School Climate is a Journey

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Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill

The school I am honored to lead is dynamically diverse. We serve students with an extremely wide range of prior life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and academic needs. Our students come in a wide variety of colors and cultures. Some come from middle class homes, others from poverty. We serve kids from stable and functional families as well as those who have broken, dysfunctional, or non-existent family units. Many of our kids are polished, well-mannered, and “get” the norms of the school environment. Others are tough, a little jaded, and still learning the skills of effective communication and appropriate behavior. Many have experienced trauma that would bring the average adult to their knees. We serve academically gifted students, students who require a great deal of academic support, students with special needs, English language learners, immigrant and migrant kids, and those you might consider “average” junior high students. That is all to say, we are a true public school.

We view diversity as a strength of our school. We support a microcosm of the world on our campus. Our students have the awesome opportunity to learn with others who bring an extremely wide variety of experiences to the table. At least that is how we see it. Most people I speak with, will agree with the notion that diversity in school is a good thing — at least in theory. But many of those same people would never choose to send their children to our school. One unfortunate side effect of diversity, is the attribution of a set of assumptions, judgements, and even fear about students who may look, or act, differently than what is seen as the norm (“those kids”). It is not fair, but I am certain that many of my students are judged more harshly for their behavior than their peers at less diverse, more affluent schools.

It is for this reason, that we have worked extremely hard to establish a climate of acceptance, trust, and respect at our school. We focus on three core values, centered on the expectation that everyone on our campus must feel safe and valued. We talk openly about our diversity and creating a school where we can all be proud to work and learn. I am fortunate to have staff members who truly care about our kids–understanding their strengths and challenges. We have teachers, counselors, and para-educators who work extremely hard to meet the individual academic, behavioral, and emotional needs of the whole child. They are tireless advocates for EVERY student on our campus.

We have made huge strides in our efforts to create a positive school culture and climate. I truly believe we have earned the trust and respect of many of our parents, and I know from surveys, and talking to our students that an overwhelming majority of our kids are proud of our school.

While I am proud of this progress, I also understand that school climate is a journey, not a destination.

As is the case at any school, our staff (myself included) and students are far from perfect. We all suffer from mistakes, misjudgments, and missed opportunities. While I know these things happen at every school, I still lose sleep over every one. I feel responsible for the safety and happiness of everyone on our campus — in our school community. I worry that we will pay a particularly disproportional price for our missteps. I don’t worry because I am concerned about my reputation, but because I don’t want the response to inappropriate behavior, bad decisions, or honest mistakes to become how we are defined — how our kids are defined. They are just kids, learning to navigate life, sometimes with the constraints of extremely challenging circumstances.

When it comes to school culture, you don’t ever “arrive” — it takes constant commitment to maintain and promote the positive in a school community.

We will continue to do everything within our power to support the success of ALL students and to make our school a place where everyone feels safe and valued. As we strive to make this vision a reality, I simply ask our community, those at other schools within our district, and our state and local leaders, to be fair in your judgment, slow to condemn, show grace and empathy to our kids, and be a staunch advocate for public schools.

Thank you for considering…

In Defense of the Public Educator

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Today we finished our first week of the 2017-18 school year. It was a great week. Our students were genuinely excited to be back on campus and our teachers did an absolutely wonderful job of welcoming them and beginning the process of developing meaningful relationships.

It seems that with each passing year public educators face an increasing amount of scrutiny, but one week back at Willis Junior High School has reconfirmed my conviction that I work with the most amazing staff of educators in the state and that sadly, teachers continue to be overworked and under-appreciated. For just a few minutes, I would like you to consider what I ask of the staff members on my campus.

  • Take the time to know your kids. All one-hundred and twenty of them. Familiarize yourself with their academic performance levels, their individual needs, and their personal interests. Use that knowledge to ensure that they receive appropriate interventions and/or enrichment, and engage them with activities that are relevant and purposeful.
  • Build positive relationships. As James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Invest heavily in building safe classroom environments, an atmosphere of trust and respect, and a community where students understand they have infinite value.
  • Be vigilant. Always. Keep a constant eye out for students who are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally. Watch for changes in academic performance or interest, recognize signs of bullying or anti-social behavior, and be aware of the potential side effects of trauma or abuse.
  • Be a tireless advocate. This is especially true in schools that serve a high poverty population. We must always advocate for the poor and the marginalized. A school system that has become increasingly competitive rewards schools for avoiding risk when it comes to “selecting” students with whom they are willing to work. You are failing a class? This school isn’t for you. Behavioral issues? Don’t come here. Struggling with attendance? We can’t take you because you might hurt our school letter grade. However, as public educators, it is our job to advocate for everyone — to be a voice for the kids who don’t have one. We work for the benefit of all kids.
  • Be patient. As a public school teacher, you will most certainly have any number of students who will push your buttons, challenge your authority, treat you disrespectfully, or just disengage. Don’t quit on kids! In all situations, remain calm, model decency, and treat students with respect and dignity.
  • Teach your subject. Teach other things. Know your subject matter. Design purposeful lessons aligned to standards (and don’t forget to address the individual needs of students). In addition, be ready to teach kids anything they may not know that they need in order to succeed in school and in life. Teach them empathy. Teach the how to communicate effectively. Teach them appropriate behavior. Teach them kindness and humility.
  • Keep learning. Take the time to stay abreast of current best practices. Read books, literature, and blogs. Attend professional development sessions. Collaborate. Model for students, and colleagues, what it means to be a life-long learner.

These are just a few of the critical responsibilities that my staff tackles each day. I ask a lot of them. Are there any of these responsibilities you would suggest I take off their plate? In addition, they attend meetings, write individual education plans, respond to phone calls and e-mails, plan lessons, grade assignments and assessments, supervise students on campus, tutor after school, sponsor clubs, coach, mentor, and counsel. In short, all great teachers go way above and beyond their assigned responsibilities to support children, yet year in and year out, our leaders who control education funding fail to provide little more than lip service to the incredible sacrifices of public educators.

At Willis, I ask our teachers to have high expectations of our students and back that up with a high level of support. I have high expectations for my staff members, and I do my best to provide the support they need to be successful. It is a constant challenge, and by no means do I feel like the help I give is adequate. Unfortunately, our state (along with many others) has extremely high expectations for teachers and schools, but they provide little or no support.

Praise and encouragement are great, but it only goes so far. We are well beyond the point of needing to “put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to valuing our teachers. If we truly appreciate the work of educators, and we believe that ALL students should have the opportunity to learn, it is time that our actions make our beliefs evident. Our public schools that serve “high needs” populations take the brunt of criticism, stereotyping, and stigmatism, while often drawing significantly less in financial support (student activity fees, tax credit money, donations, etc.). Fair is not always equal.

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need to recognize the critical role that teachers play in the lives of our children and provide them with the financial and human resources necessary to be successful. Our future depends on it.

Beginning the School Year: 5 Things to Remember

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Each year, prior to the arrival of students, I write a note to the staff members of our school. I do my best to let them know they are valued throughout the year, but by writing, it is easier for me to find my words. Below is this year’s letter to the WJHS staff.

July 21, 2017

Dear Willis Junior High School Staff,

As we prepare to welcome our students back to campus on Monday, I want to take just a few paragraphs to reiterate the critical role you play in the success of our school community. Your advocacy for our kids, your steadfast commitment to ensuring they have every opportunity to learn and grow, and your willingness to continually reflect upon (and improve) your teaching practice make you a very special group of people. In my humble opinion, you are the absolute best!

On Monday, and as we make our way through the school year, I would like you to keep the following things in mind:

1. Take One Day at a Time
Every day is a new day. Past successes, failures, and frustrations are behind us. What matters now is that we make the best of each moment. Recognize the daily opportunities we have to build relationships and connect with our students and colleagues. Be present in each moment!

2. Know Your “Big Rocks”
With each day, each lesson, each action – recognize what is truly important and invest your time and energy accordingly. Do your best to avoid the “tyranny of the urgent” and focus on what matters most. Remember: people are always the priority.

3. Assume the Best
Give every student, parent, and colleague the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they have the best of intentions and be willing to generously dole out grace – even (or especially) when it is not easy, or when you feel it is undeserved.

4. Be a Family
Being involved in education (regardless of your role) can be taxing and stressful. We need to take care of ourselves, and each other. Constantly be on the “look-out” for your colleagues. Help encourage and lift each other up. Be willing to ask for (and accept) help when you need it. We are in this together!

5. Be Kind
Don’t ever underestimate the power of a smile, an encouraging word, or a random act of kindness. We are responsible for maintaining a safe and positive culture on our campus. You will never regret being kind. As the saying goes, “Throw kindness around like confetti.”

In closing, please know that you are valued and appreciated by your principal. Education is not a just a profession, it is a calling. You have my utmost respect and admiration for the work that you do. Regardless of your role on our campus, you have countless opportunities to have a positive and sustained impact on the children who will walk through our gates on Monday. For some, it is not an exaggeration to say that you may be their most vocal advocate. Treat them with love, give them hope, model empathy and compassion, and challenge and support them in their growth as students and human beings. Working together, we are going to make this our best year yet!

Highest regards from your grateful colleague,

Jeff

11 inspirational Quotes for Educators (and Social Good)

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I love reading and collecting quotes that challenge my thinking and lend a new perspective to how I approach my work and interactions with others.  Someone recently asked me about inspirational quotes I’ve encountered so I decided to turn the compilation into a quick blog post.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes about serving others. They are great for educators, but also applicable to almost any occupation, or just our daily approach to navigating life.

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized. – Haim G. Ginott

I believe this popular quote by Haim Ginott is an extremely poignant statement about the power of our words and actions to influence others. His words paint a vivid image of the harm we can inflict, or the hope we can provide to others. 

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.  – Desmond Tutu

We can always do something to make the world a better place. At my school, our third core value is that “doing little things can make a big difference.” We want our students to know that their positive actions (regardless of the perceived significance) make a matter.

Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Emerson quote is such a convicting statement. How often have we been disappointed when others have behaved in a manner that does not reconcile with their words? How often have we been guilty of the same? The way we choose to act — the way we treat others — overshadows our spoken word.

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win. – Jonathan Kozol

Successfully navigating life often involves wisely choosing our battles. In some instances you must make a decision and stand with conviction. In other situations it is best not to engage at all. 

When the world says, “Give up,” hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” – Author Unknown

Hope is the lynchpin of life. This quote emphasizes our critical responsibility to foster hope in those we serve. Many of the skills we attribute to success — perseverance, critical thinking, empathy, etc. — require a renewable source of hope. They way we treat others can provide a life line.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.  – Goethe

With this statement, Goethe makes a stand against the tyranny of the urgent. Time is our most finite resource and almost everyone can relate to the idea of being pulled in many directions. Understanding what is truly important, and investing our time in these things is a challenge, but a critical skill to develop.

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget he is someone today.  – Stacia Tauscher

Live in the now! As an educator, I want my students to understand that they matter now. They do not need to wait to “grow up” in order to make a difference. As adults, this quote reminds us to be present in the moment because what we do today is important.

Kids who think they are going somewhere behave differently than kids who believe they are going nowhere. – Pedro Noguera

This is another quote about hope. As educators, we owe EVERY student the opportunity to understand their infinite value and have confidence that their life is meaningful. For some kids, a trusted adult at school may be the only place they hear “they are going somewhere.”

Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. – Alan Alda

Assumptions are dangerous. My belief is that we must always assume the best in others, however, this is much easier said than done. Taking the time to step back from our interactions and contemplate situations from the perspective of others helps us keep our “windows” clean. 

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world. – Dr. Paul Farmer

ALL humans are infinitely valuable. If we treat others in a manner that implies they are anything less, we are doing our world a disservice. We have a long way to go on this one.

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. – Father Greg Boyle

Sometimes, you just have to be there for others — even when their actions or behaviors would beg a different response. It is not easy to “stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved,” but we need to recognize that these behaviors are often a cry for help. Sometimes others just need patience and empathy as they weather the storms of life.

Please — take a few moments to share a favorite quote about social good, service to others, or education in the comments. I would love to hear from you!

Advice from the Principal’s Desk: 10 Things Students Should Keep in Mind

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Even though many schools are in the middle (or even the beginning) of their summer break, in about two weeks my staff will welcome our students back for the 2017-18 school year.

The beginning of a school year can be a challenging time for students (as well as parents and teachers). The anticipation of something new is both exciting, and a bit overwhelming. Having been through junior high school more than my fair share of times (once as a student, once as a parent, and many times as a teacher and principal) I have a bit of unsolicited advice for students who will be making the transition to secondary school (middle, junior high, or high school) this year.

  1. Ask for help when you need it.

There will be many times in your experience as a student when you will need help. It might be an academic issue, a problem with a friend, or just a question about how the lunch line works. Please ask!

2. Don’t borrow trouble.

There are enough legitimate concerns and issues in a secondary student’s life — please don’t invent things to worry about. Use your imagination freely, but when it comes to problems, don’t let it run away with your mind.

3. Do your best, but don’t stress.

Your academic performance and behavior matter — even in junior high school (see number six). That being said, I have never received a phone call from a Harvard Dean — or any college for that matter — checking on a potential student’s grades or behavior during their time in junior high. You can make mistakes, experience failure, and still recover. Don’t go looking for trouble, but this isn’t a terrible time to experience a few set-backs. Parents: please make note of this.

4. Keep talking: to your parents, to your relatives, to an adult you trust.

You will never be too old to confide in a caring adult. If you are struggling, regardless of the magnitude of the issue, find someone you trust and talk it out. Even if you don’t have a care in the world, keep talking to adults you trust. Tell them about your day, talk about what you learned, share your passions — just keep communicating.

5. You will make mistakes. Learn from them.

At some point in your educational career you are going to make a mistake. It may be something minor, or it may be a major “crash and burn.” Own it. Learn from it. Move on. You will be okay.

6. Begin forming good habits.

Forming good habits is one of the most important skills you can develop in junior high and high school. Learn how to manage your time, how to problem solve, how to analyze issues, and how to advocate for yourself. You will carry your habits for years to come — be sure they are worth the effort.

7. Choose good friends.

Be sure your friends treat you, and others, with respect and dignity. If you are uncomfortable with their behaviors (or how you feel you must behave when they are around) choose new friends. Good friends can be the difference between a wonderful school experience and pure misery.

8. Recognize drama and run from it.

If you are in junior high or high school, there will be drama. Learn to distinguish between real issues (bullying, depression, true conflict, etc.) and behaviors that just stir up trouble. If it is drama, leave it alone. If you aren’t sure, refer to number four (talk to a trusted adult).

9. Only compare yourself to “yesterday’s” you.

You are one-of-a-kind and you have immeasurable value. Do yourself a favor and don’t compare yourself to anyone –except the person you were yesterday. Work hard to become a better person — not someone else.

10. Be kind. Always be kind.

In person. On social media. Over the phone. You will never regret being kind to everyone you meet. Just like you will have tough days, others will go through the same — or worse. Your words of encouragement, willingness to include, and empathy may mean the world to someone else. Be a difference maker. Always be kind!

I wrote this advice for students, but I believe the reason it is relevant is because it could just as easily apply to adults. I STILL struggle with a number of these points.

This isn’t just school advice — it is life advice. Always be willing to learn!

The Cavalry Is Not Coming

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As a leader (and a human) I am prone to feeling sorry for myself — too much work, too much stress, too much responsibility, not enough balance, not enough rest, and not enough recognition. I write these comments with a healthy measure of humility and shame. You see, I struggle with my ability to balance my work, home, and spiritual life. Like almost every person on earth, I face challenges and I recognize the many areas of my life that require significant improvement. I shudder to think about how much time I have wasted without taking action — waiting for the perfect moment, wallowing in self-pity, or waiting for someone to help me. But, the cavalry is not coming. I am responsible for my own happiness, for creating the life I want to live, for being the person I want to be. No one is going to ride to my rescue.

In his message, No Waiting for Daylight, author and pastor Erwin McManus stated that:

Desperation can look a lot like courage.

Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes we must arrive at a moment of absolute desperation before we muster the strength to take action — before we are brave enough to do something to improve our situation.

From the perspective of a leader, this might mean summoning the courage to make an unpopular decision that is the right one for the organization. It could be saying “no” to a request that does not align with an identified goal or mission. It may be demonstrating the resolve to have a challenging conversation with a customer, or colleague. In these situations, there is danger in “waiting for the cavalry.” I know. I have done it. I have waited to address a problem, hoping that circumstances would change. I have said “yes” to an additional responsibility that wasn’t in my best interest (or that of my school) because it seemed like less hassle than saying “no.” I have put off tough, but necessary, conversations because I didn’t want to deal with conflict. In all of these instances, I was hoping to be rescued. I was hoping fate, circumstances, or someone else’s empathy would save me from the problem. The truth is, that salvation rarely came if I failed to take the first step. In most cases, I either had to deal with the repercussions of my lack of action, or I had to become desperate enough to summon the courage to deal with the issue.

The same concept applies to our personal lives and happiness. There are a plethora of excuses we can make for not living our ideal life, but the bottom line is that our success or failure frequently hinges on our willingness and courage (or lack thereof) to take action. It is unlikely that I will suddenly be granted excellent physical health and athletic ability unless I commit to exercise and eating right. Feeling sorry for myself won’t generate the support needed to foster happiness, but showing gratitude and taking action to develop a positive mindset will make a difference. The key is that we must to have the courage to do something.

This certainly does not mean that in leadership, or in life, we are left to our own devices. In fact, our success at any endeavor hinges on our ability to understand what we can, and can’t, control and accepting help when we need it. In addition, it behooves us to seek out opportunities to “be the cavalry” for others — providing encouragement and assistance. This strategy has a way of coming full circle so that help arrives when we are in need. Good leaders are constantly on the look-out for opportunities to assist (not necessarily save) others, and they recognize when they need to accept help for their own good, and that of the organization.

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway. – John Wayne

If we want to make positive changes in our schools, our organizations, or our lives, we can’t wait for others. We must summon the courage and resolve it takes to “saddle-up” and take the first steps on our own.

7 Ways Effective Educators Address Student Behavior

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Concerns about student behavior have always been a topic of fierce conversation. Student attitudes and actions often dominate discussions in meetings, at educational conferences, and in faculty lounges. There are almost as many philosophies (and programs) on student behavior as there are schools in the country, and getting agreement on how to address issues can spark a level of vitriol that rivals that of a presidential election.

I certainly don’t have all of this figured out, however I have had the good fortune to work with many exceptional teachers who excel at effectively managing a classroom to maximize student learning. While not an exhaustive list, here are seven strategies I have consistently seen these educators employ in order to minimize disruptive behavior. 

1. Assume the Best and Look for Underlying Causes

Effective educators always “assume the best” in their students and understand that behavior is often a manifestation of unmet needs, or underlying issues. They work diligently to determine, and address (with the help of others), the needs of the student, or the underlying cause of the behavior.

2. Teach The Behaviors They Want to See

If students don’t understand an academic subject, such as reading or writing, we teach them. If students demonstrate a deficiency in understanding appropriate behavior we typically punish them. Hmm. Good teachers understand that they must teach students the behaviors they want to see and provide lots of modeling and opportunities for practice. Many of our students who exhibit poor behavior simply don’t understand what is expected, lack models of socially appropriate interactions, and rarely practice skills that foster good behavior. We can change that.

3. Consistent Routines, Procedures, and Structure 

Familiarity helps us feel safe. Regardless of individual personalities, a certain amount of structure is comforting. This is definitely  true for students — especially those who have experienced (or are experiencing) trauma in their daily lives. Great teachers provide a safe learning environment by establishing, and consistently implementing, clear routines and procedures. Their students regularly review and practice these expectations throughout the school year and they are able to follow them with limited direction from the teacher. Students feel safer, and behave better, when they know what to expect.

4. Focus on Relevant and Engaging Lessons

If, on a daily basis, a class is boring it is extremely likely that some students will misbehave. The most effective teachers invest time in planning lessons that are engaging, purposeful, and relevant. They require students to be active participants in activities and plan opportunities for interaction, collaboration and brain breaks.  This isn’t to say that teachers must be stand-up comedians, or put on a daily “dog and pony” show, but the days of lecturing, worksheets, and PowerPoint presentations for the entire period should be in our past. We know these practices do not correlate with student growth and they often lead to disruptive behavior.

5. Relationships

This list is not in order of importance. If that was the case, relationships would come first. Positive relationships are the lynchpin of effective classroom management and student learning. Students who know their teachers care about and takes an interest in them will typically invest in their learning and work for the teacher. Without meaningful relationships teachers are fighting an uphill battle. Enough said.

6. Patience and Persistence

Effectively managing student behaviors doesn’t really come naturally to any educator. It requires a great deal of planning, practice, trial, error, and serious reflection. Just as we have to accommodate to meet the individual learning needs of students, we must recognize that each child’s behavioral progress will be different. Some kids will prove to be significant behavioral challenges. In these cases, it is an educator’s job to stand by our kids (with the support of others) and exhaust efforts to teach appropriate behaviors. As with most educational endeavors, patience and persistence are essential.

7. Responsibility Does Not End with a Referral

I will preface this by saying that teachers who effectively address student behavior routinely engage colleagues, parents, administrators, and counselors in their efforts to meet the needs of their students. We all have a responsibility to work together for student success. Teachers do not need to do this work on their own. That being said, there are certainly times when a behavioral referral and consequence are in order. However, effective teachers understand that a behavioral referral is not the end of their efforts. If student behavior is to change, there must be some form of restorative action and students must understand that making a mistake, or poor decision, and receiving a consequence is not the end. Teachers are the gateway to a second (or third, or fourth…) chance. It can be a challenge, but demonstrating grace to a difficult student can result in a more positive relationship.

As we see a decline in civility in our society, and as our students continue to deal with a myriad of social and emotional challenges, student behavior will undoubtedly continue to be a topic of discussion. However, there are many strategies we can use to help our kids grow in this area, and there are many educators out there who can offer assistance and solutions. 

Success for ALL includes our behaviorally challenging students. Don’t give up!

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. – Father Greg Boyle