Saturday, August 19, 2017

Statues, Empathy, and a Path Forward

On occasion I have asked both students and teachers: "Is it more important to be right... or to be reconciled?" As educators, we understand the importance of relationships. James Comer noted, "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."  Without a doubt, effective school leaders understand the importance of building positive relationships within a school building. Sometimes, relationships get broken, and as a principal, I am wired for reconciliation. I want aggravated parents to be on the same page with their child's teacher. I want quarreling students to work through their differences.  And when I realize I have inadvertently alienated a staff member, I work hard to mend that fence. The personal quality that goes the furthest toward achieving reconciliation... is empathy.

This is sort of a letter to my fellow Americans who want to preserve the Confederate monuments. I feel compelled to write it because much of what I've seen and heard lately reflects a lack of understanding of the emotions on the other side. (I choose to believe that it is a lack of understanding and not a total indifference. An "indifference" would bring me too much sadness.)  It is my belief that we will never achieve reconciliation without an attempt to understand.

[If your goal is not reconciliation, I guess you can stop reading -- this post is not for you --- you and I don't share the same core values, and more than likely, my writing will not resonate with you.  This post is intended for people who care about other humans, who desire a brighter future for our country, and who want to make the world a better place.]

Statues are not just about "history." They are about a specific kind of history ... the history that we want to honor -- the history that we want to celebrate.  Make no mistake about it -- slavery is an ugly stain in our country’s history.  And the racism and discrimination that persisted after the Civil War has left a tragic legacy with which we are still dealing.  The South fought the Civil War to preserve the institution of  slavery.  I actually have ancestors who fought for the confederacy. But they were on the wrong side of history, and they should not be honored.  Robert E. Lee's statues need to come down because there is no redeeming value to his historical contributions.

To those who would argue that the removal of Confederate monuments puts us on a “slippery slope” that will eventually lead to the removal of statues of our founding fathers and the blotting out of our history, please reflect for a moment.  History books tell us what history we should remember; statues tell us what people in that history we should revere. MLK was unfaithful to his wife, but we still have statues of him because he was and is a revered leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His legacy... his contribution to history, has nothing to do with his marriage. Thomas Jefferson had slaves, so his character was flawed to be sure.  But we honor him with statues because he made contributions to our history that transcend his moral failings with respect to slavery.  Taking down statues does not erase our history; it simply clarifies our national values and underscores our capacity for redemption. Removing certain historical monuments is not “rewriting history”; it is redefining what it is in our history that we honor.

In a very difficult moment in our nation's history, Robert F. Kennedy said, "But we have to make an effort in the United States.  We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond ... ."    To those of you who don’t see what the big deal is, I would encourage you to consider how Confederate monuments are perceived by African Americans.  What you see as a harmless statue, others see as a reminder of the unspeakable evil that was visited upon their ancestors... and is still visited upon them, as they live in a society that honors those who owned their ancestors. The bigotry and racism that still confront many African Americans is a testament to the fact that the monuments don't just point to an ugly past... but a painful present.  As long as those monuments stand,  we will not be reconciled with the darkest chapter of our history.

I want to work in a school that is characterized by empathy and a collective commitment to understanding one another. I want to live in a country that reminds me of my school. As school leaders, we build a stronger culture within our building when we work to restore relationships that are broken.  As citizens, we make our country stronger when we demonstrate empathy toward those whose heritage may be different than ours.  This is not a post about politics. It is a post about people...  about relationships… and about the values we want to define us as a country. It is my hope that all of my comments are constructive. Please don't make any political comments on this.  If you want to engage in some dialogue, feel free to call me or send me a message.  Peace.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Makes You So Awesome?

What makes you so awesome? This is not a sarcastic question, and it is not "tongue in cheek." I am choosing to assume that you are awesome.  (Clearly, you are committed to getting better at what you do because you are taking time to read this in the middle of your summer. That's a little bit of awesomeness right there!)  What we choose to assume about people matters.

What if you asked your colleagues what makes them so awesome?  When you ask this in all sincerity, what would your question communicate to them? What might their answer communicate to you? What might it communicate to any staff members who were listening?

Many organizations approach the improvement process by identifying weaknesses or areas of need and then working on those.  I remember learning about another theory in graduate school.  It's called "appreciative inquiry", and it represents a very different approach to the process. With this model, the strategy is to identify areas of strength and then work to capitalize on them.  Celebrate what is already awesome, and figure out how to replicate it. I think this approach always resonated with me because it taps into what motivates people: PRIDE.  When people feel good about who they are and what they do, they are much more likely to work harder.  Increased job satisfaction usually translates into increased job performance.

You have colleagues who are awesome, but they are reserved, and they go below the radar. They certainly don't walk around tooting their own horn.  We need to create opportunities for these folks to share their talents and passion.  You have other colleagues who don't have much confidence, and they don't view themselves as awesome.  We need to build them up. If we validate them relentlessly, over time, they will begin to view themselves differently -- and act differently.  Moreover, I've learned that when you assume good things about your colleagues, it serves to strengthen relationships.  It reinforces a culture of trust and cultivates mutual respect.  It characterizes the type of staff of which I want to be a part.

Try embracing this mindset as you are interacting with others on a daily basis.  Each staff member adds value; each staff member has something to offer; and each staff member makes the organization stronger because of their contribution.

Michael Jordan was a great basketball player in the 80's -- even winning an MVP award. But his team didn't start winning championships until the 90's.  That is when he started making the players around him better.  As we work each day to make a difference in our organization, we remind ourselves that the adults in the building are our most important resource.  We identify what makes those adults awesome; we validate that "awesomeness" at every turn... and we let them shine.  We're not interested in individual MVP awards; we're interested in team championships!

And if I run into you at a conference, I would love to hear what makes you awesome.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What Great Teachers Know About KIDS

It's about the kids.  It's always about the kids.

Some kids act apathetic.  It’s an act.  Every kid cares about something… and great teachers try to figure out what it is.

Some kids come to school ready to learn… and some not so much.  Great teachers come to school ready to make a difference with all of them.

Kids are much more likely to remember how you taught than what you taught.
Classroom management is not about having the right rules FOR kids… it’s about having the right relationships WITH kids.

Great teachers remember that not every kid is looking forward to summer break.  For some kids, school is the safest place there is.

Very few kids engaged in a lesson have ever misbehaved.  I’m just sayin’.
Kids sometimes do stupid stuff in class, but great teachers don’t sweat the shenanigans. They’re too busy teaching and building relationships.

The kids might not remember how much work you put into your class. But they will always remember how much heart you put into your class.

It’s quite possible that the kids you like the least, are the ones who need you the most.
When teachers love their jobs, kids notice.  When teachers are counting down the days, kids notice.  It turns out, kids notice a lot!

Some kids dream of trying to change the world… and some are just trying to make it through the day.  The best teachers meet the kids right where they are.

Not all the kids have hope… and great teachers get it. They realize their job is bigger than any lesson plan or standardized test.

Kids don’t usually remember lessons for a long time. But they remember kindness… and humor… and joy. Great teachers have those qualities in spades.
Kids don’t gravitate to subjects… they gravitate to teachers.

Great teachers know that when they show up to work… happy to be there, they’ve significantly increased the likelihood that the students will have a great day.

Before you can win their mind, you generally have to win their heart.

The kids in the school usually know which adults love being there.  Kids are perceptive.  You can’t fake it.

When kids misbehave, it’s not because they like being in trouble.  Great teachers get that. They don’t lower the bar; they seek to understand.
As a rule of thumb, kids like the teachers who really like them.  So it’s kind of important to like the kids.

Some kids are a bright spot in their teacher's day.  And some kids need a teacher to be a bright spot in their day.
Struggling kids don’t make it because they are in the right class.  They make it because they have the right teacher.
Some kids are nervous about going to school.  Great teachers understand that a smile, a high five, or a quiet conversation can change the trajectory of a kid's bad day.
Kids are not complicated.  They like to feel supported, encouraged, and valued -- same as teachers.

It’s good to know the content.  It’s great to know the pedagogy.  It’s imperative to know the kids.

The best teachers never forgot what it was like to be a kid.
Teachers did not get into education to raise test scores… but to make a difference in the lives of kids.  And that makes them heroes!
                                               Danny Steele

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Things That Principals Know About Great Teachers

I have had the privilege of working with many great teachers.  These are some things that are true about them:

Great teachers don't always have the best lessons.  But they always have the best relationships with kids.

Great teachers understand that developing the right classroom climate is a prerequisite to teaching the right lesson.

When a lesson does not go as planned, great teachers are not looking around the room... they are looking in the mirror.

Great teachers always come to class ready to teach... but they are mindful of the fact that not all students come to class ready to learn.

Great teachers understand the power of human connection, so they are diligent about building relationships with their students.  They are even relentless about connecting with the knuckleheads.

Great teachers don't show up for WORK... they show up for KIDS!  It's a passion -- not a job.

Great teachers understand the "Golden Rule" for educators: Teach every child the way you would want your own child to be taught.

Great teachers are not intent on winning "battles" with the students.  They understand that if there is a battle in the classroom, nobody wins.

Great teachers define their success by the success of their students.  They understand it's not about the teaching... it's about the learning.

Great teachers are not defined by their lesson plans... they are defined by their passion.

Great teachers are in it for the kids.  It's not about the lesson plan, the rules, or the massive paycheck. It's always about the kids.

Great teachers will spend some time this summer thinking about how they can improve their lessons next year.  That's just what they do.

Kids leave their class feeling better about themselves... because great teachers understand there is more to teaching than delivering instruction.

Great teachers are never victims of "slacker kids." They refuse to let those students get away without doing the work.

Great teachers are not driven by courses of study... they are driven by the faces in front of them.

Great teachers can look past the bad attitude.  They realize there's always something else going on.

Great teachers did not become great by accident.  They became great because they made a decision that being "good" was not enough.

All teachers have bad days.  Great teachers never lose perspective, and they refuse to let their personal drama undermine the positive energy in the classroom.

Great teachers are always in pursuit of a better lesson.  They demand the same excellence of themselves that they work for in their kids.

Our world is a better place because of the passion and dedication of great teachers everywhere.  They inspire me daily.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Becoming a School of Choice: Teaching and Leading in a School We Would Choose for Our Own Child

This summer many parents are going to be deciding where to send their kids to school. This may mean buying a new house so they will be zoned for a "good" school system.  It may mean finding a private school. It may mean trying a charter school.  Or it may even mean homeschooling.  As educators are planning for the next school year, they would do well to simply think about what sort of school they would want for their own children.  

Here are 10 things I think we should be mindful of as we seek to teach and lead in a "school of choice."

Part I: It’s About the Kids
1. Parents want a school that focuses on their kids. They care about their kids more than anything in the world, and they want to feel that the adults in the school will care about them too.  They want a school that recognizes the unique potential, abilities, and challenges of their students. They want to know that their input will be valued and their needs will be accommodated. They want to know that the adults will always be making decisions with the needs and interests of the kids at the forefront.
2. Parents want a school that inspires their kids. They want the school to encourage and celebrate the dreams of their students.  Parents see limitless potential in their kids, and they want the school to recognize that as well. They want a school that expands horizons and highlights possibilities.

3. Parents want a school that communicates about their kids. They value transparency, and they always want to know what's happening at the school. They want to hear about what their students are learning and see pictures of what they're doing. They especially love seeing pictures of their own kids.
4. Parents want a school that will prepare their kids.  They want to know that their students will be provided the knowledge and skills to be successful in the future.  They want their kids to be prepared for college and ready for work, and they want to know that this preparation is a priority of the adults in the school.

5. Parents want a school that is a fun place to learn.  They want their kids to like going to school because the teachers are committed to delivering engaging and relevant lessons. Parents recognize that a school that is a positive place and a happy place will be one that their kids will enjoy attending.
Part II: But it’s Also About the Teachers
6. Parents want a school that empowers the teachers.  They want the teachers to be given the resources and training to provide the best possible instruction to their students.

7. Parents want a school that connects the teachers. They realize that teachers are not as effective when they work in isolation, so they want a school that provides opportunities for teachers to communicate and collaborate with each other.

8. Parents want a school that trusts the teachers.  Their own kids do not fit into cookie cutter molds, and they know the teachers don't either.  They want teachers to have the flexibility and professional latitude in the classroom to always do what is best for their own students.
9. Parents want a school that validates the teachers. They know that the teachers are the most important variable in the success of their student, and they want the teachers to be valued and recognized for the work they do. They know that this validation will increase the motivation of the adults working with their kids.
10. Parents want the school to be a fun place for the teachers to work. They realize teachers are more effective when they enjoy their job, and their classroom will be a happier place for their students to be. They know that a positive school culture creates the best context for teaching and learning.

Every school has the potential to be a great school.  Every school has the opportunity to be a "school of choice." This is the type of school I want for my own children.  What sort of school do you want for your kids?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball

[This blog post was originally published on NASSP's blog: "School of Thought."]
Dear Principal: I suspect you’re tired. It is easy to get discouraged. Some principals may even be disillusioned. As Tim Messick noted, “Job descriptions are written in such a way that a principal needs to be a superhero. A principal needs to have the power and strength of Superman, the intelligence of Albert Einstein, the popularity of Princess Diana, the political savvy of a presidential candidate, and the care and compassion of Mother Teresa.”
In a time when public schools do not always enjoy the support of policymakers and public schools are at risk of being undercut by vouchers and charter schools, principals are still charged with raising test scores in their buildings. They are tasked with leading schools that prepare students for an uncertain future. They may feel buried in mandates and distracted by controversies and negative press. How do principals respond?
We keep our eye on the ball.
We come to work each day to remove barriers for our teachers. We strive every day to create a safe school environment for students. We commit to leading a school where teachers want to work and students want to learn. We create a vision for our school community that encourages students to dream big and ensures teachers can help students achieve those dreams.
We remember that we actually play a role in raising student achievement. We embrace the responsibility of creating a school culture that elevates expectations for students and fosters meaningful collaboration among teachers. We sit with our teachers to analyze data, but we remember that each data point represents a student, their future, and all of their hopes and dreams. We work to increase student achievement, but we remember that we did not get into the business to raise test scores; we became educators to make a difference in the lives of our students.
We demonstrate every day, through what we say and how we spend our time, that meeting the needs of our students is the most important thing we do. We know that we have students walking our halls who need us. We advocate for the student who has been picked on. We are patient with the student who does not have any support at home. We make time for the student who is lonely. We are relentless about connecting with the students in our school, and we remind our teachers that they leave a legacy that transcends the curriculum. We remind them that there is not one magical instructional strategy, but there is magic in connecting with kids. We remind them that students may not always remember their lesson, but they will always remember their kindness.
We’ve all written school improvement plans. But we remember that people don’t follow plans; they follow passion. We have all been involved in the development of mission statements, but the best mission statements are not framed; they are lived. The job of a school principal is challenging—and at times it is certainly stressful. But we keep our focus. We keep our eye on the ball. We come to work every day to empower our teachers and inspire our students, to create for them a brighter future.
That is what I think we do.
How will you keep your eye on the ball?

Secrets of School Culture

[This blog post was originally published on the site,]

As school leaders, we understand that one of our most important responsibilities is building school culture.  We want to lead a school where kids enjoy learning and adults enjoy working.  We want to lead a school where teacher capacity is enhanced and student achievement is elevated. We want to foster a school culture that empowers educators and inspires kids.  So how do we do that?

Here are my 7 secrets for building a strong school culture:

  1. Connect with your values
It’s easy to get into a routine.  We go to work everyday; we teach lessons; we lead faculty meetings; we email parents; we supervise carpool … and the list goes on.  We make a million decisions every day, and many of them, we’re barely aware of.  We get bogged down in the minutia and the mundane, so we need to continually remind ourselves why we do what we do.  At our school, we have each written our own professional oath — modeled after the physician’s “Hippocratic Oath.” These oaths are posted on our websites and outside our classrooms. They keep us connected to our core values, and they remind us why we come to work each day.  

  1. Identify your vision
Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” It’s important for every school to have a vision that drives the faculty — a goal that propels the school forward. We understand the importance of “learning targets” for students because we know that when kids understand the destination, they can own the journey.  Adults are no different. The vision provides the goal around which everyone rallies.

  1. Cultivate the collaboration
I believe teachers are stronger when they collaborate. “Iron sharpens iron,” “two heads are better than one,” and that sort of thing.  The term, “collaboration” has actually become something of a cliche.  But in my experience, this cliche is rock solid.  At our school, we have started a competition called, “Collaboration Bling,” where teachers are recognized for observing each other’s classrooms.  We have conducted a faculty meeting via “Twitter chat,” and our last faculty meeting was conducted “Edcamp” style. The best professional learning does not take place in a workshop, it takes place when teachers are hanging out with their colleague down the hall.

  1. Raise the expectations
There is a robust body of research around the role of high expectations in school. The conclusion is clear.  Kids rise to the level of our expectations.  In our school we talk about expectations during morning announcements.  I have gone into classrooms prior to testing to talk to the kids about my expectations for their academic growth.  We also encourage students to have high expectations of themselves, so students set their own academic goals in conferences with their teachers.  We don’t limit our hopes to the realm of academics, however, because we also asked all our students to write their dreams on our “Wall of Dreams” in the hallway.

  1. Personalize the data
I’ve told my teachers many times: “We don’t want to get better by accident; we want to get better on purpose.  Data is what allows us to be strategic.”  I am proud of how my teachers use the data to drive their instruction and increase their effectiveness in the classroom … but it is my hope that they never lose sight of this: ultimately, it’s not about the data; it’s about the kids.  We did not get into education to raise test scores; we became educators to make a difference in the lives of our students.  It is easy to be bogged down in the numbers, but we must remind ourselves that we are not analyzing “data points” … we are talking about children. Analyzing the data is useful, but we must never lose sight of what that data represents.

  1. Engage with the students and teachers
People know what you value by how you spend your time.  I believe that the best school leaders are not consumed with managing programs, they’re preoccupied with people.  They are passionate about connecting with the students and the teachers in the building.  School culture is not built through emails and memos; it is built through relationships — one conversation at a time.  You don’t shape school culture sitting behind your desk; you shape it in the halls, in the classrooms, the lunchrooms … doing whatever it takes to engage with those around you.

  1. Bring the positive energy
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”  And as Todd Whitaker quipped, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.”  Without a doubt, the leader of the school sets the tone in the building. The enthusiasm that we bring to work every day will be contagious.  And the positive energy that we inject into the little moments of the day will make a big difference.  A positive school culture is not built overnight, and it is not the result of a single program or initiative.  It is achieved by taking advantage of the little opportunities to make a difference and elevate the positive energy in the school.

Good School culture is not accidental; it is the result of intentional decisions.  The seven strategies listed above are all VERBS.  They are things that we can all choose to DO!  Every school can have a culture that rocks!  It’s a matter of choices.