Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Reflections on a Career

Today I shared with our staff that I am retiring at the end of this school year.  It has been my honor to work with the faculty and staff of Homewood Middle School for the last three years.  It is a special privilege to be part of the Patriot family and any kid who lives in the 35209 zip code is lucky to experience those amazing teachers.

Writing can be a good way to process emotions.  But sometimes words fail me.  When I first thought about trying to write about my last 31 years, I was overwhelmed.  It’s not possible to adequately capture in words all of the stories, interactions, moments, and experiences that have shaped me over the course of my career. But here are a few reflections…

Kids are mostly the same.  Some kids have more resources, and some kids have more challenges, but the human desire for respect, belonging, and significance transcends demographics and socio-economic status.

Most parents love their children and want them to have the best possible education.  Parent interactions typically go better when educators are mindful of this fact.

It’s not possible to overstate how much teachers value support from their administrators.  If you lead a school, your biggest responsibility, other than student and staff safety, is supporting the teachers under your care.

All the adults in the school matter, and they all play crucial roles.  Counselors, lunchroom staff, librarians, assistant principals, SRO’s, instructional assistants, custodians, technology specialists, maintenance technicians, secretaries, bookkeepers, registrars, nurses, and central office staff – all these folks are essential to taking care of students and supporting the essential functions of teaching and learning.  It’s important not to take them for granted.

Students have big things going on outside of school… and so do the adults.  This stuff matters. 

Adults that bring good energy into the school building have a major impact on the culture of the school.  And they make the best colleagues.

Collaboration typically leads to better results.  Teachers are more effective when they plan with colleagues, and administrators are more effective when they involve others in decision making.

Work can be fun.  It’s okay to be silly sometimes, and don’t ever take yourself too seriously.

Vulnerability can be a good thing.  It allows for growth.  And it allows others to see your humanity.

I’m grateful to all of the students who listened to me, who asked me questions, who engaged with me.  I’m grateful to all the teachers who inspired me with their dedication to their craft and their commitment to their students.  I’m grateful to all the support staff who took pride in their work and contributed to an effective school environment.  I’m grateful to all my colleagues over the years who showed grace in the face of adversity, who were professional yet compassionate, who were collaborative and pleasant… who never took their focus off of students.  

I appreciate the superintendents, boards of education, and central office staff who trusted me and supported me over the years.  The vision, leadership, and behind the scenes work of these folks chart the course for our schools and make the great work possible.

I believe in public education, and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have had to play a small role.  The vast majority of the young people in our country receive their education in these classrooms, and the future of public education must be safeguarded for the future of our country.  Any effort to divert resources from public schools is a profound mistake. 

My journey in public schools has included stops in Birmingham City, Mountain Brook, Fairfield, Tarrant, Shelby County, Vestavia Hills, Alabaster, the University of Montevallo, Pell City, and Homewood.  I appreciate all my colleagues in these districts who inspired me, supported me, and were relentless about making a difference for students.  The work is hard… but it is profoundly vital.  My hat is off to everyone still in the game.

I still have the good fortune of running into former students and colleagues from time to time.  These encounters immediately become the day’s highlight. They remind me that our work matters – that our work endures.  We don’t just teach students or lead staff; we create memories.  We impact lives.  We leave a legacy.  For many years there has been a sign in my office that reads: “I AM THE DIFFERENCE!”   That has been my goal.  It has been my hope.  It has been my passion.  I am blessed to have shared a career with so many colleagues who had that exact same passion.  So to all of my colleagues over the years… and to the thousands of students… my career – and indeed my life… has been richer because our paths have crossed.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Things I'm Thankful for in Education

I’m grateful for a career in education.  Here is some stuff that I really appreciate:

Parents who give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

Colleagues who are always pleasant.

Custodians who take pride in their work.

Teachers who give shoutouts to their co-workers.

Students who are kind to their classmates.

Central Office staff who ask what they can do to help.

CNP staff who joke with the students when they are serving them.

In-person schooling.

Nurses who demonstrate compassion in the midst of the drama.

Administrators who understand their most important role is to support the teachers.

Librarians who create inviting spaces for the school community.

Legislators who recognize that they may not have expertise in education.

Paraprofessionals who show extraordinary poise with challenging kids.

Opportunities to make others smile.

Secretaries who are patient as they answer the same question for the tenth time.

Teachers who recognize that their students have a lot of stuff going on at home.

Counselors who are gracious with anyone who happens to walk into their office.

SRO’s who spend time in the hallways.

Staff members who jump in to help when their co-worker has a family emergency.

I have many things to be thankful for in my school.  I bet you do too.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

I don't know...



I don’t know about that time you had family stuff going on, and you really needed to stay home… but you came to work anyway.


I don’t know about that time you stayed at work late to help a student who was behind.


I don’t know about that time you got a lesson ready for a colleague who was dealing with an emergency.


I don’t know about that time that the student was mumbling under his breath, but you didn’t let it get to you.


I don’t know about that time the parent sent you the nasty email, but you responded with poise and professionalism.


I don’t know about that time you gave the student chance after chance… when they really didn’t deserve it.


I don’t know about that time you put extra energy into planning a cool classroom experience for your students.


I don’t know about all those times you sacrificed personal time, so you could give students quality feedback on the assignments they turned in.


I don’t know about that time you had a disastrous morning, but you still smiled for your students, and you still jumped into the lesson with a positive attitude.


I don’t know about all those times your principal said or did something dumb… but you still showed support to your administration.


I don’t know about that time the student brought a terrible attitude into your classroom… but you responded with grace and compassion… because you figured they had something else going on.


I don’t know about that time you did something special for a student.  Nobody knew about it… but you did it because you care about your students.


I don’t know about all the times you rose above your own fears and anxieties to deliver a great education for your students.


As teachers… you do remarkable things… and mundane things… every day… that make this school a great place.  I don’t always know about them.  But they matter.  And so you matter.  Thank you for teaching our students.



Saturday, January 16, 2021

To a Teacher in a Pandemic

I have seen many stories this year about the academic struggles of students.  Many teachers have a lot of student failures -- more than they have experienced in their entire career.  And it can be demoralizing. But teachers… you have not failed.   You have bent over backwards for your students.  You have given them chance after chance after chance… and many of them are continuing to make decisions that don’t seem rational to us.  While you all are not responsible for the decisions of your students; many of you all are taking these grades personally.  You hurt because your students have not been successful, but you also hurt because you know many of your students are confronted with challenges at home which are out of their control.  And so you hurt because your students hurt.  I always appreciate conscientious educators, but I don’t want you to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders.

 When you Google school mission statements, you will see phrases like:

“We will challenge students to reach their potential…”

“We will maximize learning opportunities…”

“We will inspire students to be life-long learners…”

“We will provide a safe and nurturing environment…”


The imperative of providing a safe environment is the obvious reason so many schools have transitioned to a virtual learning model. Safety trumps “best practices.”  But how do we fulfill our academic mission in a pandemic?  To put it bluntly, we refuse to give up.  We continue to maximize opportunities for students; we continue to challenge; we continue to nurture; we continue to inspire.  


So how many opportunities do our students deserve?  I’m not sure how to answer that except to refer back to the mission.  And consider what is missing from most mission statements.  Timeframes.  Timeframes for gaining knowledge… timeframes for developing skills… timeframes for learning.  The goal is that they will become responsible; clearly many of our students are not there yet.  So we push on.

One of my former teachers became the Teacher of the Year for his district several years ago.  A reporter asked him for his advice to teachers. This is what he said: “Teach every student like you are their lifeline.  You are their last chance to succeed.  You don’t know what each child has been through.  You don’t know how many chances each child has had.”


When you look at your list of students, you may see a lot of failures.  When I look at our list of teachers, I see a lot of lifelines.  Do the students deserve another chance after you have given them so many already.  Perhaps not.  But as one teacher told me, “This is the year for grace.”  That would suggest that “deserve” has got nothing to do with it.  The mission of all educators is about our collective commitment to our students.  So thank you for making that commitment.  I hope we will all be able to look back on this year and remember it as the year we refused to give up on our students.

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