A Letter to My Staff


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!


A Day in the Life of a Student

Things aren’t as easy as you might think.

I like school.

My classes don’t start until after nine o’clock, but I’m usually awake early — sometimes by six fifteen. My Mom, or my Nana, drop me off at school by seven-thirty so that they are able to make it to work on time. There are a lot of days when I arrive on campus before the teachers, and even the principal. I don’t mind being there early. Some days I just chill and listen to music. Other times I shoot some baskets, or talk to friends who also get dropped off early. If I didn’t have a chance to grab a bowl of cereal for breakfast (and if I have money), I might walk to the convenience store for a soda and chips, or head to McDonald’s with friends.

My first class of the day is math. I used to hate math. H.A.T.E. – hate. But, this year I really like my teacher. She doesn’t get frustrated with me when I don’t understand. She’s always asking me about stuff. You know, like what I did over the weekend, how my soccer game went, and what kind of music I listen to. I don’t really think the math has gotten any easier, but I’m willing to work a little harder for my teacher — and she notices. That’s THE FIRST THING I wish all teachers knew:  if I feel like someone cares about me, like they have an interest and recognize the positive things I do, I’ll work a little harder and behave a little better. Most of the time.

My second class of the day is what they call an elective. Some kids get two electives, but I only get one. You see, even though I’m in eighth grade, I’m not a very good reader. It has something to do with my Lexile level. Whatever that is. So one of my electives is what they call a reading intervention. It’s okay, and it seems to help, but I don’t really understand how it can be called an “elective” since I didn’t get to choose it. My other elective class is art. I did choose art. I love to draw and I am learning new ways to express myself and share my interests in this class. My elective — art that is — is one of the main reasons I enjoy coming to school. I’m glad that class didn’t get taken away. So, every other day, I look forward to second period.

Next, I’m off to social studies. It’s a pretty cool class. I like the news — my teacher says we call the news “current events.” Sometimes I’ll watch the news at home when I’m not playing video games or watching my little brothers and sisters. My social studies teacher is pretty cool. We have lot’s of good conversations and do a lot of work in groups. This is THE SECOND THING I wish all teachers knew: it is really hard for me to sit still and stay focused for very long. When teachers talk all the time, I get anxious, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes quit paying attention and act out a little. I like it when my teacher has us work in groups and when we really get to participate in the class — sharing our ideas and opinions. Sometimes, it seems like me and my classmates are teaching social studies — and that’s okay. It makes me feel good to think that the teacher believes we can handle this.

It’s lunch time. Finally. I am starving (especially if I didn’t make it to the convenience store, or McDonalds). My lunch is free. I don’t completely understand this, but it has something to do with my Mom not making enough money. I don’t really mind. A lot of kids at my school get free lunch. Sometimes, I’m a little jealous because some of my friends get to buy extra stuff — like chips, an extra burrito, or even ice cream sandwiches. If I’m lucky, and they are feeling generous, they might buy me something. After I eat, I’ll head out to play a little soccer. Even though it’s sometimes hot, this is really the only time during the day when I get to run around, so it’s worth it. I think the exercise makes me less stressed and helps me focus.

After lunch, I go to language arts. This is my least favorite class. Like I said before, I’m not a very good reader and we do A LOT of reading in language arts. We also have a lot of homework in this class, but I don’t do much of it. Sometimes I don’t do it because I don’t understand it. Sometimes I don’t do it because our apartment is so noisy and my brothers and sisters bug me. And, sometimes, I don’t do it because I don’t like it. Right now, I’m failing language arts. My behavior also isn’t so great in this class. The teacher talks A LOT, and expects us to sit still and stay quiet. I get frustrated in language arts — sometimes even angry. There are times when I misbehave just because I am angry (because I can’t read very well) and I want someone else to be angry. How in the world can I be in 8th grade and not be able to read?! The teacher say’s things to me like, “Why don’t you care more?” and “Maybe, if you actually tried, you would be passing this class.” This does not help. This is THE THIRD THING I wish all teachers understood: don’t make assumptions about kids — sometimes there is more to the story. I do care. I just don’t always get it. I’ll admit that sometimes I don’t know how to handle myself when I find things difficult, so I act out. But I do care. I also want to ask my teachers if they were always focused on “improving their education” when they were in junior high, or did they sometimes act like normal kids? I wonder.

Science is my last class of the day, and it’s a little “up and down” for me. My teacher is a man, and I don’t always do great with men. My dad has been in and out of prison, and therefore, in and out of my life. Even when he is around, he doesn’t always treat my Mom very well and sometimes he is really mean to me. I think that’s why I don’t always get along with my male teachers. I like all of the hands-on stuff we do in science class, and really, my teacher is a nice guy, but sometimes I’ll do things that aren’t very respectful, just to see how he is going to handle it. He usually does pretty good. Even when I mess up, he’ll give me a chance to explain what is wrong, he listens, and then he says to me, “Well, tomorrow’s a new day.” And he smiles. This is THE FOURTH THING I wish all teachers knew: when I mess up, I need to know that you will give me another chance. I need to know you aren’t going to “stay mad” at me. I need to know that tomorrow is a new day. I need to see you smile.

That’s it. End of the day. Sort of. My language arts teacher wants me to stay after school for tutoring, but I have to go home. I told her I’d be there to avoid a lecture, but I can’t stay. My little brothers and sisters have already been home by themselves for a couple of hours and I need to get home to make sure they aren’t destroying the apartment, or hurting each other. My Mom says that’s my responsibility, until she gets home.

I’ll try to do some of my homework tonight, but no promises. There isn’t a quiet spot in our apartment, and I share a bedroom with my brothers — so lights go out early.

But, I’ll be back tomorrow. That’s THE FIFTH THING I wish all teachers knew: I’d rather be at school than at home. It’s a safe place for me. I get to be with my friends, and for the most part, I like my teachers. In fact, I don’t really like weekends and vacations — we usually don’t have the money to go anywhere and I get bored. Besides, it’s a lot of work to babysit my siblings.

Please don’t give up on me.

I like school.

Things aren’t as easy as you might think.

What If We Are Only As Good As Our Fifth Runner?

St. John, Kansas Cross Country Team – State Champions 2016

I love cross-country.

You know, the sport where you run off-road, up hills, and around trees.

I was an average cross-country runner in high school, but I learned a lot from the sport and really enjoy my teammates and camaraderie. Here is a link to article that does a pretty good job explaining some of the life lessons that cross-country teaches young people. But this post isn’t about those lessons, it is about how the sport is scored. Yes. Scoring.

Cross country is a team sport in which the finishing position of the top five runners is totaled to arrive at final score. The lower the number, the better. For example, a perfect score in cross-country would be fifteen (1+2+3+4+5). The important thing to consider in this scoring method is that a team is only as good as its fifth place runner. A team that puts four runners in the top ten could still lose a meet if their fifth runner struggles. My brother coaches cross country in Kansas, and last year his team won a state championship with only two runners in the top twenty. They won the meet by one point. Every position mattered — even (or especially) that fifth runner. In the sport of cross country it pays to invest time in EVERY runner, from the fastest to the slowest, because any of the runners on your team could be the difference between winning and losing.

That’s a great philosophy to apply in a lot of situations. Perhaps, there are times when we are only as good as our proverbial “fifth runner.” Our greatest challenge. That means we not only need to invest in building upon our strengths, but also in overcoming our weaknesses.

From a individual perspective, perhaps you excel at many aspects of your job, but you struggle with accepting what you can, and can not, control (I don’t know anyone who struggles with that….eyeroll). It certainly makes sense to continue to build on your strengths, but getting beyond frustrations over what can’t be controlled is probably going to be a limiting factor to success (a “fifth runner”). It makes sense to invest some time in addressing this challenge.

From a organizational perspective, you may be the leader at a school where many students do exceptionally well and make tremendous yearly growth. But, perhaps you should consider defining the success of your school based upon the students who struggle the most (the “fifth runners”). It can be a real challenge to support these kids without doing so at the expense of the high performing students, but it is worth the investment. At least from an educational perspective, how many students can you “leave behind” and truly be considered an exceptional organization? I have heard this concept applied at the adult level by saying that a teaching staff is only as good as the teacher on staff who struggles the most, or a district is only as good as it’s school that faces the greatest challenges.

Finally, from a societal perspective, perhaps we are only as good as the way we care for the most marginalized in our communities (and our world). We can have thriving neighborhoods, a strong economy, and any number of success indicators, but maybe the true evidence of our success as a society is our advocacy for the poor, the homeless, the victimized, and those who experience discrimination — our unwillingness to accept these conditions (the “fifth runner”) as inevitable.  In a world that is so focused on success and status, this can be a real challenge. Whenever I consider those on the margins — in our schools, neighborhoods, and our world — I am reminded of the words of Father Greg Boyle (a man who has dedicated his life to working with some of the most despised and marginalized people in our society — hard-core gang members).

I’m not opposed to success, I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones. – Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Sometimes it can seem counterintuitive to invest time, energy, and resources into the proverbial “fifth runner,” but perhaps that is actually the key to our success as individuals, schools, organizations, and as a society.

Don’t forget the fifth runner.

NOTE: if you are interested in learning a little more about the sport of cross-country, and its potential life lessons, I would suggest you check out the documentary The Long Green Line.

I also recommend watching this ESPN 20 for 20 clip called Run Hopi — an inspiring and heart-wrenching story about cross-country on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

Run Hopi from Scott Harves on Vimeo.

It’s Not About Me, Or You

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.

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

cc photo by J. Delp

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!

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