Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball

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

Secrets of School Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What Flavor is YOUR Kool-Aid?

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.


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.”

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.
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.
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.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Faculty Meeting: Edcamp Style

According to the Edcamp Foundation website (, "edcamps are organic, participant-driven professional learning experiences for educators."  It is my hope that our faculty meetings are not always mundane monthly meetings for routine announcements or required trainings, but that they actually have practical value for my teachers.  While I do not have much experience with edcamps, I decided to launch an experiment for today's faculty meeting.  I love the inherent relevance of the edcamp concept, and I am always looking for ways to foster collaboration among my awesome teachers.

Last Friday I asked teachers to email me topics that they would like to learn about.  I gave them a few examples of topics and told them the only limitation was that it was related to their professional responsibilities.

Today I picked 5 of the topics and wrote them on 5 different sheets of "post-it" chart paper.  I placed them around the room, each with a group of chairs arranged in a circle.  After 5 minutes of announcements, I explained our edcamp to the teachers.  I told them to pick a topic that they would like to learn about or one in which they could contribute some "expertise."

Today's topics, (based on the emails I received from teachers):

          "Dealing with parents"

          "Google Classroom"

          "Managing student cell phone use in the classroom"

          "Incorporating writing in daily lessons"

          "Formative assessments"

The teachers had about 7 minutes to discuss their topic, and then I told them to rotate.  They had the opportunity to discuss 3 of the 5 topics.  (Our faculty meetings start about 3:20, and they are usually over by 4:00)  The only feedback I have received so far has been positive.  It was an experiment.  We'll see what feedback I get tomorrow.  I love this concept, though.  You ought to try it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

February Motivation: "My Awesome Colleagues!"

It is something of a paradox that the shortest month of the year can seem like the longest.  February can be a hard month -- for students and teachers.  So we're going to try an idea at my school in an attempt to inject a little bit of positive energy into each day of the month.

This morning I sent the following email out to my staff:


We don't do our job for pats on the back... but they are so nice when they come.  You all have awesome colleagues who deserve to be recognized.  So here's our little project:

Today I will be giving you the names of 4-5 staff members.  By Friday I would like for you to email me something that you admire about each one of them.  The goal is to make these compliments as sincere and authentic as possible.  I have tried to give you names that are "logical." I realize you know some colleagues better than others.  If you have questions or need help, please talk to me ... or do a little research on your own.

All of this will be anonymous.  Please do not reveal your names to anyone, and when your colleagues receive their encouraging words, they will not know who they are from.  Do your best to structure your compliment in a way that preserves the anonymity.

Please email me your compliments by Friday.  In the subject line of your email, write: "my awesome colleagues."



The math: We have 39 staff members, and I'll be receiving about 119 complements (3 per staff member). There are 19 school days in February.  (My support staff will be receiving complements, but I did not ask them to write any.)  It is my plan to send out an email every morning with 5-6 complements for various staff members.  The subject line will simply say: "My awesome colleagues?"  The emails will go to the entire staff, so every morning, teachers can read some kind words about their colleagues. And every staff member will know that three days during the month of February an email will appear in their inbox that contains the kind words that one of their colleagues wrote about them. Encouraging words can go a long way.  It is my goal that our staff will not just survive the month of February... but we will thrive!

I know that you too, work with some great colleagues.  Never miss an opportunity to tell your co-workers how awesome they are.  Encouraging words go a long way.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Pencil... a Phone Call... and a Mom's Tears

It was a phone call that I will not soon forget.

This year I set a goal of making 100 positive phone calls home by the 100th day of school. I asked my teachers to let me know when they had a student they wanted to brag on. Last week, a teacher emailed me about a student she was proud of. This particular student was always coming to class unprepared. The teacher and student had a "heart to heart" conversation, and since then, the student has been bringing her pencil to class everyday.  I know that coming to class prepared is a big deal, and it can certainly be aggravating to a teacher always to be loaning pencils. Our students after all, need to be responsible. But I'll admit, I was a bit reluctant to call mom about something as petty as bringing a pencil to class.

I called the student down to my office to give her a high five, and despite my misgivings, I called mom. I told her how proud her daughter's teacher was of her for bringing a pencil every day.  The mom started crying. Through her tears, she said, "My daughter struggles in school. Thank you so much for telling me this." I had to end the conversation quickly because I didn't want to start crying in front of our sixth grader.  I hung up the phone, and the student's eyes were wet too. I could tell she was proud.

So this pencil was not petty; it was huge.

This phone call reinforced two important lessons for me:

First, teachers have tremendous power to brighten a student's day.  And through a quick phone call to a parent, they can bring some sunshine into their life as well.  Do not leave compliments left unsaid. When we're proud of our kids, we should tell them. When they're making progress, we should encourage them.  They will remember our kind words longer than they will remember our lesson.  We are not just offering our students an education; we are offering them hope.

And second, when we struggle with students, there is a good chance that parents experience those same struggles. There are parents who are nervous every time they put their kids on the bus; they experience a little bit of anxiety every time they drop their students off at school. They are wondering... 

"Will he get in trouble again today?"

"Will anyone sit with her at lunch?"

"Will the kids mess with him in the hallway?

"Will she forget her pencil again?"

There are some students for whom school is not a good experience, and parents share in that struggle with their child. They experience it through the silence in the car, through the constant "stomach aches" in the morning, and sometimes through the very real tears.  These students need our attention, they need our patience, and they need our love.  Educators make a difference for students every day, and as it turns out... they make a difference for parents too.