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.
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.
Most people have a favorite restaurant. Ask 20 people to identify their favorite and you may get 20 different answers. Some may name a fine steakhouse like Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s. Fans of sushi might select as their favorite a local establishment serving up this Japanese delicacy. Ask a small child to name his or her favorite and you may get McDonald’s or Little Caesar’s as the answer. To each his own.
What about me? What’s my favorite restaurant? If you hadn’t already read the title of this blog post, the answer may have surprised you. My favorite? El Pollo Loco.
That’s right. El Pollo Loco.
Seriously, Brent? El Pollo Loco? Out of all the restaurants you could choose, your favorite is a drive-thru fast food restaurant serving a variety of inexpensive chicken meals? That’s right. El Pollo Loco.
I love this restaurant. It’s affordable. It’s relatively healthy when compared to other fast food options that serve up only burgers and fries. And there’s a location only a mile down the road from my school. I’m not ashamed to say I order lunch here multiple times a week. I get the same thing every time. A $5 Pollo Bowl Combo with flour tortillas and a large tropical iced tea. Mmmm. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
But it’s not the taste of the food that keeps me coming back, though I do enjoy the combination of chicken, beans, and rice. It’s not the value either, though being able to fill my stomach for under six bucks is a fact my budget definitely appreciates. And it’s not the comfortable ambience I used to enjoy before COVID-19 forced the closure of all restaurant dining rooms in my community. So what is it? What pulls me to this restaurant like the Millennium Falcon caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam? (You’re welcome, Star Wars fans.)
It’s the avocado salsa, what I affectionately call “green sauce.” I absolutely love it. Seriously, can’t get enough. It’s flavorful with just the right amount of kick. I could drink it like water (which I actually did one time to win a bet, but that’s another story). I love smothering each bite in this liquid slice of heaven.
If I hit the drive-thru and discover upon returning to the office they forgot to put my green sauce in the bag, my mood turns grumpy. The birds stop singing, and the day seems darker. The meal just isn’t the same. I go to El Pollo Loco for the avocado salsa. I go for the green sauce. If the restaurant stopped serving it, I can honestly say I wouldn’t eat there as frequently as I do. I’m not sure I would go at all. It’s that important to me.
It’s salsa for crying out loud. A side dish. No, it’s not even a side dish. A condiment. It’s a condiment, something extra the restaurant gives away for free, but it’s what keeps me coming back over and over. And over.
So let’s tie this into education. Ladies and gentlemen, my question to you is this -- “What’s your green sauce?”
What is that extra something that keeps your students wanting to come back to your classroom, to your school? What is it that, figuratively speaking, makes their mouths water when they think about getting to spend time with you?
While this question focuses on the “extra,” let me be clear. The main dishes we serve in our classrooms, lessons in reading, writing, math, or whatever subject you teach, are important. Very, very important. It’s imperative we provide our students with rigorous opportunities for learning, that we fill their “stomachs” with nutritious “food.” But my point is this -- the main dish may not be what gets your students up in the morning. It may be that something extra you provide, that cherry on top. It may be the green sauce.
So I ask you once again, “What’s your green sauce?”
In the grand scheme of things, these are all actions or gestures that could be considered small. These may not have been the things upon which your professors focused when you were studying to be a teacher. But that doesn’t mean they can’t and don't make a big difference in the lives of those we serve. Don’t underestimate the power of the little things, because more often than we may think, it’s that little something extra, that green sauce, that our students are thirsting for and what keeps them coming back for more.
What’s your green sauce?
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 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, available in paperback, Kindle, and audio versions, head over to Amazon.
Today the hosting account for my former classroom website (mrcoley.com) expires....and I will not be renewing.
Since moving into administration in 2011, the site hasn't been updated, instead serving as an online snapshot of my last year in the classroom. But I haven't wanted to let it go. It's been a passion of mine since 1999 when I first published the site as the culminating project for my master’s degree. What began as a simple site containing an “About the Teacher” page and some student writing and artwork grew into so much more. A daily student blog. Math review videos. Student art galleries. A student podcast. It was the virtual extension of my physical classroom, a digital resource for my students, their families, and eventually other teachers. So I continued to pay to keep it up and running, year after year after year. Each time the renewal bill came due, I avoided the “break up” and pulled out my debit card. I didn't want to say goodbye. I couldn’t say goodbye. But today is the day. The ongoing expense is just too much. As silly as it may sound, this is very, very emotional, like losing a friend. What has been only a click away for over 20 years will suddenly…not be. But it’s time.
And BrentColey.com lives on!
While I may be the educator in the family, it was my 19-year-old daughter, Meghan, who yesterday provided me with a valuable lesson, a reminder of the power a few simple words can possess.
Meghan is in her university's choir, and yesterday she and her fellow singers traveled to another college a couple hours away for a choral festival. Late last night, Meghan texted my wife to let her know about something that happened on the bus ride home. Here’s the text she sent.
Dr. Jackson is the Chair of the Music Department at Meghan’s university. I’m sure it had been an extremely long day (notice when Meghan’s text was sent). It was nearly midnight, and I have little doubt Dr. Jackson was tired after a busy day of leading his students. But instead of putting his head back and resting his eyes on the long bus ride home, he chose to strike up a conversation with my daughter -- a freshman, one who isn’t even a music major. He chose to offer up a few simple words of encouragement.
“It’s so great to have you in choir. We love having you here.”
Thirteen simple words, words he may not even remember saying. Yet they were powerful. They made Meghan feel special. They were so meaningful she wanted to pass along her positive feelings to my wife. Thirteen simple words. That’s it. But those words will buoy my daughter for weeks, if not months.
It was a great reminder of the power we possess when we use our words to speak life into those around us. As was the case with Dr. Jackson and Meghan, it doesn’t take much. In this case, just 13 words.
Here’s my challenge for you (and me) -- how can you encourage those around you this week? What words can you speak to those in your classroom, in your school, to build them up?
“I’m so glad you’re in my class.”
“You’ve been working so hard, and I’ve noticed. Keep up the great work!”
“I’m proud of you.”
“I believe in you.”
I guarantee there’s someone around you in need of a few kind words like these. The good news? You have the power to provide them!
“Wait, what? Dream small?” you may be thinking. “I thought we were supposed to dream big. I thought we were were supposed to have big dreams.”
We are. But we also need to dream small. Let me explain.
Recently, a song I had never heard before made its way into my earbuds as a Spotify suggested tune. The song is called “Dream Small” by Josh Wilson. As I listened, the lyrics completely resonated with me, especially this second verse:
“It’s visiting the widow down the street
Or dancing on a Friday with your friend with special needs
These simple moments change the world
Of course there’s nothing wrong with bigger dreams
Just don’t miss the minutes on your way to bigger things
‘Cause these simple moments change the world”
As I listened, it made me think of what we do in education. We have so many big goals for our students, and rightfully so. Teaching them to read and write. Helping them master the various components of mathematics. Building responsibility and character. Preparing them for college and the workforce. All important things for sure. Make no mistake, these should be our goals for our students.
But this song served as an excellent reminder that we cannot overlook the small things on the journey to our bigger goals, for it’s the little things that often times have the biggest impact.
A high-five or fist bump as students enter your classroom each day.
An encouraging pat on the back.
An observant comment such as “I like your shoes. Are those new?” or “Did you get your hair cut?”
Asking about a student’s weekend, and then giving your undivided attention as he or she tells you about it.
These simple moments can change a student’s world. These simple acts can make students feel valued, feel loved, something far more important than a perfectly executed lesson.
It’s so easy to get bogged down with all we have to do — the demands on teachers and administrators are great. We are responsible for a ton! But let us not forget the power contained in a smile, a compliment, or a few moments of undivided attention. Let us not forget to dream small. Even a tiny pebble can create a large ripple. Or as another verse in the song says,
“A tiny rock can make a giant fall.”
I recently watched, for the umpteenth time, The Princess Bride, one of my all-time favorite movies. This movie has it all--action, adventure, humor, romance, and...wait for it...a teaching reminder.
“A teaching reminder?” you say. "Inconceivable!"
Yes, the movie teaches viewers how to navigate the Fire Swamps and why you should never trust a six-fingered man, but during my most recent viewing of this classic, I was reminded of an important instructional strategy in the four-second clip below.
Vizzini’s comment reminded me of the importance of waiting, something typically viewed in our society as a negative, but in education, is imperative in certain situations. Let me explain.
In our teaching credential programs, we learned about wait time, the practice of pausing several seconds after posing a question, allowing students more time to formulate thoughtful and detailed answers (as well as giving more students the opportunity to answer the question). But there is another kind of wait time, one that seems obvious, yet in my opinion, is often overlooked. I’m talking about waiting until every student is paying attention before delivering instruction or giving a direction.
Sounds simple, right? But do we actually do it? Do we have the attention of all our students before giving a direction? Sure, those students seated in the front couple of rows or at the front of the line are focused on what we’re saying, but what about those in the back? Are they listening? Are they looking at us? Are they even facing the front?
Unless we demand the attention of all our students, chances are we’re not going to get it. And it’s okay to demand students’ attention, because this can be done in a respectful way. I’m not saying we should mimic an impatient Vizzini and say to our students, “I’m waiting!” in a rude tone of voice. What I am saying is that it’s okay to wait until you have everyone’s attention. And you may have to wait several moments. That’s okay. No, it’s not just okay—it’s a cornerstone of effective teaching. Because if you don’t do this, some of your students will miss out on what you’re saying, whether it’s a simple direction or something more important. If they’re not listening, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying.
Vizzini could have walked away, frustrated with the delay. But he waited, knowing he needed his comrades to accomplish his task. We too must learn to wait, for we need all our students, just as they need us.
So the next time you’re about to give a direction or deliver a lesson, think of Vizzini. Just try and wait a little more patiently than he did.
As an elementary school principal, I have the opportunity to interact with students in a bunch of different ways. From high-fiving boys and girls as they’re dropped off each morning to shooting hoops with a group of students during recess to popping into classrooms to see kids engaged in learning, being with students is the best part of my job.
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to host Lunch with the Principal. Each month, every teacher selects a student who has been excelling in class, demonstrating perseverance, showing great character, etc., and those students get to join me for a pizza lunch. It’s a fun way for me to sit down and chat with students, praise them for working hard, and connect with them in a more relaxed setting. Totally casual. Just students, our assistant principal, and me, shooting the breeze over gourmet (or at least affordable) Little Caesars pizza.
After students had their fill of pizza and were dismissed back to class, I walked through the staff lounge where one of our 1st grade teachers stopped me in my tracks with this comment.
“Hey, Brent. Calvin was was so excited to have lunch with you today. He even got a haircut yesterday to get ready.”
“Wait. What?” I said. “He got a haircut for Lunch with the Principal?”
“Yep. That’s what he told me,” she said with a smile.
Apparently, the simple act of getting to eat $6 pizza with me was a pretty big deal for this 6-year-old, enough so that he wanted a haircut to be part of his preparation.
I was totally blown away. I was humbled. And I was a bit ashamed.
See, in that moment, I realized that in the busyness of my schedule, I had overlooked the importance of this time. While seemingly simple in my eyes (pick up pizza -- check, buy ice and soda -- check, set out paper plates and napkins -- check), this was more than a simple event on my calendar. For this student (and probably a good number of those who attended), this was HUGE. This was a chance to eat with the principal. It’s weird for me to even write that, but today I was reminded of my influence, even when I’m too busy or dense to realize it.
It wasn’t just pizza. It was an opportunity to connect with those I serve, a chance to talk about their pets at home, what they like to play at recess, and what they hope to get for Christmas. It was an opportunity to get to know my students, and for them to get to know me.
I was reminded that students don’t necessarily have a dozen things on their calendar that have to get done. I was reminded that for them, I may be the ONE thing on their “To Do” list, the one thing they’re looking forward to that day. I was reminded of the incredible power I possess to make a difference in the lives of my students, of the power all educators possess. It’s a bit scary, but what an opportunity! An opportunity I don’t want to miss.
So the next time you find yourself thinking “It’s just pizza,” “It’s just a smile,” or “It’s just a high five,” remember -- that pizza, smile, or high five may be making a student’s day, week, or even month. That student may be telling Mom and Dad about it or writing about it in their journal. Who knows? Your action may even lead to a haircut.
Movies like Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, and Mr. Holland’s Opus definitely deliver in their attempts to provide inspiration and encouragement for teachers looking to be bold, out-of-the-box thinkers who will do anything for their students. But have you ever watched a TV show or movie that had nothing to do with education, yet it taught you a lesson or completely resonated with you as a teacher or administrator? This recently happened to me when I watched an oldie but a goodie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Wait, what? Star Trek? Seriously?
Stay with me. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to appreciate this.
Most of us, even if not fans of Star Trek, are familiar with or have at least heard of Captain Kirk. Kirk was the captain of the Starship Enterprise, leading his crew on countless adventures to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man had gone before. He was creative, confident (some would say arrogant), and didn’t always follow orders. But he got results.
A little background before showing you the clip from the movie that got my attention. Before becoming a captain, Kirk was given a training exercise while in Starfleet Academy called the Kobayashi Maru. The Kobayashi Maru was given to all Starfleet cadets to test them in a no-win scenario, to see how they would react in a problem situation where there was no solution. It was a test that couldn’t be passed, a game one couldn’t win. Except Kirk did. Watch the clip below.
As educators, I think we all need to be more like Captain Kirk. In the simulation, Kirk changed the conditions of the test because he didn’t like to lose. He wasn’t content with being told he couldn’t win. He didn’t accept the fact that he had to lose.
Here’s my point -- In this portion of dialogue, what if we equated losing to students not learning? Watch the clip again, but this time, when Kirk says he doesn’t like to lose, replace it in your mind with the phrase “I don’t like it when students don’t learn.” When he says he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario, replace that with “I don’t believe students can’t learn.” Take a moment to rewatch the clip through this lens.
If students aren’t learning, we need to change the conditions of the “test.” That’s not cheating. That’s doing what’s best for kids. For our students’ sake, we can’t afford to keep teaching or leading a certain way simply because that’s the way it’s always been done or that’s what the Teacher’s Edition suggests. If it’s not working for all students, we need borrow a few words from Dr. Phil and ask ourselves, “How’s that working for ya?” Accepting parameters that limit student learning is not acceptable. We need to be willing to think outside the box, to do whatever it takes to ensure all students learn. We can’t be afraid to change the conditions of the test.
So what might changing “test” conditions look like?
Maybe it looks like not giving the same assignment to every student.
Maybe it looks like asking yourself the question, “Why am I even giving this assignment?”
Maybe it looks like allowing students to take an actual test more than once, giving them the ability to learn from and fix their mistakes.
Maybe it looks like providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate learning in new and engaging ways (e.g. creating a video with iMovie or Adobe Spark, building a model in Minecraft) rather than a traditional test, quiz, or term paper.
Maybe it starts with simply asking students what helps them learn best.
What if teachers and administrators embraced the mindset of Kirk and made his three statements their mantra?
“I don’t like to lose.”
Translation: I hate it when students don’t learn.
“I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.”
Translation: I won’t accept the notion that all students can’t learn.
“I changed the conditions of the test.”
Translation: I’ll do whatever it takes for students to learn.
Let’s be like Captain Kirk and boldly take our students where they’ve never gone before.
Like the idea of relating entertainment to education? Be sure to check out Weston Kieschnick’s podcast Teaching Keating as Weston and his wife, Molly, use your favorite movies and TV shows as a vehicle to reflect on instructional practice. It's a great listen!
As educators, we make a difference every single day in the lives of those we serve. I know, I know. This isn’t groundbreaking news. This also just in -- water is wet.
There are times when we know we’re making a difference. Like those times when you see the light bulb go on in a student, when he/she “gets it.” When targeted intervention results in a student’s reading level significantly rising over the course of the school year. When you see a student light up after a word of praise. When you receive a hand-drawn picture from a first grader telling you she’s happy to be at your school. These moments remind us of our impact.
But what about the times we don’t see the fruits of our labor? What about when we don’t hear the words of appreciation for what we do, or the student’s reading level doesn’t rise the way we would have hoped? Does that mean we’re not making a difference? Absolutely not! Yes, there are times when our impact will be clearly seen, but there are also times when we will have no clue how powerful our influence is on those we serve.
Let me illustrate. At the end of this past school year, I took an incredible idea from the amazing John Eick and tried it with my staff. I created a Google Form that asked our students, parents, and staff to write a few words of encouragement to one or more of our staff members, and the responses from the form were then merged into individual messages of appreciation and emailed to staff members. People need to feel appreciated, so I thought this would be a great way for staff to feel the love after working so hard all year. To say the idea was a success would be an understatement, as we had over 1,000 responses, generating over 1,000 messages of appreciation! To hear more about this idea and how we did it, take some time to listen to my conversation with John in Episodes 20 and 23 of my podcast Teaching Tales.
Here's my point in sharing this. One of the messages of appreciation I received was from one of our promoting 5th grade students. She wrote:
“Thank you Mr.Coley for helping me up on the first day of 5th grade when I fell.”
As the principal of an elementary school, students see me do a lot, like opening gates, supervising drop-off and dismissal, visiting classrooms, leading weekly Friday Flag assemblies, and hanging out with students during recess. But of all the things I did this past year, what this student remembered was that I helped her up after she fell on the first day of school. That act may not seem like much, but it made enough of an impact on her that 10 months later, that’s what she wanted to thank me for. And you know what? I don't remember doing this. I have no recollection of helping her up after she fell. But she does, and that's what matters.
I frequently say that kids watch everything we do. They watch, and they remember, even if we don't. Receiving this student's message reminded me it’s the little things that can often make the biggest impact.
My friend Cori Orlando recently shared with me a short Ted Talk that perfectly illustrates this idea that we can make a huge difference in the lives of those around us, even when we don’t realize it. I encourage you to take six minutes to watch, and then ask yourself, “What’s my lollipop moment?”
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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