Ryan Fellow Blog: “I’ve Got Your Back”

Gretchen Larsen
Class of 2018 Ryan Fellow


In a previous life I was an improviser, performing regularly with several troupes in Phoenix. There are no rules in improv, but there are some guidelines that make it work: listen intently, say yes, add information, and start with emotion. The number one rule of improv, though, is to support your teammates. In Phoenix, as we waited in the wings, we would tell each teammate in turn, “I’ve got your back.” This was a promise that no matter what happened on stage, none of us was ever alone.

No matter what any of us needed,
somebody in that room had our back.

This is exactly how I felt the first week of December at the Midyear Strategic Planning Retreat, The Ryan Fellowship’s annual winter retreat for Ryan Fellows and Accelerator principals in Chicago. Everyone had my back, and all the other improv guidelines also applied. We listened intently, we said yes and supported each other by adding information, and we talked about how to establish buy-in with our teams by leading with emotion. Best of all, no matter what any of us needed, somebody in that room had our back. The room was full of current and past Fellows, current and future principals, and Accelerate staff members with the combined expertise to say “Yes, and have you considered…” to any problem we might encounter as we planned the second half of the school year.

One of my favorite takeaways from the retreat was watching a clip of basketball coach Jim Valvano speaking about how he helped his team envision success by practicing cutting down the net, and how his father always had his back. This speech shows how leading with emotion is powerful magic—Jim believed in his team, and Jim’s father believed in him. As we watched this video and talked about what it means to believe in your team, I knew that I needed to bring this back to Las Vegas and re-inspire my teachers for the new year.

Year after year, Jim’s father told him he was ready to come watch the team play the championship game; he said, “My bags are packed for you.” This is the message I want my fifth grade team to have when they feel frustrated by slow progress, mountains of work, and the daily stresses of life. I believe in each of them; I know they can and will make a difference. My bags are packed for them because I know they will be successful. And I want them to practice the educator version of cutting the net, imagining what it will feel like when their students achieve success in the classroom.

At the retreat, while we were on a break, I ordered a set of small paper suitcases and chocolate to fill them with. They were delivered to my doorstep before I even made it back from Chicago. I made cards with suitcases on the front. Next week when the fifth grade team meets, we will watch the Jimmy Valvano speech, we will talk about what our success will look and feel like, and I’ll say something inspiring about how I have their backs and my bags are packed for them. I haven’t quite figured out what I’ll say, but I feel confident that I can improvise that part.

Gretchen Larsen relocated from the Phoenix, AZ area to join our 2018 Las Vegas cohort. After working as a teacher’s aide and obtaining her BA in Secondary Education/English, Gretchen taught for Tempe Elementary School District for three years, then Mesa Public Schools for three years. She stepped into a leadership role as a Lead Teacher with Maricopa County Regional School District, where she managed day-to-day operations as well as observed and coached teachers. Since 2014 she has served as the Founding Dean of Scholars with EAGLE College Preparatory Schools: Mesa. In this role, Gretchen led a staff of 20, using data to drive coaching and targeted professional development. Gretchen took a culture focus in this role as well, teaching social and emotional management skills, fostering relationships with parents and students, and building community partnerships.