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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 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. 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


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 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.