Sunday, November 24, 2019

Maintaining Staff Morale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Rethinking Fundraisers



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

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

I regret it.

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Unforgettable Interview




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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Girl with Red Hair



She was just being defiant.  I was certain I needed to suspend her.

She had streaks of bright red hair - like fire engine red!  We had a large high school of 1800 students, but I was in the hallway a lot, and I couldn't help but notice the hair.  I casually warned her a few times that she would need to change the color of her hair because our code of conduct didn't allow "unnatural hair color."  Several days passed, and I still noticed the hair.  As an experienced administrator, I knew I had bigger battles to fight, so I always tried to steer clear of "going to the mat" over dress code violations, but at this point, it seemed like she was just being defiant.  So I confronted her during a class change.  I told her I didn't want to suspend her, but she seemed to be leaving me no choice.  I basically said, "What's your deal!?"   Her eyes got wet, and I could tell she felt shame just having to talk to me. (She was never in trouble, had never been sent to the office, and aside from the hair color, went totally under the radar.)  She went on to share the personal drama she was having to live through at home.  She finally said something that knocked the wind out of me:  "Dr. Steele, I feel like the color of my hair is the only thing in my life that I can control."

This is a moment that I will not forget. As I write these words, my eyes are welling up... thinking about this young lady's feelings of desperation... thinking about the lives that many of our students are living... thinking about the challenges confronting many of the kids in our schools - challenges completely unknown to the adults in the building.  When I heard her story, my preoccupation with hair color suddenly seemed absurd.  I know we need rules.  And students have to be held accountable for following the rules.  I get it.  But it is vital that we take the time to hear and actually feel the story of our students.  We will never understand our students if we don't stop to genuinely listen.  But we can't just listen to their story; we have to actually care about their story.  When we do that, our perspective will forever be altered.  That is when we can connect with students; that is when we can impact students; that is when we have the chance to really make a difference.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

How Will Your Staff Remember You?



If you're an educational leader, you may have led (or will lead) hundreds, if not thousands of teachers, counselors, librarians, cafeteria workers, para-professionals, registrars, bookkeepers, custodians, maintenance technicians, secretaries, bus drivers, and nurses.   You are a leader... and you are creating a legacy every day you come to work.  You are leaving your mark -- an indelible impression upon the educators entrusted to your care.  How will your staff remember you?  I wonder...

They may not remember your mission statement or your strategic plan.

They may not remember how many diplomas hung on your wall.

They may not remember how many times you were quoted in the paper or how many times someone took your picture.

They may not remember how eloquent you were in faculty meetings or how well you crafted your emails.

They may not remember how well you aligned the curriculum.

They may not remember how thorough you were in your evaluations or that you submitted all your reports on time to the central office or state department.

They may not remember all the professional development workshops you coordinated.

They may not remember how many teams you led or how many committees you chaired.

They may not remember the test scores you touted or the press releases you wrote.

These are all good things, and most effective leaders reflect some if not all of the qualities or behaviors on this list.  The fact that your staff may not remember this stuff might bother you.  Don't let it.

There are plenty of things that your staff will remember.

They will remember the time they saw you mopping a spill on the floor when it wasn't really your job.

They will remember that you listened -- that you always had time to listen.

They will remember that you could be silly, that you appreciated practical jokes, and that you never took yourself too seriously.

They will remember that you would ask them about their family members, and they will never forget that time you visited them in the hospital.

They will remember that time you gave them a "shout out."  They will remember how good it made them feel.

They will remember that you always had their back.

They will remember that you were always upbeat... even in the face of adversity.

They will remember how much you always encouraged them, and that you were one of their biggest cheerleaders.

They will remember that you never took them for granted.

They will remember that you treated everyone in the organization like they were important -- that you valued everyone's contributions.

They will remember that you didn't ask anyone to do things that you weren't willing to do yourself.

They will remember that you always figured out a way to shine the spotlight on someone else.

They will remember that you always seemed to appreciate how challenging their job was.

They will remember that you genuinely cared about all of your colleagues.

They will remember that time you made a bad decision... but you owned up to it.

They will remember that time you supported them in the parent conference.  You don't remember it.  But they do.

They will remember that you always tried to give them the benefit of the doubt.

They will remember that you always knew their family is the most important thing in the world to them.  And you allowed them to take care of them without feeling guilty.

They will remember that you always kept the focus on students.... and that you never lost your love for kids.

Continue to engage in all those activities that characterize effective school leaders, but remember that you are leaving a legacy that transcends test scores and strategic plans.  It's much more likely that your staff will remember you for all the little things.  You were their leader... and you encouraged them, supported them, and inspired them.  They will remember you because YOU made a difference... and you knew THEY made a difference too!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Life is Beautiful


One of my favorite movies is an Italian film called, "Life is Beautiful."  (The film has nothing to do with this post... but if you haven't seen it, you should.)

We celebrate Thanksgiving once a year, and that is the traditional time to reflect on what we are grateful for.  It occurs to me though, that when we think about the little things that we are grateful for, we are continually reminded that life is indeed, beautiful.  Gratitude should not be a "holiday thing."  It should be a way of life.

I'm thankful for:

Non-stick pans

Cherry tree blossoms

Dates with my wife

Honest plumbers

Apple Music

"Hot and Ready" $5 pizzas

Cruise control

People who's glass is always "half full"

Saturday mornings

YouTube

The willingness of my kids to laugh at my jokes

My garlic press

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Comedy that makes me laugh until I cry

OJ that is not from concentrate and doesn't have pulp

Scented candles

Warm towels, right out of the dryer

The dedication of teachers

Salsa that has just the right texture

The versatility of melted cheese

Waterless hand sanitizer

The cultural contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci, Run DMC, and Maya Angelou

Lawn mowers that start on the first crank

The benefit of the doubt

Woodford Reserve

3 day weekends

The efficiency of microwave ovens

Mocha Frappuccinos

The life of Jimmy Carter

Coconut shrimp

The smell of new born babies

And other stuff.

I think life is made beautiful by the little things.  I hope to always remember them.









Sunday, December 30, 2018

Reflections on Exceptional Teachers



When I think back on my teachers who were most effective, there is something they all had in common: they all seemed excited to be teaching us.  Teachers should always be aware of the attitude and energy they bring into class. I promise you, the students are aware of it.

When teachers show up for work, deliver quality lessons, and treat the students well… even when they don’t feel like it… they demonstrate their professionalism.  And they earn the admiration of their colleagues.

My daughter has talked for several years about how much she loved her 5th grade teacher.  When I asked her what she liked about her. Her response: “She liked us!” So simple… yet so profound.  Kids gravitate to the teachers that like them.

There is a teacher that both my sons had in high school.  They both raved about her. When I asked my younger son what he liked about her.  Without hesitating her, he said: “She cares so much! She cares so much about her job!”  The kids notice. Never forget… the kids notice.

We talk a lot about students being engaged.  It occurs to me that one of the hallmarks of an exceptional classroom is the TEACHER being engaged.  Kids love it when their teacher is active, involved, and energized. And they can tell which ones are really “into it” … and which ones aren’t.

In a great classroom, the students aren’t the only learners.  The TEACHER is a learner also. When teachers are curious, when they are vulnerable, when they continue to grow… they provide stronger instruction, and they provide a great example to their students.

It’s nice when teachers are creative, dynamic, and innovative… but I actually think I prefer patient, flexible, and kind.

I asked a principal one time what makes his teacher so awesome.  He said she is relentless about trying new strategies or finding resources to help kids understand math.  She will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. Exceptional teachers will do whatever it takes!

Good relationships with students usually do not happen accidentally.  They are cultivated by exceptional educators intentionally.

Teachers don’t have to be funny, creative, innovative, inspiring, or charismatic.  But they have to care about their students and take pride in their work. If they do those two… they will have a remarkable career.

Exceptional teachers teach… and then reteach… and sometimes tutor individually… because they realize not every student gets it the first time, (or even the second time.)

We can’t control the home environment of our students, but exceptional teachers control their classroom environment.  Under their care, the students can feel safe, feel supported, and feel loved.

Exceptional teachers don’t need WiFi to engage their students.  Technology is a great thing… but the passion of the teachers is always the most important variable in the classroom.

Great teachers make it look easy…. But they actually work really hard at it.  Greatness never comes without commitment and sacrifice.

The most effective teachers are the ones who realize they’re the most important variable in the classroom.

The legacy of an exceptional teacher is not built in their lesson plan book… but in their conversations with students.  The lessons are important… but the relationships are essential.
Passionate teachers don’t just inspire their students… they inspire their colleagues.  They have the potential to impact the culture of the entire school.
Most exceptional teachers did not start out that way. But... they reflected on what worked and what didn't; they learned from their colleagues; and they always kept their focus on students.
Every teacher has the potential to be a better teacher.