By Dr. Robbie Smith
Orange Beach Middle & High School
Baldwin County (AL) Schools
Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. (Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, 1920)
I hear and see this quote often and in my mind this refers to the traveler who was willing to take a risk. To go down the path that had thorns, rocks and mud. The path that had not been cleared by others, but was full of challenges.
In my imagining, at the end of the path you find the most beautiful waterfall you have ever seen. The water is crystal clear and it is surrounded by rich greenery, exotic flowers and, if you are lucky, you may spot a rainbow.
Special people take this path – the one less traveled by. I have been honored and humbled to know two of them, Cathy Gassenheimer and Dr. Jackie Acree Walsh. Those in the IPN, KLN, PCN world refer to them in a single breath: Cathy-and-Jackie. They are a matched pair like Thelma and Louise (minus the crime and tragic ending!). In their professional work, Cathy and Jackie have taken the less-traveled path and found the waterfall. I am not sure they realize that they are actually the waterfall but I will attempt to explain.
Super-influencers most have never heard of
Cathy, with her chimes and great taste in music, and Jackie with her ‘wonderings’ and ‘what ifs’ have paired up to influence educators throughout Alabama as facilitators in the networks previously mentioned.
They are servant leaders. They work in the shadows of what most people see in education. Not directly in the school building, but their influence on instruction in Alabama over many years is beyond compare. They ignite passion in school leaders and teachers – which can be hard at times. Cathy and Jackie facilitate adult learning. What does that mean? They figure out ways to trick us into learning :). The same thing we often do with our students.
Cathy and Jackie spend countless hours reading and planning protocols to engage participants in ways that the learning is meaningful. They model best practices that we want to see in classrooms and allow us to take active roles as learners. We get authentic experiences and bring those back to our teachers, who in turn take it directly to the classrooms.
The thing I really want you to understand about these two ladies you most likely have never heard of, is they have influenced hundreds, and I do mean hundreds, of educators in our state. School and district leaders. Teacher leaders. Teacher educators. Take that and move it to the classroom level and it is mind-blowing how many students have been influenced – either directly or indirectly – by this pair.
They deserve a standing ovation
Last month I had the privilege of participating in this educational duo’s swan song – the last retreat facilitated by the Cathy-and-Jackie team. We were there at wonderful Camp McDowell to explore instructional coaching and partnership, and who better to facilitate that? I sat in tears as they announced this was the finale for them, and I watched our group of educators give them a well deserved standing ovation. Why? They are the rock stars of our training world.
Most adults can agree that ‘training’ usually consists of sitting and listening to someone drone on and on about some topic. Trainings are sessions where you are ‘talked at’ and are thinking of a million things you could be doing to better spend your time.
Not with Cathy and Jackie. They keep things moving and our brains working – to the point you are exhausted when you leave. At a two- or three-day retreat, you slowly realize that they have turned the teaching-learning process over to you – it’s participant-driven, in the same manner they continually encourage us to design student-driven learning in our own classrooms.
So yes, you’re tired, but also deeply energized in mind and spirit, and you leave with meaningful learning that you take back to your school and ideas you can share and implement so we all become better at our craft, and so our students learn in deeper, more long-lasting ways.
To say it has been an honor to know and work with these two women does not do justice to their legacy. So on behalf of the many who know and love you, Cathy and Jackie, I say THANK YOU for your influence and encouragement, and the love and support you have shown. Enjoy your well-earned retirement and next adventures. And know that your lessons in navigation will lead us to many more less-traveled roads along the way to better education in Alabama.
With much love and admiration,
It was an absolute honor to be a part of @Question2Think and @cathygassenheim last retreat together before they retire. These ladies have impacted the instructional practices of so many over their years! IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BE A BLUE DEVIL!! @AttallaSchools @EHSBigBlue pic.twitter.com/EDAmfbHkpN
— Nate Ayers Ed.D. (@NateAyer) March 4, 2022
I had the best time learning with and from some of the best educators across the state! Honored to be with @cathygassenheim and @Question2Think for IPN at beautiful Camp McDowell! My heart and head are full and inspired! @al_bpc #ALPartners #greatschoolsForEveryChild #mcslearn pic.twitter.com/hO4B8k2pvJ
— Jane L. Haithcock (@MrsHaithcock) March 4, 2022
Dr. Robbie Smith has been a principal in Alabama public schools for 11 years. During her long educational career she has has led the transition of two schools – one from 7-9 to 7-8 and another from 6-8 to 7-8 – and in 2019 opened a new school in Orange Beach (a combination middle/high) from the ground up with the goal of “growing teachers into teacher leaders.”
Her experience in elementary and secondary education has included roles as classroom teacher, guidance counselor, instructional coach and administrator. She earned an EdD in Educational Leadership and Administration from Phoenix University and a Master’s in Secondary Education and Teaching from Jacksonville State.
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