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

Boundless Compassion

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If you have a passion for working with the poor and the marginalized — or if you just want to develop a better understanding of the trauma of poverty — you must read Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Father Greg Boyle. 

In his book, Father Boyle chronicles his years of work with Los Angeles gang members. The stories he tells are eye opening, heart breaking, and hope restoring. I’m not sure that I have ever read another book that has so strongly resonated with my feelings about the human condition and our obligation to care for one another. 

If you are intrigued, take twenty minutes to watch this TED talk by Father Boyle. You won’t be disappointed.  (Be aware: there is a bit of profanity in the video)

There are two quotes in particular that I believe are absolutely critical statements about how we can begin to heal a very broken world.

First, begin treating every human being with respect for their infinite value (See A Simple Plan to Improve the World).

There is an idea that just might be at the root of all that is wrong in the world and the idea is this: that there just might be lives out there that are less than other lives. How do we stand against that idea?

Second, take time to get to know others

The truth is, human beings can’t demonize people they know.

If we can have even a small degree of the impact Father Boyle has had in his community — to be a difference maker for even one person — we will be on our way to making our world a better place. There is wisdom in his words.

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

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.

Who? Me?

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If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa

In his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Greg Boyle describes several individual interactions with young gang members who, when asked a direct question, respond with, “Who? Me?” At first glance, this is mildly amusing, since the only people in the room were Father Boyle and the person responding to the question.

However, Father Boyle writes that this response (Who? Me?) is an indication of a severe lack of self-esteem. An individual that feels so devalued and unimportant that they are unable to imagine a situation in which another human being would be interested in them. “The story of a self being made to feel to small from being bombarded with messages of shame and disgrace.”

I have witnessed, firsthand, young people who are so convinced by poor test scores, failing grades, and repeated messages that they are no better than their poor behavior that they have thrown in the towel on their future. As an educator, and a fellow human being, I believe one of my most important roles is to notice the individuals who are asking, “Who? Me?” — the empty vessels — and doing all that is within my power to fill them with an understanding of their value. 

It’s not a particularly challenging task, but one that requires intentional action. Call people by name, ask about their interests and passions, listen (don’t just hear) when they are talking, work to find and recognize their contributions (to their school, job, community, and/or world). Many of us are in a position to help replace messages of “shame and disgrace” with words of hope, grace, and encouragement. 

How will you make this happen In your daily life?