Brittany Cufaude: “Stay focused but be flexible”

Stay focused but be flexible. Running a business is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. And, my nature is to please. So when my clients need something, I want to act immediately. As the years have passed though, I have realized I have to stick to my plan and accomplish my […]

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Stay focused but be flexible. Running a business is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. And, my nature is to please. So when my clients need something, I want to act immediately. As the years have passed though, I have realized I have to stick to my plan and accomplish my goals, even if it means asking a client to wait longer than I would like or even having to say no to an opportunity. On the other hand, your company will grow in ways you cannot plan for or predict and that is part of the beauty of business. So, maintaining focus and sense of flexibility is key!

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittany Cufaude, a renowned literacy consultant who founded Joyful Classrooms in 2017.

Cufaude is an expert in social justice in education, literacy reform, professional development presentations, instruction and curriculum design, effective program coordination, and implementation. She has developed distant learning programs to support parents and teachers for the highest levels of learning for children.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve spent nearly 20 years in education, and looking back I’m humbled by how many twists and turns my path has taken. I began my professional career as a teacher. Early on in my teaching career, I pursued leadership roles and found building healthy teacher teams as well as professional development fascinating and incredibly challenging. On the other hand, I was wholeheartedly devoted to remaining in the classroom with students, where I believed I could have the greatest and most consistent impact on children. During a leadership discussion with two of my mentors, Karen Knight and Kathryl Allaman, both emphasized the exponential impact I would have on student learning were I to take my instruction and leadership gifts to greater heights. While it took me a few years to integrate this into my belief system, it eventually sunk in.

The first huge leap I took was when I was recruited into a publishing company and took the opportunity to work in their professional development division. There, I began to develop a lens for business development and for the first time I realized I could serve others in ways I had never imagined. As the aperture of this new lens was opening, I was approached by a small district on the coast of northern California. They asked me if I could help them improve their team and school culture and I said yes! During my three-hour drive home, I decided on a company name, Joyful Classrooms. I bought a domain name, associated email account, designed business cards, and I was in business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Although it did not feel interesting at first ( in fact it was completely terrifying) in the end, pivoting during Covid-19 has proved incredibly exciting. Prior to COVID mitigation and school closures, my primary business model relied on live, in-person workshops, keynote addresses, and consulting services. The moment schools closed, it felt as though my business would as well. However, I had been trying for years to get my clients online and into online courses. My belief is that online courses provide a superior learning model wherein educators can move at their own pace, return to the learning for additional support, and rely on an online discussion forum, etcetera. This type of learning ecosystem was difficult to portray to folks within an industry hinged to live, classroom-based learning. While the impact of school closures and the pressure placed on teachers during this time has been devastating, it has also opened everyone’s eyes to a new way of accessing information, including the realm of how we train teachers and teacher leaders.

Currently, I am proud to offer the premier course supporting teachers who are moving to remote teaching. I learned to teach remotely almost ten years ago and the feedback teachers are providing me is that I am able to provide them with the practical tools (for example, you will need a dongle to connect your HDMI cord to your MacBook Pro) to the linchpins of effective pedagogy and how we can provide this within a distance learning context.

To zoom out, this innovative way of providing learning is replete with possibilities and I truly believe it is superior to what I was able to provide during one-shot workshops. Now, my learners have access to my tools, advice, and each other around the clock and throughout the year.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

There is no question that the “tipping point” in my career and the associated success began with a deep belief in my ability to truly help people. This has involved wrangling my imposter complex and deeply trusting my gifts while also coming to terms with my limitations. For me, this requires a deliberate, difficult, and daily practice involving work with my ego, and my ability and inability to listen meaningfully. I also have to cultivate the humility and vulnerability to walk the tightrope strung between what I believe a client needs and what they truly need or what they are willing to accept. There is a huge tension in what I do as I join educators on their learning journey. While I am often sought after as an expert, I also have to trust that each educator I work with is also an expert. Learning about effective conversations, partnerships, and authentic change has led to far deeper relationships with the educators I serve. I find I feel far more trusted and this trust goes both ways. When I make mistakes myself, my clients are far more forgiving; we are in this together. In fact, I was recently unable to deliver what I had hoped, and rather than receiving the typical deluge of frustrated emails, I read a few simply saying how brave I am. While hard work and consistent devotion to excellence are the muscle of my company, grace and compassion are the spines.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I started my company, I talked a lot about the move with my family, including my son who was six at the time. Coming out of an industry that has well-established organizational structures and bureaucracies, business knowledge and development were not part of my repertoire or our family vernacular. While talking with my mom, dad, and son one night about how to develop my team and who I would reach out to make sure my organization was sound, my son adamantly and confidently proclaimed that he, of course, should be the “Advice” President. Adorably, he had understood that a vice president’s role is just that, an advisory one. I told him he was hired and even had business cards made for my six-year-old advice president.

While this cute anecdote itself was not a major mistake, it signifies a series of profound, early mistakes. The error was to do everything by myself for a long time and to respond to my client’s needs without a clear sense of what my minimum viable product was, what my brand offered specifically, or what to emphasize or avoid during moments of scale-up. I wasted a ton of time and money operating this way. Since I have slowed down, built teams, and taken the time to reach out to folks outside my industry for business advice, I have increased productivity and efficiency tenfold. I have also avoided spending thousands of dollars. It is amazing to me how many leaders, friends, and entrepreneurs are so happy to help or advise without asking for any money in return. In retrospect, I think I was bashful about how little I knew about so many things. Over time, as I have learned in all aspects of life, the more you know the more you realize how little you know. While my advice president is a wonderful contributor, I now have a network of individuals who care for my business, its core mission and vision, and the integrity of its growth.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One project I am currently most excited about is creating a Joyful Classrooms Verified Contributor certification so that I can build my network of effective educators, leaders, parents, and even other entrepreneurs seeking to create content and learning ecosystems for the community they are hoping to reach. I have managed to streamline a process that has an incredible result and is a wonderful way to impact and help those who can benefit from one’s gifts.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Get really specific and focused about what your minimum viable product is.

I grew my business in response to each client’s needs, and this worked well for years. However, it meant that I did not have a strong brand or “the thing” we do. In other words, what Joyful Classrooms did was whatever the client needed. This is a business model that is bound to struggle. It is more recently that I have consulted with various business leaders to determine exactly what it is that Joyful Classrooms provides, what our minimum viable product is, and why our customers should stick with us.

2. Connect and dialogue with other industry leaders and leaders outside of your field as you get started.

I wasted a ton of time and money flying by the seat of my pants. Once I finally connected with folks who have been in business for years, I was able to make wiser decisions. Now I know when to pivot and when to stay the course.

3. Make sure you have a strong mission, vision, and core values.

I feel as though companies spend a ton of energy on branding and I’m not against it. It is important to stand out. However, we are in an era during which consumers care about ethics. They love to know the story behind a company, and they want to be a part of a community, product, or experience that they can connect to. I feel like mission, vision, and values feel like fluff to a lot of folks, and it often is. But if we invest in these meaningfully and they come from our heart, it is worth it!

4. Stay focused but be flexible.

Running a business is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. And, my nature is to please. So when my clients need something, I want to act immediately. As the years have passed though, I have realized I have to stick to my plan and accomplish my goals, even if it means asking a client to wait longer than I would like or even having to say no to an opportunity. On the other hand, your company will grow in ways you cannot plan for or predict and that is part of the beauty of business. So, maintaining focus and sense of flexibility is key!

5. Know when to say yes and when to say no.

One of the most brutal mistakes I made early in my career was saying yes to everything. Once I said yes to doing a district-wide training of over 400 teachers. There were a number of details I knew would compromise the quality and integrity of what I would be able to provide, but I wanted to please my client. Despite my intuition about the details and how it would be difficult to deliver, I proceeded. To say it was a disaster would be an understatement; I considered closing my company and taking a different path. I was humiliated and disappointed in myself. In the end, however, I just kept my head up and forged on. My takeaway, however, is it is crucial to say no to the things that do not align with your mission, vision, values, and focus. It is also critical to understand your limitations and strengths.

What advice would you give to your colleagues (Teachers) to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There are a few ways I keep from burning out. The first thing I think of is if you picked teaching or entrepreneurship, you did not pick easy. Hard work, as in endless hours and working yourself to the bone hard work, is the name of the game. Trying to oppose that just creates suffering. Teaching is a calling. The first thing I personally had to learn when I became a teacher was that it is the hardest job there is, period. I say with respect that anyone who has not spent time in the classroom has no clue. While I developed an incredible professional stamina over time, I have also recently embraced the principle that the lion does not always hunt. Rest is a time during which we restore, repair, and reflect. This is a time that has to be established, protected, and never compromised. Next, and this can sound cold, but while educators come to the profession to change the world, we need to get realistic about what that actually and measurably means within our daily practice. We must establish boundaries, say no, and trust that our very best is a huge gift to the students we serve. Also, as social-emotional learning has emerged as a crucial aspect of education, we must acknowledge that we are teaching our students some terrible lessons if we do not take incredible care of ourselves. We must take better care of ourselves.

The next one is tough and the elephant in many staff rooms. The truth is, many teachers enter education with some illusions about what the work will actually entail. For example, the odds are very high that most of us teachers will work with groups of children who are often nothing like us and are not trying to be like us. This is where equity and cultural proficiencies must be cultivated or teachers begin to resent their students. The amount of grace, love, and acceptance the work requires is immeasurable. And, educators just simply are not rewarded adequately for the amount of hard work they do. So, my feeling is we need to both do what we can as a nation to demand better pay, teacher preparation, and conditions for teachers while also supporting teachers in never compromising excellence for every child in the meanwhile.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are three people in particular who helped me along the way. The first is Lauren Greenberg. She is a literacy consultant I brought into my school district around eight years ago. She is one of the smartest people I know in two key areas. First, she is brilliant in her knowledge of reading and language development as well as analyzing organization structures for how well (or not so well) they are meeting the needs of all students. Lauren is a dear friend and fiercely funny, but to me, she represents how important it is to constantly learn and grow. She knows her stuff and I often say she taught me everything I know. She reminds me of the importance of mentors.

The second person I have to include is Leah Broeske. I met Leah while I was coordinating curriculum adoptions in my district and was deeply entrenched in that work. Leah is the first person who saw a vision of who I could be and what I could build beyond the system I was currently working so hard in. She eventually recruited me into publishing. While it was nothing short of terrifying and heartbreaking for me to leave my district, work-family, and the folks who had nurtured the first part of my professional career, Leah is a trailblazer and she led me down such a rewarding path. To this day, I will get quick texts, emails, or even calls from Leah and they are always the same. She is reaching out with some industry leaders, an idea she’s had and a reason why she thinks I am the one to capitalize on the opportunity. Leah reminds me of how critical it is to nourish and maintain professional bonds with people who are loyal and happy to connect you to places and paths that will lift you up.

The third is my mother. My mother is brilliant and instilled in me what hard work really looks like. She has no sense of the notion that a workday begins and ends. But, I am also a single mother. I could never have come this far without her unwavering eagerness to show up for my son, care for him while I was on the road, or immersed in a huge project. She maintained a sense of continuity in my and my son’s life that is the foundation upon which my company is built.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

If I could start a movement it would be to connect each person to his or her purpose, how to cultivate that purpose in each aspect of one’s life, and emphasize that work is just one of innumerable aspects. I am also hugely devoted to self-compassion and I feel the brutal nature of business requires so much grace and forgiveness. It reminds me of what Brene Brown says: if you are going to enter the ring, you will fall on your face. You will fail. My advice would be to go ahead and stand up, brush yourself off, remember with piercing confidence that you are right where you belong, and be kind to yourself as you learn from your mistakes. I love this Mark Twain quote: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.” My movement would be to know oneself deeply, pursue the path best suited for you with tenacity, connect meaningfully with likeminded people, welcome all stumbles and fumbles, serve others when they are struggling, and love the whole thing, including your own fallibility.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin & Facebook.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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