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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cherish the Final Days

I am probably not supposed to say this as a principal…

I am sure there are Administrator 101 textbooks out there that say it’s never good to admit this out loud, let alone in a blog post…

Yet, I am just going to say it… I am tired, and I am stressed.

You see, the end of the year is a challenging season in the world of education. This is typically when many events and activities begin to take place...graduation, end of year celebrations, assemblies, night events, the final grading period is coming to an end and projects are due. Most state testing is completed, and many students are looking at a summer break just days away.

As a principal, this time of year brings on an interesting challenge...I must plan for the future, hire for tomorrow, yet not lose focus on the here and now. This isn’t easy, and there are many moving pieces to an always changing game-plan. I think of it as playing chess, but with five games going on at the same time…

It’s this time of year when I find out staff members I love dearly are taking on new challenges or promotions at different schools, or staying home with family, or retiring. In one moment I am hurting as I find out I have to say goodbye, and in the next realizing that I need search to find the right person to welcome in as a new member of our team.

This time of year is challenging. It is difficult, and I hate to admit it...but it is emotionally draining.

Last night we had our school’s annual Student Council Dance, and I asked for every teacher to please attend...this of course meant I asked for everyone to come to a night activity on a Friday night, from 6-8 PM, with only a few weeks remaining in the school year.

For many this would seem like a difficult thing to get excited about, after all, I knew how tired I was feeling...yet our teachers are pretty amazing. While it would have been easy to find a reason to miss, they didn’t. They were there, ready to enjoy a moment with the hundreds of families that came.

At the end of the night a gentleman stopped me smiling saying, “Hey, only eight days left!”

I laughed, and said something like, “You know it!”

Right after that a grandmother, who is mom to her granddaughter, pulled me aside and asked if she could share something with me. I smiled and said, “Of course!”

Her eyes began to tear up, “You have the best staff in the whole world Mr. Steele! It’s a Friday night at 8 o’clock and this building is filled with teachers making my granddaughter smile. Please tell them thank you for me, they don’t know how much this means to us parents, to give up their night for our children.”

I thanked her, gave her a hug, and watched as she turned and took her granddaughter's hand. It was in that moment that I realized something...we only have eight days left!

You see, there are two ways to look at the statement - We only have eight days left.

One way - We only have EIGHT days left. Often it is a countdown, only eight days until a break. Only eight days until summer. Only eight days until I can sleep a little longer and have a little less stress. Teaching is a challenging profession, and I can admit this has been my mentality for the majority of the final few weeks of school I have had.

There is another way to read this statement though, and it hit me last night as that wonderful grandmother walked away - We ONLY have eight days left. You only have eight days left with the kids you have grown to love in your class this year. Only eight days to see if your students will have another light-bulb moment. Only eight days to laugh with the students you have built such a great classroom culture with. We only have eight days left with the students we love so much. Only eight days left with teachers I am going miss more than they will every truly know.

Education is a marathon race that starts over each and every year. As educators we have two options when we can see the finish line...we can give into our exhaustion and stress only to limp across the finish line, OR we push forward with everything we have left as we cross the finish line celebrating each final moment we get with the students and colleagues we love so much.

As I said in the beginning of this post, whether I should admit it or not...I am tired, and I am stressed. As I think over my years of teaching and administration I have to admit I have crossed the finish line with a limp in my step on more than one occasion...only to miss my students the next Monday they didn’t return.

This time of year is difficult and exhausting - but we need to remember to cherish the final days. Cherish the moments with the students you love, and the colleagues you care so much about. At our school there are only eight days left, and I hope I cherish each one before they are gone.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Trust - The Challenge and Need in Education

When I was a child, in sixth grade to be exact, our school went to camp. For me, growing up in Washington meant camping was a regular event, but the idea of going to camp with my classmates...well, I wasn’t sure what to think. It didn't take long to learn that school camping was not like the camping I was used was mainly kids in cabins going to bed early, eating food that all tasted the same no matter the color, walking around trails, and completing “learning activities” along the way.

At the end of the week my cabin was ready to participate in a team-building activity. The title of this activity? “Trust Fall.” Now, it’s important to note that I was not a popular kid, in fact, most of camp for me was looking forward to free time so I could go off alone and fish. I didn’t make friends easily growing up - talking to others didn’t come naturally, and confidence was something I just didn’t contain. So when the counselor said we were going to partake in an activity called Trust Fall...well, my imagination took over and I pictured myself free-falling from a tree to a group of hands waiting below.

For those unfamiliar with a Trust Fall here is the idea, as I quickly learned that day. One person stands as straight as possible with his arms folded in front of him while facing away from those watching. A second person, who is deemed strong enough catch the person standing in front, is given the role of catching the person when he falls backwards. So, simply put - one person falls backward without bracing himself, while the other person catches him.

The counselor, who seemed to be enjoying this activity a little too much, asked us to partner up. I, being the loner of the group, was partnered with, of course, the last remaining kid who stood alone. Still though, if I could trust anyone in my cabin, the kid who also didn’t get connected to the group would have been as good as anyone.

For whatever reason I was chosen to go first. My partner looked strong enough, he said he was ready, he said he could catch, I fell backwards. I kept falling, and falling...and then...pain. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn't think, I just hurt.

It was that moment - lying on the ground looking at the clouds slowly move overhead while gasping for air - that I realized something...It was going to be hard for me to ever trust again. Sadly, that has been the case for a very long time.

The challenge with trust, no matter the field you work in or the life you lead, is that it requires you to hand over control to someone else. This of course comes in many forms...We give control of our hearts to the ones we love, our child’s safely and intellectual growth to his/her teacher, food cleanliness to our favorite restaurants, finances and financial future to our accountants/financial planners, health to our doctors, and for many - even our eternity to our Savior and God.

Trusting is difficult. For many years I ran under the notion that I would only trust someone if he/she deserved it. If that person had shown time and time again I could trust him/her to get the job done - the right way, have my back, show honestly in difficult times and fairness even when it didn’t mean getting his/her way...then, and only then, I would trust them. Of course, we are all human, so offering trust on the basis of perfection meant I would never be able to trust anyone for too long.

In the world of education, the need for trust is abundant, yet how often do we truly analyze its importance? When looking at the network of relationships within a school, the need for trust becomes very clear. When starting with a teacher at the center, a web of trust begins to form between the teacher and students, parents, counselors and administrators...all of whom work together as well...this is just a glimpse, and does not include the many people/entities that make up the community and world our students grow up in...

For me, this all leads to one do we create an educational environment where trust exists? After all, mistakes are going to happen, and people may not always catch us when we fall backwards…

The answer: We must offer trust freely first, without the requirement of earning it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying you can always trust everyone...but what I am saying is in the world of education, and in regards to the web of student, parent, teacher, counselor, administrators and other school personnel (instructional coach, librarian, nurse, specialists, etc) we need to offer trust freely, until proven otherwise. I will be the first to say that this isn’t easy, we are asking imperfect people to make the right choices, not gossip/talk negatively about us, protect us, do right by us, and live a life of integrity at all times. Yet, for schools to be successful, for schools to get the most out of our students, and each other...I truly believe this is a step we need to take.

I am going to be honest...this is difficult for me, and it has been my entire life. I am not sure if that comes from a fear of being hurt or disappointed, a fear of mistakes being made by others, a desire to do things myself, or any other factor that may be in the way...Yet I will continue to try each day to offer it freely...after all, we all share the same goal and desire - to ensure our students, every single one of them, are safe, cared for, and successful. Trust will help us get there, because without it...well, let's just say our students deserve better than that.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

I will run through a wall for you...

I have always loved the expression, “I would run through a wall for him/her!”

Think about that...even if I could manage my way through a wall, how painful would that be? Assuming of course it is an actual wall and not a Hollywood designed prop that looks real but is really just styrofoam…

You see, I love that phrase because it illustrates a passion for the vision or person leading the way. After all, the idea of running through a wall usually comes within a phrase like…”I really don’t think I can pull this off, but I would run through a wall for him so I am going to try.”

In education, walls seem to pop up all the time that seem impossible to overcome...instructional gaps, curricular changes, campus/cultural changes, behavioral needs, social/emotional needs, and many more…while teaching truly is a powerful and meaningful profession, it comes with it’s own challenges. Many of which look like walls standing in our way.

In life, when staring at a wall we really have three choices:

A: Turn the other way and avoid it.

B. Try to find a way over or around it, yet not actually conquering it.

C. Charge right through, win or lose, giving it your all.

I think for most educators we want to take the third option. We don’t want to run away, we don’t want to skate around it, we want to get through it victoriously for our students. However, while most educators I know would be willing to tackle the wall, it’s often going to take more than themselves to take that first step.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of educators that are willing to take on challenges without the help or support of anyone else, but I think most need support or encouragement. That makes sense though...I don’t know about you, but if I am staring at a wall I would love to tackle it with a partner, or two, or three, or 100. Of course, that isn’t always possible. Often educators need to take on challenges with the encouragement of someone, yet in the end it is really between them and the on one...mono e wallo -

As a principal, there is nothing more difficult than knowing one of the people I love most in this world...any educator on staring at a wall. Yet many educators find themselves feeling alone when challenges arise. Of course, teaching is interesting that way...while most schools are built on the ideology of collaboration and team planning, the reality is that teaching is often an independent profession. Yes, you have students with you. Yes, you have teammates next door. Yes, you have an admin team, instructional coaches, and other support systems in place. Yet most of the day it is the teacher, the lone adult in the classroom, making countless decisions all in the name of ensuring each child gets an individualized experience based on his or her needs. Teachers must constantly make independent decisions, move forward, create meaningful moments, and be willing to take risks all in the name of student’s this reality that often creates moments when teachers find obstacles, much like walls, and can feel very alone as they are deciding between options A, B or C.

I wish principals were given magic wands that made all challenges go away. I wish I could meet with a teacher and simply say, “Please share with me the challenge you are facing so I can make it disappear by the end of our conversation.” Sadly, that doesn't exist. Teaching is never easy, but always worth it. Yet there are times when things get difficult and walls can occur that just seem impossible to get through...

For me...I want my teachers and staff members to know that if they are staring at a wall, they will be sure to see me run towards it ahead of them. I want to be the person leading the charge, the one who does whatever possible to help him/her get through. While I know this isn't possible for every challenge that comes along, if I can take on the challenge with them I will. I will lead the way, or I will support them all the way through. Whether it is an encouraging word, a first step, a shoulder, or running forward side by side...I will be there.

In the end walls are always going to pop up, challenges will come, decisions will need to be made, and there will be moments in each educator's life when he or she will have to I run? Do I try to get around? Or to do do my best to push through for my students? I just hope when that moment does come for those at my school, they remember they are not alone, I will be there...cheering them on, running alongside, or rushing past to lead the charge as we try and run through the wall, together.