Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.


As some of you know, I took a career break this summer. My first break from working since I was 14 1/2 years old. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. One of the by-products of that break was being able to connect with people I previously felt too busy to connect with, and provide them with any expertise, crazy ideas, or just goofiness they desired.

I spent time in classrooms co-teaching or observing lessons with teacher friends, as well as dispensing tech support and professional trainings for clerical (aka classified in edu world) staff. I also volunteered as a Designer-in-Residence at UCSD, and have been enjoying stretching my brain in the world of academia. In fact, yesterday I sat in a room full of computer science students and listened to Professor Ravi Chugh talk about “Bi-Directional Programming with Direct Manipulation.” I may even be able to fool you into thinking I understood the talk if I throw out acronyms like PL and GUI and terms like output-directed programming 😛.

The Curse of Averageness, or is it?

This opportunity to expand and immerse reinforced a concept I read recently in Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%!: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. Mark writes:

Most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re exceptional at one thing, chances are you’re average or below average at most other things.

Mark Manson

Assuming that’s true, then it would make sense to seek out those who may be exceptional in an area in which we are average (or below, gasp!) and improve our own skillset. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t. Instead, we internally judge ourselves for not being up to par because society (aka the media) focuses on the exceptional only, not the average. The best of the best… and the worst of the worst. It sells. Can’t deny it.

It’s crazy. We all have something to offer. Sure, we may not be extraordinary, but we have something dang nabbit! I may never be able to create a PL to GUI bi-directional platform for programmers, but I can certainly help streamline your Gmail madness, or recover a lost password for your (okay my) grandpa’s bank account. And I can certainly ramble on and on about the talks I have listened to, or books I read, in an attempt to provide a nugget of inspiration for someone else. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s me. It’s what I have to offer.

So How May I Be Of Service to You?

So here it is… I started two new ventures to share my averageness with the world, and I hope it brings you some extraordinary value.

YouTube – I have no desire to be a YouTube star, as you’ll see by the low-fidelity quality of my videos. But I am starting to post some tech tips on there. These are tips that illicited “oohs” and “ahhs” when I shared them at a recent professional development. Short, relevant, and (hopefully) applicable.

Podcast – Again, no desire to be a podcast star, but sometimes I have ideas, and I share them with people and then I think, that’s too much energy to try to write in my blog. And then, poof, it’s gone. So after chatting with Paula last night about hackathons and entrepreneurs, I grabbed my phone and recorded my thoughts. And so here’s the first episode. I don’t know how often I’ll post these, but I will. And who knows – maybe you’ll be in the next one. Again, super low fidelity. In fact, episode 1 was recorded in my car sitting in traffic (hands-free of course).

I hope that these ventures in sharing encourage others to share their little bit of above average with others. After all, it’s the community that helps us grow.

And since you’re here, and reading this, do me a favor…leave a comment. Let me know what you’re thinking… what’s your above-averageness that you can share with others? What do you wish I would share with you?

And then, subscribe. Subscribe to this blog, or the YouTube, or the podcast, or all of it. Because those subscriptions show love, and value, and make me feel like maybe being average is a pretty cool feeling to have.

Yesterday I watched as teens came together to use their design thinking and entrepreneurial skills to tackle the subject of human trafficking, which is prevalent in San Diego. They came up with innovative ideas to increase awareness and inspire action.

The day kicked off with a motivational talk by WIT Founder, Sarah Hernholm. She stressed to them how important their voice is to solving big issues in our society. “You’re so much more than your school, your GPA, your AP course load… what matters are your ideas.”

Sarah and Don sharing with teens about the issue of human trafficking.

To provide more context as to how important the issue of human trafficking is to San Diego teens, Don from Saved in America shared with the group how 3,000 teens from San Diego alone were lost within the past year. He shared signs of distress to look for in friends who may be involved in unhealthy relationships, as well. When asked why teens don’t know more about this epidemic, Don responded that it’s a hard conversation for adults to start with teens. One of the teen participants responded, “Just because it’s a hard conversation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it.” Another added on, “Teens have to be at the table for issues impacting teens.”

Brainstorming ways to encourage teens to avoid unhealthy relationships.

And at the table they were!

Don’s talk lit a fire in the teens. Split into smaller groups, they brainstormed solutions to:
– Ensure teens know the Human Trafficking Hotline Phone Number
– Provide education to teens on healthy vs unhealthy relationships
– Encourage parents to engage in conversations about human trafficking with their teen
– Use social media to increase awareness of human trafficking amongst teens

Sorting ideas on how to encourage parents to engage in conversations with their teens about human trafficking and unhealthy relationships.

Design Thinking the Challenge Presented

Empathizing. Defining. Ideating. Prototyping. Testing and Refining. Teens spent six hours developing their proposed solution to one of the problems. Unlike past WIT Hackathons, this year the teens did not have an adult coach assigned to them. Instead they were trusted to use the design thinking process on their own, seek out feedback or assistance when needed, and most importantly, have their voices heard.

Students had not met prior to the day, but by the end, they were family.

A Bias Towards Action

It was an honor to coach them, and a thrill to listen to their pitches. Two groups tapped in to the power of Instagram to get their message out to peers. One group connected with local and national businesses to ask that the hotline be printed on their product packaging. We had a group developing curriculum for middle and high school teachers, and another group developing signage for public transportation stops and gas stations.

Hotline Heroes is partnering with local and national companies to add the hotline to product packaging.

Each proposal was unique, and their pitches were on point. Just like Shark Tank, students tackled all the key components of a pitch: Why, How, What, Target Market, Competition, Unique Selling Proposition, and Financials. They were scored on how well they met the challenge; their ability to address all the components; their presentation skills; the feasibility of their solution; and their adherence to the time allocation.

This video uses a snack analogy to discuss healthy vs unhealthy relationships

Change Agents

Although three groups won a monetary award, the reality is that all of the teens were winners. They came together, used empathy to tackle a tough issue, and spread the word about an issue that affects their lives. These kids are world changers!

If you haven’t heard of WIT, check it out. Hackathons and college credit courses are available for all San Diego County high school students. It’s also available in Austin, TX and New York City. And hey, if it’s not in your town (yet), reach out to Sarah and make it happen!

A big reason why good athletes do well is because they don’t care what the sports blogs say, or what you said about them on Twitter.

They’re playing, you’re in the “seats” – And they understand that.

That’s the same mindset I have about other people’s opinions: I’m playing.

What, you’re going to say that I had a bad idea or make fun of me that something I tried didn’t work? ? I’m the one who’s playing.

Gary Vaynerchuk on LinkedIn

If site and district administrators (and educational consultants) truly want to make an impact on teaching and learning in the classroom, they need to get out of the “seats” and play.

A formal observation is not play.

A 5-10 minute instructional walk thru is not play.

A strategy shared in a staff meeting is not play.

How are you getting on the field and playing the game with the teachers you’re leading? If you’re a teacher, how would you like to see your instructional leaders play the game with you?

Got Consent? These Kinders Do!

When Sandy invited me into her kindergarten classroom to co-teach an iPad lesson, I thought it’d be a fun opportunity to not only visit a friend, but to engage with some littles.

Let me just start by saying, I could never teach kindergarten. Kinder teachers have such a unique job – they are not only teaching academic standards, but they’re teaching how to do school, how to be a friend, how to eat a meal without adult help, and so many other essential life skills. All while cutting out circles, singing songs to gather student attention, and blowing noses of sick students.

I was exhausted and I only helped out for an hour!

Life Lessons

What stood out to me the most from this morning, though, was how Sandy was teaching students about consent. When we talk about teaching consent, most people equate it to sexual consent and they bristle at the idea of it being taught in school.

But consent is so much more than that. A Harvard University newsletter article by Grace Tatter defined consent as “the notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries, in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and build healthy relationships.”

Teacher taking a photo of a student with an iPad
Sandy modeling how to take a good photo of a friend.

Today, the classroom lesson was focused on taking good photos with the iPad. The life lesson, however, was about consent. Sure, students learned how to get in closer to the subject, and how to take a non-blurry photo. But more importantly, they learned to ask permission before taking the photo.

Sandy: What do we say before we take a photo?
Class: May I please take your photo?

Sandy: And what if the person says no? Is that okay?
Class: Yes, it’s okay to say “No thank you.”

As the students practiced their iPad photo taking skills, I watched them practice using consent language. Not only were they asking for permission to take the photo, but they were asking if the photo was acceptable. These are huge life skills, and they’re starting at age five.

When I said my goodbyes to the class, Sandy once again modeled consent.

Sandy: Miss Laura, is it okay if I hug you goodbye?
Me: Yes it is.

What a powerful lesson these students are learning. Social-emotional learning takes on many forms, and for Sandy’s class, it’s just a natural part of their kindergarten day.

You’re a rock star Sandy!

This post is also posted on my Cagefree Thinking website. Sign up to receive email notifications when I post an entry, or follow me via WordPress!

I’m still amazed that it’s been 50 years since man landed on the moon. I love watching old footage of Apollo 11’s mission, and reading about the innovations that have come as a result of that mission.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the role women played, not only this mission, but in a lot of NASA’s successes. And yet, I never saw women in any of the official NASA photos, nor were they featured in documentaries.

Today, there is a growing movement to increase the amount of girls interested in STEM. Most of the movements center around how to get girls to feel more connected to science, math, engineering, etc. If you look on Twitter, there are hashtags created to highlight empowering girls in STEM. In those hashtags, conversations seem to revolve around things like:

They just need more exposure to women role models.

Or …

They need more LEGO and Barbie figurines that promote STEM as cool.

Or …

We need to make sure girls develop the skills needed to succeed in that environment.

What’s not mentioned?

The role of men in keeping women out of these fields. If we truly believe women have a seat at the table, how can we encourage men to offer the seat instead of requiring women to break down a hundred extra barriers to try to get access?

The problem with the hashtag movement is that it comes from a deficit viewpoint… if only girls just did this, or had this, then they’d be better. What it fails to tackle is the systemic oppression that downplays women in these fields.

Things like:

So how do we inspire boys to share the STEM playground with the girls? What are you doing in your classroom, your school, to create an empowering STEM environment for both girls and boys so that they can support and elevate each other one day as STEM professionals?

Being part of the Top Tech Exec winner’s circle has introduced me to so many innovative executives. I’m always inspired after our times together.

Last night, a group of us were invited to watch the Padres battle the Dodgers from within the Cox suite. Fun time, good food, great convos.

No painted on the ground next to a set of shoes.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Every time I see this group, I learn something new. Last night’s takeaway came from Casey Cotton, Chief Technology Officer for Madison Avenue Securities and Asset Marketing Systems, who shared the importance of IT leadership moving away from no and developing a “what if” approach. 

It’s not just IT that could benefit from this approach. So could education. IT is often known as the Department of “No”​ but I think education says no just as much, if not more than, IT. If educational leaders stopped saying, “it can’t be done” and instead entertained the “what if we could…” approach, imagine what we could become 😏.

According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs 2018 report, by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling. To deal with the lack of skills of current employers, companies have three options:

  1. Retrain current staff
  2. Automate more tasks to reduce staff needed
  3. Hire new staff that already has the required skills

The report goes on to state that the likelihood of hiring new permanent staff with relevant skills is high, since nearly a quarter of companies surveyed are unlikely to attempt a retraining of existing employees.

This upskilling is not just for those in industry. Educators also need upskilling. If education is to prepare students for college and career, then educators will need to be informed as to what those careers look like, and what skills are needed to thrive in them. They’ll then need to develop the skills themselves so as to model, and teach, those skills to students. Skills like emotional intelligence; leadership and social influence; and persuasion and negotiation will become critical skills for educators as they become critical skills for industry careers.

How are educators getting these skills? Are schools and districts investing in professional development that goes beyond curriculum and content knowledge?

Or, like industry, will there be a push to hire new teachers that already have these skills?

Regardless of the methodology, schools cannot continue to afford to ignore the importance of preparing students and staff for the 2022 skills outlook.

A Tribute to My Bestie

On July 31st, I lost my best friend. She died, unexpectedly, of a blood clot after battling breast cancer and undergoing reconstructive surgery.

Laura and Christine smiling for the camera
Christine and me at the SDCOE Equity Symposium

Christine’s been my best friend since I moved to San Diego in 2000. Before her, friendships for me were fleeting. They came, they went, and that was life. But Christine… she was a different story.

I could fill this blog with stories about our friendship. Stories about us learning hip hop dancing – okay, failing to learn hip hop dancing. Although we could do the sprinkler and the lawn mower better than anyone… just ask our 8th grade students!

Or about the time we hauled the new kayak into the middle of her cul-de-sac and pretended to row the open ocean, all the time yelling, “Are we there yet?” for a yearbook video. 

There are stories from our 14 hour bus trip to Reno that we thought was going to be on a train.

And stories about our attempt to start our own greeting card company.

Like I said, so many stories! 

A couple years into our friendship, we were talking about growing old and Christine mentioned all the trouble we’d get into at the nursing home. I remember saying to her, “I won’t know you when I’m 80.” I’ll never forget the look on her face. In total seriousness, she said to me, “That’s the meanest thing you could ever say to me. Of course we’ll know each other. We’re besties.” 

That day, she changed my perspective on not only friendship, but on life.

A few years later, we sat beside her mom Jean’s bed as her mom’s fight with cancer was coming to an end … we had been chatting light-heartedly while Jean slept when Christine’s brother Eric noticed that Jean had quietly passed away. I remember us talking about how she was able to finally let go because she knew we were all going to be okay. 

Even though Christine may not be around when I’m 80 to perform all those old folk home antics, I have to believe that, like Jean, Christine knew everyone she loved was going to be okay because she made everyone better by knowing her.

They say the body is 70% water, but for Christine Fax-Huckaby, it was all heart. She was a passionate educator; a passionate animal advocate; a passionate fighter for equity; and a passionate wife, friend, and colleague. For 23 years, Christine touched the lives of students and staff as a public school teacher and mentor in both Lemon Grove and Sweetwater.

Christine was always a cheerleader for me.

She believed in the ability of each student to achieve his/her inner greatness, and never let them settle for less. She had just as much love for animals. Whether they were hers or not, Christine loved every fur baby she ever saw. She was constantly rescuing dogs and cats, finding them their fur-ever home. Although truth be told, a lot of times that home ended up being her own!

I’m sad without her in my physical life. Sad without her laughter, her jokes, and her unconditional love.

Winnie the Pooh said it best: If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together there is something you must always remember… You are braver than you believe. Stronger than you seem and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is even if we are apart I’ll always be with you.

A young flamingo has to learn how to stand on one leg.

And like the flamingo, our students need to learn executive functioning skills for school success. We take for granted that they should know how:

to study,

to stay organized,

to plan their time efficiently,

to find a learning buddy,

to pick out a good book to read,

to ask for help when needed,

to respect each other.

If a student is not finding success in the classroom, let’s stop blaming them and instead help them develop the skills they may still need.

Reading Our Way to an Understanding of Racial Justice

A colleague of mine, Andrew Arevalo, posted on Twitter that he had started reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

A Twitter conversation began in which people shared other books that would also be great reads.

Here’s the books that were shared:

  • For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
  • Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nel
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
    By Carol Anderson

Anything else you’d add to this reading list? Any of these books impact your beliefs or actions on matters of representation, diversity, and inclusion?

And if you haven’t yet read White Fragility, or you read it and want to discuss it with other educators, sign up for EquityEDU’s book study that starts in August.

Resources shared after the post published:

Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom by Matthew R. Kay

My boyfriend and I have very different communication styles, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. He’s just not the kind of guy who will bring me flowers, or leave me notes or proclaim his love for the world to hear.

So when we decided to pull weeds at about 7pm last night, the last thing I expected was this:

Him: “Hey Google, play ‘Tell Laura I Love Her.'”

Me: 😍

…And This Has to Do with Education How?

So why tell you this story when this blog is about education?

Because I know that, if relationship skills were to be assessed in school, my boyfriend probably wouldn’t get top scores. In fact, he may even be labeled as “at risk” or some other label equally obnoxious.

We have this narrow view in education of what success is, and how we measure it, and honestly, our measures seem to lack correlation to what success means in life. Not sure what I mean by that? Check out The Valedictorians Project.

Or read about Basil’s experiences in her piece, “Dear School, Eff Your F.”

Your education factory assembles each student in the same order, first this piece then the next. Units are assessed as they move down the line; the standards are high with little room for deviation. Those who fail inspection are stalled in production, the ones who pass are given certificates and sent out to market.

“Dear School, Eff Your ‘F’” by Anastasia Basil

I’m hopeful that we’ll one day get to the place where people aren’t measured against some arbitrary “norm” but instead are celebrated for their own skills and talents. Because hey, he may not buy me flowers, but my boyfriend brings me joy, and that’s a true measure of success.

P.S. If you don’t know the song, it’s a 1960 (somewhat tragic) love song by Ray Peterson.

Last week, I asked a teacher I admire if she wanted to share some of her passions with my blog readers. Her answer made me sad. She said she didn’t feel like she had done anything worth sharing this year – new grade level, new school, etc. had all left her feeling like she was less than best.

I wasn’t sure how best to respond. I mean, she’s amazing. Why doesn’t she see that? Then, a principal forwarded me an eloquent article about the virtues of being average in school. And this passage struck a nerve:

School is the only place in the world where you’re expected to excel at everything, and all at the same time. In real life, you’ll excel at what you do best and let others excel at what they do best. 

Let’s Hear It For the Average Child by Margaret Renkl

How fortunate that many of our students, once graduated, will become part of this “real life” in which they can feel valued for that in which they excel, and feel like they don’t have to excel in everything else.
(I could start a side rant about how students should feel that way every single day, but that’s a different post for a different day…)

But what happens to the teachers who live the majority of their life, from age four or five to retirement, devoid of this “real life” experience?

What happens to people who feel the pressure every single day to excel at everything?

How can teachers feel valued for what they are doing?

How can site and district leaders support teachers, not only in their professional growth, but also for the skills and passion they possess and share with students already?

How can we build an inclusive culture of camaraderie and joy (and LOVE!) so that teachers aren’t burned out with the constant demand to learn more, do more, excel more?

Because the truth of the situation is that the teacher I asked to blog IS amazing, and she excels at inspiring students to learn and question and grow every day. But if her measurement of worthiness is this unreasonable expectation of excellence in everything, then the system surely has failed her as much as it has failed the ‘average’ student.