Some kids playing tug of war

From Some to All: An Elementary Educator’s Experience & The Evolution of gcLi’s Leadership Lab

Natalie SimmsLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

20 years!

I’m excited to introduce another in the series of blogs that celebrate the gcLi’s 20th anniversary. We continue to reflect on the groundbreaking contributions the gcLi community has made over the past two decades, and we consider the tremendously vital call–and work–that remains.

Whether you attended the Leadership Lab many years ago, more recently, or still have it on your wishlist, come away with us now.

gcLi: You have to go, to know. 

Emily Tymus Ihrke

Editor, gcLi blog

by Natalie Simms, Director of Social Media, gcLi; Fifth Grade Teacher, Brownell Talbot College Preparatory School in Omaha, NE

Twelve years ago, I sat in the Campus Center at Fountain Valley School in Colorado as an early career teacher, wondering “What am I doing here?” 

I was a participant in the gcLi’s 2012 Leadership Lab, and while there, I spent the early part of the week feeling somewhat untethered. That year, the keynote speaker was Pearl Rock Kane, former director of Teachers College’s Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership. In her words, “leadership was a behavior and not a title,” and she presented participants with the opportunity to explore their gifts of storytelling. 

For the first round of storytelling, I listened to stories of coaching Upper School lacrosse players, of deciding which direction to take when a student asked an unexpected question in class, and about students completing in-depth service projects. As participants, we began to open up to one another and build our system of trust, which emboldened our keynote speaker to ask us to participate in a second round of storytelling, which required us to be vulnerable and truthful with one another. 

As I listened to the participants around me share their stories, I quickly realized why I had been feeling adrift: I was the only elementary/ lower school teacher in a sea of upper school teachers, deans of students, division heads, and heads of schools. My two stories were very different from the others told that day, and I couldn’t help but wonder why more elementary teachers weren’t involved in the Lab

Further into my Lab week, Dr. JoAnn Deak began her two-day session on brain science and the development of the adolescent brain. As each lesson passed, I began to become more compelled by the work of teaching leadership to students. More specifically, I started to wonder how gcLi could add the art of teaching young and younger children leadership to the organization’s own story. I spent two days learning about how the brain develops faster between the ages of birth and twelve years than any other time in a student’s life, and wondered how the Leadership Lab could empower teachers who teach students in this age bracket to create what could potentially be life-altering teachable moments. 

I left the sessions on brain science with a higher purpose and a calling: if I was teaching elementary students leadership, then they would likely have an even greater capacity for leadership lessons as middle and upper school students in the various roles they would hold on campus and in their personal lives. Essentially, if I was engaging in the lessons provided to me by gcLi with my students, then the leadership work done by the same students with their middle and upper school instructors could only be enhanced.

After watching the faculty lead with vulnerability and courage that week, I decided to take a risk and provide the feedback that elementary teachers belonged at the Leadership Lab. Not only did they belong, but I felt they were foundational to the success of the very work that is at the heart of gcLi’s mission, Educating Teachers to Teach Leadership to Students. True to their commitment to feedback, the faculty listened and formulated a plan for how gcLi could be expanded to include the work of elementary educators. Since then, the gcLi has evolved to become more inclusive and relevant to the experiences of all educators. 

Some people sitting and discussig something

Beginning in 2012, the faculty began researching the application of teaching leadership to elementary students. At the 2015 Leadership Lab, they welcomed their first Elementary Educators Lab Group. Additionally, the 2015 Pedagogy of Leadership® Symposium included presenters sharing leadership work from third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms. Since then, gcLi has extensively researched how teaching teachers leadership applies to classrooms and students in the youngest grades. 

Now, as we enter the 20th year of the Leadership Lab, the work of elementary educators at gcLi has become enmeshed in the fabric of the Lab. Participants represent diverse roles which educators hold in all divisions of school life. Recent Lab Scholars have shared inspirational work from their fourth grade classrooms. Participants in extension groups are giving monthly updates on kindergarteners who are learning how to be leaders. Additionally, gcLi has added two new programs from which teachers can learn. First, gcLi now has a Certification Program in which entire school faculties can be trained in the Pedagogy of Leadership® so that they can become intentional and strategic as they guide students toward becoming deliberate and dynamic leaders. Secondly, gcLi now offers a Virtual Program for students to learn three tenets of gcLi: how student brain function influences behavior and learning, giving and receiving feedback, and teachable moments.

As gcLi’s Director of Social Media, I have the honor of joining the Leadership Lab every summer.  As I reflect on how the Lab has grown since my year as a participant, I find myself wishing Pearl Rock Kane were still alive to hear another story. This time, the story would be one of finding purpose and connection, and taking risks. 

Essentially, the gcLi faculty lived out exactly what they aim to teach participants: they identified a teachable moment, utilized feedback, learned and understood how to evolve, and then did the work. I’m so glad they did. Now, I no longer wonder, “What am I doing here?” because gcLi has become exactly where all educators, no matter the role, have a place to call home.

Natalie Simms, an educator who has a deep passion for teaching young students leadership, is currently a fifth grade teacher at Brownell Talbot College Preparatory School in Omaha, NE, where she also serves as Middle School Advisory Lead and teacher mentor. She has experience which spans a variety of grade levels in multiple states from the eastern to western coasts. Natalie earned her Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership in 2023; her dissertation topic, leadership behaviors which administrators took during the COVID-19 pandemic to retain their teachers, was directly inspired by her work with gcLi and the Independent Schools Association of the Central States Board. Natalie also has her Masters in Education with Master Reading Teacher certification from SMU, and a B.S. in Elementary Education and B.A. in Math/Science from Rowan University.