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Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences that Impact a Lifetime


Personal & Authentic:
Designing Learning Experiences that Impact a Lifetime

Thomas C. Murray, Director of Innovation, Future Ready Schools®, Alliance for Excellent Education
Deb Delisle, President, Alliance for Excellent Education

“What will happen today that has your kids running back tomorrow?”

That’s just one of the thought-provoking questions best-selling author Thomas C. Murray asks in his latest book, Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences that Impact a Lifetime.

Just in time for the holidays, Personal & Authentic is the perfect holiday gift for the educator in your lives. In the book, Murray reveals how recent work in the learning sciences has helped paint a detailed picture of what kids need to thrive. Grounded in relationships and built upon a culture for learning, personal and authentic experiences respect the hidden stories within each child and are learner-centered by design. These experiences are filled with moments of awe and the learning is inherently relevant and contextualized. Appropriate levels of flexibility in pace and path are granted so that agency can develop while authentic feedback ensures fidelity in the learning process. To support the personal and authentic experience, spaces and tools are leveraged in evidence-based, meaningful ways.

On January 16, 2020 Tom and All4Ed President Deb Delisle held this webinar to discuss how educators have the power to leave a legacy by:

  • making students’ learning experiences personal and authentic;
  • ensuring that the culture around you is personal and authentic;
  • developing and nurturing personal and authentic relationships; and
  • being personal and authentic.

The work is hard, but our kids are worth it!

Please note: Registrants who cannot watch the webinar live will receive the archived video after the webinar airs.

Please direct questions concerning the webinar to

The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC-based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization committed to improving educational outcomes—and lives—of students, with a focus on those in middle and high school. We embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion and specifically advocate on behalf of all students who are historically underserved or marginalized.

If you are interested in renting the Alliance’s facilities for your next meeting or webinar, please visit our facilities page to learn more.



Deb Delisle:                Hello and welcome to today’s webinar on an excellent new book from the Alliance for Excellent Education’s very own Tom Murray.


I’m Deb Delisle, President and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education. Thank you for joining us today. And Tom thank you so much for being here with us today and for writing this wonderful new book, so awesome, Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experience That Impact a Lifetime.


                                    To our audience if you’re Tweeting about today’s webinar please use the Authentic EDU hashtag that you see in the bottom of your screen.


Before we start Tom I have to admit I went through two boxes of tissues in reading this book. I started, I stopped, I started, I stopped. It resonated so much with me and I saw myself and my kids in this particular book. Sometimes I thought my heart would just absolutely pop out of my chest I just was so moved by your words. I learned more about the experiences that have shaped your life and I have come to truly respect you not just as a colleague, but also as a friend on this journey together on education. Thank you for sharing the moments in your book. I did bring another box of tissues along the way and I’d suggest to our audience when you pickup this awesome book to read that you end up having a box of Kleenex by your side as well.


So Tom people say not to ever judge a book by its cover. I pickup this book, this is one of the most visually appealing covers and I’m a very visual person. It just resonates with me. I’m the kind of person who walks through a bookstore and says, “Mmm I’m interested in this.” Talk a little bit about the reasoning behind this and why it was so important for you to have this on your cover?


Tom Murray:              Well thanks Deb and it’s such an honor to be here today. It’s such an honor to call the Alliance for Excellent Education and Future Ready Schools home, so it is great to be here and thanks for the opportunity to talk a little bit about Personal & Authentic.


You know when you look at the cover of the book I really wanted to create some imagery or have imagery created I should say that spoke to the heart and you see that, but also reminded educators, you’ll notice the fingerprints on them.


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm.


Tom Murray:              So when we were thinking about Personal & Authentic really diving into how do you visually represent something that’s personal and authentic? Just like all of our fingerprints are unique the impacts that we leave as educators on the children that we serve is unique as well. So I wanted to create this visual imagery to help educators and remind them why we do what we do, but their authentic impact is really on generations to come and it starts with the cover that you see in the book.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah it’s amazing. And for those of you who can look closely at the cover when you get to the cover of your book you will see there are two fingerprints and they intersect so much so that they do create this heart. So I’m just so excited that that was such a visually appealing front cover in Designing Learning Experiences that Impact a Lifetime. Talk a little bit about that. What led you to this particular strength and talent that you have?


Tom Murray:              Yes. So one of the things that I know about educators is they just go and they go and they go often until they have nothing left. You know I brought myself back to my first year of teaching at 21 years old, thought I had a clue as to what I was doing. But I’ll share there were days that I would head home with tears in my eyes wondering if I was having that impact. There were days I would head home wondering if I was just making a difference?


Working with so many educators through Future Ready School around the country you know sometimes I know they question that. You know we ask educators to seemingly do more and more every year with less and less. So I wanted to give them that firm foundation or reminder of the impact that and the privilege that they get to have in working with kids.


So in creating Personal & Authentic I think the visual imagery did that as a starting point, but to really create a book that reminds educators why we do what we do, speaks to the heart a little bit. It’s a different book in the essence of sharing some of my own personal experiences, but also taking some of everyday life experiences and relating it back to ultimately why we do what we do and that’s serving kids.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. One of the wonderful things I would suggest about the book and actually I believe firmly in it is the style of writing that you have. We talked a little bit about this before and you were talking about your prior book as very much formal writing if you would say.


Tom Murray:              Yep, yep.


Deb Delisle:                Having been a language arts teacher. Then when I read this you just capture people’s hearts in reading it because of the informality. Is that a difficult style of writing?


Tom Murray:              Yeah you know this book was actually a lot easier for me to write. Learning Transformed as you referred to co-author with Eric Sheninger with the ASCD it’s a very different book. I will start with the audience is meant to be different.


Sometimes in working with a district they might say you know, “Should I buy Learning Transformed for every teacher?” I’ll actually always like, “Understand that’s not the audience. It’s a much drier book, it’s much more research-to-practice.” Michael Fullan called it, “A blueprint for systems change.”


Deb Delisle:                No tissues needed, right?


Tom Murray:              Yeah, no, no there’s not that heartfelt story. And so in terms of from an author and this was actually an easier for book for me to write because it’s telling stories and it’s really it’s putting myself back in that classroom or times as a principal that I just messed it up and made a bad call. So sharing stories is a lot easier to write than pulling lots of contemporary research and trying to pull it in to make recommendations and so I really enjoyed writing it.


I will say as you mentioned it does tap a lot of emotion. There were many days I would write about 4:00 in the morning and I’d be there and I’d go into a Starbucks and I will tell you I’m over there in the corner and I’m having a coffee and I had some tears streaming. Just like many, many educators have already reached out sharing the impact that it’s had and touching their heart. I will tell you as an author it really brought me back to some emotion and it brought back to some of the things that I can relive going back to being that first-year teacher and having some of the things happen or you know the stressors that we had as a principal or when I was in district office and relived some of that. And so in writing the book I think the power of story is what came out. It’s really what people relate to.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah I was particularly captured right from the beginning because you’re Introduction is very powerful. It’s written by Inky Johnson, a well-known name to many, although maybe not in education circles. So why did you ask Inky to write this when he’s not very well known in the education field?


Tom Murray:              Sure, thanks for saying that. And you know people have asked, “It’s interesting you didn’t start with a Forward from an educator.” I will actually say it was really intentional.


When I look at Inky Johnson’s story and for those of you that don’t know Inky Johnson’s story I encourage you to checkout Inky Johnson’s story. For me it was I wanted to if I was going to have a Forward kind of debated for a long period of time, but I wanted to have a Forward from somebody whose life experience was very different than mine.


You know any time I write a book I recognize that. It really comes from my lens, my personal experience, but I fully recognize the vast differences of other people out there. So Inky is somebody he grew up in a two-bedroom home in one of the most different areas outside of Atlanta, 14 people living there. He grew up completely poor and he would go out to the bus stop on certain days and actually shakeout his backpack to make sure that there was no mice or rats from the night before before he got to school.


So you know in getting to know Inky and hearing his story the where I share it, it’s not just “Here are some stories,” it’s about the impact of a teacher.


So I lead with that Forward because to this day Inky will talk about his teacher saving his life and his teacher intervening and saying, “Inky you’re better than that” and calling him out when he needed too. But it was a teacher that picked him up for school every day of his high school to make sure that he was there, that would shoot hoops with him and do those kinds of things that eventually walked his life down the aisle at Inky’s wedding.


Deb Delisle:                Isn’t that amazing, right?


Tom Murray:              So starting out I wanted to show people the impact that we had. And so although he’s not an educator he’s not giving educational advice, he’s talking about, “Here’s somebody that made a difference in my life” and that’s something I want teachers to walk away with.


Deb Delisle:                And that’s what’s so incredibly difficult as an educator. So often we think well we don’t know the impacts that we have and it’s very powerful when you hear stories when somebody reflects back on somebody, the adult in their life who mattered. Because that adult may or may not know it, right? So I always encourage folks to go ahead and send a note back to somebody who mattered in your life. That introduction really is a tribute back to that teacher who according to Inky saved his life, but also probably served as a great role model for Inky to pay it forward if you will.


It sounds like your lesson about that is really critical to teachers. So talk a little bit about that and this whole focus on relationships and why it matters so much.


Tom Murray:              Yeah in the Personal & Authentic framework that I created relationships are really at the heart and center. You know it’s no secret when I was a teacher, when I was a principal or at district office or working with educators today it is really difficult to have a profound experience with a child if there’s a poor relationship there.


So you know whether it’s Inky’s story and hearing about that relationships or it’s working through Future Ready and just seeing the impact that we have it really does come down to that relationship. You know when a child knows that you believe in them and will do whatever it takes it doesn’t mean having that great relationship doesn’t mean we sugarcoat everything and just get them by, sometimes it’s calling them out.


So you know I can think back to a mentor that had done that for me and that relationship really is at the heart and soul of why we do what we do. One of the things that I wrote in the book is that I really believe if we become more concerned about what we teach before who we teach we’ve lost the purpose in the work.


Deb Delisle:                Powerful statement.


Tom Murray:              It doesn’t minimize content, it doesn’t minimize standards, it’s all important stuff, but it never will become before who we teach.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about that. I was so interested at the beginning of the book when you introduced us, all of us as readers to the mentor you had, whose name I believe was Mark.


Tom Murray:              Mm-hmm.


Deb Delisle:                Can you talk a little bit about Mark and it’s a very powerful story and one I would reach into this little box of tissues because while it’s a very sad portion of your life it also sparked just your heart in a different kind of way. So talk about the importance of Mark as your mentor and then the eventual influence it had on you.


Tom Murray:              Sure. When I think about Mark in my first year one of the things I was just so incredibly blessed to have an amazing mentor. What I mean by that it wasn’t just, “Here’s your next packet,” “Here’s the next thing you’re teaching.” Mark called me out when my mindset was off and I’m really encouraged when I look back at having somebody man-to-man, we were the only two male teachers in our elementary school where we were.


At one time it was October of that year and I share this story in the book where my mindset just wasn’t right. I walk into my faculty room, I totally lose it. I’d had a rough morning over this one child. And you know I’d blow up in front of all my colleagues and I lose it and you know, “This kid’s not getting it. Mom never calls me back.” I really go into the entire thing.


Deb Delisle:                Sounds like sort of a “poor me” moment in time.


Tom Murray:              It was. And to be honest in retrospect now that I can look back I was 21 years old, I’d been teaching for only a handful of weeks, so my skill set really wasn’t where it needed to be.


Deb Delisle:                But you had a license that said you’re a teacher, right?


Tom Murray:              That I did. You know there’s just so many lessons from that first year and certainly some good things happened. But I realize in retrospect how limited my tool belt was in having some of those things.


You know my mentor, Mark, in one of the stories that I share in the book followed me out of that faculty room and I didn’t realize it at that point in time, opens up my door and there I was at my desk, I had just totally lost it in front of my colleagues and comes over and reads me the riot act of like, “We don’t act like that here. We don’t do that” and really called me out on it.


I will tell you it was a turning point for me even early on of recognizing, one, here’s a mentor that’s calling me out saying like, “We don’t do that here” and ultimately said, “Maybe it’s you that’s the problem.” You know when I found out the things that I’d found out months later about that individual child like it was such a humbling feeling recognizing I’m so focused on me and my rules and my expectations that I couldn’t see him.


So when we look at the heart of that child and when I understood why that child was acting up the way they were it completely put into perspective of my worries and my fears. Just getting to school on a given day was a colossal accomplishment for that child and yet I was worried about some pretty low-level stuff in that child’s life.


So to have a mentor to call me out and say like, “We don’t do that,” but set me straight. You know it’s something that those educators on a whole and I don’t know if people in general don’t really like that conflict and I think many times and I think many times throughout my career where I would look the other way maybe as a principal or an issue to address then I’m not one that loves conflict, but I will tell you there’s times where we need to address it one-on-one and just say, “Hey we’re not being professional when we talk like that.” “When we gossip about that colleague we don’t do that here” and I’m fortunate that I had a mentor that did that for me.


Deb Delisle:                You know what’s really fascinating about this story and quite interesting to me is that when Mark approached you even though you say he called you out, to me he did so in a very loving and caring kind of way, right? He could have just said, “Oh just let him walk out” or “He’s never going to make it.” He could have dismissed you, right?


Tom Murray:              Yeah.


Deb Delisle:                Or, “Lord there’s that uppity 21-year-old who thinks he knows everything.” On the other hand he didn’t let that slide by and he saw great potential in you so he invested a piece of him. I think of the language that he was using like, “We don’t do that here.” So there’s this very much this culture of collegiality which is so important.


Tom Murray:              Yep.


Deb Delisle:                But right after that moment in time you again grab the reader by the throat and by the heart most especially and talk a little bit about what happened later on with that student that again was a deep blow to your own heart and just really inspired you to be completely humble.


Tom Murray:              Yeah. So about a month later you know we were still grieving the loss of the… In that case we were – when building up to is you know later that spring you know Mark was the kind of teacher kids ran to. He was the kind of teacher that people, kids would come back and visit all the time.


But later that spring Mark passes in a car accident and driving down and I was one of the last people to say goodbye. I will tell you and it’s hard not to get emotional sharing about it, but you know those quick interactions in those moments and sharing with Mark and you see the impact of the teacher, 4,000 people, and sometimes people say, “Really 4,000” and that’s roughly what they estimate and it took hours and hours just to be able to pay your respects to my mentor.


Deb Delisle:                Mmm, mmm and probably grown kids, students who have grown up and now returns as adults?


Tom Murray:              Yeah, yes absolutely yeah. You know he was the type of teacher and you see so many amazing teachers out there, that they’re not just amazing at school, he was so well known in his community. There were so many things he ran in the township. So he was known everywhere that he went; it was the type of person that he was.


You know but losing a mentor, losing somebody that I really wanted to be like was a real challenge for me. You know I will tell you there was days where I closed the door and you have these nine and ten year olds looking up at me thinking, “Where’s the person across the hall” and for some of them it was their first really loss to somebody that they were used to and saw.


Deb Delisle:                Yes and you don’t learn about that in teacher school.


Tom Murray:              No, right, no absolutely. I will tell you just the grieving process with my colleagues. You know I remember that day coming in after the accident and Mark had lost control of a brand new RV and that day just coming in and loving on one another as colleagues and nobody talked what we taught that day, it was about people, it was about relationships, it was about loving on kids. You know it was pulling together as that team.


So the emotion is still raw when I talk about it just because of the relationships that’s there. You know every one of us had dealt with loss in some way, a family, a close friend you know it never gets easy by any means, but I will tell you it’s part of my – my goal is helping his legacy live on because he was a life changer. You know being able to share part of his story and his impact in this book almost 20 years later is something that I’m proud to do on his honor.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah, yeah. And not to undone by challenges.


Tom Murray:              Mm-hmm.


Deb Delisle:                Fast forward a little bit of time and some other tragedy enters your life.


Tom Murray:              Yeah.


Deb Delisle:                I know that’s it hard and raw to talk about it, but can you share a little bit about it, because again it grabbed my heart right away like, “Okay things are going to get a little bit happier in your story and your travel along being an incredible educator,” but that didn’t happen.


Tom Murray:              Yeah. So about a month later after Mark had passed we were, we were still mourning. You know it’s not like you just flip the switch and you get over it quickly. We were doing this one assignment in our class and it was on, “Who do you admire?”


So the story that I share in the book is you know for me I was finally getting to a point because here I was seven or eight months into my career, finally I had some great parent interactions, some good things happened in the classroom, feeling like just maybe, maybe I could do this teaching thing.


So we were doing this “Who do you admire” and I was going through and I was so proud of my kids. They had worked so hard and just with such detail. Some of them talked about a mom or someone talked about a coach or those things. I get to this one –


Deb Delisle:                Remind again if I may interrupt what grade level, remind our –


Tom Murray:              It was fourth grade.


Deb Delisle:                Fourth grade.


Tom Murray:              Yeah. So I get to this one, Cody, and he was one we had some struggles in our class, but he had written about me. I will tell you at a point where part of it was my model I had written for the class I wrote about Mark and I wrote about how I admired him because kids wanted to be in his class and he was a veteran of 26 years and he knew what he was doing and he had called me out when I was thinking, “Wow” and Cody had written about me.


So I teared up the moment that that came and it was all about not what I taught but it was about the relationship that we had. That he came to school because he knew I believed in him and that when he came to school he knew that I would help make him smile. This is a child that had a difficult past and difficult upbringing.


So I was in service day the following day and I hear, “Tom Murray if you’re in the building please come to the office.” So my heart just didn’t set right. It was just kind of this weird like, “Why am I doing this?”


Deb Delisle:                Sinking feeling.


Tom Murray:              So I walk out. I walk out of Quaker Town High School, there I was, I was second floor and I walk out and the district administrator is standing there and looks me in the eye and I kind of get this feeling of like, “Oh no.” Her words are, “So something’s happened, it’s not your family.” I remember feeling like, “I can’t do this. Like I can’t do this.”


So I get walked down and the superintendent, assistant superintendent folks there and I can still visualize where people were in the room to find out that that morning Cody had passed away. And I will tell you one of the pieces that I write in the book but if I just had a little more chance, if I just had one more opportunity… You know they ruled his death accidental in that regard and I’m not going to get into the details. I only share in the book what was made public in the newspapers.


But I will tell you it’s one of those that I really wish I could have – I really wish I’d took you know extra time.


You know I think naturally when we have losses like that sometimes and we see things throughout our country all the time you know you have this natural guilt of, “Well maybe I could have…” or “Maybe I could have…” I will tell you I never had the chance to hand that back to Cody. It’s one of my regrets kind of in education.


Deb Delisle:                Yes, right.


Tom Murray:              But I think it propels my passion of looking at it. Then when I was a principal having gone through some of those pieces.


One of the stories I didn’t tell in the book, but that was in May and then that September having grown up in New York I lost three friends in 9/11. So that was a six-month stretch that I will tell you was the lowest of my life. Looking back on that it really gave me a foundation of, “If I can get through those pieces what’s going to come at me as a principal that I can’t handle” or you know those other things and not to minimize other issues that came along the way.


I will tell you it was a really difficult time in my life, but as I reflect on it it made me who I am today and some of the work that I want to lead, but it also helped give me a lens on seeing people first and not just getting caught up in the content and standards first, which again are important, but not more important than people.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. I just feel so much for why it resonated with me particularly because you know when people say, so if I reference my role as a superintendent in a school district and I love those kids and I loved our team, you know folks would say out of all the experience I’ve ever had, “What the most meaningful for you?” I go back to that time and say, “Well what were some of the really difficult time” and it was what I had to face children dying.


Tom Murray:              Yeah.


Deb Delisle:                And I remember one week in which three children in the school district died. Again you know I said, “Teacher school doesn’t teach any of this in leadership or superintendant school because that’s about the lowest you can get.” When you see a family grieving and breaking that cycle of life it’s just so difficult. So you could see I’m moved by your book and reflecting that again in my own experience.


I always think about culture. So I’ve been in the business for more than 40 years and I certainly adhere to the adage that you know culture eats strategy every day of the week for lunch for breakfast, whatever meal it wants to eat, right? But one of the things I really like and you talk about a little bit here I’d like to expand upon it a bit is you have four core pillars of culture strategy. So can talk a little bit about that?


Tom Murray:              Sure. So I really wanted to pull together and again doing a lot of this type of work around Future Ready schools and creating environments that people want to be. One of these ideas is this first idea around leadership. Sometimes we look at leadership by title and that’s something that Eric and I addressed in Learning Transformed and it’s helping teachers to see that you know some of the greatest people that I’ve ever worked with that were the most dynamic leaders those are people that we teaching in classrooms every day, those support staff members that we making a few dollars an hour above minimum wage, they had a backbone to our building.


So around this first piece being leadership and recognizing their own leadership in the classroom. It is so easy in our work to point the finger and to say, “Well if my principal would…” or “If this person would…” It’s so much more difficult to look at here and so it’s helping people to reflect on, “Well how do you lead” and “How do you make those decisions,” “How do you empower others for kids to be able to lead?”


Deb Delisle:                Right.


Tom Murray:              This other idea in creating it is around interactions and helping people to understand that every interaction really matters. I really believe when we talk culture that every interaction either builds culture and tears it down, there’s really very few neutral interactions. So helping people appreciate those quick interactions.


Throughout the book I reflect on just some really quick, sometimes even 30-seconds or less things that had happened that I can remember 20 years later and why is that and helping them to understand the interactions, sometimes that quick interaction, student-to-teacher, can be a life changer for that child and not to lose sight of that.


But I also talk about risk taking and trust. And so trust is really the foundation of all those pieces, whether it be in a classroom or leading a building or leading a district. If your students don’t trust you or your teachers don’t trust you as a principal. And so creating those four to help create that culture is ultimately go back to that risk taking so kids can take risks, where teachers can take risks, or principals can take risks. So whether you’re talking the highest levels or superintendant or even in a classroom level it’s all very relevant.


Deb Delisle:                I notice when you talk about trust and this whole level of trust and even being a professional you also talk about self-care and its importance. That has not been my priority so I’m going to get lessons from you as well, as should our viewers. Talk a little bit about self-care, not just about the importance of it, but I’m hoping you can give us an example of how you practice self-care.


Tom Murray:              Yeah and so I like to say I’m not good at it either. It’s one of those that I think I tell people, “Here’s what you should do, but don’t do what I do.” I think it gets to the heart of you know the nature of people that are educators we have this servant heart. But understanding that giving and giving and giving often until you have nothing left puts you at a point where that you can’t be at your best when we need to maximize our effectiveness.


One of the analogies I make is you know as humans we won’t go to bed at night without recharging our phone. Like God forbid we have a phone that’s not charged the next day, but we do that all the time as educators, we’ll go months without recharging ourselves.


Deb Delisle:                Great analogy, thank you.


Tom Murray:              So I make the connection to trust it’s like we’ve got to trust ourselves enough to make sure that we can do those self-care pieces like leave the laptop at school or not answering e-mails over a weekend or whatever it is, because this work is so emotional, this work is there’s always something to do, there’s always more they can do, there’s always lessons you can improve. That’s there’s a point where we need to find ways to shut it off to make sure that we don’t lose our family in the process, we don’t lose our health in the process; to ultimately be able to maximize those examples when we need to in our classroom.


Educators have such servant hearts that I think it’s difficult for them to shut it off at times because you’re giving, giving, giving.


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm, yeah.


Tom Murray:              But doing whatever it takes for kids does not mean you go until you have nothing left.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. I’d also suggest that the importance of that Tom is there’s a price to be paid when as an educator you feel you have to know all the answers.


Tom Murray:              Yeah, yep.


Deb Delisle:                And you carry that burden when you don’t know the answer. Or if I’ve tried strategy A, B, and C and it doesn’t work begin to internalize that, rather than reaching out to you just the way Mark reached out to you and say, “I just can’t get this,” but there’s a vulnerability there. Have you felt that ever that vulnerability?


Tom Murray:              Yeah.


Deb Delisle:                And how do you overcome that as an educator when you don’t have the answers? I do think that that impacts your mental wellbeing, right?


Tom Murray:              Absolutely. You know obviously it’s being competent is a nonnegotiable, we have to be competent in the work. But I think people related to vulnerability. It’s why throughout the book I share so many times that I’ve failed, so many times that my mindset was off. In fact I don’t believe I share one single story what I would say, “I’m trying to pat myself on the back,” because I wanted to be vulnerable throughout the book.


What I’ve found in working with thousands of educators is that you know when somebody is standing up front saying, “Well look at me and look how I did it,” you come up with every reason you can. “Well if I had that principal,” “If I had that superintendent,” “If I had that PTO buy that budget,” you make every excused you can. But when you’re vulnerable and you just put it out there you find people saying, “Yeah there was a time when my mindset was off I lost it too.” So that connection let’s people let their guard down and then you can just be real.


One thing throughout the book and I really wanted to be is just real. It’s not your top-down you know, “You need to do these five things,” it’s just let’s be real as educators but not lose sight of the impact that we get to –


Deb Delisle:                Yeah I remember one time when I was teaching sixth grade and I’d planned this science lesson that I thought was going to be the most fantastic thing. On the very first day a student named, Michael, threw his books down and told me it was irrelevant.


I had to make a split-second decision because I could have gone and just said, “Okay out of the classroom. We’re going to plow ahead with this because you know how much I spent?” That would make the kids feel really bad and guilty, right, or they wouldn’t have cared. But I had to step back and just say my response to that was, “Okay I’m going to be vulnerable here and say to kids, ‘So what are you interested in learning about and tell me why.’ ”


We went off in a different direction. It ends up being a great lesson, because we ended up being guided by kids at that particular point. But it freed me a little bit to be vulnerable to my kids, not just to the adult peers around me; that’s really important too.


Tom Murray:              And the bottom line I think you know educators we I think we’re wired and I know biologically this is incorrect, but we’re wired to be perfectionists. We want it to be, we want that lesson to be just perfect, because it really comes from having high expectations in and of ourselves. But at the end of the day if our kids see us as somebody that knows it all, doesn’t make mistakes, has all the curricula’s mastered they can’t relate to us because they don’t know what that feels like in being vulnerable. I think it’s just as important if not even more important in leadership.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. So we’ve known each other for several years now and I come to respect you more and more every day and working closely now with you at the Alliance. One of the things I really, that really resonated me right from the beginning of hearing about this notion of “unused” air quotes which I don’t love, but hidden stories. Those are woven throughout this wonderful masterpiece of a book. Talk a little bit about the hidden stories.


Tom Murray:              Sure. So I was actually coming to work one day down here in DC and I take the train down as part of it. Somebody Tweeted out, “That’s one of the best videos I’ve ever seen.” I clicked on it and I had no idea what it was and it’s this video on hidden stories and it comes from Franklin Covey.


So in the video, it’s about a three-minute video and there I am sitting on a train, I watch this video. There’s no words throughout the entire video. Three minutes later I look up and like I’ve got tears flowing and there’s like people kind of look, “You doing all right?” “No, no, I’m good, just watching a video on the internet.”


So what it is is you see these everyday interactions with people. You see this – they go into a convenience store, then you somebody in like a pharmacy, but they don’t talk but you see what’s on their heart. So you see this you know gets to spend the entire day with her granddaughter, so you can tell she’s excited. But then inside the pharmacy you see you know just found out the tumor was benign, but then you see the next one just found out the tumor wasn’t benign. So you see people’s hearts in the process. It ends with this really emotional piece around like if you could see into the hearts of people how would you make decisions? Would it just be you’re average day?


So part of what I wrote about is my daughter’s own story, so again trying not to be emotional on that end. So one of the pieces that I often through out there with district leaders is you know take this data at face value.


So here’s a child that missed 35 days of school in 15 months, was tardy 20 times, what are the judgments that we make? You know I was guilty of these judgments too, it’s probably the parents don’t care, the kids are unresponsive, why don’t they care, their kid is lazy, they don’t want to be here. You know we make all these judgments. Then I’ll show the next slide and say, “Well I just talked about my daughter.” The whole place kind of comes to a stop like, “What are you talking about?”


Deb Delisle:                Like what, what, yeah?


Tom Murray:              “Like how could that be? You do this education stuff how could you let your child…”


So then you tell the story and I share how in a 15-month period my daughter who had been hospitalized three times for less than seed of sesame, because it’s such an incredible food allergies, to 15 months later now having 2,000 seeds a day and I share, “Well here’s the context. On every one of those absences she was two hours from our home undergoing food allergy therapy. Then we’d drive two hours back and on every one of those she would say, ‘Mommy,’ or ‘Daddy I really wish I could be in school today.’ ”


You know out of 19 of the 20 times she was tardy it was because we had a 7:00 AM appointment two hours away and we could get her back to school by 1:00. But the moment you know the context of the story you’re judgment changes.

So part of what I wrote there is I really believe the difference between making a judgment like we always do and having empathy is understanding the story.


So part of using my daughter as an example there she couldn’t show back up at the school building not having that on her heart. She would go in and I’m so blessed to have that she had two amazing teachers that weren’t, “Here’s the five things you missed this morning.” They saw here as a person first and recognized like, “The last thing I want to do is just dump on her and here’s what I want to do.” Saw her and understood her story before they tried to make judgments on it.


So help educators you know when we look at that child in our classroom that has spent more time in the hallway in the past week than in our classroom, like what’s the “Why” there? So often we put Band-Aids on it or we take it so personal, there’s a reason behind it.


Or we look at that colleague that’s constantly negative and everything is awful and everything… Well at one point in time some principal looked across the table and said, “That’s the person I want.” So what happened there? There’s a story there, so trying to help us as educators get to the heart of the story because the story matters every single time.


We take something like the data, data is certainly important, but data without understanding the context of the story and we can make some really bad decisions.


So connecting that video virtually spurred my thinking on that to my own daughter’s world of that’s a hidden story. If she were to walk in the studio right now it’s not something that you could see in her, but it impacts her every single day. It’s how do we as educators make sure that we have that lens on things as well.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. Well what’s also important that you just shared is kids can also be great teachers to us, right? So I’m sure you would have been empathetic without having to go through what you went through with or continue to go through with your daughter, but here she taught you the valuable lesson or kind of put it in your face that understanding the context of a situation is really vital, because as you say in the throes of a very busy hectic day it’s easy for an educator to say, “You know what he doesn’t care. I tried.” “She didn’t learn it.” “Parents don’t care,” when they may not know mom, dad, auntie, grandma has two or three jobs just to live in that school district, because they’re making a choice for the future of their children or their grandchild, right?


So I think that’s really so critical. Again, it’s not necessarily at least in my training it was not covered in teacher school, but it came through people who said, “Get to know the stories first.” “Get to understand the context.” “Get to know your kids” and the rest is all going to flow, right?


Tom Murray:              Yeah.


Deb Delisle:                So I just think that that’s really a really important lesson.


So for me when I reading Chapter Five was absolutely so vital within the book. In it you write about authentic and experiences for kids, emphasis on the word “authentic.”


Tom Murray:              Yep.


Deb Delisle:                So share a bit about that and how you interpret that and advice you’d give to educators to practice “authentic” teaching and learning.


Tom Murray:              Sure. So one of the things that I did is you know in running so many workshops and professional learning type days to ready in those kinds of things we often talk about how do we make learning personal, how do we make it authentic?


Deb Delisle:                Yeah.


Tom Murray:              So I really tried to identify what are tangible ways that we can do that? And through it I create this framework around things like looking at the social-emotional side of things and understanding the authentic piece from a child, from the SEL piece. It’s going to be different for every child that’s in there. But that’s one way.


I took a look cultural responsiveness was something that I had written about and understanding you know a child’s background, their upbringing is going to impact it; taking a look at interests and passions and strengths. It’s looking at the differences in our children as strengths and not necessarily as negatives. As sometimes it’s, “Well now I can’t teach that whole group,” it’s how do we leverage things like interests and passions and strengths or things such as authentic feedback?


And so I really tried to create what are practical ways that teachers on one hand have always done these things in classroom?


Deb Delisle:                Yeah.


Tom Murray:              But to put it in a way that pulls it all together of how can we create authentic experiences so that that’s child’s experience is unique to them and recognizing the beauty that’s inside that child whatever learning difference that they may have, whatever cultural difference they might have and really recognizing the beauty in those differences.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah so beautifully stated, thank you for sharing that.


You also have I noticed coauthors.


Tom Murray:              Mm-hmm.


Deb Delisle:                I think it’s Chapters Five and Six am I correct?


Tom Murray:              Yep, yep, correct.


Deb Delisle:                Why? You certainly know a lot of things Tom so why coauthors?


Tom Murray:              So I started to share early with the Forward with Inky wanting an experience that was very different than mine. You know and that early on Forward Inky’s growing up was a very different story than my growing up and recognizing the power in those differences.


I just referenced “cultural relevance” and I will tell you that I would feel very uncomfortable nor would I be qualified to fully write a section on cultural relevance as the white male who grew up in middle-class America.


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm.


Tom Murray:              It’s not my story to tell in the sense of there’s so much power to other stories of folks that have very different learning experiences than mine. So I open up that section with about a paragraph that basically says, “As the white male that grew you up in middle-class America it’s not my job to tell this piece.” So I turned it over to Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah, a really good friend of mine. Her story is so incredibly different than mine.


When you take a look at she came from an undocumented family. She’s now in California helping to lead and doing incredible work in there. But she really talks about things like privilege and bias in ways that I couldn’t, in ways that a lens is different.


Ken Shelton coauthored the section on equity barriers. Ken as a black male has a very different perspective on things from race, but when you look at equity there’s so many as we work here at the Alliance and we dive into some of these equity components you know Ken’s lens versus mine is very different.


So I was very transparent, they’re both good friends of mine, but they also have very different life experiences than mine. So if I’m going to talk about things around equity or cultural relevance it needed to be more than my lens and so for me to authentically do that I really needed to reach out to people who have different experiences that I do so they could authentically talk about it in a way that I just couldn’t.


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm. One of the strengths of your book too is the formatting in which you created and developed all of it.


Tom Murray:              Yes.


Deb Delisle:                So you have these “Make It Stick” pieces, literally looks like a piece of tape with a Post-It note stuck up. You have a “Stop and Reflect,” you have an “Amplifying,” you have a “Amplifying the Interests, Passions, and Strengths in Our Learners” and then the “Practice.”


Tom Murray:              Yep.


Deb Delisle:                This is such a strong writing style and very practical and something you could pick up, read, put down pick up, read, down. I could see myself writing in it. Talk about why was that important to you to get all of this rich, rich content across to folks?


Tom Murray:              Sure. So for me going back to the we’ll start with the “Make It Stick.” So I reached out to about 50 different educators, diverse backgrounds, more females than males just because of the lens there. Basically sent them a section and said, “You know when I wrote this section I was thinking about you in the way that you teach and what I know about what you value. If I were to give you this what’s something you could do tomorrow in the classroom? Two to three sentences.”


So I wanted to balance some of the story and emotion in those pieces with, “Well what do I actually do with it?”


One thing I know about educators is they’re so tight on time and they need the practical pieces of “Give me something to try,” “Give me something different.” So all 50 of those “Make It Stick” are ideas from all practitioners on, “Here’s what I would do tomorrow to try to do this” or “Here’s questions I would ask,” “Here’s a project that I would do.” So I wanted to be really practical in nature.


At the end of each section or most sections I created a “Try This.” That was me kind of racking my brains of, “If I had a teacher come to me and said, ‘What do I do here.’ Here’s every possible thing that I could think of to do whether you’re a kindergarten teacher or physics teacher.” Again to be really practical in that.


The “In Practice” sections they wanted to spotlight, “Well what does this look like in practice on a larger scale?” So that’s where you hear from a couple of superintendants or you know it’s somebody that’s looking at from more of a district level lens just to see kind of big picture.


Then finally the “Stop and Reflect” are really meant for the reader. That came from I did a lot of sharing as I was writing to superintendants, to principals, to teachers to get feedback. I had a principal say to me you know one of the things that she loves to do is as she’s reading take some notes or write it and she said, “Well what if you created these areas to kind of stop and reflect as you’re doing it?” I said, “Can I steal that stop and reflect?” She said, “Absolutely” to really help the author.


If I was working with somebody in that section on that area what are the questions that I would ask? What are the ways that I would ask them to pause and reflect and have that and that’s what I built in. It ultimately become the study guide questions for those folks that are doing it. So it’s really meant to be an authentic way to process, to reflect, and then also be able to do something different tomorrow.


Deb Delisle:                I appreciate your recognition of the tremendous gaps that we have in education. I often refer to those as “opportunity gaps.” I do that purposely because sometimes I feel when we talk about achievement gaps for example it reflects back to the kid. “I taught it, they didn’t learn it.” “I gave this extra, they didn’t take advantage of it.”


Whereas I refer to opportunity gaps that are so missing and those are the opportunities that we would want for our own children that we don’t always provide for other people’s kids. So this year as you are well aware as the Alliance for Excellent Education we have a yearlong campaign around the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. We’re highlighting the continuing needs of students no matter their race, their Zip Code, or background. Sixty-five years after Brown was declared and sixty-five years later we still have issues and it’s not a dream that became fulfilled for many.


As we just referenced you explore issues surrounding equity first by recognizing the gaps and opportunity and access that still exists for marginalized groups and second by identifying ways to tackle these vital issues head-on in our classrooms and even in our schools and school systems. So what do you see as some of those challenges and opportunities, Tom, to actually address these items?


Tom Murray:              First I think it’s our own lens that often gets in the way and being able to address and take a look at what is the lens in which we see the world? As I shared earlier, early on I recognized my white male lens from middle-class America, that’s one lens. It’s also very different than the experience of many others.


So one of the pieces that I would say from an opportunity end is to find people that are different than you in some way, maybe it’s gender, maybe it’s race, maybe it’s religion and connect with them. I will tell you whether it was Rosa and Ken who I referred to earlier there’s time I’ll go to them and say, “You know on this issue I never experienced this growing up. Tell me what that was like for you, explain that to me.” I learned in my own learning in many ways through people that I have that trust that I can say, “Like where are my blind spots? Where are my blinders here?”


So one of the things that I’ll often ask educators to do is to find somebody that has differences than you on your staff or whatever the case is and ask them to help identify some of those blind spots. Whether it’s they walk into their classroom and what are the images of success around our classroom? Who do we naturally glorify in our own lens and our own bias? Ask for feedback you know and getting some of that feedback, but don’t be, don’t be hurt if they give you feedback on telling you to change things.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah.


Tom Murray:              When we take a look at some of the large areas, when we take a look from an opportunity end and I love how you share opportunity gaps instead of achievement gaps, because I couldn’t agree more on that end. You know some of the things that we talk about from an equity and that Ken and I do around you know opportunities for rigorous courses. There’s some places out there it’s not always socioeconomics, it’s sometime it’s a rural issue. You know here’s this rural district and we want to pay you the least in the state and we want to…and we don’t have an opportunity in those places. So sometimes it’s based on location and those kinds of things.


But when we look at that one of the areas we’ll take a look at something like computer science. You know I know that’s one area, one metric and if we look at one AP test I know it’s such a small segment, but when we take a look for instance there like we go back to 2013 and 2013 there was in 11 states not a single black student took the AP computer science in states. And in 8 states not a single Hispanic student. Now the positive is we’ve seen trends moving up since then. The negative is we’re not need to be where we need to be in those regards.


So when we look at some of the opportunities we have to really get to the heart of “Why?” And the positive is educators that we see whether it’s through the work of Future Ready or the Alliance and some other great work that’s going on out there really trying to attack some of those opportunity gaps.


We also address opportunities in access. Sometimes you know that could be access at home and the homework gap. The Alliance has done a lot of work with that and those kinds of things there as well.


Deb Delisle:                Sure.


Tom Murray:              But trying to give some practical solutions. But number one it’s taking a critical look at where are our blinders and our blind spots? Getting some help with that from different lenses.


But then once we know we need to do better in those areas, because if we know that our discipline rates for our students of color are far different than for our white students or our females versus our males and now that we know that we need to do something about it. Then to me it becomes a moral and ethical obligation to do it.


Deb Delisle:                Right. Yeah one of the pieces that I really appreciate at the Alliance is this big focus on what opportunities are available to all students, not just the student in a certain Zip Code, et cetera?


You know I’ve had a vast array of experiences to visit schools across our nation, actually even internationally and I always ask myself one question going into that school which is, “Is this school good enough for my own kid,” because if the answer to that is “No,” I still don’t understand why we allow it to be okay for other people’s kids.


So when we think about the Alliance for Excellent Education I just so appreciate the fact that we have an organization who’s focused on equity and providing opportunities again that we would want for our own students.


And as part of the Alliance for Excellent Education we have a Future Ready initiative and you are the Director of Innovation, a supreme director of innovation I might add because you’re always thinking outside of the big box, big circles, whatever you want to call it. So we are helping school districts to develop the human and technological capacity needed to really personalize student learning and prepare kids for college and a career in citizenship.


School district superintendents play an extraordinary and key role, but certainly not the only role in the Future Ready process. So to a superintendent watching this webinar what lesson, Tom, can they take from this book? I’m remembering a key moment in your book when you talked about Dr. Scanlon and the impact that he had on you.


Tom Murray:              So Dr. Scanlon is still a practicing superintendent in West Chester, Pennsylvania.


Deb Delisle:                Is he?


Tom Murray:              An incredible superintendent.


Deb Delisle:                So let’s send out a great applause, thank you Dr. Scanlon.


Tom Murray:              Exactly. So I refer to a time and he might not even remember this at this point, but it was I want to say my second week teaching and I share this story in the book. You know he comes down after lunch, I had just gotten my students back from recess and I get the door opens, superintend is standing there, “Hey Mr. Murray do you have a moment?”


Deb Delisle:                And you’re like, “Ah, ah, ah.”


Tom Murray:              I remember thinking like here’s my superintendent, I’m thinking like, “Is this the go get your box conversation because this isn’t working out”?


So I walk across, kind of tell my students to “Hold on,” thinking to myself like, “Hope I see you again somewhere,” right?


Deb Delisle:                Yeah.


Tom Murray:              And so he pulls me into the hallway and reaches his hand out, just to say, “Hey Tom, Dr. Scanlon, good to see you. I just wanted to say I overheard something in district office,” shares a real positive about something that had happened and just said, “You know I just want to say don’t stop doing that. I’m proud of you.” Shakes my hand and walks back down the hallway. It was this 30-second or less interaction I think I may have walked back in my room and done cartwheels in front of my kids being like hands-up.


Deb Delisle:                Right.


Tom Murray:              But here it is 20 years later and I could show you where I’m standing.


So part of what I would share with superintendents is be real, be vulnerable, but never forget where you came from.


Deb Delisle:                Oh so true.


Tom Murray:              Never forget what it’s like to teach that first day.


Deb Delisle:                True.


Tom Murray:              You know in retrospect that first few weeks I was pretty clueless in retrospect. I was just trying to get sometimes my mentors were saying, “Well next month in the curriculum” and I’m like, “Next month? I’m just trying to get to lunch today and be able to do this,” right?


Deb Delisle:                Yeah.


Tom Murray:              So to not to forget what it’s like. Not forget how difficult teaching is every single day. Not forget that we ask teachers sometimes to move 130 kids at the secondary level and they do it over the course of the year.


Deb Delisle:                Right.


Tom Murray:              And so from a superintendent and it’s be real, be vulnerable, let’s not forget where we came from, but also not to lose sight of their impact you know from a culture and relationship end with their community and so on.


I will tell you working through Future Ready Schools I’ve met some of the most amazing educators that have “Superintendent” on their business cards that are doing innovative things, but also don’t forget why we do what we do and that’s serving kids.


Deb Delisle:                Yeah. You know it’s so really amazing about that issue is the fact that we often relate personalization to teaching and learning, but that’s personalization in leadership, right?


Tom Murray:              Mm-hmm.


Deb Delisle:                The handwritten notes that some people will take. You know I know people who just travel with note cards and it may be easier to send an e-mail, but in this day of a lack of personalization that handwritten note that maybe takes three seconds to write or maybe a minute to write means so much. The fact that that superintendent, Dr. Scanlon, would actually come to your door, open the door to tell you that like that probably fueled you in ways that you never even knew possible.


Yet I’ve been in school districts where a superintendent or a principal, “Oh I interact with the kids or the students all the time.” I remember walking down the hallway of a really large high school and the superintendent had said, “Oh I visit the schools all the time.” I was walking behind him as he was talking to somebody else and they were teachers lined up at the doors, they didn’t know who the superintendent was.


I was like, “Oh that’s quite interesting because he believes that he comes here routinely” or that was the story he mentioned. Yet I find the leaders who are so revered and respected are those that take that personalized time, that do not forget where they came from as you mentioned and that’s a great bumper sticker or a t-shirt to have, right, “Don’t Forget Where You Came From.”


Tom Murray:              Yeah. So one snapshot behind the scenes, when I started to write the book I really actually started out with your Chapter Five piece that you were sharing, kind of these core tenets of what personal and authentic could look like in classroom. But the more I started to write it it the more I started to realize well the culture that we create is really personal and authentic if I feel like I fit of it and it’s authentic because you can’t just replicate it.


Deb Delisle:                Right.


Tom Murray:              You can’t just say, “Well just make it happen in this building,” because they’re all different. But then as I started to think about the best relationships we have it’s really things that are personal and authentic. So the more I started to write in different areas the more I really started to create it’s not just the experience, it’s the interactions, it’s the culture, it’s even the tools where we talk about technology and spaces as they can amplify or hinder. How do we make those things that are personal and authentic in nature ultimately for the student experience on the whole?


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm, yeah. Thank you so much for sharing that.


Tom Murray:              Sure.


Deb Delisle:                That’s really critical. Just before we close I want to ask you to talk a little bit about this Fail Forward mindset that you have. It’s kind of a unique phrase, so talk a little bit about that.


Tom Murray:              So years ago I read a book by John Maxwell called Failing Forward and so it’s really stuck with me since then. I think going back to sharing earlier how educators really are such perfectionists and it comes from having high standards for themselves and for others that it’s giving ourselves enough grace to say like, “When I mess things up, it’s not if, when I mess things up that I’m going to get up and keep trying.” You know if I’m that principal and I make that call to my faculty and things don’t go well the vulnerability of owning it, failing forward and trying again our staff appreciates that.


Deb Delisle:                Mm-hmm.


Tom Murray:              And one of the pieces that I had written because I really, really believe in this area of every time we fail it’s an opportunity to get up and to keep trying for those who look to us for direction.


So if I’m a teacher in a classroom and things don’ go well when I own it and move forward I’m modeling to my kids perseverance. When I’m a principal or superintendent doing it and I own it it shows teachers like you’re human, you make mistakes, you won it, you recognizing it, but to model it to fail forward and keep moving forward.


So whether it’s sports, whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s just in terms of in life we’re going to make mistakes and it’s recognizing that that’s okay and having the vulnerability to recognize that in ourselves and in others, but saying, “Let’s get our shoes back on. Let’s try it again and let’s go get it for kids.”


Deb Delisle:                Yeah, yeah. It’s such a unique and important concept. When I read that particular piece I was reminded of somebody I cannot even remember it was so long ago, where they differentiated for me as a leader the difference between a risk taker versus a risk maker. Because when you think about it risk taking it’s difficult but there’s always like guiderails you feel along the way. When you are a risk maker you’re actually stepping in a little bit to that unknown and feeling like, “Okay I’m willing to be vulnerable and fail forward.” So it’s just a really important distinction so I really want to respect that as well.


We could talk on and on and on. You have touched my heart both as a leader and as a colleague and now as a friend so Tom I really want to thank you again for joining me today. Your book has been an inspiration for me. I’m going to read it two or three more times. I’ll try to stop being teary-eyed as I read through it. I’m sure for the many educators who have read it, but most importantly for students, because really what you do throughout this entire book is to respect the kids whose lives you have and sometimes who lives you haven’t touched because you’re vulnerable and you recognize that. We’re not always the best for every single person who crosses our path, but we certainly try to be the best all of the time.


If you don’t already have your copy of Tom’s book please visit to order your copy today. And on his website Tom has also created a study guide and a variety of book study resources to provide deeper insights and thoughts into what you’ll read in the book, while pointing readers to many great additional tools and resources that can support the great work happening in your school or your district.


So if you happen to have a professional learning group going on, if you have book studies in your schools please pickup a copy of Personal & Authentic and I know it’s going to really enhance your practices.


If you missed any of today’s webinar you can watch our archive video at


Thank you for joining us. Have a great day and thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you do every single day for our kids.




[End of Audio]

Categories: Future Ready

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