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Tanya Sheckley of UP Academy: “Never give up”

Optimism: I like to say that entrepreneurship is synonymous for relentless optimism. Using the ability to look for the good in any situation and to keep trying, to keep running into the wall, until you find a spot that it gives, believing there is a spot where it will give, is optimism. Never give up. In […]

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Optimism: I like to say that entrepreneurship is synonymous for relentless optimism. Using the ability to look for the good in any situation and to keep trying, to keep running into the wall, until you find a spot that it gives, believing there is a spot where it will give, is optimism. Never give up.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Sheckley.

Tanya Sheckley is Founder and President of UP Academy, an elementary micro-school which values innovation, empathy, and strength. It also incorporates a unique neuro-development program for children with physical disabilities. UP Academy teaches communication, collaboration and problem solving skills to prepare students for a future we can’t imagine. She recently launched the Voices of Educators interview series, which discusses the future of education with thought leaders, educators, and students. She is a social entrepreneur, writer, and international speaker. Tanya earned her BA in Public Heath and Dance and her MBA in Entrepreneurship.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

After college, I was working in non-profits to make a difference in the lives of teenagers. I learned about a little organization in Colorado called SOS, a group that takes at-risk youth snowboarding to teach character building and anger management skills. I sent a letter and asked for a job; a few months later, I packed my bags to be a do-gooder snowboarder in the Vail Valley. It was awesome but didn’t pay the bills, so I got a corporate job. After spending almost ten years in corporate sales positions all over the west, I was ready for a change. I earned my personal training certification and my 200 hr. RYT for teaching yoga. Simultaneously, I was launching a marketing consulting company. Then my daughter, Eliza, was born, and like many children, she had different plans for me. She was born by c-section a few days after she stopped moving in utero. She didn’t have a suck, swallow or gag reflex and struggled with eating. Our lives would never be the same. The next six years of my life were spent going to therapy, learning about child development, and researching basic neuroscience so I could do everything to help her overcome her brain injury. Eventually, this led to the formation and founding of UP Academy, a unique, progressive elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or take awaysyou learned from that?

Just before we were planning to open UP Academy, we had to terminate the lease on our building. We had signed a lease months earlier and were getting the building set up to be a school when the city decided that they wanted additional safety equipment installed, above and beyond what we understood was required in the building code. We hired a lawyer, we talked to the city planning department, the building division and the city attorney; they all backed the decision of one city employee. The building owner was unwilling to do the upgrades and as a new company and one that hadn’t forecasted for the major work to be done, we could not afford them. We had students enrolled, we had teachers hired, it was July, and we were scheduled to start school in early September. We had no choice but to look for another building. The landlord, gratefully, was understanding and allowed us to terminate our lease with no fee and even returned our full deposit. However, we were left with five weeks to find a new location. I reached out to every real estate broker, landlord, and friend that I knew and shared that we were looking for a location. I was able to convince a church that we only needed the space short term and they agreed to allow us to use their classrooms for three months, but we had to move everything out every weekend for their Sunday school classes. We had solved the problem for the short term, but still had a longer term problem. A few weeks later, I got a call from an agent sharing that a building with the correct zoning had just opened up; it was newly renovated. The lease that was on the building has also just fallen through. The owner wanted to make a deal quickly. It worked out and we moved in about two months later. Did I get lucky, or did all the relationships I had built through the process serve me well? We make our own luck by the web we weave and the effort we exude. I also learned to be sure to involve the city planning division before signing any leasing documents. In that aspect, I really did get lucky!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

UP Academy is unique because we have mixed progressive education, 21st century skills, and an inclusive atmosphere to benefit all students. Our inclusive program for students with physical disabilities is fully integrated with their able bodied peers so that learning is consistent and fluid within the classroom, while building skills for independence. Our students see things from different cultural perspectives, learning Spanish and Mandarin, as well as from different ability perspectives. They work alongside students who may not be able to walk or talk but who have rich ideas and are capable of participating and enriching our educational experience. We see all students as equally capable of learning. Our perspective of assuming competence and intelligence in students with disabilities is still new to education where in many places students are still placed in day classes segregated from their peers. Certainly, for some students a special class enhances their achievement, but for others, it is a disservice leaving them bored and unchallenged.

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

Without a doubt, my husband has been my rock that I lean upon and my greatest champion. He works tirelessly to support our family so that I can work to achieve our family goal of founding a successful school and creating a method of education that we can share. No one, except maybe me, is more invested in Eliza’s legacy. He gives me quiet words of encouragement, challenges long held ideas, and provides new insights to aid our success.

Ok thank you for all that. Now lets shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the eternal optimism that an entrepreneur has, and the courage of an artist that others will love their work, and the smile on the face of a child who has holes in his pants and scrapes on his knees but had fun playing all day long. Resilient people see the wall, they run into the wall, they get knocked down, bruised and injured, but they get back up and keep running into that wall until it gives way and they can run right through it. Then they look for the next wall.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

My initial reaction is to share a story about my late daughter Eliza, who absolutely tried her hardest and fought with all the resilience in her body. If she was tired, she would try just one more time. But the real face of resilience in our family is her sister Breda. Her sister who tried to lift her off the floor so she could walk, her sister who loved dressing up together and doing their hair together, her sister who ran back during a Thanksgiving day race to take her hand and help her across the finish line. Breda lost her sister; she has some memories of being very young together but she doesn’t get to grow up with Eliza, share secrets with her and learn with her. But she is strong. She remembers, she cries, she loves, and when she sees a child with disabilities, she plays with them. She includes them and she teaches other kids how to do the same thing. She is strong and resilient and she is a better person because her sister was in her life.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

I’m not sure anyone has gone so far as to say impossible, but there have been many instances I have been told to go in a different direction, or that my choice was too difficult. Choosing to major in dance was one of those examples. I was continually told that it was not a good choice, it was a waste of money, and I’d never be able to do anything with it; but I loved it and it was what I wanted to do. I did my undergrad in dance and it has helped me many times throughout my life. I credit my dance background for never breaking a bone while snowboarding; it also helped me through my yoga certification and has benefited me immeasurably since the birth of my daughter. Eliza had cerebral palsy, so her body didn’t move like other bodies, but with a background in movement, I was able to understand the rationale behind the therapists’ plans and movements and work with Eliza at home. My dance background has given me an understanding of coordination, balance, and the physical body. Another example of challenging the thoughts of others was opening the school. Again, no one used the word impossible, but I was told time and again that it was the most difficult type of business to open. It has definitely been a challenge, from filing the paperwork, to finding a location, to enrolling students. Watching the students smile and tell us that their favorite thing about the school is “everything” makes it all worth it.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

The death of my daughter was the worst day of my life, much greater than a setback. I wouldn’t say I bounced back, or that I’m stronger than ever. I would say that my family has used the lessons we learned from her and her life to build something to benefit others. After her death, it took me almost a year to be able to work, to think clearly, to be able to do more than cook for my family and maintain basic chores. Actually, It took me almost four months to get to the point where I could even do those tasks. I share my timeline only to give an idea, not to compare to anyone else’s idea of grief; this timeline is uniquely mine. I am not stronger than ever, but I am different, I am forever changed by the loss, the grief and the trauma. My brain works differently than before, my memory is different, my ability to concentrate, to be motivated and to be productive varies on any given day. Now, four and a half years later, we are two weeks into the school year and I have been hit hard again with the grief. I have been crying, I have been unable to focus, I have been missing my daughter while still feeling so grateful for my two beautiful living children. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to work to build the school, to spread its message and to grow it. I am grateful that I have found the strength and courage to share Eliza’s story and to work to help others. I am more vulnerable, more authentic, more empathetic now, but not stronger than ever.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

My parents divorced when I was almost five and then when I was nine, my mother, who I lived with, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She began to lose her ability to do things and eventually lost the use of her left side, which she later worked to regain. I am an only child, so it fell on me to help my mother dress, pay the bills, clean the house, and do the grocery shopping. As a nine year old, I didn’t know any different, but looking back, that ability to “step up” to do the things necessary to help and to provide support taught me grit, resiliency and patience. My mother continues to struggle with the effects of the disease, but due to her resiliency, is still walking 35 years after the diagnosis.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Optimism: I like to say that entrepreneurship is synonymous for relentless optimism. Using the ability to look for the good in any situation and to keep trying, to keep running into the wall, until you find a spot that it gives, believing there is a spot where it will give, is optimism. Never give up.
  2. Look for Solutions: Every problem has a solution. Some problems need big solutions, such as global warming; some problems need small solutions, issues like solving company ordering or choosing a CRM to stay in touch with donors and contacts. Every time you solve a problem, create a solution or a system, you and your business become more resilient. It’s a positive loop.
  3. Find the value in loss: This one is much more difficult. We had already formed our 501c3 (nonprofit) when my daughter unexpectedly passed away. We were doing this work for her. We were suddenly faced with a choice between giving up on the idea, because it wasn’t really necessary for our family, or moving forward. We stepped back and tried to rationalize what had happened and what Eliza meant to our lives. We landed on three ideas: she had taught us to be kind, to be strong, and to always do our best. The kindest, best thing we could do, that would require all our strength, was to work to turn the idea of the school into a reality so that we could support not only the thousands of kids with disabilities who needed a new kind of education, but also shift the understanding in society of the capabilities and value of persons with disabilities. We hope to bring up a generation that will be more innovative by understanding other perspectives and by collaborating with people of differing abilities. I will always grieve for the loss of Eliza, but I have been able to find value that will help others, from her life.
  4. Turn “I can’t” into “I have to”: How many times have we all said, or heard from others, “I can’t do this, because I have to do that. . .” Often that ‘have to’ is the exact reason why you have to. I once read an article that I think of frequently when making choices. Honestly, I don’t know if it was a true story, or urban legend, but I think it holds true enough to share the basis of it. It was about two brothers who grew up abused by an alcoholic father. One stayed in the same town, works at the same company as his father, and also drinks more than he should; he lives paycheck to paycheck just like his father did. The other moved away, got an education, lives in a far away city, and is successful in his career and relationships. When an interviewer asked them each about the choices they have made, surprisingly, they both gave the exact same answer, “You met my father. How could I have turned out any differently?” We each have choices to make in the situations we are presented with. Are we going to make the same choices or mistakes of those before us, or do we have an obligation to try to learn and be better? We have all heard stories of companies and ideas being launched by founders who were couch surfing, or living in their parents basements after a failure. They all got up and said “I have to. . .!”
  5. Point It: This nugget comes from snowboarding. Just as majoring in dance has had a profoundly positive effect on my life, my time in the mountains has shaped my thoughts, as well. There were several occasions, too many to count, where I found myself standing on top of a steep chute I was terrified to go down, or I had wiped out and really didn’t want to stand up again, or I was in a tree well and needed to get out. My friend Fritz always had one piece of advice. “When in doubt, point it!” When feeling hesitant, the best way forward is to point the board downhill. It worked every time on the mountain, and it works in business as well. When you are unsure, action is almost always better than inaction. Action allows us to move forward, to asses if we have made a good or less than good decision, to correct, and to move on. Inaction keeps us stagnant, stuck. Resiliency is the ability to look at the options, make decisions, even when you don’t want to, and “point it”. There might be deep fresh powder just around the bend.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My movement is the release of expectations, not because we rarely hit them, but because they are often too low. There is often a gap, especially when we talk about education and children with disabilities, between what we expect and what is possible, and the possibilities are generally way above the expectations. The expectations hold us back. I used to live by the motto “expect nothing, and you will always be pleasantly surprised”. That motto doesn’t work either because we need expectations, but those expectations should push us to achieve more. When we can see all people as capable, when our expectations for all people challenge them to become their best, then we all achieve more.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-).

Honestly, there are many successful and famous people who I would love to have lunch or breakfast with, but my time is precious and my children are young. Right now, I just want to spend the time with my family. However, If I had an endless supply of time, I think the work of Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan is incredible. They have given so much to education. I would love to talk with them about how we can make all schools more inclusive. Next on my list would be Laura San Giacomo for her work opening the Chime School in the Los Angeles area and Sir Richard Branson for his ability to utilize his adrenaline adventures to advance his work. Also, the writers and producers of Beverly Hills Chihuahua because we have a disabled Chihuahua mix dog (@haroldonwheels) and my children would like to create the sequel, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 4 — Uncle Harold Comes to Town”.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheckley/

facebook.com/upacademysf

Instagram @upacademysf and @haroldonwheels

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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