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


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.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Will You Check On Me?

When a former colleague of mine, Joe Turner, was named "Teacher of the Year," a reporter asked him for his advice to new teachers.  He responded:

       "Teach every child like you're their lifeline... like you're their last chance to succeed."

When I read this, it shook me to my core.  I shared it with our leadership team and it inspired an initiative at our school that we simply call "Lifelines."  This is not a formal program; it is not structured; and there is no paperwork. We simply ask our staff members to be a lifeline to 1 or 2 students who would benefit from an adult in their corner.  As a faculty, we commit to going above and beyond to care about these students.

Not too long ago, our counselor gave me my three "lifelines."  One of the challenges for me with this project, is that I don't teach these students.  I may not even see them every day.  The hallways are crowded, so class changes aren't always great opportunities to have conversations with students.  And it can sometimes be awkward calling kids into the office just to check on them.

But a couple weeks ago, I had an idea -- a new strategy for making regular connections with my 3 students.  I called "Caleb" down to the office, and I said, "Caleb... will you do me a favor?" He smiled and nodded, "yes."  I continued, "I usually have good days, but not always.  Everyone can benefit from others checking on them.  Will you do me a favor and check on me every day, just to make sure I'm doing alright."  He smiled again and said "ok."  I documented this process on Twitter.

I had this conversation with two other students, and the results have absolutely fired me up.  These three students are making regular eye contact with me in the halls, they are smiling at me, and they are asking me about my day.  This gives me a regular opportunity to connect with them, and it is teaching them to think about the well being of someone besides themselves.  As the year progresses, I hope to have longer and more substantive conversations with these students, but for right now, I'm  stoked that these guys are connecting with me everyday.  I love that we have three students who are now checking on their principal!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

3 Ways to Inspire Teachers

In my experience, teachers are hungry for inspiration.  They are committed to their work, and they see the value in their work... but it can still be draining.  They want leaders who will refill their bucket.  In my experience, these three strategies can go a long way toward energizing teachers.

Support them.  Over the years, it has become clear to me that support is the number one quality that teachers desire in their administrators.  They want to know that when things get challenging with a student or dicey with a parent, someone has their back.  When teachers feel supported by their administrators, they feel emboldened and empowered.  They become more comfortable taking risks.  When they are confident in their safety net, they can dare to be spectacular.

Remind them.  I believe that every teacher chose this profession because they love kids, and they want to make a difference in their lives.  But there are times for every teacher when the "calling" can seem more like a "job."  Students can be unruly. Parents can be aggravating.  Mandates can be overbearing.  And grading can be overwhelming.  (Not to mention high stakes tests!) These challenges have the potential to steal the joy of teachers.  But they don't have to! It is important for administrators to help teachers keep these challenges in perspective. Good administrators work hard to keep teachers focused on the best interests of students.  They continually remind teachers about the value of their work and about their potential to impact children. And teachers who remain mindful of their ultimate purpose, hold on to the passion that fuels their fire.

Show them. The best administrators don't just talk about the importance of teachers collaborating; they collaborate themselves.  They don't just ask teachers to try new technology without taking any of their own risks.  And they don't just encourage teachers to build relationships with students; they connect with kids too! Few teachers are inspired by administrators who talk a good game but never back it up.  Good leaders don't manage from their office; they lead from the hallway... and in the classroom... and in the cafeteria.  They are engaged, and they are intentional about setting an example.  They are "walking the walk."  These administrators are not simply telling teachers the way; they are modeling the way.  And teachers will find this type of authenticity inspiring.

When teachers are excited about teaching, their students will be more excited about learning.  Good administrators don't hope for positive energy in the school; they bring it, themselves.  They don't wait for their teachers to be inspired; they work to inspire them.  They realize that they can impact the motivation of their teachers. And they make a difference!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Reflections on the Flag, our Heritage, and the Role of Empathy

If you ask someone what the American flag represents, they'll most likely say something like, "liberty and justice for all." They probably would not say something like, "My heritage." ... because that term does not mean much by itself. What is meaningful are the ideals and values of the heritage. And make no mistake about it, we have a complicated heritage. I say this in part, because the values and ideals of that heritage have evolved. (This includes the "Christian heritage," by the way. Anyone who does not think that our understanding of the values and morality of the scriptures has evolved, has not read the Bible closely or has totally forgotten what was in it.) 

I believe that empathy is at the heart of morality. In fact, that is the essence of the Golden Rule. I am glad that our society has grown more empathetic over the centuries. As a country, we eventually decided it was wrong to own people; it was wrong to allow children to work in coal mines for 12 hours a day; it was wrong to deny voting rights to women; and it was wrong to deny an equal education to African Americans. As our empathy increases, our sense of justice becomes more refined. 

I have ancestors who owned slaves. I'm not proud of that part of my heritage. I have ancestors who died fighting for the confederacy. They may have been nice men, but they were on the wrong side of that war. My parents taught me the value of love, kindness, and compassion. I'm very proud of that heritage. My wife's grandfather was a professor at the University of Alabama and was instrumental in recruiting the first African American students to the Engineering Department. I'm stoked about that heritage. We all have a checkered past. I suspect that we all have a heritage that is worthy of honor AND redemption.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Leadership Lessons from Andy Griffith

     I grew up watching Andy Griffith, and I still watch reruns several times a week. The theme song is one of the most nostalgic sounds I have ever experienced. (By the way, the black and white episodes that feature Don Knotts as Barney Fife are really the only ones that I care about.)  As a parent, I was very intentional about cultivating an appreciation of the show with my kids, and I’m proud to say they all like it.  There are some great leadership lessons embedded in that sitcom, and I reflect on five of them are below.

     In episode 14, “The Horse Trader,” Andy learns an important lesson about integrity.  The show begins with Andy admonishing Opie about the dishonesty involved in selling “licorice seeds,” and then he proceeds to mislead a newcomer in town about the exploits of a rusty old cannon he and Barney are trying to sell.  After Opie confronts him about the hypocrisy, Andy is reminded that integrity is not just for kids; it’s important for adults too.  I cannot think of a more important quality for leaders than integrity.  Leaders must earn the trust of those they wish to lead.  They do this by following through with the things they say and by always being true to their word.  They practice what they preach.

     In episode 46, “The Keeper of the Flame,” Andy believes Opie was responsible for burning down Jubel Foster’s barn.  Opie insists he didn’t do it, but he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from his Pa.  When Andy realizes the barn burned because of an illegal moonshine still, he goes back to Opie to apologize.  It’s important for leaders to trust their people and assume their best intentions.  When a leader realizes they are in the wrong, it’s important that they be willing to swallow their pride, and in some cases, apologize to those they have wronged.  Good leaders are always committed to repairing the “relationship damage.”

  In episode 70, “Lawman Barney,” Andy realizes that Barney has been intimidated by two farmers who are illegally selling their vegetable on the side of the road.  Ultimately, Andy is able to inspire and empower Barney to exercise his appropriate authority and get the cooperation of the farmers. That is what great leaders do; they inspire and empower their followers.  They give others a sense of purpose.  They are committed to helping others find strength and courage that they didn’t know they had.

     In episode 126, “Back to Nature,” Andy, Barney, Gomer, and Opie and his friends are out in the woods on a camping trip.  When Barney and Gomer set out to look for Opie, they get themselves lost.  Andy not only finds them, but he is clever about getting them back to the campsite in a way that allows Barney to save face.  Good leaders are always looking out for their employees.  They demonstrate empathy and recognize the importance of staff morale.  They are always mindful of ways to throw a positive spotlight on someone else.

     I don’t actually remember seeing episode, 215, “Opie’s Piano Lesson,” but to my knowledge, it is the first and only episode where an African-American has a credited role.  Rockne Tarkington has a small role as Opie’s football coach.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch a television show about a town, when no one in the entire place looks like me.  When my kids  watch that show, I suspect they notice the silly hijinks of Barney and the loving relationship between Andy and Opie.  I don’t think they pay attention to the color of anyone’s skin.  They take that for granted.  I’m not sure what African-American children think when they watch that show, but it wouldn't surprise me if at some point they don’t think, “I wonder if I would have been welcome in Mayberry.”  As leaders, we must be sensitive to the life experiences of all those under our care. With respect to race, we need to do our best to ensure that all our students have access to role models who “look like them.”   We want all of our students to feel included and to feel valued.

  If we are paying attention, our entertainment has the power to do more than just entertain.  It can teach us; it can inspire us; and at times, it can even convict us.  I can find inspiration just about anywhere.  (I can certainly find it in re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show.)  Where have you found YOUR inspiration?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Knock-Knock Jokes, Magic Tricks, and Cinnamon Rolls

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

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

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

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

Nothing... I suppose.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Every Kid


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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why I Love Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Top 10 List for Principals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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