A Letter to My Staff

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July 22, 2018

To the Exceptional Staff at Willis Junior High School,

We are embarking on what I believe is the most important week of the school year.  As I write this letter, our campus is quiet and empty, but on Monday morning it will be abuzz with activity as our students return for the 2018-19 school year. Some will be ready. Some will be nervous. Some will bring baggage — problems at home, poor previous experiences with school, or any number of things that will impact their behavior and performance.. We must be ready them all. Every. Single. Student.

How we conduct of ourselves this week — our interactions, the connections we make, and the relationships we begin to build will truly shape the remainder of our school year and may, in fact, determine the level of success of some of our students. We are a community. We need our students to see evidence that Willis will be different (in a good way) than any of their previous school experiences.

With so much riding on a short period of time, I ask you to focus your efforts this week on making it evident to our students that at Willis they are safe and valued (WJHS Core Value #1).

  • Work as a staff to ensure that every student has at least one positive and personal interaction with an adult on our campus every day this week
  • Learn, and call them by, their names
  • Be diligent about giving students a voice in what happens in your classroom
  • Allow students to share something about themselves and then work to acknowledge that they are a unique person with infinite value
  • Share some things about yourself — they need to see that you are a human being with your own interests and unique experiences
  • Be determined that you will not be offended by a junior high school student, or take their behavior personally
  • Be sure your filter is fully operational — biting sarcasm, rude comments, or any statements that might be perceived as belittling or treating a student as “less than…” have no place on our campus
  • Take every opportunity to acknowledge and reinforce the positive behaviors you see on campus
  • Shake hands, fist bump, high-five like crazy
  • Model kindness, patience, empathy, and humility
  • Be visible — a strong adult presence helps students feel safe and gives them someone to go to when they have questions
  • Smile, affirm, reassure, encourage, and smile some more

Let’s all commit to doing everything in our power to ensure that when each one of our students leaves on Friday they describe this week as the best of their entire school experience. We want every child to know that they matter and to be excited about coming back next week. I have unshakeable confidence in the Willis staff and your commitment to doing what is right for our kids! You are truly the best and I am honored to work with you.

Have a great week!

Jeff


It’s Not About Me, Or You

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cc photo art by J. Delp

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. – C.S. Lewis

True story.

On Friday, I had just completed supervision of the first of two lunch periods at my school. I was standing in the center of our campus, greeting students as they passed on their way to afternoon classes (happy Friday, have a great afternoon, only a few more hours before the weekend, etc.). One student stormed passed me — fixed eyes and their face a picture of angry determination. Uh oh. Problem. I can help. I should help.

We are still relatively early in the school year, so while I recognized the student, I didn’t have a name. I politely asked if they were okay and was met by a glaring glance and silence. They kept walking. I turned and followed the student, asking them to stop for a moment. Nothing. Now I was really concerned. I quickened my pace to catch up with the student.

“Stop for a second.” They glanced at me, but kept walking, so I asked, “What is wrong.”

The response came in a low growl, “Don’t worry about it.”

“What is your name?”

“Don’t worry about it. Back off.” The student continued walking.

I followed. Now frustrated.

“I want you to stop, and tell me your name.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Now I was offended. I tried to order the student to follow my directions. That didn’t go well. Finally, I walked the student into their classroom where the teacher gave me a name. I told the student that I was going to leave them, but that we would talk later. I left the classroom feeling frustrated, disrespected, and a little angry. That did not go well.

I messed up. As I write this, I feel a little like I was an actor in one of those scary movies where you know the person shouldn’t go outside to check on the noise in the shed, but they go anyway. All the signs of impending doom are there, but the person presses on — against their better judgement. Those situations, like the one I experienced, rarely end well. And here is the problem: I demonstrated a lack of humility and chose to make this situation about respect for me instead of true concern for the student.

I knew I had made multiple mistakes, and as a veteran principal, I should have known better. I started with good intentions — I was truly concerned about the well-being of the student — but then I allowed myself to become offended by the student’s behavior. I felt disrespected, angry, and then I became stubborn (I can be that way). If you re-read the narrative, you can see the moment that it quit being about concern for the student and it became about me. My motives changed from helping the student to making them comply.

During my supervision of the second lunch period, I was miserable. I worked really hard to justify my actions:

  • I was concerned about the well-being of the child
  • They should have stopped when I asked them to stop
  • It was reasonable for me to ask the student for their name
  • I am the principal of the school, I should have been treated with respect
  • “Junior High Jeff” would have stopped immediately, given his name, and would have spoken with respect

But, this wasn’t about “Junior High Jeff.” This wasn’t about “Principal Jeff.” This was about a student who was upset and hurting. While I began with good intentions, I allowed the situation to escalate and I made it about me.

The life of an educator should be spent in constant pursuit of humility. It’s easy to make it about self, but it must always be about kids.

Tweet: The life of an educator is spent in constant pursuit of humility. It’s easy to make it about self, but it must always be about kids. – @azjd

For a brief moment, I failed to remember that many students come to school with anger, frustration, pain, and trauma and that these kids often lack the social skills necessary to deal with their emotions. For many, it is something they have to be taught — something they need to learn.

“Uh, Jeff. That would be part of your job.”

In the heat of the moment, I expected that student to handle their anger in an appropriate and respectful manner, and in the process I provided an example of exactly what not to do. To make matters worse, I am a staunch advocate for the education of the “whole child” and meeting the social-emotional needs of students. Sigh.

After a miserable forty minutes of lunch duty, I walked over to our counselor’s office to give her the name of the student so that she could follow-up and hopefully get more information about why they were upset. Low and behold — there was the student. The counselor waved me in and I was greeted with another glare and mumbling from the student. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. I immediately apologized to the student, letting them know that I should have left them alone, respected their space, and followed up when they were in a better place to visit. I told them I could see they were having a bad day and that I was sorry if I made it worse. It took every ounce of self-restraint, to not add — you should have stopped when I asked, you should have given me your name, you were very disrespectful. The student was still visibly angry. They chose not to acknowledge me. But, that was okay, because they were getting some help, and this situation was not about me.

As an educator, our actions and decisions should always be about what is best for kids. It is not about us.

Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that students should not be responsible for their actions, or that they shouldn’t be respectful to adults. But, I hope you can see that my response in this situation only made the situation worse. It is a constant challenge to be humble and patient enough to step back from a situation and carefully consider appropriate responses that will model the behaviors we want to see from students. Hope that makes sense.

In Defense of the Public Educator

cc photo by J. Delp

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

cc photo by J. Delp

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

7 Ways Effective Educators Address Student Behavior

Kids are Awesome – cc photo

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