#OneWord 2023 – Impact

It’s that time of year again – the closing of one year and the beginning of the next. For many, this is a time of reflection, but it’s also a great time for goal setting. I’ll be honest though; I’ve never been that big a fan of the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. Too often, I feel they are broad goals with no timeline, and little incentive to accomplish them. Don’t get me wrong, if you are a tried-and-true believer in setting resolutions and have had success in meeting them, kudos to you. For me, it just doesn’t work.

A few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Jon Gordon, and in particular, his One Word Challenge. At the time, several people in my professional learning network were talking about this as an alternative to setting resolutions. You can think of the one word as something of a filter – it impacts what you do personally, professionally, and all areas between. That same year, I learned that Indiana University head football coach Tom Allen utilized the idea of One Word to set goals for the team and encouraged players to choose their own word for the year. That winter break, my Twitter timeline was filled with educators and football players posting graphics with their chosen word.

Over the years, I’ve participated in this process a few times. In 2018, the first year I participated, I failed to pick just one word, and instead had several words. In 2020, my word was Why – based on the ideas of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “Start with why.” In 2021, my word was Vision as we were engaged in a vision-setting process at FES. I seem to have missed the #OneWord challenge for last year. This fall, at the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Conference, I heard Jon Gordon speak, and that keynote reminded me of the One Word process I’ve used in the past.

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time digging into the concept of Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE) and John Hattie’s work around the influences of learning for students. CTE has been identified as the influence with the greatest impact on student learning. I define CTE as the beliefs that educators hold about our own ability to impact student growth. Given the amount of time that was spent thinking about this concept, it was easy to make a jump from there to my #OneWord for 2023:

What I’m reflecting on in my role as a building principal is the fact that my actions can have a huge impact on many people. So, this year, as I make decisions, I’ll keep my One Word in mind – what will have the greatest positive impact on student learning and growth? How can I help the teachers in my school have a greater impact? What can I do personally to impact our school as a learning organization? These questions will help guide me throughout the year.

I encourage you, as we move into this new year, to take a moment to reflect on what your word might be. If you are looking for ideas of what others have chosen, you could simply click this link for a search on Twitter for posts others have made about their #OneWord for 2023. Once you choose your word, find some way to make it meaningful to you. You could create a graphic and print it out to hang near your desk, or you could post a graphic on social media. This year, I chose to have a MudLove Personalized Bracelet made with my word. Each time I wear it, I’ll have the reminder of my impact.

Some of you might even feel the desire to have your students create their own One Word. Check out this idea:

If you choose to participate in the OneWord Challenge, please share what you create!

Practicing gratitude

Practicing gratitude

As you all probably know, I spend a lot of time reading and listening to podcasts. The positive to that is that often some of my most exciting ideas come from that learning. The negative is sometimes a line sticks, but I’m not sure where I picked it up – that’s the issue for today. I have this quote that’s been bouncing around in my mind since I heard it a few weeks ago, but I can’t recall who said it. I like to credit others when I can, but this is one that I just don’t know who to credit:

Think about it – if you’re thinking about something positive, it’s hard to also devote thinking time to the things that are causing you stress. As some might say, if we’re practicing gratitude, we are feeding the positives. And if you’re anything like me, your own worst critic lives inside of your brain. If we spend too much time listening to ourselves, we might start to believe it. So, I challenge you to seek out moments to talk to yourself instead – call out the good things happening, whether they are in your professional life or your personal life. Notice that difference? Listening to ourselves is a passive activity and our negative thoughts can spiral out of control. Talking to ourselves is an active way of noticing the good. It will really lift our spirits!

As we wrap up the end of the semester and move towards winter break, and knowing that there are plenty of opportunities to find stress this time of year, I want to devote this week’s post entirely to some of the things that I’m grateful for.

  1. Our students – One of my favorite moments of the day is during morning bus duty. Seeing our students as they get off the bus, the little moments of connection, a chat about something they are excited about, or simply giving them a high five will always bring a smile to my face. I’m an educator today because I truly love kids and I want to be able to support them in their path. That process of support is made easier when I know our students, and when I have relationships with our students. As a parent myself, I also know that there is a great responsibility for all of us to take care of every child while they are here at school. I take that to heart and work hard to give each child what they need to be successful at this moment.
  2. A staff that loves to laugh and learn together – In my almost 20 years of working in education, I have had the privilege of working in several different schools and with several different teams. I have always been grateful for the relationships I have built with my colleagues. Currently, I work with a team who always refers to our relationship as one of a family. This work family can find joy and laughter in the little moments with our students – both the good moments and the ones that can be a little rough. We can support one another in moments of difficulty – both professionally and personally. We also can help hold one another accountable to being our best. You know there is a good culture in a building when our relationships are strong enough to maintain accountability. Finally, I love that we are all willing to learn from one another. The other day I was chatting with a teacher as she was adding some data into a notebook. I was blown away by the level of organization and thought that had gone into creating and maintaining this data and how the teacher utilized that notebook to drive instruction in the classroom. When I asked about it, she shared with me that she had learned how to track data in this way from a colleague. Whether we’re learning together in formal professional development, or just in our own self-improvement in the craft of education, the great work happening here is spreading!
  3. The investment our district and school have made in Restorative Practices – As a leader in several buildings, I have led a lot of different professional development activities. One of the things that leaders do not often hear about these PD sessions is how enjoyable or interesting they are. Earlier this year, I was able to work with a leadership team here at my building to help lead training in restorative practices. After the session was over, several teachers stopped me and shared with me how much they appreciated the training, what they enjoyed about it, or something they had learned. Positive feedback like that is great, but when it comes on a topic that I also feel could have a powerful positive impact on all the students that attend our school, that positive feedback feels even better. I so appreciate getting to work in a district that has chosen to make a massive investment in our students and staff in terms of widespread restorative practices training. Since our training a little more than a month ago, I have already seen some shifts in language and practices within our building.

These are just a few of the things in my professional life that I am feeling grateful for right now. As you have time over the coming break, I encourage you to take a few moments and practice some gratitude. I can tell you that while I was working on this post, the stresses in my life were able to disappear from my brain for just a little bit. The more we find ways to practice gratitude, the easier it is to find things that we are grateful for. And as a side tip – take the time to write it down. If you are a journal keeper, start adding a gratitude section. If journaling isn’t your thing, you could use the notes app on your phone, or something like that, to jot down a couple things you are grateful for every day.

What scares you?

What scares you?

When I was younger, I used to love to watch the television show Unsolved Mysteries. I still remember sitting in our basement with the TV on, trying to figure out about these strange things that happened in our world. It was probably during the same phase in my life when I loved books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I loved these types of things for a while until I didn’t. I don’t know if any of the rest of you went through a phase like that where horror and mystery were exciting. At the point I’m at in my life now, I don’t need fear like that – I have zero desire to read a scary story, or watch a horror movie… I can’t even get into the true crime fad that so many others I know love.

But it’s interesting to think about how much fear can impact us in our day-to-day lives. Most people, like me, have decided that they don’t want to put themselves in situations where they feel scared. That is something that is also true for many of our students too – they don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone, and often will do whatever it takes to avoid a feeling of shame or embarrassment. In fact, sometimes the behaviors that we see that seem outside the norm are actually related to their efforts to avoid shame and embarassment.

I think sometimes that fear of trying something new comes from a feeling of cognitive dissonance. You may know that phrase, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, cognitive dissonance is defined as having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It’s not just our students who will try to avoid feeling embarrassed – many adults will do it too. It could be relating to something in our personal life, or it could have to do with trying that new classroom practice that feels a bit out of our comfort zone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe that all schools are learning organizations. Part of what makes a school a learning organization is that all the people who come here – students, teachers, staff members, parents, etc., can learn something while they are here. So, let’s dig into that idea of learning for teachers and staff members.

A previous administrator that I worked with used to talk about being on the “growing edge.” To be on the growing edge, you must feel a little bit uncomfortable. Think about schooling – what it looks like today is different from what it looked like when I was in school, and that is different from what it looked like when my parents were in school. A schoolhouse is a place of innovation. As we learn more about how kids learn, we implement new strategies and see if they help our students. These small changes over the course of many years are part of what has caused the school to look so different than in the past. The more we know about how kids learn, the greater impact we can have on their learning moving forward.

And the things we do in our classroom, that are considered “best practice” are meant to put our students on their own growing edge. In a place where there is some feeling of being uncomfortable, they also must work to figure it out. In a lot of ways, our efforts to move our students to higher levels of thinking is considered best practice because it helps push students beyond their comfort zone. It helps them create new neural pathways in their brain, and suddenly they have learned something new!

But here’s one of the things I’ve noticed – so often we as educators will learn about something new relating to student learning, but we hesitate to implement it. Maybe we want to start implementing Universal Design for Learning, or maybe we have seen some amazing examples of Project-Based Learning out there on social media. As an educator, it might be something we’re curious about, but at the same time are relatively early in the learning process. This is where the fear of teaching can sometimes come in. Does this sound familiar: 1) I’m curious about a new strategy; 2) I have done a little bit of learning about the topic; 3) I want to try, but I’m just not sure where to start; 4) I’m worried it won’t go well; 5) I put that idea on the shelf and go back to what’s comfortable.

The thing I know about most teachers is that there are some personality traits that are similar. One of those similarities has to do with a desire to make sure that whatever we put in front of our students is as close to perfect as possible. I’m sure that there are times that I felt that way, and probably held back on some of my more creative and innovative ideas because they didn’t seem quite perfect. What I’ve learned is:

Here’s the challenge we face as educators – innovative ideas help to push learning forward for our students, but our own perfectionism might get in the way of trying something that would be a benefit for our kids. How do we balance the need for innovative ideas with our personal feelings that our school or our classroom needs to be perfect?

I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on some of your new ideas that you might have been hesitating to try. Pick one and give it a try. What’s the worst that happens? If the lesson is a flop, you can use it as a chance to model for your students that imperfection is ok. And if the lesson goes well, you might find some ways to take that idea, do it again in the future, and make some small changes to make it better.

Learning is all about being on the growing edge. Part of that cognitive dissonance comes from doing the things that scare us before we feel they are perfect. But, it’s how we learn, it pushes learning for our students, and it models risk-taking, which is something we are constantly asking our students to do!

The Warm Demander

The Warm Demander

Recently, I attended the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Professionals Conference. This conference brought together school leaders from all over the State of Indiana for a few days of learning with several keynote speakers, and then some great breakout sessions. While there are many things that I could share with you from the various learning opportunities, there was one thing that stuck out to me. In one of the sessions, our presenters shared something called the “Warm Demander Chart.” This chart is based on the work of Zaretta Hammond, and it looks like this:

As you look at the chart, you’ll notice four quadrants, which are based on two axes. The vertical axis is based on a spectrum from passive leniency to active demandingness, in other words, it’s how high of expectations we place on our students. The horizontal axis is based on a spectrum from professional distance to personal warmth. These traits will impact actions by teachers in a classroom, but also impact students’ perceptions about their sense of belonging.

Recently, in our building, we have been digging into the work of John Hattie. In that work, we’ve learned that research should impact practice within the classroom. In his work, Hattie has identified a variety of influences on learning. In that research, things like teacher-student relationships, school climate, sense of belonging, and teacher estimates of achievement (in other words, our expectations of students) all meaningfully contribute to accelerating academic success.

Which is why I want to come back to the Warm Demander Chart. Take a moment to go back to it and reflect on a couple questions. First, where do you strive to fall on that chart? Next, if you don’t fall where you strive to fall, where do you feel like you end up instead? Finally, as a spectrum, there may be moments when we might move from one quadrant into another. What are the things that might cause you to move somewhere other than where you strive to be?

When I was at the conference session, we were split into groups to discuss the chart. Within that small group, all of us agreed that we strive to fall into the “Warm Demander” quadrant, but that there might be moments when we land somewhere else. As people around the room shared with the whole group, almost everyone said that they want to fall in that “Warm Demander” quadrant, and I’m guessing that is true for those of you who are reading this post.

But the more we talked, the more we realized that there were similarities in the moments we might move into more of the “Sentimentalist” quadrant. What I notice when I look at this quadrant is that because we care about our students so much, we want to protect them – from failure, from difficulty, from the struggle. Most likely, we do so with the best of intentions. We might know that the student has lots of struggles outside of school, such as poverty or trauma, and we don’t want to add to that.

Then a guy I was sitting near said something that I hope will always stick with me:

Let that sink in for a moment…

Now, pause and think about your students. There is probably at least one (and maybe more than one) student that we lower our expectations. And again, we do this with the best of intentions. But here’s the reality – for that student, one of the best ways to help them out of the situation they are in is a solid education. In life, there are going to be struggles for each of our children. One of the best things that we as educators can do is to provide them with a safe space and appropriate scaffolds in moments of productive struggle. Over time, they will then develop skills to help them handle moments of productive struggle independently. If we lower our expectations because “My poor babies just can’t handle that” (yes, I have heard that said about students by teachers that I have worked with), we might be crippling them in the situations they will face in the future.

It is appropriate as a teacher to hold all students to high expectations and then add in some personal warmth so that all our students know what struggle will look like, but also that people are there to provide a helping hand along the way. This is such an important piece of the learning process for our students. So, the next time you begin to think to yourself that you might lower your expectations for one of your students, remember that decision could have long-term impacts on our kids.

In the long run, our goal is to meet every kid where they are when they come to us and provide them with learning opportunities and support along the way so that they may grow to the greatest extent possible. That won’t happen when we lower our expectations for kids.

Challenge yourself to keep the expectations high for every student. We can still be that loving, warm, caring person while also expecting the most of our students they are capable of!

Science or craft

If you’re anything like me and live in a world surrounded by elementary education, you have certainly heard about the “Reading Wars.” If you aren’t sure what that is, it’s basically a back-and-forth debate among many educators about what is the best way to teach students to read. A quick Google search will show that articles about the reading wars have been in existence for years. In a search today, I see reference to Horace Mann arguing a whole language approach in the 1800s, or Rudolf Flesch arguing in support of systematic and sequential phonics instruction in 1955. Since the 1980s, the debate has gone back and forth between explicit phonics instruction as compared to a whole-language approach. I learned to read in a school that bought into a whole language approach, but I know I had friends who struggled to learn to read that way. Personally, I started my career as a teacher in a school that utilized the Four Blocks Literacy Framework. For years as a classroom teacher, I referred to Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell constantly (my version is marked up, dog-eared, and tabbed from years of use). Most recently, the buzz has been around The Science of Reading, which refers to the research of cognitive scientists on how we learn to read and what is needed to reach a level of proficiency.

Now, I must be completely honest here, I feel I am relatively early in my learning about the Science of Reading, and that’s not really what this post is about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic because I want to be knowledgeable, and as a former science teacher, I believe in the importance of learning from the most recent research available.

What I have learned about the Science of Reading drove me to a book by Mark Seidenberg called Language at the Speed of Sight. Seidenberg is a cognitive neuroscientist (in case you need a definition, cognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological processes that underlie human cognition – in simpler words, it’s the study of how people learn). His research has been focused on learning and early childhood development. While there are many directions that I could choose to dig deeper based on this book, the piece I want to examine first revolves around the role of teacher education as a potential lever to lead to further growth in the reading proficiency of students.

Before I dig too deeply into that, I want to say something first – I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “Reading Wars” argument. I don’t know how we grow together in our learning when we equate something to a war. In general, based on my studies of history, there are no winners in a war. Ultimately, as an educator, I am constantly trying to grow so that I may have a greater impact on my students. One of the things that I have noticed as I dig deeper into articles and research on the “Reading Wars” is that it seems that there is little willingness to find a middle ground. People are entrenched in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. I have long believed in the power of growing together. At times I read and research topics I don’t completely agree with because if someone believes in that thing so strongly, maybe there is something I can learn from them, and often, I do learn something. That idea of being better together does not seem to really be in existence from the two sides of the “Reading Wars” argument.

There was something that Seidenberg said near the end of the book that stood out to me. In Chapter 12, he talks of “the absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education…” He goes on to argue that this absence of science has potentially had detrimental effects on reading education. So often in education, decisions about teaching and learning are made in the classroom by teachers who truly believe that the steps they are taking will support students. Those decisions might be based on feeling, experience, or something that is working for a colleague. What Seidenberg argues is that those decisions need to be based more in the realm of science and research. But in most Schools of Education, prospective teachers were not taught to cultivate a “scientific ethos” that allows them to be able to identify meaningful and recent research, and then make teaching moves based on what the science says. I’d argue that unless you have an advanced degree in education, you probably haven’t learned a lot about how to seek out research-based tools and interventions. I know that before my master’s program, I don’t think I had a solid footing in what it meant to be an educational researcher.

I’m not ready to say that I completely agree/buy into all that Seidenberg shares about education, but I will say that this scientific ethos does seem to be lacking in some schools of education. Part of this point from Seidenberg relates to the fact that so much of what schools of education focus on is developing philosophical beliefs in educators. I know for a fact that one of the courses I took required me to write a philosophy of education. I don’t recall much work on learning how to be an educational researcher until I was forced to research while completing my master’s program.

Many in education, myself included, have defined teaching as heart work and referred to it as a craft. But as I dig more into an understanding of cognitive psychology and the study of how people learn, there are certainly some long-held beliefs of my own that I’m being forced to reflect upon because the research tells me I might be wrong. We probably can’t get by purely on feeling and heart and craft. Those things are a piece, but we also need to have a solid grounding in the science of learning as well.

So, there’s a question that I’m left to continue to reflect upon: What if educators saw education as science, in addition to craft? I believe there are some important areas that all of us as educators might be able to learn and grow.

Part of the role of educators is to figure out how to support our students who are not growing as learners in the way that we might hope they would. Maybe they are reading at a level that we consider below proficiency. When this happens, as teachers, we put into place interventions to support our students. Too often, it seems to me, we put in place an intervention based on what we “feel” might work best. But we do so without making sure that the intervention is research-based, and at times without making sure that the intervention supports the area of weakness for that student. I think that part of why this might happen is that many educators were not trained to look at the research.

In addition, many of us may not know how to do our own action research on strategies we try within a classroom. In action research, you identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. In true action research, there is a phase of literature review where we try to gain a deeper understanding of research that may have already been done that is tied to our question or problem. This is where I think that sometimes action research falls apart because many educators haven’t been trained in the process of reviewing research. Our background gave many of us a solid background in philosophy, but not as solid of a background in research.

And here’s the issue – learning to do this takes time! It isn’t insurmountable, but on top of all the other things that are on the plate of teachers, it is challenging.

As I continue to reflect on these points, I’m challenging myself to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to learn about research. I’ll be looking for ways to share knowledge and provide sources of quality research. Luckily, we live in a day and age where Google allows us to find scholarly articles quickly and easily on just about any topic in education. Hopefully, through this continued exposure, we can expand our knowledge as researchers. In addition, I’ll be seeking opportunities to help guide teachers through action research of our own.

I’m curious to hear from you – what is your experience with education research? On a scale of 1 to 5, how well prepared do you feel you were to do your own research on educational tools, interventions, and strategies? If that number is lower than you’d like, what do you plan to do so that you know the decisions you make in the classroom are rooted both in research and science, as well as feelings and experience?

Literacy as the foundation of everything

About a month ago, the Indiana Department of Education put on the Get Your Lead On (GYLO) conference for leaders all over the state. I heard about it, thought it looked interesting and signed up as soon as possible. I am a big fan of the learning that happens at events like this – there are keynote-style presentations, break-out sessions, and then a closing session. And of course, there’s also the time to chat with others in between sessions – those are some of my favorite moments (and best learning moments) at any conference! The first thing that I’ll say about GYLO is that it was fun!

One of the speakers that day was Todd Nesloney. I first heard of Todd as an author when I was introduced to the book Kids Deserve It! He was a teacher, elementary principal, and is now the Director of Culture and Strategic Leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. He led the second session of the day all about Literacy.

As an elementary principal, I see literacy as the key to everything we do at school, which was in line with what he had to share. In today’s post, I want to share with you some of what I learned from Todd, as well as some next steps that I want to lead in our building.

First and foremost, Todd made it quite clear that he sets the expectation that he will celebrate reading in all that he does. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how much we use reading and writing in our daily lives – from the start of my day check-in with my to-do list to some bedtime reading, text is something that I see constantly, and it’s going to be something that our students will use throughout their lives as well. Even more reason to put literacy front and center in our schools! One of the ways that he celebrated literacy during the day was that he took small moments out of each of his presentations to do a quick book talk. He’d share a title, a bit about the author, and a bit about the story. I walked out of the day with several new items in my Amazon cart!

Next, he talked about ways that he would celebrate reading as a leader. The bullet points below are just a few of the ideas he had. I encourage you to think about how/what you might implement in your setting to celebrate reading.

  • What we’re reading – When Todd was an administrator, he created a graphic in Canva that he then printed out for every staff member. At the top it said “What is Mr. Behrman reading?” then there was some space, and then at the bottom, it said, “What are you reading?” The document was laminated. If you wanted to, you could print out a picture of the book cover, or you could just use a dry-erase marker to write the title of the book. This was for all staff members, not just teachers. He included secretaries, custodians, cafeteria staff, and more! This is something I hope to get rolling at my school soon!
  • Book Talks – Todd started adding short book talks to the morning announcements. In time, he asked teachers to share their own little book talks for the announcements. Eventually, they got to the point that students were creating book talks on the things they were reading. What better way to celebrate the reading that was happening than allowing students to share the books they loved!
  • Reading Photo Wall – Each time a student finished a book, they could bring their book down to Todd’s office. He’d take their picture, print it out, and then hang it on the reading wall in the cafeteria. It made reading visible to all students. What if you did this within your own classroom? Or on the wall right outside of your classroom?
  • Guest Readers – Anytime someone visited Todd’s school, they were asked to bring a book along. Before they did anything else, Todd would take them to a classroom and have them read their book. If someone forgot, they’d go to the library to pick out a book! A variation of this is the mystery reader. As a teacher, you can ask parents to sign up for a day to come and read. Have them share a few clues about who they are so the class can try to guess. Then, on the day of the reading, the class can find out of their guesses were correct or not.
  • Email signature – Those of you who are reading this blog and who receive emails from me may have noticed I already implemented this. At the bottom of my email signature, I added a place that says “What I’m currently reading:” Then I went online, copied an image of the cover of the book, and pasted it into my signature. If you notice that the same book is in my email signature for more than a few weeks, let me know you noticed! That means I’m not reading enough!

There were a ton of other ideas shared during this hour-long session, and while I’d love to share more of them, I think this is a great place to stop for now. One thing I would leave you with was what Todd shared about high-interest books:

One of the most difficult conversations for me to have with a student is when we are in the library, and I offer to help a student find a book, and when I ask them what they want to read they say something like “I need a level L book.” Where is the celebration for reading that comes from that? As a fifth grader, I read Garfield books like crazy, but wouldn’t challenge myself. My 6th-grade teacher allowed us to pick what we wanted, and I read a ton of Stephen King books. Something about the suspense kept me engaged, and I read more that year than I ever had before. Because my teacher allowed me to pick a book I loved, I became a reader who always had at least one book to read at any given time (currently I’m reading 4 different books, and will pick up a different title depending on my mood).

What are your thoughts? Do you have ways to celebrate reading that are not included here? Let us know in the comments below. We can all learn from one another!

The reason behind the behavior

Last week, I was on Twitter, and I noticed this tweet:

It has me thinking about the baggage that our students carry each day. Unlike in the image that Weinstein shared, we can’t see that baggage as something that’s labeled and apparent for us.

Part of the reason that this stood out to me has to do with the time of year – we have just reached the end of the first grading period in my district. By now, we have most likely identified a couple of students of concern. Maybe that concern is academic. Maybe the concern is behavioral. Or maybe the concern is related to attendance.

That attendance group is the one that I want to dig into today. Let’s think about it, for most of our students, being present at school is not purely their responsibility. I am the principal of a suburban elementary school. Most of our students are between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. Who is responsible for making sure our students are present and on time for school? Most of the time, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parents. Most kids at this age do not set their own alarm clock, get themselves up and ready, get breakfast, or do whatever else needs to happen to be able to be present and ready to learn. Most of our students rely on their parents to make sure that happens. And some of our students have already had A DAY just to get here. Especially if they are part of a family dealing with the trauma of homelessness, illness, or food insecurity.

So, let’s think for a moment about what we say when a student shows up to school a little late. I know that often we hope that all our students can arrive here on time and ready to learn. I also know that there were times that I took it as a personal affront when a student showed up to my class late. I know that when a student shows up late, it means they may have missed the things we’ve already done – we must adjust attendance, find out lunch count, and re-explain things that we’ve already gone over with the students who were present. It’s hard to not feel a little frustrated in this moment, and think to ourselves, “Why couldn’t they be here on time?!”

But when we have thoughts like that, the little bit of frustration we feel invariably creeps into our body language, tone of voice, etc. Even when we think we have the best of intentions, our “Why are you late?” may come out in a way that feels confrontational to a student. When someone feels confrontational to you, do you look forward to being around them? I know I don’t!

So, instead of questioning them, or pointing out to them the issues that come from being late, work on being able to look at them, smile, and say, “I’m so glad you’re here!”

When we set that warm and welcoming environment, we create a sense of belonging for our students. When you have a student who carries with them a variety of traumas, that welcoming environment is exactly the thing that they need. And for our kiddos who need a relationship to feel welcome and prepared to be successful, feeling like someone is glad to see them might just help them feel even more motivated to be here on time, or to push their family to make sure they are here on time!

What are your thoughts? What strategies might you have to help support a student who is carrying a variety of trauma with them each day? Let us know your ideas in the chat below!

Motivation vs. Discipline

As many of you know, I am active in the #FitLeaders community. This is a group of leaders who realize that being successful in leadership takes balance. To grow as a leader, to be my best, I must first take care of myself. For me, that means getting up early almost every morning to do a basement workout, go for a run, or hit the road on my bike. Many of you know that I am disciplined in my 4:30 get-up time. Some of you know not to try to schedule a meeting with me at 11:00, because if you do, I probably have not had lunch yet, and most likely will not be focused on our meeting. Many of you also know that I’m not likely to return a school email after 6:00 pm. These are parts of the discipline that I have placed in my life so that I can stay in balance in the various roles that make me who I am.

For those of you who know me well now, it may be hard to believe it, but what you see today is not the version of me that existed at the end of my college career. When I graduated from high school, I walked around as a generally healthy person, and my weight hovered right around 175 pounds. In college, things changed. Gone were the days of healthy home-cooked meals (thanks mom, I know you’re reading!), and they were replaced with the dorm cafeteria food that included all-you-can-eat ice cream stations, or the food courts around campus (would you believe I ate Baked Ziti from Sbarro’s for dinner almost every night for at least a couple of months. Later there were dinners in the fraternity, and while there was salad, that was not what I was eating most of the time. Then came the apartment year – carry-out, fried food, late-night pizza runs. When I graduated from college, I was up to about 225 pounds and was not that healthy at all. Climbing the stairs in the School of Education on the IU campus was almost too much to bear!

After graduation, I somehow ended up with a book about healthy eating and healthy habits. I don’t recall the title, but based on some of the ideas it shared, I felt like I could make some changes. I had a job and was living in a house with a friend. During that phase of life, there were probably still some bad choices in terms of what to eat, but I was motivated to try to make a change. I decided I was ready to re-up my membership in the YMCA, a regular part of my childhood and high school years.

I was motivated.

But here’s the thing about motivation, at the start, it looks like this:

But eventually, that fire burns down, and your motivation looks a little more like this:

My motivation at the start was high, but the changes in behavior were challenging. My muscles got sore. I was tired. And pizza tastes so good! Over time, that motivation began to die down, just like a fire if you stop adding fuel. There were swings between periods of success – eating healthy, working out, and seeing progress – and then periods of regressing to some of the bad habits.

Eventually, I got a full-time teaching job, which brought me to Indianapolis. I moved into an apartment of my own. When I did, the place where I ended up was right across the street from the YMCA. I couldn’t look out any window, go out my front door, or sit on my patio without seeing it. With that proximity and being in a new town without a ton of connections, it was easy to find my motivation again. What I found over time was that motivation switched. Working out became a part of my daily routine. Instead of thinking of it as something I “had to” do, it became something that just happened. My routine became this: go to school, come home and walk the dog, go to the YMCA, come back home and have a good dinner, and go to bed at an appropriate time. The routine became naturally ingrained in what I was doing, and instead of feeling like I needed motivation, I developed a level of discipline to do what was needed.

Over time, I got back to what I’d consider a healthy place. My weight is not quite as low as it was in high school, but it’s much closer to that than when I graduated from college. And I’d say that my overall health is in a much better place – I’m able to run around with my kids, and even outrun them at times. The discipline that I’ve developed helps me maintain the appropriate balance between a strong and healthy body and a mind that can take on the task of leading an elementary school.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is focused on my reflection, learning, and growth in education. So, you might be wondering how this story about my health journey relates to what I do as an educator, or what you can do as an educator.

As educators, we have the chance to learn lots of new things. Currently, the staff in my school has been learning a lot about our new literacy resources. Most of the PD we have done so far this school year has been focused on the goal of designing intentional reading practices around our new resource. As we learn about the new resource, we might be motivated to utilize some of our new pieces of information.

But as with anything else, motivation can die down over time. In a recent episode of George Couros’s podcast, he talked a bit about this idea. He said:

Here’s a link to that podcast – it’s only 9 minutes long! https://overcast.fm/+wluP1vlVM

What’s important for us to remember is that motivation is dependent on some outside force – a speaker, a book, a professional learning opportunity. We will feel that motivation for a period, but like the fire, it will go out without continued fuel. Discipline on the other hand is something that only we can control. If we shift from a mindset of feeling motivated, to focusing instead on how we stay disciplined, then we are more likely to make a difference in the lives of our students.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you ever been motivated to try something and found that motivation then faded over time? Was there anything that helped you keep moving forward? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

No complaints

Earlier this week, I was walking into our central office and ran into one of the other principals in our district. We were chatting about how things were going, and I just loved her response. First, she said, “I’m doing really good right now!” Then she said:

It felt like a breath of fresh air at the moment. I think we all know that the reality of working in a school can invariably lead to negative conversations. If you spend much time in the teacher’s lounge or the workroom it almost seems inevitable that you’ll get sucked into a negative mindset. That’s why Crystal’s statement above stood out to me so much. We all know that it’s easy to find things to complain about. The question is, do we put those complaints out in the world, or do we choose to hold on to them? Think about the impact of holding our complaints to ourselves!

Obviously, there are things that need to be complained about – so long as we come at it with a mindset of problem-solving. When someone comes to me seeking a solution to a problem they are dealing with, I often ask them what ideas they might have. Instead of getting sucked into a conversation about the problem, we work to create a meaningful solution.

But sometimes we run into another teacher who chooses to continue to go down that path of negativity. It seems to be unavoidable. And no matter how much we try to shift into problem-solving mode, the negativity just keeps flowing. How might we respond?

We all know that there’s at least one person that just never seems to be pleased – kids aren’t great, parents aren’t great, the admin isn’t great, but complaining about any or all of them can be good – at least for that person. When I think of my past, there have been some people like this that I’ve worked with. And the reality is, maybe it’s not a person at school. When I think back on those people from my past, I could almost always identify something positive about them, but I also knew that they could steal my joy! In fact, one of my previous administrators said to me once, “If you tell that person to stop being a joy stealer, I’ll give you a Starbucks gift card” after I was seeking advice on what to do.

For most of us, when we see the joy stealer coming, we’ll just try to avoid them. Or worse yet, we might even engage in some of those negative conversations. We probably know it’s not right, but as the saying goes, “It’s easier to go along to get along.” A lot of the time, we go along because we don’t know what else we could do or say. Todd Whitaker has some thoughts on how you might respond to these joy stealers, or as he calls them “Negative Nelly (or Nelson).” In the book The Ten-Minute Inservice, Whitaker has a section all about improving school climate. One of the chapters is called “Dealing with Negative Co-Workers.” Here are a couple of his suggestions with some additional thoughts from me:

  • “I love that student.” There is nothing that takes the air out of the sails of a joy stealer more than saying that you love the student they are trying to complain about. Even if you don’t really know the student, you’ve just let the joy stealer know what your beliefs are about students. Conversation over.
  • Then there’s the situation where a teacher seeks out the teachers of his/her former students to “warn them.” So, what could you say? Here’s the response Whitaker offers: “Thank you so much for telling me about these students. These kinds of students are the reason I became a teacher. You obviously must care about these students a lot to have taken time out of your busy schedule to speak with me about them. I’m so glad they are in my classroom. They definitely need loving caring teachers like you and me. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.” Think about how that might diffuse your joy stealer!
  • Gossip – the joy stealers always seem to be in the know of all the gossip. If they come up to share, you can always say “I’d love to chat, but I’m in a rush. See you later.” Then, walk away. If this is how we all respond to the joy stealer, they can’t spread the gossip. Or maybe they’ll go try to find an ear that will listen.
  • I often find that joy stealers like to spend time complaining about parents as well. A great response might be to say, “Our students are so lucky to spend so many hours with positive people like us.” Again, total deflation for the joy stealers.

As you reflect, do a quick self-assessment. Where do you find yourself on the scale of joy stealing? Are you a total Negative Nelly (or Nelson)? Or do you work hard to seek out the positive spin on any situation? As you assess yourself, think of where you want to be. Nobody I know likes dealing with a person who is always out to steal our joy. Working in a school is a hard enough gig to begin with. We don’t need to be adding to it by stealing the joy of our colleagues, and you don’t have to listen to someone who wants to steal your joy.

Ultimately, school climate is about what each one of us chooses to make it. No leader, no single teacher, and no one person can change the climate of a building. It takes a collective effort to create an environment that we all want to be in. So, when you are next asked how things are going, think of Crystal’s words: “I could probably find something to complain about, but I’m not going to.”

The kids we worry about

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been spending a lot of time in meetings. These meetings bring our MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) team at school together with classroom teachers. The goal is to hold an initial meeting to review the beginning of the year data on our students. For each class, we look at the class profile on NWEA assessments, current guided reading levels, and any other data a teacher has to bring about their students. We spend time in these meetings discussing what the data tell us about our students, and how we might provide the best possible support.

We always love to begin our conversations around strengths, but ultimately, a big chunk of our time is spent discussing students of concern.

I know that when I was in the classroom, I always had a running list in the back of my mind of kids I worried about. If any of you are like me, you probably have a list as well. But what do we do with that list? After a recent learning session with Cornelius Minor, I found myself pulled back to his book We Got This, and there’s a section that caught my attention based on the conversations we’ve been having in our MTSS meetings. On page 38, Cornelius shares a resource called “Thinking About Kids in My Classroom.”

What I love about this resource, is that it takes what many of us may do – having a running list of our students of concern in the back of our minds – and asks us to make it more formal. So, here’s what I challenge you to do in the next couple of days – On a piece of paper, a post-it, the notes app on your phone, or wherever works for you, make a list of the kids you worry about. This might include kids who are struggling with curriculum, or maybe something in their assessment data is concerning, or it might be kids who don’t seem to “fit in” with the rest of your class, or maybe you see that they are acting out in your classroom. I believe there is so much power in making an actual list of the kids we’re worried about. When the list is mental, it’s easy to just forget about someone, or almost feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with the issues that seem to be the biggest at the moment. But when we make the list more formal, when we write it down, we have to reflect on what we can do to create an environment where all our students can thrive. As I reflect on the work of Cornelius Minor, I’ve learned that maybe those students on that list are not successful because there is something about our system, the way we do school, that fails a subset of people.

As Alexander Den Heiher reminds us, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” If a whole subset of our students is unsuccessful in school settings, we might need to engage in the hard work of looking at what about our environment needs to be changed.

So, once we have our list of kids we’re worried about, what we can do is think about how we might sort them into groups. Examples of groups Cornelius shares in We Got This include (but are not limited to) “kids who are below benchmark”, or “kids who are still learning English”, or “kids who can’t stop talking.” As you learn more about your students, consider all the other things these students might have in common. The more commonalities we identify, the easier some of our later steps might be.

Next, it’s important to think about what students need to do to be successful in your class. When was the last time you took a moment to define your own success criteria? And even more importantly, have you defined this for your students? If you can’t define what success looks like in your class, how could your students who struggle possibly know what they need to do?

Once you’ve defined success criteria, Cornelius asks “what barriers keep some students from achieving that success?” This is why relationships matter so much. We have to know our kids well in order to define our barriers. Sometimes identifying those barriers may mean we need to work with the family of our students.

Once you have identified some barriers, you can make a list of ways that those barriers could be removed. What could you try? What could you implement? Then, treat your ideas as little experiments. As you try things, pay attention to how it impacts your students. Does it make a difference? If not, try a different strategy to remove that barrier. If you’re struggling to figure out ways to remove barriers, seek support from a colleague. Maybe they have an idea that you haven’t tried yet! Have you ever created a formal list of the kids you’re concerned about? How has that changed the way you reflect on your students? If you’ve never utilized this strategy, what ideas or questions are you left with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!