The best teachers remember what it was like to be a student. While teachers are preoccupied with their lesson, students are often preoccupied with different things entirely, When students are silent, they may be engaged with your lesson... or they may be having thoughts that are a bit more impertinent. Granted, the perceptions of kids can be irrational, and they may be skewed by the immaturity of youth, but they are still perceptions that need to be accounted for.
There were many things that I thought to myself during class... but never told my teacher. And I imagine my students thought some of these very same things:
I don't understand... but it's embarrassing. I'll just keep quiet. This kid keeps cheating off my paper. Why can't you see that? Copying down the questions is dumb. We think you are having us write them down so it will take us longer to complete. Do you know how hard it is to sit quietly the whole period? Every once in a while, change the tone of your voice. It will make the class more bearable. How would you like to sit in here and do this stupid assignment? Why do you always seem so annoyed with us? I gotta pee so bad, I'm not hearing a word you're saying. How am I supposed to be paying attention to you? Do you have any idea how cute that girl is? I need your hall pass. I'm not thirsty, and I don't need to go to the bathroom; it's just that I'm bored to tears, I gotta get out of here for minute. If you had some snacks available, we would all be in a better mood. You're seriously making us copy down all these definitions? What good will that do? Why can't you do anything about the kids who are mean? You don't seem real interested in this lesson, so I don't think I'm interested either. Are you really punishing the entire class for what Joey did? Do you have any idea how unfair that is? I know life isn't always fair, but if you're not doing your best to make it fair, then you're actually kind of a jerk. My butt is so sore! Are you sure that clock is right? You do know that when you put us in these groups, I end up doing all the work? That doesn't seem right to me. When we ask you why we need to know this, and you say... "Because I said so!" ... it ticks off the whole class. We all know this is busy work, and it actually makes you look kind of lazy. When you complimented me in front of the whole class, it made me feel proud.
(And other times...) when you complimented me in front of the whole class, it embarrassed me. It made me look like the teacher's pet. Will you come to my desk and answer my question? I want to smell your perfume again. I know I forgot my homework yesterday too.... but if you had any idea what was going on at my house last night...
We want our students to learn empathy. We can start by showing empathy. It behooves every teacher to consider what their students are actually thinking -- to imagine what it would be like to sit in their class -- to have to complete the assignment that is on their board. The teachers who remember what it was like to be a kid really do make the best teachers.
We all know the culture of our school is important, and you understand that building a strong one is how school leaders can impact student achievement. You intuitively understand that schools need to be safe; they need to foster collaboration; and they need to stay focused on the needs of the students.
But don't ever underestimate the small things you do on a daily basis that contribute to the strength of your school culture.
How do you respond to staff members who complain?
To be sure, listening is an important part of our job, and everyone needs to vent from time to time. But how you handle these conversations says a lot about the trajectory of your school. Do you allow staff member to wallow in their negative vibes, or do you re-frame the situation? Every challenging conversation is an opportunity to remind staff of our true purpose... doing what's best for kids. In our school we had our teachers write their own "Teacher Oath" which outlined their own core values and personal beliefs about why they come to work each day. These are helpful for keeping us grounded and keeping the negative energy in check. (You can read about about our teacher oaths here.)
What do you communicate through your conversations with the secretary... with the custodian... with the lunch lady?
While the teachers are the adults engaged in the core business of the school, it is a tragic mistake to underestimate the value and contributions of those individuals who play a supportive role. Most principals appreciate the work of the secretaries, custodians, and CNP staff, but they may not always be mindful of how their interactions with these people enhance the culture of the school. When you invest in your support staff, you demonstrate to all those around you that everyone in the school is valued. A strong relationship with your support staff goes a long way toward ensuring the school runs smoothly. It affects the morale of the teachers, and it certainly creates a more positive environment in the building. What are the little things that get recognized?
This year, our school started "The Kindness Project." When a teacher spots a student demonstrating kindness, they are given a card. The student redeems the card for a ball to throw in our ball pit. The student also receives a wrist band and gets their name on the board. Here's the thing though: these are not big acts of kindness; these are little acts of kindness. It is the brief conversations, the little moments, and the small deeds that shape a school. Make a point to notice the little things. When you recognize them and reward them, they
will happen more frequently. Don't just praise the big accomplishments. Your culture is built when you validate the small ones.
What have you failed at recently?
Nobody likes to fail. We all want to feel competent, in control, and on top of our game. Leaders must remember, however, that we will not encourage a culture of growth within our building when we are never willing to step outside of our own comfort zone. If we have not failed recently, we haven't been trying anything new. If we want our teachers to innovate, we need to start with taking some risks ourselves. When things don't go as planned, be transparent about it. It may feel threatening, but there is strength in vulnerability. And teachers learn from our example. A school culture that values and celebrates innovation begins with a leader who is willing to climb out on a limb. How do you handle the interuptions?
You're busy! I know you have a lot of things on your to do list. It would be so tempting to be frustrated with the constant interruptions. But never underestimate your impact when you respond to those little distractions - the ones you could easily view as an annoyance. You never know which moments with people will be the ones that they remember ... for a long time. Every interruption is an opportunity to make someone's day, and every interruption is an opportunity to reinforce who and what you value. So embrace the interruptions. Make the most of those unplanned, unscheduled moments. They could end up being the most important moments of your day.
Culture is not primarily built through mission statements, faculty meetings, and school improvement plans. But rather, you cultivate it through the hundreds of little interactions every day. I have heard of leaders having personal mission statements. Those can be a good thing, I guess... but great leaders don't actually need them. Everyone in the building knows what they're about. Their values and priorities are consistently reflected in how they spend their time. The behavior of the principal is never neutral with respect to school culture. Like it or not, they build it every day. I don't want to build it accidentally or inadvertently; I want to build it on purpose.
I have been a principal for six years. Here is some stuff I have learned:
Teachers who consistently maintain a positive attitude are worth their weight in gold. Lunch ladies can make some really good cinnamon rolls. If you are sick... or if you have to stay home with a sick child... the school will go on without you. Do not allow yourself to be consumed with tardies and dress code. These will always be with you and there are meaningful things in the school that deserve your energy. Everyone in the school matters -- every student and every adult. Learn as many names as you can. If you neglect to tell someone good morning when you pass them in the hallway... they will remember it, and may remind you about it later. Sometimes teachers and students need a little time apart. There are many circumstances... and they are always extenuating. It is usually not a good thing to make unilateral decisions. You will almost always make better decisions by talking to people. The school assembly that you arranged for will impact something else in the school day that you have not yet thought about. Math teachers don't like to write. It's important to make time for shenanigans. The school is a better place to work when you cut up and have fun with the other adults in the building. Students like to see administrators in their classrooms. Teachers don't always read all your emails thoroughly. (That will frustrate you... but it's not the end of the world.) It's important to extend grace to teachers when they don't do everything they are supposed to do... just like principals expect teachers to extend grace to their students. Have a teacher proof read your important emails before you send them out to the entire staff. Teachers love to wear jeans. Seriously... some teachers really do love their jeans. Positive energy goes a long way. Teachers won't change what they're doing if you don't give them feedback. Teachers have families outside of school... and they need to take care of them. If you go to a game or a concert... everyone will notice, and everyone will appreciate it. Kids who feel embarrassed often times become disrespectful. It's best to reward collectively and punish individually. If you do not love the students, and if you do not love the teachers, you should not be a principal. Do not go in teachers' classrooms the day before a holiday break unless you're playing a game with the kids. Sometimes go into classes and play games with kids. When teachers have cool ideas, figure out a way for them to "run with them." Make a note of staff birthdays. As you're walking the halls with visitors, it's good to introduce them to the custodians. Capitalize on the talents and passions of the adults in the building. This is one of the most important things you do. There is no substitute for being in the hallways during class change... and the other times as well. Students respect authenticity... and so do teachers. Learn to say, "I'm not sure" ... and "I'll look into that." You will say these things a lot. Teachers appreciate it every time you follow through. They will usually remember the times you don't. It is important to assume that the adults in the building want to do a good job. Treat them that way. Remember that respect is never given because of a title; it is earned because of a relationship. No program in the school will ever exceed the passion of the adults implementing it. Listen to students. Put yourself in situations to hear about awesome ideas from other principals. Positive recognition, praise, validation -- these things never get old. And everyone needs them. Secretaries know a lot. Someone always throws the first punch... but it takes two to tango. It's important to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. Start and end your meetings on time.
Being a school principal is a very cool job... and I plan to continue learning.
If you're a teacher, you have taught (or will teach) thousands of kids. You are a professional... and you are creating a legacy every day you come to work. You are leaving your mark -- an indelible impression upon the children entrusted to your care. What will they remember about you... I wonder.
They may not remember your tier two interventions.
They may not remember your authentic assessments.
They may not remember your brilliantly scaffolded lessons.
They may not remember your innovative rubrics.
They may not remember your curriculum map.
They may not remember how cute your bulletin boards were.
They may not remember their benchmark scores.
They may not remember that you always had your objectives written on the board.
They may not remember your bell ringers or your exit slips.
They may not remember how many degrees you had or that you were "highly qualified."
These are all good things, and teachers are more effective when their professional practice reflects the qualities and behaviors on this list. The fact that your students may not remember these things could discourage you. Don't let it.
There are plenty of things that your student will remember.
They will remember that time you played dodge ball with them in PE.
They will remember the fist bumps every time they walked into your class.
They will remember the funny stories you told about your vacation.
They will remember those times you never gave up on them.
They will remember how kind you were.
They will remember that you had real conversations with kids in the hallway.
They will remember that time you intervened with the kids being mean in the lunchroom.
They will remember that you always had a smile.
They will remember that time you made a bad decision... but you apologized to the entire class.
They will remember that time they forgot their lunch, but you made sure they ate.
They will remember you coming to their games and concerts.
They will remember that you always seemed to be excited about teaching.
They will remember that you didn't mind being silly.
They will remember the time you called them at home when they were sick.
They will remember that you seemed to genuinely enjoy being around kids.
They will remember that you were patient... even with those who didn't deserve it.
They will remember that there were days that you made school bearable for them.
They will remember that you encouraged their dream.
Continue to engage in all those activities and strategies that characterize professional educators. The conscientious practice of your craft will elevate the academic achievement of your students and contribute to their brighter future. But remember that you are leaving a legacy that transcends grades and test scores. Your impact on kids will be felt in the little moments -- the handshakes, the high fives, the hugs, and the quiet conversations. Don't forfeit any of those moments; your kids will remember them. So your students will remember you... and they will smile -- because you were their teacher, and YOU made a difference!
Todd Whitaker noted, "When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold." I am a principal, and I know that the culture of our school is one of my most important responsibilities. I relish that role, and I take it personally. I am proud of our school's culture, but I know that no principal creates school culture in a vacuum. School culture is a function of the values, attitudes, and behaviors of all the adults in the building. While the most important role for teachers is to teach the students in their classroom, they should never underestimate their potential for impacting the culture of the school. Teachers are never neutral with respect to a school's culture. They do things every day that either undermine or enhance the mission of the school. If you're a teacher, here are five concrete ways that you can positively impact your school's culture:
1. Observe other teachers' classrooms... and invite them to observe yours. I strongly believe that one of the best professional development strategies is to learn from the teachers down the hall. When you initiate peer observations, you foster a culture of collaboration within the building. It creates a more cohesive faculty and increases the likelihood that the best instructional practices in the building get replicated.
2. Take responsibility for your students' academic achievement... and share your data with colleagues. Data is used by the most successful schools to make instructional decisions and drive school improvement efforts. It is not always comfortable to share your own assessment results, but it is an essential component of healthy professional learning communities. When you take the tough steps of sharing your data with colleagues, it encourages others to follow suit. Your candor sends the message that weaknesses will be confronted head on. Faculties that are honest with each other about student achievement are in the best position to do something about it. Don't wait on the principal or instructional coach to call a data meeting -- you start the conversation. It will make it more likely that your colleagues will own their data as well.
3. Take risks... and fail publicly. It is easy for faculties to become complacent, especially when the status quo is adequate. Try something new in your classroom, and let your colleagues know how it goes. If a new activity or strategy bombs, scrap it... or tweak it, but share your experiences and move on. Your courage and your transparency will inspire other teachers to break out of their own ruts. Innovation thrives in schools where teachers are free to fail.
4. Be patient with the knuckleheads... and never lose sight of your purpose. Most teachers have some challenging students at some point during the day. It can be tempting for teachers to complain about them in the lounge, at the lunch table, in the hallways, or even at faculty meetings. You teach the knuckleheads too, but you give them the benefit of the doubt. You show empathy, You understand that the inappropriate behaviors are a manifestation of dysfunctional circumstances outside of school that no kid should have to deal with. Your attitude toward the toughest students will not go unnoticed by other teachers. It is usually the case that the most difficult kids need the most TLC. Your patience with these kids reminds other teachers what's really important -- making a difference in the lives of kids.
5. Stay positive... even in the face of adversity. We all have tough days, and some circumstances seem to conspire to destroy the morale of the faculty. Smile, remain optimistic, and figure out a way to remind your colleagues "the glass is half full." Optimism is contagious. The positive energy you bring to work each day will lift the spirits of those around you. Your commitment to maintaining a positive outlook will generate positive energy in the building that can make the naysayers irrelevant.
If you're a teacher, it's in your DNA to make a difference! You are hardwired for significance. You're usually aware of the difference you make with kids, but never forget the difference you make with adults. You say and do things on a daily basis that transcend your classroom and indeed, shape the culture of your school. The values, attitudes, and behaviors that you bring to work can inspire your colleagues, they can reinforce the core values of the school, and they can enhance the collective efforts of all those in the building who are working to make the school's vision a reality. Remember... peer pressure does not end with adolescence.
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.
On occasion I have asked both students and teachers: "Is it more important to be right... or to be reconciled?" As educators, we understand the importance of relationships. James Comer noted, "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship." Without a doubt, effective school leaders understand the importance of building positive relationships within a school building. Sometimes, relationships get broken, and as a principal, I am wired for reconciliation. I want aggravated parents to be on the same page with their child's teacher. I want quarreling students to work through their differences. And when I realize I have inadvertently alienated a staff member, I work hard to mend that fence.The personal quality that goes the furthest toward achieving reconciliation... is empathy.
This is sort of a letter to some of my Republican friends. I feel compelled to write it because much of what I've seen and heard lately reflects a lack of understanding of the emotions on the other side. (I choose to believe that it is a lack of understanding and not a total indifference. An "indifference" would bring me too much sadness.) It is my belief that we will never achieve reconciliation without an attempt to understand.
[If your goal is not reconciliation, I guess you can stop reading -- this post is not for you --- you and I don't share the same core values, and more than likely, my writing will not resonate with you. This post is intended for people who care about other humans and who want to make the world a better place.]
First, I will lay my cards on the table. I could not stomach either candidate; I voted for neither Clinton nor Trump. I wrote in a candidate. I clearly did not win. I did not support Hillary; I cannot and will not defend her. But there was a distinct difference between the candidates and their campaigns. And I'm not talking about economic policy, gun control, or abortion. Many of you voted for Trump based on healthcare reform, based on his future appointees to the Supreme Court, or maybe simply based on the fact that he had an "R" by his name, and you think the other candidate should be in jail. I get it.
Donald Trump said many things that people perceived as attacking their core identities. Consider for a moment, how that might be different from criticizing someone's view on trade, or foreign policy, or taxes. (Please reread this paragraph; it is my central premise.)
For three years in elementary school, I attended a school that was 98% African-American. I felt different. I was different. It is impossible to adequately describe what it is like to be a minority -- to be the "other." But I can say this: it is not comfortable. Unless you have been marginalized -- unless you have been in a situation where you were clearly in the minority, it is very difficult to imagine yourself in that position. But we must try.
If you are a minority in this country, there is a good chance you have felt victimized by Trump's rhetoric... and maybe even frightened by his proposed policies. The fear of someone who doesn't feel safe in his community is different than the fear of someone who thinks his healthcare premiums may go up. The anxiety of a woman whose dignity has been undermined is different than the anxiety of someone who doesn't want her assault rifle regulated. When people have been hurt on a more personal level, it is reasonable for them to grieve on a more personal level. If you do not see that difference, then you have never been discriminated against, you have lived a charmed life... and it is even more imperative that you work on the "empathy" concept.
I will say again; I have not ever supported Hillary Clinton, and I am not defending her now. I know for a fact that some of you despise her. Your feelings about Hillary Clinton however, are absolutely irrelevant to this post. The purpose of this post is to encourage you to think about why some of your fellow humans were hurt in a very deep way by the candidacy of Trump. I know for a fact that many of you were bothered by the personal attacks of Trump, but you chose to overlook those comments because you thought there were more pressing issues that were being decided in the election. Just be mindful of the fact that to those who felt put down, belittled, or alienated, nothing is more pressing than their own dignity.
In a very difficult moment in our nation's history, Robert F. Kennedy said, "But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond ... ." You may be tempted to say, "But what about the people on the other side who did this?" or "What about the people who said that?" And I would ask you; Is it more important to be right or to be reconciled? As Stephen Covey said, "We must seek first to understand." I want to work in a school that is characterized by empathy and a collective commitment to understanding one another. I want to live in a country that reminds me of my school. As school leaders, we build a stronger culture within our building when we work to restore relationships that are broken. As citizens, we make our country stronger when we demonstrate empathy toward those with whom we disagree.
This is not a post about politics. It is a post about people... and about relationships. It is my hope that all of my comments are constructive. If you are a good person, that is your hope also. Please don't make any political comments on this. If you want to engage in some dialogue, feel free to call me or send me a message. Peace.
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.
You take time to prepare meaningful lessons... even when you feel yourself dragging. You provide encouragement and support to your colleagues when they're down. You are kind to students when you see them... because you realize that may be the only kindness they experience all day. You strive to motivate apathetic students. Sometimes your efforts don't seem to make a difference. But you keep trying... because that's what teachers do. You supervise students at your duty and in the hallway in between classes. Your presence helps to deter mischief and ensures a more safe and orderly environment for our kids. You spend countless hours grading papers... because you know that your feedback will help students grow. You teach... and then you reteach... and sometimes tutor individually... because you realize not everyone gets it the first time (or even the second time). You learn new ideas from your colleagues... and sometimes from the internet... because you are committed to being a better teacher tomorrow than you were today. You work to create a positive classroom environment... because you know that is the best kind of environment in which to learn. You try to connect with students who don't seem reachable... because you realize you may be their only lifeline. You have patience with the students who may be disruptive and annoying... because you know that those students still need you. You provide structure and organization in your classroom... because you know you may have students who don't have any at home. You teach your kids the skills that will ensure they have a brighter future. You strive to be the kind of teacher that you would want your own kids to have.
You have that student in 3rd period that drives you crazy (because he acts like a knucklehead on a daily basis). There's a very good chance that his mom knows he can be challenging, because she deals with him at home. She was nervous before the school year started. Last year was rough for their family. Mom was just hoping that this year her son would get lucky. Maybe he would get a teacher who was able to look past the immaturity and the foolish behavior. Maybe he would get a teacher who saw in him the same potential that she saw.
You are that teacher who is the answer to a mother's prayer.
I know you're tired, and you have a right to be. I'm sorry that we just put three more kids in your class and 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 familiar with the "Teachable Moment." It's what educators live for. It is that moment full of potential for impacting a student. You never know when it will present itself, but you want to capitalize on it when it does!
How do you begin your school day? Many schools begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silence, and some morning announcements. This is how we start our day in my school, and it seems like a perfectly appropriate routine. But it turns out ... there are some "culture-builder" moments here.
Every morning, I begin by playing a clip of an upbeat song (usually no more than a minute). About once every week or two, I accompany the song with a contest: the first teacher that emails me the name of the song (or the artist, or the movie it's from; the contest varies), wins the prize. After announcements are over, I take 3 Hershey kisses to the winning teacher, and I give one Hershey kiss to every teacher who participated. What does this have to do with "instructional leadership?" Well, it's fun! And, in my 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 our day with good energy.
After the song, I announce, "It's a GREAT day to be a WARRIOR!" I've been saying this for over 5 years now. It injects some positivity into our morning routine, and it sets the tone for the day. At first, students rolled their eyes; they thought it was corny. But it grew on folks. People started to say it around the community. If a student ran into me at Walmart, I would hear, "Hey Dr. Steele! It's a great day to be a Warrior!" The summer after my first year of saying this, I found myself in drive-thru at a Dunkin Donuts. When the girl handed me my coffee, she had written on the cup with a sharpie: "Great to be a warrior!" Positive energy can be infectious, and morning announcements are the perfect time to start your school day with enthusiasm and school pride.
This year I began giving "birthday shout outs" during the announcements. Later in the day, I'll find the student and do a "Birthday selfie with the principal." I'll text the picture to the parents. This is a simple way of making students feel special each day, and the picture has been a huge hit with the parents.
Traditionally, members of student council have led the Pledge of Allegiance, but this year we decided to allow any student in the school to sign up for a day to lead the pledge. Before our guest student leads the pledge, they introduce themselves and they have the opportunity to share their personal dream with the student body. This allows all of our students the opportunity to share their "voice" with the school, and it is a quick reminder to our staff about the importance of empowering and validating the passions of our students.
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. We are presented with many moments to celebrate students and elevate the positive energy in our building. We should never forfeit them -- but rather, build a school culture that rocks ... one moment at a time!
I vividly remember this kid in my office, seated next to his mother. I'll call him Demetrius. He was there because he had jumped another boy in the locker room. I was in the process of assigning him several days of in-school suspension, and I wanted his mother to be aware of what we were dealing with. At one point in the meeting, Demetrius started to explain himself to me. He had barely opened his mouth long enough to get out two words when his mother popped him in the face with her hand. She didn't even appear to look at him. It happened so fast, it startled both of us. I don't recall much of a reaction from Demetrius, other than being startled and a bit embarrassed. (I think the physical pain from the slap was minor compared with his humiliation.) He continued looking forward the entire time. This happened many years ago. It was my sense that this was not an unusual occurrence. As Demetrius and I were walking down the sidewalk to ISS, I remember saying to him something like, "I'm sorry that happened, Demetrius. Nobody should have to deal with that." And I remember thinking to myself, "This guy doesn't have a chance. No wonder he's slapping other kids in the locker room. Violence is what he knows."
Many teachers have had the experience of scheduling a parent conference to discuss the failure of a student completing homework, only to have the parent not show up for the conference. I have called home to discuss a child's disrespectful attitude, only to have the parent berate me on the telephone. Make no mistake about it: students are products of their environment.
It is nice to think about students coming to school with a "blank slate," and it is nice to imagine that education is the process where teachers get to write on that clean slate with everything children need to be productive citizens. It is a rewarding profession, when teachers mold the lives of young students and get to paint a beautiful picture on the canvas of their lives. But here's the thing: the kids never come with a blank slate, and teachers are not the only ones painting on the canvas. Much has been written about the advantages enjoyed by kindergartners who had parents read to them in the first 5 years of their lives. The advantages of these kids extend beyond vocabulary acquisition, and they certainly do not stop at kindergarten. Likewise, the challenges that confront students who do not come from a supportive home environment remain with them throughout their schooling career. Some students come into our classes with values and habits already instilled in them that are counterproductive to those we are trying to instill in our classrooms. And, when they go home each day, they are often receiving messages that undermine what we are trying to accomplish in the classroom.
So what does this mean for educators? It does not mean that we lower our standards, and it does not mean that we whine about lack of parental support. It does mean that we remain aware of the challenges that some of our students are having to overcome. It does mean that we have to provide additional support, instruction, and even coaching in areas that might extend beyond traditional curricular standards. And it certainly means that we practice empathy -- that we extend grace and compassion to every one of our students.
The next time you are frustrated with a student in your class, think about what that kid's canvas looked like before they came to you... and think about who might be writing on it after the bell rings. After all, we don't always know what our students came from... or what they're going home to.
"We don't want to get better by accident; we want to get better on purpose. Data is what allows us to be strategtic."
This past week, my reading and math teachers had some awesome data meetings. The reading teachers began with a quick review of spreadsheets. They learned how to manipulate their data (i.e. sorting and filtering) to make it more "teacher friendly." After the refresher on Google Sheets, they looked at how their students had performed on standardized tests last spring. They were able to divided those students into four different groups: Exceeding, Ready, Close, and Needs Support. Furthermore, they analyzed the results of this fall's benchmark to determine how students are currently performing on the essential objectives.
Because the math benchmark has contained the same questions over the last 3 years, my teachers could actually track the trends on how their students have performed on the same questions. This in depth analysis provides our teachers guidance on how their instruction needs to be tweaked over the coming months. It also reveals which students need to be targeted with certain objectives. This is the essence of "formative assessment" ... and my teachers engaged in it brilliantly,
I am very 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. I loved seeing my teachers write down the names of students who were 1 or 2 points away from proficiency. 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. Each cell in our spreadsheet represents a student ... their future ... and all of their hopes and dreams. Analyzing the data is useful, but we must never lose sight of what that data represents.
We did not get into education to raise test scores; we do what we do to make a difference in the lives of kids. Without a doubt, we are committed to increasing academic achievement, but our success is predicated on forming meaningful relationships with our students. When we are intentional about connecting with kids, we remind ourselves and all those that we work with, what we're really about.
What follows is 5 simple activities to connect with kids. I'm a principal, so that is the perspective from which I'm coming, but the concepts here are easily transferable to teachers.
1. Wall of Dreams - We had all our students write their dream on a white board that we mounted in the hallway. We used sharpies, so they wouldn't rub off easily.
Some of the dreams that stood out to me included these:
"I want to get better at math."
"My dream is to be a loving mother."
"My dream is for my sister to get out of the Air Force alive."
"I want to do something that MEANS something."
"My dream is to go to Paris, go to UAB, and get my first kiss."
When a student is sent to my office for some reason, the two of us can walk down to the wall of dreams and find their own. We can talk about their dream and how their current behavior is helping or hurting their long term goals. Every time any of the adults in the building walk by this wall, we are reminded of the awesome role that we play in helping our students reach their goals and achieve their dreams. This activity can certainly be adapted to a classroom.
2. Take over a lunch class for the day - Periodically, take a teacher's lunch class. If there is a study hall that accompanies the class, use the time to play a "name game" with the students to learn their names. It means so much to students when you take the time to learn their name. Tell the teacher to enjoy a lunch off campus. You are the teacher's hero that day ... cause they love a break ... and you get to know a few more students.
3. Birthday selfies with the Principal - Run a report of every student's birthday. On the morning announcements, give a birthday shout out to those celebrating that day. At some point during the day, find those students and take a selfie with them. I use an app called "Word Swag" to dress up the pictures. I text the pictures to the student's mom or dad right after I take the picture. The kids feel special, and the parents absolutely love receiving the pictures. I have received so much positive feedback from this one activity.
4. Positive phone calls home - I just started this last week. I asked the teachers to email me if they had any students they wanted to brag on. I have been calling these students down to my office and then calling their parents while they sit in my office. I relay to he parents the awesome things the teachers have reported. It is hard to describe the joy that these calls bring to parents. Many parents have never received a positive message from the school. The smile on the student's face while I brag on them to their parent is priceless as well. My goal is to make 100 positive phone calls home by the 100th day of school.
5. Invite different students to lead the pledge - Allow students to sign up each day to lead the pledge of allegiance over the intercom. This allows you to meet a new student each morning in the office, and it gives students "voice" in your school. It makes them feel valued and connected.
These activities are simple, but can have a profound impact on kids and on the culture of your school. People know what you value when they see how you spend your time. Being intentional about connecting with students keeps you grounded in the core mission of the school, and it communicates to the rest of the school community what your priorities are. Try some of these strategies. You won't regret them.
I'll call him "John." A number of years ago, when I was an assistant principal, I busted John with a bag of weed. That infraction bought him a stay in our alternative school for 45 days. I didn't know John well; (he was fairly new to our school;) and I knew that my potential to impact him would be negligible when he left our building ... so I decided to have a talk with him. Sometimes, when I'm trying to connect with a student, I'll take a walk with them somewhere around campus. On this day, I ended up sitting with John on a concrete picnic table near the stadium. I started in ... "John, how many friends do you have outside of school? You know ... guys that you hang with." He said, "About 10 to 15." I then asked, "Of those 10 to 15 friends, how many would you say smoke weed?" He replied very matter-of-factly, "About 10 to 15."
Two realizations hit me like a ton of bricks. First, this kid doesn't stand a chance if he doesn't find a new group of friends. And second, it is almost impossible for adults alone to counteract the influence of peer groups. John could have the most compassionate teachers in the world. They may be outstanding role models who care about him and strive to motivate him to make good decisions in life. But when the 3:00 bell rings, the positive messages he hears in the school are quickly drowned out by the influences on the streets of his neighborhood. We want kids to reject temptations like illicit drugs because there is a whole other world out there for them. But what if -- as far as they know -- there isn't? What if their entire world is defined by the ubiquity of weed and everything that goes with it?
It occurred to me that perhaps our best chance to save John, and others like him, would be to find other students who could serve as mentors ... or "big brothers." I quickly identified about 30 young men in our school who had the potential to be positive role models for other students. I had a meeting with them as a big group and talked to them about the need to provide student leadership in our school and provide a positive influence for other students.
That night, I went to bed still thinking about the meeting with those young men and about the awesome challenge that was in front of them. I woke up in the middle of the night still thinking about it ... so I sat down at my computer and wrote them this letter. I delivered a copy to each student the next morning.
I don't know where John is ... what he's doing, or if he "made it." As educators, we don't always see the fruit of our labor. We do plant lots of seeds though, and we hope that we are able to impact young lives during the brief amount of time that they are in our care. And this great challenge remains: we must continue to find ways of recruiting and cultivating student leaders in our schools ... and we must always be mindful of "the world" that our students live in ... because the influence of peers will almost always trump the influence of adults.
Jimmy Casas is the principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa (#bettpride), and he is a master at building school culture. I heard him speak this summer, and he talked about "collaboration badges" at his school. I believe teachers are stronger when they collaborate. "Iron sharpens iron," "two heads are better than one," and that sort of thing. For you educators out there, this concept is nothing new; collaboration has actually become something of a cliche. But in my experience, this cliche is rock solid. Collaboration is indeed, a powerful practice. I thought about Jimmy's badges the whole way home from the conference, and determined that we must find a way to tweak that concept to work for us. So at our school this year, we are launching a competition simply called: "Collaboration Bling." Teachers names are posted on a bulletin in our work room, and this contest will run throughout the year. Teachers will accumulate arrow head stickers (cause we're the Thompson Warriors) and can earn them three ways: through observing a teacher, through inviting a teacher to observe him or her, or through participating in a Twitter chat.
For every five stickers, teachers earn bling ... which in our case, is a black or red carabiner with our school hashtag. The five teachers with the most bling at the end of the year will receive a release day. Last year, all of our classroom teachers were trained to observe teachers using AdvancED's research based instrument known as eleot(TM). This is the Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool. When our teachers observe a colleague, there is obvious benefit from seeing another teacher in action, but because our teachers are trained to complete the eleot(TM), they are able to give meaningful and reliable feedback to their colleague. This feedback component adds value to the experience for the teacher being observed.
Just two weeks into the school year, and we already have a lot of stickers on our board ... and I have already given out bling! (I use a Google Form and Google Sheet to document and keep up with all the collaboration.) Creating little stickers of validation for teachers and recognizing the collaboration when it happens goes a long way toward building the type of school culture that makes a difference for students. If you want to reinforce a more collaborative culture within your faculty, give something like this a try. And Jimmy ... thanks for being you.