Encourage Failure — For more than two decades I have used experiential education as the foundation of my teaching philosophy. Perhaps it’s my own propensity to be more excited by things I can visualize or interact with hands on. Beyond just the interest level of students, project-based learning is considerably more demanding of students, engaging more critical thinking skills, greater organization and planning and more collaborative interpersonal skills.
As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Melanie Hicks of InPursuit.
Dr. Hicks has nearly two decades of experience in the education, nonprofit and social enterprise arena. She currently serves as an executive coach and education consultant in the areas of professional growth, career change, strategic planning, program evaluation, employee engagement and organizational culture and has worked with over 100 clients over the course of her career.
Using her custom 3E Method of Change© along with her unique style of coaching or group facilitation, she creates collaborative future strategies that bring actions congruent with values and purpose.
Dr. Hicks is the author of the upcoming book Incongruent; My misaligned life and the trek to becoming congruent. Writing her first book at 10 years old, she has now been published in numerous magazines and websites including Forbes.com, Humanity Wine Co., The District, Doctor’s Life, Journal for Research Administration and Moc Ideja, a grassroots policy manual for lawmakers in Bosnia funded by the US Department of State.
Dr. Hicks holds a doctorate from the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Miami and bachelors in Organizational Communications from the University of Central Florida.
Her awards include the Rod Rose Paper of the year award for the Journal of Research Administration, the Joyce Keller Volunteer of the Year Award, the Florence Bayuk Scholarship for academic excellence; the University of Miami Outstanding Scholastic and Public Service Achievement Award.
Dr. Hicks formerly served as the Vice President, Education Solutions Group at MGT Consulting where she led business development for PK12, Higher Education and Education Transformation Practice areas. Prior to joining MGT, Dr. Hicks served as Assistant Provost at the University of Tampa where she created UT’s first Office of Sponsored Programs and oversaw the University’s 52 department budgets, and all grants and contracts. She also taught courses in Social Entrepreneurship, Environmental Policy, Public Private Partnerships, among others.
Prior to joining the University of Tampa team, she served as the Director of Research for the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, an advocacy organization, and concurrently as the Managing Director of the Florida Independent College Fund, a 501c3 foundation. While at ICUF/FICF she implemented a four‐prong system for federal and state grant funding applications resulting in enhanced collaborative partnerships and led ICUF’s governmental affairs research for advocacy in Tallahassee and Washington, DC.
Dr. Hicks began her career as the Aide to Mayor of Tallahassee, a special projects coordinator with the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability and as an adjunct professor of Public Administration for Florida State University and Barry University.
Outside of her professional activities, her hobbies include writing, paddle boarding, biking, hiking, and is a certified yoga instructor. She also enjoys spending time with her husband Randy, stepdaughter, Lauren, and her fur babies, Eva & Molly.
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?
As the daughter of a lifelong teacher, I spent my childhood afternoons doing cartwheels down the empty hallways waiting on my Mom to finish grading papers. From an early age, it was instilled in me that education was not only the best path, but the only path toa future better than your past.
It was no surprise to anyone who knew me that despite pursuing other degree and career options, all roads would lead me back to education. After receiving degrees in Organizational Communications and Public Policy, I took an early career job as Aide to the Mayor of Tallahassee, FL.
At the direction of Mayor John Marks, I created a literacy program called Tallahassee: A City that Reads. Each month we would personally visit elementary and middle schools around the city reading with the kids and talking to them about the importance of literacy and education. It began as an hour each month with children in the most need based schools. Over the next few years the program expanded to include partners such as WFSU, PBS Kids, Barnes and Nobel and Tallahassee Community College and was rebranded Tallahassee: A Community that Reads. Even after departing from the Mayor’s office, I remained an advisor and coordinator to the program. This was a spark that lit a fire in me. I knew that my life, regardless of industry, must involve service to the field of education.
I went on to work nearly a decade in education policy on the state and local level before accepting an Assistant Provost position on a college campus, followed by a Vice President position in an education consulting firm.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Throughout all my career positions, one thing has remained constant, my time in the classroom. In 21 years, I have taught as an adjunct faculty member. More than a dozen different courses and three different institutions later, I am more dedicated to the hands-on educator part of myself than ever before.
My most cherished experience were the years I taught a course on Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa. These inspirational, ambitious, innovated and endlessly talented students taught me as much as I taught them. I utilized my local network to invite many guest speakers into the classroom to accentuate our “book” knowledge with real world experiences. The students were enthralled in the inner workings of entrepreneurship coupled with doing good in the world. It opened their eyes to this duality that did not have to be mutually exclusive.
Every semester, so many students sent me emails after the course expressing gratitude and impact:
“Thank you so much for this class. It has given me a new perspective on entrepreneurship.”
“I always believed in business ethics, but with your class I have a clearer view on how to implement theory to practice in my family business.”
“I appreciate how enthusiastic you are for this subject and how engaged you are in our learning”
“You opened up a whole new world of social entrepreneurship for me this semester.”
To this day, I still hear from many of them on the ways they are using their chosen career path to give back to the world.
This experience taught me one of the most valuable lessons about education — relevance equals inspiration. If we can find ways to make the learning personal to the students, they will internalize it in their own way and it will make a deeper impact.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have two new projects that I am extremely excited about.
The first is my new podcast Dissecting Education. Dissecting Education is spherical look at the education landscape in the present moment from various unique vantage points. It’s a casual conversation meant to give listeners a glimpse into the inner challenges and triumphs of educating students in our 2021 environment. Topics can range from motivating teachers, professors and staff to technological adaption to changing funding models to social issues like bullying, racial injustice and student hunger and homelessness.
The second is my newly launched education professional development programs. Working either one on one or in a group workshop setting, I utilize my personally developed 3E Method of Change© curriculum to assist others to connect personal purpose to the work they are doing, increasing employee engagement and enjoyment. This translates to decreased turnover and increased positive impact on students.
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?
At the current moment, our education system is a solid five out of ten. We have absolutely dedicated and selfless teachers, staff and administrators. They are navigating both traditional challenges of access and economic disparities and the new challenges brought on by the pandemic. I cannot speak highly enough of the perseverance and devotion of these professionals.
In sharp contrast to this, however, is the bureaucracies that hold the system back form innovation. Although I am a proponent of decentralized, local education control, it is not without its flaws; specifically, economic and social justice inequities. Until we can find broad strategies to diversify funding and capitalize on success to scale programs and initiatives making real impact, we will always been behind the eight ball in our education system.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
The first and most obvious way the US education system is succeeding is in the rapid revamping of the systems needed to keep learning happening during COVID-19. While imperfect, it was a herculean effort to transform homes into classrooms and teacher curriculum into online formats. Additionally, Congress was relatively rapid, by typical political timelines, to push out federal assistance dollars for this necessary response. Nonprofits and for-profits alike have chipped in to offer additional support where they can.
Second, our education system is beginning to recognize in a more vocal manner, the diversity of our student bodies and thereby the diversity of needs for customized education. We have long known that classrooms hold vast ranges of skills, preparation, and outside support that form the basis of a student’s learning. In an age where standardized testing is king, many students continue to be lost in a system not built for accommodating differences. More and more we are turning our focus on personalized learning experiences and support structures to eliminate barriers, at minimum the most obvious ones. In this vein, the National Education Policy 2020 indicates that wherever it is possible, the medium of instruction till at least Grade 5, but preferably up till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the mother tongue/local language/ regional language, both public and private schools, are to follow this norm.
Third, the system is continuing to work toward early learning goals to better prepare students for kindergarten. We have long known the benefits of learning gains from age 0–3. In 2020, the National Education Policy 2020 expanded the mandatory schooling age from 6–14 to 3–18 years old, signaling allocation of greater funds, more strategically for this initiative.
Fourth, as the murder of George Floyd ignited a new set of important conversations around race, equity and equality, many education organizations have stepped up to provide age-appropriate resources for parents and teachers to help students understand the issues. If we have learned anything from our past, it is clear that having appropriate albeit difficult conversations encourage civil discourse. While brushing issues under the proverbial rug, leads to greater fractions and misinformation.
Finally, many colleges and universities are, at minimum, examining the premise of SAT/ACT requirements as part of admissions. We have long been aware of the discriminatory nature of these tests on vulnerable students and language learners. The frontrunner in this effort is the University of California who has committed to eliminating the tests from consideration by 2023/24 admission cycle.
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?
There is no greater need, in my opinion, than better mental health policies, treatments and overall focus. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem during their school years including anxiety, bullying, family problems, depression, a learning disability, and alcohol and substance abuse. Serious mental health problems, such as self-injurious behaviors and suicide, are on the rise, particularly among youth. Unfortunately, research estimates up to 60% of students do not receive the treatment they need due to stigma and lack of access to services.
A close second is physical health. Issues ranging the gamut from obesity to food insecurity all affect students’ energy and mental capacity to learn. Poor quality nutrition at home and in the school cafeterias, coupled with the deterioration of physical movement and play during school hours are all areas not just ripe for improvement but in desperate need of complete revamp.
Third, technology. We have to prioritize the full integration of new technologies and most importantly offer incentivized training for teacher, parents and students to get full utilization and benefit. The incentive structure is a critical element of successful adoption.
Next, to echo a report by Edutopia, we are in desperate need of a revamp on how we allocate resources of time, money, and facilities. Logistical changes like longer block scheduling to allow for in-depth experiential work and use of the facilities during summer months for student activities, teacher development, and community use. New school construction and renovation should emphasize school design that supports students and teachers collaborating in teams, with pervasive access to technology. Schools can be redesigned to also serve as community centers that provide health and social services for families, as well as counseling and parenting classes.
Finally, the US desperately needs to take off the blinders. The top three educational systems in the world are Finland, Denmark and South Korea. In fact, according to a recent report by Investopedia, Finland outperforms the US in reading, science and mathematics. They also put a strong emphasis on early education designed around play and free meals for all. Denmark spends upwards of 8% of the total government budget on education, compared to the US at 4%. South Korea prioritizes education above all other policies and achieves 100% secondary school completion rate as a result. Many lessons can be learned from each, if we are willing to examine them.
Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.
1. Emphasize Your Empathy
What is missing in so much of our fast-paced, individualized, highly polarized, social media world is enough deep empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To be a great educator, you must have empathy for the human experience of each and every one you serve. That does not mean turning a blind eye to bad behavior or missing assignments. But it does mean taking the time to look beyond the action for the root cause.
Is a student restless and disruptive everyday by mid-morning? Maybe they did not have breakfast. Are all the students restless at that time? Perhaps the attention span for the material or presentation style has lapsed by that time. What can be done to rearrange classroom activities to make them more interactive. Perhaps you can’t move around curriculum and you certainly can’t feed all your students, but simply thinking about root cause and potential solutions can have a dramatic effect on the energy of interactions.
2. Check Your Biases at the Door
It goes without saying that modern educating means a classroom of students with diverse backgrounds, assorted upbringings, varied religious beliefs and mixed home support systems. It is critical that we all do a genuine self-analysis of our own preconceived notions and unintentional biases. It is human to have them and denying them does no one any favors.
According to H. Anna Han, PhD senior behavioral scientist at Georgetown University Medical Center, one of the best ways to overcome unconscious bias is to learn more about people as individuals. “This may be easier said than done but get to know the person so if you see someone who is different from you and obtain specific information about that person, you’re less likely to rely on group categories when you know about the person,” Han said.
She also encourages creating opportunities for positive interactions like emphasizing common goals. “When your environment is more cooperative versus competitive, it reduces stereotype use and bias use.”
3. Encourage Failure
For more than two decades I have used experiential education as the foundation of my teaching philosophy. Perhaps it’s my own propensity to be more excited by things I can visualize or interact with hands on. Beyond just the interest level of students, project-based learning is considerably more demanding of students, engaging more critical thinking skills, greater organization and planning and more collaborative interpersonal skills.
One of my personal benefits of experiential learning is teaching the value of mistakes through trial by error. As students attempt activities less prescriptive and more exploratory in nature, they will naturally fail. This recognition of what works and doesn’t work is a valuable and often missing piece of the learning process. Far too many college freshmen arrived in my class without ever getting comfortable in the discovery process and they were instantly hindered by that. Start early allowing students to fail in small and meaningful ways. Then allow the space to correct, learn, and grow. These valuable skills will far outlast any single piece of curriculum.
4. Connect with the Outside World
One of the topics most discussed in my time as an education consultant is the challenging disconnect between education and industry. I do not intend to take recognition away from organizations like Amazon and Google or even small local companies and nonprofits who sponsor supply drives, technology upgrades, and scholarships. Rather, the disconnect lies deeper in terms of meaningful connection that students feel to the workforce and even their local communities. There are pockets and ad hoc examples where these sorts of meaningful connections are happening successfully. However, in most places, state standards, standardized testing and a host of other bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of meaningful association. Finding ways to connect classroom knowledge to the careers that knowledge can be used in may be the difference between full engagement or just getting by in a subject.
One easy way educators can begin to integrate these worlds together is by reframing their own interactions with the outside world. Many of us fail to connect the dots between our personal lives and our classrooms. However, what if we did a zoom interview with a woman in advertising from your book club? What if the chemical engineer on your tennis team runs a podcast and creates a special episode for your class. What if the local brewery you frequent on the weekends came into your classroom to talk about chemistry?
When we begin to view all aspects of our lives with an intentional connective lens, we can find easy ways to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.
5. Integrate Self-care
Yes, you read that right. I genuinely believe self-care is a key component to being our best selves, particularly in fields where that we not only need to BE our best self but we need to GIVE our best selves to others. Although not exclusive, this is particularly true for women who tend to be caretakers in the classroom and the home.
But my theory on this topic is different and deeper than your stereotypical advice of get enough sleep and eat healthy. Rather, I echo the sentiments of Tami Forman of Path Forward who harkens self-care not as an indulgence, but rather a discipline. In an article first published in Forbes.com in 2017, she says, “[self-care] requires tough-mindedness, a deep and personal understanding of your priorities, and a respect for both yourself and the people you choose to spend your life with”.
Forman goes on to say, “Ironically when you truly care for yourself, you are actually in a much stronger place to give of yourself to those around you. You will be a happier parent, a more grateful spouse, a fully engaged colleague.”
For educators this lesson should not only permeate our lives but also our teaching. If we believe in the discipline of self-care, then we should work to integrate that message into our classrooms. Helping our students see the value in discipline even around our own worth equates to greater self-esteem and higher value on life and community.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
The most important element to attracting top talent to education or any other field is resources. This does not mean simply pay, although our teacher pay scales have a long way to go to be worthy of the profession’s value. Beyond pay, we have a significant resource shortfall in this critical field. We need resources dedicated to upgrading technology, stocking classrooms with modern supplies, offering professional development to teachers and connecting students to real world experiences. Each of these things are happening in small pockets. Some are successful, others mediocre. I am not naïve enough to believe this is an easy feat. After two decades in education policy work, I am fully vetted in the obstacles that keep the field behind the curve. That said, if I had a magic wand, I would deploy a team to search out the very best, metrics/results driven work being done around the country and work to find a way to duplicate and scale it nationwide. Utilizing across the board, strategic resource allocation and acceleration to do so. It CAN be done. We simply have to be bold enough to disrupt “the way it has always been” narrative.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
We hold the keys to the cages we build around ourselves. — M. Hicks
This is a quote that I wrote as part of a speaking engagement in 2020. It’s multi-dimensional meaning perfect articulates so many of the challenges that we face. We can so easily lock ourselves in toxic relationships, meaningless careers, overburdening obligations or the like. At times, we do not even fully realize the consequences and their effects on our quality of life. We feel trapped by financial pressures, societal expectations, or simply life circumstances. But the truth is, we have the power to unlock our cages. It may not be easy or without sacrifice, but within each of us, if we are bold and brave enough, are the keys to take the first step toward changing our lives.
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 🙂
Dr. Jill Biden
Dr. Biden is an iconic figure and inspiration to me. She fully understands the field of education including its challenges and obstacles. She has dedicated time and effort to work for education opportunities for women and girls and believes in Community Colleges as gateways to education for all.
A pioneer and giant in the finance world, Sallie Krawcheck’s real legacy is shattering glass ceilings not just for herself but for generations after her. Her work in elevating women through her words, actions, and advocacy. I am in awe of her courage and perseverance.
Both of these women serve as aspirational figures for me every single day. It would be my great honor to have the opportunity for a private conversation. I would simply ask how I could assist and add value to the work they are doing for the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Both handles are @inpursuitmelsue
Also subscribe to my new podcast Dissecting Education found on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!