…Elimination of zero-tolerance policies. I am often asked how I have developed a heightened sense of equity and social justice. It’s a simple answer, my students taught me. I do my best to seek to understand rather than judge. Zero-tolerance policies are judgements with no room for understanding individual situations. These exclusionary policies often exacerbate challenges some students face and leave no space to understand the root cause of a student’s behavior. However, restorative practices underscore the importance of understanding root causes and providing support and making adjustments to environments for different student outcomes and success.
Kristyn Klei Borrero, Ed.D., is an accomplished educational leader and coach who has an unparalleled ability to make a profound difference in the professional lives of educators. For the last twenty years, Kristyn has committed herself to improving the education of students in traditionally disenfranchised schools as a classroom teacher, principal, area superintendent, and co-founder of CT3, one of the nation’s leading organizations focused on developing teachers and school leaders. Kristyn led the research and development of No-Nonsense Nurturer® and Real Time Teacher Coaching®, widely recognized as two of the most innovative, transformative professional development models in education today. Kristyn attended both Miami University of Ohio and Xavier University, and holds a Doctorate in Education Leadership from the University of California, Berkeley.
Thank you so much for joining 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?
Iam a public school kid-turned-teacher, who taught in the same Cincinnati schools I attended as a child. I went to public schools with a diverse population of students, which gave me an early look at the difference between equity and equality. As a young person, I didn’t think in those specific terms, but I did see how students of color were not afforded the same educational opportunities I was, even though we attended the same school. This is where I began finding my voice, though it would be years before I fully realized how my voice could empower youth who deserve every educational opportunity, including the right to learn from the very best teachers. It was as a teacher that I began to understand how severe the implications could be when teachers failed to confront their unintended biases, or fell short of striving to meet the diverse cultural and learning needs of the students they served.
As a principal, I advocated for a strong school culture and set high expectations for our staff. And yet, when it came to classroom management and culture, I struggled to support educators in achieving the kind of consistency and care that I knew our students deserved. I sought to understand and codify the practices of highly effective teachers to address this issue, so alongside my research team, I studied extraordinary educators who were getting amazing results with students. We determined that they were skilled at building life-altering relationships with their students AND supporting their students in meeting rigorous academic expectations. The teachers we studied would work to confront their own biases to ensure there was nothing preventing them from holding all their students accountable through models of high rigor and high care. The kids often called these teachers “No-Nonsense Nurturers” and the name resonated. I have since dedicated my professional life to supporting America’s teachers with the techniques we learned from these amazing educators.
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?
Failure always presents opportunities. One of the more interesting things that I have grappled with is the result of one of my many setbacks. After researching the work of high-performing teachers for No-Nonsense Nurturer, we trained 20+ educational coaches to support teachers with the model through cognitive coaching practices. The teachers were eager for the work and ready to improve, but they weren’t catching on. I knew from first-hand experience, and from the research, that this model had potential to be highly effective, but I was failing to get traction. In a moment of frustration, one of our coaches said, “If I could only be an angel on their shoulder, I could prevent the train wreck from happening!” That’s when this failure revealed an inspiration… we needed to coach teachers in real time, at the moment of instruction, to change how they thought about their own abilities and their practice. The more I investigated, the more I saw the impact of real-time feedback; news anchors, football coaches, doctors, and other highly-skilled professions relied on real-time coaching and communication to support and improve practice. I knew educators deserved no less.
We worked diligently for more than 18 months to develop what is now Real Time Teacher Coaching, which enabled us to support teachers in experiencing successes in their classroom while engaging in culturally relevant classroom management and pedagogical practices. With this revelation, we could work on protocols to coach teachers on these once unnoticed mindsets and beliefs and improve their practice for their entire career. Our original setback turned into what I think is one of the most effective and efficient ways to coach and support educators!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The impact of Real Time Teacher Coaching was seen and felt by school leaders around the country, many of whom cited the need for the same level of coaching at the school and district level for leadership. This led us to develop Real Time Leadership Coaching, designed specifically for school leaders who understand the importance of culturally relevant leadership practices.
This is a big step forward for the schools we work with, as it represents a deep and lasting commitment to systemic improvement at every level. Too often, school leaders fail to recognize their contributions to school and system cultures. When a leader raises their hand and asks for coaching, we are setting up the entire organization to build a “culture of coaching,” where feedback is felt at every level — leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and even family members. In this way, we can also build more culturally competent structures because all stakeholders can receive and give feedback without judgement. This is courageous work and not for the faint of heart. When the work is executed with fidelity, however, systems that once struggled begin to thrive.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
From 1996 to 2007, I led turnaround work for underperforming schools in Oakland and East Palo Alto, California (once considered the murder capital of the U.S.). Despite the many barriers to success, from racial inequities to socio-economic oppression, our schools exceeded all state academic benchmarks, organizational fundraising and financial goals, teacher retention rates, and family and student satisfaction ratings. To be clear, this was not my success alone. Instead, it was through a concerted effort to improve and empower all of our stakeholders that we achieved incredible gains. That included fellow leaders, teachers, support services and, most importantly, students, families, and members of the community.
In leading the research and development of No-Nonsense Nurturer and Real Time Teacher Coaching, I’ve been witness to remarkable transformations at the classroom, school, and district level in some of the most historically marginalized communities in the U.S. I am not sure if this makes me an “authority,” but it puts me in a position of privilege because of the knowledge I have been blessed to accumulate. I am not sure anyone is a true authority in anything, to be honest. However if you spend the majority of your professional career focused, and questioning and seeking to understand a particular topic, you’re likely to have learning worth sharing.
In order to expand the work and scale up our impact on the teaching profession, I recently wrote a book for educators called Every Student, Every Day: A No-Nonsense Nurturer® Approach to Reaching All Learners. Published by Solution Tree, one of the most respected publishers in education, I’m pleased to share that it was honored with a 2019 Independent Publisher Book Award.
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 U.S. education system?
There’s enough published data for all to see that we are underperforming relative to our international peers, despite the many advantages we have in the U.S. What makes that so distressing is that our education system is dedicated to serving ALL students. This is a goal I wholeheartedly support, but one that we remain all too far from achieving.
The most important thing our educational system can do is provide a level playing field for students (notice I didn’t say equal), particularly those who have insights and needs that tend to be ignored as a result of unexamined biases of individuals, communities, and systems. Because our educational system is so segregated, it often fails to serve historically marginalized youth in some of the most forgotten communities in America. Education is the civil rights issue of my generation, and we need to walk toward issues of (in)equity with an open mind and sustained commitment to changing not only the environment in which young people learn, but the unexamined privilege that has led to the oppression of others.
One of the barriers to leveling the playing field for our students is the systematic lack of support for our teachers, who I believe have the most important job in the world. We fail to prepare our educators adequately to teach in work environments that many of them find challenging. As a system, we starve them of the coaching and professional learning they need to provide an equitable education for every student. As I noted earlier, there are precious few sectors that bear such an enormous burden and yet are forced to endure in stark isolation.
There’s some good news here, though… which is that educators are universally committed to doing right by their students, and no school or district is beyond hope of transformation. It takes strategic work and resources, but any teacher or leader with a growth mindset and access to highly effective coaching can improve and even transform their practice. A key to remodeling our educational system is to ensure every teacher is equipped with a pathway to become a culturally relevant, high-performing educator that supports every student to access every opportunity.
Can you identify 5 areas of the U.S. education system that are going really great?
I appreciate this question because I encourage our team at CT3 to focus on the assets of the organizations we engage with, and then from there we can build on the opportunities for improvement. I also think this is a great question because so much of the educational narrative is on what’s not working, but I’m encouraged by trends in education, including:
- Growing calls for inclusivity and equity, which means people are recognizing the need to notice our differences, celebrate them, and make sure we’re all empowered to succeed.
- Increasing focus on serving the whole child through multi-tiered systems of support. Academics are important but we have to be sure we are helping to raise a generation of well-rounded, emotionally fit young people.
- Improved awareness of trauma-informed practices, signaling our shift from avoidance toward understanding and creating spaces for hope and healing.
- Research-based learning and evidence-based practices that recognize and honor the importance of our work as educators.
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?
- Policy: The U.S. education system was built on white, middle-class cultural values and ideals, which do not reflect the reality of most of our country’s public school students. Admittedly, I am not a “policy person” but I am clear that we have policies from Capitol Hill to the schoolhouse that are exclusionary. Many policies unfairly impact students of color who often receive more and/or harsher disciplinary actions than their peers. The punitive nature of many exclusionary policies feeds the school-to-prison pipeline because the policies focus on punishment rather than understanding the root cause of student actions/behaviors. We need to consistently review the policies in every part of the education system to ensure they are supportive of educators and all of the students we are charged to serve.
- Diversity among teachers: More than half of our students are students of color while our teaching force has less than 20 percent of teachers that look and sound like their students. As a student, seeing yourself in your teachers is incredibly empowering and having a diverse group of teachers better prepares our youth for the global community they will work in as adults.
- Culturally relevant training for all educators: It is not enough to simply recruit and hire more teachers of color. Teachers often begin their careers unprepared to recognize or confront the biases they may have about students who don’t look like them. Exacerbated by a lack of training, these biases manifest into unfair treatment of students (note my policy point earlier), which, in turn, can reinforce the false narratives about “those students.” Ongoing professional learning to build culturally relevant practices in how we build relationships, select curriculum, engage in pedagogical practices, and operate our schools to better serve all stakeholders in our educational system are necessary and need to be the focus of every educational professionals’ learning. We need to better serve all stakeholders in our educational system when we select curriculum, engage in pedagogical practices, and operate our schools. Ongoing professional learning in culturally relevant practices to improve relationship building needs to be the focus of every educational professionals’ learning.
- Teacher preparation and retention: Nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Our teachers are extraordinarily stressed with the demands of their job and we expect that they not only teach content, but act as guidance counselors and social workers. Teaching is the most important job in the world — without great teachers, there would exist no pathways to every other profession. In this country, we have to do a better job of preparing and supporting educators in their pre-service years so they will feel successful on minute one, day one of their teaching careers. If we better prepare educators to work in all communities, they will be better equipped to support their students. Early success as a teacher is instrumental in keeping folks in the profession.
- Standardized assessments: I am a firm believer in accountability and assessment, but we have gotten to the point in this country where standardized assessments have determined what we teach in school. This is fundamentally problematic. For example, we have all but eliminated the arts in public schools because they are not part of our standardized testing in this country. This is a prime example of the “tail wagging the dog,” and I am clear that a single test taken in March of a school year does not account for the many hours of learning that happens in our schools every day.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire U.S. 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?
Great question, and one that I would encourage every stakeholder in education to consider. It’s a way to check our assumptions and I suspect we’d all land on similar viewpoints.
With that said, I want to offer five changes that I think underscore what would be the most important change we could make in education, and that is for us to “re-brand” the profession of teaching. The work of educators is the lifeblood of our communities, our economies, and our culture. And yet the discussions centered on transforming education get hijacked by arguments that have little to do with the art and science of teaching and learning.
It’s well past time we rethink how we view the teaching profession, such that it reflects how much we care about the fate of our children. Check that, it should reflect how much we care about ALL children, not just the ones in our neighborhood. Few would argue that children deserve the best, but, sadly, fewer still seem willing to step up and have the arguments that matter most. So let me share a five-point argument for how we could consider to shift the narrative to one of respect and unrelenting excellence for all students.
Classroom management training. I believe classroom management training isn’t only for pre-service teachers, but for all school staff. It is in our management practices that many of our cultural biases come to fruition and with the proper training, we have the ability to support all educators and the students in their charge. A few years ago, we were asked to train bus drivers for a school district in North Carolina on how to both manage behavior and create a safe and nurturing environment for students in transit. This speaks to the need for all of us to prioritize how we develop relationships with students. With that said, current teacher preparation programs are failing to train teachers how to balance the need for high academic expectations with the importance of authentic relationships. That’s why our organization is in such high demand across the country. We have a lot of work to do in this area.
Coaching for everyone. I get to spend about 100 days a year in schools. I am humbled when educators approach me and thank me for the real-time feedback their colleagues have been trained in and the coaching they receive. It’s difficult to express how rewarding it is to hear a teacher say, “This has changed my life.” Every school leader should be so lucky.
The most successful school leaders today are the ones who ensure their teachers see coaching not as a ‘gotcha,’ but as a two-way process that helps everyone improve their craft in service of students. If athletes and doctors can get coaching in real time, shouldn’t teachers?
Implement training on culturally relevant practices and understanding mindsets. Research consistently reinforces the correlation between student success and culturally relevant teaching that affirms students and confronts inequity.
Confronting cultural biases and disempowered mindsets we may have about our students empowers educators to have classrooms that celebrate and relate to students’ backgrounds, in turn, positively impacting student achievement and outcomes.
Elimination of zero-tolerance policies. I am often asked how I have developed a heightened sense of equity and social justice. It’s a simple answer, my students taught me. I do my best to seek to understand rather than judge. Zero-tolerance policies are judgements with no room for understanding individual situations. These exclusionary policies often exacerbate challenges some students face and leave no space to understand the root cause of a student’s behavior. However, restorative practices underscore the importance of understanding root causes and providing support and making adjustments to environments for different student outcomes and success.
Teacher Pay. Effective teachers are some of the most important and influential people in a child’s life, yet many educators struggle financially, many times not able to live in the communities where they teach. The notion of short workdays and easy-going summers is a myth that, by now, should be a distant memory. And yet, the perception of teaching has not shifted fast enough to recognize that educators are the ones with whom students spend a majority of their waking hours. That we short-change our teachers is not only disrespectful to the profession, it’s irresponsible. Teacher salaries should reflect the vital work that they do every day in shaping our next generation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, which says, “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” I like to reflect on his words, as well as encourage the educators I meet to think about how their approach creates the climate in their classroom (or their building) and supports students in achieving greatness.
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 🙂
This is an interesting question, because it’s important that the biggest names in business, venture capital, sports, and entertainment do more than vocalize their support of education. Some of these folks are, in fact, doing more through their foundation work. I salute them in these efforts.
That being said, I think I’d like to sit down with Charles Koch, which may come as a surprise to your readers. It will certainly surprise the people I work with every day, who would perceive this as “meeting with the opposition.” While it may be true that the Koch name is generally aligned with highly conservative policies, Mr. Koch has a history of getting behind restorative practices in the criminal justice system and I think he’d be receptive to seeing how we need to implement real and lasting change in education. Given his influence with many who are inherently opposed to programs that support equity, I’d welcome the opportunity to align with a shared cause for improving education outcomes for all students. I’m concerned about the lack of cultural competence at the highest levels of government and see this playing out in education. Kids are suffering the consequences of what I perceive to be uninformed policy decisions that lack empathy and compassion. I’d like the opportunity to engage in a healthy, constructive conversation with the hope that I can shift mindsets even just a little bit. I’m surrounded by colleagues who work tirelessly to improve education and are true champions of transformative practices… and any new recruit to that cause is well worth the effort, much less a recruit with the influence of Mr. Koch.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter at @KKB_CT3. I look forward to continuing the discussion.