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Meet Ryan Cowden of School of Thought in Monrovia

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ryan Cowden.

Ryan, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I started teaching in public schools in 2011. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my entire life and that includes working on dairy farms and reading Kierkegaard. In my first year as a substitute teacher, I used to get together with my friend Matt, another teacher, every Friday to talk about the teaching. Those conversations eventually led to the creation of the School of Thought Podcast.

The focus of our conversations generally revolved around one question: why is teaching so hard? We knew we hadn’t been trained for what our jobs actually required, but we were struggling to find the right words to explain what we were lacking. I remember people asking me how teaching was going and I remember telling them that I was perpetually exhausted. When people asked me why, I started telling them I was a mid-level manager and a professional public speaker. Roughly 150 students reported to me in the course of a day and I was speaking to groups of people for 8 hours a day, five days a week. I began to put words to the pieces I was missing: leadership and communication.

Part of my exhaustion did have something to do with being an introvert in a very social profession, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was only trained for about one-third of my job. Teaching preparation courses and conferences focus almost exclusively on lesson planning, but lesson planning isn’t the hardest part of teaching. The hardest part is motivating and engaging your audience. I began thinking that other teachers had to be feeling the same way. In this sense, teaching is less like running a race and more like competing in a triathlon. To be a great teacher means more than knowing a lot about your content. It means cross-training in other fields that will make you more effective at your job.

I developed a presentation about the need for more leadership and communication training for teachers and started applying to education conferences. After my first presentation, both teachers and administrators lined up for a chance to ask me questions. I felt like I had stumbled onto something meaningful. After presenting at a few more conferences and being a keynote speaker at my own school district, I began looking for a more efficient way of sharing this message with people.

The good news is that I don’t have to invent the wheel. There is a strong discourse on leadership and communication happening outside of education. I just have to turn the mic on. The goal of the School of Thought Podcast is to create a new conversation (or a new school of thought) at the intersection of leadership, communication and education. I hope this conversation changes the way teachers think about their own jobs and enlightens them about the impact they can have on young lives. I hope it changes the way administrators lead teachers and the way our system prepares young educators.

Right now, I am building up the podcast, but I am already thinking of different ways to bring leaders, communicators and educators together. The more I listen, the more it sounds like this conversation applies to more than just teachers. As I listen to people talk about leadership, communication and education, I can’t see how you can do one without doing all three.

Has it been a smooth road?
I haven’t faced any huge obstacles to starting this project. Anyone can start a podcast, but that doesn’t mean your podcast is good. In many ways the true tests are still ahead of me. That said, launching this podcast was a huge internal victory for me.

I let fear hold me back for a long time after I had the idea of doing a podcast. I was worried that the idea wasn’t perfect yet and that I just wasn’t going to be good at hosting a podcast. I was also worried about posting episodes before I got really good at podcasting. I spent months tinkering with the idea, filling documents with ideas, and telling very few people about it.

A lot of things changed that I can’t fully take credit for. One thing in particular that changed was my thinking. My mind shifted and I became more afraid of what would happen if I never tried. I realized that this was a personality trait and it was time to start letting it go.

Even so, posting an announcement on social media that I was starting a podcast was one of the scariest things I have ever done. All my instincts were still telling me I wasn’t ready yet, but when I did, I received a staggering amount of love and support. I am very blessed to have a great community around me, one I didn’t fully appreciate until I started to do this.

On this side of the launch, I feel that I am a better version of myself. I have had new experiences that have granted me wisdom and confidence. I have less fear and am more able to focus on the joy of making this podcast.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
There are two things I’m really proud of in this podcast. The first is that we provide two versions of each podcast to accommodate the tastes and availability of our listeners. Some of our listeners prefer the long-form version of the podcast, which features most of the conversation and provides the context for the material we get from our guest. The “shortcuts” version is edited to be under thirty minutes and is designed for people who are too busy to listen to a full one-hour podcast. So far, the shortcuts version has beaten out the long-form version on all episodes except one. This idea was inspired in part by the On Being Podcast, hosted by Kista Tippett, which posts an unedited version and a produced version of each conversation, both running about an hour.

The second thing I’m really proud of is the tone of the podcast. A lot of educational podcasts are just a serious of interview questions and can sometimes be kind of dry. My podcast heroes are people like Krista Tippett and Marc Maron, who try to engage their guests in conversation first, knowing that this is the best way to learn from your guest. In my experience, the best insights have arisen from moments that could not have happened if we stuck to our script. The guest often brings up things you don’t even look for if you are really listening to them.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I couldn’t do this podcast the way I want to do it anywhere else. I believe that conversations are best had in a face-to-face setting, and I have yet to do a phone or Skype interview on my podcast. If I was living in a different state or city, my options would be much more limited and I’d have to do many interviews over the phone. But since I’m willing to put up with traffic, I get to sit down with people from all walks of life and have honest conversations while sitting face-to-face with them. Southern California is also one of those places where people still have to travel to promote their material, so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of interesting people to talk to.

If you’re going to commit to doing a podcast in Southern California, I would go all the way and do those interviews in person. So much communication that takes place between people is non-verbal. I don’t believe there is a replacement for being in the room with someone (although, I’m aware that some of my podcasting heroes would disagree with me). Make that extra time commitment to see them and talk with them.

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