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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Laster

Inspired to Learn: Insights from a Lifelong Educator

: Inspired to Learn: Insights from a Lifelong Educator with Joellen Killion

I recently had the honor of speaking with Joellen Killion, an influential leader with decades of experience and contributions to the world of education. In our conversation, she shares personal anecdotes about her learning journeys, insightful advice for fostering meaningful learning experiences, and her reflections on the rapid changes in education over the past few years. 

Read the highlights from our reflective conversation, and discover the valuable lessons and inspiration she offers to all lifelong learners.

Kathryn: I would love to hear about the beginning of your career and your educational journey. How did you get into teaching and excited about professional learning?

Joellen: When I was two or three years old, I started teaching people things. My mother always said that I was the one who was telling everybody what to do. My Sicilian grandfather called me capitana, meaning captain, because I was always in charge. From very early on, it was in my nature to be someone who took care of others, looked after others, helped others, and taught people how to do things. I loved school.

I love that moment when something is either explained or discovered, or there's an insight that is like, "Whoa, I didn't know that! That's completely new to me." Those moments happen almost every day for me, and I love that feeling of being more than I was a few hours ago.

I want people to know and appreciate how our minds and brains work and how they continue to grow and learn when we provide opportunities. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own process of learning and discovery. So, that's how I became a teacher.

From that role, I took every opportunity I could possibly access for learning as a professional educator. Then, I was asked to facilitate and lead professional learning for others. I became part of a team that worked together on developing a course, and I loved that experience and teaching that course. Then, a principal asked me to be a coach. I didn't really think I had many athletic abilities, but I figured if he thought I could do it, I could do it. I was assuming he meant the girls' track team, which was looking for a coach when he asked. But really, what he was asking, and he didn't make clear until weeks later, was that he had identified teachers in need of help, and he thought I could be a person to do that.

It's not the best way to get into coaching, but it was a great learning experience for me about how to build relationships with people. I dug in, figured it out, and always looked for more opportunities. So that's my journey. Learning is just my nature. Helping others learn is a part of what I believe in.


K: I think many educators can relate to your story about being a lifelong learner. And I also love those magical moments we see in classrooms with kids, with the adult learners we're facilitating, or when we feel it ourselves—that spark of learning something new.

J: Yes, and it's hard to say spark, though, because that’s invisible. I believe there is a way to see evidence of learning in a concrete fashion. People say things. They can express what they're learning. And the key for me is helping people make it overt, to really work on putting language to it, to make that learning explicit. That's a big part of what I believe about learning.

K: So what are your favorite questions that you use for coaching or in facilitating professional learning that help elicit that kind of feedback from those moments of learning?

J: I bet you can figure it out pretty quickly, but my question is, “What are you learning?” It’s a simple question that asks people to internalize their own learning. It’s not about what you heard me say. It’s not about reiterating. It’s about internalizing. It’s about what you’re learning and what sense you are making of this experience.

Q: What's an easy way to get feedback from moments of learning? A: Simply ask, "What are you learning?" It's all about internalizing. It's about what sense learners are making of the experience.

K: Since you’ve presented at the Learning Forward Annual Conference since 1985, I know you enjoy conference learning! What excites you about the Learning Forward Texas conference or any summer learning? 

J: Here's what I love about conferences: they’re the opportunity for people who share a passion to come together. People can be either exposed to or absorb information that has potential for them. The potential is that it can be integrated into their practice. If I'm exposed to some ideas that are new to me, I may not use them immediately. I may not ever use them. But I have them to at least contemplate, and occasionally, I will integrate some of that learning into my practice.

People on the other end of the continuum kind of absorb the learning; it becomes one with their nature. They're the people who learn very quickly and intuitively. They'll hear something, and that'll just flow into their practice, sometimes without them even distinguishing its source. The learning just becomes a part of who they are.

But I love that conferences come at a time in summer when people are unencumbered by their work responsibilities, and their minds are a little freer and a little more open. The environment is psychologically safe because a conference is a choice people make. People are often in a community with others they know and who share the same interests and likes. You also get a chance to meet some new people. And I think all of that kind of blended into a lovely package helps people feel refreshed and reformed.

K: So even if conferences are “one-off” events, there are so many benefits to attending a conference. But what about other kinds of learning events that aren’t quite conferences but are still kind of “one-and-done”? Any suggestions for making that learning last or more meaningful? 

J: I usually start by simply asking, “What do you want? What do you want to learn?” I think that’s true for coaching and for professional learning. Begin by asking people to focus on something that can make their lives easier, help them do something they've always wanted to do, identify what they think is missing in their practice, or find what they want to enhance about their practice,

I don't often use the word improve because I think that sends a connotation that there's a deficit. So I just keep it really simple: “What would you want out of this session?” Asking people to be thoughtful about that and to voice it, whether they're voicing it to me as the facilitator or just to a colleague in a shoulder conversation, is one secret.

*(Side note from Kathryn: I was in Joellen’s pre-conference session and saw this excellent questioning strategy in action! This question helped our table-mates connect, plus it had us “buzzing” with idea-sharing at the beginning of the session.)

K: What shifts have you seen in professional learning, coaching, and leadership during the past four years?

J: We’ve talked so much about what we’ve learned since 2020, and here’s the big picture for me. We turned education on a dime between March 10th and April 10th. What that taught me is that educators can make rapid, significant changes when they need to. Did we like it? No. Were we able to do it? Yes. So when people talk about change being a difficult, slow process or even impossible, I say no, it's not because we have evidence it happened. Change in our field is possible, and we have the capacity for change.

We learned that we don't have to be face to face for learning, professional learning, and coaching to happen. We have lots of tools available to us now that we didn't have. We have some openness that we didn't have.

We turned education on a dime in 2020, so I know rapid, significant changes are possible. Educators have the capacity for change. - Joellen Killion

K: Because of my role as a digital learning person, I’m thinking of the value of digital tools on learning. I hope that teachers will continue to find value and explore tech-infused learning as appropriate. Your thoughts?

J: Technology is so appropriate for differentiating students' learning and for giving kids opportunities they would not have had otherwise, for example. I think some educators do not realize how much technology can do for us and how much those tools have grown with us and our needs.

Digital tools can provide opportunities to really reach kids that we've struggled to reach in schools. I'm also a big advocate of project-based learning, and in the context of great technology, PBL can be so transformative for kids’ learning.

I don't want to swing all the way back to the only connections kids have with teachers being virtual. I want personal connections. But I do want kids and teachers to have some freedom and flexibility with learning experiences that are supported by the rich tools we have available to us.

Joellen then turned the tables on our interview and asked me questions about learning more about AI. Her questions and curiosity about using artificial intelligence were yet another example of how she is a lifelong, eager learner. 

Joellen's insights and enthusiasm for learning resonated deeply with me. It truly felt like our interview was a coaching session, and it was a privilege to hear her story and gain from her wisdom. (I also left with a homework assignment! Joellen asked me to report back to her about what I learned from our conversation. 🤔) Our discussion left me inspired, thoughtful, and reflective, and I look forward to applying these insights in my ongoing professional learning journey. The recent LFTX conference sessions were just the beginning, and I am excited to continue exploring her work and learn from her again later this year.

Joellen Killion champions educator learning as the primary pathway to student success. She serves school systems, schools, regional, state, and national agencies within the U.S. and abroad as a consultant and learning facilitator. She is a senior advisor to Learning Forward and formerly was its deputy executive director. Joellen leads, facilitates, and contributes to a number of initiatives related to examining the link between professional development and student learning. She has over 30 years of experience in planning, design, implementation, and evaluation of professional learning at the school, system, state, and international level. 

Kathryn Laster brings over 30 years of education expertise as a math teacher, instructional coach, and digital learning consultant. As an independent consultant, Kathryn creates and facilitates transformative learning experiences through intentional, human-centered, tech-infused design. Connect with Kathryn at Refined Learning Design or on Twitter @kklaster.

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