Amanda Conley is currently the Principal at Middletown High School, in Middletown, DE. She is a former Social Studies teacher, with experience in teaching at alternative and turnaround schools. Currently, she is focused on leading an innovative, community-connected school and she is passionate about creating opportunities for all students and challenging our traditional grading systems.
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Amanda Conley Transcript
Have you ever asked your teachers, was that feedback helpful? Do you have the courage to actually ask that question and then to stand in the space and pause right in the silence to receive what’s hopefully a candid answer. Of course, you’re gonna feel great and keep doing the stuff that you’re doing when you hear that it’s going well. But what do you do when the teacher says no? That wasn’t helpful. Not very helpful at all. That’s one thing we talk about today with today’s really stellar guest, Amanda Conley. And it was so fun talking with her. She is an incredible principal. You’re gonna learn so much from this Ruckus Maker. And not only do we talk about feedback, we talk about confidence, imposter syndrome we talk about why her team’s the best team ever. And you can learn from that experience how she builds leadership in students through different projects that they do. And why, finding the small moments, the little moments to grow yourself matter. Hey, this is Danny, chief Ruckus Maker at Better Leaders, better Schools. And this show is for you because you are a Ruckus Maker, which means you invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school now because there’s no time to waste. We’ll be right back with the main content of today’s show after some messages from our show sponsors.
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Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids, then what if there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? And it’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination. When students internalize executive functioning skills, they succeed. Check out the new self-paced online course brought to you by our friends at Organized Binder that shows teachers how to equip their students with executive functioning skills. You can learn [email protected]/go, but hello, Ruckus Maker. Today I’m joined by Amanda Conley, who’s currently the principal at Middletown High School in Middletown, Delaware. She’s a former social studies teacher with experience in teaching at alternative and turnaround schools. Currently, she’s focused on leading an innovative community connected school, and she is passionate about it. There’s a lot to dig in there, even just from the bio Amanda, but welcome to the show.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Absolutely. I know you’re really proud of how you provide feedback to teachers and you’re doing some innovative things, and you said that was an insight you’ve had as you share what you do at your school with other colleagues in the education space. So can you, can you unpack like what that looks like and how you give feedback to teachers?
Yeah. Awesome. So at Middletown we are really proud of the support that we provide to our teachers with feedback as we get into classrooms, into spaces. I lead a team of four assistant principals and a rockstar instructional coach. My APs are rock stars too, just to be clear. But we get into every teacher’s classroom every week. We have some mantras that we use. And one of ’em is every teacher, every week, every period, every month, so that we make sure we see them in all their spaces, stay for about 15 minutes, give them some narrative feedback, praise, where we can find areas to either praise excellence or to praise effort. So that they repeat those things that are awesome in their classroom. And then we give ’em really specific feedback on our principles of instruction. So here at Middletown we are laser focused on increasing student discourse and clarity so that students really understand why they’re doing something and how it connects with what they’re learning. And so we’re giving our teachers feedback for growth in those two areas. Our teachers are used to us getting into classrooms and, and we are a frequent face in our most important spaces in our school.
I know your district, APPO, is really growing like crazy. And sometimes you have educators that have been in a building for a while and that kind of thing, and they might not be used to that consistent type of feedback and being in the classrooms, was that something you had to overcome? And if so what was that like?
Absolutely. It was something we had to overcome and it’s something we are working on every day. So there’s a few pieces to it. I think one is trust making sure our teachers trust us in their spaces and that they see our feedback as helpful. They see our feedback is valuable. And for us, and in our system, it’s also non evaluative. It’s not part of their evaluation, but it really is feedback for growth. And we are always looking for ways to improve. At my school right now, we’re trying a new product called Bullseye so that the teachers can set their goal, we can give feedback, and then also I can grow my people who are giving feedback can see their work and they know we’re giving them feedback. I’m giving the assistant principals feedback on their feedback. And it’s just a cycle of growth that we’re all trying to get better at. Our students, our teachers, our administrators.
The feedback sounds like it is very much part of the culture. Talk to me more about trust. I think you said getting them comfortable. The trust that the feedback is valuable and that you’re in the rooms and that kind of thing takes time. I know that for sure, but was there anything else specifically that you’ve been doing that you think builds that trust between you and the staff?
Yeah, between me and the staff. So this is my second year at my school. The previous principal was here for a long time and we have a lot of veterans staff. First just to kind of set the tone of what my building looks like. So those first interactions, teachers really needed to see us and my teams as a resource. And so building trust there, building trust with capacity that they see that we know what we’re talking about. We are open to feedback ourselves, and then we’re trying to get better. And then saying to a teacher, Hey, was that feedback I gave you helpful? And really knowing if it is helpful. If it’s not, I spend a lot of my day in classrooms, and if what I’m doing isn’t impacting change, then I’d be doing something different. So just really having an open dialogue between our staff, I think goes a long way in building trust.
Is this scary to ask that question? Is this feedback helpful?
Yeah, It’s absolutely terrifying because sometimes they say, no, that wasn’t helpful. I already knew that. If you’re vulnerable in that moment as a leader to say, Hey, was that feedback helpful? They say no, and you’re like, all right, well then I need to either get the resources you need to have made that impactful, or I need to get better at what I’m doing. Or is there a nuance in the written feedback I gave you that could have made it better? It’s being vulnerable and sometimes you don’t always get the answer that you want.
Right? How do you push through that fear?
I think you gotta show up every day. Like, we’re in education and I’ve got 1600 students here that are relying on me to push through my fear, to push through any challenges that I might have, having that uncomfortable conversation with an adult. But at the end of the day, if I don’t, then I’m not going to impact change in the classroom. And that’s not gonna impact change in those students’ lives. I think that might be kind of a very high level way to think about it. But I just go back to let me make eye contact with a kid, let me go look at a student and then I’ll know what my why is. And then you’re never mean about it. Like you’re not doing anything in a way that’s giving feedback that would be perceived as mean, but you’re just giving feedback that’s factual and correct and, and tied with resources. So just kind of a whole cycle of trust with my staff.
You know, Viktor Franco, the author of Man, search for Meaning said that man is you know, man is pushed by his draws, but pulled by his values by his why. And so I think that’s such an important point because if you connect with the significance of what you’re doing right that gets you through any of the discomfort that you might experience. Like, oh yeah, your feedback sucked. Like that didn’t help at all. It’s all but you’re doing it for soon. So it’s your opportunity to level up. And Brene Brown made that Teddy Roosevelt quote, which I won’t read ’cause it’s quite long, but the man in the arena. You, you signed up for this. And so if you’re a professional, it’s like showing up consistently every single day. And that’s what Amanda does and why we admire her. So super, super cool stuff there. Is there anything else you wanna share in terms of the Ruckus Maker listening on feedback before we move on? We might have touched on everything, but I just wanna check in real quick.
I think it’s just important as educators and those of us leading buildings and in the buildings that’s what our teachers deserve, that they deserve us to be in their spaces, giving them feedback. We’re leveling them up as leaders, and we need to help our teaching staff gather the resources they need. So I think that’s one of the most important things we can do every day in our buildings.
I remember in our pre chat you said something that I wrote down talking about the importance of stealing little moments and encouraging other leaders to do the same. What does stealing little moments mean and how do you encourage others?
To put it in perspective, I’m the principal of a high school. I also have three little boys under the age of five. My free time is pretty much non-existent. But I’m an avid reader. I think of little moments like listening to a podcast in line at Walgreens. The other day I was getting my son his antibiotics for an ear infection, and I was by myself. I had like eight minutes and I’m like, all right, I can listen to a few minutes of this podcast. I just think of stealing little moments. In the current season of my life, I’m never gonna have two hours to sit down and read a book. But I might have a three, four minutes when I pivot between a classroom or pivot between meetings to dive in.
One of the books I’m reading right now, I was able to get a few pages in before we jumped on this podcast. So I just think of stealing little moments. I owe it to myself as a leader to give myself some time to develop professionally. And even if that is 90 seconds, that’s 90 seconds that I give to myself to develop. So that’s really what I think about when
Thanks for the shout out. That’s super cool and kind of weird ’cause we’re on the Danny Bauer podcast right now, so that’s super fun.
I won’t listen to this one though. I would be too nervous the whole time.
That’s the funny thing. I rarely actually listen to any of the shows I record ’cause I’m here present with you at the moment. So to me it’s like, why go back? But I just really want to emphasize for the Ruckus Maker listening that little moments matter. And whether it’s the 90 seconds, the eight minutes in line waiting for antibiotics, 15 minutes I’ve done, I’ve done coaching calls that are 15 minutes. We have an hour scheduled, and somebody gets that insight that they need in a short amount of time, and they’re good, and then they can go. And that’s totally fine. Or right now as we’re recording, at least, we’ve launched the fourth cohort of a program called Principal Success Path. And you know, the first project’s about goals, and I really only gave people seven minutes to work on a personal and a professional goal.
There’s a tool they work through, it has eight steps, whatever. But when I asked just like you do, was that feedback helpful? One way I phrase it, what was your number one insight from what we just did? And shout out to Dr. Darren Thompson who listens and he’s in the path, he said, that space in five, seven minutes, I got so much done. Right? You could do great work in a short amount of time, especially with great focus. So kudos to you for bringing up those little moments. I know you enjoy learning from outside of education, sort of building that bridge and then bringing it into the school space. What’s that all about?
Well, I think there’s just so much to learn and great leaders, whether it’s in education, whether it’s in business, or whatever space it’s in, good leadership is good leadership. So I love thinking about leadership outside of the realm of education and what that looks like and then what are the lessons that can be learned there. And I think so much of what we do in education right now is just because that’s the way it’s always been done. So let’s look to other spaces to see how they are excelling, and then what can I learn from that to bring it into my school or to my space? And I will be the first to tell you about reading educational books. It’s low on my list right now. I’m in a space right now where I’m reading about other organizations, but I just think there’s so much to learn and so many different perspectives and let’s broaden what we’re doing and try to change our organization.
And in the Mastermind we chose that as an edge. So the books we read actually aren’t education related books. They’re all outside of education. Basically based on what you just said and like the higher sort of meta teaching that I’m sharing with the Ruckus Maker listening in this moment, what are some edges that you choose as a school of how you might do things differently so people understand what you stand for and what you’re all about. So those are good points too. Amanda, you had a moment when you realized that there’s a quote unquote name for this, and it’s called the imposter syndrome. I don’t know if you remember the moment when you realized, oh my gosh, there’s a name for this, but why does it matter that there actually is a name for it?
Well, I think it matters on a few levels. I think the first level it matters is, okay, so I’m not the only one because you get in your own head, especially in a leader, when you’re at that level of leadership where you’re the only one, you don’t have a peer on either side of you. And so you’re kind of looking and you’re like, okay, there’s no way that I’m doing this good of a job that I’ve got here. And you kind of have that moment. I distinctly remember that moment and thinking to myself, all right, either I’m crazy or the people who think I can do this are crazy. And I don’t know if I was Googling or reading a book or reading articles, and I’m like, oh, okay, I can name it. If I can name it, I can tame it. There’s this thing, it’s called imposter syndrome. Let me read about it and put it in perspective. But especially for leaders, I can see where it would paralyze you. And obviously I can’t let that happen. I show up to school every day. I vividly remember it. And the more I talk about it to people, I think every leader has had that moment where you think to yourself, yourself, no way. And if you haven’t, I’m gonna challenge your leadership there.
I tell people that all the time. If you’re not reading, I don’t know about you and your leadership.
What are you doing?
Here’s the thing: not only as a leader, but leader of a school, you’re a learning organization. So how can the leader of a learning organization listen, reading’s not the only way to learn. Eisenhower said not all readers are leaders, but every leader is a reader. And so, okay, that’s wise words right there. Have you read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art?
I have it in my office because I feel as though it’s like a book. Everybody should have And it looks good, but I have to be honest, I have not read it. I like looking over my bookshelf. I have not read it. I’ve read the pieces of it. No, I was gonna say, right now I’m reading the Best Places to Work and I’m loving it, and just like bringing little pieces back to my and my step meetings this week. And I can tell they’re looking at me like, oh God, here she goes again. She read another book. But it’s just exciting stuff like, what I can do to make the teacher experience awesome here and not just be focused on this experience.
Yeah, for sure. And that’s a huge part because I say you can’t pour from an empty cup and teachers can’t give the kids if they’re empty. So creating an awesome experience for your faculty is a great way to create a world-class school. But the reason I asked about, I wasn’t gonna send you a copy, but it sounds like you already have one. No, I have a copy. I just haven’t dug into it. Yeah. It’s connected to our conversation because Steven writes about the imposter syndrome, and he calls it by a different name. He calls it the resistance. And I’m only talking about it right now in our conversation, because for the Ruckus Maker listening, you might pick up the resistance. It’s very very easy to read, really punchy, straight to the point kind of language, kind of like Hemmingway. He talks about how to defeat it. And part of it, it’s actually, you already know it. I mean, you already know the punchline. You don’t have to read it, Amanda. The punchline is you beat the imposter or the resistance by continuing to show up despite how you feel, despite the feedback that the feedback you just gave was not effective. Or whatever. But the professional continues to show up every single day, he or she, no matter what. And that’s how you beat the imposter syndrome. Everybody has it, it never goes away, but you can turn the volume way down by continuing to show up. So that’s closely related to confidence. I think that what I want to ask you next is to talk a little bit about confidence. But before we get there, I think we need to pause really quickly for some messages from our sponsors. And when we do get back, let’s talk a little bit about confidence. 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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We’re back with an incredible Ruckus Maker, Amanda Conley, and she is principal of middle talent high school. And we were talking about the imposter syndrome and the resistance last, and now we wanna move the conversation to confidence. And I know that you told me that you get feedback that you’re doing a great job, but sometimes it feels like you’re making it up. And actually, that was the feedback I got from your supervisor. He said supervisor, because she makes it up. That’s why she’s doing great. That was exactly it. So I’m passing that on to you, but what do I keep, what does that all mean and how does that relate to confidence?
I think about that all the time, and my supervisors never said that directly to me. But that’s pretty accurate in terms of just kind of making it up. When you have, you think of confidence and you think of imposter syndrome and you kind of tie them all together. And if you asked me, I would say, yeah, I’m a fairly confident person, and I think that’s because I’m not afraid to make mistakes. And so if I do make mistakes, that’s not going to affect my confidence. I think risk taking is super important as long as you’re taking responsible risks. You’re not doing anything crazy. You could do something a little bit crazy. I think about, but what I think about confidence, I think confidence is being clear in my why.
It’s being clear on why I show up every day. It’s being clear on my vision for the space that I lead for my school. And it’s being focused on what’s most important professionally and personally, and being transparent about that. I do think that at least me personally, I wouldn’t wanna be led by someone who wasn’t confident. I, that would scare me or stress me out, out. So I wanna be a leader that can provide some safety to my students and my staff. And I think being confident in that role in your leadership is really important to lead with. Doesn’t mean that I’m not second guessing myself and imposter syndrome isn’t creeping in, but it means that I can be a stabilizing kind of force to monitor the temperature in my building, know when to apply pressure, know when to back off, and I am confident in my ability to do that. I think that’s one thing that is helping my leadership right now in the moment that I’m in.
Absolutely. And something I learned I wanna share with you in this moment live, and then with the Ruckus Maker who listens came across some work by Dr. Nate Zener, who talks a lot about confidence and one little micro thing you could do every day. It’ll take less than five minutes, answer these three questions. He calls it e p ss. So where did I put in a good effort? Where today did I make progress? And where did I experience success? And by doing that daily, right, you could see how it would take five minutes or less. Doing that daily, you start creating maybe a highlight reel of your performance so that when the imposter shows up, because it will. You don’t believe what it says to you because you have, all I’m doing good things. And it reminds you of the awesome stuff that you’re doing. Hopefully that serves you and the Ruckus Maker listening. Now you say you had the best team ever, which that’s pretty cool, but what makes them the best they all?
I think a few pieces. One is we, so there are, there are five of us, and we all have very different passions, and I think we all have very different skill sets. But we all have the same reason, which is we’re gonna show up every day. One of my assistant principals is notorious for saying we know every student at Middletown High School by name. And me and another one of my assistant principals today were out kind of dancing in the Commons. There you go, singing Happy Birthday. Yes. But we should, we’re connecting with kids. And we just have a great energy. We are not saying we don’t challenge each other because we definitely do, which is a good thing, but we get along, we have fun, there’s always music going on, there’s always food, and we show up for each other.
So when someone else is struggling with something on their, their plate, we’re gonna dive in and, and help out. And none of us, not, not a single one of us, is going to question a decision if it’s what’s best for kids. So I think that’s what’s making us a great team right now, and we’re excited for the, the movement we’re gonna see here over the next two years. For sure. I would like to see the movement today, but my team is good at also balancing my enthusiasm to say like, doc patients, I get that all. And I just kind of look at, at ’em, I’m like, okay, but let’s go. This is important work we need to move. We just have the best team. I have the best team ever. And I am thinking intentionally every day of what experiences I can create for them to grow their leadership, to grow their experiences, help me make some mistakes while I’m here, to help them untangle it and look, look at what we can do. So hopefully, and this team won’t be together long because they will be out running schools and impacting change in in our community.
Tell me what it means to show up for each other, and maybe there’s an example you can share.
A pretty recent example, we had a typical student discipline thing. Yesterday, one of my assistant principals was handling it, and it was heavy, and she was kind of going through the motions and showing up just meant that we checked in on her as a person, not just as professional, but then check in on her and bounce ideas off of her, off of each other, just so that they know, hey, this is a heavy thing, but you’re not doing this alone, but it’s not also stopping the school. So we’re all still able to run the organizational pieces, the instructional leadership pieces, but we’re gonna check in on you as a person real quick, make sure you’re good. You need anything, help ground you in that, and then support you professionally as well.
I think showing up with each other is just making sure we know we’re all people. First ask, how are you checking in and talking about our kids? Everyone in the building from our staff to our students know, if you wanna get me off topic in a meeting or in an interaction, ask about one of my kids. And I can tell you a quick story. So we just show up for each other that way, but then we show up for each other and challenge each other, give each other feedback. Right now they’re challenging me on, on some of our meeting structures, and we wanna try to come up with a different way to have more effective team leadership team meetings, not just kind of going through what we need to, but how are we embedding some PD for the five of us in those meetings? And that feedback came directly from my team to say, Amanda, we need to be led in a little bit of a nuance on how we’re meeting right now. Let’s change this up. So I think that’s just showing up for each other. Yeah. Energy and fun. And it doesn’t hurt that we make fun of each other all day long. So that’s another piece.
It’s rule number six. It’s a core value at BlBS and that is, there’s a story there, but the punchline is, don’t take yourself too seriously. So that’s really important
To keep in mind. Yeah, no one wants to do that. We’re not that important. Like, let’s just have fun.
Let’s have fun. So leadership’s important to you. I know you do leadership projects with your students. What are some of those projects that you do with the kiddos?
Our course catalog here, something I’m really proud of, I wanna be very clear. It’s not like the Amanda Conley course catalog. It, our district course catalog. A lot of experts have worked on, but it just culminates in a leadership experience for our seniors that they can be proud of. So they put together a body of work over four years through coursework and through work-based learning experiences and through kind of deep dives into their pathway, which I always explain to parents as like a loose college major. So it’s not so strict that you can’t take electives, but it is pretty focused and the stuff that our students produce is mind blowing. And so I just love that by the time a student graduates from Middletown High School, they will have experienced success in a space that they can just be beyond proud of.
I was at, students came to me a few weeks ago, they wanna build a cover for the auditorium, and it’s part of their engineering project, and they had sketched it all out, and they’re talking to me about the different weight of steel and different plexiglass and how sound could damage that as it comes up from the pit auditorium. And I’m looking at them and I’m like I don’t know anything about this. And they’re like, yeah, well, that’s fine. We’re the experts. You run the school. We’re the experts on engineering and they’re pitching this project to me. And I’m like, this is incredible. Right? I did not have this when I was in high school. The leadership opportunities for all our students here is pretty impressive, and it’s driven by our course catalog.
I know you’re thinking a lot about handling teacher burnout. How are you thinking about it or what are some things that you’re actually doing?
I’ve been thinking about it, and I would say last year I was on a journey to think about it and gathering resources because I couldn’t wrap my brain around how I could support other adults with it, because I was still on my journey of trying to practice self-care and make time for it and be intentional about it. I think I got there last year, and so now I’ve looked for lots of resources. So we’ve done a self-care challenge for staff that wanna participate. It was optional and it was just really about bringing resources together for our staff who optionally wanted to do this and just be intentional about it. Providing opportunities for our staff to give back to the community through community service, volunteering in our communities, food bank and meal prep services.
I think that if our staff members are given opportunities through us to then give back to the community, that’s huge in creating a positive workplace. So we’re just always looking for ways to do that and to celebrate staff, to celebrate staff’s families, and really try to create that community connected school because I truly believe if we have fun and work hard, we can lay together harder. We are great with we throw a good holiday party too here, that Middletown and our staff have a great time. So if you wanna come on out next December, the Middletown High Holiday parties are a great time.
Send me a try to be a family. I’ll reserve it so that’d be awesome. Alright, sweet. If you’re gonna put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would Amanda’s message be?
I want it to be about, I want students to be welcome and seen. The message would be you are welcome here. And that’s really whoever you are, show up in our school. And not only will we find what you need to succeed, but we will make sure you are seen here at Middletown High, so you are welcome here. But there’d be a lot of nuanced layers to that in the Dream School that I could develop.
Let’s talk about the dream school. So you’re not limited by any type of resources. You’re only constrained to your ability to imagine. So how would you build your dream school? What would the three guiding principles be?
All right, so my guiding principles, well first it’s gotta be outside. There has to be an outside component. We can’t just sit in classrooms all day. So there’s a definite outside component to it. There’s a ton of flexibility for student choice in terms of what they wanna dive deep into and learn about. And we are preparing citizens, like global citizens that are just interested in learning. I know we say a lot in our organization that school should be really, really, really hard, but it shouldn’t be hard to do well in school. And so create those experiences for students to grapple and struggle with content and have a hard time doing it. But it’s not hard to do well in the space that we have because we show up for you as a person when you’re a student. And I think that would be my dream school. A ton of flexibility, little outside, lots of music and some, some choices for students to make in what they learn and how they engage with material and good food. Right? Like, I don’t want any crappy food in my dream school, like a nice little sushi bar, some pli, a bowl. All that would be good.
We covered a lot of ground today, Amanda. So of everything we discussed, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
I think the one thing I would want a Ruckus Maker to remember is that you matter. And even if it’s a little interaction for you or a little moment that you steal to get better, showing up every day is important. And it’s important for the space that you lead. So put yourself first and take some risks and have fun while you’re doing it.
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 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 Better Leaders Better schools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class Dismiss.”
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