Sunday, May 20, 2018

Knock-Knock Jokes, Magic Tricks, and Cinnamon Rolls

Not long ago, I remember telling our custodian some knock-knock jokes.  She laughed... and that made me feel good -- although she may have been laughing more at my sillines than the actual humor of the jokes.  But we both had fun with it that day; we both enjoyed the interactions.

I remember a day earlier this semester when a student stopped me as I was walking around, and said, "Hey Dr. Steele... do you have time for a magic trick?"  What principal has time for magic tricks?  But I stopped... and was thoroughly impressed with his slight of hand.

Every morning, I am in our cafeteria, helping to supervise students eating breakfast.   We have an amazing CNP staff, and one of their special talents is making cinnamon rolls.  I'm glad to see the lunch ladies every morning, and they seem glad to see me.  Several years ago, I made a point to talk to them about how good their cinnamon rolls were.  I didn't think much of the conversation at the time, but I did want them to know that I appreciated them... and their baking talents.   The next time they served cinnamon rolls, there was a treat packaged up for me in the window between the kitchen and the serving lines: my very own cinnamon roll, set aside in a container.  The sticky note read, "Enjoy... Dr. Steele!"  For the last several years, on days when cinnamon rolls are being served, there is a special one waiting for me in the window.  If I don't see it, they will call my attention to it.  What a tasty tradition!

So what do knock-knock jokes, magic tricks, and cinnamon jokes have to do with instructional leadership?  What do they have to do with raising student achievment?  

Nothing... I suppose.

But they have everything to do with culture.  They have everything to do with relationships.   They have everything to do with building the type of school where students enjoy learning and adults enjoy working.  And this is the kind of school where kids and staff members thrive.  School culture is not about the big things; it's about the little things.  It's about the thoughtful gestures... and the high fives... and the conversations with students in the hallways... and all the smiles.  Don't ever forget the smiles.  And yes... sometimes, it's about knock-knock jokes, magic tricks, and cinnamon rolls.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Every Kid


Early on the morning of February 28th, a "twitter challenge" caught my eye.  It was from Leigh Ragsdale (@leighmragsdale), a principal in Missouri.  This challenge struck a chord with me.  It seemed like a valuable activity.  When you are aware of a good idea, I've learned that it's good to go ahead and implement it if you are able. Don't wait! Don't procrastinate!  So after I finished the morning announcements that day, I asked all our students to get out a sheet of paper, and write down the name of one adult that they trusted -- someone that they could talk to if they needed.  I told them that if they could not think of one, they could write "nobody."  I collected all the papers, and we began putting our data into a spreadsheet.

Out of about 500 students, we had 38 who wrote "nobody."  That's 38 too many!  We want every student to feel connected in our school, as I know you do in your school.  We want every child to have an adult they feel comfortable talking to.

I made a slide show of the pictures of our students that wrote "nobody."  We watched this slideshow at our faculty meeting last week.  There were no names attached to any of the pictures, and we did not discuss who taught these students. (Our students, who are all in the 6th grade, have 7 or 8 different teachers, so everyone taught some of these students.)  We viewed these pictures in complete silence.  It was a sobering moment -- one that I will not soon forget.  When it was over, I told our teachers, "It is my hope, that if we do this activity in a few months months, we won't have any students who write "nobody." That evening, our activity inspired the following tweet:

There were a number of people on Twitter who asked me what I was going to do with the data we generated.  One person responded, "What are your next steps?"  That left me feeling a bit convicted.  Showing the pictures at the faculty meeting was a good activity, but it was not enough.  The fact is, some of our kids don't feel sufficiently connected... and we don't want to just hope that they get connected. We don't want to leave it to chance.  So... yesterday, I gave the list of these students to our counselor, and I then emailed our teachers, asking them to connect with her to "adopt" a student on the list.  This isn't a formal process, but it reflects our faculty's commitment to ensuring that every student in our school has an adult advocate.  We don't want any student falling through the cracks.  That is our goal.  Every kid is important.  Every kid matters.  And they need to feel it.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why I Love Teachers

I'm a principal, and I love teachers.  I am privileged to see the awesome work they do every day.

They understand there is more to teaching than delivering instruction.  They respect, encourage, and value their students... so those students leave the class feeling better about themselves.

They provide encouragement and support to their colleagues when they're down.

They are kind to students when they see them... because they realize that may be the only kindness those students experience all day.

They strive to motivate apathetic students.  Sometimes their efforts don't seem to make a difference. But they keep trying... because that's what teachers do.

They supervise students at their duty and in the hallway in between classes.  Their presence helps to deter mischief and ensures a more safe and orderly environment for the kids.

They spend countless hours grading papers... because they know their feedback will help students grow.

They teach... and then they reteach... and sometimes tutor individually... because they realize not everyone gets it the first time (or even the second time).

They define their success by the success of their students.  They understand that ultimately, it's not about the teaching; it's about the learning.

They learn new ideas from colleagues... and sometimes from the internet... because they are committed to being a better teacher tomorrow than they were today.

They recognize that they can't control the home environment of their students, but they resolve to give them the best possible classroom environment... one where they feel safe, feel supported, and feel loved, because they know that is the best kind of environment in which to learn.

They take time to prepare meaningful lessons... even when they don't feel like they have the time... or the energy.

They try to connect with students who don't seem reachable... because they realize they may be their only lifeline.

They have patience with the students who may be disruptive and annoying... because they know that those students still need them.

They provide structure and organization in their classroom... because they know some students don't have any at home.

They strive to be the kind of teacher that they would want their own kids to have.

They recognize that ultimately, their job is not about the lesson plans, grades on a report card, or scores on a standardized test.  They teach to give their students a brighter future.

They don't always get to see the fruit of their labor.  They invest their time and energy into their students, often times without a "thank you."  They pour their heart and soul into their kids and may not get to see the results.  But they keep doing it. And I love them for that.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Top 10 List for Principals

Great principals do a lot of things right.  Here are ten of the most important things they do right:

1) Great principals recognize the value of every adult in the building, and they praise their staff members as often as possible.

2) Great principals support their teachers at every turn -- with challenging students, challenging parents, and challenging colleagues.  They trust their teachers, they have their back, and they always try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

3) Great principals don't spend much time in their office.  They are in the halls, in the classroom, at the bus stop, at carpool, in the lunchroom, or wherever the actions is.  And they engage with those around them.

4) Great principals do not try to do it alone.  They involve others in the decision making process whenever possible.

5) Great principals pay attention to student achievement, and they spend a lot of time in classrooms.  They promote strategic instruction and meaningful assessments.  And they ensure that data from those assessments informs teachers' practice as they work to meet the academic needs of their students.

6) Great principals intentionally foster a culture of collaboration in their school.  They recognize that their teachers are stronger when they work together, so they create the conditions in the building that facilitate this process.

7) Great principals are never content with the status quo.  They have high expectations for themselves and everyone around them.  They articulate a bold vision for their school and inspire others to elevate their game.

8) Great principals understand the importance of staff morale, and are intentional about creating good working conditions for their faculty.

9) Great principals commit to bringing positive energy to work everyday.  They realize that positivity is a nonnegotiable quality when creating a school culture where students enjoy learning and adults enjoy working.

10) Great principals always make it about the kids.  They work to build relationships with their students, and they ensure that the best interest of students drives every decision in the school.

Sometimes I succeed with these... and sometimes I fail.  I will always keep working at it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Thanksgiving Thought

One of my teachers sent the following email to our staff yesterday.  The subject line of the email was: "A Thanksgiving Thought."  With his permission, I am posting it below in its entirety:

"I want to share a comment that was made to me today.  It could be both good and sad.  A student asked me how my day was going and I said, "Great!  How is your day going?"  She said, "Okay, but it is sad."  I asked her why it was sad and she said that today was the last day of school this week and she really loves it here.  She said she would rather be here than home.  Those words really made a big impression on me.  I thought about how I am so excited to go home and have a few days off to be with my family.  I thought that maybe she just loves TSGC that much or maybe she doesn’t want to be at home because it isn’t that great.  Whatever the case, the fact that she loves our school means a lot to me.  No matter how frustrated we are and think, “These kids are out of control today and I just can’t wait for the end of 8th period to get here!!”, there are some of our students that aren’t that excited about it.  We never know what they are going home to and sometimes we probably don’t really want to know some of the things these kids are going through. I couldn’t imagine not looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving break because my home was full of love and it was my safe place.  I say this as encouragement to all of us that we do make a difference and these students are worth it.  We may be the only smile they get today.  I know I am not the best teacher at times and can be negative when I shouldn’t be, but I also know that I am in this because I truly care about these kids.  I am thankful that I have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives and I hope that it is always a positive difference. Although some students may be disrespectful, some may seem not to care, some may get on our nerves, and some may never stop talking…What we do in the classroom today makes a difference in the world tomorrow.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving and give your students a smile and some words of encouragement today.


Greg Ragland


I apologize for any bad grammar or run on sentences and everything else that is written incorrectly."

There's not much I can add to this.  We all have much to be grateful for.  One of the things I'm grateful for... is having colleagues like Greg Ragland... colleagues who are committed to making a difference for kids.  

You can follow Greg Ragland on Twitter @GregRagland

                                                                                                        Happy Thanksgiving,


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Letter to a Discouraged Student

To a discouraged student,

You're discouraged.  I know you are.  Your heart sunk when you saw the grade. But that letter grade doesn't define you.  You did your best... but no one knows, and no one seems to care.  You studied... but your teacher doesn't think so.  She doesn't know what happened at your house last night.  She doesn't know why you didn't get much sleep.

You've never made the honor roll, but you have worked harder for your "C" than some of those other kids worked for their "A". You're kind, but the teacher doesn't have a rubric for kindness.  You smile every morning, but facial expressions don't go in the grade book. You gave a pencil to your classmate, but that didn't earn you any points. You're always on time, and you're never in trouble, but there wasn't a question on the test about that.   I'm sorry we care so much about that letter grade.  It certainly does not represent your hopes, goals, and dreams.  I'm sorry you're embarrassed when the teacher handed the papers back.  You're gonna be fine.  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 I still think you're a neat kid.

You're bored, and it's hard for you to care about assignments that don't have anything to do with your life.  You're good at things the teacher doesn'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.  After you graduate, no one will care about that grade.  They will care if you work hard; they will care how you work with other people; they will care about many things... but they will not ask you about your GPA. You may not feel like a good student, but 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 I care.  I want you to know I believe in you.  I 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.

One size does not fit all, and I'm sorry we have not figured that out. You are amazing... and your worth will never be encapsulated by a letter grade.  So please don't give up.  Albert Einstein said, "If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live it's whole life believing it is stupid." I'm sorry you feel so judged.  I'm sorry we keep giving you trees to climb. If you're a fish, forget about the tree -- just keep swimming.

                                                                                  I'm in your corner ...                                                                                
                                                                                  Danny Steele

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

5 Ways to Raise Teacher Morale

You may have heard it said, "We're here for the kids... not the teachers."  You may have even said it.

It's true.  We are here for the kids.  Students are the reason that schools exist, and every decision should be driven by the needs and interests of the children.  However, don't make the mistake of thinking that student needs and teachers interests are mutually exclusive propositions.  I would actually argue that they are inextricably linked.  To put it simply, happy teachers are more effective teachers.  In fact, the morale of your faculty is an important component of a strong school culture.

Here's the good news: it's not that hard to raise the morale of your teachers!  But it usually doesn't happen by accident; you must be intentional about it.

Here are 5 ways you can raise the morale of your teachers:

Keep your teachers focused on the difference they are making for kids.   Being a teacher is a profoundly gratifying career.  It's easy to get bogged down in the administrivia, though.  The daily grind of planning lessons, grading papers, and dealing with the knuckleheads can sap the energy and joy from teachers. We need to remind our teachers why we come to work each day.  We keep the focus on our students and not the "hassles" of the job.  We remind our teachers about the difference that they make in the lives of their students. Our teachers are heroes in the classroom every day, and we never want to overlook that.  When we help teachers keep their eye on the ball, they are more likely to keep their head in the game.  When teachers remember their "why," it can carry them through the stresses of their day.

Involve your teachers in the decisions of the school.  In my experience, teachers are more motivated when their administration leads collaboratively.  When teachers are involved in the decisions of the school, they are more invested in the process.  When their opinions are valued, they feel valued.  Listen to the feedback of your teachers... and take it seriously. When teachers feel included in the decision making process, they will take ownership of the entire school, not just their classroom.

Trust the judgment of your teachers.  Teachers are professionals.  Treat them like professionals.  Respect their experiences, and respect their expertise. I realize that principals are responsible for the entire school and are ultimately accountable for everything that happens.  But micromanagement is the quickest way to destroy the morale of a faculty. Give your teachers an opportunity to prove themselves. Good leaders will quickly learn which staff members require closer supervision.

Give your teachers the benefit of the doubt.  Trust is foundational to any healthy school culture. When you are frustrated with something a teacher said or did, assume that they had good intentions. Don't start off being judgmental. When your default setting is to give teachers the benefit of the doubt, it will not go unnoticed. Your teachers will feel supported, respected, and valued.

Notice the little things your teachers do... and recognize them for it.  Praise your teachers often.  Give them shout outs in front of their colleagues.  Thank them for the little things they do that make a difference for their students, for their colleagues, and for the school.  Be specific, and be genuine.  Never take your teachers, or the important work they do, for granted.

As teacher morale increases, so will the positive energy in the building.  Students will notice it; parents will notice it; and anyone who visits the building will notice it.  In my world, there is never a time when teacher morale is irrelevant.  I strongly believe that teachers who feel good about coming to work and who feel good about the work they do, will be more effective employees.  They will bring a higher level of energy into the their classroom, and they will demonstrate greater resiliency when confronted with adversity.  And the kids will benefit!