Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Dilemma with Instant Gratification

There was a time when the purpose of taking a photo was to capture a moment you wanted to treasure, and then place that moment into a book for you or your family to see later… Dozens of photos, captured on film, waiting to be developed, sometimes over months.

There was a time when getting lost meant finding a map or a pay phone. There was a time when questions asked in a group like, “Who starred in that president’s movie with Redford?” or “Is it supposed to rain tomorrow?” would have required a trip to the movie store to find out it was Dustin Hoffman or waiting for the 10 o’lock news to find out there was a 70 percent chance it was going to rain.

There was a time when wanting to talk to someone far away required a person to write a letter, or pay extra for a long distance phone call…

Of course, times have changed, and changed rapidly. While I don’t think change is bad, and the power of knowledge has never been more accessible, there is a challenge that has continued to grow in the world of education each and every year...a dilemma really...instant gratification.

As weird as this is to say aloud...we have students who have never known a life that required them to think through taking a photo because they were precious and limited, have never had to wait for an answer to a question, or not had the ability to talk to someone face to face in China real time. Think about that for a moment…

The power of Google is a wonderful thing, getting instant feedback is quite amazing, yet…there is something lost in the art of not knowing.

We live in a world, we live in a society, that is focused on self...focused on self-image, self-worth built on the number of likes received from a photo or statement. Our students are growing up in this world, in this society where faces are constantly looking at phone screens, cameras take more selfies than any other photo, and answers to questions are searched for instantly. You see, our students are growing up in a world where they wait for very little. It’s truly amazing, television is on demand, answers are online, friends can be reached via text as soon as a thought arrives, photos are shared instantly, and seeing what others are doing is just an app away.

There was a time when waiting in line meant waiting...in line...with only your thoughts for entertainment. Office waiting rooms offered magazines for entertainment, and the newspaper was the best way to read about the game you missed or the one that wasn’t shown on TV.

We have students who have never known a life when waiting in line didn’t include playing a game or talking to a friend on their phones... Have never needed a magazine to catch up on fashion, sports, or entertainment. We have students who don’t know a world without being able to record every game, pause live TV, or even watch the game live on their phones…

In essence, we live in a world of instant gratification. From the way we communicate, learn, and even observe the world around us...everything is at a rapid pace. People want things as quickly as they can type, heck, even free-two day shipping wasn’t fast enough...so, buy a qualifying item on Amazon and you get it tomorrow…

So what is the dilemma with instant gratification? Besides of course the creation of millennials? Kidding.

While I am not the expert, and don’t pretend to be...there seems to be two major areas of concern that seem to grow each year...Attention and Grit.

Attention, stamina, amount of time focused on one concept...however you want to look at it, many students today are coming into classrooms lacking the ability to remain focused for longer than several minutes. It makes sense though...next time you watch a movie, television show, even play a game...watch how often the picture changes. We text using abbreviations because writing “you” takes too long, so just use “u” … Again, we live in a fast paced world, so you can probably imagine just how hard it can be to take an assessment in a quiet environment for an hour plus.

I am not saying ADHD is on the rise, I am not saying our kids don’t have the ability, what I am saying is our students are growing up in a world built on instant gratification, and when school demands a focus on the process...when school demands undivided attention...when a school demands a need for instructional stamina, many of our students do not enter the room prepared because the world does not function in the same fashion.

Grit, work ethic, willingness to fail, willingness to struggle...however you want to look at it, many students today are coming into classrooms lacking a willingness to struggle with their learning. How many times have you heard a teacher or colleague say something like, “These kids are just not willing to put in the work!” Or, how many colleagues have said of new teachers today, “They just don’t have the work ethic like new teachers used to have.”

I am not saying that today’s world is worse today than it once was... We just need to understand our reality as educators. Our kids are growing up in a world where answers come quickly. Have a question? Ask Siri. Not sure how to fix something? YouTube it. It’s amazing how quickly we can get what we want, when we want it. The wealthier the family, the less waiting time is needed. Yet even for our students coming from poverty, instant gratification is still alive and well.

So how do we tackle this dilemma? Or an even larger question, is this a dilemma? For many educators it is, and tackling it starts with embracing the challenge, and meeting our students where they are. Before frustration comes we need to understand our students, we need to understand where they are coming from, and we need to understand that the world they live in may not look at all similar to the one inside the school building. Attention, stamina, grit, a focus on the process...these things are taught, these things are nurtured, these things are often introduced in the classroom.

I truly believe we need to focus on the process of learning. We need to focus on creating a challenging curriculum that invites investigation, rather than asking questions Siri could answer in a matter of seconds. Creativity invites intrigue. Collaboration solves the need for human interaction. A positive environment invites the ability to fail forward safely.

The reality is that our students’ needs are changing. The reality is our students live in a world of instant gratification. So should we change instruction to focus on giving our students a curriculum built on instant gratification each and every day? Absolutely not. There is a time and place for all things, yet if we don’t focus on building stamina, creating engaging activities that require grit, and ask questions that go beyond a Googleable question...we are not giving our students the skills they need. There is something powerful that happens when we struggle, when we collaborate, and when we fail forward...our students need to experience this as much as possible, even though that might be quite the difficult challenge.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Imagine...What If Our Students Believed In Themselves The Way We Believe In Them

I stopped by to check in on a third grade student who had been having a rough start to his week. Great kid, big heart, but is a student many would consider a frequent flyer to the office.

I met with his teacher earlier that day, and received the great news that he was really doing well, and was giving each assignment his very best. So when I stopped by right before recess I was grinning from ear to ear…”Buddy, I am so proud of you! We have to celebrate your day, how would you like to celebrate?”

He looked at me, smiled, and yelled with confidence oozing: “I want to take you down at basketball!”

I laughed and said, “Alright buddy, game on.”

We began to walk towards my office to get my basketball...because every principal has a basketball in his/her office...and as we took each step I heard this young man say things like: “Oh Mr. Steele, I am going to juke you so bad. Oh Mr. Steele, you have no chance, I got game, I can make any shot from any spot on the court. You have no chance, I’m young and your old. Your cool Mr. Steele, but I got this!”

Like any mature adult I responded appropriately by saying, “Man, you are going down! You have no chance, this old guy will be schooling you all over the court.”

We grabbed the ball, ran outside, and naturally he started with the ball. He dribbled back and forth, through his legs, all the while saying, “You have no chance Mr. Steele, you are doing down, get ready, I am about to juke you so bad! You are old and I have game...”

He faked to the left, was about to dribble to the right, when I stuck out my hand, stole the ball, turned around past the three point line and shot. To my amazement it went in, all net. “Well how about that? I guess this old man still has some game left!”

His body language changed immediately. His shoulders slumped over, he grabbed the ball, threw it towards the field, and with a tear in his eye said, “I suck, I can’t win, I am horrible at basketball. You win Mr. Steele, let’s go inside.”

...

Let me stop with this story right there… We need to pause, we need to think...what just happened? This third grade student had many different possibilities to choose from as a reaction to my three-point-shot after the steal: He could have congratulated me on the shot, said I got lucky and continued with the trash talk, grabbed the ball and tried again, even admitted that maybe I wasn’t as bad as he thought. Yet none of those options were chosen. What was? Instant defeat…Why was this? How did a student go from total confidence to complete defeat within five seconds? What just happened?

If we are honest, what happened with that young man is the same thing that happens in our classrooms all the time. A task seems too difficult, and so instead of trying, many students give up. Why is this?

Imagine I asked you, a grown adult, to read the following sentence: O juuuwidlg alkiffdas lkasgjijl askljsdifhg qeyyyews uyyysdfkn jh asdkfljkjasdf.

You look at it, and as an adult you are not afraid to ask for help. After all, you have been around a while, you know how to read, so you simply ask, “Hey Ryan, can you help me here? I don’t even think this is a sentence...”

I smile and say, “Of course! It is absolutely a sentence, notice the capital letter at the front and punctuation at the end. You can do this, please try harder.”

You look at it closely again…”Yeah, I don’t know.”

”What do you mean you don’t know? Surely you know the alphabet, surely you know what each letter is. Sound it out! Try harder.”

You look at each letter in the second word and try to sound them out, “J--uuuu-w-i-d--llll-g. I don’t know what it means!”

I walk over to you, read the word aloud, and then ask you, “How hard can that be? The first word obviously means to lay on your stomach and crawl using your forearms. Here is a picture of what this word looks like. Now read the rest.”

You try, but just don’t understand. Imagine I give you another sentence, and then another, and then after reading it out loud to you, I give you a test based on a story written in the same fashion, and you have 30 minutes to read that story and take a test. What do you do? If you are honest, odds are you wouldn’t even try...and that’s after failing to read the new text a few times.

Now imagine you are a student, and you were well behind in kindergarten...always in the red group, always being pulled out of class. You were given vision tests and sat in meetings with your parents, and heard about your potential, but still….to the red group you go. You struggled in first, and second, and every day in third. For four years you had teachers that loved you, parents that love you, but the work has always been hard. You have spent your entire young life feeling like a failure. Feeling like you aren’t smart enough, good enough, talented enough… Eventually, and for some this moment comes much sooner than for others, you realize something...you can’t do it, so why even try?

I have sat with teachers and parents so angry with a child, so angry at his or her unwillingness to try, saying things like he just doesn't want to. She’s not willing to take on the challenge. He’s not willing to be successful.

Here is the thing...There is a big difference between a challenge and a wall just too tall to climb. There is a big difference between not wanting to and feeling unable to. Children are smart, they are only human, and I have never met anyone who enjoys feeling like a failure. There are many students I have worked with, even adults, that are motivated by a challenge...heck, I am one of those people...If the task is difficult I am engaged, however, my engagement comes from a place of past success, not failure. Whether its academics, sports, or even life, if you are never successful, if you never get a chance to experience achievement, why would you believe you could?

If only our kids could see themselves as we see them. If only our students could believe in themselves the way we believe in them. As educators, we strive to give our students everything we can to ensure their success. We work countless hours, spend time looking at data and planning for each child. We unapologetically desire for each child to have the best future possible, and strive to challenge each and every student along the way. Yet we can’t forget this one important thing...Not every child sees themselves the way we do. Not every child wakes up believing they can, believing today is the day they break through the struggle. Today is the day they concur that math test, take down that reading passage, finally sit with a friend at lunch.

We have to stop and remember that we need to constantly tell our students we love and believe in them. Stop and show them we care, and give them opportunities to experience successful moments, no matter how small it may seem. Building self-efficacy is a vital part of what we do, and what we are called to do as educators.

...

I ran over to the field next to the basketball hoop and grabbed the ball. I placed it on the ground in front of the student with a tear in his eye. “Here is what I know...I might be old, but I promise 33 isn’t as old as you might think when it comes to playing sports… I have been playing basketball for much longer than you have been alive and I am two feet taller than you...but guess what? None of that matters, because you are clearly pretty good, and the student I know may not win, but he is going to go down giving it all hes got. So...you going to try and teach me a thing or two or what?”

He smiled, picked up the ball, and said “You are going down!”

Imagine if our students saw themselves the way we do...Imagine if they believed in themselves the way we believe in them. Maybe, just maybe, they would have the courage to take a risk, keep trying, and find the success they so desperately crave, instead of giving up the second a task feels impossible. It’s our job to remind them of who they are to us, why the sky's the limit, and why they can truly conquer the challenges ahead...and one day...who knows...they might just start to believe in themselves the way we do already.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Need to Unplug and Be Completely Present

Balance.

It is amazing just how difficult it is to find balance in the life of an educator. I am sure many people within many different professions struggle with this as well, yet in the educational world I live in...the search for balance is often elusive and distant.

Why is this? Why it is so hard to be able to balance faith, family, friendships and work?

Here is what I know...the answer to finding balance is not time. After all, if given the ability to structure our days around what is most important, the day for many would look like this: Time in our faith would take the largest portion, family next, then friendships, and finally work. Yet for most of us, work takes the largest amount of our time, and for those in education, it’s extremely hard to shut down at the end of the day. The reality for most of us is that trying to use time to find balance just isn’t possible.

So how can we find balance? How do we find the ability to truly focus on what is most important, while still making the best impact possible on our students and school community? For me, what I am learning is that it takes two things: The need to Unplug and Be Completely Present.

Why is it so difficult to unplug from our devices? Why is it so hard to turn them off? Even for just a little while…The next time you go out to dinner look around. The next time you are at the mall, while driving, heck - even a sporting event, look around...what will you see? Faces, lots of them, looking down at the devices in their hands. It is not that uncommon to see a family of four, all out to dinner, all looking down at their own personal devices. Yet it's not just at home, for many, our devises are beginning to find their way into the classroom, while on a school duty such as recess or lunch, or even when our kids are silently reading.

In a world where we can’t find balance, can’t find time to focus on what is most important, it’s amazing how much time we spend plugged into the digital world, but not the physical world around us.

It would not be uncommon for me to leave work, come home, make dinner, and even before dinner is over with my family, have my phone out checking emails, checking voicemails, just to make sure everything is alright. Then in the playroom with my children, checking ESPN scores, Twitter, Voxer or Facebook...all the while missing the opportunity to plug into my family, and unplug from my device.

Let me be clear, I am not stating that our devices are evil. That Twitter, Voxer, Facebook, or anything else is the problem with society. In fact, I have learned more, and made stronger connections with educators, because of these tools, not in spite of them. However, when trying to find balance in life, when trying to find a way to stay connected to what is most important, there is no doubting a need to unplug, even for a little while.

Yet, unplugging is only the first step, the second can be even harder...being completely present.

Here is the challenge: In each moment, whether at work or at home, with friends or with family, be fully present. Give each moment the undivided attention it deserves, and don’t allow outside thoughts or pressures to enter your mind. For me, that is one very heavy challenge, and one that is not easily accomplished. My mind is always racing, and all it takes is something shiny, or a squirrel, to get me off track, yet it’s a challenge I take very seriously.

I wish there was a way to turn off my brain. A simple switch I could flip that could take all the stress, all the anxiety, all the problems, and just make them stop running through my mind once I left school. Of course, life doesn’t work that way, so in order to be completely present in the moments I am gifted, I need to be diligent and intentional with my thoughts and actions. Whether it is praying to my Savior, reading the word, playing with my daughters, talking with my wife, or visiting with a friend - my attention needs to belong to that moment. A concern can wait, I can return that email the next day, and worrying about something has never made things easier in the end.

Of course, being fully present at school can also be challenging. After all, how many times has your mind wondered while at the teacher table hearing the same story for the fifth time? While going over an assignment? While watching that historical background video for the upcoming unit? I often wonder how many opportunities I missed as a teacher because I failed to be fully present in each moment. Relationships are so vital in our profession, and our students need to believe that when they are with us, they have our undivided attention. The same of course goes for our teammates and partners...how many times have you failed to look up from your email when someone comes to ask a question? How many times have you expertly said things like "Uh huh, yeah, totally" yet failed to comprehend a word they were saying because honestly you just don't want to make time to listen? We are all busy, but here's the thing...doesn't giving our undivided attention completely represent how much we actually care? I would argue that it does...

Unplug and be present...two things that are beginning to create balance in my life. Life is amazingly short, and time will never be on my side, but if I can fully commit my attention to each moment...well, then I might just find some resemblance of balance after all.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Assuming the Positive and Building Your Team

Why is it so difficult at times to assume the positive? Why is it so difficult at times to not make or take things personally? Assuming the negative, assuming ulterior motives, or assuming a personal attack can be crippling to an educator. Yet it happens all the time. So here is the question...how do we protect ourselves from this mindset?

I truly believe the biggest mistake we can make as educators is to make or take things personally. To use our skewed perception to create drama within the campus, or to take our past hurts or failing moments and place that history onto a new situation that started out to be pure.

It has almost become cliche...the idea that relationships are important. Yet creating authentic relationships with the people you work closely with is vital to our success. Vital to our emotional well being, and vital to creating the work-life balance we need to continue forward for many years to come.

How do we protect ourselves from assuming the negative? I think one key component is by surrounding ourselves with those who know us, and those that can reflect back our reactions in a positive, yet honest way.

As a principal, I have quickly learned that in order to fight the temptation to take things personally, in order to fight the temptation to view difficult situations with a negative light, in order to assume the positive and not the negative, I need a team around me that knows me well. A team that can offer support and transparency as the year progresses, and can look at situations from the outside and offer a viewpoint that removes the negative assumption I might make. Building your team is a crucial component of success on any level. For me, that team is my assistant principal and counselors. Together we plan, reflect, support, and have fun. We collaborate, build-up, and carry each other’s burdens. We are a tight group, built on transparency and authentic admiration and appreciation. They are the team I rely on, spend valuable time with, and trust to help guide my thoughts in a positive manner.

Students, parents, colleagues...All three groups of people can create friction and challenges in the life of an educator. Situations occur daily...a frustrated email from a parent, a student that refuses to respond to redirection, a colleague that you just don’t see eye-to-eye with...situations, that if we are not careful, can open the door to assuming the negative or to take things personally.

When frustration occurs, or when our own baggage begins to skew our perspective, your team can provide insight in challenging situations: A frustrated parent email, while at first might have felt hurtful or taken as a personal attack, could easily be a parent upset with a situation that affects their child, their most precious thing on earth, and that angry email is not about the teacher, but about a difficult situation. A teacher might assume the negative, assume a personal attack, yet a teammate who knows you well might be able to offer insight you desperately need.

A student that refuses to respond, refuses to work, could quickly feel like a personal attack. Assuming the negative about this student could happen, and frustration can take over. Flashbacks of that year you had that one student that pushed every button you had, and made things so difficult all year begin to creep into your mind. Self-doubt, frustration, going home angry, and beginning to start thinking about other careers might enter your mind… When these trying times occur, it’s those closest to you, your team, that can offer insight and deflect the negative assumptions. There are hundreds of reasons a student refuses to work, rarely is it personal. Rarely is the child wanting to fail, wanting to be in trouble, wanting to create a divide between himself and the teacher. It’s an outside perspective, a team that knows you, that can help shift the focus from personal and negative, to a need for support and love for a child.

In case you forgot...Colleagues are human. As humans, perfection doesn't exist….Mistakes happen, frustration can occur, especially in a school setting where the stakes are high, and emotions are often tied to the work we do each day. If a school is going to be successful, there just isn’t room for drama, and I truly believe that 99% of the time drama enters the workplace is because of negative assumptions. It’s the baggage we carry that often dictates our perception. It’s a broken world perspective that often shapes our viewpoint. When others hurt our feelings, make mistakes, or disagree with us, it is often those within our team that can help refocus our perception. Our teammates can see the positive view, and begin to bridge the gap that can be created when our baggage clouds our vision.

Imagine for a minute, what would your school be like if everyone assumed the positive in people. Imagine if people viewed relationships as genuine partnerships and friendships, not constant manipulative moves where each person is trying to get something from someone else.

My wife and I have been marriage mentors several times for our church. The advice I always offered, to every potential spouse was this… Strive to give 100% of everything you have to the person you love, and expect nothing back in return. In essence, give everything you have to someone, and require nothing back as payment. What would happen if our teams worked this way? What would happen if we assumed the best in people, gave our colleagues our full attention and effort, and required nothing back in return?

The challenge: Assume the positive in all situations.

The support: The team you build around you. The people you love and appreciate. The people you spend most of your time with. The people that can offer a positive perspective.

My team is my AP and counselors - They are my rock, my confidants, and the people I trust explicitly. Who are your teammates? Do they offer the positive? Do you give them everything you can and expect nothing in return?

If nothing else...it’s at least something to think about.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

YOU Are More Than Enough

Am I enough?

Do I possess enough information? Have I learned enough? Will my team see through my insecurities? Will my students? Will my principal support me when I fall? Am I enough….

It’s amazing the thoughts that ran through my head as a teacher, and if I am honest, even today. I would bet any educator reading this could at the very least empathize with those questions...especially this one: Am I enough?

The weight that comes with being in education is heavy. It doesn’t matter the role you play either...administrator, counselor, teacher, assistant, district leader or support staff...it makes no difference, the weight is there. Why? Simply put, we are in the business of teaching children. The business of saving lives, providing hope, building a future, and instilling the foundation needed for a lifetime of success.

Unlike many professions, educators go to work each day with an understanding that lives are in the balance. For a moment, start thinking about the abilities a classroom teacher must posses in order to be successful… Here are just a few: Ability to build relationships, understand and transfer knowledge, teach a child how to read, write, add, subtract, think, empathize, line up, tie their shoes, follow directions, take turns, communicate, learn from mistakes, find meaning, and process new information, and by the way...there is so much more!

Before the year started I was having coffee with a friend of mine and he said the comment that I have heard countless times, “Must be so great being a teacher, I mean think about it...you barely work half the year, and the kids leave before three, could there be an easier job?”

I responded the way I always do, I smiled and said something like this, “Imagine yourself in a room with 22 children. Two of those children didn’t get to eat this morning, and their stomachs are churning like crazy, they hurt, and that is all they can think about. One student struggles to focus on anything for longer than ten seconds, and prefers to move around whether you are comfortable with that or not. One student didn’t sleep well last night because she was up listening to her parents fighting in the other room and now her eyelids won’t stay open and her mind won’t stop worrying. Five of your students already know what you are required to teach today, and once you start they will find something to keep themselves entertained, but it will be disruptive for the others. One student is going to get pulled for special education support, but don’t forget because you will need to make sure he hears and understands the lesson. Two of your students got into an argument before the day started, they sit next to each other, and neither are ready to stop arguing. Four of your students are not able to read, but today’s lesson is built around a third grade reading passage. One of your students was in same grade last year, and already received this lesson and struggled. Two of your students won’t stop asking to go to the bathroom, one because he wants to get away from the challenge, and the other because he just can’t help it. The other three students are sitting quietly ready to learn, but all three are going to ask countless questions throughout the lesson...Now imagine your learning objective from the state says: Students analyze, make inferences and draw conclusions about expository text, and provide evidence from text to support their understanding...what would you do to make sure every single child is successful? Oh, and that is one of eight lessons for the day.”

My friend, who is a brilliant engineer, smiled and said, “Alright, I get it, it’s not easy.”

It’s not easy, far from it. Every day educators return to work, ready to give everything they have to the children they love dearly, but the question that often forms in the minds of many remains...am I enough?

The answer: Absolutely. To all educators, regardless of the title you hold or school you work in, understand this: YOU are more than enough.

When doubt begins to creep in, or the weight begins to press down on your shoulders. When more challenges than solutions start to appear, or the wisdom you need hasn’t been gained yet...remember these three things:

1. You are only human... Give yourself permission to fail, to not be perfect, and to be scared or confused. Give yourself permission to not have all the answers and remember that in time you will. While accepting that mistakes may happen is often difficult, it is also necessary. I will be the first person to admit this is hard for me, when I fail, I fail hard. When I struggle, I feel it deeply. Yet I am not alone in this, many of us want to be everything for everyone, to make all the right choices, and truly hurt when we fail to do so. Yet in the end we are only human, and if we fail to understand this... burning out can find its way on the table as a solution.

2. Keep your heart in the right place... In education your heart needs to be centered around the idea of hope and success for students. That, in itself, is more than enough. When challenges come, when things get difficult, you need to remember to keep your heart aligned with the calling you serve, and when the choices you make are made with that in mind, great things can happen.

3. You are not alone… In education, regardless of the title you hold, you are not alone. There are many paths to take with a statement like that...Whether it be faith, family, friends, or colleagues, hold on to the fact that you will never struggle on an island. I know for me there were many times when I felt this way...Yet when I opened my eyes and accepted grace and love, I found the support I needed.. The challenge in education is not a unique one, and it is felt among educators all over the world. So look to those who can support you, can empathize with you, and can provide a lifeline to safely. While you may not have all the answers, someone will, and all you need to do is ask. It is funny how difficult asking for help can be sometimes, but I promise there is someone ready to help without a single judgmental thought in place.

Am I enough? Am I enough to make a difference in the lives of my students? Am I enough to ensure my students have a foundation for a successful tomorrow? The answer is this: YOU are more than enough. So embrace the challenge, accept the impact you can have, and get back out there and make a difference each and every day...together.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Power of a Team

Human connection.

Relationships.

Support.

Understanding.

We need these things. We need to feel valued, protected and loved. We need to be given grace and support even when we don’t deserve it.

Yet where do we find this? For many people that answer is at home, with a significant other. Maybe with family, friends, church or social groups.

But what about at work? Especially for teachers…

Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours away from home, away from the people who are supposed to give us the connections and support we need. For educators, work not only takes most of their waking hours away from home, but many more hours even after they leave their school. It’s hard to turn of your brain in our profession, and on top of all that...education can be a very lonely place.

While that might sound odd considering teachers are surrounded by students all day, there is something extremely isolating about being the only adult in the room. The single person making countless decisions for the betterment of the students. As a teacher, your job is to create a safe and engaging classroom culture built to support the students...not the other way around.

So where can you find support? Where can you find safety? Where can you find a shoulder in hard times and partners to celebrate with in good ones? Where can you find someone who understands the feeling of being heartbroken over a student’s homelife? Where can you find someone that can empathise with the challenges of grading papers, planning for weeks in advance, and being asked to do one...more...thing...from your principal? Someone who will listen for the sake of offering an understanding ear, and not to give you fifteen pointless solutions you have already tried? Someone who just gets it...

The answer: Your team.

Most educators work within a team...grade level, department, office, administration, counseling, specials, instructional support, special education, english as a second language, and many others...yet how often does that team become one of connection, relationships, support and understanding?

Whether you are starting a new year tomorrow, or are six months in, I want to encourage and challenge you to embrace the idea of focusing on the amazing power of a team.

The power of a teammate working side by side with you as you struggle to find the best path for your student’s success. The power of a teammate making sure you know she is there, right next door, if you ever need anything. The power of someone who can sit down and fully comprehend what you are feeling, both good and bad, and can offer encouragement that strikes the heart of the problem without judgment or persecution. The power of shared vision, a shared purpose, and a shared love of learning. The power of hope and grace when mistakes are made. The power of laughter and joy, a helping hand when you are sick, and someone to jump up and down with you when that student finally wrote his name correctly. The power of someone to accept you as you are, mistakes and all, because you are both on the same journey.

While the power of a team can be unbelievably empowering, getting there is often challenging. After all, educators are only human. Drama, rumors, negativity, frustration, and life in general can often create barriers and hurdles within a team. Often things that would seem to be little concerns on the outside can quickly become like ankle weights holding you down: How many times can she forget to make copies for everyone? Why does he always wait for the last minute to get his kids ready for the end of the day? Why does she always change the team’s plans at the last minute? She won’t share her ideas. He won’t join us for lunch. She comes in at the first bell and leaves at the last, never even trying to work with us. If he says these kids can’t one more time I am going to scream.

Whatever the hurdle might be, whatever the challenge is, a powerful team will conquer it. For teams with a teammate that seems to be more of an ankle weight than a support system remember these two things:

1. Silence is often seen as agreement. In other words, when a teammate is complaining about something or someone, and you silently listen afraid to confront the issue yet disagreeing on the inside, remember that often your silence will come across as agreement to the negative teammate. This often creates a sense of empowerment for this person, and he or she will often use your name as an agreeing partner when confronted. If fact, it often sounds like this: “Jessica and I were talking and we both agree that our team leader is under qualified and horrible at her job.” While the reality is that Jessica was merely listening, and could not disagree more with that statement.

2. Negativity without encouragement cannot survive. It may not go away immediately, but when negativity is met with a positive counter, grace, and a willingness to confront the problem, it lacks the capacity to grow. This often leads to either a change of heart, a change of profession, or a change of schools...but either way, it can’t survive.

In the end, creating a powerful team takes a unified understanding that we are in this together. Once a team embraces the belief that we are stronger together, and we will overcome any challenge together, anything is possible.

Human connection.

Relationships.

Support.

Understanding.

We need these things. We need to feel valued, protected and loved. We need to be given grace and support even when we don’t deserve it, and it is a team that can provide this for you. Your team can protect you and comfort you, it can build you up and give you strength.

In education, the power of a team can be the difference between a successful teacher, and one that leaves the profession after a few years. The power of a team can ensure the success of our students, and can help build a school culture of love and support. So once again, I want to encourage and challenge you to embrace the idea of focusing on the amazing power of a team. If you do, I can promise both you and your students will be glad you did.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Before the Year Begins - To Teachers, Parents and Students

Teachers,

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You are about to start a new year, see new faces, welcome new challenges, and start once again on a one-year journey of student success. You are about to meet a child who will challenge you, push you, and may even go against the grain. You are about to meet a child who needs you more than you will ever know. You are about to meet a child who has failed more times than succeeded. You are about to meet a child who doesn’t get breakfast at home, and dinner is often a hit or miss experience. You are about to meet a child who already knows over half of what you are supposed to teach, but desperately needs you to push him forward. You are about to meet a child who doesn't understand how to make friends, communicate effectively, or work within a group...but is so amazingly smart. You are about to meet a parent who is sure her child can do no wrong, a parent who doesn’t want to hear from you at all, and a parent who will do anything for you.

Every child you meet in a few weeks will be different. Every child will have different needs, different goals, and different past experiences both good and bad. But here is the thing I need you to remember...every child you meet needs you, whether they realize it or not. Teaching is such a challenging profession....it's not a job, it’s a calling, and one that is not answered easily.

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You matter, you make a difference, you have a purpose, and you can change the course of a child’s life. Think about that...how many professions afford the opportunity to change a life? But remember this...it can be for good or bad.

One year makes a difference...A child who fails over and over again is likely to stop trying. A child who fails to move forward for one year is likely never to fully catch up. A child who feels unloved, unwanted, or unnoticed for one year is likely going to struggle finding self-worth in the future. Understand the power you hold...it’s not just about teaching the subject...it's about making a difference in a child’s life.

One year makes a difference...A child who feels loved every day for one year can build a sense of self-worth that will last a lifetime. A child who feels successful each day for one year can find self-efficacy that can sustain the trials ahead. A child who learns the value of working hard, persevering, and understands learning is about the process - not just the product, will build a foundation for a lifetime of success.

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

I love and appreciate you. Teachers in all areas, paraprofessionals, custodians, food and nutrition services, coaches, and parent volunteers. I love that you chose to come to school and change lives, make a difference, and give children the chance to feel successful. I love that you work hard, tackle challenges, and refuse to give up when it would be easy to do so. I have no doubt this will be an amazing year, and I am already so very proud of you.

----------

Parents,

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You are about to start a new year, see new faces, welcome new challenges, and start once again on a one-year journey of success for your child. You are about to meet a teacher who is excited to make a difference in your child’s life. A teacher willing to do everything she can to create a safe, challenging, and collaborative environment filled with learning experiences designed to meet your child where he is. You are about to walk into a classroom that will very much be like a second home to your son, a classroom filled with love and appreciation, respect and community, and a culture of acceptance and rigor. You are about to meet a teacher who already loves your child for who he is, the lessons he will learn, the mistakes he will make, and the growth he will show as the year moves on.

You have an opportunity to be a partner in your child’s education. An opportunity to work collaboratively with your school, your teacher, and your community. Make no mistake, we are stronger together. I can promise you there will be struggles at times, your daughter will make mistakes, yet we will learn from them together. While she may be one of twenty or more, your daughter’s teacher will always strive to give her a learning experience customized to her, with the goal of challenging her every step of the way. Remember to offer grace when possible, understanding as the journey of learning grows, and a desire to work hand in hand with us, as we humbly serve you and your family.

----------

Students,

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You are about to start a new year, see new faces, welcome new challenges, and start once again on a one-year journey of success. You are about to meet a teacher who is so excited to get to know you, what you love to learn about, and who is going to push you to be the best you can be each and every day. You are about to make friends, and meet classmates who will soon become your partners as you all learn together. We want you to know that we are excited to watch you learn, make mistakes, and discover how to take ownership of your learning.

It's not always going to be easy. There will be challenges ahead, obstacles you have to conquer, and opportunities to show integrity and grace instead of frustration and anger. Yet, no matter the challenges ahead, know this...we will always be here for you. We will be here to pick you up, push you forward, and cheer you on as you reach your highest highs. We will partner with your family, promise to love and protect you, and always expect your best...no matter what.

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

It is your job to come ready to learn, ready to trust, and ready to make mistakes along the way. Your education is a gift for you to own, although you may not realize that just yet. Remember to listen to your teachers, because I promise, not only do they they know more than you might think, but the decisions they make for you...they make out of love, with a far better understanding of how to ensure your success. Above all else, be young men and women of integrity. Treat others with the respect they deserve, and start each day knowing that you matter, that you make a difference, and that if you truly put your mind to it - you can reach your highest dreams. I am so proud of you, and I look forward to all the adventures that await us this year!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Year Two - A Principal's Reflection

Where does the time go?

Several weeks have passed since the end of my second year as principal. I have started this post several times over...each time I write several paragraphs I find myself stopping, reading the words slowly, and then erasing them.

The title was easy, reflecting on year two...the challenge, I am finding, is articulating the thoughts that seem to never stop bouncing rapidly across my mind.

All the ideas and the lessons learned...everything seems to fall under two words: Trust and Delegation.

I wish I could say those two words represented this past year perfectly, but they don’t. The truth of the matter is that each of those two words truly represent the areas I need to focus on going into year three. They are my growth areas, my focus points, and the words I will strive to embrace in 2016-2017. Therefore, I won’t be writing a reflection on what I did well, instead, how I plan to continue to learn and grow as a leader.

Year two was a great year, but one, like all years really, that came with challenges and opportunities to learn. As I have written about many times, I was constantly reminded of why I love my teachers so much. I was given the opportunity to watch as they worked together, side-by-side, with the unified goal of ensuring every child was successful. While I am sure every principal would say this, I really do have the greatest group of teachers anywhere. How do I know? Because they are all focused on the same thing at all times...student learning in a safe yet challenging environment.

The vision is clear, and we are all unified together with the same goals and aspirations in mind. Yet, as I reflect on last year I realize just how much time and energy I spent away from classrooms…

The best part of my day is getting to be with teachers and students. It’s when I am most happy, when I am able to see ideas turn into creations, and the process of learning something new come alive in an authentic and purposeful way. Yet, as I think about last year I quickly realize that as the year progressed, the amount of time I was able to be in the classroom declined.

In a previous post I shared about just how challenging the role of principal can be. It amazes me just how much time I can spend meeting with parents, going through necessary routines, or answering emails...not to say I truly don’t enjoy meeting with parents or communicating via email, because I honestly do... Here is a great example of what I mean: I was meeting with a teacher who is working on his Master’s Degree in Administration. He was interviewing me about the daily ins and outs of the job and we talked for about a half an hour. Throughout our meeting my computer continued to make a quiet, yet audible, beep every few seconds. When we were done visiting he asked a simple question. “Are all those beeps emails?” I spun around and turned on my screen...within that 30 minutes I received over 50 emails.

Let me say it again: The best part of my day is getting to be with teachers and students. Knowing this, as I reflected on last year I reaffirmed something I already knew about myself...I am a perfectionist, I don’t trust easily, and while I try not to micromanage...I am not the greatest at delegating. In order to ensure that I spend more time with teachers and students, I need to do a much better job tackling the hurdles that exist in my life. This of course leads me back to the beginning of this post...my two key words: Trust and Delegation.

I honestly thought I was better at trusting others than I actually am. I wrote about trust in a previous post. Trust is such a linchpin in the balance of our lives, and without trust I will never be able to delegate. The reality is that my two words go hand-in-hand. I can’t delegate unless I trust, and trust has very little meaning unless you actually give it, and one way to do this is by delegating. Trust and delegation are without question my two greatest challenges for next year. Of course, saying it is easy, applying this is the challenge.

In May I had a Leadership Retreat with my grade level team leaders and instructional coaches. I started the meeting by admitting I have a problem in these areas. Of course, this wasn’t a surprise to anyone. I then shared my hope for tomorrow, and together we created a plan that is not only exciting, but also one dedicated to furthering the success of our students.

Two amazing things happened that day, the second so astounding to me personally that it has forever changed the way I view my school leaders. First, we went over the leadership roles, and I watched as one item after another was taken from my plate, and placed onto another leader’s. The second, and most astounding to me, was the honest and transparent feeling of ownership and trust I saw in the eyes of those on the team. I always thought I was doing right by others when I held onto as much as possible while tackling everything I could for the school. Yet what I learned that day was that offering trust and responsibility to others creates a bond and structure that forms a design for success and strong relationships.

Will mistakes happen? Absolutely. Will there be things completed in ways I would have done differently? Yup. However, mistakes are how we learn, and watching others use new strategies to tackle old problems is how I will learn.

In essence, when I think about my second year as principal, there are many celebrations. I once again was reminded about the amazing teachers and paraprofessionals I have that come to school each day loving what they do. I have an unbelievable admin team of an assistant principal and counselors that gave me the gift of trust and support. I have a community of parents that I love, and a support system within the community that is growing each and every day. Most of all, I have outstanding students that strive to be the best they can be...It was a wonderful second year, with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, and opportunities to learn and grow each day.

Next year will be the best year yet, and it will start with a better understanding of my need to trust and delegate. To all those I was able to serve alongside last year - thank you for all you did last year, it wasn’t always easy, but totally worth it. Let’s make 2016-2017 even better!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cherish the Final Days

I am probably not supposed to say this as a principal…

I am sure there are Administrator 101 textbooks out there that say it’s never good to admit this out loud, let alone in a blog post…

Yet, I am just going to say it… I am tired, and I am stressed.

You see, the end of the year is a challenging season in the world of education. This is typically when many events and activities begin to take place...graduation, end of year celebrations, assemblies, night events, the final grading period is coming to an end and projects are due. Most state testing is completed, and many students are looking at a summer break just days away.

As a principal, this time of year brings on an interesting challenge...I must plan for the future, hire for tomorrow, yet not lose focus on the here and now. This isn’t easy, and there are many moving pieces to an always changing game-plan. I think of it as playing chess, but with five games going on at the same time…

It’s this time of year when I find out staff members I love dearly are taking on new challenges or promotions at different schools, or staying home with family, or retiring. In one moment I am hurting as I find out I have to say goodbye, and in the next realizing that I need search to find the right person to welcome in as a new member of our team.

This time of year is challenging. It is difficult, and I hate to admit it...but it is emotionally draining.

Last night we had our school’s annual Student Council Dance, and I asked for every teacher to please attend...this of course meant I asked for everyone to come to a night activity on a Friday night, from 6-8 PM, with only a few weeks remaining in the school year.

For many this would seem like a difficult thing to get excited about, after all, I knew how tired I was feeling...yet our teachers are pretty amazing. While it would have been easy to find a reason to miss, they didn’t. They were there, ready to enjoy a moment with the hundreds of families that came.

At the end of the night a gentleman stopped me smiling saying, “Hey, only eight days left!”

I laughed, and said something like, “You know it!”

Right after that a grandmother, who is mom to her granddaughter, pulled me aside and asked if she could share something with me. I smiled and said, “Of course!”

Her eyes began to tear up, “You have the best staff in the whole world Mr. Steele! It’s a Friday night at 8 o’clock and this building is filled with teachers making my granddaughter smile. Please tell them thank you for me, they don’t know how much this means to us parents, to give up their night for our children.”

I thanked her, gave her a hug, and watched as she turned and took her granddaughter's hand. It was in that moment that I realized something...we only have eight days left!

You see, there are two ways to look at the statement - We only have eight days left.

One way - We only have EIGHT days left. Often it is a countdown, only eight days until a break. Only eight days until summer. Only eight days until I can sleep a little longer and have a little less stress. Teaching is a challenging profession, and I can admit this has been my mentality for the majority of the final few weeks of school I have had.

There is another way to read this statement though, and it hit me last night as that wonderful grandmother walked away - We ONLY have eight days left. You only have eight days left with the kids you have grown to love in your class this year. Only eight days to see if your students will have another light-bulb moment. Only eight days to laugh with the students you have built such a great classroom culture with. We only have eight days left with the students we love so much. Only eight days left with teachers I am going miss more than they will every truly know.

Education is a marathon race that starts over each and every year. As educators we have two options when we can see the finish line...we can give into our exhaustion and stress only to limp across the finish line, OR we push forward with everything we have left as we cross the finish line celebrating each final moment we get with the students and colleagues we love so much.

As I said in the beginning of this post, whether I should admit it or not...I am tired, and I am stressed. As I think over my years of teaching and administration I have to admit I have crossed the finish line with a limp in my step on more than one occasion...only to miss my students the next Monday they didn’t return.

This time of year is difficult and exhausting - but we need to remember to cherish the final days. Cherish the moments with the students you love, and the colleagues you care so much about. At our school there are only eight days left, and I hope I cherish each one before they are gone.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Trust - The Challenge and Need in Education

When I was a child, in sixth grade to be exact, our school went to camp. For me, growing up in Washington meant camping was a regular event, but the idea of going to camp with my classmates...well, I wasn’t sure what to think. It didn't take long to learn that school camping was not like the camping I was used to...it was mainly kids in cabins going to bed early, eating food that all tasted the same no matter the color, walking around trails, and completing “learning activities” along the way.

At the end of the week my cabin was ready to participate in a team-building activity. The title of this activity? “Trust Fall.” Now, it’s important to note that I was not a popular kid, in fact, most of camp for me was looking forward to free time so I could go off alone and fish. I didn’t make friends easily growing up - talking to others didn’t come naturally, and confidence was something I just didn’t contain. So when the counselor said we were going to partake in an activity called Trust Fall...well, my imagination took over and I pictured myself free-falling from a tree to a group of hands waiting below.

For those unfamiliar with a Trust Fall here is the idea, as I quickly learned that day. One person stands as straight as possible with his arms folded in front of him while facing away from those watching. A second person, who is deemed strong enough catch the person standing in front, is given the role of catching the person when he falls backwards. So, simply put - one person falls backward without bracing himself, while the other person catches him.

The counselor, who seemed to be enjoying this activity a little too much, asked us to partner up. I, being the loner of the group, was partnered with, of course, the last remaining kid who stood alone. Still though, if I could trust anyone in my cabin, the kid who also didn’t get connected to the group would have been as good as anyone.

For whatever reason I was chosen to go first. My partner looked strong enough, he said he was ready, he said he could catch me...so, I fell backwards. I kept falling, and falling...and then...pain. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn't think, I just hurt.

It was that moment - lying on the ground looking at the clouds slowly move overhead while gasping for air - that I realized something...It was going to be hard for me to ever trust again. Sadly, that has been the case for a very long time.

The challenge with trust, no matter the field you work in or the life you lead, is that it requires you to hand over control to someone else. This of course comes in many forms...We give control of our hearts to the ones we love, our child’s safely and intellectual growth to his/her teacher, food cleanliness to our favorite restaurants, finances and financial future to our accountants/financial planners, health to our doctors, and for many - even our eternity to our Savior and God.

Trusting is difficult. For many years I ran under the notion that I would only trust someone if he/she deserved it. If that person had shown time and time again I could trust him/her to get the job done - the right way, have my back, show honestly in difficult times and fairness even when it didn’t mean getting his/her way...then, and only then, I would trust them. Of course, we are all human, so offering trust on the basis of perfection meant I would never be able to trust anyone for too long.

In the world of education, the need for trust is abundant, yet how often do we truly analyze its importance? When looking at the network of relationships within a school, the need for trust becomes very clear. When starting with a teacher at the center, a web of trust begins to form between the teacher and students, parents, counselors and administrators...all of whom work together as well...this is just a glimpse, and does not include the many people/entities that make up the community and world our students grow up in...

For me, this all leads to one question...how do we create an educational environment where trust exists? After all, mistakes are going to happen, and people may not always catch us when we fall backwards…

The answer: We must offer trust freely first, without the requirement of earning it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying you can always trust everyone...but what I am saying is in the world of education, and in regards to the web of student, parent, teacher, counselor, administrators and other school personnel (instructional coach, librarian, nurse, specialists, etc) we need to offer trust freely, until proven otherwise. I will be the first to say that this isn’t easy, we are asking imperfect people to make the right choices, not gossip/talk negatively about us, protect us, do right by us, and live a life of integrity at all times. Yet, for schools to be successful, for schools to get the most out of our students, and each other...I truly believe this is a step we need to take.

I am going to be honest...this is difficult for me, and it has been my entire life. I am not sure if that comes from a fear of being hurt or disappointed, a fear of mistakes being made by others, a desire to do things myself, or any other factor that may be in the way...Yet I will continue to try each day to offer it freely...after all, we all share the same goal and desire - to ensure our students, every single one of them, are safe, cared for, and successful. Trust will help us get there, because without it...well, let's just say our students deserve better than that.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

I will run through a wall for you...

I have always loved the expression, “I would run through a wall for him/her!”

Think about that...even if I could manage my way through a wall, how painful would that be? Assuming of course it is an actual wall and not a Hollywood designed prop that looks real but is really just styrofoam…

You see, I love that phrase because it illustrates a passion for the vision or person leading the way. After all, the idea of running through a wall usually comes within a phrase like…”I really don’t think I can pull this off, but I would run through a wall for him so I am going to try.”

In education, walls seem to pop up all the time that seem impossible to overcome...instructional gaps, curricular changes, campus/cultural changes, behavioral needs, social/emotional needs, and many more…while teaching truly is a powerful and meaningful profession, it comes with it’s own challenges. Many of which look like walls standing in our way.

In life, when staring at a wall we really have three choices:

A: Turn the other way and avoid it.

B. Try to find a way over or around it, yet not actually conquering it.

C. Charge right through, win or lose, giving it your all.

I think for most educators we want to take the third option. We don’t want to run away, we don’t want to skate around it, we want to get through it victoriously for our students. However, while most educators I know would be willing to tackle the wall, it’s often going to take more than themselves to take that first step.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of educators that are willing to take on challenges without the help or support of anyone else, but I think most need support or encouragement. That makes sense though...I don’t know about you, but if I am staring at a wall I would love to tackle it with a partner, or two, or three, or 100. Of course, that isn’t always possible. Often educators need to take on challenges with the encouragement of someone, yet in the end it is really between them and the wall...one on one...mono e wallo -

As a principal, there is nothing more difficult than knowing one of the people I love most in this world...any educator on campus...is staring at a wall. Yet many educators find themselves feeling alone when challenges arise. Of course, teaching is interesting that way...while most schools are built on the ideology of collaboration and team planning, the reality is that teaching is often an independent profession. Yes, you have students with you. Yes, you have teammates next door. Yes, you have an admin team, instructional coaches, and other support systems in place. Yet most of the day it is the teacher, the lone adult in the classroom, making countless decisions all in the name of ensuring each child gets an individualized experience based on his or her needs. Teachers must constantly make independent decisions, move forward, create meaningful moments, and be willing to take risks all in the name of student achievement...it’s this reality that often creates moments when teachers find obstacles, much like walls, and can feel very alone as they are deciding between options A, B or C.

I wish principals were given magic wands that made all challenges go away. I wish I could meet with a teacher and simply say, “Please share with me the challenge you are facing so I can make it disappear by the end of our conversation.” Sadly, that doesn't exist. Teaching is never easy, but always worth it. Yet there are times when things get difficult and walls can occur that just seem impossible to get through...

For me...I want my teachers and staff members to know that if they are staring at a wall, they will be sure to see me run towards it ahead of them. I want to be the person leading the charge, the one who does whatever possible to help him/her get through. While I know this isn't possible for every challenge that comes along, if I can take on the challenge with them I will. I will lead the way, or I will support them all the way through. Whether it is an encouraging word, a first step, a shoulder, or running forward side by side...I will be there.

In the end walls are always going to pop up, challenges will come, decisions will need to be made, and there will be moments in each educator's life when he or she will have to decide...do I run? Do I try to get around? Or to do do my best to push through for my students? I just hope when that moment does come for those at my school, they remember they are not alone, I will be there...cheering them on, running alongside, or rushing past to lead the charge as we try and run through the wall, together.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why I Love You

Dear Amazing Staff Members,

My job is a little different....I am seemingly always on the move, from classrooms, to duties, to meetings, to planning sessions, etc. - Though moving 1,000 mph is challenging, it offers one unique and special gift; I get to be around everything. I get to see the little moments that make me smile, the challenges you fight through, the accomplishments you quietly make. I was there when you stopped a teary eyed child in the hallway and made her day with a smile and reassurance. I was there when the clock struck 6 and you were preparing for the next day. I was there when you met with a parent, fought for your student, worked side by side with your team, and gave every ounce of energy you had to your classroom and community.

You see, it's because of the little things that I love you. I love your heart, your desire, your passion and your little successes. I love your perseverance, your tenacity, and your ideas. I love that you chose such a challenging profession...and whether you are in a classroom, with a small group, or working one on one with a student - you are making a difference in the life of someone wonderful and precious. I love you for all you are and all you do.

You are an educator...you make a difference each moment of every day. You change lives, you bring hope, you provide support, and you set a path to greatness with every child you meet. What you do is a gift, and it's the fact that you embrace this gift each day that makes me say I love you.

Dear Brilliantly Wonderful Students,

It's me, your principal. I know you don't get to see me everyday in your classroom or in the hallway. But let me let you in on a secret...I hear about you all the time, and I am always here to support you.

There are lots of moments I get to see - like the time you didn't give up on that design challenge and were able to get the boat made of tissues to float...well, at least for a minute. Or that time you stopped and helped your friend pick up his papers when they fell on the floor. I was there when you passed that test, there when you learned about coding, saw you get Citizen of the Month and perfect attendance. I was there when you learned from your mistake. I see you each morning at carpool, and all over the building throughout the day.

I know you hear this from your teachers all the time, but I want you to know that I love you too. I love that you never give up when the work gets hard, that you practice sounding out words and remembering your multiplication facts. I love that you take risks, take ownership of your learning, and ask really hard questions that stump your teachers. I love that you embrace the process of learning, and are not afraid to make a mistake...because after all, that's how we learn! I love that you tell stories, make friends, create artwork and solve problems. I love when you come to school smiling and leave exhausted from a hard day of learning...but not too tired to tell your family about all the great things you did.

You are only in elementary school for a little while, but know this: The decisions you make each day matter, the friends you make and the teachers that love you matter, the hard work you put in and the process of learning something new matters, and in the end...I will always be proud of you, no matter what.

Dear Parents - ALL Parents,

Hey, it's me, your child's principal. To grandparents, foster parents, step parents, friends and family...if you take care of a child that comes to our school, this is meant for you. I want you to know that I love you. I really do, not just saying that...

I love that you trust us with the most wonderful and precious gift in your life - your child. I love that you trust we are doing all we can each and every day to ensure your child gets the very best. I love that even when mistakes happen, academic struggles occur, and big decisions are needed to be made...you remember we are in this together, as a team. There is no question you are your child's biggest advocate, but I promise, we are a close second - and I love that you recognize that.

I love that you volunteer, join the PTA, bring food on teacher appreciation days, come to conferences and school events, have lunch with your child, and allow me to welcome you when you come in. I love that you support us each day and come alongside us as we work together to make our school great.

I love you because you are our partner, for being a parent, for making a difference, and showing you care. Thank you for supporting us, thank you for sharing with others how much we mean to you, and thank you for trusting that we love your children for who they are.

Dear All Above,

Thank you for allowing me the privilege to love and serve you each day. It's not always perfect, mistakes are made and changes occur, but we are in this together - and I love that I get to be on this journey with you each day -

So, why do I love you? Because you are an amazing and wonderful blessing in my life - and a blessing I am truly grateful for.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I am a great teacher because...

When I entered college I knew I wanted to be a teacher...nothing else. I began my freshman year with teaching in mind, and four years later I graduated with my educational degree in hand. Yet, there were many times...many many times, when I would be questioned about my decision...things like: “Why be a teacher? June, July and August?” or “If you wanted to be a babysitter for a living why even go to school?” or my personal favorite…”Shouldn’t you pick a profession that pays more?”

I hadn’t even started teaching...yet the image painted by those on the outside presented teaching as an underpaid glorified babysitting position that was really only worth doing because I would have summers off. Such a distorted picture…

Considering just how important our profession is to not only our future, but to the lives of countless individuals...it amazes me just how many people view education in a negative, or lesser-value, light.

Teaching is hard. Multiple subjects with large quantities of content, students with countless individualized needs, many standards written by non-educators, never seemingly enough time, and assessments critiquing our ability to teach/lead. It’s no wonder many educators leave the profession within the first five years of entering it. More importantly...it's no wonder many begin to lose their way, doubt their abilities, and struggle with the idea of even being successful as an educator. Here is a hard truth...while many teachers leave, many more continue on, burnt-out, not trusting in their ability.

February/March is a very difficult time of year for many teachers...In fact, the University of Oregon did a study that showed February also represents the highest rate of discipline referrals in schools. It's the time of year when state testing hasn’t started, the excitement of winter vacation is gone, and summer seems too far away for many students. It’s this time of year when we need to remember...need to remind ourselves of something so very important...why you are a great teacher -

I asked my wonderful team of teachers to finish this sentence: I am a great teacher because…

Here are many of their responses:

“I am a great teacher because I care. I care about my students' personal and academic lives. I care about whether they are groomed, fed, and dressed appropriately for the weather. I care about how they feel about themselves, how they feel about others, and the character traits they represent. I care about their feelings and do my best to help them express them in healthy ways so they can communicate well. I care that they have the skills, materials, and strategies to be able to learn each day. I care about their feelings and making sure that they can identify and sort through them with coping strategies. I care that they walk in the door each morning and are shown love and support until the second they leave my presence at 2:45. Above all, I care because they are important. They are our future and I want to do my best so that they can be their best.”

“I am a great teacher because of my desire to reach all students. I may not reach all of them, but I want them to learn to persevere irrespective of where they may be academically.”

“I am a great teacher because I have a strong rapport/engaging personality with my students and a different teaching style.”

“I am a great teacher because I really love teaching! I love seeing their growth from September to May. I feel like I have good classroom management and run the class where not only are we are all learning, but also having fun. I want my students to be happy while they are with me everyday.”

“I am a great teacher because I eat, sleep, breathe my kids and my job. I take it home with me. I love my kids, and they know it! I love my job and as hard as it is sometimes I am so blessed to be chosen for this career. I enjoy so very much being a part of my school family!”

“I am a great teacher because I really care for my students; push them to work hard, and to show their full potential. I come to school every day thinking it is a new day, and whatever happened the day before, was in the past. I want my students to do the best they can do. When I see that they are really struggling when doing independent work, then I know what I need to work on with them at teacher table. As for my students who are on the higher end, I want to push them to be able to do more than what is expected for the class. I care that their scores/work go up because then I know they will be more prepared for next year. During conferences, I even had a parent tell me I was doing an outstanding job with their student. That makes me feel like I am doing something right and that I am a great teacher.”

“I am a great teacher because I care about the academic and social success of all my students, not just the low, medium, or high.”

“I am a great teacher because…success (I make it happen for every child, build it in) that comes from hard work (they must work hard in my class) builds confidence (they have a bank of strategies so they can “try”).

“I am a great teacher because I am extremely passionate about teaching bilingual education and transitioning Spanish speakers to on level ELL’s and encouraging and challenging them to master the English language in order to increase their academic goals. This will open doors for new growth and better opportunities for them in the future.”

“I am a great teacher because I don’t just care about kids’ academics. Kids are so much more than just test scores. I care that they are making themselves better, and I am constantly rooting for them. I want them to not only be good students, but good people as well.”

“I am a great teacher because I believe in students’ potential to be successful long-term, regardless of their current performance. Based on that belief I push them to grow as much as they can in every area (academic and otherwise) and try to help them understand what success is (it’s such an abstract concept so I define it for them as setting your own goals and achieving them while making a positive contribution to society) and have a positive experience working hard and succeeding in school. I build them up with tons of positive support, and try to bring fun and games into school to balance out the times when it’s just plain hard work.”

“I am a great teacher because I truly have a passion and desire to teach students. I have always wanted to be the best teacher I can possibly be. I am extremely receptive to new ideas, and I enjoy learning about and reading about new techniques and strategies out there to better educate myself and better serve our students. Most importantly to me though, is that I care deeply about each one of my students, and I know in my heart they all know that.”

“I am a great teacher because I have patience and establish relationship with all my students. Once I have the relationship in place, you can take these students to new heights.”

“I am a teacher because I had incredible teachers who challenged me, encouraged me, inspired me, and made me laugh. I was a lucky kid who loved 99% of all the teachers who ever taught me, and after I finished roaming around the world (and even during part of that time) I thought it was the best way I could give back. I thought if I could take my curiosity, energy, and endless amount of questions that bounce around my head, and then turn those things into classroom strategies, then hopefully I could do what my teachers did for me. I try to be excited about each day and each subject, and I try to encourage my students to do their best and never give up on themselves. They have their entire adult lives to doubt themselves and their choices, so they shouldn’t be told in elementary school that they can’t do something.”

“I am a great teacher because I am dedicated to my students and I use the data to help guide my instruction.”

“I am a great teacher because I believe in my students and I never give up on them. There is this feeling I get every time when a student fails and a student succeeds. The moment they fail I immediately encourage them and tell the students it’ll be ok and we’ll have plenty more chances to get it right. Once the students realize the moment they succeed the feeling is overwhelming. I get so excited and pumped and the students feel it too. To me, this is the best part about teaching.”

“I am a great teacher because I care. I will do anything for my students. I want the best for them and genuinely love each and every one of them with all of their individual faults and strengths.”

“I am a great teacher because I never think I’m done. Even when my kids meet their goals, I feel like there is something to improve on. I try each year to do something to round out my game.”

“I am a great teacher because I build relationships with my students. I push my kids to do their best, even when it is hard for them. At the end of the day, they know that I really care about them!”

“I am a great teacher because I am surrounded by great teachers who lend their expertise whenever I ask, and sometimes even when I don’t. I think the thing that I add is letting my class know that I really care about them. I try very hard to make each of them feel special and valued which, in turn, makes them see themselves as overcomers and achievers.”

Finally, and simply put… “I am a great teacher because I bring out the best in all my kids.”

If you are in education...as a teacher, paraprofessional, administrator, counselor, or in any other avenue - one of these statements applies to you. It’s important to remember why you are great, because our job is rarely easy, although it is always worth it.

I am in awe of each and every educator that comes to work each day with a desire to make a difference in the lives of so many. I am truly proud to be one small piece of a very large puzzle that makes our future brighter each and every day. So to all of those who are great, even when you can't remember why sometimes...thank you for all you do.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Creating Lasting Memories

There is something amazing about memories and school. Think about it...somehow, despite the daily lessons reflecting national standards, state testing, mathematical reasoning, letter sound correlation, inference, comprehension, scientific process, historical understanding, and much much more, lasting memories are made. Yet, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to remember one moment in school growing up when I was rocking that difficult math problem, or comprehending the daylights out of that leveled reader…

What I do remember…

When I was in kindergarten I asked my teacher if I could go to the bathroom. She said yes...I left the room, and on my way I was stopped by a teacher who’s name I will never forget, let’s call him Mr. G. - He stopped me, snapped at me for leaving the room, grabbed my arm and pulled me back to class. I was crying…you know, the kind of sobbing when you can’t really breath so it is more of an inhale every other second… Know what else I remember about kindergarten? Nothing really...

When I was in first grade I distinctly remember loving my teacher. Mrs. Shiffner, my mom away from home. I can’t tell you a thing I learned, but I remember her, her face, her voice, and how she loved us so much. Even at six years old I knew she loved me...wait, I remember gerbils, love and gerbils...good year.

Second, third, fourth, fifth...many more memories...being picked on, attempting to talk to girls, not fitting in, playing Pogs with the other kids who didn’t quite fit in, teachers who fought for me, teachers who fought with me...Mrs. Griffith, the first teacher to send me to the principal's office...I deserved it, yet to this day is one of my absolute favorite teachers.

I remember my sixth grade teacher Mr. Benzo...why? Because he told us a story I have never forgotten: He said he had a sixth sense...How did he know? He once dreamed that he was driving his car, and as he was passing the cemetery on County Holmes Boulevard (yup, even remember the street name) all four tires blew at once, his car rolled, and he died. So the next day, when awake, he was driving to the store, and as he was about to pass the cemetery he remembered his dream. He quickly pulled over, inspected the tires, and each tire had a nail in it! --- As a sixth grader, MIND BLOWN - as an adult...really man? Really? - All good, love you Mr. B.

Of course, the older I got, the more memories that stayed with me...and while I can remember a few projects in school, what I remember most are the moments teachers gave me a second chance. Moments of teachers taking their time to explain something I just didn’t understand. I remember girls I liked, subjects I didn’t, and my Spanish teacher who let me take quizes I missed during her lunch hour...why do I remember that? She would always leave to heat up her lunch, and her answer key was always on the overhead projector...yup, missed a lot of quiz days, and it’s no wonder I left my second year of Spanish without being able to even say a short phrase in Spanish.

Kindergarten to twelfth grade...so many memories, many are good, and honestly...many are bad. Yet there is power in this, and as educators we need to remember something...we have the ability to create lasting memories.

Take some time, reflect on your past...what do you remember? Do you remember the daily tasks or the relationships? The multiple-choice tests or the difficult moments that brought tears?

Each day educators come to work with the power to create a memory. A memory that will last a lifetime...but here’s the question, what type of memory do you want to create? No matter how hard I try, I have as many negative memories as positive ones. As a teacher, you will be remembered in some way, the question is this...how do you want to be remembered?

For most teachers, creating lasting memories is not something they signed up for. After all, how many teachers entered the profession with a passion for their subject, and a desire to help students become successful? Two great things…but whether they like it or not, memories will be made for their students. Many that have nothing to do with the subject they teach.

Educators have a powerful job as each day matters...they change lives and work in a profession that is relational, emotional, and life-altering. Each day offers a new set of memories to be created...so here is the question...here is the point...ask yourself: What memories do I want to create for my students? Each day you are creating lasting memories for someone. Be sure to make memories worth keeping.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

all means ALL

When I went into education to be an elementary school teacher I wanted more than anything to reach every child. Every single one. Yet, it was during my first year of teaching I learned a difficult lesson...not all students come to school ready to learn, and not all students come to school equipped with the prerequisites needed to be successful right away. Bigger lesson...some kids are far more focused on getting through the day, let alone getting an A on the next assignment.

When I was growing up our family didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t get the new shoes I always wanted (Adidas Sambas by the way), I had clothes made by my mother (flannel was really cheap back then), and in many ways I was a walking target for anyone that wanted to take a verbal or physical shot at me. However, while I didn’t have money or many friends, I did have a mother that was as involved as she could be, she pushed me to be better, and wanted the best education I could get growing up. There were no excuses, I was going to learn, and she would make sure of that…

I went into education thinking that most families without a lot of money worked this way. After all, it doesn’t take money to care about a child’s education. It doesn’t take money to want the best for your child. It doesn’t take money to be involved and ask questions...but what it does take? Time.

Time is a factor I never really considered growing up. While my family didn’t have a lot of money, my mom did stay home, she was there, and she was able to check in and make sure we were doing our homework...and doing it right.

The other area I never considered when going into education was a family's view of a teacher. You see, back when I was in school it was really simple...if you were successful, that meant you were paying attention and doing your best. If not...well, you needed to close your mouth and pay attention. Teachers were seen as an all-knowing expert and students, like me, understood that our job was to focus and learn from the person who had all the answers..

In essence, there were two major things I wasn’t aware of going into education…

1. Time is not always accessible for parents and families -

2. Not all parents are going to trust a teacher just because of his or her job title -

Now, flash back to me going into education. I wanted, and still want, to reach every child. I want every child to be successful. I want every child to feel loved, appreciated, supported, talented, and capable of doing anything he or she wants to do. Truth be told, I didn’t think it would be all that hard. I was going to study the content, prepare an engaging lesson, then show up and present to the class while they all listened and absorbed the information from me, the expert. After all, if a student chose to not pay attention, thier involved parent would set them straight, and...if a student gave me any lip, no worries, his or her parents would see me as an expert that needs to be respected by my title, so they would set their child straight.

It turns out...that just wasn’t the case for many of my students.

What I learned very quickly was that not all students are internally motivated when it comes to classwork, not all parents are able to offer support, not all parents want to offer support, and in a world where knowledge is at their fingerprints...anything I presented that could be Googled meant their personal device could find the answer faster than I could teach it.

Within a few weeks of my first year of teaching I began to be discouraged….I remember I hit rock bottom when I called one of my parents about a concern I had. Her child spent the first two weeks of school refusing to do anything. I added great opening hooks, I added layers of fun and enjoyment, I added games and puzzles and internet based activities. Yet, he refused. Refused to try, refused to care, refused to participate. His mom was busy, her mailbox was full, but after two weeks of trying I finally got through. I shared my concerns, after sharing some positives, and her response was one I will never forget, and is sadly one I have heard many more times than I like to admit - “Mr. Steele, from 7:45 to 2:45 he is your problem, you deal with it.”

Over time I came across students that didn’t seem to care, didn't want to learn, would give up when things got hard, would rather sleep, would even swear or fight just to escape the expectations of the class...so here was the question I faced...does all mean ALL?

I went into education to reach everyone, I wanted to reach every child...but not every child wanted to learn, and not every parent wanted to be involved or even support me. So what was I going to do? Change my stance to...all means all those willing? All means all those with parents that want to be involved? All means all those with an internal drive for success? All meant what?

Prayer. Reflection. Time. Soul-searching….Did I mean it when I said all means ALL?

In education things don’t always come easy. Every child or young adult that walks into our classrooms has a different story, different background, different struggle. Every child has a different need, different motivation, and different family life. Every child has the free will to make the decisions they choose to make. So how was I, one teacher, going to reach every child? How was I going to ensure that when I said every child was going to be successful I meant ALL? How?

The answer: I haven’t perfected that yet. Here is what I do know - It all starts with three things...belief that every child can, a desire to never give up, and a culture of collaboration for success.

The truth of the matter is there will always be students that will need more than others. Some students will have support at home, others won’t. Some will come to school for the first time able to read, and others won’t know what the letter A is. Here’s the thing...at the end of the day the only thing that matters is a desire to reach all. A desire to do everything we can to make sure every child gets what he or she needs to be successful each day.

Believe they can, never give up, work together, and strive to be a part of a culture that never stops believing...because in education there is one idea that needs to be at the center of all we do...all means ALL.

There’s no magic trick., or program, or software package...it all starts with a desire to do everything we can, together, for every child, no matter what.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

When #Oneword Comes Alongside Others


Many educators began the year thinking of one word that would best describe their hopes and dreams for 2016. This #oneword or #oneword2016 movement brought many ideas and dreams together. Yet, while one word is powerful, what would happen if many #oneword representations came together? What would happen if ideas were shared, support and accountability was offered, and honesty as well as transparency was created?

Believe. This is the word I chose to represent 2016 for me.

I am a planner. I love to think ahead, think globally, and see the big picture. Yet, I move quickly and have a tendency to wish changes could occur at a much faster pace than the reality I usually find myself in is capable of. Planning while pacing are two key ingredients to success that must work together. I have found time and time again that life happens when I am busy making plans. In education, when there are minds and futures on the line, we can’t afford to let this become the norm. In essence, I must believe.

I must believe in the collaboratively designed plan for student success. I must believe in the campus leaders, teachers, students, and families. I must believe in the process, believe in the work we are doing, and believe that success will come as a team, not individually.

I must believe.

Imagine however, what would happen if each person I work with each day knew my one word goal, and I knew theirs? What would happen if every teacher, every person on one campus was open and willing to share their personal goal for 2016...would it bring us together? Would it provide a voice for every person? A shared accountability? A vision of an amazing year to come?

This year I challenged my campus to join me in sharing their personal #oneword challenge. The idea was simple really...Write it down, post it, and let’s see what happens.

As I write these words I am sitting alone in our staff lounge, staring at the bulletin board in front of me. I am taking my time as I look at each word, carefully. It’s amazing the words that jump off the board - all encompassing words like Trust, Patience, Respect and Integrity...repetitive words shared by others like Perseverance, Faith, Love, and Hope...Plus many more...words that represent personal goals, God, joy and change.

While each word represents a different challenge, a new meaning, or a personal goal, I can’t help but notice how well everything seems to go together. Just as each person brings a different and wonderful uniqueness to our team, so does each of these words to the board in front of me.

I can’t help but imagine what this place could feel like each day if each person were to live out…truly embrace...the one word he or she selected. What would happen if people lived lives of integrity each day? Strived to trust others? Showed love even when it isn’t easy? What would happen if peace, love and respect were norms? Inspiration and healing was everywhere? What would happen if we were grateful for the little things and were patient when things got hard? What would happen if we were completely devoted to each other and our students? What would happen if we found strength in the hard times, and a grateful heart after each successful moment? What would happen….

As I get ready to turn away from the words in front of me, I remind myself to remember this moment. Remember this day. Remember the words that carry so much meaning. I look to the left hand side, and there is my word...believe.

I must believe in the heart of each person who took a risk and wrote down a word. I must believe that together, as a staff - dare I say family - anything is possible. All it takes is one word, one day at a time, together.

Here is to 2016. A year I hope is nothing short of...well, the words written down by the most wonderful, dedicated, and amazing people I know.