Creating Communities Where Every Child Feels a Sense of Belonging with Michelle GoldshlagRead Now
Lindsay Lyons : I am so excited to introduce you to Michelle Goldschlag today. Michelle and I have been in a Mastermind together for several months... probably going on a year by the time that you listen to this... and she is absolutely amazing. I've loved watching her and her business grow and thrive, so I can't wait for you to hear from Michelle. Just a little bit of back story - she is the co-founder and CEO of Cultured Kids, a nonprofit organization that believes a student's sense of belonging is the primary catalyst for their success. In her six years at the helm, Cultured Kids has partnered with schools and community organizations in Northern Virginia and the Metro Boston area, as well as provided consulting services for international museums and global organizations like the Holistic Life Foundation in Brazil. Now, for reference, this conversation with Michelle was recorded on October 12th 2021. Let's get to the episode.
Hi, I'm Lindsay Lyons, and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti-racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher, leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar.
If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a Principal, Superintendent, instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was - you are a leader. And if you enjoy nerding out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself - you're going to love the Time for Teachership podcast. Let's dive in. Michelle Goldberg, welcome to the Time for Teachership podcast.
Michelle Goldshlag : Hi Lindsay, excited to be here. I'm so excited for me.
Lindsay Lyons : Yes, I'm so excited you're on, this is really exciting. And so I just read your amazing bio and so I'd love to hear if there's anything you want to add. I think a lot of times, you know, bios are very professional sounding and so if there's anything else you want to say to introduce yourself to our listeners about who you are or what it is that you do or represent, feel free.
Michelle Goldshlag : Absolutely. I would say... and I don't know that this is true for most couples out there... but my husband is the exact opposite of me, very practical thinker where I'm a visionary and kind of dreamer.
I, lovingly, call him my dream crusher because I'll have these fantastic, great ideas and plans and he'll be, like, look at everything that's going to be required to accomplish it. But in all reality, raising kids with him and starting Culture Kids, which we consider another child, has been a Godsend because he completes the parts of me that are just, like, not there, and helps me to shape where we're going. And it's also always been, like, fifty fifty with the kids, you know, bath time, babies, food, reading books before bed... and they're thirteen and ten now, but we are... they're still letting us read to them at night. So I hope that continues. But, yeah, so I think just having him and my kids are awesome.
Lindsay Lyons : Oh, that's fantastic. That is a wonderful intro. Alright, go your husband, this is great That fifty fifty split is so important too,
Michelle Goldshlag : Oh, my goodness,
Lindsay Lyons : Gotta have it.
Michelle Goldshlag : Absolutely.
Lindsay Lyons : So in the education space... and actually you talked about dream crushing...
So, like, these dreams that we have, I think, are so much of who we are. And so for the education space, for, you know, youth development, this kind of thing - I am so curious to know what you... you know, what it is that you hope for for the field of education. And I'm really inspired by Dr Bettina Love's quote about Freedom Dreaming where she says really these are dreams grounded in the critique of injustice. So, with that in mind, what is that big dream that you have?
Michelle Goldshlag : Okay, so in short - unity. But what that actually means, you know... and I think that it's important to explain definitions for things... So, like, unity can mean just oneness, but you can act as one around anything, right? And I think that what is... considering all of the challenges that schools are facing today... what is most common is that school leaders are trying to rally their teams and their communities around a shared mission, or a shared vision, or a shared motto. And that's absolutely beneficial and can support, you know, developing the kind of culture you want to in a school, but for Cultured Kids unity means really creating a community where every child feels that authentic sense of belonging.
And just in light of definitions too, belonging for us means that children can... well that they know their authentic selves, and that they feel comfortable sharing that authentic self with others.
Lindsay Lyons : That is a beautiful definition of unity and belonging. And I think looking... I'm getting more and more into this research on belonging and, like, looking at the trends, it is terrifying that, like... it's just, like, a downward spiral for, internationally, for people and students particularly who feel a sense of belonging in communities like school. And it's so depressing, because that data is, like, actually pre-pandemic - and so when we look at, like, you know, what the pandemic has done, I'm sure it's even worse. So it's so important, (Crosstalk) I love that you're focused on that.
Michelle Goldshlag : Absolutely.
Lindsay Lyons : And so I think sometimes it is hard to wrap our mind as educators around, you know, with all the things happening in schools and educational communities more broadly, there's so much to focus on. And so what are the mindset shifts that are required for people to really strive for unity? To strive and center
you know, belonging in terms of, like, this is the really important thing we're doing, it's not, you know, getting through this curriculum or whatever else is on our plates. But what is necessary for people to do the work that you're asking teachers and supporting teachers to do?
Michelle Goldshlag : Yeah. I think that the number one mindshift for us is transitioning from a mindset of knowing to a mindset of questioning - and I think this comes at all levels. So, for administrators they're provided a lot of information and they gain knowledge... and I don't want to say, like, knowledge... knowledge is fantastic, we need knowledge... but actually that belief of knowing. You know, they may think they know what their educators need, they may think they know what their kids need, but we instead need to transition to this questioning mode where they're like "What is it my educators need? Let me connect with them on a more personal level and evaluate, you know, what individual needs are shared throughout my team," you know. And then educators similarly, "What is it that I'm being asked to teach kids?"
You know, "What curriculum am I being provided for them? Is this the right curriculum for my community?" So I just... and the kids even... like, if you model that in your school as leaders and as teachers and you focus on that questioning, then kids are going to start sharing in that questioning,, you know. Like, "Why am I learning this?" You know, "What is this custom this other child in the class is celebrating? Why is that important to them?" So I just think that in general... and I... if you take this a step further... I mean, we assess knowledge all the time, right? So knowing is important and that's what's systemic in our education system. So... and I'm not saying assessments are bad... but I do think that we need to transition more to that questioning and the exploration in school, rather than focusing on the knowing
Lindsay Lyons : So well said. And it makes me think of just, like, what we measure matters, right? And so, like, the fact that we're measuring the knowing, but we're not measuring the curiosity or the questioning (Crosstalk) Right? Like, what could come out of that if that was the goal? If that was the thing that we measured somehow, you know? That would be really transformative.
Michelle Goldshlag : We're trying to figure that out right now.
Lindsay Lyons : Amazing.
Michelle Goldshlag : We a team of people trying to, like, figure "Okay, we want to evaluate curiosity and whether or not it's developing in these areas." So we're working on developing an assessment for one of our programs. But yes, it's challenging. But that's what we care about. We want kids to be, you know, developed, have more questions and be curious
Lindsay Lyons : And as soon as you develop that, please let me know because I think a lot of people would love something like that to be able to assess in that way. That's amazing.
Michelle Goldshlag : Absolutely.
Lindsay Lyons : So, in terms of how we get to this place of questioning and prioritizing that over knowing, of unity, of the dream that you describe being one of belonging as well... like, what can leaders do or even, you know, parents or teachers, you know, whoever is supporting a child - what is really something that they can do that's an action step that gets them closer to that dream you described.
Michelle Goldshlag :That's a tough one. I think that, you know, we all want a recipe, but I think that, like, just considering the pandemic and recent challenges that we've been facing, we've had, you know, urgent responses in the school system and some of those responses have been good in that
we've eliminated some of the requirements for standardized testing because the way that schools provide it to kids is a bit different. We've prioritized their social emotional learning, we've had to rely on parents in ways that, you know, that we haven't maybe before. And (Unintelligible) the stress of it all makes it challenging, but what if it weren't urgent? You know, what if we were just actually collectively working toward this goal? So, I mean, I don't... I guess I don't have specific brave actions, but just kind of taking steps to transition the way that we do school to one that is more focused on developing that. Like, helping kids to identify their own sense of identity and helping them to really integrate and share their authentic selves with others, you know, and what that looks like and how to accomplish that. I mean, I suppose, like, some of our programs that we're developing that that's what we're doing. But, you know, I think that regardless of what teachers or staff are doing, they also... these staff members need to feel that sense of belonging at their school, and need to have that culture within their group of people in order for it to trickle down and to be bottled for the kids.
So however, we can... you know, start at the top, get administrators involved with creating that culture and sense of belonging for their educators and then really trying to just encourage them to produce the same culture in their classrooms.
Lindsay Lyons : Yeah, absolutely. I think so much of SCL is turned into, like, this is the curriculum that we we teach students and it's completely divorced from, like, "Hmm, let me reflect and see if I would... I am doing these things... like, am I doing these things in my own life and my own practice, my modeling?" And so I love that you just named that, like, this is for everybody. And so this is important.
Michelle Goldshlag : Yeah, I think that, too, just one other note is that... and I am experiencing discomfort... which I'll talk about later... in my job right now, and I am a white woman who grew up in a white middle class suburban neighborhood with hardly any... like, you know, the majority of my schooling, elementary and high school, white community. So the idea of approaching conversations about race or anti-racism, homelessness, you know, just any of those challenges can be scary for teachers - they can be scary for parents.
And I... it's awful, but you have to lean into the discomfort to grow. And you have to model what that looks like for our kids if we want them to do the same thing. And so I just think that teachers need to be brave in their actions and it's okay to mess up. And, depending on the age group that you're working with, there may be a student who is this awesome facilitator and he's gifted in empathy and could provide, like, a service, you know, to help facilitate conversations. But I think we naturally want to avoid that discomfort. I actually took a course through Connect Teach, which would be a great option for any educators, but you... you are just... you're put into a, you know, a group of Zoom group, digital, and the whole point is to, like, "Hey, let's talk about systemic racism in our country," you know. And you have mixed groups, there are people from all backgrounds and cultures and it just provides a safe space to start talking. And then hopefully you gain some experience and some comfort and can bring that into your classroom.
Lindsay Lyons : Such an important point about comfort. Right? Like, yeah, so that idea of discomfort being the place where we really need to model and where sometimes even... again, like you said, it depends on the age... but sometimes we have kids coming in who are not uncomfortable with these conversations at first and it's only through interacting with adults who have like palpable discomfort that they learn to be uncomfortable. And so there's so many reasons it's important, I think, to model that. And so I just... I love that you named that. And I also wanna kind of go back to what you were saying, too, about the Culture Kids programs are really supporting the development of that curiosity we're talking about and those actions are really a part of what you offer and your organization offers. So, do you mind talking just a little bit about what those programs are, and what that is that the teachers do within the programs?
Michelle Goldshlag : Yeah, no problem. So, we have a couple of different programs, one of them that is probably our... okay, sorry, my husband just came in to shut the door.
Great listeners. We have an after school book club called The Art and Storytelling Book Club. It's multidisciplinary, and the whole point is to really try and create that sense of belonging with kids. Now we don't feel like we are, like, "Okay, let's create belonging and go ahead and do it," but we feel like there's a really specific progression to getting there. And so the initial place to start for us is on identity development for kids. With a book club, you know, and with a group or a cohort of kids that don't know each other, the most... I guess the easiest way to really get them talking and dialoguing about these types of themes is to provide them an external character. Right? So, First Rule of Punk by Celia Perez... we created this after school book club and curriculum around this for our pilot... and the progression of the book... which goes through the main character, Malu's, identity development... and then you learn about how kids are either using the empathy skill or not using the empathy skill to then create this greater sense of belonging.
Our program just follows along with the book. So there's just an awesome aligned progression and students are engaged in dialogue and discussion about identity, and they can relate or connect with the book character if they're uncomfortable connecting with a peer, you know? And at the same time Gallup has an assessment called The Strength Explorer for Kids 10-14, and if you have children that are growing up in multicultural homes, or have been living globally, they can be really challenged with fractured identities and not feel like a whole self. They may put on a specific cultural, you know, persona at school and then have a completely different one at home. So I think this idea of identity being fixed and not fluid is a challenge for kids, too. And being able to see, read about, hear about, and discuss a book character's journey really helps them to grow in that way.
And it was just... the Strength Explorer points out, you know, three strengths for each child and regardless of the cultural environment they see themselves in, these kids can kind of just use that as a foundational piece. Like, I am... I have a gift of presence, so I am, you know, naturally going to want to lead, you know, and that's going to be in the home or in the school, and this is how I can use that gift. But... we are not at all affiliated with Gallup, just to say that... but their Strength Explorer assessment is a tool that we use in that book club program. And I think that, you know, in regard to curiosity, it's required for every step. Because we want kids to not just know who they are, we want them to question who they are. And throughout their lives, you know. We don't want them to know what empathy is, we want them to question, and how to do it. and how to grow in it, because it is a skill that we need to grow in. And the same with belonging. And I mean, that's just sort of the progression we take to get to that authentic unity that we're striving for.
Lindsay Lyons : That sounds like such a cool program and I get to hear... because we're in an awesome Mastermind together with me each week... but I get to hear all the cool developments at Cultured Kids and I know you're having something coming up on the horizon that is really exciting, as well, to kind of amplify the impact of your programs and just so many new things happening. Do you mind telling our listeners what is going on now at Cultured Kids? So, what developments you have?
Michelle Goldshlag : Sure. We need your help. I think like with any business leader, nonprofit or for profit, you end up creating the type of organization that sort of aligns with your personality - and so whatever strengths or gifts you have they shine in your organization. So I am just... I mean, I would call myself a creative expert above anything else. I love creating and creating programs and designing curriculum that's multidisciplinary and also trying to bring kids together and unite communities like this is all kind of my bag.
But when it comes to being the CEO of a nonprofit organization and fundraising... that is not... I am such an introvert. I am very challenged with raising money. But it's like my failure... like, this is... Like, I am in year six - we have annually brought in about thirty grand and there was one small organization, in the Boston area actually, who are the (Unintelligible - Klarman?) Foundation, who supported us by providing a twenty thousand dollar large gift donation, two years, for us, in a row when we were transitioning from Boston to Virginia. And, I mean, without them I don't think we would have made it past our three year mark. You know, it's like ninety percent of businesses fail by the time, you know, they're three years old. So, we have survived and we are in year six and it's just now that I am like in a position to just jump into that discomfort once again, and put on that kind of fundraising hat... the revenue building hats. So, we have this awesome donor program that we designed because we love creating,
but, yeah, we are looking for donors to help us grow our impact. We are working with one elementary school in Fairfax County, which is one of the largest schools in the district. We need the team and the capacity to impact more schools. We have, you know, the... the connections and sort of have built trust with that school. We've been able to get feedback. We've been able to collect some, you know, data in regard to belonging - but we need... we need more, and we need to be able to share this with others. So we are definitely looking to grow our, you know, our foundation. Really -. the donors are going to be our foundation, we're not gonna be able to do anything without them. So.
Lindsay Lyons : That is amazing. And something too, for, like, you know, if educators aren't sure they're able to contribute on their own, like, the parents and things that you're connected to, the community members you're connected to in your communities, would be a great place to share the news about this donor program as well.
Michelle Goldshlag :Absolutely. Yeah. I think that, too.... I mean, if you consider the... even the corporations or businesses that step up to support education... and even some... I mean, especially those companies that are global and that are moving families on a regular basis and those employees that they're moving have children, you know - they're the ones that are being challenged to adjust to new cultures and build that resilience all the time.
So, I believe we will get there. Just got to find our way.
Lindsay Lyons : That's such a good point. I never even thought about, like, those global corporations, right... to be able to support your employees in this other way. Like, this... this is brilliant. Oh my gosh. "Okay, cool. Is Fairfax County... just out of curiosity... the one that you are doing Closing Circle with?
Michelle Goldshlag :Yes. Yes.
Lindsay Lyons : Oh, my gosh. Do you want... I don't know if you want to talk about that... but that just sounds, like, really exciting. If you want to give a quick overview as to, like, what you're doing with that, I think listeners would be interested.
Michelle Goldshlag : Sure, absolutely. So, it was our newly... this is, like, our newest program designed for the entire school, fifteen minutes, three days a week. So, depending on how much time educators are provided for Closing Circle. And this is another thing, because the school that's actually piloting... and right now there are a lot of challenges with having that fifteen minutes, three days a week. So, I think that you really have to, like, commit to the time if you want to execute the Closing Circle. But there's just a progression... we've broken up themes quarterly - so we, again... first quarter's identity, second empathy, third belonging.
And then the fourth, we actually added global citizenship. Because we want kids to, like, look outside their immediate community into the world, because they should feel empowered to do things now, you know? But, so, we provide content that can be presented to the students that they can then evaluate and question. Right? So, day one they're sort of questioning, okay, you know... For example, we have this awesome art piece... and I'm not going to remember the artist's name... but he walks around and he asks just strangers if he can use his paints to create their skin color. And then he creates a panel that's that skin color. But he does this all the time, right? So he ends up with art piece, they look very minimalistic, but they're just the same size pieces all put together and they're all these different colors and you'd be amazed at how many and how beautiful it is, right? But so, like, for example, kids would be presented this art piece and they wouldn't be told anything about it, but then they would be able to ask questions about it.
And so then the second day is more of an opportunity - and the idea is to give everyone a chance to have a voice, right? So everybody can ask a question about it. Everybody does not have to. And we do have a talking piece that's passed around. But the second day is more of an opportunity to really kind of discuss or evaluate some of the questions that were presented. And then the third day, similarly with the same piece of content, but it's an opportunity to make a connection - so how that student may have connected to any part of Closing Circle that week. And it could be a connection with the content, it could be a connection with another child - anything like that. But, yeah, I think, you know, we are still, like... I know I messaged you the other day... like, it was an awful day yesterday... because when you are vulnerable and you share a new program with people and you offer it up and... and they're like trusting you and you're, you know, working at it and covid... like, everything is still very challenging for schools right now. And when you want more for teachers and you don't want to create more work for teachers, it can be defeating when things don't go smoothly - and things that you create just don't go smoothly.
Like, you need to work through those bumps, you know, and keep pushing. So, yesterday was a really challenging day, but we are working through it. So that's awesome. Thanks Hon. My husband just brought me a latte.
Lindsay Lyons : I love how awesome he is, like, being showcased, like, in all his awesomeness throughout this podcast. It's so great.
Michelle Goldshlag : Yeah. Yeah, he's awesome.
Lindsay Lyons : Wow. Okay, so that is so cool. Thank you so much for speaking to the Closing Circle piece because I think it's such a cool program. I love that you spoke to the challenges of creating it. I think everyone listening can attest to the challenges for creating a new curriculum or a new procedure or, you know, implementing that. And I also think it sounds just... to me at least... it sounds doable compared to, like, here's this year long multi - hour per day thing initiative. You know, when it's like there's so much to do. Fifteen minutes, three days a week, like, here are some really concrete things that you could immediately just go do. And you have a bunch of stuff... I don't want to talk about this too long with you... but, you know, I know you have a bunch of resources, too, for educators in terms of, like, you said the curriculum for each of those four quarters, like, you know, books and things that people could use to generate those conversations. But even if you were just hanging up the podcast today and, like, okay, immediately, you know, next week, I'm just gonna, you know, find a piece of content and ask students to ask questions about it, and then the next day we're going to go back.
I mean this is something that people could do immediately in their classrooms, which is so fantastic.
Michelle Goldshlag :Yes, absolutely. And they should do. Because, I mean, I just... I think about all of the global problems that we have... the fact that things change so rapidly and we don't know what jobs will look like ten years from now when these kids are out, you know, out and and working... that our greatest, I think, resource is this curiosity and ability to question and that that's going to help bring people together and solve, you know, global problems
Lindsay Lyons : And I love how you would name, too, you know, we want to make sure that kids feel like they can do that now instead of... Oftentimes what we do is we talk about kids in the future. Like, "Oh you're going to be a leader in the future. Once you graduate. Once you grow up." And I love that you're really naming, like, we can have, and should have, kids do that now, like, today while they're in school.
Michelle Goldshlag : Yeah. Yeah, and I think that... I mean, I know that you're gonna share ways to connect with me later, but, for example, just something simple and small is that Gallup assessment, which is only ten dollars. And if you had the means to add that to your school supply list, for example, for those age groups... You know, I wouldn't engage in this at all if you're not actually planning to use the information you're provided - but If you are provided that information, and you wanted our help in order to design some ways to use it in order to really root kids in those strengths that they have, and help them to use them in the school community... and even to build connections with peers, because one of the main... one amazing thing about it is that we had this cohort of, like, twenty kids and there were kids in there that would have never thought about being friends with one of the other kids, right?
But then they realized they share the strength and they're put into group activities where they all have this common strength and, like, kind of talking about what that means. And so that creates an immediate connection, you know? And I think that in order to really build that unity you have to be able to identify those connections. And you can't do that without conversation. or, you know, you just... I mean, if, you know, if you're in the knowing then you're going to just know and assume or judge something about another student without asking. And so, yeah, just providing, like, applicable ways to kind of create those connections in your school is going to be important,
Lindsay Lyons :Awesome. Amazing ideas. So, there's so much packed into this episode. There's so many things that you do, so many pieces of advice that you share with people. And so, as someone is listening to this podcast and they're ready to go implement something - what is the one thing that you would suggest that they go ahead, get started with, just to kind of live in alignment with all that we've been talking about today?
Michelle Goldshlag : So I think that that my suggestion is more about them and their personal growth, and what I would suggest is that they actively pursue conversations or time with others that do not share their same beliefs or ideologies and their... I think through that, and going into it with this idea of questioning and development rather than knowing, you know, I think that with that you a) become more comfortable leaning into the discomfort and so that you'll be more likely to do that in class - or at least help kids to do that. And then, you know... I lost my train of thought in regard to b) there was a b)... I mean, you know, let's just throw in there that you'll become a better person. I mean, I just feel, like, so much time is... and it's unfortunate, but, like, so much time can be spent on your own... in your own bubble with your own, like, thoughts with your own ideas.
And sadly, you know, social media is challenging and then it just encourages you to follow whatever it is that you're focused on or interested in. So we really have to try harder than before, I think, to pursue conversations or time with others who do not share those same beliefs. And I think that it will just help us to be more well rounded, more open minded, you know, more empathetic. I mean, the things that happen and go on in people's lives that we have no idea about, you know. So, really just challenging that empathy skill in yourself and I think that that will trickle down.
Lindsay Lyons : Yeah, that's a brilliant suggestion, thank you. And I love this question for fun at the end of each episode - but, you know, what is something you've been talking about, you know, that growth throughout the episode - what is something that you have been learning about growing in lately?
Michelle Goldshlag :Yes. Well, I guess being on your show is a prime example. Yeah. Before we started, you know, chatting today, I was talking to Lindsay, but there are certain things that can be crippling for a person, and I'm a huge introvert. I'm very comfortable being an invisible leader. And I think just becoming a visible leader... and it's not... I don't want to be, right? I am uncomfortable kind of talking out, gaining exposure, but the cause that I serve is greater than any discomfort I could feel.
So, I mean, I'm choosing to do it because I know what is right. I know that it's right for our mission, and for what we're after, and what we're trying to do. And I hope that's an example for others to do the same. Because, in the end, I don't know how long this will take, Lindsay, you know, like a couple of months or a year for me, like, actually kind of coming on and being interviewed for podcasts and stuff where I'll start to feel comfortable. But I know I felt the same way when I had to start having board meetings, you know, and you're working with a bunch of professionals that are in areas of expertise that you're not. You know, like, there's always stages of discomfort... so I know you have to persevere and through it if you want to grow, and if you want to make a difference,
Lindsay Lyons : So well said. This is amazing advice. So, the last thing I'll ask is just... I'm sure people are going to want to connect with you, learn more about Cultured Kids, learn more about you and what you're working on - so where can people do that?
Michelle Goldshlag : Sure. So, our website is cultured kids dot org. And I am at Linkedin Michelle Goldshlag. Our Twitter and Instagram handles are @ Cultured underscore Kids, and our Facebook page is @ Cultured Kids M A for Massachusetts, because that's where we founded.
Lindsay Lyons : Perfect. Thank you so much, Michelle, for being on this podcast. It's been absolutely a pleasure to chat with you and just hear all these brilliant ideas,
Michelle Goldshlag : Awesome. Thanks so much, Lindsay.
Lindsay Lyons : Thanks for listening, amazing educators. If you loved this episode you can share it on social media and tag me at Lindsay Beth Lyons, or leave a review of the show so leaders like you will be more likely to find it. Until next time, leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.