Sunday, November 27, 2016

Five Ways Teachers Can Impact School Culture

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

You're More than a Letter Grade: Letter to a Discouraged Student

To a discouraged student,

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

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

You're bored, and it's hard for you to care about assignments that don't have anything to do with your life.  You're good at things the teacher doesn't seem to care about.  You're passionate about things that aren't on the syllabus.  You're tired of being compared to those around you. You feel like you don't measure up -- like you are inadequate.  But your grade does not reflect your IQ or your worth.  It is arbitrary.   I'm sorry that the grade is so important to all the adults.  After you graduate, no one will care about that grade.  They will care if you work hard; they will care how you work with other people; they will care about many things... but they will not ask you about your GPA. You may not feel like a good student, but you will be a valuable employee.  You will be a wonderful neighbor. You will be a great citizen.

You're discouraged... but I want you to know I care.  I want you to know I believe in you.  I want you to know that you have a bright future. You have talents and gifts that we may not even know about yet. We haven't found out how to measure them.

But you have them.

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

                                                                                  I'm in your corner ...                                                                                
                                                                                  Danny Steele

Friday, November 11, 2016

An Election -- Lessons for School Leaders... and for Other Humans

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.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Letter to a Tired Teacher

Teacher Friend,

You're tired.  I know you are.

I'm a principal, and it's easy for me to say, "Hang in there -- thanks for all you do!"  But I want you to know exactly what it is that I'm thankful for.

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 tired ... but you push on.

And that makes you heroic.

                                                                                                 Thank you,

                                                                                                  Danny Steele