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
                                                    @SteeleThoughts


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, www.leadupnow.com]



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.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

What Flavor is YOUR Kool-Aid?

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Several months ago, one of us received a message from an administrator in another school district who asked if he could come visit our school.  In his message, he remarked, “I want to drink the Kool-Aid you’re drinking.”  

If we visited your school, what would we notice? If we walked the halls of your building, what would we observe?  If we interviewed the teachers on your campus, what would they say… and could you predict their answers?

Bethany and Danny have never met, (in person,) but they have developed a mutual admiration for one another through their connection on Twitter. Because we seem to share many of the same core values about students, teachers, and building school culture, it seemed appropriate to collaborate on a blog post.  

A quick glance at Wikipedia and you see several phrases to describe the phenomenon of “drinking the Kool-aide.”  They include:

“Fervent devotion”

“Great enthusiasm”

To become a firm believer in something; to accept an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly."

Bethany and Danny are “firm believers” in certain ideas. We have a “fervent devotion” to several core values that we have embraced “whole heartedly” and with “great enthusiasm.”  We are drinking the Kool-aide, and we hope to inspire as many others as possible to join the party.

As we thought about the flavor of our kool-aide, three ideas immediately came to mind.

Positive Energy

First, it with begins with our commitment to bring positive energy into the building every day we come to work. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”  We each try to generate enthusiasm in our school in different ways, but it is our goal to be relentlessly positive.

Every morning, Danny begins by playing a clip of an upbeat song (usually no more than a minute).  About once every week or two, he accompanies the song with a contest: the first teacher that emails him the name of the song (or the artist, or the movie it's from; the contest varies), wins the prize. After announcements are over, he takes 3 Hershey kisses to the winning teacher, and gives one to every teacher who participated.  What does this have to do with "instructional leadership?" Well, it's fun! And, in his experience, teachers who are having fun are more effective teachers.  It's fun for the students too!  They love the music, and they enjoy helping the teachers with the contest.  Winning becomes a source of pride for the entire class.  This begins the day with good energy.  After the song, he announces, "It's a GREAT day to be a WARRIOR!" He’s been saying this for over 5 years now.  It introduces some positivity into their morning routine, and it sets the tone for the day. Positive energy can be infectious, and morning announcements are the perfect time to start your school day with enthusiasm and school pride.  Several weeks ago, Danny initiated a project to inject some positive energy into the month of February. He asked every teacher to email him something they admire about several employees. (He assigned the names to ensure every staff member received three compliments.) Each morning in the month of February, he sent the staff an email with the subject: “My awesome colleagues.” The email contains “shout outs” for 5-6 staff members.  This email has provided some positivity and affirmation for all the staff members during a stressful month.

A strategy Bethany has ingrained into her school culture is that of branding through social media. Teachers all have Twitter accounts, and many use them regularly to share greatness from their kids, classrooms, and their school. Their shares are retweeted on the school’s Twitter feed, which tells a continual story of Central Elementary. Each week the school participates in #CelebrateMonday, a hashtag generated by the brilliant Sean Gaillard, to trend the positive in schools. Bethany, along with many staff in her school family, share and celebrate throughout each Monday via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with the #CelebrateMonday hashtag. It has become a Central tradition, one that families and the community look forward to each week as they follow the school’s story. Recently Central did a social media photo challenge where teachers captured memories of playing with children and posted to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Bethany notes, “Reflecting on the school’s brand gives the staff a sense of pride and helps them all remember what matters most in schools...our culture and relationships.”

Bethany visits classrooms frequently, carrying an office on her back rather than working in an office alone. Her backpack holds her laptop, journal, sticky notes of various shapes and sizes, special note writing pens, and tokens of inspiration. Even when some of “the stuff” takes over, such as emails, paperwork, etc., Bethany chooses to complete those tasks within a classroom setting where she can be involved.  Each week she takes the time to do “sit downs” (this would be the opposite of “walkthroughs”). Where she spends time listening, observing, and sometimes participating in classes. She chooses particular kids and teachers to leave handwritten notes and/or tokens of inspiration. This is something Bethany considers to be a source of joy for her, and a way to offer validation for kids and adults at Central Elementary. She also uses Voxer as a feedback tool after spending time in classrooms, which adds an even more personal touch.

Bethany believes visibility is one of the most important traits of a lead learner, and one that contributes to a healthy school climate and culture. It is impossible to lead from an office. The fact is, just about everything required of a lead learner can be accomplished “out and about”. The office is reserved for confidential conversations and phone calls, which mostly happen before or after school. Her advice to principals/lead learners everywhere… “BE where the action is. BE where the kids are. BE where the learning is happening.” This means not only physically, but intentionally engage during visibility time! Make connections, have conversations, observe closely, and do lots of listening. Don’t allow the black hole in the office to suck you in.

Collaboration

The second core value that defines our leadership philosophy is a commitment to cultivating collaboration.  There is an abundance of research that demonstrates the crucial role that collaboration plays in successful schools, and all of our experiences working in schools have reinforced this truth.  Simply put, teachers are more effective when they work together for the benefit of students.

At Central Elementary where Bethany serves, the staff has made efforts to move from the idea of “parent involvement”, to “family engagement”. Not all families consist of a parent, and that word can send a message that only moms and dads are invited to become involved with the school. They choose to have a Community in Action (CIA) rather than a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) because they feel all need to be involved and have a voice in the school. There is no membership required, because everyone is already a part of it. They do have particular facilitators who help coordinate volunteers and manage finances. Bethany says, “We have learned from this experience, and are tweaking things as they build the philosophy of ‘no titles needed’ to lead and become involved.”
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One strategy Danny has tried this year to cultivate collaboration within his faculty at Thompson Sixth Grade Center is a competition he called, “Collaboration Bling.”  Teachers earn the bling through observing colleagues, through inviting colleagues to observe them, or through participating in Twitter chats.  Just last month, he and his teachers stepped out of their comfort zone by holding their January faculty meeting via a “twitter chat.”  This month, their faculty meeting was held as an Edcamp.

Connecting with Kids

Without question, the most important value that drives us is our commitment to kids.  We hope that there is never any ambiguity about what our faculty stands for and what our schools represent.  We are here to teach kids, to encourage them, to inspire them, and indeed, to love them. The priority of students in our professional lives is one we hope to live out every day we come to work.  We don’t hang out in our office much; we are in the halls; we are in the classrooms; we are where the kids are.
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This year, Danny’s school celebrated students by having all of them write their dream on the ‘Wall of Dreams.”  He also asked his staff members to write their hopes for students on the wall outside of the main office.  His commitment to connecting with students and encouraging them is also evident in two more ideas he launched this year.  He set a goal of making 100 positive phone calls home by the 100th day of school, and he committed to doing “birthday selfies with the principal” on each student’s birthday.
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IMG_6143.JPGBethany uses her visibility to make connections with kids each day. She enjoys capturing success and great character via photo and video to help share the school’s story and to celebrate individual success. She also uses Google Docs to comment on kids’ writing, and for them to share possible posts for the school’s blog. Hugs and high fives are continuous throughout each school day, which not only supports kids, but feeds her soul as well. Purposeful, intentional interactions with kids make lasting imprints on the hearts of kids. We as educators all want to be remembered, and this is a way to ensure that.
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Central also believes in the power of the selfie! Bethany encourages staff to capture selfies with kids because it makes them feel important and valued. Kids look to us as heroes, and the fact that we slow down long enough to make a memory with them speaks volumes to their souls. Whether they are 4 or 18, this is the case! Central has a selfie wall where staff post pictures, and they use social media to share them as well. Selfies are personal, and can have a specific purpose, or be taken “just because”!

We are compelled to come to work everyday to make a difference for our students and teachers, and we are convicted by the values that drive us to do what we do.  We are relentless about bringing positive energy, cultivating collaboration, and connecting with kids.


As Matthew Wilder once sung:

“Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride
Nobody's gonna slow me down, oh-no
I got to keep on movin'
Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride”

We are all in -- day in and day out.  So… what is the flavor of your Kool-Aide?  And is everyone in your building drinking it?

Bethany and Danny

Monday, February 20, 2017

Worlds Collide

A number of years ago, when I was an assistant principal, I vividly remember spending about an hour talking with one of our 18 year old students.  He grew up in the inner city, but through a variety of circumstances, had been attending an affluent, mostly white suburban high school for the last few years.  He had been in a lot of trouble at school, but he was scheduled to graduate that year. That week, his teachers had been particularly aggravated with him because he didn't show up for the ACT that they had helped him register for.  He ended up in my office on this day because he and his teacher "got into it."  When I asked him about not showing up for the ACT, he finally admitted that he didn't want to go to college.  Eventually, he admitted that he was scared to go to college.  (Keep in mind that no one in his family had ever gone to college or maybe even graduated from high school.)  I explained that his education, and the help of his teachers, were allowing for him to have a different life. He responded that he didn't want a different life.  In so many words, he indicated that he would never feel comfortable in my middle class world.  He said, 

"Dr. Steele, I'll tell you the truth ... If I became the richest man in the world right now, I'd build a big house right in the middle of the hood ... because that's where I'm comfortable." 

I was reminded that none of his teachers could imagine what it was like to be in his shoes ... and he was scared to death to walk a mile in my "middle class" shoes.  I told him that anything is possible, and that my hope was that he choose a path that he really wanted, and that his decisions would not be based on fear.  We hugged, and we both cried.  That probably wasn't professional.

But I didn't care.