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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Laster

Reflective Leadership and Building a Culture of Appreciation

Reflective Leadership and Building a Culture of Appreciation with Amber Teamann

I was so happy to have the opportunity to visit with Amber Teamann, an innovative district leader in the DFW area. In our conversation, she shared about the importance of reflecting, alignment, and leading with appreciation. Here are highlights from our insightful conversation. 

Kathryn: From following you on social media, my guess is that you identify as a life-long learner and a reflective practitioner, and I bet you enjoy many types of learning opportunities. What excites you about participating in any summer learning, such as a conference?

Amber: The older I get and the more that I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. There’s a great book by Sarah Lewis called The Rise, in which she talks about climbing the highest mountain and seeing an even higher mountain nearby. There's a difference between achieving a goal and maintaining success. Success is a moving target, right? She uses archery symbolism and shares that to become a successful archer; you hit the same target over and over and over. And it takes practice to hit that same target. 

But in education, as we know, our targets are constantly moving. Whenever I achieve a goal, I constantly look towards what's next. So, I love that the summer allows me to reflect along the year, and I typically do an end-of-the-year blog that closes out the school year, helps me reset, and starts to forecast what I want ‘24 - ’25 to look like.

As a principal, and even in a curriculum or a teaching role, it is so fantastic because you get to say, this is what I did well. This is what went great for me. Here are some things that I now know better about, and I know not to ever try that again, or that was a terrible idea, right? (Please see the water balloon fight of 2021.) I am able to then forecast moving forward that I know I want to accomplish this. And I have June, July, and maybe half of August to find resources, to make connections, to develop capacity on my team, to help accomplish those goals.

I am a big fan of the Enneagram, and I'm a Type Three Achiever, which means I never feel as if what I've done in the past is good enough for who I want to be in the future. I'm driven by the next accomplishment, the next goal, the next checkbox. And so the summer is where I get to reset some of those pieces and build a framework that allows me to move to the next level of what that success will look like. You don't have time for that in the school year because everything's on fire all of the time, but in the summer, you have a minute for everything. Your glitter settles to the bottom, and there's no one there to shake it up, so you just kind of get to refocus.

K: Thinking about taking this time for reflection, how has your reflection process changed as you've transitioned between districts and roles? Now that you’re leading at the district level, does your reflection practice look the same, or do you consider some new aspects?

A: I recently had an opportunity that did not go my way. Right after, someone I greatly love and respect, Joe Sanfelippo, said, “Hey, quit looking for the easy win.” He pointed out that if I wanted an easy win, I could go back to being a principal, but I’ve already proven that I know how to do that. He is so smart.

Our superintendent is incredibly focused on the students. She built a vision Venn diagram that centers the student for everything we do as a district. As a principal, that was my goal. As a teacher, that was my goal. In my operational role, losing sight of that goal is a testament to the fires I had to keep putting out. 

So I took all of my words and put them back into this little Venn diagram, and that’s what my goals are. In the operations department, it's about building systems that don't depend upon Amber Teamann. It's about defining what a successful system is, which is putting students back in the center.  My role, which has a broad impact, is to maintain the fidelity of student-centered learning, fiscal decisions, curriculum decisions, and instructional decisions across the board. And that means you have to have systems in place, and they have to stay true. That's something I don't think that I appreciated the first year when I was so busy trying to put out fires. 

So another point that Joe brought back down to me was, “You do you.” I have unique strengths and experiences that allow me to speak to this role differently than the traditional executive director of technology. I can't talk networks and switches, but I can talk to students, parents, and instruction. I’m looking to marry those ideals, and that's what my operational lane is. Moving forward, my reflection is to stay true, even in the moment of crisis, to what my vision should be within my district. Our district’s vision is to put students at the top of the pyramid, and I'm lucky to be in a place where our visions align.  

K: It sounds like you’re in a perfect spot for new learning opportunities that allow you to think operationally and systemically. I know that must be a little stretch, but how exciting for you!

A: I love that you say that because, honestly, I think I spent the first year and a half, almost two years, thinking, “What am I doing? This isn't about teachers. This isn't about kids. This isn't about leadership.” But my admin assistant points out every day, “Think of the differences you've made. Think of the conversations you've had that bring those things together.” It really is as you said, but it took Joe, her, and putting it all into this diagram for me to be super excited about what I do, why I do it, and this is how we're going to do it. It's a whole new reframing when you take advantage of the opportunity to reflect and align your work and vision. As a Type Three Achiever, I constantly have to reinvent, reframe, and refocus because I always want to achieve and do more.

 It's a whole new reframing when you take advantage of the opportunity to reflect and align your work and vision.

K: Your book is Lead with Appreciation. You talk about creating a culture where everyone can flourish. In your current role, you’re thinking about these ideas from a broader perspective. What do those terms mean to you? And why are these ideas crucial for today's educational landscape?  

A: George Couros once asked me what I would have done differently with the book. Melinda [Miller, co-author] and I both agreed that one of the pieces was that appreciation is not about the stuff. It's about knowing your team. I think that becomes even more important the bigger your team gets because there is no one size fits all for appreciation. There is no one task, token, or love language that works across an entire district.

In my first year, it took a while for my team to figure out I wasn't buying them donuts to suck-up, but because my love language was to give gifts, that was an act of me showing appreciation. I now know to provide donuts, plus Slim Fast, and maybe a keto snack.

Appreciation is about meeting the needs of those you serve. It's not about a jeans pass or a massage during conference time, all of which we discuss in the book. It’s about recognizing that different seasons, departments, and staff will have different needs. Appreciation comes down to building relationships with your people and getting to know them on a more granular level.

Saying hi to somebody in the hallway doesn't mean you know them, nor does it mean they understand your intent or thought processes.  If you know me and you know the core of what matters to me, then the decisions I make or the choices we make as a staff or as a department or as a school district are going to make more sense. 

This intentionality we share in Lead with Appreciation becomes even more relevant with as crazy as life is, so I think that that is one piece that hasn't changed. I now ask, how can I help via the technology or innovation lane? I don't think that who I am changes in my department. It's just a matter of finding the way that it fits with the title you currently have.

Book cover of "Lead with Appreciation" and Appreciation is about meeting the needs of those you serve. It comes down to building relationships with your people and getting to know them on a more granular level.

K: I first started following you when you were an instructional technology specialist and facilitating edcamps, so I know we both appreciate digital tools. In your current leadership role, how do you ensure technology enhances and enables rather than hinders and becomes just "one more thing" for educators?

A: Our department’s work should never make anyone’s life harder. If everything that we provide and do doesn't make someone's work easier, then I'm not doing my job. If a teacher walks into a classroom and she has to blow in her projector, unplug it five times, do a dance and tap her nose before it works, that's a hindrance, right?

A teacher should be able to walk into a system that is easy and practical. It should not require a technology degree to run a 21st century classroom. I try to focus on the verbs like collaborate, connect, engage, achieve because these stay the same, and these actions are what you want your students to accomplish, too.

As a principal, I walked into a very academically successful building, but overall it was a non-digitally native staff. As the new girl, I didn’t say, “Change everything you do.” Instead, I said I want you to connect. When we decided to do a book study, we held it via a slow chat on Twitter. And during the chats, Dave Burgess jumped in, George Couros jumped in, and teachers from all over the United States jumped in, helping our staff see others who did what they did. They connected. Twitter was just the medium that I used to complete the task. Plus, the work tied to their T-TESS goals and their SLOs (student learning objectives). As a leader, I work to find ways I can plug in to manifest and elevate the work without it being a lot of extra added to your plate. 

K: So, speaking of connections, how can others connect with you?

A: I have a Technically Yours, Teamann blog, and now a Facebook page. You can also find me on Twitter as @8Amber8, and I am on all the social spaces. Feel free to reach out to me via email because I would genuinely love to support individuals one-on-one because sometimes that personalized interaction can be more impactful than a blog post or a keynote.

Amber is also working on her dissertation and finishing her next book, and I’m impressed with how she finds time for it all! This conversation reinforced that meaningful change hinges on reflection, continuous learning, and genuine relationships. Amber’s journeys inspire us to embrace these principles, ensuring our educational environments are places where everyone can truly flourish.

Amber Teamann serves as the Director of Technology & Innovation for Crandall ISD, a fast-growing district outside of Dallas, Texas. During her educational career, Amber’s comprehensive understanding of student learning has resulted in a successful blend of technology and leading. Through her campus and district-level leadership, she has helped initiate instructional change district-wide, empowering teachers at all levels. Amber knows we can all be better together and strives to make every day the very best it can be for each member of her staff and students. As an award-winning administrator, she has been a featured speaker in multiple states helping motivate, encourage, and help develop the capacity of teachers and leaders nationwide. Recognizing the power of social media, working with districts and campuses on finding their voice, and leveraging the power of connected educators has led her down a path she completely owes to the power of a professional learning network. 

Kathryn Laster brings over 30 years of education expertise as a math teacher, instructional coach, and digital learning consultant. Now, 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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