Sunday, November 22, 2020

When the Mission is the Problem

The mission is vital; it is the essence, after all, of what drives any organization.  But there are times that commitment to the mission may actually undermine core values that are more fundamental to the organization.  

When I was a counselor at Space Camp in the summer of 1992,  I knew little about the story behind the Challenger explosion which happened just six years earlier.  After watching the Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight, I was left with a sense of sadness about the seven lives which were prematurely and needlessly snuffed out, but I was simultaneously struck with lessons for leadership and organizational culture.

Engineers who worked on the solid rocket booster had documented concerns for years about the integrity of the seals which contained the extremely flammable fuel in the boosters.  Specifically, there were repeated alarms about the O-rings which were responsible for the seal.  Contract engineers, as well as some staff who worked within NASA, had maintained there needed to be a complete redesign of the seal.  But NASA was dependent on the national government for funding, and this entailed significant political pressure within the organization to maintain a rigorous flight schedule with the space shuttle program. They did not think they could afford to ground the fleet. 

The launch of Challenger, which was scheduled for late January in 1986, was delayed by thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral and then further threatened by a snap of sub-freezing temperatures.  As was routine, a team of NASA managers conducted a flight readiness review to ensure that the launch could move forward.  Because of the unusual cold weather, this involved meeting with the contractors who were responsible for the manufacture of the different systems within the space shuttle to ensure the mission was safe to proceed. The company, Morton Thiakol, was responsible for making the solid rocket booster.  

The engineers at Thiakol overwhelmingly recommended that the launch be delayed because of the cold weather.  In response, the Project Manager at Marshall Space Flight Center responded: "Good God, Thiokol!  When do you want me to launch, next April?"  After further deliberation, the managers at Thiokol overruled the engineers and gave approval for the launch.

An inquiry into the Challenger explosion by the Rogers Commission released a report which indicated the explosion was the result of a bad seal in the solid rocker booster, as well as a flawed decision making process which did not maintain the necessary safe guards for a successful and safe shuttle program. NASA executives felt political pressure from Congress to keep the shuttle missions on schedule.  That pressure was felt by the program managers, and it also trickled down to the contractors. 

Over 27 years in education, I can't tell you how many times I have witnessed colleagues avoid telling tough information to supervisors. They avoided hard conversations because the truth would be uncomfortable for the boss. They weren't sure how the administration would respond to news it didn't want to hear. In education, we need to have hard conversations about student achievement, staff morale, equity, the impact of a global pandemic on the school community, and myriad other issues. Leaders need to have these conversations, and in fact, cultivate them. They need to be willing to listen to bad news.  They need to be willing to hear the truth, even when it gets in the way of the "mission."  And they need to create a culture in the organization where everyone feels comfortable speaking up.





Thursday, November 5, 2020

Letter to a Discouraged Student

 To a discouraged student,


You're discouraged.  I know you are.  Your heart sank when you saw the grades. But those letter grades don’t define you.


Last spring didn’t go like it was supposed to go.  You missed out on activities.  You missed seeing your friends at school every day.  And this year isn’t normal either.  It’s uncomfortable to wear a mask at school.  Remaining “socially distanced” isn’t much fun either!


You are having to learn in ways you never learned before. All the technology and all the directions can be confusing.  And you are having to be more responsible for your learning than ever before.  You are being asked to learn independently and keep up with your own work in ways that many college students are not even able to handle.  


We might not know about all the distractions at your house or that your Wi-Fi keeps going out.  We might not know about all the hours that you’re having to watch your siblings.  We don’t know that your parents might not be able to help you figure out how to submit your assignment online… or explain the project  that doesn’t make sense to you.  We don’t know about your part time job or that you usually don’t get a full night’s sleep.  You’re already a great employee… but you aren’t getting any points for that in the gradebook.


You've never made the honor roll, but you have worked hard for your "C’s". You're kind, but we don't have a rubric for kindness.  You smile every morning, but facial expressions don't go in the grade book. You're always on time, and you're never in trouble, but there wasn't a question on the test about that.  


That letter grade does not represent the qualities that are most important about you; it certainly does not represent your hopes, goals, and dreams.  You have potential that is not measured by that last test.  You have gifts that were not assessed by that last quiz.  You didn't make the honor roll... but we still think you're a neat kid.


You're bored, and it's hard for you to care about assignments when you don't think they have anything to do with your life.  You're good at things that we don't seem to care about.  You're passionate about things that aren't on the syllabus.  You're tired of being compared to those around you. You feel like you don't measure up -- like you are inadequate.  But your grade does not reflect your IQ or your worth.  It is arbitrary.   I'm sorry that the grade is so important to all the adults.  Your future employers will care about other things too. They will care if you work hard; they will care how you work with other people; they will care that you don’t give up… even when the job gets really hard. You may not feel successful now… but please persevere.  You will be a valuable employee.  You will be a wonderful neighbor. You will be a great citizen.


You're discouraged... but I want you to know we care.  I want you to know we believe in you.  We want you to know that you have a bright future. You have talents and gifts that we may not even know about yet. We haven't found out how to measure them.  But you have them!


You are amazing... and your worth will never be measured by a letter grade.  So please don't give up.  We want you to graduate.  We need you to graduate… because you are our future.  And your education will open so many doors for you.  Your teachers care about you and they care about your future.  We might not know your whole story, but we care about your success, and we’re invested in you.  I care about you… and I'm in your corner.  Keep on keepin’ on!

                                                                           

                                                                                                        ~ Danny Steele


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Letter to a Stressed Teacher in 2020



Teacher Friend,

You're stressed.  I know you are.

I'm a principal, and it's easy for me to say, "Hang in there -- thanks for all you do!"  But I want you to know exactly what it is that I'm thankful for.

Last spring was a whirlwind.  I'm sorry that so many of you didn't really get to say good bye to your students.  You invested into their lives all year, and then the rug was ripped out from underneath you.  That hurts.

I'm sorry about the anxiety you experienced all summer, not knowing what your job would look like in the new year -- not knowing if all your students were ok.

Your school year may have started late; you may not have had all your students in your room.  You probably had to learn new ways of delivering instruction.  You had to learn new technology... and that technology didn't always work!  You had to rearrange your classroom!  And it's hard to teach with masks.  It's not easy to connect with students when you can barely see their faces, or in many cases, they're not even in your room.  You became a teacher because you want to build relationships with students, and it's never been so hard.  However your school year began, I know it wasn't normal... and it was ridiculously challenging.

You love being a teacher, but you are worried about your health.  You are worried about the health of your students.  You are worried about the health of your own families.

But you push on.

Thank you for taking time to prepare meaningful lessons... even when you feel yourself dragging.

Thank you you for providing encouragement and support to your colleagues when they're down.

Thank you for being kind to your students... and for realizing that may be the only kindness they experience all day.

Thank you for working to motivate your apathetic students.  Sometimes your efforts don't seem to make a difference. But you keep trying... because that's what teachers do.

Thank you for your willingness to learn new ideas from your colleagues.  I admire your commitment to being a better teacher tomorrow than you were today.

Thank you for trying to connect with students who don't seem reachable... because you realize you may be their only lifeline.

Thank you for making all those phone calls.

Thank you for your patience with the students who may be disruptive and annoying... because you know that those students still need you.

Thank you for working to ensure your students have a brighter future.

Thank you for being the kind of teacher that you would want your own kids to have.

I know you're tired, and you have a right to be.  I'm sorry that we just put another kid in your class... making it even harder to socially distance.  I'm sorry we just asked you to fill out another form.  In spite of the challenges, you maintain your passion for kids; you hold on to your commitment to making a difference.  I never take that for granted.

You're stressed... but you push on.

To me... that makes you awesome... and I appreciate you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Danny Steele

Thursday, October 15, 2020

10 Things I Believe About Education and Leadership During a Pandemic



1. This pandemic has underscored an important truth that many educators have always known: we need each other.  Nothing can replace human connection.  Nothing can replace personal interactions.  Nothing can replace relationships. Teachers do care about their students, and they understand that connecting with students is more important than ever. But they cannot carry the weight of the responsibility for the social and emotional health of all their kids. That’s too much to bear. It takes a village.

2. As many parents have found themselves trying to help their own kids who have had to do some learning at home, they have been reminded that teaching is not easy. It's a skill... and it requires a great deal of patience.

3. We ask our students to be life-long learners.  Well… as educators are confronted with the reality of adapting to radically different instructional models… this is the perfect opportunity for us to practice what we preach and model for our students a little bit of “life-long learning.”

4. The realities of COVID and virtual instruction have underscored the need to provide equitable learning experiences for every student. Not all students have access to technology and WiFi. And not all students have parents who have the time and ability to help with school work at home. As educators, we have to be mindful of that reality and we must work to close the opportunity gaps.

5. It’s easier to throw stones than it is to make tough decisions.  And sometimes, being a leader involves coming to terms with the fact that any decision you make will be the “wrong” one to a whole lot of people.

6. Patience… flexibility… support… and grace.  If this is not what we’re bringing to the table right now, then we’re bringing the wrong stuff.  And your colleagues need to know that they are not alone.  No one should struggle in isolation.  And you can still build a positive culture in the face of adversity.  This is the magic of camaraderie.  It is the beauty of knowing that we’re all doing this together.  And we’re not alone.


7. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs applies to educators now more than ever.  Leaders need to remember that when they’re talking about culture, mission, and all that stuff at the top of the pyramid… they have staff members who are worried about safety, security, and all that stuff at the bottom of the pyramid. Sometimes, teachers don’t need their administrators to inspire them, motivate them, or even lead them. Sometimes, what teachers need... is for their administrators to listen to them, understand them, and validate their experiences.

8. Leaders need to acknowledge the challenges and trauma that are confronting those they are leading. They need to be willing to listen to bad news. They need to be willing to hear uncomfortable truths. And they need to create a culture in the organization where everyone feels ok speaking up; they need to ensure they are creating safe spaces for candid communication.

9. Educators are confronted with two moral imperatives that are sometimes in conflict: First, we need to provide the best possible education for every student. Second, we need to ensure that all of our students and colleagues are safe. Most students learn best when they are in school, so we need to have them there when it is safe to do so.

10. Students are resilient. Teachers are resilient. They both have challenges... and they both need continued support and encouragement. Hope abides.


















Sunday, November 24, 2019

Maintaining Staff Morale

David Weinberger once said, "The smartest person in the room is the room."  This poignant adage speaks to the power of collaboration, and it is something I got to experience first hand this summer.  I had the very cool privilege of working with ten talented and passionate educators to write a book - Volume III of the Education Write Now series.  Under the leadership of our skilled editors, Sanée Bell and Jeff Zoul, and with the support of our amazing editor, Lauren Davis, we each wrote a chapter.  Our goal, and the focus of this project, was to provide solutions to common challenges in our schools and classrooms.

I tackled the challenge of maintaining staff morale, and you can check out my intro below:

"Teaching is hard, and it can be emotionally draining. Educators deal with the pressure of standardized tests.  They are tasked with teaching rigorous academic standards but also developing strong character while responding to the social and emotional needs of their students.  They have the often overwhelming challenge of identifying students at risk of suicide. They work under the pressure of state mandates and district initiatives. Their schedule and position often create feelings of isolation.  They may struggle to keep up with evolving technologies and shifting standards. And recent news stories of teacher strikes across the country have underscored the reality that teachers are underpaid and often struggle to make ends meet.  So teacher burnout is real, as are the teacher shortages we constantly hear about.  
What can we do to mitigate the impact of pressures that confront teachers every day they come to work?.  What can we do to stay motivated in spite of the adversity? There is hope. Administrators and teachers can both play a role in creating the kind of school culture that fosters strong morale.  This chapter will outline ten strategies for administrators and ten strategies for teachers. While schools are often underfunded, staff morale does not need to be a function of fiscal resources.  Educators have tremendous potential to impact the attitude and joy of all those in the school building through clarifying their values and shifting their perspectives.  So here we go." 

You can get some other teasers by checking out blog posts from my colleagues linked here:

Lynell Powell
Rachelle Dene Poth
Jennifer Casa-Todd
Josh Stumpenhorst
David Geurin
Jeff Zoul
Sanée Bell
Ross Cooper
Katie Martin

We were all fortunate to have this amazing professional experience, and we sincerely hope that educators benefit from the wisdom, insight, and strategies found in this volume... but we all understood that our mission carried an added significance.  All of the royalties generated from this book will support the Will to Live Foundation, a nonprofit foundation working to prevent teen suicide.

I'm grateful for the opportunity provided by Routledge Publishing.  I'm grateful for the vision of Lauren, Jeff, and Sanée... and their passion to see this project through.  And I am grateful for the honor of working along side Jennifer, Ross, Rachelle, David, Katie, Lynell, and Josh.  It is our hope that other educators will find this volume a useful resource as they seek to refine their craft and improve their corner of the world.  Education Write Now: Solutions to Common Challenges in Your School or Classroom is out now.  Check it out here!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Rethinking Fundraisers



On the way to school, my daughter told me about the talent show going on today.  I asked her if she needed money, and she indicated she already had the three dollars.  And she told me a little story from earlier in the year.  "Dad... when we had the faculty / student basketball game, only one student in our homeroom didn't bring money.  But my teacher opened his wallet and put in the three dollars so everyone could go.  It was so sweet."  I responded, "That was sweet of him.  I wonder how the student felt."

If you bring $1 you can go the game.  If you bring $3, you can go to the school dance.  Bring $5 and you can support your classmates at the talent show.  These fundraisers during the school day are ubiquitous in schools around our country and at every grade level.  As a principal for eight years, we had them at our school.

I regret it.

When we provide these extra experiences only to the students who have the money, what message are we sending to them?  What message are they receiving?   I have become convinced that these practices reinforce inequity, and they are harmful to students.

Kids can't control the income of their parents.  Why should the quality of experiences enjoyed in school be a function of something out of their control?  I realize that everything is not equal in the "real world" but our schools should be undermining systems of inequity, not reinforcing them.  Some students enjoy extra advantages at home because of the income of their parents.  And now these students also enjoy extra advantages at school, courtesy of the three dollar fundraiser.  They get additional socialization with peers, bonding with friends, and engaging with teachers outside of the academic setting.  They get "downtime" outside of the regular classroom.  They get the added energy and inspiration from participating in something out of the routine of the normal school day.


I realize schools want to generate more funds.  But we shouldn't do it in a way that embarrasses students.  And we shouldn't do it in a way that some students miss out on fun experiences enjoyed by their more affluent peers.  We can do better. 

You might remember Harper Lee's great quote from To Kill a Mocking Bird:  "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."  I'm challenging us to rethink our fundraisers during the school day.  Consider the kid who doesn't get to go to the dance because her parents don't have the money.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Unforgettable Interview




About 6 or 7 years ago, I interviewed a teacher named Jake Huggins.  He seemed like a nice guy; he had a few years under his belt; and I thought he might be a nice addition to our faculty.  But he took away any doubt when he answered one question.  This was always my favorite question:

"Jake... in every school in America, you can place teachers on a continuum.  On one end of the continuum are teachers who don't seem to want to be there.  They're always complaining about something.  Their colleagues wonder why they haven't retired yet. They're a drag on the collective energy of the school.  But on the other end of that continuum are the teachers who are always excited to be at work.  They love the students; they value their colleagues; and they lift the spirits of all those around them.  When graduates come back to visit, these are the teachers they want to see.  So Jake... what is the difference between these two teachers?  What is the 'X factor?'  Because that's what we're looking for here." 

Most teachers would talk about passion, or talk about the fact that the second teacher isn't just coming to work for a paycheck; they're coming to work to make a difference.  I think those are good answers, but Jake said something different -- something I'll never forget.  He answered something like this:

"You know, I think every teacher is idealistic when they start their career.  Almost every new teacher has passion; they love kids; and they want to make a difference.  But after several years, you hit a little bit of a wall.  There's this reality check.  You realize this job is hard.  There are a lot of papers to grade.  Some students make it really hard to teach.  And parents are not always supportive.  I think some teachers just don't seem to move beyond these frustrations.  They burn out.  But others are able to maintain their sense of purpose in spite of the challenges.  Their work is hard, but they remain convinced that it matters. Some students are challenging, but they are aware of how much they need a teacher not to give up on them.   They deal with adversity, but it doesn't steal their passion.  These are the teachers who get to make a difference year after year."

We hired Jake.   And this past week, he was named the school's "Teacher of the Year."  So I salute Jake Huggins... and all those other teachers who got past that "reality check" and retained their passion for students.  They are making a difference... year after year.