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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Educators Never Stop Learning

I was recently at a conference about the social and emotional needs of children today. While much of what I heard reinforced what we were already seeing as a campus, it was fascinating - the idea many children today are unaware of how to communicate effectively, show and understand empathy, understand their feelings regarding shame, or even the ability to read the emotions of others.

Over the day the needs/challenges of children today continued to grow….social/emotional needs, emotional disturbances, medical needs, hunger, clothing, communication needs, lack of parental support, counseling needs, and on and on the list grew…

Two questions continued to enter my mind throughout the day:

1. Where do academics fall?

2. Whose responsibility is it to tackle all of these concerns?

When I was growing up schools had one job: Educate through the teaching of content.

I wasn’t able to use Google as it wasn’t around… Desks were in rows, car phones were the cellular technology of the day, and memorization of information was the key ingredient to showing knowledge and understanding. Encyclopedias, spelling lists, worksheets, and phonics ruled the classroom. If someone was out of line...well, that was a phone call home or a trip to the principal. Why? Because it was an expectation that my parents were to parent...and the school was to share content knowledge. Two very different rolls, parent and school…

Each year it seems the social and emotional needs of our students continue to grow. This, of course, causes educators everywhere to reevaluate our practices, and look at what we can do moving forward to continue to ensure our students are successful. Yet, as I continue to learn about the needs of our students, the more I am finding that content becomes step two in the learning process.

While I know some may not agree with me, if we are honest with ourselves I truly believe we can’t help but find that the answer to my first question...Where do academics fall? Is found second to whether or not our students are mentally ready to learn. Brain research, social emotional learning, restorative practices...all game changers in the world of education. Why? It’s really two fold...First, our students learn best when they are mentally engaged and ready to take on new challenges. Second, many of our students today come to school unprepared to learn, unprepared to communicate, or unprepared to understand the social dynamics of the classroom.

It is important to note that as the needs of our students change, as demands for individualized education for every child increase, as the needs for social emotional support grow...we as educators must continue to learn and adapt. This is no easy task as the challenges of education continue to change. Teaching today is no longer solely about content knowledge and memorization. Technology, collaborative expectations, and an ever shrinking world has changed the tools our students need in order to be successful. Yet, while content is still vital to student success in a world of high stakes testing, we know we can’t get there until we ensure the whole child is being cared for emotionally.

This of course leads right into my second question...Whose responsibility is it to tackle the social and emotional needs of our students? The answer...educators of course. While I truly believe this starts in the home, many students come without a foundation to build upon in the classroom. Which means many teachers have two options...adapt and learn to educate and support their students, or ignore the social and emotional needs and just focus on content. Yet, there is really only one option...Show me a teacher who loves children, and I will show you a teacher ready to learn to meet his/her students’ needs.

Classroom teachers, counselors, administrators...each day these educators play the role of parent, nurse, food provider, cheerleader, therapist, and of course...teacher.

As our world changes so does our profession, and while I acknowledge we need to continue to grow and adapt, it is daunting to realize the answer to my second question… Whose responsibility is it to tackle all of these concerns? … is in fact, the school’s.

When I entered college as a freshman I knew I was going to graduate as a teacher...it’s what I always wanted to be. Yet despite four years of learning, including one year of student teaching, I left without the fundamental understanding that things were going to change the second I left. I didn’t realize that the learning was never going to stop. That each year brought something new, and that no two years are ever alike. I had no idea that one day I was no longer going to hold all the knowledge in the room...Of course, back then, if you would have told me that students could ask their watch a question and get an answer immediately I would have said you were crazy...so it makes sense changes are always going to come.

In the end there is one thing all educators must remember...we never stop learning. We are never done growing, never done improving, never done learning something new. It seems each year brings new challenges and ideas...the world continues to change, and the expectations placed on our students for the future do as well. Today we are seeing an increase in our understanding of how the brain works, and finding there are very serious social and emotional needs within our classrooms...so what do we do? We learn, we change, we adapt...because after all, we are educators, and educators never stop learning.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

It All Comes Down To A Relationship

It all comes down to a relationship...

Try, if you can, to imagine the following without the ability to include relationships: Religion, politics, work, education, family, friends... it's scary isn't it? The removal of relationships could easily result in emptiness, pain, loneliness, anger, bitter assumptions and a lack of purpose.

Faith without relationship can often result in religious rules, regulations, judgement, and acts of works required for salvation.

Politics without relationships can often result in split views, an inability to come together, and an unwillingness to embrace love, and instead embrace hate or close-mindedness, no matter what party you find yourself in.

Friendship without relationship is no longer a friendship at all. Rather, two people, near in physical location, but distant in emotional connection and purpose.

But what about education? Where does relationship belong in the world of education? Teachers, Students, Families, and Community...the big four in our educational world.

School and Community: It's amazing how powerful change can be when a school and community come together. When a neighborhood, a district, a city come together in relationship in order to make a difference. My school has been blessed to partner with churches, a synagogue, businesses, and other schools all with one goal in mind...How can we support our students and teachers? How can we love on them both? How can we make a difference one life at a time? A school is a living entity, and in order to flourish fully, I truly believe ii needs community support and partnerships.

Teachers and Teachers: As I have written about before, it’s amazing how lonely being a teacher can be. It’s amazing how a person can feel extremely isolated as the only adult in a room filled with students. When your job is to educate, to love, to facilitate, to support, to fill instructional gaps and create an environment where curiosity reigns...yet are responsible for the safety, knowledge, and security of each student within the room...the job becomes one of immense responsibility, that is often held by the teacher, and the teacher alone. The list of things a teacher does each day is extensive to say the least, and I can’t imagine the burnout rate that would happen if teachers were required to face the challenge of teaching alone each and every day. The relationships teachers have with each other is vital to their success - both instructionally and emotionally. Relationships between teachers bring support, understanding, friendship, thought partners, and a better school community for each other, and for our students.

Teachers and Parents: The value of a supportive parent is priceless. The relationship between parents and teachers is an often overlooked or undervalued asset that can be the key ingredient to a student’s success. When teachers and parents work collaboratively together, and create a supportive relationship that looks much like a partnership, a student's instructional gains, behavior, and performance can increase at a much higher rate than in the classroom with the teacher alone. When a parent looks to support rather than seek to blame, interfere, or be overly critical, a successful and beneficial partnership can be formed, and one that can last for years to come.

Students and Students: The best teachers, the very best, are the ones capable of creating a classroom culture that inspires, forms, and develops successful and respectful student relationships with each other. A classroom culture built on the belief that together the class is a family, one built on empathy, integrity, and grace. A community of fellow learners, coming together in order to help each other be the best students they can be...in a safe and creative environment. The relationships our students form in the classroom, and the skills they gain through collaborating each day, will help carry them through their learning career. Great teachers know this, and because of this, they focus on teaching and guiding students in the direction of building successful relationships with each other.

Teachers and Students:Think about the teacher, the counselor, the administrator that helped change your life. Imagine his or her face...Think about the life lessons he taught, the stories she told, and the impact he had. Maybe she is the reason you are in education today, maybe he is the reason you finally began to believe in yourself as a learner. Did she inspire you? Did he light a fire for learning that still exists today? Odds are, when you think about this person you don’t remember that time he taught you the Pythagorean theorem, or the capital of all 50 states. Odds are you don’t remember his or her face because of the content that was shared, but rather the relationship that was formed. It’s amazing what happens when an adult, driven by integrity and grace, decides to make a difference in a student's life. An educator has the ability to not only share content, but inspire, lead, cultivate, and establish not only a love of learning, but also a self-efficacy that can last a lifetime. It was the educators who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself I remember. The ones willing to ask how I was feeling, and not just what I was hearing. The ones willing to invest time into me, even when I made it difficult to do so…

You see, in our world, not just in education, it all comes down to a relationship…

Yet for educators you have to ask yourself these questions: Am I willing to invest in others when they may not invest in me? Am I willing to offer grace to all students whether they deserve it or not? Am I willing to put in the time and energy it takes to create valuable relationships for my students? Am I willing to model what integrity looks like? What a strong work ethic and passion for learning means?

Are you willing?

I hope so, because I would love for your face to be the one your students see in their mind’s eye when they are asked one day who made a difference in their lives. Content is valuable, but relationships are everything.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hope Overcomes Pessimism

Hope.

A belief in a better tomorrow, a belief in the improbable, a belief in something greater than ourselves.

Why it is that human nature tends to lean away from hope and instead steer towards pessimism? Why are we drawn to drama, negativity, and excuses? Why do many who come across an obstacle or challenge begin to feel frustrated, tired, and anxious instead of motivated, intrigued, and hopeful?

I live in a world where lives are changed each and every day. I live in a world where teachers plan, create, think, support, educate, love, and persevere each and every day. I live in a world where hope is needed to provided longevity and balance. Hope overcomes pessimism, and only hope can provide the meaning I need.

Hope can come from many different places, people, belief systems...for me hope is Jesus Christ. For me, hope comes from a Savior. For me, hope comes from serving something greater than myself, with the understanding that it’s not about me.

Yet wherever hope comes from for you, guide it, embrace it, and understand that our future depends on it. Each day thousands upon thousands of men and women across this country go to work each day with one objective in mind...today, I will make a difference in the lives of the students I teach. Today, I will give my students a reason to learn, and a reason to push further in their knowledge. Such a hopeful profession.

Imagine for a moment you are playing the game tee-ball. You are up, so you grab a bat, walk up to the plate, and there in front of you is the ball you need to hit. Just sitting there. You have one job...hit the ball. It’s not moving, there’s no real challenge, just hit it. If I am honest, my first year of teaching looked a lot like tee-ball. Each day I came to work, looked at the plans, and went to each student and placed a lesson, much like a ball on a tee, right in front of them. I didn’t offer a real challenge, nothing to push them forward, nothing to require a risk...just fill this in, compete this sheet, and move on to the next. I wasn’t the teacher my students needed, and much of that came from a place of pessimism…

You see, as a new teacher I quickly became overwhelmed with the idea of making a difference for every child. I quickly began to crumble under the pressure of test scores needed, growth measurement targets required, and the sheer volume of needs that came through my door each day. I began to be pessimistic about my ability to teach and the daily challenges I faced. I began to take comfort in stories colleagues would share about what they were unwilling to do as opposed to risks they were willing to take. I began to embrace the difficulty of the job not as a challenge, but as a reason to believe reaching every student just wouldn’t be possible. In essence...in my first year I was not hopeful.

It was a youth pastor that redirected my mindset. “You know what I love about working with kids?” He asked me… “The fact that I get to see them the way God does, a purposeful creation with endless possibilities to make a difference for Christ. I just plant the seeds and watch them grow.”

The power of that statement came from the hope inside it. The hope for a bright future. The hope of a purpose for every child. The hope that every child can be anything he or she wants to be, and can have an amazing impact on the world.

Hope overcomes pessimism.

As a teacher, hope means every child has the potential to reach heights they never knew possible. Hope means that their socioeconomic status does not dictate their future. Hope means that a love for teaching transcends the challenges that might enter the room each day. Hope means teaching is about far more than worksheets and tasks, but rather risk taking and creativity. Hope means anything is possible...and when one hopeful teacher turns into two, and then three, hope begins to take hold, and a belief in a community, a belief in each other, and a belief in our students turns into a hope for a successful school not just academically, but socially, emotionally, and culturally.

As we enter 2017 it is my goal to continue to search for and hang onto the hope we have in this profession. To turn from pessimism and embrace the hope for a better tomorrow. I pray you will join me...because after all, without hope what chance to do we really have to make the difference we all hoped to make when we entered our profession.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Dilemma with Instant Gratification

There was a time when the purpose of taking a photo was to capture a moment you wanted to treasure, and then place that moment into a book for you or your family to see later… Dozens of photos, captured on film, waiting to be developed, sometimes over months.

There was a time when getting lost meant finding a map or a pay phone. There was a time when questions asked in a group like, “Who starred in that president’s movie with Redford?” or “Is it supposed to rain tomorrow?” would have required a trip to the movie store to find out it was Dustin Hoffman or waiting for the 10 o’lock news to find out there was a 70 percent chance it was going to rain.

There was a time when wanting to talk to someone far away required a person to write a letter, or pay extra for a long distance phone call…

Of course, times have changed, and changed rapidly. While I don’t think change is bad, and the power of knowledge has never been more accessible, there is a challenge that has continued to grow in the world of education each and every year...a dilemma really...instant gratification.

As weird as this is to say aloud...we have students who have never known a life that required them to think through taking a photo because they were precious and limited, have never had to wait for an answer to a question, or not had the ability to talk to someone face to face in China real time. Think about that for a moment…

The power of Google is a wonderful thing, getting instant feedback is quite amazing, yet…there is something lost in the art of not knowing.

We live in a world, we live in a society, that is focused on self...focused on self-image, self-worth built on the number of likes received from a photo or statement. Our students are growing up in this world, in this society where faces are constantly looking at phone screens, cameras take more selfies than any other photo, and answers to questions are searched for instantly. You see, our students are growing up in a world where they wait for very little. It’s truly amazing, television is on demand, answers are online, friends can be reached via text as soon as a thought arrives, photos are shared instantly, and seeing what others are doing is just an app away.

There was a time when waiting in line meant waiting...in line...with only your thoughts for entertainment. Office waiting rooms offered magazines for entertainment, and the newspaper was the best way to read about the game you missed or the one that wasn’t shown on TV.

We have students who have never known a life when waiting in line didn’t include playing a game or talking to a friend on their phones... Have never needed a magazine to catch up on fashion, sports, or entertainment. We have students who don’t know a world without being able to record every game, pause live TV, or even watch the game live on their phones…

In essence, we live in a world of instant gratification. From the way we communicate, learn, and even observe the world around us...everything is at a rapid pace. People want things as quickly as they can type, heck, even free-two day shipping wasn’t fast enough...so, buy a qualifying item on Amazon and you get it tomorrow…

So what is the dilemma with instant gratification? Besides of course the creation of millennials? Kidding.

While I am not the expert, and don’t pretend to be...there seems to be two major areas of concern that seem to grow each year...Attention and Grit.

Attention, stamina, amount of time focused on one concept...however you want to look at it, many students today are coming into classrooms lacking the ability to remain focused for longer than several minutes. It makes sense though...next time you watch a movie, television show, even play a game...watch how often the picture changes. We text using abbreviations because writing “you” takes too long, so just use “u” … Again, we live in a fast paced world, so you can probably imagine just how hard it can be to take an assessment in a quiet environment for an hour plus.

I am not saying ADHD is on the rise, I am not saying our kids don’t have the ability, what I am saying is our students are growing up in a world built on instant gratification, and when school demands a focus on the process...when school demands undivided attention...when a school demands a need for instructional stamina, many of our students do not enter the room prepared because the world does not function in the same fashion.

Grit, work ethic, willingness to fail, willingness to struggle...however you want to look at it, many students today are coming into classrooms lacking a willingness to struggle with their learning. How many times have you heard a teacher or colleague say something like, “These kids are just not willing to put in the work!” Or, how many colleagues have said of new teachers today, “They just don’t have the work ethic like new teachers used to have.”

I am not saying that today’s world is worse today than it once was... We just need to understand our reality as educators. Our kids are growing up in a world where answers come quickly. Have a question? Ask Siri. Not sure how to fix something? YouTube it. It’s amazing how quickly we can get what we want, when we want it. The wealthier the family, the less waiting time is needed. Yet even for our students coming from poverty, instant gratification is still alive and well.

So how do we tackle this dilemma? Or an even larger question, is this a dilemma? For many educators it is, and tackling it starts with embracing the challenge, and meeting our students where they are. Before frustration comes we need to understand our students, we need to understand where they are coming from, and we need to understand that the world they live in may not look at all similar to the one inside the school building. Attention, stamina, grit, a focus on the process...these things are taught, these things are nurtured, these things are often introduced in the classroom.

I truly believe we need to focus on the process of learning. We need to focus on creating a challenging curriculum that invites investigation, rather than asking questions Siri could answer in a matter of seconds. Creativity invites intrigue. Collaboration solves the need for human interaction. A positive environment invites the ability to fail forward safely.

The reality is that our students’ needs are changing. The reality is our students live in a world of instant gratification. So should we change instruction to focus on giving our students a curriculum built on instant gratification each and every day? Absolutely not. There is a time and place for all things, yet if we don’t focus on building stamina, creating engaging activities that require grit, and ask questions that go beyond a Googleable question...we are not giving our students the skills they need. There is something powerful that happens when we struggle, when we collaborate, and when we fail forward...our students need to experience this as much as possible, even though that might be quite the difficult challenge.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Imagine...What If Our Students Believed In Themselves The Way We Believe In Them

I stopped by to check in on a third grade student who had been having a rough start to his week. Great kid, big heart, but is a student many would consider a frequent flyer to the office.

I met with his teacher earlier that day, and received the great news that he was really doing well, and was giving each assignment his very best. So when I stopped by right before recess I was grinning from ear to ear…”Buddy, I am so proud of you! We have to celebrate your day, how would you like to celebrate?”

He looked at me, smiled, and yelled with confidence oozing: “I want to take you down at basketball!”

I laughed and said, “Alright buddy, game on.”

We began to walk towards my office to get my basketball...because every principal has a basketball in his/her office...and as we took each step I heard this young man say things like: “Oh Mr. Steele, I am going to juke you so bad. Oh Mr. Steele, you have no chance, I got game, I can make any shot from any spot on the court. You have no chance, I’m young and your old. Your cool Mr. Steele, but I got this!”

Like any mature adult I responded appropriately by saying, “Man, you are going down! You have no chance, this old guy will be schooling you all over the court.”

We grabbed the ball, ran outside, and naturally he started with the ball. He dribbled back and forth, through his legs, all the while saying, “You have no chance Mr. Steele, you are doing down, get ready, I am about to juke you so bad! You are old and I have game...”

He faked to the left, was about to dribble to the right, when I stuck out my hand, stole the ball, turned around past the three point line and shot. To my amazement it went in, all net. “Well how about that? I guess this old man still has some game left!”

His body language changed immediately. His shoulders slumped over, he grabbed the ball, threw it towards the field, and with a tear in his eye said, “I suck, I can’t win, I am horrible at basketball. You win Mr. Steele, let’s go inside.”

...

Let me stop with this story right there… We need to pause, we need to think...what just happened? This third grade student had many different possibilities to choose from as a reaction to my three-point-shot after the steal: He could have congratulated me on the shot, said I got lucky and continued with the trash talk, grabbed the ball and tried again, even admitted that maybe I wasn’t as bad as he thought. Yet none of those options were chosen. What was? Instant defeat…Why was this? How did a student go from total confidence to complete defeat within five seconds? What just happened?

If we are honest, what happened with that young man is the same thing that happens in our classrooms all the time. A task seems too difficult, and so instead of trying, many students give up. Why is this?

Imagine I asked you, a grown adult, to read the following sentence: O juuuwidlg alkiffdas lkasgjijl askljsdifhg qeyyyews uyyysdfkn jh asdkfljkjasdf.

You look at it, and as an adult you are not afraid to ask for help. After all, you have been around a while, you know how to read, so you simply ask, “Hey Ryan, can you help me here? I don’t even think this is a sentence...”

I smile and say, “Of course! It is absolutely a sentence, notice the capital letter at the front and punctuation at the end. You can do this, please try harder.”

You look at it closely again…”Yeah, I don’t know.”

”What do you mean you don’t know? Surely you know the alphabet, surely you know what each letter is. Sound it out! Try harder.”

You look at each letter in the second word and try to sound them out, “J--uuuu-w-i-d--llll-g. I don’t know what it means!”

I walk over to you, read the word aloud, and then ask you, “How hard can that be? The first word obviously means to lay on your stomach and crawl using your forearms. Here is a picture of what this word looks like. Now read the rest.”

You try, but just don’t understand. Imagine I give you another sentence, and then another, and then after reading it out loud to you, I give you a test based on a story written in the same fashion, and you have 30 minutes to read that story and take a test. What do you do? If you are honest, odds are you wouldn’t even try...and that’s after failing to read the new text a few times.

Now imagine you are a student, and you were well behind in kindergarten...always in the red group, always being pulled out of class. You were given vision tests and sat in meetings with your parents, and heard about your potential, but still….to the red group you go. You struggled in first, and second, and every day in third. For four years you had teachers that loved you, parents that love you, but the work has always been hard. You have spent your entire young life feeling like a failure. Feeling like you aren’t smart enough, good enough, talented enough… Eventually, and for some this moment comes much sooner than for others, you realize something...you can’t do it, so why even try?

I have sat with teachers and parents so angry with a child, so angry at his or her unwillingness to try, saying things like he just doesn't want to. She’s not willing to take on the challenge. He’s not willing to be successful.

Here is the thing...There is a big difference between a challenge and a wall just too tall to climb. There is a big difference between not wanting to and feeling unable to. Children are smart, they are only human, and I have never met anyone who enjoys feeling like a failure. There are many students I have worked with, even adults, that are motivated by a challenge...heck, I am one of those people...If the task is difficult I am engaged, however, my engagement comes from a place of past success, not failure. Whether its academics, sports, or even life, if you are never successful, if you never get a chance to experience achievement, why would you believe you could?

If only our kids could see themselves as we see them. If only our students could believe in themselves the way we believe in them. As educators, we strive to give our students everything we can to ensure their success. We work countless hours, spend time looking at data and planning for each child. We unapologetically desire for each child to have the best future possible, and strive to challenge each and every student along the way. Yet we can’t forget this one important thing...Not every child sees themselves the way we do. Not every child wakes up believing they can, believing today is the day they break through the struggle. Today is the day they concur that math test, take down that reading passage, finally sit with a friend at lunch.

We have to stop and remember that we need to constantly tell our students we love and believe in them. Stop and show them we care, and give them opportunities to experience successful moments, no matter how small it may seem. Building self-efficacy is a vital part of what we do, and what we are called to do as educators.

...

I ran over to the field next to the basketball hoop and grabbed the ball. I placed it on the ground in front of the student with a tear in his eye. “Here is what I know...I might be old, but I promise 33 isn’t as old as you might think when it comes to playing sports… I have been playing basketball for much longer than you have been alive and I am two feet taller than you...but guess what? None of that matters, because you are clearly pretty good, and the student I know may not win, but he is going to go down giving it all hes got. So...you going to try and teach me a thing or two or what?”

He smiled, picked up the ball, and said “You are going down!”

Imagine if our students saw themselves the way we do...Imagine if they believed in themselves the way we believe in them. Maybe, just maybe, they would have the courage to take a risk, keep trying, and find the success they so desperately crave, instead of giving up the second a task feels impossible. It’s our job to remind them of who they are to us, why the sky's the limit, and why they can truly conquer the challenges ahead...and one day...who knows...they might just start to believe in themselves the way we do already.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Need to Unplug and Be Completely Present

Balance.

It is amazing just how difficult it is to find balance in the life of an educator. I am sure many people within many different professions struggle with this as well, yet in the educational world I live in...the search for balance is often elusive and distant.

Why is this? Why it is so hard to be able to balance faith, family, friendships and work?

Here is what I know...the answer to finding balance is not time. After all, if given the ability to structure our days around what is most important, the day for many would look like this: Time in our faith would take the largest portion, family next, then friendships, and finally work. Yet for most of us, work takes the largest amount of our time, and for those in education, it’s extremely hard to shut down at the end of the day. The reality for most of us is that trying to use time to find balance just isn’t possible.

So how can we find balance? How do we find the ability to truly focus on what is most important, while still making the best impact possible on our students and school community? For me, what I am learning is that it takes two things: The need to Unplug and Be Completely Present.

Why is it so difficult to unplug from our devices? Why is it so hard to turn them off? Even for just a little while…The next time you go out to dinner look around. The next time you are at the mall, while driving, heck - even a sporting event, look around...what will you see? Faces, lots of them, looking down at the devices in their hands. It is not that uncommon to see a family of four, all out to dinner, all looking down at their own personal devices. Yet it's not just at home, for many, our devises are beginning to find their way into the classroom, while on a school duty such as recess or lunch, or even when our kids are silently reading.

In a world where we can’t find balance, can’t find time to focus on what is most important, it’s amazing how much time we spend plugged into the digital world, but not the physical world around us.

It would not be uncommon for me to leave work, come home, make dinner, and even before dinner is over with my family, have my phone out checking emails, checking voicemails, just to make sure everything is alright. Then in the playroom with my children, checking ESPN scores, Twitter, Voxer or Facebook...all the while missing the opportunity to plug into my family, and unplug from my device.

Let me be clear, I am not stating that our devices are evil. That Twitter, Voxer, Facebook, or anything else is the problem with society. In fact, I have learned more, and made stronger connections with educators, because of these tools, not in spite of them. However, when trying to find balance in life, when trying to find a way to stay connected to what is most important, there is no doubting a need to unplug, even for a little while.

Yet, unplugging is only the first step, the second can be even harder...being completely present.

Here is the challenge: In each moment, whether at work or at home, with friends or with family, be fully present. Give each moment the undivided attention it deserves, and don’t allow outside thoughts or pressures to enter your mind. For me, that is one very heavy challenge, and one that is not easily accomplished. My mind is always racing, and all it takes is something shiny, or a squirrel, to get me off track, yet it’s a challenge I take very seriously.

I wish there was a way to turn off my brain. A simple switch I could flip that could take all the stress, all the anxiety, all the problems, and just make them stop running through my mind once I left school. Of course, life doesn’t work that way, so in order to be completely present in the moments I am gifted, I need to be diligent and intentional with my thoughts and actions. Whether it is praying to my Savior, reading the word, playing with my daughters, talking with my wife, or visiting with a friend - my attention needs to belong to that moment. A concern can wait, I can return that email the next day, and worrying about something has never made things easier in the end.

Of course, being fully present at school can also be challenging. After all, how many times has your mind wondered while at the teacher table hearing the same story for the fifth time? While going over an assignment? While watching that historical background video for the upcoming unit? I often wonder how many opportunities I missed as a teacher because I failed to be fully present in each moment. Relationships are so vital in our profession, and our students need to believe that when they are with us, they have our undivided attention. The same of course goes for our teammates and partners...how many times have you failed to look up from your email when someone comes to ask a question? How many times have you expertly said things like "Uh huh, yeah, totally" yet failed to comprehend a word they were saying because honestly you just don't want to make time to listen? We are all busy, but here's the thing...doesn't giving our undivided attention completely represent how much we actually care? I would argue that it does...

Unplug and be present...two things that are beginning to create balance in my life. Life is amazingly short, and time will never be on my side, but if I can fully commit my attention to each moment...well, then I might just find some resemblance of balance after all.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Assuming the Positive and Building Your Team

Why is it so difficult at times to assume the positive? Why is it so difficult at times to not make or take things personally? Assuming the negative, assuming ulterior motives, or assuming a personal attack can be crippling to an educator. Yet it happens all the time. So here is the question...how do we protect ourselves from this mindset?

I truly believe the biggest mistake we can make as educators is to make or take things personally. To use our skewed perception to create drama within the campus, or to take our past hurts or failing moments and place that history onto a new situation that started out to be pure.

It has almost become cliche...the idea that relationships are important. Yet creating authentic relationships with the people you work closely with is vital to our success. Vital to our emotional well being, and vital to creating the work-life balance we need to continue forward for many years to come.

How do we protect ourselves from assuming the negative? I think one key component is by surrounding ourselves with those who know us, and those that can reflect back our reactions in a positive, yet honest way.

As a principal, I have quickly learned that in order to fight the temptation to take things personally, in order to fight the temptation to view difficult situations with a negative light, in order to assume the positive and not the negative, I need a team around me that knows me well. A team that can offer support and transparency as the year progresses, and can look at situations from the outside and offer a viewpoint that removes the negative assumption I might make. Building your team is a crucial component of success on any level. For me, that team is my assistant principal and counselors. Together we plan, reflect, support, and have fun. We collaborate, build-up, and carry each other’s burdens. We are a tight group, built on transparency and authentic admiration and appreciation. They are the team I rely on, spend valuable time with, and trust to help guide my thoughts in a positive manner.

Students, parents, colleagues...All three groups of people can create friction and challenges in the life of an educator. Situations occur daily...a frustrated email from a parent, a student that refuses to respond to redirection, a colleague that you just don’t see eye-to-eye with...situations, that if we are not careful, can open the door to assuming the negative or to take things personally.

When frustration occurs, or when our own baggage begins to skew our perspective, your team can provide insight in challenging situations: A frustrated parent email, while at first might have felt hurtful or taken as a personal attack, could easily be a parent upset with a situation that affects their child, their most precious thing on earth, and that angry email is not about the teacher, but about a difficult situation. A teacher might assume the negative, assume a personal attack, yet a teammate who knows you well might be able to offer insight you desperately need.

A student that refuses to respond, refuses to work, could quickly feel like a personal attack. Assuming the negative about this student could happen, and frustration can take over. Flashbacks of that year you had that one student that pushed every button you had, and made things so difficult all year begin to creep into your mind. Self-doubt, frustration, going home angry, and beginning to start thinking about other careers might enter your mind… When these trying times occur, it’s those closest to you, your team, that can offer insight and deflect the negative assumptions. There are hundreds of reasons a student refuses to work, rarely is it personal. Rarely is the child wanting to fail, wanting to be in trouble, wanting to create a divide between himself and the teacher. It’s an outside perspective, a team that knows you, that can help shift the focus from personal and negative, to a need for support and love for a child.

In case you forgot...Colleagues are human. As humans, perfection doesn't exist….Mistakes happen, frustration can occur, especially in a school setting where the stakes are high, and emotions are often tied to the work we do each day. If a school is going to be successful, there just isn’t room for drama, and I truly believe that 99% of the time drama enters the workplace is because of negative assumptions. It’s the baggage we carry that often dictates our perception. It’s a broken world perspective that often shapes our viewpoint. When others hurt our feelings, make mistakes, or disagree with us, it is often those within our team that can help refocus our perception. Our teammates can see the positive view, and begin to bridge the gap that can be created when our baggage clouds our vision.

Imagine for a minute, what would your school be like if everyone assumed the positive in people. Imagine if people viewed relationships as genuine partnerships and friendships, not constant manipulative moves where each person is trying to get something from someone else.

My wife and I have been marriage mentors several times for our church. The advice I always offered, to every potential spouse was this… Strive to give 100% of everything you have to the person you love, and expect nothing back in return. In essence, give everything you have to someone, and require nothing back as payment. What would happen if our teams worked this way? What would happen if we assumed the best in people, gave our colleagues our full attention and effort, and required nothing back in return?

The challenge: Assume the positive in all situations.

The support: The team you build around you. The people you love and appreciate. The people you spend most of your time with. The people that can offer a positive perspective.

My team is my AP and counselors - They are my rock, my confidants, and the people I trust explicitly. Who are your teammates? Do they offer the positive? Do you give them everything you can and expect nothing in return?

If nothing else...it’s at least something to think about.