Biographical Interview

Laurie Gordon, a reporter for the The Sparta Independent newspaper (New Jersey), interviewed me recently.  We covered some topics that I don’t usually explore in interviews and podcast appearances.

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Here are her questions and my answers:

I know you grew up in Jefferson. How did you come to go to Pope John High School?

I attended the Jefferson Public School system from kindergarten through eight grade, and I loved it. I had some great teachers and close friends, and by the time eighth grade rolled around, I definitely had a clear path forward in the high school. I was going to play saxophone in the band, run cross country, play basketball, and pitch for the baseball team. But that narrative started to change in my head when my parents casually presented Pope John as an option.    

Looking back, the decision to go to Pope John instead of Jefferson seems almost unfathomable.  All my friends, my entire life, was in Jefferson. I lived in Jefferson, grew up fishing in the White Rock Lake and rooting for the high school football team.  I don’t know how I had the courage to leave all of that.  

What I can say is that the decision to go to Pope John immediately intensified my life because it put me at the nexus of some very serious local rivalries — Pope John had Sparta on one side and Jefferson on the other, and there was fierce competition with both schools.  I think that, on some level, I was drawn to that kind of intensity. It certainly made for good drama!  

There was also part of me that had a little bit of a romantic streak. I still do. I knew that if I went to Pope John I was going to be embarking on a true adventure because I didn’t know anybody there.  I was going to have to figure things out for myself. I was going to have to prove myself all over again, and in doing so, define who I truly wanted to be. 

I was on track to be successful at Jefferson.  I knew all the key players, and certain doors were being held open for me.  But I walked away from all of that into a great unknown — and from that point on, I  got to make my own decisions about who I was.  I got to write my own future.  

Please trace your collegiate and post-collegiate studies and talk about how you ended up in the field of education.

I went to Boston College, and by the time I stepped foot onto campus I knew that I wanted to be a writer and to study English.  I had reached out to the poetry professor there, Suzanne Matson, and sent her some of my work.  I told her that I wanted to be in her advanced studies class, and she was receptive and encouraging.  I ended up taking her class twice.  

I took as many English classes as I could get my hands on, and I ended up following my interest all the way to Oxford University in England, where I spent my entire junior year.  I would say that’s where wayward desire turned into legitimate productivity because I was plugged into the Oxford tutorial system — and that meant I had to write, a lot, each week. I didn’t  have to attend classes.  Instead, I had to write a ten-page paper each week and read it out loud to an Oxford Don during a one-on-one meeting.  He or she would take notes and then tear into my arguments, my logic, my sources — point by point, almost sentence by sentence.  I had to defend my research.  I had to defend my word choice and my syntax.  This process probably sounds painful to some of your readers, but I loved it.  It forced me to learn to think and express my thinking — and it made me immune to believing my writing was somehow precious or priceless.  

When I got back to Boston College, I immediately elected to write a senior thesis.  I wrote about William Blake, and once Blake had his hooks in me, I couldn’t put him down.  I went directly to graduate school at University of Virginia with the intention of writing and learning more about Blake.   

Toward the end of graduate school, I decided to enter the one profession where I could continue to think and talk about books.  I became an English teacher with a full-blown writing habit, or on the flip side, a writer with a full-blown teaching habit.  I have never liked to separate teaching and writing.  One feeds the other.     

What were your jobs prior to Montclair Kimberly Academy?

Summers in college I worked at Max Is Back on Route 23.  I took care of the plants and sold them.  As such, I had to carry stacks of blank receipts to fill out orders for the customers.  I quickly discovered that I could write on the receipt pads, so I would weed, water, and write all day long.  It was a great way to pass the time and develop my craft.  One summer, I ended up writing a 100 page poem.  I jotted down lines on Max Is Back receipt pads and then at night I would type them up and revise them.   

In college, I worked where I could to earn extra money, but the work was uneventful.  It allowed me to buy books and CDs on the weekends.      

Grad School was where everything started to mix together and resemble the work I do now.  I worked on an oral history for a woman who lived out in the Virginia countryside.  From that experience, I learned how to listen and about the importance of taking care of people’s stories, if they were going to share them with me.  I worked on a literary magazine, which taught me how to publish and market literature.  I started teaching, as a tutor, and found that I loved to help people understand how to write.  And, finally, I wrote for a company that summarized business books.  These things made me the professional person I am today — I’m still chasing stories, still packaging and shipping sentences, still teaching, and still thinking about the best way to organize businesses.  

When I had to get a more steady job, I rolled right into teaching, partly by luck and partly by pluck.  I parlayed my journalism experience, slight as it was, into an internship opportunity at the Exeter summer school.  That job led to work at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, and currently, Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey, where I have held a range of jobs for the past 14 years, moving from full-time teaching to full-time school leadership.  But I still get to teach one class per semester, which is a blessing.   

How did your career path and various job experiences lead you to co-authoring Blending Leadership?

I started writing about teaching after the very first class I ever taught on my own, as an intern at Exeter.  Writing was how I made sense of the world.  It was like breathing for me.  So, after teaching that first class, with all kinds of thoughts running through my head, I sat down to write about it.  And, as it always did, writing helped me to make sense of my experience.  More than that, though, it fed my experience and amplified it, so that when I got into the classroom the next day, I was a slightly better teacher because I had written about and reflected on the craft of teaching.  And so I became a teacher-writer the day I became a teacher.  When I moved into school leadership, the same thing happened.  I made sense of the chaotic nature of leadership by writing about my experience; in turn, writing about leadership became a cauldron in which I forged my leadership style.

More specifically, Blending Leadership was born on a car ride on the Parkway.  I was driving home from a speaking engagement with my friend and business partner, Dr. Reshan Richards.  We gave a speech together about what leadership was like in an online-only environment.  On the ride home, we decided that it would be a shame to simply move on to the next thing, so we decided to convert our speech notes and script into a book.  We self published it, and after recouping our investment, we sent the manuscript to Wiley Jossey-Bass.  They liked it enough to give us an advance and a contract, and they asked us to rewrite the book and double its size.  So we did just that.  The book is partly about the importance of iteration in practice, and the book itself is an example of iteration in practice.  I’m proud of that — that we practice what we preach.

Please extrapolate about the goals of the book and how you feel they were achieved in the content.

In Blending Leadership, Dr. Reshan Richards and I examine and articulate the intersection of organizational leadership, learning, and technology, framing the choices that all leaders have as they attempt to serve the people they lead and their institutions.

We wrote the book for a surface audience of school leaders and a real audience of those who lead learning at any organization. 

Like A River Runs Through it or Old Man and the Sea, it’s a book about one thing on the surface — school leadership — and something else underneath — the situation in which some human beings find themselves in charge of other human beings.  It uses the surface story to get to the real story, which is that leaders have a deep responsibility to the people they lead.  Often, they control people’s time and the range of options they have to exercise their talents, day in and day out.  That’s pretty serious business, in my opinion.  Leadership is deeply moral; that doesn’t change when it is mediated through technology.  

With that said, we offer six simple beliefs to help leaders thrive in a world where technology is everywhere.  As leaders, we shouldn’t be afraid of this encroachment; we should understand it so as to thrive in it — to take advantage of all the tools that are available to us to help our organizations succeed.   

What is your “target audience” for the book?

We hope to serve teachers aspiring to be leaders.  For them, the book can serve as a kind of career roadmap, helping them to adopt the mindset of an innovative leader while becoming one.

We also wrote the book for leaders trying to understand what leadership might look like in the particular time in which we all find ourselves.  In all manner of organizations, technology is becoming a need-to-have rather than a nice-to-have, and our reliance on technology companies, which change their products continually, means a commitment to continual growth, continual learning.  Anyone who wants to lead in a world that keeps changing should be able to get some value out of our book. 

And the book is also making the rounds in some prominent tech companies in and around San Francisco, which is very intriguing.  Who knows if it will catch on there, but it’s exciting that it’s at least being considered. 

Please mention any family, friends who were sources of support during the creation of the book.

My co-author, Dr. Reshan Richards, is an extraordinary guy and a true polymath.  I turned on my parents’ television last Thanksgiving and he was a contestant on the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  He has taught math to 5th graders and organizational theory to graduate students.  He created an app, Explain Everything, that serves millions of people, helping them to be more creative and adaptive.  So, in many ways, the books is just the outgrowth of my constant conversation with a really bright and inventive guy.  We communicate almost everyday, and we are constantly churning out ideas, some of which are hilariously bad and some of which evolve into respectable products, like the book Blending Leadership.   

Brad Overall-Carter drew amazing illustrations for the book.  He took on an interesting challenge — we asked him to read the book and make spontaneous illustrations (he would call them sketchnotes) when and where he felt like interpreting the text.  We didn’t give him any other guidance because we thought his creativity would enhance the book, and we were right!  

I also have an amazing and brilliant group of co-workers at Montclair Kimberley Academy.  They teach me things everyday and push me to be my best.   

And, of course, none of this can happen without my wife, Amy.  I couldn’t do anything extra, like writing a book, without her support and her patience. When she met me, I was a poet, and she has never asked me to stop playing with words.  

Anything else you want to add!

The book has only been published for a few weeks, and it has already opened doors for us.  We’re very happy that the ideas in the book seem to be inspiring and useful to people and that they want to talk to us, want us to talk to their teams, or even want us to develop courses around the book’s principles.  We hope we’re able to make a difference, and we intend to enjoy the opportunities afforded by the book to connect with new people and organizations.  With that said, the easiest way to reach us is through our website (www.blendingleadership.com) or via Twitter @sjvalentine and @reshanrichards.  

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