The Value in Looking Back
"Don't look back."
"Focus on the future, since that's where you're going."
At some point in your life, you may have received advice such as this, counsel to keep looking forward, to never look back. While we definitely don’t want to live in the past, I'd like to make the case that there can be great value in looking back, if for nothing else than to see how much you've grown.
Take a moment and listen to Ep. 114 of my Teaching Tales podcast where I talk about how my daughter's recent college graduation reminded me that we all need to take time to look back to remember and appreciate how far we've come.
A Dream Realized
In 1996, way back during my first year of teaching, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by award-winning children’s book author Robert San Souci. Held at a local elementary school, Mr. San Souci spoke about the various illustrated books he’d written, his writing process, and what inspired him to write.
Sitting in a folding chair in a crowded multipurpose room that evening, a fire was lit inside of me. I remember walking away from the event thinking I want to do that. I want to write a children’s book.
So the next day I sat down at my computer and embarked on a writing journey that, though I didn’t know it at the time, would end up spanning over a quarter century. My goal was to create a fictional adventure for young readers, a story that could one day be published as an illustrated book. I had no idea where it would go, but I decided to just start writing. I was newly married and teaching full-time, so time was at a premium. To say my writing sessions were sporadic would be an understatement. As life happened and my family grew, I’d often go several months if not an entire year or more between sessions. But the fire never went out. It was just a slow burn.
After about a decade, I finally had a completed rough draft (emphasis on the word rough). I occasionally revisited the project over the next few years to revise and tweak the story, only to put it back in a digital drawer for later.
But the dream of publishing the story was still alive. The fire was still there, if only embers buried beneath the busyness of life.
Then last summer I made the decision to seriously pursue publishing the book. I dove back into the story, completing multiple rounds of edits and revisions. Choosing to self-publish, I also needed to find an illustrator who could take the story to the next level through pictures. I prayed to be connected with the right partner for the project, and my prayers were answered in the form of Johnny Davis. For the past year I have worked with this uber-talented friend and artist, and during our virtual meetings it was a joy to see him consistently produce my imagination in his artwork. Folks, his illustrations are going to blow you away.
So what’s the book about, Brent?
Set in an imaginary land of castles, kings, and queens, it’s the story of Quinn, a twelve-year-old orphan whose life has been one heartbreak after another. But when an unexpected visitor arrives in his village, his life is about to change. It’s a tale of adventure that will test Quinn’s courage and prove that good things come to those who persevere.
It’s not a typical picture book where each page contains an illustration and only a sentence or two (e.g. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie), but it’s not quite a full-blown chapter book either (e.g. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Targeting readers ages 8 and up, think of it as a bridge between beginning chapter books like The Magic Treehouse series and young adult chapter books. The book is 8”x10” with full pages of text and full-page illustrations on every second or third page. I’ve also included discussion questions at the end that teachers and parents can use to reinforce the values presented in the story.
I’m over the moon to announce that it’s finished and now available on Amazon! Click here to order your copy.
My dream has come true. It took over 25 years, but it's been realized. I’d love for you to pick up a copy and pray that you and your kids enjoy the story and are encouraged by the message it contains.
Below are the front and back cover for you to enjoy!
In our world right now, there’s a lot of attention being paid to protecting ourselves from illness, specifically COVID-19. Yesterday, I experienced something that reminded me that a virus isn’t the only thing that’s contagious.
I’ve previously written about the Power of the Little Things, how even the smallest of actions can reap huge dividends for those around us. How a high five, a simple compliment, or something as small as a smile can make someone’s day, week, or even month. Yesterday, I was reminded that exercising the Power of the Little Things can be contagious.
Every morning at school, one of my responsibilities and privileges is greeting students and their families as they arrive on campus. As students walk by and get out of their cars, I make it a point to look for small compliments to give. If I see a student walking up in what appears to be a new pair of shoes, I say something like, “Wow! Are those new shoes? Those look great!”
If a kindergartener or first grade girl has a bright bow in her hair, I’ll comment on it. “Pretty bow!”
If a boy has a stylish shirt or a girl is wearing a pretty dress, I’m sure to mention it to them. Every single day I compliment students in ways like these. Why? Because chances are, they’re dying for someone to notice their new shoes, hair bow, shirt, or dress. Think back to when you were young. Remember when you got that new pair of shoes and wore them to school for the first time? My guess is you hoped someone would mention them. I know I did. And this doesn’t just apply to the early grades of elementary school. Middle and high schoolers crave this attention too, probably even more so.
But yesterday I experienced something super cool. As one car drove up before school, I opened the car door and one of our young girls got out. She thanked me and then looked at me, as if searching for something. She looked at my hat, my shirt, and finally her eyes settled on my shoes.
“Mr. Coley, I really like your shoes!” she said with a big smile.
My shoes. My ordinary shoes. My old, worn, scuffed, and need-to-be-replaced-soon shoes (see below).
It was as if she was looking for something to compliment, couldn’t find anything extraordinary, so settled on my shoes. And you know what? I believe that’s exactly what happened.
See, this isn’t the first time this has occurred. This is actually the third time this year a student has complimented my shoes. None of those times were my shoes anything special, anything that would have stood out. In fact, all three times I was wearing older, worn shoes.
Then why did I receive compliments on them from students? Simple. Because I complimented them first. I’ve modeled the behavior, and I truly believe in this case, they’re now mimicking my actions.
The lesson to be learned here? A virus isn’t the only thing that can be spread. Our behavior is contagious. Kindness is contagious. I’ve made it a habit to look for the little things -- shoes, glasses, dresses -- and make a positive comment about them. And now I have students doing the same thing. Looking for something nice to say is on their radar. And if they’re complimenting my old shoes, how often are they doing the same kind of thing with their peers? I’m guessing more than they would have otherwise.
If you’re not already doing so, I encourage you to look for those small compliments to give to the students and staff around you. Because not only will it make a difference in the life of the person you encourage, but your action can create a ripple effect that can spread to others.
Remember, not everything that’s contagious is bad. We can all be super spreaders...of kindness!
Want to hear more? I devoted an entire chapter of my book Stories of EduInfluence to the topic of how small actions can make a big impact. Click/tap here to listen to the Audible version of “Chapter 8: The Power of the Little Things."
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book in paperback, Kindle, or Audible versions, head over to Amazon.
The Last Straw
Sometimes the smallest things can provide the biggest reminders.
This past Friday rain was in the forecast. For those of you in education, particularly at the elementary level, you know how much joy and happiness rain can bring to the school day (yes, I’m being sarcastic). Along with its diabolical cousins wind and a full moon, there are few things that can wreak as much havoc on a school day as rain. If you know, you know.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to hit the El Pollo Loco drive-thru for lunch, and unfortunately I left the house forgetting to bring something from home. So on the way to school, I decided to stop and pick something up at the local bastion of convenience, 7-11. Please don’t judge. I was in a rush.
In the store, I grabbed a pre-packaged turkey and cheese sandwich, a bag of pretzels, and then proceeded over to the drink counter. Knowing it was going to be a busy day, I decided I’d need all the caffeine I could get, so I grabbed an empty 50-oz. Double Gulp cup. After filling it with iced tea, I moved down to the counter, grabbed a lid, and, much to my chagrin, discovered the store was out of the large straws.
Dang, I thought, knowing the little straws available were only about two-thirds the height of the mammoth-sized container holding my liquid energy for the day. While I didn’t burst into tears or anything, I was a little bummed.
I know, I know. It’s a straw, Brent. Not the end of the world. A First World problem for sure.
And then I remembered the front seat of my car.
Four days earlier, on Monday afternoon on my way home from work, I had stopped at the Starbucks drive-thru for an end-of-the-day treat -- a Trenta Strawberry Acai Refresher, my favorite. When I pulled up to the window, the barista handed me my drink...and an extra large straw. I’ve gotten used to Starbucks’ new drinkable lids, so I no longer use a straw. I casually tossed the straw onto the passenger seat and proceeded to drive home, enjoying my drink on the way.
For the next four days, driving to and from work and around town, I would look over and see the straw resting on the front seat. I should probably throw that away, I remember thinking to myself more than once. But for whatever reason, I didn’t. My car isn’t littered with trash, but that unneeded straw remained on the seat for four days, completely defying the typical lifespan of a superfluous item such as this.
Until Friday. Until I walked out of the 7-11 in need of this item and all was right with the world again. Or at least I had an appropriately sized straw for my iced tea.
So why do I share this story?
While it would be easy to dismiss this as luck, I choose to think of it in a different way. I fiercely believe, and these two related incidents beautifully reminded me of one thing -- God cares about and is involved in the little things of our lives. Even the really little things. Like a straw.
Would my day have gone OK if I hadn’t had the right-sized straw for my iced tea? Yep. Would I have survived having to remove the lid and drink the last third of my beverage straight out of the cup? Sure would have.
But four days earlier, I had been provided with a straw. A straw I didn’t need. I had been given something that, at the moment, was seen as extra, as something to be thrown away. But unbeknownst to me, I would have need of it later. How often does this happen in our lives without us realizing it? How often are we given things, often in the form of having to endure struggle, that will benefit us later?
Was getting that straw part of my destiny, God’s ultimate plan for my life? I don’t think so. But is He powerful enough to have orchestrated the events above to have provided for me in the simplest of ways, by giving me a straw? I absolutely believe so. Because that’s how much He cares for me. That’s how much he cares for all of us.
I think this is an overly simplistic example of how things often happen in our lives which we may not understand at the time, but help prepare us for something we’re going to experience down the road. In this case, it was a straw I didn’t know I’d need a few days later. In other cases, it may be something less pleasant and much more serious, like a failed relationship that teaches us how to better cultivate the next one. Or being let go of a job you loved, only to make you available for a better one that comes along.
So the next time something falls perfectly into place, seemingly by chance, maybe it wasn’t so random. Or the next time you go through a season of struggle, remember that it’s more than likely preparing you for something down the road. Because as one of my favorite verses says, “And we know that in all things” -- ALL things, even the really, really little things -- “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
What Someone Needs to Hear
Sometimes all it takes to make someone's day, week, month, or even year are a few simple words of encouragement. Check out the short video below as I share a quick story about how a few kind words from one of my teachers came at just the right time.
I talk more about the life-changing power our words can have in Chapter 7 of my book Stories of EduInfluence. If you could use some encouragement conveyed through real stories from the classroom and front office, consider picking up a copy available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible editions.
Get it on Amazon here!
Teaching is difficult.
Teaching in a pandemic? That's taken the degree of difficulty to a whole new level.
The teachers and support staff at my school have been serving our students in a purely virtual model since March. They've been crushing it, but they're tired. Really tired.
This past week, I wrote a letter to my staff in an attempt to provide some encouragement. Today while having lunch with my dad and talking about each other's work, I mentioned the letter I had sent. After reading to him what I had written, he urged me to share my message online. He reminded me that the need for the words I wrote is larger than my staff. He told me that, like those in my building, there are other educators out there who need some encouragement.
So that's what I'm doing. Below is the message I sent to my staff. Please know this is not about me. I'm just a principal who is trying to support his teachers. There are hundreds of leaders across the country far better than me doing the same thing, and probably doing it better. But if you're a teacher and are struggling, these words are for you. If you're tired, these words are for you. I pray you will be encouraged and reminded of this -- you're not alone.
Don't Let Notifications Control You!
Email is great.
And it’s not.
It’s a tool that enables us to electronically communicate with someone on the other side of campus or the other side of the world, with just a few keystrokes and mouse click or a few taps on our phones.
Unfortunately, it’s also something that can blur, if not altogether erase, the boundary lines that separate our work and personal lives.
Email provides us the ability to stay connected in a way that was unheard of before its invention in 1971. It allows us to work remotely and into the evening. It means we can take care of business from our phones, all while sitting on the couch at home, in line at the grocery store, or at our son’s or daughter’s soccer practice.
While there are times when we may need to answer emails away from the office, the problem exists when we let email control us, when we feel like we have to answer emails from home, in the grocery store, at our kids’ practices, or late at night. Email is a powerful tool, but it can control us if we allow it.
In my position, I get a ton of email, and I used to struggle with the urge to constantly check to see if I had any new messages. For me, taking back control began with turning off notifications. Whether that was the audible bell that rang on my desktop or laptop each time a new message arrived, or notifications on the email app on my phone and iPad, I turned them off. That’s right. I turned them off.
“But you’re a principal,” you might be thinking. “You can’t turn off your notifications.”
Yes, I am, and yes, I can. I did it. I turned off my email notifications. And it’s been one of the most important professional decisions I’ve made, one that has substantially helped manage my level of stress and improved my mental well-being.
It’s amazing how compelling that little red number in the upper, right-hand corner of the email icon can be, how much power it can possess. When I had notifications on and the red number would appear, indicating a new message had arrived, it was as if that number was whispering to me, “You’re missing something. Don’t you want to know what this new message says?” And more often than not, I gave in to the compulsion and checked my messages, even if it was late in the evening, on the weekend, or while I was spending time with my family. Email was controlling me. Notifications had erased the boundary between work time and personal time. So I turned them off. I banished this digital bully to the virtual abyss with a simple swipe in the app’s settings.
Now, let me be clear. I still check my email frequently. I’m a site principal, so I am tasked with keeping the lines of communication open with stakeholders. I’m responsible for responding to email in a timely fashion, and I do. I still check my email. I check it a lot! But I check it on my schedule. If it’s an emergency or something that needs an immediate response, I can be reached by text or phone. District personnel and my school staff have my cell phone number and know not to hesitate to text or call if it’s something urgent. But if it’s an email, I’ve learned that it’ll keep until I check it.
It’s important to note that this idea of taking back control is not limited to email. It extends to apps like Remind, Seesaw, ClassDojo, and text messaging. Teachers, these digital tools are fantastic ways to stay in contact with your students and their parents. But please be careful, as they too can control you if you allow them to. Just because you can respond to the message a parent sends at 10:00 p.m. doesn’t mean you should. It’s like feeding a stray cat -- if you feed it, it will keep coming back, expecting you to continue feeding it. In the same way, feeling compelled to respond to a parent’s message late in the evening, well after work hours have concluded, can lead to parents expecting a response right away...even though 10:00 p.m. is clearly outside of the time we should be expected to be working (and would expect parents to answer any of our questions). Bottom line, in my experience, I’ve found that rarely has checking my email at 10:00 p.m. contributed to a good night’s sleep. Whatever is lurking in messages sent late at night will keep until morning.
My purpose in writing this post is not to imply that responding to messages in a timely fashion isn’t important. It’s incredibly important! My point is that we have to set boundaries. After work, it’s OK to set the computer, tablet, or phone aside so you can devote your full attention to family, friends, and your own well being. It’s more than OK -- it’s necessary. You can be a great teacher or administrator and still devote time for your personal life. And that’s not something to feel guilty about.
If you’ve been struggling with setting boundaries in the area of email and other communication apps, consider this post permission to take back control. Remember, if it’s an emergency, whoever it is will find a way to get a hold of you right away. If not, it’ll keep until morning.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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