Published in Thrive Global here in August 2021.
Aaron Copeland is the founder and CEO of Alignstaffing, a Washington, D.C. based recruiting firm that focuses on three core industries: education, behavioral health, and social services.
Thank you so much for doing this with 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?
My experience, like others, is an iterative process of progressively learning and understanding.
I think the first major jolt to a child’s reality is their first day of school, with an understanding that there is a difference in race, in speech, in clothing and even food eaten at lunch. Although minor differences, children adapt and find new friends. Then, the less obvious, more significant changes are revealed, like the annunciation or breadth of vocabulary, maybe the familiarity with basic math, or the un-relatability to stories shared at circle time. Instinctively and innocently the teacher calls on the best students, affirming some and not others. The child understands there is a difference between them, and the comparison begins.
The comparative experience attacks the psyche that may contribute to developing poor self-perception. The result is not a feeling of fun and joy, but anxiousness and isolation. The journey starts as not as a cup to be filled; but as a flower needing protection. This is something I can relate to.
Because of my grade school experiences, I developed an interest in unique learning styles and, if developed, their byproducts. Alignstaffing is the culmination of efforts to help in areas that can positively impact youth and ultimately our society.
For the past two decades, we’ve steadily expanded our operations, proudly partnering with top organizations and school systems to place thousands of talent candidates. Although my experience with early education was challenging, it allowed me to see the need to participate in a system that so fundamentally impacts our society.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most pivotal moment in my career began in college.
As soon as I stepped on campus, I realized that contrary to what my teachers perceived and believed, my thinking was normative. There was nothing wrong with the way I processed information. Instead, it was accepted. There was finally a space for how I thought. The internal battle was over, and my urge to compare myself to others was put to the side.
The external environment of college got me to relax and feel comfortable instead of fighting my differences. I realized, “this is what I got, and this is what I work with.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, I’m proud to be involved in two organizations that live in the space where education and purpose meet, supporting the community and giving students of all backgrounds the power to lean into their talents with confidence.
First, I currently sit on the board for my alma mater, the Towson College of Business Economics in Maryland, where I help transform the overall student experience. Second, I sit on the board of Baltimore-based non-profit Thread, where we work with local leaders, schools and community to break the cycle of crime, poor education and economic outcomes by helping disadvantaged young folks get connected with a different reality.
Prior the 2020, I kept my thoughts to myself. However, between the pandemic, personal tragedy, the turbulent political atmosphere and death of George Floyd, I recognized I didn’t see my perspective in the newsfeeds. I did not understand why a thought that was so obvious was not shared. I wanted to share an idea that made the world make better sense. I did this by creating a common ground with words, first to my contacts then eventually to the world. My words were shared in local and national publications, and the essays have been particularly helpful as leaders navigate tricky conversations head on.
Ultimately, I may never know the impact of my words, but my intention is to help folks come to their own conclusions, so that ideas can coalesce at some level.
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 US education system?
This is a tough one to answer, as it comes down to a specific school district or region. If I had to place this on a scale of 1–10, I would give it a 5.
We have a lot of work to do in disadvantaged socio-economic areas with less resources.
Second to parenting, teaching is the hardest and most societal impacting job in America. Teachers influence our future business, military and political leaders.
Along with instruction, teachers are de facto counselors, the first-line identifiers of abuse, dream-makers, confidence builders, and (I believe the hardest) sharers of truth. Plus, unofficial referees of contemporary culture wars.
Teachers should be revered like first responders. I’m not diminishing our traditional first responders; but we must recognize the work, responsibility and importance of teachers.
Teachers harbor the brunt of working with parents attempting to argue success their child has not demonstrated in the classroom. Teachers are truth tellers, recasting an alternative vision for parents that had other hope and dreams for their children. Teachers must balance educating the child, inspiring the parents to stay engaged and pacifying the more aggressive parents.
Yet, teachers are still human. Burnout is high. The ability to sustain the energy, hunger to teach and purpose is draining on a teacher year after year. Maintaining all the characteristics needed to be the crossing guard of culture while staying attuned to the nuance of behavioral and emotional problems, and balancing post-COVID school environments could bring on even more extreme challenges.
In order to improve the education system, we need to collectively give teachers the recognition they deserve and provide them with the support system to help them balance all their roles. From there, I believe we can take steps toward better outcomes.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Nowadays, it’s not politically correct to be positive, so I’m glad you asked this question.
Here are the five areas in the education system where I see positive areas of growth:
- Teachers are committed. Despite negative chatter, the majority of educators have gone above and beyond to keep learning momentum going throughout the pandemic. And, we’re seeing teachers discover creative ways to connect with students, and remain present in their lives virtually.
- Administrators are stressed, but positive. This past year has been chaos, but administrators are doing a dynamite job in an environment where there are little answers and clear direction. Although this year was quite the learning curve, they are now in a position to make more efficient decisions, backed by the resilience they’ve built.
- Parents get to witness their child’s learning experience. With hybrid and remote learning options, parents now have the opportunity to see their child learn in real time. For those who choose to listen in, this access is a powerful tool to reinforce positive behaviors at home.
- Special needs programs are expanding. In recent years, I’ve seen a rising demand for special needs teachers. There are more programs accessible for students across the learning spectrum too. At Alignstaffing, we’ve absolutely seen more active requests for special needs teachers and support staff.
- Technology is becoming more integrated in the classroom. Of course, technology has its pitfalls, but when used correctly, it can be a powerful tool to advance learning outside of the classroom, and connect with students of all backgrounds and learning abilities.
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?
Absolutely. It comes down to collective efforts between teachers, parents, and school administrators, but here are the five key areas I believe we need to address immediately.
- Provide proven tools or training with new educational national requirements.
First, let’s acknowledge it’s been a tough year to be (or, rather, not be) in a classroom. Schools were forced to, overnight, adopt stopgap measures in response to the international crisis.
Rapidly improvised solutions trickled down through the ranks: from national government organizations to state school districts to local school districts to school administrators to parents to teachers and finally, to students.
As any good English teacher would tell us: we lost the narrative in the midst of the crisis.
As a result, we’re seeing teachers who are stretched, stressed and just plain overworked. Their jobs changed overnight, and they were told to simply “make it work.” So, they did.
Let’s be sure this doesn’t happen again. Give your teachers and staff space to have a voice, and share their honest feedback.
Ask them what’s working. What’s not working. How they are. What support they need. Then, see how you can create solutions. And repeat.
Don’t forget, you can tell them what you’re facing too. Showing vulnerability is a strength, and key to building what’s broken to get back on the same page.
2. Include lessons in stress reduction within the education curriculum.
88We’ve always asked teachers to do more with less. Today, we’re asking them to do twice as much, often with no additional emotional or professional support. As a result, teachers still love teaching, but feel teaching now occupies just a small fraction of what they are being asked to do. Just as anyone wants to feel successful in their work, so do teachers.
You can’t possibly eliminate all sources of stress during a pandemic, but you can use breaks that support your wellbeing. These breaks needn’t be long: just enough to acknowledge the time sacrifice your staff is making to accommodate the new workload.
Taking the time to define the environment teachers will be facing as their school begins reopening can also reduce teacher stress. Set up processes and walk teachers through the environment they’ll be facing.
3. Troubleshoot proactively on a local level.
All problems cannot be solved nationally.
Which means, in some cases, we are solving local problems with a national solution. We need to get a better handle of where problems cascade, because how we respond to local customs geographically may have an impact on learning. Perhaps our federal leaders should establish broad regulations, but also provide consultation support to states and school districts.
In addition, embrace the idea that problems are sometimes perceived. Maybe social media makes all problems appear local. Using media, traditional or not, provide a framework for perceiving, understanding, and addressing the many problems the educational system has right in your backyard. Often, problems are a result of not being able to imagine a solution.
4. Acknowledge the challenges faced by parents and determine the effects on national policy.
While parents have always fulfilled a uniquely qualified role on the student’s educational team, this year they were asked to provide, at minimum, their child’s classroom setting, and at most, assistance to teachers by providing structure and reinforcing discipline.
As school moves increasingly away from the kitchen table and back to the classrooms, take this opportunity to engage parents and reiterate the important role they continue to play in their child’s education. While home education was an enormous burden to some, all parents learned a great deal more about their child’s learning style and what worked and did not. This knowledge, though hard-won, can be uniquely useful moving forward.
5. Learn the lessons from other industries.
Other industries experienced and survived major disruption from the pandemic as well. Can educational leaders tap into other disciplines to learn their best practices from addressing a crisis? Absolutely. Crossing industries to come up with problem-solving ideas is a great way to proactively meet change and learn how to pivot.
The pandemic was a major disruptive event in education, and we’ll be processing the lessons of its impact for years. As we emerge from the crisis, educators have more experience and response time to navigate change. If we are to have any chance conquering the challenges ahead, educators will use this time to listen and learn from its stakeholders. This approach to managing change allows us to act instead of reacting.
We’re still in this, and we’re in it together. The more empathy we can lead with, the better leaders we will be.
Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.
Teachers are truly remarkable, but with any career we can all evolve. Between my personal education experience and vetting thousands of qualified teachers, here are the five critical qualities that teachers require for success.
1 . Make every effort not to compare students, especially young children.
A child’s norm is their environment, regardless of its’ misgivings.
All the dysfunction, habits and societal and economic behaviors are normative, which translates to their culture, their being. Until a new environment is experienced, a child has no reason to believe home is any different from the rest of the world. Be gentle with them when they enter school for the first time. Focus on the learning instead of the performance. This will allow each student to contribute to society, not from a comparison of peers, but the exploration of the depths of their individuality.
2. Understand your biases and do your best to move past them.
As a teacher, you are the crossing guard for all the cultural differences in your classroom. Your words matter, and they will both affirm and negate realities. Do everything in your power to ensure that your students feel safe, seen and respected. The learning will follow.
3. Give the students, and yourself some grace.
Each child will bring in habits and educational priorities of their families. You will too. Give yourself the space to learn from each other’s upbringings to get on the same playing field. Be kind to yourself in the process.
4. Advocate for yourself and your coworkers.
Unfortunately, we have not yet reached a national consciousness to recognize that teachers do so much. Lean on your fellow teachers for emotional support, and consistently communicate your needs to your network and support staff. A healing and rejuvenation process is needed for you to do your best. You can’t do it all, but you can do more with the right support. Do the best you can, if you haven’t taught the best you can today, just do better tomorrow.
5. Be present with your student’s needs.
Before jumping into action for a struggling student, take a moment to pause and consider what emotional support they may need in the moment. Some days, a student won’t be open to learn, and you must be okay with that. A nurturing environment can always allow them to catch up.
The most important is to never forget the point of your position. Your purpose is to help students discover education, to define the world we live in and to lead them to question the old ways to perceive new realities to benefit humankind.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
The beauty of teaching is that it is simply a calling.
Deciding to enter the education world is a personal decision, it’s an internal recognition. It’s about finding your purpose and living in it. So, attracting those to the education field isn’t necessarily the issue, it’s about providing the right support to teachers once they are in the system.
No one likes to do anything over a long period of time and not be appreciated. Teachers have felt this way for a long time, and it’s why we see burnout. As a society, we need to acknowledge that what keeps us together is a good education. We need to place them in higher regard and listen to their concerns.
Teaching is a direct reflection of our diversity of thought, interests, and personalities. We need every type of teacher in the classroom. The more we can appreciate teachers, and recognize their strides, the more talent will follow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Nothing so concentrates the mind as the sight of the gallows.”
This one has always stuck with me. It’s from Samuel Johnson. Until something pressing occurs, you really don’t know what you should prioritize. When something urgent happens, your life and information is realigned. When it happens, things start to get real clear, and decisions become simple.
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 🙂
There are so many people I would love to sit with and either understand their perspective, learn from, or laugh with. Coming out of COVID, I think I’d enjoy a good, thoughtful laugh with Dave Chappelle.
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