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?”
Ever needed a pick-me-up? I'm not talking about a Venti Espresso from Starbucks or a Red Bull energy drink, but rather a boost of the verbal variety. Ever needed a kind word to lift your spirits or encourage you to keep going? I have.
I love my job. I mean, I really love my job. Having the opportunity to interact with students, parents, and staff at my school on a daily basis is incredibly rewarding. Seeing smiling faces. Giving high fives as students are dropped off in the morning. Seeing the "light bulbs" turn on for students as I visit classrooms. It's awesome. I am truly blessed to do what I do.
But if I'm being honest, I'm tired. My teachers and support staff are tired. I'm writing this post on a Sunday afternoon in mid-May, and there are a lot of balls in the air with only three weeks to go in the school year. Finishing up state testing. End-of-year district testing. End-of-year field trips and grade level activities. These on top of the typical day-to-day responsibilities. I'm tired, both physically and mentally, and a Carmel Frappuccino can only do so much.
I've been in need of a boost, and this past Monday I got one. At 9:32 p.m. I received an email from the parent of two of my students. It was a simple message containing four short sentences. It simply thanked me for what I do and let me know I was appreciated. Four short sentences...that brought me to tears.
See, it was exactly what I needed to hear (or read) at that exact moment in time. The parent's words had a profound impact on me that didn't just make my day, they buoyed me for the rest of the week. As my friend Cori Orlando has so beautifully written, words are powerful. They have the ability to build up, to encourage, to inspire. Speaking or writing kind words is so easy to do, yet this simple action can have an impact that is immeasurable.
Receiving this encouraging message from a parent last week reminded me of the need to speak life into those around me. I'm challenging myself and anyone reading this to make someone's day. Speak, write, text, or email some encouraging words. Express your appreciation. Say, "Thank you." Go ahead, make someone's day. You never know -- you may make his/her week, month, or even year.
My school is full of amazing students. 875 of them to be exact.
While part of my job as a principal is working with students who, at times, make choices that prevent them from meeting the school’s behavioral expectations, I also get to see daily examples of kindheartedness, sharing, perseverance, and forgiveness. Kids get a bad rap sometimes, but today I was reminded just how incredible our future generation is. Today I experienced impromptu student awesomeness.
Today was the day our 5th graders officially recorded their mile run times as part of California’s physical fitness assessment required of all grade 5 students. They’ve been training all year, spending the first part of each day out on the track building up their stamina, working up to today’s run.
Soon after the bell rang to start the day, I needed to relay a message to one of our 5th grade teachers so I headed out to the field. As I approached, I heard a lot of noise coming from the students gathered on the grass. The closer I got, I realized the noise was cheering. Students cheering for each other.
When I arrived at the field, I observed the boys circling the track, pushing themselves to get their best times yet. And I watched and listened with pride as the girls cheered on their male classmates, filling their tanks with the fuel of encouragement.
“You cheering for the guys?” I asked a few girls as I walked past.
“Yep,” they responded, smiling.
Pretty cool, huh?
During lunch, I walked through the staff lounge and heard the 5th grade teachers talking about the mile run and its student cheering section.
“That was so cool!” I said. “Did the boys do the same thing for the girls?” I asked Mr. Walton, one of the teachers.
“You didn’t see what the boys did?” he asked. I hadn’t, as I had left the field before the girls began running.
Mr. Walton proceeded to tell me that not only did the boys enthusiastically applaud for the girls with a variety of creative cheers, they made a tunnel with their arms for the girls to run through at the conclusion of their run. Mr. Walton said the girls in his class were so appreciative they gave the boys an extra cheer when they returned to the classroom.
But the best part? It was totally impromptu. No planning by the teachers. The students organized it all on their own. They displayed kindness, encouraging each other, not because they had to but because they wanted to. Mr. Walton got goosebumps telling the story. I got goosebumps listening to the story. I’m getting goosebumps again as I write this story.
Today our students displayed impromptu student awesomeness. Our future is in good hands.
Have you ever finished your day tired?
Pretty silly question, right? Of course you have! We all have. Being a teacher or administrator is a hard, tiring job.
Last week, as is sometimes the case in my role as a site principal, I spent the majority of my day attending SSTs and IEPs. At the end of the day, though I enjoyed discussing student progress during my meetings, I walked back to my office exhausted. I mean, really tired, and this got me thinking. Why was I so tired? What did I do? I spent most of the day sitting down, not moving around much, yet I felt more tired than on days when I am constantly on the go and moving around campus. If you’re an educator, I’m pretty sure you can relate to this. It seems the days we spend sitting in meetings or traditional “sit and get” professional development are much more tiring than a typical day of teaching and interacting with students.
There’s a lesson here.
When our students go home, are they tired? And if so, why?
Is it because they’ve been working hard, up out of their chairs, interacting and collaborating in rigorous and relevant activities with their classmates?
Or is it because they’ve been sitting all day?
When my teachers finish a day of staff development I helped plan, are they tired? If so, why?
Is it because they were given opportunities to get out of their seats, to collaborate with their colleagues, to work hard at learning or creating something that will improve their practice?
Or is it because they were forced to sit and listen all day?
Like adults in staff meetings or professional development, students need to get up and move, to engage in discussion about what they’re learning. Yes, there’s a place for quiet, independent work, but if that’s all students are doing, all teachers are doing, there’s a problem.
As I plan professional development activities for my staff, I’m challenging myself to remember what it’s like to sit in meetings all day. I invite you to keep this in mind too as you plan your daily lessons. Who’s with me?
Our classrooms and lessons don’t look the same as they did 20 years ago. 10 years ago. Even five years ago.
Or at least they shouldn’t.
Think of all the tools potentially available in a teacher’s toolbox that weren't around just a few years ago, resources and strategies that enable teachers to better engage students, promote collaboration, differentiate instruction, communicate with parents, and increase learning (both for the student and teacher/administrator).
iPads. ChromeBooks. Google Docs. Desmos. Khan Academy. Thinking Maps, Kagan Strategies. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Twitter chats. Pinterest. Teachers Pay Teachers. Remind text messaging. ClassDojo.
Research, our own personal experience, and common sense tell us the traditional model of education isn’t what’s best for students. We’ve learned that the teacher should no longer solely be the “sage on the stage,” but rather the “guide on the side,” facilitating learning. Students sitting quietly in rows listening to the teacher do all the talking doesn’t necessarily equal learning. Students must be engaged in critical thinking, allowed opportunities for discourse, encouraged to ask questions, and allowed to create in order to demonstrate their learning.
We as educators must be willing to embrace change, for through change comes growth.
Last week, Alice Keeler tweeted the statement below, the inspiration for this blog post.
I think we would all agree that the answer to this question would be a resounding, “No!”
So for me, this tweets begs the question -- would we accept this mindset in education?
Would we accept it from our child’s teacher?
Do we accept it from ourselves?
There is always more to learn, always ways to get better at what we do. Equating experience with having the “teaching thing” or “admin thing” all figured out is not a recipe for excellence. We cannot say to ourselves, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I know what I’m doing, and my students do well. There’s no need for me to change or try something new.”
So back to the tax analogy. Your accountant chooses not to take advantage of new tax laws and deductions to get you a bigger refund. When you question his practice, he responds, “I got you a refund. What more do you want?”
Uh...a bigger refund!
Why would we be satisfied with a $2,000 refund when our accountant could have gotten us, say, $5,000 by incorporating new resources or strategies into his practice? We wouldn’t. Then how can we be satisfied with the idea that our students learned at a “$2,000 level” when they could have learned so much more if we had incorporated new resources and strategies into our practice?
We are our students’ accountants, and we are tasked to get them the biggest “refund” possible.
It’s been said the biggest obstacle to becoming great is being good. Are we satisfied with seeing good progress from our students, or are we willing to learn to be better, to do whatever it takes to see great progress? We must. Our accountants do it. Our doctors do it. Our mechanics do it. And so must we.
As an educator for 20 years, there have been those times when I’ve discovered something new that completely transformed my practice or took it to the next level. When I was in the classroom, learning how to podcast with my students was one of those times. Using Audacity and Garageband, my students and I created monthly podcasts, called ColeyCasts, that allowed students to share with the world what they were learning (you can listen here). I published their ColeyCasts on my classroom website and in iTunes, and I’m telling you, there was nothing cooler than seeing my students’ faces when I showed them their work, their work, in iTunes alongside their favorite musical artists. They were creating something and sharing it not just with me, but with listeners as far away as Australia. And because my students knew they had a global audience, they didn’t just go through the motions. They wanted their work to be good. I think Rushton Hurley said it best --
“If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they’re just sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough."
- Rushton Hurley
This past year I had another one of those game-changing moments when, thanks to the idea by my good friend and colleague John Fox, I converted my school’s staff handbook from an 84-Microsoft Word document to a single Google Doc with clickable links. That’s right -- 84 pages down to one. Don’t get me wrong, our old handbook had a bunch of valuable resources for my staff, from bell and duty schedules to our staff directory to SST forms. But there were two major drawbacks:
I didn’t need new or more information. I just needed a better and more dynamic way to organize it. Enter Google Docs. Here’s what I did.
I created a master Google Doc and inserted a table. This would become my new handbook, something my staff and I now call The Hub. I shaded each cell of the table a different background color and devoted it to a different category of information (e.g. Faculty Information, Calendars & Schedules, Forms & Information). In these cells I inserted hyperlinks to different Google Docs, Sheets, PDFs, or external websites. For example, for my bell schedules, I created a “Bell Schedules” Google Doc, copied the schedules from the Word document, and pasted them into the Google Doc (I had to do a little tweaking to the formatting once the info was in the Google Doc). I then copied the view-only link to the “Bell Schedules” Google Doc and created a hyperlink to this document in the master document (The Hub). I did this for each section of the old handbook -- created a new Google Doc/Sheet, copied the information from the old Word Doc and pasted it into the new Doc/Sheet, and then created a hyperlink to the new Doc/Sheet in the master document. Below is a screenshot of the upper portion of The Hub.
When I was done, I shared the view-only link to The Hub with my staff for them to save on their desktops and mobile devices. One link. One page. Tons of information at their fingertips.
Here are a few of the benefits of going with an online handbook:
Did this take some time to create? Yes, but it was totally worth it. Before I introduced The Hub to my staff at the beginning-of-the-year staff meeting last year, I was a bit nervous. I was so excited about this change. I thought it was going to save us all a bunch of time. But it didn’t just matter what I thought. What really mattered was what my staff thought. So, did they like it?
Seriously, they clapped. When is the last time your teachers clapped during a staff meeting when you or your principal introduced something new? I don’t think I’d ever seen it happen before that day, but that’s what they did. As I walked them through all the information available on The Hub and showed them how to save the link on their phones and tablets, teachers started saying things like, “Can we put ________ on The Hub?” and “It would awesome if _________ was available on The Hub. That would be so helpful!” It was music to my ears!
My answer? “Of course we can add things!” There is 20-25% more information available on The Hub today than the day it was introduced. That’s the beauty of it -- it’s dynamic, a living document.
Below is a video showing how I created The Hub. If you don't want to start from scratch, please feel free to make a copy of this template and then modify it to meet your needs. The links aren't active, but it will give you an idea of the items I've included in my handbook.
If you’re looking for a way to increase efficiency and provide more up-to-date and easily accessible information for your staff, I’d highly recommend creating an online handbook like The Hub for your school. It’ll be a game-changer! Thanks again for the idea, John!
This past Friday, my school held its annual student talent show. It’s always an event our families look forward to, with students showcasing their talent in the form of playing instruments, singing, and dancing. This year, the scheduled closing act was to be three boys dancing the Whip/Nae Nae, and they asked me to join them on stage toward the end of the dance. Though dancing skill is not something I possess (imagine the male equivalent of Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes), I agreed, thinking the students would get a kick out of their middle-aged principal trying to bust a move. How’d it go? Judge for yourself.
My embarrassment was completely worth it to see all the kids dancing along with me, screaming, and laughing. Hey, as an administrator, embarrassing yourself is one of those “other duties as assigned.”
The rest of the day students approached me to talk to me about my “dancing.” While this was not unexpected, hearing the following statement from several students was a surprise:
“Mr. Coley, you broke the dress code. You turned your hat backwards.”
While I was on stage risking multiple muscle-pulls, what many students noticed was not my dancing, but the fact that before I began, I turned my hat around. In my mind, I was getting into “costume” for the dance. But in the students’ eyes, I was breaking the dress code. Busted.
As teachers and administrators, we often wonder how much our students are really paying attention. The answer? Way more than we think. It’s what they pay attention to that we often overlook. Though we may not realize it, every one of our actions and words is being observed, filed away, and evaluated -- we teach our students so much more than what’s in our lesson plans. My talent show experience was a sobering reminder of this fact. Though unintentional, my “getting into costume” (even for 30 seconds) contradicted what I’ve been telling students -- that hats must be worn forward while at school. Ouch. The worst mistake I could have made? No, but it was a good reminder of our need as educators to be careful about the example we’re setting for our students.
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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