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Leading as a learning process

Leading as a learning process

August 29, 2017 | Ron Spreeuwenberg

Patti CLARK: Because even though you're in early-childhood education there's a lot to learn from leaders of all kinds of industries. One of the biggest things I learned was [that] I just need to sit back and listen to my people. I look at it almost as a service role. Just like when I was teaching I was serving the kids, helping them become who they needed to be. And so now I approach that as well with my team. The main thing I think is having a kind of a growth mindset, which is never stop learning. Never think that you've arrived. It's a journey and there's always so much to learn and there's always areas to develop yourself and to learn more about.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

We all know that early childhood educators wear many hats! Oftentimes, teachers step into leadership roles out of necessity and sometimes, it’s due to good mentorship and support. Whatever the case, taking on a leadership role comes with its set of challenges and can be overwhelming. One of the main reasons I started the Preschool Podcast was to inspire educators to become leaders in their own right through listening to the experience and practical tips of seasoned leaders in the field. I’m really excited to talk to Patti Clark today about her journey from the classroom to her role as Vice President of Product Development at Lakeshore Learning. She shares her strategies for growing her leadership skills and her view of leadership as a service role. So let's get into it!

Patti, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

CLARK: Thanks, Ron. Glad to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: So let's start off by learning a little bit more about Lakeshore [Learning Materials]. What is it that Lakeshore does?

CLARK: We have been fortunate enough to be part of early education for more than 63 years, and we provide learning materials, everything from furniture for a classroom all the way up to any kind of manipulative that you would need to develop all the skills necessary for kids all the way from infant-toddler through to fifth grade. So we really span a child's development. And we have a team of wonderful product developers who every single one of them has been a former teacher, so they know some of the challenges teachers have. And so they're constantly coming up with great new ideas for new materials, new ways of doing things and providing those materials.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. The other thing that I learned which is really cool when I was reading up a little bit about Lakeshore is that it’s family-owned, so many years later. Is that true?

CLARK: That is absolutely true. It was started by the current owners who are kind of running the company right now which [was] started by their grandmother who then kind of passed it down to her two sons who ran the company for a really long time. And now their two sons are also kind of running the company. So it's really great to be part of the family owned company. We have a nice, really great culture here. It's not corporate. We're able to get things done. And the biggest part of it for me is really the development of children and being able to provide them what they need is absolutely number one and forefront in the owners’ minds.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's so cool because it's so rare these days to have a family-owned company that's in existence for so long.

CLARK: Absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG: So kudos to you guys for maintaining that ownership and also that that culture. So you're the VP of product development at Lakeshore Learning. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and how you've come to be in that position?

CLARK: Absolutely. It's funny, when I think back to as a child I don't think anybody would have ever pegged me to be in the position that I'm in because I was that child who was really shy, hiding behind my mother's skirts all the time whenever anybody tried to talk to me. But along the way I've just had some amazing teachers, some amazing mentors who really saw something more in me than just being that shy little child who was kind of mute and just followed along with everybody did. And they really developed me along the way.

And so the first thing being I had some amazing teachers, and so from the time I was 6 years old I wanted to be a teacher just like them. So I graduated college and went into teaching where I taught for nine years. I taught everywhere from kindergarten through fourth grade. I learned so much in the process and kind of found that one of my favorite parts of teaching was working with the kids, of course, but also trying to find unique ways in which I could help them discover and learn on their own. And so this opportunity popped in front of me to come work for Lakeshore and develop educational products for teachers. And I thought, “Wow, this would be a way I could really feel like I could reach even more kids than just those in my classroom, and I could help other teachers find really great, unique ways where kids can have fun and learn at the same time.”

So I started as a product developer in 2000, and I developed product for about seven years while here at Lakeshore and then kind of moved up along the ranks and started managing the elementary product development team working primarily on K-through-5 items. And then in 2010 I became the director of research and development of everything, all the way from infant toddler through fifth grade. And since then have now in 2015 been promoted to VP of product development where I've also taken on another department that is out searching for product. So it's been a great journey.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. And I find that one of the themes with a lot of the leaders we speak with in early-childhood education is that they did have a teacher that they had early in life that had a big impact on them and that's why they wanted to be a teacher or an educator. And then the other thing is that those who have gone on to work in larger organizations like Lakeshore, they wanted to have an impact on more children than just the children that they work with directly in the classroom. And sometimes that's difficult because it forces you to sort of walk away from working with the children directly every day, right?

CLARK: It is. I can tell you, the day I made the decision to leave the classroom I kept going back and forth: “Gosh, am I doing the right thing?” I think I probably had an emotional breakdown as well, thinking, “Gosh, am I doing the right thing?” But overall I've had the chance to still be in contact with kids at the same time because that was my biggest role. I wanted to make sure I still had had good contact with kids. I was still in there, knowing what was going on, not becoming too isolated from it. But I've had opportunities to do both, so luckily it played well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Now what are some of the challenges you faced in your career? I'm sure there's been some roadblocks and things along the way that were maybe a bit unexpected, too.

CLARK: That's a good question. Probably one of the challenges – but it has turned out to be something that I love most about the job – I always enjoy teaching kids, so much. When I started kind of working at Lakeshore and then started into management, managing the other team, was I wasn't used to inspiring and leading and directing adults and a team of people. So that was a challenge because, for me, you get so much more out of your people when, number one, they are engaged, they're inspired and they feel like they're a part of their own growth. And so I think learning some of those management skills has been a challenge but yet has turned out to be something that is almost one of my favorite parts of the job.

SPREEUWENBERG: This is a really important point for me because what I find in the field of early-childhood education in particular is that a lot of the people that end up in leadership positions like yourself, they are former teachers. And so I think it's so important that people proactively learn management and leadership skills and capabilities and embrace that. How did you go about learning about managing people and leadership skills?

CLARK: I tapped on a lot of the people here at Lakeshore that had managed before. I also have a few friends who have managed people before and I tapped into them. And I did a lot of reading, especially about what makes a good leader; what are some of the skills that that good, inspiring leaders have? Because for me it was really about the… one of the biggest things I learned was [that] I just need to sit back and listen to my people. I look at it almost as a service role. Just like when I was teaching I was serving the kids, helping them become who they needed to be. And so now I approach that as well with my team here, is that I am here to service them so I need to listen to them. What do they need to be a success? How are they feeling about it? And then I need to try to take the roadblocks away, or give them the support they need in order to be a success. And then find out, where they want to go, and what do they want to learn, and how do they want to develop? And if I can provide all of that I tend to find out that I get much more productivity from them, and they're just inspired to do their best work.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's a great way to think about it, sort of as a service role. And also there are other points I will reiterate to our listeners which you mentioned, which I always like to stress is it's awesome to tap into your community within the early-childhood education field. However it's also very important to tap into other resources like external reading from maybe experts in leadership and management, and tapping into your network of friends and colleagues who maybe are in leadership positions outside of early-childhood education. So I think that's excellent advice as well.

CLARK: Right, because even though you're in early-childhood education there's a lot to learn from leaders of all kinds of industries, right?

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally, totally. Now another thing that I wanted to touch on is, you're a VP which is a very senior position in the organization, and you're also obviously a female also. How has that played out for you? I don't know what it's like at Lakeshore, is there a lot of other female leadership within the organization? And do you have other female leaders who you admire, or are mentors of yours?

CLARK: Yeah, that's another great thing I love about Lakeshore: there are a lot of female leaders here. And so I have a lot of people to look up to and a lot of people to talk with. We have an amazing “chief people officer.” She was a VP and became our “chief people officer,” and she has really helped me. I can just bounce ideas off of her all the time. She has just a great insight on how to inspire and how to figure out problems and how to kind of creatively problem-solve all kinds of different things. So she has been a great, great mentor.

And I have found – at Lakeshore, anyway – I have not had any roadblocks because I'm a female. In fact they have just given me more and more and more opportunities to grow here which I am so thankful for. I think I ended up in the right place, for sure.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. And what about on the way to being where you are now? Did you have other leaders or mentors along the way, like teachers or anything like that that really inspired you?

CLARK: I did. There's two I can think of in particular: a teacher that I had, like I said, that kind of inspired me to become a teacher. She was my fourth-grade teacher. And like I said I was one of those kind of shy, quiet kids, and she really pegged me as, “You're more than just kind of the meek, little child.” And she really encouraged me to share more, to share my opinions more, to talk more. And I felt so supported and free in her classroom. And it felt so good; it was the first time I'd ever done that. I just wanted to be a teacher like her for all kids. She was the one – her name was Mrs. Lane – that really, really inspired me.

And then the other person is, I had a principal – my very first principal that I worked for. He also pegged me as, “You've got some talent and you need to share that talent with others.” And so he really encouraged me to kind of be a mentor for new teachers, as well as give some teacher workshops, which I was not a public speaker. I avoided speech classes in college. It gave me the heebie-jeebies; it kept me up at night. But he just encouraged me. He knew that I could do it. He had so much faith in me that I tried it, and he helped me. And he showed me that I could keep doing it and he kept encouraging courage in me to do it more and more. And I can tell you the first presentation I ever gave, I think I was so nervous and I talked so fast. I had a friend in there and I said, “How did I do?” She said, “I just wanted you to breathe. Just breathe.”

But over time he encouraged me and he mentored me and he coached me. And I found that, wow, I really liked it. And I got good reactions, and I just felt great about helping people and sharing my ideas and honestly getting even more ideas from them, because the more I got out there with other teachers the more I learned from them, not just giving them what I was teaching them.

SPREEUWENBERG: And it's awesome because it's also a very common theme that we hear from other leaders, both within early-childhood education and outside which is that when you've had these mentors and people that have really supported you along the way you take those traits and then you focus on the growth and development of your own team, right? It becomes something that you want to sort of pass on, something you learn from them as well.

CLARK: Absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG: Now I just wanted to change our tune just a little bit here. You've spent quite a bit of time in various leadership roles. We're very passionate about leaders in early-childhood education. What advice would you provide to those who are maybe a bit earlier in their careers in early-childhood education, just starting out?

CLARK: The main thing I think is having a kind of a growth mindset, which is never stop learning. Never think that you've arrived. It's a journey and there's always so much to learn and there's always areas to develop yourself in and to learn more about. And anything that you find that interests you that's coming up – a new trend, a new idea – get in there and research it. Go to workshops; learn as much as you can. Any time you find little things that you feel like, “Gosh, I'm not as good at that,” read about it. Go seek out people who are good at it and figure out, how does it work for them, so that you are continuing to kind of grow yourself. I'm a big believer of that growth mindset which is, “I may not be able to do this right now but I can't do it yet. And I always learn and get better at it. I can capitalize on my strengths and help others. And then I can seek out others to help on the areas that I think I’m weak in, and not beat myself up over it but find out how I can continually grow in those areas.”

SPREEUWENBERG: Great advice. And you’re someone who has had a lot of exposure to what's happening in early-childhood education in your position. What are some exciting trends, or the most exciting trend, that you're seeing happening right now?

CLARK: A few years ago I felt like learning and more traditional teaching was really being pushed down into early childhood. And what's been exciting for me in the last few years is that learning through play really has made a big resurgence, which is huge because learning through play to me at that early childhood level is one of the most important things. And I think it's really exciting. I'm seeing a lot of schools and early-childhood educators really focusing on trying to even bring that outdoors more, because as we know in today's world kids are spending a lot more time inside. They're spending a lot more time on screens, which is good in and of itself –there's some amazing learning tools and everything that they can do on tablets and everything else – but learning through play can't be left behind, including going outside. There's so much discovery that goes on outside, and inside, through play. And I think what it does is, kids discover for themselves, which is going to help them with school readiness because they need to be able to discover some of those things for themselves.

And one of the most important things is their social emotional development. Kids need to learn how to work with others, solve conflicts, problem-solve together and regulate their own emotions. All of those things happen when they're playing with others. And so being able to give them the right opportunities and the right environment in which they are excited and inspired to play together just has made it really exciting for me. I think that's a great, great trend.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. Well, Patti, it's been wonderful having you on the show here today. I think you provided some great advice to those future leaders of early-childhood education, especially with your points about leadership really being a service role where you're listening to your team and helping them grow and develop. And awesome, awesome advice about never stop learning. It's a journey; there's no end point, right? It's almost like the opposite. It's like the more you learn the more you realize you don't know, right?

CLARK: My motto for myself is, I am not a perfect leader but I am continuing to try to get better at it every day.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's a great motto. Patti, if people want to learn more about Lakeshore where would they go to find more information?

CLARK: You can find us on www.LakeshoreLearning.com. We also have 60 stores nationwide in the U.S. You can always visit any of the stores and talk to any of the associates or managers there. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. So you can just kind of plug in “Lakeshore” and see what pops up and see what interests you.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. And if I'm listening to the Podcast and I'm inspired by your story and I want it to connect with you directly, do you have any social media accounts or anywhere where I could get in touch with you, Patti?

CLARK: I do have an account on LinkedIn. So that would probably be the best place.

SPREEUWENBERG: Well, Patti, it's been awesome having you on the show. Thanks again for coming on today.

CLARK:Anytime, Ron. Great to talk to you.
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