When Minnesota principal Jessica Cabeen made the decision a few years ago to transition from leading the Woodson Kindergarten Center to return to Ellis Middle School, where she previously served as assistant principal, the decision caught some of her colleagues by surprise.
"It was like [going from] sunshine and bubbles to vaping. People thought I was absolutely nuts," Cabeen said, adding, "If you're a middle school educator or you just know middle-schoolers, when your heart's in it, it's really hard to leave it."
Austin, where both schools are located, is nestled in the Southeast corner of Minnesota, about 100 miles south of Minneapolis. It's also the home of SPAM, of which Cabeen can happily run through a list of fun trivia.
But while the canned meat product came up briefly during K-12 Dive's recent conversation with Cabeen, we also had a chance to learn more about how she's handling the fallout of a recent TikTok challenge, the importance of authenticity in leadership, and what it was like to teach a class while also leading her school through a pandemic.
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
K-12 DIVE: I saw online that you’ve recently posted about dealing with a TikTok challenge that's been going around encouraging students to damage restroom fixtures.
At APS, we strive to maintain a welcoming and safe culture of respect and care for others and our building, but we need your help. Thanks to a recent TikTok challenge, students are destroying school property by damaging bathroom soap dispensers, urinals, and toilets. pic.twitter.com/AhAXZcozrO— APS (@isd492) September 20, 2021
JESSICA CABEEN: Yes. And just in full transparency, that is not a real TikTok account. I think we've had over 400 kids try to follow me on TikTok only to realize there's no @QueenCabeen.
I think it also just lends itself to how vulnerable our students can be with what they see on social media, so we really took this as an opportunity to make it a teachable moment.
We've done a lot of work with looking at, developmentally, where kids are at at this age and done some book studies around brain development in the middle years. It's really helped us to take the emotion out of it and really recognize our kids have some big growth milestones they're trying to accomplish in these years. Sometimes their body or their behavior may not mirror their cognitive ability, but they're also navigating hormones and other things.
So the TikTok piece was not only just about being transparent that we are aware of it and not just to say “Don't do it,” but to give a why. And that really is important for middle-schoolers, because we want to empower and advocate for them, and they just need to know why — this is going to sound really silly — it's not safe to rip urinals out of bathrooms, you know? Or why it's not a good idea to take off a soap dispenser. You have to actually articulate that and let them process it and repeat it back to be like, “Oh, yeah. That’s not a good idea.”
So we're just doing a lot of education at this age level. And I see a greater value in being proactive and advocating versus reactive and punitive.
I heard you taught a class while also leading your school through the pandemic. What was that like, and how did you balance it?
CABEEN: Last year when we were at the hybrid level, we just recognized we needed additional support. And we also created a class called academic coaching that really looked at decreasing the cognitive load for our students when they were at home learning on the hybrid days, but then also instilling some of the social-emotional learning we thought was so important.
When the opportunity came, I ended up saying, “Yep, I'd like to do it,” because I think at that point in time, it was important for me to experience what it was like to be a teacher through the pandemic. I think that experience helped me lay out professional development better for our teachers, because I was actually teaching, as well.
It also kind of helped me get perspective of all the different duties as assigned within the teaching hour that teachers are doing besides teaching content, [like] building relationships with kids and problem-solving.
I remember there was one specific instance where I was trying to help a student register for sports, and her mom doesn't speak English, but her brother was navigating it. But he was in the process of flying overseas to play basketball post-college, you know what I mean? So [I gained] the perspective of how many layers it takes to help get students successful and what a community family is.
But when you ask about, “OK, so you taught, but then what happened to everything else?” I really try to encourage leaders to really look at everything on their plates and decide what is really the thing that only you can do.
And that's a hard thing, because principals want to be there for everybody and solve all the problems themselves and kind of be that independent, isolated contractor. But long-term, that's not sustainable nor does that put systems in place that people can follow behind you.
As a principal, I try to make sure I have systems in place so if I'm not physically in the office, people know what to do in my absence. I think that's just good protocols to have, too. So people just knew, you know, fourth hour or third hour, “This is where Jessica is. She's in the computer lab. She’s teaching. If it's immediate, you go to the secretary. If it's important, send her an email, and she'll get back to you later. Or if you want to be innovative and try to find a different way to solve it, she'll support you.”
So I don't know if that's helpful, but I think it's just really important that we think about, yeah, we can do it all, but really should we? And is it long-term sustainable?
For me, the purpose of getting into that classroom was really that I wanted to understand what it was like to be a student and a teacher during a pandemic. That was just a really intentional and meaningful way to make connections. And it was really fun, because now those 8th-graders are 9th-graders, and I've been able to stay connected to a few of them. They'll send me emails or I'll see them at football games. And as a principal, you rarely have that level of impact or effect on a student. And it was just a blessing to have that for 20-some kids.
One of the topics you've written about is unconventional leadership. What does that mean to you in K-12?
CABEEN: For me, unconventional leadership is really about challenging the status quo and being creative with your resources to find new results. When I wrote “Unconventional Leadership,” it really stemmed from a conversation I had with a professor at a university here where I'm at. This was five or six years ago, where there was such a divide between professional literature and learning on social media, such as Twitter. They didn't really intersect.
I think you can get things from both. There's great value in reading research articles and continuing professional development, but then also connecting with other leaders in the world to see what it looks like from their vantage point. Being creative and saying, “OK, I think there's a match between the two of those.”
When writing that book, I would take a look at certain topics and say, “Here's the research behind it, but then here's also related resources out in social media or people to connect with who could help you dive into the work deeper.”
It lets you look at it from a different lens. After still continuing to use that model as I move forward as a principal, I'm just constantly looking at, “What are we looking for?” Like, what's the topic?
We'll go back to TikTok right now — it’s [about] the influence that social media has on our students. What do we need to learn about with that? It's not just about saying, “No, don't do this,” but it's recognizing that there's brain development going on at these years, and how we support teachers and parents and paraprofessionals. Not just being punitive, but having a better understanding of the different milestones and markers that the kids are going through at this time and how brain development impacts that learning.
And then also, what are some professional development tools or just some advocacy things we can share with families around, “How do you regulate social media use at home? How do you talk about it? How do you monitor it?” Ultimately, leading it forward is, like, we're not saying that these platforms are bad. We're just saying there's different ways you could use it that would be a better benefit to you and our bathrooms and whatever the next trend is.
It’s just continuing to try to think about ways in which we can unconventionally and creatively meet the needs of students moving forward.
How important in all of that is having a sense of authenticity? There are other school leaders I've talked to before about taking unconventional approaches to leadership, and my obvious outwardly unconventional example is Hamish Brewer because he's got a persona built around being a “tattooed, skateboarding principal.” But not everyone can be unconventional in that way and still be authentic.
CABEEN: Absolutely. A story I think of is when I took on the principalship at the kindergarten center, the teachers were like, “Oh, well this is where the principal always stood in the building as kids arrived.” And I tried that for a while. It just didn't really fit who I was, because all I'm doing is getting pulled into more meetings with adults because I'm in the building. So I transitioned myself outside, because I like to be with kids.
I'm used to Minnesota weather. I know how to wear snow pants and warm hats when it's really cold out. And by switching [where I stood in the morning], I was still able to build meaningful relationships with the community, but I did it in a way that I was more comfortable with.
And I think that's such a great point that in order to lead well, you have to lead with that authenticity and you have to be comfortable in your own skin and not be constantly trying to compete with others. If I’m being honest, if I got on a skateboard right now, I'd probably break my hip. [laughs] And I know Hamish. He'd probably agree with you, but, “Don't give her anything on wheels. Just keep her feet on the ground.”
But I can do other things that are authentic in building relationships with kids and establishing meaning and culture in our building. I think that's so important. Just because I'm doing it one way or Hamish is doing it another doesn't mean you have to do it the same way: Find your own way, find what brings you joy, and then infuse it within how you're leading.
For leaders trying to figure out how to be comfortable in their own skin, what would your best piece of advice be? That’s a task that can be difficult for a lot of people.
CABEEN: Absolutely. So, being very vulnerable. And thinking about what's a passion or something you enjoy outside of the school day that you'd be willing to share inside?
An example of that is the kids don't really know that when I went to college, I went as a musician, as a drummer. So this week, I asked the band teacher if I could play in the marching band. We’re getting ready for homecoming.
The kids, like, dropped their jaws. They're like, “What is she doing with the drums? And how does she know how to play so quickly?” And all of that. I had just a great time with them, because authentically, I love to play music. It was the best 88-minute block I had in a really long time.
And the kids still talk about it. Like, I had kids coming up later saying, “Did you really play in the 8th-grade band today? Did you really do that?” So if there's a passion that you have, whether it's you enjoy reading and you go sit in language arts classes with kids and help them, if you're an artist, if you're an athlete.
Our former assistant principal was a tremendously great basketball star in college, and kids would sign up after lunch to play hoops with him. I think the ways in which you can be authentic and reveal a little bit of yourself to others will really help to build that trust and build your own confidence in it.
One thing you touched on earlier is the toll the last 18 months has taken on educators and staff. With burnout among top concerns, how can leaders ensure they and their staff alike are maintaining the balance needed in their lives?
CABEEN: I usually get an assistant principal for about two years and they move into the principalship. But with my new assistant principal, we really had a guiding mantra to start the year: “We value you as a person before your position.”
We spend a lot of time talking about that in our leadership meetings and our back to school meetings, saying, ‘We can't fully understand all the complexities of your life outside of your day job, but if at any point any of that starts to intersect and it impacts your ability to do your job, we want to know so we can help and support you.” Being really vulnerable that we care about you as a person first, instead of just your job, really changed the dynamic of the start to our year.
Things happen outside of school, and we're here to support you. Whether that means you might just need to take a mental health walk during the day or we provide additional resources to reach out to, we want to do that outside of those major life crises.
For me, it's been really important to set boundaries around my time — so trying to really leave at a reasonable time. Sometimes, to be honest, it's 5:00, and sometimes it's 5:30, and sometimes it's 6:00. I think that also means leaving [work] out of your mind at night. For me, that means I really try hard not to be on email at night.
I try to finish up at 6:00 and then come back in the morning. Staff know they can always text me if they need something at night, but I think it's really important for us to unplug. We can really pour back in the next day, because if you're constantly thinking about work, and you're constantly thinking about all these stressors, you're losing the opportunity to just kind of rest up and get ready for the next day.
So hopefully that's helpful to somebody. I'm sure somebody out there is like, “Oh my gosh, I needed someone to tell me to just turn my phone off at night.” Because otherwise you just never turn it off. I think we need to learn how to put some boundaries around this so we can sustain this work.