What Does Success Look Like to You? — Julie Coles

What Does Success Look Like to You? — Julie Coles

Julie Coles grew up with a thirst for knowledge, which fueled her innate curiosity. Unaware in her younger life how influential her tendency to be curious would continue to benefit her and others around her, Julie’s decision to pursue a career in education allowed her to put her curiosity to great use.  

Julie enrolled in Brown University, where she obtained her Bachelors of Arts Degree. She continued her education at the University of Connecticut and earned her Master’s degree in Special Education. Julie was inducted into the prestigious Phi Delta Kappa, Connecticut Chapter.

Following graduation, she began her teaching career. Julie vividly recalls a conversation with someone who inquired about her career choice. She remembers him saying,  “You graduated from Brown. You could have been in a more lucrative career and done anything.” To which she replied, “Teaching is my anything.” That was truly a memorable moment because it solidified her pride in choosing to be an educator. She experienced many challenges throughout her first few years; however, her curiosity and determination helped her succeed. Rather than wallowing in frustration, those moments became opportunities to be an innovative problem solver.

Her ability to imagine innovative solutions to address problems was noticed by school and district leaders. Julie’s successes as a special education teacher landed her a consulting role to support her special education colleagues throughout the district. Having demonstrated a successful track record with her special education colleagues, Julie was appointed to a district-wide professional development consulting position for all new teachers. Her extraordinary success in her new role eventually led to her services being in high demand by school leaders interested in assisting veteran staff members to elevate their classroom management skills.

As a classroom consultant, Julie learned the importance of listening, without judgment, to teachers sharing their perspectives about areas they thought they were in need of support. After being granted permission by teachers to observe their classes, rather than attempting to “fix” the behavioral problems of students, Julie proposed a 2-pronged strategy to improve the classroom culture. Her first prong focused on classroom management strategies. Targeting holistic ways to improve managing classrooms often included identifying, with clarity, performance expectations for all students. Teachers needed assistance “resetting” policies and ways to fairly enforce them. The intent was to have all students feel like they belonged by engaging in a respectful and equitable process directed at every student instead of a select few. Removing the former stigma from students identified as “behavioral problems” had to be done through a process that would restore their dignity rather than berate them.

The second strategy focused on pedagogy. Strengthening instructional strategies was supported by reconfiguring lessons to engage all students in learning. Most importantly the 2- pronged solutions needed to be instituted concurrently. As a special education teacher, Julie’s understanding of best practices for managing her classes evolved, and one practice in particular stood out. She needed to find ways to fully engage all students in learning. Revamping lesson plans to capture and sustain the attention of an entire class of diverse learners for an hour proved to be a more challenging but beneficial process. It also forced Julie to think more innovatively, which strengthened her methods of instruction. Ultimately, academic performance outcomes improved, and a significant reduction of time was devoted to addressing disciplinary issues.

Her success as a district-wide professional development consultant influenced her aspirations to become a leader of her own school. Julie enrolled in Cambridge College’s Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies (C.A.G.S.) Educational Leadership Program to earn her principal’s license.

In time, Julie realized her aspiration of becoming a school leader where she created a level of standards for teachers and students by setting an example of excellence. Her impact as a dedicated school leader was recognized throughout the surrounding community. The school’s reputation as an alternative high school enrolling students with disciplinary issues was dramatically changed. Visitors to the school were impressed with the sophisticated demeanor of her young adult students whose polite behaviors were often compared to professional and college-level students.

Among her innovative initiatives, Julie and her staff developed partnerships with business and community organizations to enlist their support for the school’s Community Service Internship Program. The internship program was an opportunity for students to extend their educational experience, using one school day each week to develop entry-level career skills in areas of interest to them. Recognizing that college was not every student’s preference after graduation, the staff designed a program to prepare students for their transition to full-time employment opportunities after high school and post-graduation from college. Sometimes students interested in attending college after high school were reluctant about participating in the internship program. It helped to inform them that even college graduates would eventually need to be employed.

As students began to experience academic success, previous apprehensions about applying to college began to be replaced with a belief they possessed the skills needed to succeed at the next level. Interest in enrolling to 2-year and 4-year college programs gradually increased. The decision to enroll students in freshman-level college classes on campuses helped demystify preconceptions of college being beyond their reach. Establishing a College Prep Academy (CPA) for all seniors gave them an opportunity to experience college life at the campus level. Similar to launching the Community Service Internship Program, Julie devoted a lot of time reaching out to deans and college professors to request their assistance with preparing students for college.

Everything Julie and her staff endeavored to do was centered around advancing student investment in their education. Proof that putting students first and keeping the standards high led to higher graduation rates. Strengthening connections within and beyond the school’s community enhanced the school’s positive profile. Progressing as a school leader, Julie grew more determined to cultivate a school culture of student-scholars committed to making positive contributions to their school and surrounding communities. Cultivating aspiring young adults poised to succeed in their future was one of the key missions of her school. Over the span of fifteen years graduation ceremonies were among the most gratifying moments.  Witnessing countless students see their aspirations of earning a high school diploma come to fruition were truly momentous occasions. What made them all even more special was each graduation ceremony was unique from every other ceremony. The students showed up and showed out! It was wonderful!

Today, Julie takes the experience built from years of dedicated service in education into the publishing world. As an author and publisher, she aspires to share lessons she has learned about what students are truly capable of achieving. It is from those lessons Julie felt inspired to write about innovative 21st-century education models and how to make them accessible to all students; regardless of their socio-economic status or location. Her first book, America’s Educational Crossroads, shares a range of innovative ideas and models. She hopes to inspire others to join her efforts to advance the quality of education for every student. Julie sees this mission as the responsibility of our entire society.

Can you share a little about the early days of your author and publishing career? 

When I began writing my first book, I set out to clarify the lessons I learned from my career as an educator and administrator. My growth as a school leader was especially memorable because I was inspired by insights I gained from my young adult students. They were the ones who helped me understand how complicated the path towards earning a diploma truly is. Generally school leaders are socially distant from students. Being continually bombarded with attending to administrative stuff was the least enjoyable part of being a school leader.  But school leaders, who keep their doors open to welcome students, are often rewarded with opportunities to really get to know them on a personal level. I appreciated getting to know my students as people living real lives. For me, it was always time well spent. Being accessible to students was also essential to the work I had to do on their behalf. It was during my discussions with students I became aware of how our current educational system does not fully understand, and is unequipped to be responsive to the real needs of high school students. What is shared in the pages of my book reflects what I learned from students whose trust I earned. The level of trust was revealed in their decision to be open and honest with me about the conditions they were dealing with in their world outside of school. Our conversations helped me understand that relationships built with staff mattered more than I initially realized. Both the school and the staff served as emotional anchors for so many students. The school and staff represented stability. But the humanitarian deeds of adults who showed an interest in their well-being in and outside of school helped improve our school’s culture. It is during my writing sessions,  where I revisit my former life as an educational leader, that I have come to appreciate my own evolution. I think my professional transformation to becoming a better school leader was aided by learning how to become more invested in serving the holistic needs of students. 

How have you achieved success?

As a writer and author, I often look back on my career as an educator and think about the milestones I achieved. But I also revisit some of the failures I experienced throughout my career. Failures revealed imperfections in areas that I needed to honestly address and then make adjustments. Each one was addressed with humility and gratitude; particularly for those who mentored or assisted me along the way. The experiences are similar to what I am currently learning as a new author and publisher. I expect that I will make mistakes but having a network of supportive long-time friends and new advisers in the independent publishing world has been a tremendous help. 

What obstacles have you overcome in the process?

As an author, I’ve had to learn how to avoid self-inflicted publishing mistakes. While I might find a particular idea for a book title, or potential name for a publishing company appealing to me, I appreciate when others politely suggest, “No, Julie. You don’t want to go there.”  Even if I occasionally don’t agree with their warnings, I generally accept their advice. Sometimes I may not know their reasons for trying to persuade me from a particular decision, but I trust that they have my best interest at heart. My trust in them is the litmus test I use because eventually I see why they steered me away from something that could have been harmful. Now I make an effort to self-monitor my actions and decisions. But occasionally, in the back of my mind, I do wonder what advice my trusted ones would pass along to me. I sometimes do actually imagine their response being a resounding, “Nope!” In those moments I do change course and go down a different path. 

What drives you to succeed?

I’m not generally preoccupied with my personal success. It’s the impact of our broken education system on the lives of students that drives my motivation. It is a system that cannot fix itself. We need a reimagined model that reflects the current century. Continuation of a public education system that relies on outdated practices, policies and educational resources; while other industries invest in changes needed to maintain currency with the 21st century, is contributing to the decline of our education status nationally and globally. We are repeatedly reminded of our economic status as one of the richest countries in the world, yet we allow students living in poor neighborhoods to languish in poverty and receive substandard education. This further prevents them from accessing higher education and future economic prosperity. Everyone knows improvements are needed and we see the benefits of educational prosperity in economically prosperous communities. Those residents invest in new schools, contemporary curriculum, and lessons designed to bolster interest and engagement in learning. Not only do they set high educational standards, they adopt equally high expectations of teachers to motivate and work with  students to achieve these standards. 

The entire nation should mirror that level of commitment. The recipe for ensuring quality education for everyone has been known and repeated in some communities since the start of education in America. The recipe can and should be replicated everywhere. High standards fueled by equally high expectations and investment in quality educational resources are the ingredients needed in every school throughout every community. 

How has your definition of success changed over the years? 

I need to describe the stages of success as benchmarks achieved, in spite of a few obstacles.

It was a journey of unknowns, and unpredictable decisions. But the ability to progress from one stage of my evolution onto the next was successful because I trusted my instincts.

Benchmarks developed from my decision to take the initial illustration of a 21st century high school model I envisioned from paper to a video. Benchmark 1 was achieved after my design illustrator and I created the model on a poster. On paper, the Collaborative High School Campus Model was composed of networks of career and college prep schools displayed in uniquely shaped and colorful buildings. Although initially the buildings were designed using standard geometric shapes of rectangles and squares. It looked too ordinary and a lot like the school buildings students currently attend. I decided, something had to change.

The decision for the change became the inspiration for the 2nd Benchmark. My illustrative designer and I created buildings designed to be representative of the current century. Aesthetically, the model shows a bit of my playful nature, but visually we achieved our goal. We successfully designed a campus model that symbolically aligns the shape of each building with the building’s purpose. 

The visual representation was very nice, but still insufficient. My next thought  was that the model’s purpose needed to be explained. That decision led to the 3rd benchmark. This was the most audacious phase of my project’s evolution, because it was never planned. But I knew the best way to explain the model’s purpose would be aided by a video format. Having never experienced taking on the monumental task of creating a video initially made me apprehensive. I knew absolutely nothing about the process or the amount of time it would take to produce a video. But my apprehension didn’t last long. I asked my illustrator if transforming the model into a video were possible and if he knew how to do it. When he said, “Yes.”, I was surprised and very elated. With the help of a video producer two new dominos just fell in my favor. 

The natural next step in the project’s evolution takes us to the 4th Benchmark; which predictably dovetailed with the creation of the video. A narrated tour of the campus to explain my purpose for imagining the new high school model was a labor-intensive task. The tour required a script and someone to narrate it. I wrote the script. It took several days and many long hours. While writing I wondered who would be the narrator. I managed to recruit a few high school students to narrate, but once I discovered that it only made sense for them to narrate portions of the video, another decision had to be made. 

Which takes us to the 5th and final Benchmark. Someone needed to be the lead narrator of the tour. Determined that it would not be me, I mulled over a few options. Hiring a professional was a possibility, but it was not my first preference. My first preference was to ask Morgan Freeman. Seriously….I truly wanted Morgan Freeman! In fact, I then went further and tried to imagine how to make it happen. In the film industry we often hear of common phrases like, “I’ll have my people reach out to his people.”, to initiate the contact.  But when someone has no “people” available to initiate the communication process with Morgan’s “people”, inevitably it becomes clear that it’s time to let go of that idea. So into the bin of so many other pleasant, but short-lived, dreams that idea went. And given that the window of time to complete the project was quickly closing, it was time for me to stop procrastinating. Over the course of many weeks I listened to people imploring me to be the lead narrator. Clearly my time spent wishing and hoping for someone, other than me, to narrate the script was not time well spent. I continued to resist and then eventually concluded the time had come to recruit the only remaining person left to be the lead narrator; me. 

This final benchmark was the most difficult to achieve because I remained obstinate until I no longer had a choice. I finally capitulated. Upon completing the project I was surprised by what I experienced. I found it quite fulfilling. Having to overcome my resolve to not narrate was rewarded upon seeing, and hearing, the finished product. Ultimately, we designed a dynamic illustration of a high school model that I hoped would appeal to the aspirations of every student. In fact, the model was inspired by my students. As a life-long educator I will continue to wonder what I can do to improve the educational experiences of current and future generations of students.  

What has success meant to you?

Success for me is constantly thinking through what I want to do, why I want to do it, and identifying the steps needed to get it done. It’s like constantly living in a bubble of inventing new ideas, but directed by a sense of purpose in support of a mission. For example, adopting the habit of stick-to-it-ness allowed me to  write about, then pause and imagine what a 21st century, college and career-oriented high school campus model could possibly look like. Once I was able to imagine what the new high school model could look like, and what resources were needed for students to educationally and socially-emotionally thrive, I succeeded in bringing my vision to fruition.  

Do you have advice for others on how to be successful?

If you have an idea, find others who know you well and share your thoughts with them. If you want them to understand your mission and believe in your goals, find ways to prove you are sincere about what you want to achieve.  If you have “receipts” of something you’ve already created, written, or built, share them with others. You have to be willing to take risks. Showing examples of what you’re capable of will help others gain a sense of where you’re coming from, as well as where you intend to grow. When needed, ask others for their advice. Seek out others knowledgeable about, or more familiar with the career you want to pursue. Learn how to probe others for information. It’s helpful to ask more experienced people, “What don’t I know that I need to know?” 

How do you feel success affects a person’s outlook? 

Any time someone experiences success it can be a gratifying feeling. Usually success signals that if they possess the capacity to achieve it once, they can do it again. Thinking about the conditions that led to previous experiences of success is a great starting point. But sometimes the continuation of success may require some alterations to those conditions. Those alterations represent growth. 

Final Thoughts

In thinking a little deeper about the topic of success, it may be helpful to not fear mistakes since we all possess the ability to get back up and imagine a new way forward. Success can be about recovery from a downfall. Those downfalls may represent moments to pause and objectively assess the current circumstances. Take some time to be curious about identifying the conditions that led to the downfall. Eventually you may discover that recovery from downfalls that lead to favorable outcomes are important milestones that can be tremendously gratifying.  Given the challenges you face, it is important to also value milestones achieved. So go ahead and allow yourself time to celebrate. Then post your achievements in a mental scrapbook of life’s memorable moments. We all have a scrapbook to fill. So it’s important to keep making more memorable moments of successes and downfalls. I’m even reserving a page in my mental scrapbook for when I finally summon the courage to reach out to Morgan’s people and inquire if he is available to narrate a 2.0 version of my video. Did I mention, it helps to have a sense of humor?