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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Every Child's Story Matters

Every child has a story.

It doesn’t matter if they are entering pre-kindergarten or getting ready to graduate next week, they have a story.

That story, their narrative, is everything.

As educators, I think we often find ourselves in the mindset that our job is to teach content...and content alone. Before going into administration I taught fifth and sixth grade, and I was very much under that impression. I knew relationships were important, I knew my students needed to know how much I cared about them, and their success. Yet what I lacked, what I failed to see, was the reality that every child comes with a unique background, a different story, and one that shapes the way they come to school, the way they learn, and the way they grow.

Our students need to understand, need to know, that we see them for who they are...amazingly wonderful individuals.

It doesn’t matter which school you work at, the demographics you serve, the percentage of free or reduced lunches provided, the number of parents in the home, or the vocabulary they use… None of that matters, because every child has a story that is vital to who they are, no child is exempt from having one. So in order to truly be effective, in order to truly reach every child, in order to be the best educators possible I believe we need to do all things with this thought in mind: My students all have a story, are all individuals, and every one of them needs to know I love them, will take care of them, and know I will do all I can to understand what they need to learn and feel safe.

What would happen if an entire school decided to put love first?

As a Christian, my faith, and everything I believe in, is founded on the idea of love. I don’t believe in human perfection, I don’t believe in a life without mistakes, I don’t believe in judgment, and I certainly will never believe in the idea of anyone not being good enough to be loved and accepted for who they are.

So I must ask again, what would happen if an entire school decided to put love first? What would happen if an entire staff focused on building genuine relationships with each other beyond the surface, always assumed the positive, and decided to support each other, rather than see the flaws we are naturally going to have since we are all human? What would happen if an entire staff decided their mission is about building students up, their mission is about focusing on the positive, their mission is about understanding why a student is struggling so we can best support him? What would happen?

Teaching requires grace.

A child’s story can often help provide the reason for needing grace. Yet how often in moments of frustration is it easier to send a child away rather than remember their story? How often do we find our frustration begin to take over with a student refusing to work, when the truth is his story is one of brokenness, a lack of success, and a need for forgiveness? How often do we tire of that student who wants to answer every question out loud without raising his hand, only to forget he is starved for attention at home, and is expected to get all A’s and just wants someone to see him for all his efforts? How often do we tire of the student throwing his things, only to forget a diagnosis that would be so challenging if it was us in his shoes?

We have no power to control a child’s story before they come to us, regardless of what that story might be: Homeless, broken, tired, has seen things no child should, has successful parents too tired to invest in him, everything has always come easy to her, struggles to see his value, regrets her past decisions… What we can control however, is the story that takes place after they enter our building and classrooms… I never felt more safe than at school, I was never more recognized and accepted than at school, I never felt success like I did at school, I was truly loved in my second home - called school.

Every child's story matters. Maybe it’s time we start to focus on that narrative, and believe academic success will come when a child truly feels loved, supported, accepted, and heard. After all...If we focus on love, if we focus on grace, how could we possibly go wrong?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

To Every Teacher...Thank You

Dear Teacher,

You may not know me, but I am an elementary school principal who has the privilege of working alongside wonderful people like you every single day. To all teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, and administrators...I wanted to take a moment to say thank you.

Thank you for making a difference in the lives of students each day. It’s truly amazing the number of stories I have heard from students who come to school and find your classroom more of a home than the place they left that morning. The number of times I heard about how your love and support provided more comfort and encouragement than you may have ever thought possible. The number of times I have heard about the relationships you've built, and the impact they've had. Stories of perseverance, grace, love, community, joyful learning, risk taking, challenges conquered, and stories shared.

Thank you for putting countless students and teammates before yourself. Thank you for embracing the idea that this life, this profession, is not about you, but rather...the students and families we serve. Thank you for giving everything you have to the students who may never say thank you, or understand the impact you have had until much later in life. Thank you for planting the seeds of success, encouraging students to believe in the impossible, and building a mindset that is focused on not-yet, instead of can’t. Thank you for staying late and working weekends, worrying about that student who just isn’t understanding the material, and being willing to be a stable and positive role-model that offers grace when it would be much easier to show frustration and anger.

Thank you for celebrating the moments of success...even the small ones. For understanding it’s not about providing stickers and ribbons for showing up, but rather, taking the time to learn about each child, and cheering as they finally got that math problem right, or read that sentence, or said “I get it!”

Thank you for being a smiling face at your door each day. Thank you for pushing through the challenges in your life in order to put the needs of your students first. Thank you for being you...mistakes and all. For being willing to model the imperfections of planning, laughing through the failed lessons and messes made. Thank you for remembering that school is not just about grades and attendance, but life lessons and ideas shared.

Thank you for choosing a profession that is always challenging, always changing, and always needing your best. Thank you for choosing a profession that requires sub plans for sick days, and back up plans for technology outages and lessons that took half the time you thought they would. Thank you for choosing a profession that requires you to love openly, forgive daily, show grace often, and be flexible as each day rarely goes as planned.

Thank you for buying snacks for your kids. For buying new shoes, clothes, school supplies and backpacks. Thank you for waiting in the office with a student whose parents just can’t seem to make it on time each day for dismissal. Thank you for drying tears and offering encouragement. Thank you for creating a safe place to learn, and being a protector of every child you come in contact with. Thank you for never giving up, and embracing the weight that comes with a student’s education on the line. Thank you for working with challenging parents, constant pressure of student performance, and the inevitable change that is always around the corner.

Thank you for being a teacher, an educator, a counselor, a paraprofessional, an administrator...we all get one life to live, and I can’t thank you enough for giving yours to others. What you do each day may not always be noticed, may not always come with a thank you, may not always feel as successful as you wish it would...but please remember this: You make a difference, you matter, you provide love and safety, acceptance and support, and you change lives each day. In the end, when it’s time to say goodbye to the classroom or the campus you serve, know you lived a life worth living, and that you touched countless lives while having an impact that may very will reverberate through all eternity.

Those two words just don’t seem like enough...yet let me say them from the bottom of my heart - Thank You.

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’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 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 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 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


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, 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 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.