, or when we were teaching in Afghanistan, she moved back to the States. And so she got married in Ashland and I was in the wedding. And so that brought me to Oregon. And I remember driving down I5, you know, from the airport to the wedding back to the airport. I looked around at all the trees and I went, “This place is just as beautiful as Uganda. I think I could live here.” And then when it was time to come back to America, and I realized I wanted a new community, a new adventure, I ended up in Oregon, as a Duck in Eugene, at the University of Oregon, getting my Master's degree in Music Education. I moved to Oregon in 2016, started here at Siuslaw Elementary School in 2018 after I completed my degree and officially became a Duck for life. And here I am!
Aly Nestler 13:10
What made you – you have a very diverse background in education and in teaching, and some really exciting stories to share with regard to like, kind of how you made it to the point that you did. I'm curious, how did you decide to get involved with the Western Regional Educator Network, with the WREN, since you are one of the founding members of the Coordinating Body. What kind of brought you to our organization, to this work?
Amanda Sarles 13:43
There's a simple version of the story, but then there's a longer version. So of course, I'm gonna go with the longer version, because that's what makes a good podcast, right?
So when I was doing my Master's work at the University of Oregon, and I was in these, you know, Masters of Music Education classes. Well, I had already been a music teacher, so I kind of found myself going, “I want to learn something new while I'm here.” And so I ventured out of the music building, and I walked over to the education building at the U of O. And I went over and I looked at what the school of education could offer that I would be able to take. And I found this class called Leading Change. Oh, that sounds so exciting.
And so I enrolled, and it was – it is – a graduate level education class for teachers who are working on their administrative license. And so here I am, I'm like now I am a career elementary music teacher. This is where I love giving to the world, you know, and so now I'm in this higher level, administrative preparatory class leading change and all these people in the class with me are like they're either working on their PhDs or they're working on their administrative license, they want to be principals. And then there's me.
And I loved it. The strategy, I didn't know there were strategies to leading change. I just always knew if, you know, if we need to do something, if what we're doing isn't working, we need to do something different. And then we need to see if it made improvement, because different isn't improvement, different is just different. So we do something different, did it improve our situation then we have change? Is the change good change? Or did we create a new problem? I just, I was fascinated that there was a whole class on leading organizations in schools through change.
So then I'm in my first year teaching at Siuslaw Elementary School and I get an email. Now we're into the short version of the story. I got an email. And at first I thought it was spam. Because it was too good to be true. Like I'm reading through it - “equity, fully funded, extra meetings.” I'm like, “Oh, yes, I love it! This, this is my jam!” And I'm reading it and I'm like, “I don't know if this is real.” Okay, so then I go and look at who this email has been sent to and I see my superintendent’s name in the sent-to box. And I'm like, “Oh, it's legit.”
I remember asking him, “What is this? You know, should I do this?” And he said, “Yes, absolutely.” I don't know how he knew, I was very new at Siuslaw. I still don't know what little birdie told him that like this would be everything that I love about education and systematic improvement. But I'm so glad he did. Because I read an email and then I showed up to the first meeting. And…
Cameron Yee 17:00
This was for inviting Coordinating Body members?
Amanda Sarles 17:03
The original Coordinating Body in 2019. And it was a huge, it was a roomful of people from all over Oregon. And I mean, professors and superintendents and people with big titles, you know, people with business cards. As an educator, you recognize that you're in the room with people of power because they hand you a business card. Guess how many elementary music teachers are given business cards? And I'm not being like, flippant. That's like a real distinction. Lots of business cards in that room, really important people. And there I was. And I was like, “Oh, I just hope I don't say anything and I sound stupid.” Because that is, that's my life. Because growing up in Tennessee, I have a Southern accent that comes out. And going to Vanderbilt University with people who are not from Tennessee, they were from all over the world. Some of my first friends that I made at Vandy, as a freshman, would openly criticize my accent and tell me how dumb I sounded because of my accent. And I, I had no idea to perceive the way I was speaking as a sign of my intelligence. But that was something that was constructed for me that I learned was a social construct that I needed to be aware of.
I don't know if I contributed to that original Coordinating Body meeting, but I know I gained so much by being in that room and learning about continuous improvement and learning about being more equitable. It was just this whole open door of this whole world of learning that I went, “Yes, please more, please more, please more.”
Cameron Yee 18:56
So that role has sort of evolved over time and now you're a team lead. How did that transition look for you, like going from something that was sort of a high level, directive body into like, sort of in the thick of it?
Amanda Sarles 19:13
Yeah. Well, I was very happily serving on the Coordinating Body and attending all learning opportunities WREN could offer, serving on the task force, working with any space that I was invited into. If there was an open door, I was saying, “Yes, I'm there. Yes, I'll do the work.” And then I attended the NILS as a Coordinating Body member.
Cameron Yee 19:49
Which is the Network Improvement Learning Session.
Amanda Sarles 19:53
Yeah, at Camp Harlow, and I was there as a Coordinating Body member. And I remember being so inspired by the other design teams that had already formed in specific schools and specific school districts, and the work that they were doing, and their change ideas, and all the things that they were already a part of in making systematic changes in their school districts.
I sat there just thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I'm just a Coordinating Body member. I really need to put boots on the ground. And I really need to be brave enough to start this work in my own school district. Oh, gosh, that's what I'm supposed to be doing.”
Then I realized, I didn't know where to start. And I needed to seek ideas from someone in our school, that would be honest and authentic and saying, “This is what we need to do to create a more empowering school culture, and increase – recruit and retain teachers of color – for our school district. And this teacher that I spoke with here at Siuslaw said, “We need to celebrate other cultures.”
I'll be honest, you know, all the things that we could have sat down and talked about, I didn't even, I didn't have a clue as to what we would come up with. But she said, “If I'm in a place that's celebrating a culture from my heritage, I know that place appreciates me. And why can't we be the school district that celebrates cultures, because then if you're a person from that culture, you're gonna hear that the school district celebrates you, and who you are and you're going to want to move into the school district.” And I was like, “We can do that!”
So I turned in the design team application and we got accepted! Our change idea to celebrate cultures. So that is how I started into my current role as the Design Team Lead for the Siuslaw Design Team. And we started in October of last year of 2022, with this change idea that we will celebrate cultures in order to empower our school culture and then to honor and celebrate our diversity. And so our continuous improvement coach said, “Well, identify your problem of practice.” And that's when the party planning stopped.
Because if I've learned anything from the WREN, that to create real systematic change, requires small steps, and a bias towards action, and failing forward. Okay, what can we do now that we might create an improvement for next week. And so we identified our problem of practice, well, then we needed to identify root causes. Well then that list got real long. Because that's kind of when everyone gets into this opportunity to, “Well, this is the source of all of our problems.” And that's not constructive and it's not a part of continuous improvement. But we had that moment where we were like, “Okay, so we've done this, now we need to really find our root cause.”
Well, our design team all brought different and unique perspectives to our conversation. And from that, we realized we really needed more perspectives. We took the equity pause – who are we not representing? Funny story, we had no white males on our design team. And we knew that that was a perspective we needed to include in our data. And so we conducted empathy interviews. We collected qualitative data to discover what is the root cause of our problem of practice that leads us to not celebrate any cultures. Because when I say celebrating cultures, like we don't we don't have any school district-wide cultural celebrations. We don't have any. It's odd. It's odd to admit, it's odd to say, because you're like, “Well, yeah, there’s Thanksgiving.” Yeah, Thanksgiving. How do we celebrate cultures? Well, who are our cultures? Who lives in Florence?
Cameron Yee 24:43
That was sort of my next question, like, how did you identify?
Amanda Sarles 24:48
Well, the WREN offers data. So that's the glorious thing about the WREN. You have a question, the WREN has access to the data and the answers. And so we learned, because that's the question we asked, “Who are we?” Because we look around and we're not all white, like we just named that. Every one of us said, “Yeah, every class that we have, there are students of color. We have teachers of color.” So what are the numbers and the WREN helped us identify that at that point we had 20% students of color in our school district. We have families of color moving into our town. And it's wonderful. And so we need to recruit more teachers of color. And we have, I mean, we're talking 1% increase, but it's an increase, it's a small increase.
And so we conducted these empathy interviews and we got some qualitative data that knocked us off of our feet. These themes started to appear. And that is the job, you know, find the themes. And so these themes started to appear. And so now, at the end of last year, our first year as a design team, and now as our second year as a design team, we have created task forces. And our task forces are to address change ideas in these four areas of improvement in our school district.
And so we have identified our areas of improvement to be: Onboarding, intentional onboarding. Like we were seeing the numbers, we are recruiting more teachers of color, we have white teachers moving out, teachers of color moving in. How are we intentionally onboarding them and welcoming them to our community and our school?
Our second task force is equitable professional learning. We know the WREN is offering us professional learning. But within our own district, we need more, and we want to organize more. And we have teachers who want to learn more! Even though we're tired. I mean, yeah, we're tired. We're doing a lot, but we want to get better. So equitable professional learning.
Our third one was tribal connections. We have the name of one of our local tribes in our school district – Siuslaw, the Siuslaw Tribe. We want to know what Siuslaw means. We want to know what's unique about the Siuslaw Tribe, compared to the Siletz Tribe, and the Lower Umpqua Tribe, and the Coos Tribe. We don't know, it's not common knowledge, who we are, as Siuslaw. So tribal connections is our third task force.
And our fourth taskforce, because we didn't forget our original change idea, is cultural celebrations. And how can we, again, work to authentically and intentionally celebrate culture and not just plan a party, and not just ask people to bring food that their grandma cooked. That doesn't celebrate culture that puts more work on grandma. We want to know how we can authentically celebrate culture, so people who maybe did not grow up in Florence, or who maybe grew up in a very unique culture, who have moved to Florence, that they feel a part of our community and they feel celebrated. Because if they feel celebrated, they feel like they belong. And if they feel like they belong, then we're doing our jobs.
Cameron Yee 28:26
Maybe just to recap a little bit and to use some of the terminology that we learned in the first session with Aly, it sounds like the first year was really about seeing the system. Or maybe it turned into that, like maybe you weren't expecting that whole year to be spent kind of seeing the system. And you conducted empathy interviews and you saw sort of the nature of things. And so then it evolved a little bit into the second year, which we're in now, with the task forces highlighting specific areas of growth or improvement that you want to see. Is that a fair, a fair statement?
Amanda Sarles 29:06
Yes. And I and I really appreciate the intentionality that the WREN takes in continuous improvement, in following the steps. You know there are times when you just want to be creative and wing it but then there are times when you're like, “This is really, really important work we're doing, so give me a plan.” Give me a plan that might end up in a change, an improvement.
And so for us to start last year as a design team ready to celebrate cultures and to end up doubling, more than doubling, the size of our design team to create task forces to look at all areas of our district where we heard problems of practice and opportunities for change. Like, for us to take the steps with intentionality, with a bias toward action. It’s so nice to be supported by a network, by a learning network, that kind of just puts the knowledge in our hands, says this is how you can create systematic change. These are the steps that you take. Plan, do, study, act it. Just run that cycle until you see that you have improvement. Being able to take the pause and dig deeper. Gosh, it has just unearthed, it's uncovered so many areas of improvement that I can see with small steps are going to make big impacts.
Cameron Yee 30:53
Yeah, and I think we're getting close to our time, but I also wanted to give space for you to ponder or share how's the improvement science affected your classroom practices?
Amanda Sarles 31:05
Immensely? Like, where's the box, you know? Extremely, that would be the box I would tick. Because once that becomes part of your common language and your common way of thinking, you're looking at everything through that continuous improvement lens. And I'm finding myself in conversations with colleagues about educational challenges. As I'm in these conversations, whereas I would have before the WREN, I would have gone down that, I would say toxic spiral of like, “Yeah, it's always gonna be this way. Oh, it's never gonna get better. Oh, la La, la la.” Now, I’m in these conversations, and I'm like, “Well, we fail forward. Well, we start small.” And it's just this permission to not know everything. Gosh, thank you, WREN! Permission to not know everything, but to really try to get better at everything.
But it's definitely impacted my mindset, which has given me a more positive outlook as a teacher. I mean, it's no secret that the teacher workforce is kind of going through a hurdle right now. To be happily a teacher right now, I feel like is a major accomplishment, that I'm happily a teacher and I love teaching! Like, it's changed everything about my teaching. It's really helped me be a happier teacher. And that's really fun!
Cameron Yee 32:54
We are at the end of our time, but I wanted to thank you for being here. I also want to thank Aly for being my co-host and I will pass it to her if she wants to make any closing remarks.
Aly Nestler 33:07
I was just going say thank you as well, Amanda. I've really appreciated hearing you share kind of some of your successes and some of your challenges applying the continuous improvement process in your context. And your project is just so exciting and inspiring. So I'm just really happy that you have been able to share it with folks that are interested in the work of the WREN and who might be interested in starting their own improvement design team one day.
Amanda Sarles 33:42
Oh, yes, just be brave. Just be brave. I don't want to, I don't want to gloss over when you're working with people and you're working in the human-centered, with human-centered mindsets, and you are uncovering harm, uncovering systematic harm, that has been done to your colleagues. It is not easy. But to create a brave space where we get to speak into that and talk through how we can make things better for the next people. That's a lot. It's good work. And it's nice to be able to contribute in a positive way to the community of educators. So this is really just, really fun. Thank you for having me.
Cameron Yee 34:35
If you enjoyed this episode, please like, subscribe, or follow us on whatever podcast platform you're hearing this on. To learn more about our change projects and how to get involved, follow the links in the episode description, which go to our website at westernren.org. Thanks again for listening and we hope you can join us for the next episode of the Bright Spots Podcast: Highlights from the Western Regional Educator Network.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai