A book on a table

Years Later: Why Am I (Still) Grateful for My Leadership Lab Experience?

Kevin OBrienLeadership Lab, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

20 years.

In anticipation of this June’s 20th gcLi Leadership Lab, we continue to reflect on the remarkable impact of the gcLi.

Whether you attended the very first Lab two decades ago, or alongside Kevin O’Brien seven years ago, or the most recent one in 2023, we hope your experience, like his, still reverberates. 

gcLi: You have to go, to know. 

Emily Tymus Ihrke

Editor, gcLi blog

by Kevin O’Brien, English Teacher, University School in Hunting Valley, OH

“Writing is the evident artifact of some kind of change.”Ross Gay

When I reflect on how my teaching has evolved these past few years, I recognize how the knowledge and wisdom from gcLi helped me understand the neuroscience of fear in a profound time of uncertainty during the pandemic. With tools from my Leadership Lab experience, I could share mindfulness and emotional agility lessons with my students to regulate anxiety and overwhelming feelings, especially during lockdown. 

This year at the start of each class, I kindly ask students to place their phones in a shoe holder hanging from the back of my classroom door. I often share Dr. Deak’s maxim, “I can’t compete with a screen.” I still begin classes with journals in the spirit of Anne Frank’s diary, “Paper is more patient than people.” I vary prompts daily: weekend reflections, emotional check-ins (see RULER approach), quotes and questions from the reading, and TGIF gratitude stories. I believe in Anne Lamott’s approach to “down drafts” by hand; then, students turn to devices to write more.

Recently, I asked seniors in my Narrative Non-Fiction elective to reflect on the value of journaling in their composition notebooks. They shared how the practice has helped them process thoughts and emotions, record events with personal reflections, and notice how their writing has evolved since the start of the year. One student shared how the journal helps him “think about his thinking” as a habit of mind. We discussed the importance of metacognition in writing to clarify perspectives — to step back and see possibilities. I asked if the journal should be graded. One student candidly shared how he writes differently for a graded journal: he appreciates the opportunity to be honest and “free from judgment” in his personal journal writing. 

As we cope with an age of anxiety, exacerbated by digital distractions, a journal is a space to regulate. I recognize how inundated we are with information (and malicious disinformation – now powered by ChatGPT). I can’t imagine how students feel with the constant disruption of messages and social media notifications. The cognitive load overwhelms us all at times and often leads to dysregulation. Although writing pen to paper initially feels antiquated, even boring to some students, the practice offers time for students to pause—to disconnect from devices and connect with their thoughts through writing before classroom conversations with greater awareness. This self-awareness is the foundation to leadership. 

Over six years later, I am even more grateful for the lessons and tools I learned at gcLi


Slow Stories: Ross Gay — ”There’s always a gathering inside of us.” on Apple Podcasts

The RULER Approach and Dr. Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel 

Susan David’s Emotional Agility

Catherine Steiner-Adair Discusses Dysregulation What Causes It & How To Fix It

As published on January 8, 2018:

The Leadership Lab Experience

Students write for a couple minutes with pen and paper in journals so that they may train their brain to find the good at the beginning of my English classes. Without the pressure of assessment or expectations, students write in a safe place. For their eyes only, they articulate thoughts and clarify emotions, doodle and daydream, and, perhaps, set personal goals.

I, too, begin this reflection of the gcLi Leadership Lab with gratitude for the Carney family vision, the dedicated faculty, the community of educators that made this summer a transformative experience for me – and I know I am not alone. While leadership begins with self-awareness through reflection, we only evolve through relationships and intentional conversations. As a mentor once said, only in community do we heal and find healing.

In my sixteenth year of teaching and coaching, I wish I had known years ago what I now know about neuroscience, leadership, social-emotional learning, group dynamics, and mindfulness. To be candid, I wish someone had taught me as a teenager what I learned at the Leadership Lab, especially from Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair and Dr. JoAnn Deak. It might have saved me pain and angst as an adolescent.

Oil painting of a brain that looks like that has evolved

This summer at the Leadership Lab, I reflected on crucible moments, and I was more than fortunate to connect with Catherine Steiner-Adair. Although our times did not overlap, Catherine happened to work at the boarding school that I went to as a student. Over dinner, we shared stories, reminiscing about teachers. After our conversation, I felt a shift in perspective on my experience as both a student and as a teacher. In addition, Catherine made me rethink how I use technology intentionally in class and out of class; this year, we read paperback books.

Over six days at the Fountain Valley School of Colorado, we had a priceless opportunity to discuss insights and epiphanies with world renowned experts and wonderful educators from across the country. I still feel lucky to be part of a special group and to have worked with an incredible partner for our week in Colorado; those relationships make the gcLi Leadership Lab the most meaningful experience I have had in my teaching career. With greater awareness, I discover greater empathy for teachers – past and present – as well as students growing up in a connected world.

From Dr. JoAnn Deak, I embraced the profound notion of teacher as neuro sculptor and red-line manipulator. She armed me with her wisdom and research in simple terms so that I may share the visual metaphor of the red-line and tools to self-awareness with my students. Her clarity in deconstructing the myth of multitasking has changed how I teach and live. Even as I write this article, I focus on writing by hand first – no notification or emails, no longer playing music in the background with distracting rhythms, lyrics, etc.

With mantras and mottos like, “Hug the monster” and “Grab them by the amygdala,” I understand her IPO model with master teachers as, “knuckle distributors.” More conscious that “a bored brain can’t think” in my classes, my students now stand every twenty or thirty minutes for exercises, like calf raises, especially first period or after lunch. If students are stressed and anxious – and knowing red-lines are contagious, we might turn to the tool of meditation for a few minutes, so they may return to, “The Zone.” My students now have a shared vocabulary that includes cortical, limbic, and mind blindness.

When I close my eyes, I can imagine JoAnn’s voice: “Do no harm.” JoAnn reminds me to never shame and never say “what were you thinking?” or worse “what’s wrong with you?” As teachers, we should never belittle a student with sarcasm about medication for ADD, ADHD, or otherwise. Would we mock a diabetic student for needing insulin? When we understand the brain, we realize: what fires together, wires together. As teachers, we have a tremendous responsibility in that connecting and pruning process.

I will also never forget Dr. Ted Fish, leading meditation and sharing the work of Simon Sinek. What is your why? One regret about the the summer experience: I was reticent to share that we lost my younger brother Conor to suicide on February 26, 2000. He was 22 years old. In the early 90s, he struggled through five years of high school at three different schools while dealing with depression and mania. In college, Conor was diagnosed as bipolar – and loathed the stigma. We know so much more now about how the brain works. As teachers, we need to learn and understand the latest research. Conor is why I do what I do, and why I care about the health and wellness of students more than anything. We all have our whys. Sometimes we may lose sight of our why in our over-scheduled days. In writing this reflection, I reviewed notes and journaled for hours, feeling that old perfectionist pressure. So, I meditated. I slept. And the process of pausing – that learning is remembering – I lowered my red-line. Fond memories of new friends from the summer motivate me to make each cohort conference call a priority.

A couple weeks ago in October, I was fortunate to attend the gcLi Symposium II at Penn, which happens to be my undergrad alma mater. Walking around campus brought back old memories, and I have to say, college was a challenging time. Being back and talking with the gcLi educators, I am now considering a return to Penn’s Graduate School of Education someday.

In the meantime, I marvel at what I have learned with the gcLi community. As teachers, we set the example and tone in our classrooms every day. Yes, indeed, we are neuro sculptors, curators of research and knowledge, skill developers in the 21st century, experience designers, conversation facilitators, and mindful mentors, painting pictures of the possibilities and perils of life. With a growing gcLi community, I am filled with hope and inspiration.

Kevin O’Brien is a 2017 graduate of the gcLi Leadership Lab. After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover, Kevin attended the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from Penn with a B.A. in English and earned his master’s in English from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in 2008. Over the past twenty-two years, Kevin has been teaching English and coaching soccer, basketball, and lacrosse at independent schools. In his sixth year at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, he teaches English 11 and an elective in Narrative Non-Fiction. He is the faculty advisor to the Mindfulness club. Kevin also facilitates SEED (Seeking Education Equity and Diversity) seminars with colleagues. In his free time, he enjoys teaching yoga.