A Chance for Gifts of Fate A Chance for Gifts of Fate
Dreams and Visions

A Chance for Gifts of Fate

An Interview with Educator Allyson Apsey
Maria Hawranek
time 14 minutes

Great things can be found where we least expect. Maria Hawranek talks to educator Allyson Apsey about serendipity and its use in education.

When a child with behavioral issues joins a school, there’s an opportunity for teachers to develop new tools. When a student is struggling to master a skill, it’s worth looking for other ways to help them learn it. Failed to achieve something you strived for? Perhaps a space for something new has just opened in your life.

Maria Hawranek: When you finished high school, you were convinced you’d never again set foot in one. And yet, somehow, you’ve been a school principal for over twenty years. How did that come about?

Allyson Apsey: I didn’t see value in a lot of what I was asked to do in school. To me, it felt like doing the work for the sake of doing the work and not about me as an individual. I didn’t think my teachers saw me as a person, they saw a student. I hated homework and thought it was ridiculous to spend hours at home on top of the hours at school. Although I loved to read and learn, I didn’t feel like I was able to learn about things I was passionate about in school. Perhaps, I don’t like being told what to do in general. Sitting in a classroom all day long, being told what to do, wasn’t my idea of a time well spent.


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What happened next?

I went to study business at a community college in my town because I didn’t know what else to do. In my sophomore year, the psychology class I was attending was dropped. The only class I could find that fit into my schedule and would fulfill the same requirement was educational psychology. On the first day of class, the professor asked, “Who wants to become a teacher or pursue a career in education?” Every single person in the class raised their hand, except for me. Still, I needed to fulfill the requirements of the class, and I had to go volunteer in a classroom. My aunt was a first-grade teacher in Walker, Michigan, near my hometown of Grand Rapids. I asked her if I could volunteer there. I don’t know if it was one particular day, or if it just happened over the course of weeks, looking at those kids’ faces and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, you have twelve years of torture ahead of you. You’re so cute. You’re so innocent. You deserve good things in your school career.” I’ve always been someone that, wherever I see a need for change, I feel a responsibility to help make it happen. Something clicked, and I realized that I was going to become a teacher. It was serendipity that my class was dropped, and I had to pick up an educational psychology class.

You said in your podcast that you “sucked” in your first years of teaching. Why was that?

My first job was at Glasser Quality School in Huntington Woods, in the suburbs of Wyoming, Michigan. Teaching there is based on choice theory, formulated by William Glasser. It assumes that we’re always behaving to meet one of our five basic needs: survival, power, freedom, love and belonging, and fun. This is true for both children and adults. If we create an environment where people are easily able to meet those needs, they’re not going to act out.

How would this work within a classroom?

This theory structures the relationship between teachers and students in an innovative way. There are no traditional classroom management systems where you have, for example, apples with all the kids’ names on them, and they all start in a green zone. If they get a warning, you move their apple to the yellow zone, and then you move it to the red zone, and then they face some kind of consequence. When I was teaching during my studies, that’s the method we used. All I had to do was walk toward the apples and the students would straighten up. When I started my first teaching job, there was a different philosophy. It was all about creating need-satisfying classrooms, building relationships with students, and having clear and consistent expectations. If a problem pops up, you just talk and work through it. There are no artificial consequences. I wasn’t trained for that. The kids knew more about the philosophy of the school than I did. I felt like they were just walking all over me, and I was frustrated all the time. Kids can read frustration, and that interfered with my relationships with students.

What did you do?

I learned about choice theory, and began to understand how to create a classroom where kids can meet their needs within the parameters of what we’ve asked them to do, instead of working against that. For instance, I had this one student who loved to dance and make other kids laugh. He would do that all the time, when I was trying to provide instruction or during a fire drill, all the attention was turned toward the student. He was working to meet his needs for fun and freedom and connection with his classmates, and I kept asking him to stop without giving him another opportunity to meet those needs within the functions of the classroom. He was laughing and I was frustrated. The following year, I brought in a speaker, and we played music and had a dance party during lunch. The student was able to make the kids laugh during the break. This not only helped him meet his needs, but it also helped him see that I valued him. We were able to laugh together. And really, such opportunities help build relationships, too.

After five years, you became a school principal. Is it true that you don’t have a desk?

It’s true. I’ve a table in my office, so I can sit if I want to. I also have a standing rolling desk that I try to bring out into the school as much as possible; it keeps me really mobile. I’m never in the wrong place at the wrong time if I’m out and about in the school. I’m only in the wrong place when I’m in my office.

How did you discover the idea of serendipity?

I fell in love with the word and the idea of happy accidents, finding nice things in places you weren’t looking. I learned about it from a 2001 movie of the same title. At the time, I was teaching seventh and eighth grade students, and I had the opportunity to teach a character education class where I was going to introduce choice theory and reality therapy, and also talk about developing strong, positive relationships. As I had just seen this movie, I called the class Serendipity. In class, we wrote journals together, and we talked about looking for happy accidents in our lives.

What does the idea of serendipity mean to you?

To me, serendipity is about looking for beautiful lessons in everything we experience. We can’t always see that there’s going to be some kind of positive outcome when we go through things that are really challenging and inexplicable or evil, or just sad. But I think we’re all better off if we learn how to do that. This idea really hit home with my mom’s illness. She was my best friend. Her grandparents came to the US from Poland, she loved making gołąbki [stuffed cabbage]. I felt my mom wanted me to not just be super sad about what she was going through, but to learn and grow and become a better version of myself through everything she went through and the strength she demonstrated in fighting her illness, so she could stay with us for as long as possible. A couple of years after my mom passed away, I started a blog and I decided to call it “Serendipity in Education”—perhaps a little cheesy, but that was me.

This sounds great, but all those phrases—“embrace difficulties as opportunities” or “always find something to be grateful for”for many people sound really shallow and cheesy, and untrue. Some people are born in the slums or favelas, in migrant detention centers that they may never leave. Of course, we all have our issues, but they are not all equal. Perhaps, serendipity is a concept that applies only to the select few?

I think it is key to recognize that some things are absolutely horrible, or evil, or devastating, or unfair, and it is important not to ignore difficult emotions that come with them. I do come from a place of privilege and I recognize that. I don’t mean we should pretend that everything is great, and we’re always happy, but recognize that we have an opportunity to become better versions of ourselves because of the things we do, even if we can’t always see it. When we experience difficult, bad feelings, we can’t always say, “Oh, what’s the beautiful lesson in this experience?” We need to give it time. After my mom passed away, I couldn’t immediately say, “What is the beautiful lesson I’m going to take from this?” I was in serious pain. Knowing that we have an opportunity to become better versions of ourselves leaves a spark of hope, and that spark of hope can really help us through some really devastating times.

Let’s go back to the idea of serendipity in education. Traditional schools are oppressive: kids get grades for everything they do. They are punished for every failure with bad marks. Failure equals punishment.

In our philosophy, every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. As a leader, that’s what I want to instill in my staff. I love it when they say, “I’m trying something new, do you want to come in and see me do it? I might completely fall on my face, but I would love to get your feedback.” To me, this speaks to an understanding that failure is not something terrible. It’s something to learn from and grow. And when we’re taking risks, we’re going to fail. And that’s what we want to instill in our students—failure is not something bad. We make sure that we don’t see students as numbers or grades, we see them as learners, and we’re meeting them where they are and helping them move forward as individuals.

So, do you give students grades or not?

In our elementary school, it’s a bit easier because we don’t have traditional grade books where you record marks for every assignment and test, and then average them and then that’s their grade. We are looking at whether they are mastering concepts and ideas, or whether they need more time.

For example, say there is a child that doesn’t succeed—what do you do?

We think about how we can help them achieve those goals. We just had meetings this past week to talk about this. We try to teach them differently. We also try to teach our students to recognize where they are in their learning—are you at a point where you know you’ve got it and can teach someone else? Are you feeling confident with it, or not yet confident at all?

What if there is a student who is disrupting learning for others?

Students with the biggest behavioral challenges are often our best teachers. We learn so much about how to support students when the tools we have in our toolbox don’t work, we have to develop new ones. Those situations can be really hard at that moment, but also help us become better classroom managers and give us more tools to support all of our students.

Can you think of any examples?

We had a girl who came to us as a third-grader. She had been suspended so many times in second grade that she was eventually expelled. We knew the school was working hard to help her be successful and create a good environment for her, but what they were doing wasn’t working. We saw it as a fantastic opportunity to give her a fresh start, but also to add some new tools to our tool box. In the US, students with behavioral issues spend a lot of time in the principal’s office. Instead of sending her to the office, whenever there was an issue, we just told her she can come down to the office any time she wants to. We’ll have water for you, a snack if you need it but most of all—some love and support if that’s what you need. You are welcome to come down here at any time. In my office, there are my secretaries and me. At first, she would come down maybe five or six times a day and would just stay for a few minutes because she knew she could come back whenever she wanted. Then she’d go back to her classroom. Whenever she needed something, she’d be down there. And at the same time, her teacher recognized that she had to build a strong relationship with her, she avoided power struggles because we knew that that was an issue in her last school where the teacher and the child would butt heads. We just recognized that in such power struggles, there’s always a loser. If the teacher wins, the student loses, and the other way around—you don’t want either of those to really happen. If you can avoid power struggles by just backing away from the situation, taking a few moments and then coming back together when both the adult and the child are more emotionally regulated, then you’re able to move forward together. At the same time, the teacher created a classroom that was need-satisfying so that she’d want to stay in the classroom. It worked, we were able to support her, and she was never suspended at our school.

That sounds quite challenging for the teachers.

That’s true. My philosophy as a leader is supporting my staff. It is really important that I know the specific strength of every staff member in the school. We have a team of teachers where one teacher is passionate about writing instruction, another is super fun in the classroom, and yet another is super creative about different ways to engage students and learning. We can have a team of teachers who recognize their strengths and there’s space for everyone to feel like a leader. Then we can take on different challenges without feeling like they’re overwhelming or insurmountable.

Do you evaluate teachers?

As a principal, it is my job to evaluate teachers. I go in and observe them, and they receive a score at the end of the year. Research has shown that teacher evaluation does not have any positive impact on student achievement, and it also often feels awful to teachers. When I do observations and evaluation, I am solely looking for strengths, and then I ask them—where are you looking to grow? If we’re feeling strong and positive that we’re doing a great job, we’re looking for ways to grow. We feel like we have the capacity for that growth.

This is how we should treat students as well. Children look to adults as role models, so it’s enough they see how adults treat each other. How do you deal with emotions? Failures can be hard to bear.

We teach social emotional learning; we teach about problem-solving and relationships, and recognizing our own emotions. This can have a tremendous impact on us as adults because often the skills that we’re teaching students are things that were not explicitly taught to us when we were in school. Nobody told us that all emotions are good or taught us about emotional regulation.

Traditionally, schools focus on the mind, rather than body, heart, or soul.

In the United States, there’s the whole child movement, a huge movement for social emotional learning. Where I think it has yet to fully translate is in supporting the adults in the same way.

You’re a trained trauma practitioner, and an education wellness coach. This is unheard of in Poland, is it something popular in the United States?

No, not yet. I coach educators beyond my schools through an organization that’s called Opportunity Thrive. Individuals answer questions related to their own wellness, and we suggest strategies that they could utilize based on their results. In some cases, the results indicate a need for more significant support and they’re matched up with a coach. I coach principals and teachers.

And how do you pick your teachers?

We’re really looking for people who will add something that the teaching team doesn’t have yet. They also have to be relationship-focused, have a growth mindset looking for continuous improvement, and willingness and ability to be connected with the school. We need to be working collaboratively together because that is going to really impact our students. But then also that we have this opportunity to be connected across the country or on a global level, taking advantage of resources like social media. I also think in order to have any kind of significant relationships, you have to be vulnerable—honesty and transparency and willingness to ask for help. I think that a key part of being an educator is being vulnerable, because sometimes we feel like “we should know it all” and that we can be judged for asking for help.

By this, do you also mean showing vulnerability to the children?

Yes, because in order to build strong, positive relationships, there has to be reciprocal vulnerability. We can’t expect our kids to be okay with failure and have a growth mindset if we don’t demonstrate that sometimes we fail, and we’re always learning and growing. This requires being vulnerable in front of the kids.

Instead of playing the role of a know-it-all adult?

Yes. Even as a principal. For a long time, I thought, I’m the principal. I should have all the answers. If you ask me a question, I should know. But that reciprocal vulnerability is really important from a principal to a teacher. I have to show that I’m learning, I’m growing. I make mistakes. I learn from them. I’m okay. I’m not a failure if I make a mistake.

What is the ultimate goal of education?

We want children to exit our schools feeling that they were seen, valued, and supported as individuals. We want them to see themselves as people who are going to always want to learn and grow, look for what’s best for them, be able to work through difficult feelings, and support each other and be good citizens or neighbors, look out for the common good, and be willing to stand up for what they believe in. All this has nothing to do with teaching them math or reading—these are just the tools they need to become whatever they want to be when they leave us. We can’t prepare them for particular jobs, because these are going to change before the students leave us. Of course, they need to be able to read, count, and be good problem solvers. But we also need to support them in learning how to fail and move forward, how to support each other and continuously grow and learn. We don’t want them to leave school thinking, “Okay, I did that.” We encourage them to think, “Okay, this is a new beginning.”

Were there any failures that were not opportunities to grow, that were not serendipitous?

I’ve had many failures—rejected book proposals, jobs I didn’t get, times when I let my emotions get the best of me, not taking action when I should have. I’ve failed and I’ll continue to fail. But I always look for what I can learn and how I can grow. And I’ve not yet found a situation where I can’t find some kind of lesson within what I’ve gone through.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Allyson Apsey, zdjęcie: Lifetouch Photography
Allyson Apsey. Photo by Lifetouch Photography

Allyson Apsey:

A school leader for more than twenty years. She conducts workshops on wellbeing and working with trauma in education. Mother of two sons.

Also read:

Against Parenting Against Parenting
Drawing from the archives (no. 401/1952)
The Other School

Against Parenting

An Interview with Alison Gopnik
Tomasz Stawiszyński

“The whole purpose of childhood is to allow us to have a new generation that is going to see things and understand things in a different way.” Alison Gopnik, psychologist and philosopher, urges mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles to take risks. Let children experiment (even if they want to become carpenters, not doctors). I love people who turn stereotypes, common sense ideas or so-called evident truths upside down. Providing, of course, that they do it with concern for scientific and philosophical credibility. One of those people is Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most distinguished modern researchers studying childhood. That’s why her books on babies’ minds (especially The Philosophical Baby) and, more recently, parenthood (The Gardener and the Carpenter) are so fascinating and refreshing.

Gopnik doesn’t beat around the bush. She says there is a pervasive, culturally-entrenched myth that parents have a great influence on their children; that they shape them like the potter’s experienced hands shape a piece of clay. This myth is not only false but also harmful. Parenthood isn’t about playing a god who creates another human being in his own image. Quite the opposite: for a child freedom is essential, Gopnik says, adding that another thing of great educational value is diversity. The more people around you the better. Nothing beats a huge, multi-generational family in which everyone, not just mum and dad, is responsible for raising a child. Especially if you add a pinch of anarchy, disorder and chaos. That’s the best possible environment – order and discipline cannot compare.

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