I had some interesting, eye-opening moments occur this past week. It’s not like this doesn’t happen every week, but this particular week was rather overwhelming. On some level, it has to do with the recent Poetry Slam, put on annually by our English department and delivered by our Sophomore class.
The words, the ideas, the emotion.
They’re all so raw, so real.
So very… our teenagers.
There’s something in these poems that moved me to my core,
And I feel like there needs to be a response.
The second significant experience I had took place in a classroom. Our students wanted to talk to me about my response (really, our collective response) to a concern they witnessed when Erika Sanchez, our guest author, was visiting. Without getting into details, my conversation with these remarkable, honest, thoughtful, angry, scared, hurt young people, made me wonder if we’re focusing on the right things. And even as I type this, I know we’re not. Not as much as we could be.
They worry about staying safe while in our care.
They wonder why we don’t spend more time doing something about mental health.
They stress over our laser-like focus on things like attendance, cuts and tardies,
Rather than issues of well-being, racism, and belonging.
They doubt we actually listen to them.
Let’s have some conversation around these issues. And then let’s take action.
Let’s do what’s right for our kids and our adults.
For those who aren’t familiar with how “adoption from foster care” works, when a judge is forced to make the difficult decision that kids aren’t going to be able to go home – thereby placing them permanently with an adoptive family – all ties with the biological parents are legally severed.
Except in our case.
We chose to stay in touch with our children’s mother and their other extended family, including a grandmother, auntie, and several cousins.
Oh, and a baby sister.
Mom had her after our adoption was complete.
Today, we celebrated that little sister’s birthday.
She turned 4.
We went out to mom’s small apartment, where the kid’s grandma cooked for all of us, and we had cake and ice cream. Michelle – my wife – and I sat on a couch in the small apartment and watched as our kids played with their little sister and some cousins, helped their grandma and biological mother serve food to everyone from the tiny kitchen. We watched them wipe tears from their eyes when it was time for us to go, and again when we promised to see them soon.
I tell you about this tonight for no reason other than to remind you that students and staff come from all different backgrounds, go through a multitude of various experiences on weekends and over holidays and breaks (some good, some bad), and then we all land back on the schoolhouse doorstep on Monday morning. We are expected to leave it all behind and focus, study, participate, comply, teach, learn…
And it may not be possible.
Not right then.
Not right now.
We are all looking for a gentle nudge, a warm smile, a compassionate ear.
As we all deal with our personal, private lives, and our professional, public ones.
The ones we live together, side by side, in partnership with one another.
In partnership with one another.
For the good of all students.
And for the good of each other.
With a Common Purpose and similar
How can I help you know your place within this community?
Your role here, other than the obvious (your official title)?
How we move together, in unity and understanding of that.
I’ve been reading a lot lately (you can see my current list, including the ones I’m reading simultaneously, and the TBR pile next to my chair, below). Some of the thoughts I share with you here are from that reading, which is pertinent to all that we have been talking and thinking about lately around our schoolhouse.
from Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek:
“The ability of a group of people to do remarkable things hinges on how well those people pull together as a team. And that doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” (pg. 25)
“This feeling of belonging, of shared values and a deep sense of empathy, dramatically enhances trust, cooperation and problem-solving. United States Marines are better equipped to confront external dangers because they fear no danger from each other. They operate in a strong Circle of Safety.(pg. 24)
“When we believe that those inside our group, those inside the Circle, will look out for us, it creates an environment for the free exchange of information and effective communication.” (pg. 29)
Through a culmination of life events, on-time choices and a few perchance happenings in my life, I have found myself wanting to be the most successful in the world at what I do.
And it is not really even a want. It is a need, It is a burning desire. And I know how this sounds. I know this sounds gluttonous, perhaps, or even a little over the top and unnecessary and a little like perfectionist theory when we are usually telling kids to stop trying to be perfect and that no one is perfect – just be the best version of you. But I would tell you that this is wrong. Think about it. If you wake up in the morning and you roll out of bed, ready to get after it, and you are excited about the prospect of getting after it – whatever “it” is for you – it’s going to be a good day for someone.
It’s going to be a good day. For someone (besides yourself).
Because if you are rolling out of bed ready to hustle, ready to grind and you are actually excited about it, that will probably be good for you and will lead to your own feelings of goodness about yourself and being motivated and anxious to see what the day brings.
But it is probably even better – this burning desire for perfection – for the recipient. I’m sure of it.
If you don’t believe me, consider the students and colleagues of the ever-exuberant classroom teacher.
The teacher who gets out of bed at 5:00 so he can get to school by 6:00, There with the morning milk delivery. The same teacher who is waiting at the door for his students when they arrive – Each and every morning, The one who greets each one of them by name and with some type of silly handshake, Or perhaps with a quick check-in because he knows something was going on the night before.
He is the one who comes to each faculty meeting with a smile on his face, The one who sits up in the front, Even though some of his closest colleagues may be sitting toward the back. The teacher who asks questions and tries to get something out of the meeting, Even though there really isn’t much content relevant to his particular duties. It’s mostly administrivia and stuff that could have been put in an email.
Think about this particular teacher and the impact he is going to have on each person he comes into contact with every day. Think about his students every morning, and how his attitude and optimism make an indelible impression on each and every one of them. He has the power to take a bad day and make it manageable for receptive young adults. Some may even look forward to seeing him each day because they know It’s the only time that day they will receive any kind of warmth from anyone.
And think about his colleagues. The ones who aren’t thrilled to be at work that day (probably because they are viewing it as work). The ones who sit in the back of the room at the faculty meeting and grade papers or chat or surf the internet instead of being attentive and showing respect to the presenter. The unsaid influence he has on these fellow teachers, the impact his smile and that pat on the back has, will go a long way toward their overall attitude and mood. They may not even realize it at the time…
I had a student come up to me last week. I was standing in the hallway at the end of the day, talking to a group of students before they departed for the weekend. If I remember correctly, one of them was crying over her worry at not being able to afford the college she wanted to attend. She’s a junior, mind you, but that’s a story for another post.
This student came up to join our group after he retrieved his belongings out of his locker. As we were preparing to go our separate ways, he turned and said, “I want to thank you. Without even knowing you did it, you helped me have a great day by what you said to me in the hallway earlier today.” “Well, you’re welcome. I’m glad I could help!” I offered up, with a smile and a fist bump. He walked out the door, clearly off to have a great weekend. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what I said to him. I remember having a brief conversation with him, but couldn’t tell you which part of it was the catalyst for his great day.
But that really doesn’t matter. What matters is how he felt after speaking to me, no matter how brief our chat. What really matters is that we, as human beings, don’t leave anyone’s feelings to chance. What really, really matters is that we wake up every day wanting to be the best, wanting to be number one, and that we have a burning desire, an inner drive, to be the most successful in the world.
Someone is on the other end of your desire. While you are busy trying to be the best, someone is the unknowing recipient of all that greatness… greatness disguised as kindness, warmth, caring, hope, optimism. How great you want to be matters. It matters a lot.
In a vlog I used to record, I once spoke of trust and relationships and the fact that just because one holds the title of teacher or principal, or has the status of any type of leader in an authoritative role over students… it does not necessarily mean that a student will learn from you.
Unless, of course, there is trust as the foundation of that relationship.
Think about the tenuous relationship you have with the typical high school student. The student who comes to us after five to six years with one main teacher, day in and day out of his elementary school, For approximately 7,000 hours
The student who comes to us after three years of middle school with maybe four or five teachers, day in and day out For approximately 3,600 hours.
This high school student who will, over four years, spend approximately 5,000 hours with us – perhaps seven or eight adults every day for a mere 45 minutes per day, per class.
By now, that student has developed some understandings (real of perceived) about school, about teachers, about relationships and about life. He may come from a single-parent family home, may dread the thought of coming to school every day, may have had some negative experiences with teachers. Now he’s here in your classroom. He shows up every day, though you find yourself asking why since he doesn’t do anything anyway. It seems he would rather get into fights with other kids and do anything other than what you are asking him to do.
And he will spend approximately 5,000 hours within the four walls of this place. That’s a lot of hours to spend in a place that feels hollow to you, in a place where no one seems to know you, in a place where adults you barely know are telling you what to do, asking that you learn from them.
Now imagine a high school of over 2,000 students. I speak from experience when I tell you that kids get swallowed alive in a high school of this size. Not all kids, of course. Many thrive in this type of culture. But when I can walk out the side door during the middle of the day and no one notices but the security guy watching the camera, no one says anything to me except for the Dean of Students – and he speaks to me only because he has to issue some type of consequence for ditching – this is a problem.
Relationships are high stakes for these end-game users, these high school Seniors who have yet to experience a meaningful relationship with an adult other than (hopefully) a parent. Relationships are high stakes to that kid who is only with you for 45 minutes a day. Relationships are high stakes, especially if we want kids to learn from us, to call us teacher, to trust that we have their best interests in mind. 5,000 hours is a lot of time. Plenty of time to build relationships, Create a trusting bond, Understand where a student has come from, and Where he wants to go. 5,000 hours is a lot of time. Make every one of those hours count. Be intentional.
There was a quote I heard early on in my journey as a teacher and principal. The origin has been lost over the years. One version of it reads: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I remember clearly struggling with the meaning of these words, not being able to comprehend their true meaning at the time…
Trust has to be at the center. In order to build trust, you have to put in the time. In order to put in the time with a kid, you have to be intentional. With your words and actions, you have to be highly intentional.
5,000 hours may seem like a lot of time. And really it is. But if you are intentional about each of these hours, Every one of those hours can be highly meaningful. If you believe in the power of intentional trust-building. If you understand how high the stakes are.
Only then will the student will be truly ready. Only then will the teacher appear.
I was sitting in an English classroom. A room full of junior level students. For the most part, they are highly motivated. They all have good grades and are all genuinely good, nice people. I know this because I know every single one of them by name. They are not, contrary to popular belief about kids who take either honors or advanced level courses, all involved in school activities – whether it be clubs, athletics, or any other type of extra-curricular activity. I was able to, however, from my perch in the very rear of the classroom, see that there were a good number who are involved in Track & Field, Drama, Spirit Club, among others.
This day, they were being instructed in the proper formatting for the writing of major papers, instructed by a highly sought after, master teacher. She is the kind that students come back to visit and talk about long after they have left school, the type that students request and if her class is filled, decide they might pursue another course, another pathway. She is that kind of good. Maybe you’ve had the privilege of being in her class. If you haven’t, I’m sorry. I hate grammar and proper formatting and all things MLA or APA, and yet I could sit and learn for hours.
I wonder about the rest of the day for these students. What it’s like, if they can remain as engaged as they are now with content that is not all that exciting, as opposed to when the content might be a little more interesting but the teacher in front of them is not as engaging.
As I sat and pondered, I pulled up a student’s schedule in our student information system. We run a straight, eight-period day. It is a fairly rigorous schedule for a 17 year old. Besides a couple of period changes, not much looks different from 1st to 2nd semester. The biggest difference is that she dropped her Intro to Psych class and picked up a PE. Pretty good move for a schedule that contains mostly honors and advanced-level courses. I believe in the power of physical education as a stress and anxiety reliever.
I followed this same student out of English to see where her schedule takes her. She has AIM (kind of like an academic study hall) next, which is designed at the same time of the day for every single person in the school. If a student needs assistance from a teacher, she can go and get the help she needs during this period.
Today, however, the student I decided to shadow was involved in conducting interviews for next year’s LINK Crew. No time to study or ask for help in any of her classes on this day. At least she had that Study Hall at the end of the day. Not that she will use it for what it’s designed. This is something I discovered early on last year, especially in what we call “Upper” Study Hall. The student in an Upper Study Hall has maintained a GPA high enough to earn an unstructured 45 minutes. Most of them are held in the Student Commons or Cafeteria. Most kids in them watch Netflix on their phones or laptops.
I decided to look up my student’s grades. See how she’s faring. Solid A’s and B’s, except for her Physics class, which sits at a C. A quick check into her historical record and I was able to see that has always been an A-B student, currently holding a 3.5 grade point average. She is in the top quartile of her class.
Next up – a Science course. I know next to nothing about this material. Or at least I don’t think I do. And I don’t know if high school students know too much about the content going in to the class at first, either.
So what will their success depend on?
How do they know if they are even interested in a particular course in the Science arena?
Does that matter?
I kept an open mind as I sat in the back of the classroom, gave a nod to the teacher to let him know I was just there to take in some teaching and learning, and opened my laptop to take some notes as he spoke
Of course, not all things go as planned… I got called down to the office and had to postpone my investigation into one student’s schedule. I was intrigued, however, and planned to pick up where I left off the next week – 3rd period Science. A couple of things I’m interested in and will be looking for and noodling over:
How much of an impact does the teacher really have on student learning, especially when the content is dense and perhaps tough to understand? And how is one able to tell? What are the indicators?
How do we know if a student’s schedule and course load is developmentally appropriate?
What can we tell from shadowing a student? What are the takeaways? What questions should we be asking? And what should we do about it?
(Can I make it through Science class again as an adult??)
I had a conversation with a student toward the end of the year – it was just a quick chat in the hallway – while she was on her way to class. She was late and I knew she hadn’t been here the day prior, and so I wanted to quick follow up with her on a conversation we had had earlier in the week. Coincidentally, I ran into her in the hallway on that day as well.
(Sidebar – I think our most productive conversations might be had in the hallway, on the off-chance we run into someone and take that opportunity to do a quick “how ya’ doing?”)
Turns out she had taken a “mental health” day to process some of the things we had spoken about earlier that week. She needed it. I would encourage anyone to do the same – adults and students alike. You need to be the best version of yourself in order to be available for anyone else. On an airplane, it’s why they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. You need to be there for your little ones (or anyone else, for that matter). You can’t do that if you’re not healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally.
Back to my kid in the hallway. I walked with her to class. As I had mentioned, she was already running late. I asked her: “What Now?” I wanted to know what happened next. I mean, she took a day off to take care of herself. Perfect. Take it if you need it. But then what’s next? What’s your plan? Don’t just show up without a plan, tell me you spent the day on the couch – feeling sorry for yourself – and now you’re here without a plan for moving on, for taking care of yourself now that you’re back in the swing.
She looked at me before she walked into class. We were only a minute late. I don’t panic about tardies unless they’re chronic. And then I still don’t panic, really (This is another sidebar, perhaps a topic for another day).
The response was one pretty typical of teens: “I don’t know; I haven’t thought that far ahead.” And I knew we’d be meeting again.
So are you living your best life? How do you know? Are there things you need to follow up on? Questions that nag at you that need answering? How will you answer them? How will you make the time to ensure that you really, really understand what it is that’s bothering you?
One of my favorite quotes that I’ve been pondering recently comes from author, speaker, entrepreneur and internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk. He said: “You’re not coming back. Now live like that.” If you lived every day like that, what would it look like? How are you living your best life? If you can’t answer that, take a day off. Think about it. Come back with a plan. Take care of yourself.
I sometimes wonder what my school would be like without me in it. Without me here every day, greeting kids and visiting classrooms and walking through the hallways and meeting with teachers and talking to students and… the list goes on.
And I wonder what teachers feel as well. Not about me, but about themselves. If they wonder what their classrooms would be like without them. If they wonder about the school they spend so much of their lives in, and what would happen if they were no longer there. If they care about that. Because they should.
I have a feeling that I know what most teachers would say. And if they won’t say it aloud, I know what they are probably thinking. I would bet they have this crazy notion that they are replaceable; that someone else could come in here and do this job, teach these kids, put their heart and souls into this work – this important, awe-inspiring, work of giants – and that if they were to leave, if they were to no longer be here one day, then life would just go on and these kids would continue to come to school every day and learn with someone else standing in front of them, next to them, with them.
I know that there are teachers out there who feel that way. And perhaps with good reason. Perhaps, over the years, they have been made to feel this way – that they are replaceable and that anyone could come in here and do what they do on a daily basis. Some may have even lost some of the spark that drew them to this work in the first place. And I would say I understand that.
I understand why someone would feel that another body could come in and pick up where the previous teacher left off. Because, indeed, that is truly what happens, right? I mean, there can’t just be an empty classroom left behind. Right?
But it is. It is an empty classroom. And sure, it might fill up over time; it might fill up with energy and warmth and all of the good stuff that is created when the synergy of a passionate teacher combines with kids to create an excellent teaching and learning environment. That might happen.
But the SOUL of that classroom. The soul of that classroom left hollow by YOU, the TEACHER, the NURTURER, the CAREGIVER, the COACH, the COUNSELOR, the MOM or DAD they don’t have at home. YOU might be the only thing she looks forward to seeing each day, the ONLY one that keeps her coming back through these doors every day.
So I know what you might be thinking, teacher. But you’re wrong. You can’t be replaced. And if you haven’t thought about how your classroom, your school, looks or feels like without you in it, read this again. Let it sink in.
I wrote previously that culture is about knowing who you are and about knowing your people, and about how you can’t know your people unless you know yourself and where you’re coming from and your emotions and where your head and heart are at.
The next step, after making sure you have those pieces in place to the best of your ability, is to align your core beliefs with your daily actions so that people who work in the organization understand that this is who we are, and this is just what we do here. Everybody in the establishment needs to understand that that is what the culture is here.
If people can’t align the core values that have been established to their personal and outward daily actions, then they don’t belong here. It’s that simple.
And then again, it’s not simple at all, is it. It’s not as simple as saying, “please align with these core values and beliefs.” You’ve seen it all too often – people sit in a room with the best of intentions, they work together to hammer out what everyone believes will be the mission and vision of the school, and then the year gets going, people get lost in their work behind closed doors, things take place, honest, open discussion doesn’t happen as often as it should (always to the detriment of the group… and the students), and all of a sudden it’s the end of the year and the organization’s Core Beliefs, or those finely tuned Mission and Vision statements, all of which everyone worked so hard on and were so excited about, are a distant memory.
Roland Barth wrote, “Show me a school whose inhabitants constantly examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained human learning, and I’ll show you students who graduate with both the capacity and the heart for lifelong learning.”
The notion presented here by Barth ties in directly with my point – unless a school and its inhabitants are constantly examining shared beliefs, core values, mission statements, big picture visions and the like, the direction of the organization can tend to get lost, the path muddied. It is worth remembering that if it is worth saying, if it is worth bringing people together and spending any substantial amount of time on a thing, then it is worth repeating. Multiple times.
This quote by Barth is one I had come across many years ago, probably during that 1st principalship I held at Murphy Elementary School. Like the discussion I had with the Mayor over lunch before the start of that year, this idea has stuck with me through the years, and done a lot to help in the formulation of my thoughts around schools and teaching and learning and students and communities. I ended up staying at that elementary school for 8 years before receiving the internal call to move on. During those years, the idea from Barth that one needed to constantly examinethe school’s culture stuck in my head like no other idea ever has.
For 8 years, we examined the school culture. For 8 years, we talked about and discussed school culture. What it looked like in everyday action, What it sounded like in classrooms and in hallways, in the cafeteria and on the playground, What it felt like to outsiders who came into our building, and What it meant if something wasn’t working how we wanted it to work.
These were not easy conversations, some of these. We didn’t like to admit when we had it wrong. We didn’t like how it felt to discuss with people when they weren’t living up to the expectations that we had so painstakingly and lovingly announced publicly. We didn’t like the feeling of starting over constantly. What we discovered throughout this process, however, was that we weren’t wasting our time having fruitless conversations around test scores and academic initiatives. Were these important? Of course they were. We knew that, and they were in place. They had a purpose. They are part of life in the schoolhouse. But they were taking care of themselves.
Because we engrossed ourselves in conversations around Culture and how to constantly “Do Culture” better, everything else took care of itself. After 8 years, we were the only elementary building in the district to be meeting and exceeding in all areas of AYP (remember this??). And the only thing we changed was the Culture of the building. It was the only thing that mattered.
“Schools should be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be.” I saw this quote somewhere and wrote it down in a safe place. So safe that I just ran across it again years later. A quick Google search did not immediately reveal the source of the quote, so for now it remains anonymous. I know it is from some book I’ve read, and I’m so very thankful that I ran across it again. So let’s look at this a little bit and try to understand what it means to be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring place.
I write from my current vantage point, which is High School Principal, but my thoughts can always be altered to come from the elementary or middle school levels as well. I have had stints as principal at all three levels, and so my thoughts sometimes blend and always begin with students first.
I wonder what would happen if our meetings with staff and faculty began with this question: “What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?” What kinds of responses would we get? I bet they would look like they had been ripped from the Anytown USA School District Mission page. You would see things like: Ensuring that our students are lifelong learners, and Providing all students with a challenging curriculum and Helping students become productive citizens. And these responses are just fine. There is nothing wrong with these answers, and no one would say we don’t want those qualities in our own children.
But what does that look like? How is our school the richest? How is our school the most soul-inspiring? How is our school the most mind-inspiring? How do we know? Where is our proof?
When I can walk into a high school classroom and find students coloring a map of the world… is that my proof? When I walk into a high school classroom and see kids frantically scribbling notes from a lecture… is that my proof? When I walk into a high school classroom and notice kids with their heads down at the back of the room… is that my proof? When I walk into a classroom that is being subbed by a guest teacher and kids are mindlessly watching a movie… is that my proof?
Certainly there are, without question, MANY classrooms that look and feel exactly the opposite from my examples above. I can go out on any given day and do random walkthroughs and find examples of stellar teaching and learning that is rich and absolutely soul- and mind-inspiring. Make no mistake. What I am wondering is, “what about the rest?” What about the rest of the kids, the rest of the classes kids are sitting in, perhaps bored, or completing mindless tasks, or… just not learning.
One could easily say well, yes, but let’s make sure we are putting blame where blame is due. Let’s make sure we are properly holding kids accountable. After all, it can’t simply be the quality of the teaching, or the content of a lesson, that is causing kids to be bored and/or “not learn,” can it?
Really. Can it?
I would urge you to think about the typical high school student’s day. Look at the typical high school student’s eight-period schedule with a lunch installed in the middle of the day, a study hall if she’s lucky, and the rest of the day taken up by back-to-back classes of 45 minutes each, with bells interrupting each period. If she is a high-level student, she is probably taking Honors and/or Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which even compounds the issue further.
That one study hall is probably being used to watch Netflix in an attempt to de-stress from the day, hang out with friends, or maybe catch up on some homework that didn’t quite get finished. The issue with a straight, back-to-back eight-period day is that the learning which might be taking place cannot even begin to compare, say, to the learning that takes place out of school – the things I really want to be learning. I know for myself, that when I’m learning something and I’m really deep into it, I am not going to stop and switch gears after 45 minutes.
I know I brought up a sticky point, here. I implied that the only time someone ever really learns anything is outside of school. But that is only one half of the story. I have learned many great things during my time in school; granted, they were only cursory glimpses into things (like Greek Mythology or 20th Century English Literature or Creative Writing), and I am highly thankful and may not have ever learned of this content had I not attended these classes. But where did I really, deeply learn about this subject matter? Certainly not during a 45 minute class period, where just when I was starting to get into it, the bell rings and I’ve got to switch gears and try to pay attention in algebra. I hate algebra. I’m no good at algebra.
There is another point that needs some clarification here, which my loathing of algebra calls to mind: the power of the teacher. There can be no replacement for a highly energetic, passionate, caring, patient teacher. Even though I hated algebra; despite my intense anxiety and sudden stomach aches an hour before I had to be in that algebra class, my high school algebra teacher was caring and she was patient and she clearly LOVED the content, and THAT made all the difference in the world for me. To this day I don’t love algebra, but I am somewhat good at it, and I never fell asleep in her class because I didn’t want to disappoint or offend her.
Still, our current system is not working for everyone. Something needs to be done. For the sake of everyone.
Where do we start? I would say that a good place would be with the question:
What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?