School Climate is a Journey

cc photo by J. Delp

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…

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

Free, but Priceless

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It is, perhaps, the most effective tool for positive change that we all possess. A limitless resource, yet we often ration as if it were a scarce commodity.Used at the right time, it has the power to be the difference between “I quit” and “I’ll keep trying.” The application of one or two words (or a simple gesture) can change the outlook of the next hour, an entire day, a week, or longer. It is a key element in the development of a growth mindset. It costs nothing but a few seconds.

Encouragement.

An underestimated, and underutilized, tool for social good. Be intentional about encouraging others. A few kind words, a compliment, or a timely smile can make all the difference — for both the receiver, and the giver.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. – Aesop

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.

Tough Conversations

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Speak the truth, even when your voice shakes.  – Author Unknown

A quick confession: I am a “people-pleaser,” and it has, at times, hurt my school. I want my students, my parents, my teachers, and my administrative team to be happy — all of the time. This might seem like a noble cause, but it is neither reasonable, or in the best interest of our school community. Civility, respect and humility are all essential skills for a leader, but there are certainly times that addressing issues will leave someone disgruntled. 

Perhaps one of the most challenging responsibilities of leadership is having the courage to have difficult conversations — to address poor behaviors, stand-up for a teacher (or a student, a staff member, a parent), or challenge the status quo. I was reminded of this during Jimmy Casas‘ opening session at The Model School’s Conference when he asked, “What would you do differently if you were not afraid?” How would you go about addressing the “average” in your school.

For me, the answer to these questions lies in having the courage, the timing, and the tact to have tough conversations that are in the best interest of our school community.  As I listened to our staff members in attendance at the conference discuss “the average” at our school that could be moved to excellence, I realized that addressing several of these issues effectively would require me to lead challenging discussions. In order to move us to excellence I need to have the courage to step up and do what is right for our students, teachers, and community — even when that means making decisions or having discussions that run the risk of ruffling feathers.

In my time as an administrator, I have had many of these conversations, and I have rarely regretted them, but that does not mean I find them easy — or enjoyable. In fact they are often extremely draining and cause me a great deal of stress. I don’t enjoy conflict, I want others to enjoy school and their work — I want people to be happy.  But, I also understand the importance of seeing the big picture, making decisions, and taking action for the greater good. I could be wrong, but I think I have established the level of trust with my staff needed to speak directly to areas of concern (with a gracious tone) and keep people “in the boat” with me.

So, even though I am sometimes afraid, I am going to challenge myself to humbly take on tough conversations that will benefit our school community.