EPISODE 08: THE STORY OF

Life Beyond the Classroom

with Susan Riley

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The minute that you fail and don’t get back up and give up, is the minute that you quit. It’s the minute that you truly have failed. If you continue, you will never truly fail.

Jamie
Some of us are multi, passionate, and the traditional classroom is not where we’re meant to be forever. On today’s episode, the founder of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, Susan Riley, discusses life after teaching and affecting change across the globe. Welcome, Susan. We’re thrilled to have you on the podcast.

Susan
Hi Jamie, I’m excited to be here!

Jamie
Thank you. Thank you for being on! Susan, I know you’re a musician and a longtime music educator. So in the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start!” Start at the beginning and tell us about your career, post-college.

Susan
So… I yeah, I did start out as a music educator. I taught K-5 in a Title One school with 900 children and I was the only music teacher, which was really interesting in terms of scheduling… because I was a young teacher, I was 21 so I didn’t know any better and I got half the kids for half the year, and then we swapped with the art teacher and I got the other half of the kids for the second half of the year. And the problem with that schedule is that I might see you from September to December and then not see you again until the following January. So in terms of consistency, it was a little difficult and so I had to get really creative in terms of how I scheduled things. Also, I had no curriculum. None. I spent the majority of my first year of teaching writing a music curriculum to be able to use because we didn’t even have books. I mean, I don’t advocate a ton of textbooks and arts classes anyway, but, uh but I don’t even have a book to reference. So my first year was really baptism by fire as an educator, but I loved it because I worked in a school community where, even though it was tough in terms of population and tough in terms of having no resources and tough in terms of just beginning everything, it was great because I had an amazing principal who I still I’m fortunate to call friend and somebody who I look up to as a model administrator, and I had a great group of teachers that worked with me. They welcomed me in. They made sure that I was comfortable. If I needed something, they helped me to get it. They were such a great support, and I really believe that that is critical to anybody who’s an educator. After two years, I ended up leaving that school not really by choice, but because it was just a geographical location. And I went to a totally different school with 350 kids in very affluent population. Very different. Um, and very different teaching culture. They were more established teachers. They had, they had formed bonds that I had not been a part of. Um, they did not have a lot of turnover, which is always a sign that we think of a really great school, right, and it is a great school. I still count those people as dear friends. But it was really hard to find a spot in that school, find my footing because the person who had been there prior to me had been there for years and years and years and years, had an established program. And so I was the outsider coming in, and it was a challenge again, because this time I had all the resources. I was in a hugely affluent population, so I had literally had these, like, world drums of… like a whole set of world drums. I couldn’t even like, use them all. I had, um, handbells. I had a hand chimes, I had access to thousands of dollars worth of materials and you wanna talk about textbooks. I had textbooks for every grade level, multiple additions and all the CDs and everything that I could possibly use. But I would go home crying every night for the first 6 months because the teachers in that building were difficult to get to know. Once I got to know them, they were amazing. And so that taught me a lot. It taught me how to form relationships with people who already have them established. It taught me how to listen more than to talk, um, and to learn respect on a different level because I also came in thinking that I knew a whole lot and I knew a lot. I came from a really good college program, but I didn’t know everything. And so it brought me down a peg or two, and I don’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. Looking back on it. At the time, it was really, really hard. Go ahead.

Jamie
Are you still teaching music?

Susan
No, I’m not. So I am now an arts integration specialist, and I run the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. And so that shift happened because of that second school. Because that second school, that was when I started my master’s program of administration and I had a project. In order become an administrator, I had to run a program of some sort at the school, and I had discovered arts integration in my research. And I thought, “You know what? This could really affect change. I think this could work in our school,” and I went to the principal and I asked, “Could I start this?” And he said, “You know, if you get one kindergarten, first-, or second-grade teacher and third-, fourth- or fifth-grade teacher, you can do that as a project.” He was a great principal because not every principal will allow you to come in and do a research project with your teachers. And so I pitched it to all the team leaders, and they all came on board plus the reading specialist and the special ed teacher. Uhm, and so we formed this pilot and I had no idea what I was doing, Jamie. I had no idea! I was, like, again young and green, umm… And I’m so glad that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know because it allowed me to play a little bit more and experiment. And I think that’s really important for teachers when, because we’re so scared of making a misstep. And I wrote an entire book called No Permission Required because I really believe that you do not need permission to do what’s best for kids. But I also believe you need to be able to feel like you can play and that if you make a mistake, it’s not gonna kill you. So yeah, I worked. I worked with this pilot group and I started PD with them on what is art integration. And I had, like, these booklets and I was all prepared and we sit down with a book for a book study. And one of these teachers looked at me and she was like, “Nope!” She literally tossed the book across at me and was like, “This doesn’t make any sense. These are nine-week projects. I have no time for this. This is completely unrealistic. Not going to do it.” And everybody else in the team. It was like a air came out of the balloon and it made that awful sound, like it just collapsed! And I felt like, “Ohhh, I really need to try this differently.” And so it allowed me to think about, what do these teachers really need? Because we’re going to do a book study. That’s what they tell us that we’re supposed to do, right? But these books that I could find on arts integration at the time and remember this is more than a decade ago, uh, they were, they were all these big projects, and they felt unrealistic at the time when you have all these curricular demands. So I said, “Well, we’re gonna scrap this. We’re gonna take what’s good about this. But we’re also gonna go look at what other people are doing,” and I think that’s a huge step for arts integration is looking at what works, finding schools that actually are doing this and then go watch it in action and whether that is an online video, because there’s nothing close to you or getting into a car like we did and go watch it at a school. I think it’s critical because what happened after that was that the teachers came back and they said, “Well, we could do that!” See, they’re really competitive. They wanted to be the best and do it with fidelity and so that got their gears turning. And that was a moment, that was a teachable moment for me as a leader to understand that it’s more important… Action is always gonna be more important than passivity. Being able to take that next step in whatever that looks like is going to be key. You can’t sit there and just read about it. You can’t sit there and just ingest it and I think that we live in a culture where we ingest a lot. All the time, we’re constantly scrolling, we’re constantly comparing, we’re constantly watching. But when it comes to taking action, very few of us actually take this next step and are brave enough to say “Okay, well, what’s next?”

Jamie
What did that next step look like for you?

Susan
So for me, I started a blog at the time, which was called EducationCloset. And, uh, it actually started as a way for us to document that process at that school. Like, we’re putting arts integration into action, but there’s gotta be other people out there who are trying to do this, and they need to know what else somebody else is doing, right? So it was a way for us to kind of document “Here’s what we tried and here’s what worked. And here’s what didn’t work. Here’s the lessons that we’ve created for each other,” and so it just kind of evolved at that point as a blog. And as I did that, somehow it caught the attention of people in a county in Maryland – Anne Arundel County – so it’s where the capital of Maryland sits, Annapolis. And they were starting arts integration as well. They were in the midst of this huge grant, and they had a position available for an arts immigration specialist at the county level.

Jamie
Tell us more. What is an arts integration specialist do?

Susan
So an arts integration specialist actually helps to develop an arts integration initiative so it could be school-based. So somebody who can lead those kinds of efforts in a school, act as that facilitator in terms of providing models and support and answering questions. It can go to the district level, which is where I was with Anne Arundel, where you’re actually facilitating that in multiple schools. So for me, I actually started with five elementary schools with the intention of then adding those layers of middle and high school. That was the plan, was to be able to implement that which is a huge next step, right, and then, then there are art integration specialists out there who consult with schools, who come in and and work with schools in terms of “we need to get you started in this particular area of your grant” or go out and provide professional development for teachers to be able to teach them strategies and support mechanisms that way. There are so many things that arts integration specialists can do.  In that particular role, I was able to do that at the county level and kind of develop that programming which teaches you a lot because it’s different doing it in multiple schools, than just doing in one school.

Jamie
Fast forward to now: How did the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM come to be?

Susan
So, we actually remained EducationCloset for a really long time. In fact, our web address is still that because that’s how most people know us, right. We evolved into the Institute because we began to see that this was a need for teachers, and more and more people were coming in, to the point where we were at 200, 300,000 visitors a month coming and using our resources. And so about four years ago, we sat down and said, you know what? There really should be an online certification for arts integration specialists because, um, it there were, there are programs out there for arts integration specialists that’re fantastic. Um, and I love them. I think it’s difficult because you have to travel to go to most of them, and it’s, it’s a burden for a lot of people because they can’t afford to leave. They’re trying to, you know, get their stuff done at school already. They don’t have time to leave and physically go somewhere, plus all the additional physical materials. And we knew that being online is the great equalizer, right? It provides an equitable opportunity for a lot of people who can’t afford it otherwise. So we developed the certification program to support that, and it has now gotten to be credited by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training. So it’s internationally accredited. And once we got accredited, we knew that we really were an institution. We had become an institution of learning. And so that’s when we made that final shift in this past January to becoming The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM and that’s where we are at this point.

Jamie
Unbelievable. And I can hear from your passion and enthusiasm when you talk about all of this that arts integration and STEAM are approaches to teaching that you are so passionate about. And we want to know what you would say to those veteran teachers who have a passion project. They might not be at retirement age yet, but they’re thinking about leaving their classrooms. They’re itching to leave the school level. What would you say to them?

Susan
There’s a lot into that discussion, right? I think a lot of us, as teachers and we go in… for me personally, when I went into teaching, I never wanted to start a business. I never wanted to leave the classroom, and I did that because in my background, my parents, actually, when I was young, we went through a bankruptcy and it was a scary time for me financially, and that happened when I was young and so that memory sticks in my head. And so when I thought about a career, I thought, What is one of the most stable careers I could get into that I would love? I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t want, that I didn’t love and teaching came to mind. And so when I thought about becoming a teacher, I wanted stability. I wanted to make sure that I was financially secure. I wanted to make sure I was secure for a family because I knew I wanted a family. When I think a lot of that resonates for teachers, teachers want to do more. They feel like I can do so much more whether that’s in the classroom or out of it. They know they were made for more, but they’re scared to take the next step. Um, and that’s normal. I feel like that’s normal. And so I had no desire to leave that security until I realized that I was staying in the classroom because I was scared of losing the stability and not because of what was best necessarily for all of those kids and for me. Um, and so that’s really what I would recommend. If you are thinking about leaving the classroom, you’re thinking about, is this time for another step? Think about what’s your motivation to stay. Think long and hard, why am I staying? Am I staying because I’m passionate about it? Am I staying because of the kids? Am I staying because I have more to offer in this room? And if you are, if those things come up to the surface, I say stay because that’s what we need. But if you’re staying because it’s stable and because it’s safe, then I want to encourage you that there is another step you can take, there is never, you’re never backed into a corner. You have skills and abilities that can be extended. And if you feel like that, you were meant for more and you’re ready to go, there are opportunities for you out there outside of the classroom, should you choose to do it.

Jamie
Great advice. In addition to owning a business and being an entrepreneur, you wear many hats:  mom, wife, daughter, friend, a mentor, an educator, a musician. How do you navigate all of these hats that you wear?

Susan
Probably… my husband would probably say not well, to be really honest. He would probably say that I, um I tend to obsess a lot. I and that’s just my personality. I obsess until it’s right. And so whether that’s focusing on a relationship or whether that’s focusing on something in the business or something in terms of helping teachers, I’m always gonna try to do the very best work that I can do in that area. For me, I will tell you that I… mornings are a huge deal for me. I get up at least an hour and a half before my daughter gets up at 6. So I’m up usually by 4.30. And honestly, it’s so that I can have quiet. I am a big believer in that book, Miracle Morning. Um and so I take the first hour of my day to have a cup of coffee in the quiet, read… write. I always journal in the mornings and then get my head centered with a little bit of meditation. And usually that puts me in the framework, um, to be ready for whatever the day is gonna throw at me. If I don’t do those three things, I find that I’m more irritable and nobody likes me when I’m in the office and I’m a little bit more irritable. Um, then when I come in here literally, I will open the door in the morning. It’s usually around seven to the office, and nobody’s here for two hours once I’m here, so that gives me another good bit of quiet time to get stuff done.

Jamie
I heard you say a little bit ago that you obsess over some things in relation to the business and we through EducationCloset and through the Institute, we see all of the success. Have there been any failures?

Susan
Yes, there’s more failures than there are successes, and that’s another really important thing for people to remember. You know, where we talk about the idea that people curate their life on social media and we know that, right? We know that The Bachelor is not real, right Jamie? Right, like the show, The Bachelor? That’s not real, right? Like we know the reality TV is, ironically, not real, and we know that social media is curated. But we still internalize it, and we still look at it as though there’s not any other story behind that. And of course there is. Of course there is. So for anything, everything that we see there’s always at least five times more failures than we see in successes. So, yeah, there’s been a lot of failures in terms of I mean, I’ve fallen flat on my face multiple times in PDs. I’ve seen things that I thought was gonna work, not work at all. I’ve done that businesswise. There has been launches that we’ve tried that have fallen completely flat on their face, and every time I think the important part about failure is that you always look at it and think how? What can I learn from this? What’s the one thing that I can learn from that moment in time and then transform it into something positive? Because the minute that you fail and don’t get back up and give up, is the minute that you quit. It’s the minute that you truly have failed. If you continue, you will never truly fail. I really believe you either get a lesson or you get a win, but you don’t get a fail. Unless you stop.

Jamie
Wow, wise words. Let’s go back to social media for just a second. How do you deal with the social media trolls, the naysayers? How do you deal with that?

Susan
Yeah, it’s really important not to internalize it because it’s not personal. They don’t know you personally. I often will remind myself if I were walking in a city and some person on the street who I have never met, yelled out to me and said something really ugly, I would never internalize that I would continue to walk and just go, oh yeah, right. You know what I mean? It wouldn’t even faze me. And yet we were on the internet, that’s exactly what’s happening. Somebody who you’ve never met yells something really ugly to you, and yet we stare at that. We stare at that, we internalize it and we focus on it and it becomes really becomes a part of our psyche. So for me, I don’t even look at it. If there’s ugly out there, then OK, I wish you well. I hope that you are able to feel better, but that’s not on me. So making sure that we don’t internalize the negative is important. The flip side to that is you can’t internalize positive either… which is a really interesting shift, right? I know. I see you like, really, don’t you want to internalize the positive? But you gotta remember if you’re gonna give credence to people’s opinions in the positive, then the negative also applies. So if the negative doesn’t apply, then the positive opinions of others, while they’re nice and I do accept them, and that’s wonderful,  I can’t build my own self worth on that opinion either.  

Jamie
Such a mind shift.  

Susan
It is, it’s hard because I used to all the time and I got a lot of validation from that. I would go on and be like, look at all the people who liked this and look at all the people were coming and this is great. And it it was internalizing for me. And I was like, this is wonderful. But the problem with that is is that the minute then that you get that one nasty comment from somebody? You then internalize that too. So it was… That was a really hard lesson for me to learn. But I also think building in-person relationships, being able…  and even I have really good online relationships with people that I’ve never met in person. But keeping the positive relationships that you have from people who you do care about their opinions. For me, it’s my family. It’s the people I work with, the people who really, truly know me. Their opinions matter to me. Everybody else, thank you. Next.  

Jamie
Thank you! Next! Ok, she says, thank you, next question!

Susan
Thank you, Ariana Grande.

Jamie
Thank you, next question! Obviously you do not fear social media. Is there anything you fear?

Susan
Oh, heck yes. On. It’s not that I don’t fear social media. Trust me. There’re times where I’m like, I’m not even gonna go there because I’m afraid to look. Yeah, yeah, the biggest thing for me that I, that I fear is not making enough of a difference fast enough. I feel like they’re so much that we have to doo. We have important work to do, particularly in education, and I feel like I can’t help support the change fast enough. Um, and that sometimes is a negative for me because it pushes me to work way longer hours and sacrifice, you know, personal relationships, sometimes in a not good way. Um, which is why I’m so thankful for my family and my husband, who are really good about steering me into their direction of, you need to come back and take a break. That’s always really helpful. And I hope that everybody out there has somebody who does that for them. But I’m also a believer that when you say when you have fear, the fear is the thing that propels you to do what you need to do. So if you’re scared… I know a lot of people who are scared about leaving a classroom or scared about their financial future or scared about what their kids are going to do when they go to college and are they going to be a successful human? You know, um and so when you’re scared, that’s the thing that propels you to make the next step forward.

Jamie
Conversely, what’s the best part of your day?

Susan
Mmm. Best part of my day is when I come in here in the morning… See? Yeah, we’re in the office right now, and my people are in the background pointing to themselves like me, it’s us, we’re sitting here. It’s all of us! Yeah, it is them, um, and a close second in the mornings when I come into our office and it’s dark outside, it’s dark-oh-thirty, I open the door and the lights automatically come on. It’s a security feature, which I kinda like. And when the lights come on, I say, “Good morning, office. I can’t wait to see what we have today.” That is like the thing that sets the tone every day. I say good morning to the office, which sounds weird, but I set up the tone for the rest of the day, and when I close the office, I thank it for allowing us to carry our dreams for one more day.

Jamie
Wow. I’m so touched by that, as I’m sure our listeners are. How can we follow your great work and learn more about the Institute?

Susan
Well, you can always visit us at artsintegration.com. Um, and then, if you like to follow on social media, you can always follow me at EducationCloset. I’m also on Instagram under the Institute for Arts Integration, so come on over and take a visit.

Jamie
Teaching TrailBlazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host, Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.

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