“Create easy access to mentors.” With Penny Bauder & Ande Noktes

There is an ill-attributed quote to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. When I found the original quote at a young age, I understood that what he was really saying is you have to do the change, you have to manifest it in the world. As I relate this to my own […]

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There is an ill-attributed quote to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. When I found the original quote at a young age, I understood that what he was really saying is you have to do the change, you have to manifest it in the world. As I relate this to my own entrepreneurship and vision for the change we need to bring to our world, I know I have a responsibility to do something about it. It’s a big part of why I have done what I have in my life.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Ande Noktes.

Ande Noktes is Head of Schools at Centner Academy. Passionate about globally-minded education, Noktes has over 25 years of experience in education and educational administration as well as a master’s degree in business administration from Emory University, and completed her doctoral work in education.

As Head of Schools at Centner Academy, Noktes is building the school’s curriculum and ensuring the quality of academic programs by developing strategic plans that utilize her knowledge in business, mindfulness, neuroscience, and education. Additionally, she is helping build an online and hybrid learning program, overseeing the implementation of its technology and infrastructure.

Noktes previously served as Head of School at Midtown International School in Atlanta, Georgia, a school she founded in 2012. Prior to founding Midtown International School, where she will continue to serve on the Board of Trustees, Noktes was the Executive Director of International Preschools in Atlanta, which she also founded. Noktes also served as Program Coordinator of Berlitz Language School in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was responsible for teacher development, program design and scheduling, enrollment, assessments and class placement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I’ve just taken on the role of Head of Schools for Centner Academy in Miami where I am leading the merger of two organizations and creating a preschool through university program with online and hybrid school offerings.

My personal educational journey was really unique. I grew up moving around rural America in the 80s, and didn’t spend a lot of time in classrooms. My teachers in elementary school would send me to the library to pore through whatever books and resources I could get my hands on, and I essentially taught myself rather than having a traditional classroom experience. I remember a terrifying moment in second grade being sent across the street to the middle school building to get the next level of math book — and I knew even then that there had to be a better way!

By the time I was doing my undergraduate studies, I knew traditional education wasn’t for me. I spent an afternoon that first semester deciding what I would change my major to so that I could graduate in three years and never wake up before 10am. Then, listening to everyone else, I embarked on a cross country trip to law school. Despite being the youngest person in my cohort, the attention I got from my professors was about being too divergent for such a traditional career path. Every faculty member I met told me, “you’re too creative to be a lawyer. If you want to be good at this, you can’t think so far outside the box.”

That was 1998, and the Southeast Asian economy had just crashed. I had become friends with an international couple from Southeast Asia, who had to go back to Thailand because of the economic turmoil. They invited me to come with them, so I found a Master’s degree program there studying philosophy at a Jesuit university, and jet-setted to the other side of the planet with all of $500 to my name. When I began my studies, I was surprised and delighted to find that the other students in my cohort were Buddhist monks. I spent 18 months immersed in the program, learning on the academic front from professors from all over the world, and learning about creating meaning in life from my fellow students.

My research there centered around the impact of multiculturalism on public policy, particularly as it related to education. I realized that there are deep and embedded ideas around what education is and should be that drive social norms on what a student experience should be. As a thinker, learner, and someone who that traditional model never worked for, I felt compelled to find a way to change what it meant to be a student the world over.

Shortly thereafter, I was recruited to become Program Coordinator for a language school with a few successful branches in Bangkok. During my time teaching, training teachers, recruiting students, and developing programs, I learned a lot about bringing brain science and language immersion into the classroom, and really started to see the transformative nature of education in action.

When my oldest son was born in 2003, my (now ex-) husband and I moved back to the states to be closer to family and for me to start a doctoral program in education. When I was looking for schools for my son, I found that no schools were integrating the research I had seen work so impactfully abroad, and definitely no programs employing the research I was reading about in my doctoral classes.

By 2005, I decided enough was enough. The twins had just been born and I couldn’t bring myself to be resigned to the educational journey I knew was ahead of them and their big brother. I thought, what if we built a school that embedded all of this research? What if we built a school that embraced human potential, and where no one would wait to learn? What if we built a school where every person who walked through the doors felt their value?

I had all of a $100 gift card to my name. So I bought a shirt, returned it for cash (you could do that back then!), and stocked up on secondhand supplies to start a school in my living room. It was easy, I realized. I Yahoo!-ed “how to start a business” and learned it was just a recipe. Have a mission. Have a vision. Set goals. Align decisions to goals, in light of the mission. I almost couldn’t believe people got whole degrees in business!

That school lasted just a couple of months in my home before I moved into a space we could grow into. We jumped from just four students to 128 two years later, then just as many in another campus, which launched during the 2008 financial crisis. By 2012, the original Yahoo!-inspired strategic plan said it was time to start another school. That school, Midtown International School (MIS) in Atlanta, GA, was designed to fill another huge gap in our educational system and was built from the ground up for gifted learners. MIS began as a K-6 school with just 47 students, and now is celebrating its first graduating class with a school population of over 250.

While my own educational journey, including, now to my former self’s chagrin, an MBA, has been riddled with working contrary to the system, I’ve embraced my identity as an educational change maker and entrepreneur. When I hear new parents’ mantra, “It’s magical: I feel like I have my child back,” it reinforces the transformative power of designing a school to embrace the value of every human being who walks through her doors.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve always said you could make a reality show from all of the interesting stories that come from working in a school! But one remarkable student I remember was 5 years old when she came in for an admissions interview. I asked her if she had any dreams or goals for her life, and she said, “I want to be a paleontological pulmonologist…you know — an expert on dinosaur lungs.” We talked about that for a while, and then started playing Qwirkle. At one point (when she wasn’t winning) she held up her tile sideways, showing me the thin blank edge, and proclaimed it a “blank tile” that she could play any way she wanted. Her way of looking at the world was totally unburdened by the norms and conventions of subject-area silos and the fears that accompany social constraints, and I loved it.

She joined the school and thrived, solving big problems like cholera outbreaks in Haiti (as a part of third grade science) and the looming crisis of the end of the treaty on Antarctica (in second grade social studies). I realized, in watching her beautifully divergent mind grow up and eagerly solve ever more complex problems, that the work I was doing to create spaces and programs for kids like her was critical to our future. I understood, maybe most potently in her case, that trying to squeeze her mind and potential into a traditional classroom would have robbed the world of so much. Leading schools takes years off your life, but, as I learned with this student, it can add decades to humanity.

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

I’m really excited to have just accepted an offer to join the newly-founded Centner Academy in Miami as Head of Schools. The program is currently preschool through 8th grade, and we will be building a high school starting next year. The school is to be designed from a foundation of perseverance, self-awareness, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and grounded in the latest research in neuroscience and psychology.

We’re also looking at moving into university programming and K-12 online offerings that would not be confined by geography.

When I think about how this new project will help people, I think about the many students (and families) whose lives have been transformed through school experiences that were designed for them, where they felt like they could bring all of their learning and values into an organization that cherished them. Looking at the strategic goals of Centner Academy, we will have the opportunity to do this work at scale, and I’m so excited about the transformation that can happen as a result.

I know that while all the work we all are doing at a grassroots level is critical, meaningful and widespread change also needs to happen at the policy level. I have been accepted to a doctoral program in public policy at Northeastern University and my long term plans include taking the work we can do at the school level and translate that into policy that serves learning and the humans who do it.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

I have worked in the field of education for almost 25 years, have started three successful and growing schools with their own unique curriculum and instructional strategies, completed my doctoral work in education, completed my MBA, have consulted and coached schools, leaders, and emerging schools for the last decade, and am now facilitating the merging of two schools under a new vision.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is considered the international authority on educational rankings, and year over year they have rated the US in the middle of the pack for our educational outcomes compared to other countries. I think that is totally fair and documented in both PISA’s assessments and our own measures of student learning. As a country, we also show very little growth in the highest performing students compared to our peer nations, and poor results related to increasing educational equity.

Our educational system is good at answering the question: how do we ensure that the highest number of students can meet basic academic standards? Testing, standards, state requirements, teacher training and education programs, and even some school counseling programs are structured in a way that prioritizes the quantity of student learning over the quality of their thinking.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. Especially relevant and visible now, during the pandemic, our educational system understands the interconnectedness among housing and food insecurity, access to medical care, and education. Many school systems have put in place significant efforts over the past decade to connect kids with healthy food, access to medical care, transportation, and a safe place to sleep.
  2. There is a lot of support in most states for charter and magnet schools. Depending on the structure, alternative public school choices are often a great way to increase equity and improve offerings for students with specific talents.
  3. In some states, there is a move to break up very large districts and to decentralize some of the decision making around education so localities have more control over meeting the needs of their particular demographics.
  4. Overall, there’s more emphasis on requiring and funding more teacher training and development programs. Teachers are also increasingly drawn to schools that offer more professional development programs, and schools working to attract great talent are increasing their in-house and external budgets for professional learning.
  5. While there are not yet systemic measures to embed social-emotional learning (SEL) across all subject areas and grade levels, it is starting to be built into teacher training and counseling programs. We have a much better understanding now than even a few years ago about the importance of SEL in the process and outcomes of academic learning. It’s not embedded yet systematically, but we are on the right path.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Myths about learning dominate classroom instruction — we need to embed the learning sciences in teacher education. In late 2019, a study of over 17,000 students worldwide demonstrated the effectiveness of inquiry- and problem-based learning in improving student outcomes in math and science. Yet many teachers were groomed in teacher education programs that perpetuated what we now know to be myths about how the brain learns. The idea that students who are auditory learners can only learn by hearing something, or that there is a clear right and left brain present in the classroom that creates a divide between analytical skills and creative abilities are widespread public myths about learning.

There’s a need to embed learning sciences, neuroscience and psychology into teacher education and ongoing professional development to ensure that our students’ time in school is spent in learning and growing.

Our physical classroom spaces have to become healthier. There is so much science behind how the physical environment impacts all of the human beings in its space, including the students’ and the teacher’s abilities to engage in the classroom.

Every single classroom should have access to natural light.

  1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels need to be managed with ventilation. When you put a lot of bodies in a small space, all exhaling, CO2 levels easily rise to double or triple the recommended rate of 1000ppm, and leads to decreased performance and decision making
  2. Other toxins in physical school spaces such as lead, asbestos, red listed materials through paint and carpets and VOCs in desks laminate glues can all contribute to decreased cognitive function, not to mention other potentially harmful side effects!

Rethink assessments. In order to really transform what’s happening in the classroom, we have to change what we assess, because what you assess is what you get. We need to measure learning and thinking rather than only aptitudes in performing a skill. Most summative assessments and high-stakes tests simply measure whether or not (and how well) a student is able to take the test, not how deeply they have engaged with learning the material, or whether they will be able to use it to solve future, real world problems.

Ron Ritchhart at Harvard Graduate School of Education developed a program, Project Zero, advocates for creating cultures of thinking in school environments. A classroom where the teacher is thinking and the kids are not, is not a classroom where students are learning. While we are still working through the technology of how to do this, there are physiological and other responses in the body that great teachers seem to intuit in their students, and if we could measure those tiny changes, we may be able to capture real classroom goals like engagement, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and…learning.

Take the stakes out of mistakes. Mistakes need to be embraced and celebrated across the system. Children, teachers, and school administrators often exist in a state of fear of making mistakes. For kids it’s the grades or college admissions, for teachers it’s the possibility of complaints or high-stakes observations, for administrators it’s school funding or even their jobs. The stakes are too high to make mistakes, and the humans that make up our schools don’t innovate. Progress, empathy, iterations of designs and prototyped solutions — all kinds of innovations happen when we take the stakes out of mistakes.

Recalibrate for equity. Systemic patterns of who we educate where and when, with whom, and for how much embed inequities not just in our educational outcomes but in our society. Minority children living in poverty are 250% less likely to be identified for gifted and talented programs than their classmates. Students served by impoverished rural schools or urban underfunded schools are less likely to have access to technology, research-based software or learning platforms, and extracurricular or elective classes that allow all students to find opportunities to meet their potential.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The US has had a lot of focus on improving the separate components of STEM. Science and math standards and curriculum have both improved in the last decade. There are many more extracurriculars and third party resources for engineering and technology classes than five years ago. STEM, as it’s intended, has the capacity to engage students in meaningful, authentic problem solving. By making some tweaks to how we think about and manage our STEM programs, this type of real world learning could engage even more students.

Integrate STEM. What’s really lacking is integration of these separate disciplines. STEM is intended to be an integrative concept, bringing the disciplines to work together to create solutions that don’t yet exist. When the disciplines are siloed, we lose the synergies and opportunities that would come with integration.

Make STEM teaching a hot career. It’s no secret that it is difficult to find teachers in the STEM fields. Competing with the private sector for candidates and compensation is just one piece of the puzzle: private sector jobs feel like more of an accomplishment to a new, talented college grad. With a coordinated campaign, we could shift public perception to create buzz and excitement for teaching in STEM. The excitement a teacher brings to the classroom is such a powerful force in engaging learners.

Ensure equitable access to STEM programming. Students around the country have a wide variety of access to STEM courses, teachers, technology, electives, and extracurriculars. Students in rural communities make up 20% of our country’s students, and most do not have access to STEM coursework until or unless they go to college. Of high schools that serve predominantly minority populations, over a quarter of them do not offer Algebra II in high school, a basic prerequisite of entering a STEM field in college.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

We have a lot of really compelling challenges that face us as a human species related to our impact on the planet and ensuring that people around the world have access to basic human rights, healthcare, water, and education. The United Nations has done an exceptional job of outlining the sustainable development goals we should all be pushing for as we move through this decade. We need all of our brains on these problems.

Efforts to engage girls and women in STEM subjects, while gaining traction and interest, have not had as much of an impact as we hoped. From peer pressure, lack of mentorships, or even outright discouragement, girls and women often have an uphill battle to stay engaged in the field.

And yet STEM is inherently a creative field — it’s riddled with complex problems that require creative solutions and those solutions need to work for the users and their communities. Most people would not describe computer science or engineering as creative and empathetic professions, but in the workplace, those are two important characteristics of highly innovative STEM work. Girls may be avoiding those professions because they enjoy creative and empathetic pursuits, but that’s precisely why we should be engaging them even more in STEM.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Since Girls Who Code was founded there’s been an explosion of nonprofits that have done a great job of creating an identity for women and girls in the coding field. However, these resources are not systemic. Not every community, every school and every girl has access to them.

  1. Create a systemic solution to offer STEM opportunities to all girls. It shouldn’t matter where you live or what kind of school you attend. All girls, everywhere, should have access to STEM programming at all ages. Beyond access, girls need role models and teachers who can inspire them to persevere through any peer pressure.
  2. Reduce barriers for third-party programming. While we wait for systemic change, corporations, nonprofits, and others can get on board to offer their services and expertise to create a pipeline of girls in STEM fields. Many schools still resist third-party support in their schools, or create a cumbersome and sometimes prohibitive bureaucracy to go through to support and engage our students. Streamlining the safety and security procedures can reduce the barriers for third parties to engage.
  3. Create easy access to mentors. For girls in rural or resource constrained communities who do not have access to the nonprofits, corporations, internships, and extracurriculars available in urban or more affluent areas, communities might consider hosting tech retreats staffed by their students, holding virtual or in-person town halls with women leaders who work in corporations that directly impact their communities, or a managing a forum for college students in the STEM fields to spend time mentoring middle or high school girls.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I believe the arts are a conduit to all social change, whether it’s visual, digital, music, or the performing arts. Throughout human history we have seen meaningful social change happen when it comes through the arts. As a changemaker, I firmly believe in the arts because that’s how to make change happen. STEM is inherently creative because it exists to solve problems. When the arts are included — when we embrace STEAM — subjects like UX, VR, and AI have so much more capacity to explode in innovation.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Rethink educational policy, making it for students, not for outcomes. Educational policy has the opportunity to serve and empower individual students, teachers, and communities. Rethinking policy in light of research on what we know works for learning brains, with educator participation in the process, and flexibility in implementation would give local education agencies the freedom and framework to design schools that work for all of their learners. A good example of this emerges when you consider the lived experience of a child in rural South Dakota and that of the same aged child living in Manhattan. Even if other demographics are all the same, the context in which the school operates changes its approach to engaging learners.
  2. Restructure school budgets to reduce overhead costs so more money goes into teacher salaries and the classroom. About half of our total spending for public education has an immediate impact on the classroom. There are a lot of creative ways we can reduce the costs of running schools, but many of them require us to think outside of the current structures. Levers that are usually pulled to impact school budgets include increasing class sizes or increasing teacher workload. What would happen if, instead, we asked ourselves to impact the budget without impacting the students? For example, what if district administrators worked in school buildings instead of in separate office spaces? What if school district hierarchies were limited to just two or three layers of bureaucracy? I believe if we craft a student experience that we want for our learners, and reverse engineer the systems to support that, it’s a more comprehensive solution than just tweaking the current system.
  3. Students and teachers would hate summer break. With a magic wand to transform education, I would create systems and policies that honor the inherent value in every human being. Students would come to school and feel like they have a home where they can grow, learn, create, play, experiment, make mistakes, and be safe. Teachers would come to work and find joy and laughter in their classrooms, workspaces, and common areas. The idea that we need a long summer break would disappear, because learning moments would be so fun and so authentic that no one could imagine being away from it for months at a time. Social-emotional learning and total student wellness would be built into everything, from the physical classroom environment to the language the teacher uses to facilitate learning.
  4. School voices would be represented on school boards. There are a lot of very bright students and teachers who are able to see the impact of policy and governance decisions on the classroom experience. With a seat at the governance table, school boards with students and teachers on them could find creative and innovative ways to challenge the status quo while honoring their mission to serve the learners and school communities in their charge.
  5. Make decisions for schools that are based in research, not public opinion. Teachers are and should be learning scientists, and their education, preparation, ongoing development, and authority to make decisions for the students in their classrooms need to reflect that. Similarly, if we truly value student learning, growth, and thinking, we can and should make decisions based on research, and know that, just like in the corporate world, sometimes we need to pivot to be sure we are reaching every student, all the time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is an ill-attributed quote to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. When I found the original quote at a young age, I understood that what he was really saying is you have to do the change, you have to manifest it in the world. As I relate this to my own entrepreneurship and vision for the change we need to bring to our world, I know I have a responsibility to do something about it. It’s a big part of why I have done what I have in my life.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” — Mahatma Gandhi

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Honestly, what I would really love would be to facilitate a conversation between Elon Musk and a child is living in circumstances where they just can’t see the future that he is working to create. There are millions of children with incredible potential living in our world today who will never have opportunities to see their potential realized. Many of them can’t even imagine a world where they could make the future anything they want it to be. I would love to turn around just one of their lives with a conversation that could help them find hope and see a path to a future with endless possibilities.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Find me on LinkedIn! I look forward to connecting.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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