Friday, October 12, 2018

Every Interaction Is an Opportunity for Relationship Building


I met John Norlin this summer at the National Principals Conference and knew right away I wanted to learn more about his story and his work as co-founder of CharacterStrong. One thing led to another and luckily we were able to have him present to our staff earlier this week.

It was awesome. Many of the ideas he shared are reminders. He pointed this out more than once. These aren't new ideas. 

"I'm not here to inform you today as much as I'm here to remind you," he said.

We all know how important relationships are. We know how important it is to develop character. We all know academic skills won't take you very far unless you can also work effectively with people. We know kindness counts. 

But even when we know these things, we can get better at doing these things. We can become better people. And we can help our students become better people too. But we have to be intentional. We have to work at it. We have to develop our own habits. And it's hard work. 

It doesn't even necessarily take more time. But it does require us to use the time we have in very intentional ways. 

The reminders John shared are very important reminders. He shared the message in a way that inspired us and helped our staff build even stronger connections. I think we left more excited about our work and more committed to our students. I think we left more committed to each other too.

Here are a few reminders that stood out to me...

-Everyone NEEDS character development. All of us.

-We are built to be relational. Stronger relationships help build a stronger school and better learning.

-We need purpose more than we need happiness. Most are trying to be happy, but deeply fulfilled people know their purpose. 

-Students need a deeper why. So many don't know their purpose and how school fits with that purpose.

-Many of our students need hope. In truth, we all need hope and we need to be hope for each other.

-Our school culture is built on behaviors. Character is revealed by behaviors. We make thousands of choices daily. How are your choices contributing to the culture of your school?

-Such an important question: What have you done for others today?

In Future Driven, I wrote about my efforts to greet students each morning. I had always tried to be visible and friendly as students arrived to school in the morning. But then I decided to be more intentional. I made sure I was at the door to welcome as many students as possible, to learn as many names as possible, to make the greeting as extraordinary as possible. 

When I became more intentional, I noticed all sorts of cool things started happening. Like this...

One day I had some help with my greeting routine. One of our students, Nathaniel, was already at the bus drop off door. He was holding it open. I didn’t think too much of it, but then he started showing up every day. He’s always there now ready to help, even before I arrive. He’s quiet, so he doesn’t say much to the other kids as they come in, but many of the other students will tell him thank you as they walk by.

And I’ve gotten to know Nathaniel a little. He is passionate about professional wrestling. He looks forward to watching it on TV each week, and he asks me if I watched it too. I asked him if he knew about Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, wrestling heroes from when I was a kid. He just grinned and said he heard of them. I also learned a little about his family, where he lives, and some of his favorite things. I even learned we have 22 buses that drop off students in the morning because Nathaniel counted them for me.

Isn’t it amazing the impact our small actions can make? Just showing up in the morning to greet kids inspired Nathaniel to do the same. Our investment in people has a way of multiplying. Nathaniel wanted to help out. I think he feels good about holding the door open in the morning. I know I feel better each day I get to see Nathaniel and hang out with him for a few minutes. We never know when a simple conversation with a student might spark something lasting and worthwhile. Every interaction is an opportunity for relationship building.
Nathaniel was part of the Class of 2018. As graduation approached this past May, he asked me over and over, "Who are you going to get to replace me when I graduate?

He had faithfully met me at the door each morning and now as he was about to leave our school, he was concerned about who was going to do his job. He had purpose. He was selfless. He was kind.

I told Nathaniel he would be really hard to replace. I asked if he had any suggestions for who could took his place. We talked about a couple of kids he thought might work out. 

And then a few days later he walked across the stage and was awarded his diploma. When I shook his hand, he smiled and said, "Who are you going to find to replace me?"

I was proud of him.

A few weeks ago, one of our teachers came into my office and shared that Nathaniel was very sick and in the hospital. A couple days later I went to the hospital but couldn't see him because of the limited visiting hours in intensive care.

And then on Friday morning, September 28th we got the news that Nathaniel had passed away. It was crushing news. It still hurts as I'm writing this post.

But I'm so grateful that my story intersects with Nathaniel's story. I'm thankful I can share about our time together. I'm thankful I can share about a student who had purpose, who was selfless, and who was kind to others.

He wasn't worried about being popular, or cool, or a big deal. He just wanted to make a difference. 

I can't even imagine the kind of greeting Nathaniel received in heaven. He certainly deserves the best. He might even get a job holding a door open for others arriving on the scene. 

For those of us still doing our best here on planet earth, we need reminders. Let's not forget every interaction is an opportunity for relationship building.

Friday, October 5, 2018

When Student Behavior Is Like Looking in the Mirror



I've been thinking quite a bit lately about negative student behaviors and how we respond effectively. 

Here are five ideas that have been on my mind...

1. Judge behaviors, not intentions.

It can be really easy to become judgmental about negative student behavior, especially when it's repetitive. It's always appropriate to be corrective about non-learning behaviors, but it isn't right to place ourselves in a position of greater worth than the student. We might think, I would never do that. It's like we think we're superior in some way. And then we make generalizations about their motives based on the behavior. We act as if we know what's going on in the student's heart. 

That's the type of judgment that causes resentment and steals dignity. Judgement isn't always a bad thing. We actually know having good judgement is a good thing. That's how we know when something is right or wrong. But relationships get crazy when we start to judge motives. That's not ours to judge. Judge behaviors. They are observable and there are standards that must be held. Don't judge intentions. We can never know another person's heart.

2. We make mistakes too, just like our students.

Every negative behavior a student exhibits is probably closely resembling a negative behavior I've exhibited in my own life at one time or another. If I'm really honest with myself, it's probably like I'm looking in the mirror. I may not have done that exact thing to the degree that it was done, but I've struggled with that issue at some point and acted in a similar manner. There are only so many categories of mistakes, and I'm pretty sure I've covered them all at one time or another.

3. Correct the issue and preserve the relationship.

Number two is really important because it reminds me to have empathy, to be understanding, and to work with a student through the issue instead of towering over them and being iron-fisted about the issue. We want to correct the issue and preserve the relationship. We need to walk through this with the student.

4. Are there certain student behaviors that really push my buttons more than others?

The things that push my buttons the most might be the things that I actually struggle with the most. It's ironic, but often we are less forgiving and less patient with the behaviors that are most like the ones we struggle with. Think about an issue that is a struggle for you. Are you especially hard on students when they make a mistake in this area? Maybe not if they make the mistake in the same way you do. But if they make it in a different way or to a greater degree, look out. It might push all your buttons.

5. Change the environment to help the child change his or her own behavior.

When students show up poorly and have behaviors that are destructive, I need to also look at the environmental factors at play. If I was in the same environment as the student, might I also act in this way? What can be changed about the environment to help the student make different choices? That does not relieve the student of responsibility or accountability for bad decisions, but I don't want to just enforce accountability. I want to help create conditions so the student will succeed next time.

I think we could all stand to be a little more patient with our students. Heck, sometimes we need to be a little more patient with ourselves too. Mistakes are opportunities to learn more about who we are and to reflect and become stronger, more caring people overall.

I would love to hear your thoughts as always. What's on your mind after reading this post? Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

7 Tips for Difficult Conversations with Students



These tips are actually true for conversations with just about anyone, not only students. Too often I think we avoid having a difficult conversation about a topic because we aren't sure how it will go. We aren't sure if it will be productive, so we just remain silent.

Or, on the other hand, we know the topic might evoke some strong emotions, so we come at the conversation forcefully, from a position of dominance. It's the "my way or the highway" approach. That might get compliance from students, but it won't build trust or stronger relationships. Underneath it all, there will be a kid who resents you.

Neither of these approaches is successful. It's not good to be silent and avoid the topic. And it's not good to be aggressive and overbearing either. A healthy relationship is build on mutual trust that comes through respectful dialogue.

Here are five tips for having difficult conversations that create shared meaning and understanding.

1. Keep Dialogue Open

Let the student know that you are willing to listen and work together to solve the problem. Ask if they are willing to listen to your thoughts too. Keep the focus on the issue and not on sweeping generalizations like "You always..." or "You never..." statements. You might even ask the student, "How can we have this conversation in a way that is positive and helpful?"

2. Make Respect a Top Priority

Let the student know you believe it's possible to solve any problem if both parties are respectful of one another. Let the student know you will never intentionally disrespect him or her. Let them know you want to hear what they think about the issue. The words we use are powerful and communicate our level of respect. Your body language and tone of voice are equally important.

3. Describe Your Intentions

You might say, "I'm willing to discuss this as long as it takes until we both feel good about how it's resolved." Let the student know you're wanting a solution he or she can feel good about too. We're aiming for a WIN/WIN outcome, not my way or the highway. As the teacher, you don't have to prove you're in charge. You ARE in charge. You don't have to prove it. Work cooperatively with students to seek WIN/WIN solutions.

4. Be Curious, Not Furious

Ask questions to understand the student's perspective. Be curious about what they are experiencing. Say, "Tell me more" or "Go on" to show you are interested in hearing the details. Paraphrase what they say to you to show you're listening. My biggest mistake is talking too much. When I'm "telling" a student what I think should happen, I'm missing the opportunity to listen and better understand the student's perspective.

5. Avoid Countering

Countering results in arguments. We start debating the facts. We build our case. We prove our points. It's about "being right." Try to avoid this trap. Try to stay curious and avoid countering. Spend more time listening. The goal is to get to a place where both parties let their guard down and work together cooperatively.

6. Timing is Everything

In my first few years as a principal, I would sometimes choose horrible timing to try to address an issue. I thought it had to be resolved immediately. Usually, that's not true. Most of the time it can wait until cooler heads prevail. If I sense there is no way to have safe dialogue in the moment, I'll step away temporarily. And then I'll resume the conversation in a different location in a different time. This works much better than allowing a situation to escalate.

7. Focus on the Future

Every kid needs a fresh start every day. Time spent holding onto yesterday means less time moving forward today. Take inventory of the current situation, but then focus on the future. Where do we want our relationship to go from here? How can we work together to make the future brighter in this situation? What are we trying to accomplish? What will it look like if we are successful in resolving this problem?

Some people might view these tips as "going easy, or "being soft" or "having low expectations." I would completely disagree. We must have firm boundaries. What's easy is avoiding the conversation entirely. What's easy is being silent. What's easy is also using threats or power to get your way. What's hard is listening to a student, understanding their perspective, and guiding them in a way that is cooperative and respectful. We MUST have boundaries, and we MUST challenge behavior that is harmful to learning. But the way we do it can either build trust or destroy it. 

What are some of your strategies for having difficult conversations with students? I know you have some great tips to share. I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Importance of Daily Renewal for Educators


Teaching is a challenging and exhausting profession. No one can understand what it's like until you've experienced it. You make untold numbers of decisions every day. You work with kids who have all sorts of unique and sometimes unrelenting needs. 

The pressure is real. Sometimes it feels like you're just treading water and then someone hands you a concrete block. So you better be a great swimmer! Ha.

I hear lots of ideas about educators dealing with stress. You need to make time for yourself. You need to recharge in the summer and on weekends. You need to have a healthy work/life balance. All of those things are probably true.

But for me, the biggest thing that helps me stay positive, productive, and energized is daily renewal. And that comes in the form of my morning routine and my mental approach throughout the day. I'm renewing in the morning and then I'm renewing by disciplining my thoughts throughout the day.

For the past couple of months, I've really focused on my making my mornings more effective. I've always tried to have a routine in the morning, but last school year at times I wasn't as diligent. And I could definitely tell a difference.

More recently, I'm making my mornings count, and everything I'm doing seems to be working better. I feel more effective. I have more energy. My relationships are stronger. I'm more patient. More productive. More focused. More determined. I feel stronger overall.

So here's what I'm doing differently. I don't do every single one of these things every morning, but I do several of them each day. Being able to pick and choose gives my routine some variety. The routine can take me an hour or more, but there have been mornings I needed to get to school early, and I've done an abbreviated version in 10 minutes.

1. Smile

Start the day by finding something to smile about. Choose to smile. Research has shown the physical act of smiling has benefits for stress recovery, improved mood, and creativity. (Time: 30 seconds)

2. Breathe

I'm using a meditation app to work on focused breathing and meditation. There are several smartphone apps available, and I've tried a couple of them. Practicing mindfulness is great for increased focus, reduced anxiety, and improved cognition. (Time: 3-5 minutes)

3. Be Grateful

Gratitude is powerful for feeling better, having more energy, and training your brain to look for good things. I follow the advice of author MK Mueller. Be grateful for three things that have happened in the last 24 hours with no repeats ever. It's great to share your gratitude with someone or journal about it. (Time: 3-5 minutes)

4. Move

This one I'm including every day in my routine. I do something to be physically active each morning. It might be running several miles. Or, it might be a two-minute plank and that's all. But I'm getting some type of exercise in my routine every morning. (Time: 2 minutes-1 hour)

5. Envision

Almost all great athletes use mental imagery to gain an edge. When you imagine exactly how you want a situation, interaction, event, or performance to go, it creates a mental model for success. It sets the stage for success. I spend a few moments each morning thinking about desired outcomes. I think about these things as if the outcome has already been established, as if they are already true. I think it until I feel it. (Time 2-5 minutes) 

6. Affirm

This practice is similar to envisioning except it is focused on self more than situation. So I'm thinking about characteristics I'm developing in myself as if they are already present at the desired level. I tell myself the things that I value and that I want to become. It helps clarify my values and focuses my growth. (Time 2-5 minutes)

7. Read

Like movement and exercise, I also make reading part of every morning. I keep a list of books to read and have several people in my life who share book suggestions with me. I also try to read blog posts and, of course, Twitter posts from my PLN. I can't imagine not making reading a habit in my life. The things I continually learn add so much value to who I am and what I am striving to accomplish in life. (Time 15-45 minutes)

8. Reflect

I often think back over recent events during my morning routine. I think about decisions or interactions and what I can learn from them. What's working? What's not working? I'm careful not to beat myself up if something didn't go well. I simply consider what I could do better next time and keep my focus on the future. If I can't do something to improve myself or the situation, then I'm not going to continue thinking about it. Worry and regret is disempowering. I want to spend my time thinking in empowered ways. (Time 2-5 minutes)

9. Pray

If you're not a person of faith, you may choose to skip right over this one. I don't want to push my faith on anyone. I realize a person's beliefs about God are...well, deeply personal. But I must share this part of my morning, because for me, spending time in prayer is the most valuable part of my daily routine. I have a list of things I pray about each morning. They are things that are very important to me. I must also share that my prayer life often intersects with each of the other parts of my routine. My whole morning routine is basically my focused time with God. So I'm often praying while I'm exercising or reflecting. I want to start my day by meeting with God, so I'm more effective as I meet with people throughout the day. (Time 5-10 minutes)

I realize this seems like a long list of things to do, especially if you don't like getting up early in the morning. Keep in mind I don't do all of these every day. And the amount of time I spend on each one varies also. 

If you want to reduce stress, have more energy, and increase your effectiveness, I highly recommend developing your morning routine. How you spend the first hour of your day will have a big impact on how the rest of your day goes. Make it count.

What are some of your morning routines? Are you intentional about daily renewal? What are your thoughts about reducing stress and increasing your effectiveness? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, September 3, 2018

What's the Key to Influencing Your Students?


Information and well-reasoned arguments are rarely of much benefit to cause pivotal change. In Switch, by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, the authors detail dozens of examples of two different approaches to influencing (organizational and individual) behavior.

Think/Analyze/Change

One approach is Think/Analyze/Change. In this approach you present the facts. If you do this, this will happen. You make reasoned arguments. You encourage people to think like the rational human beings you expect them to be.

But the problem is, most people don't make decisions based on carefully reasoned decisions. Of course, to the individual, every decision is reasonable. Our students believe they have a good reasons for their choices. It's always important to remember students, and people in general, do things for their reasons and not ours.

So when we use "telling" as a strategy to reason with students about why they should comply, follow rules, or try harder, it probably goes in one ear and out the other, except for the students who already agree with our reasoning, and they aren't the ones who need to hear it.

See/Feel/Change

So the second approach is See/Feel/Change. This approach has been shown time and again to be far more effective in creating behavioral change. This approach makes change more visible. It often relies on mental pictures and narratives that people can really connect with. It focuses on heart needs. It connects with the person emotionally. That is critically important. 


While we would all like to think we're rational beings, we've made some of the biggest decisions of our life based on emotion...where we went to college, who we married, deciding to have kids, buying a house or that new car. There were powerful emotions at play in all of those decisions.

To be a change agent, you have to use See/Feel/Change strategies. 


Here are five tips...
1. The energy you bring to your classroom communicates expectations more powerfully than your words. If you bring enough purpose, passion, and energy to the space, you communicate to students that this teacher is not going to accept less than my best. Keep in mind your rules are no match for student habits.

2. Give your students experiences. Use demonstrations. Use role playing. Make the principles you are trying to teach visible and interactive and don't rely on just "telling." Invite students to reflect on experiences and draw meaning from concrete examples.

3. Tell stories. People connect with stories. So if you have a story that illustrates a principle, use it. But also tie it to a higher purpose. So instead of telling a story of how your son or daughter was complemented in his/her job for showing up on time and keeping his cell phone put away, share how proud you are as a parent that your child is doing well in his adult life. Our kids want their parents to be proud of them. Or, talk about how he or she is taking such good care of their family. Our students may not care about a career at 15 years old. But they do care about the things all people care about (relationships, feeling significant, being good at something, family, connection, etc.).

4. Teach specific first steps to make the change a reality. If students experience some success in an area, they are more likely to continue down that path. So don't just say, remember to do your homework. Help them make plans for exactly what steps they will take to do their homework. Planning first steps is extremely important to creating change. Don't assume they know what to do.

5. Help students find a sense of purpose. People who lack purpose have no reason to change. They have no hope. Encourage students by believing in their possibilities and by giving them encouragement to grow. Students are more likely to invest themselves when they feel meaning and purpose. Learning must be more meaningful than a grade or a test score.

Final thoughts...

Students (all people actually) do things for their reasons, not ours.

Information without emotion is rarely retained. And information rarely changes behavior.

Be mindful of how you can add the greatest value to students who could benefit from changed habits. Be a change agent.

Let me here from you. What are strategies you've used to help student's make pivotal changes? I'm talking about real, lasting change. Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

7 Ways to Be a Stronger, More Productive Risk Taker


If you want to learn and grow and make a greater impact, it's essential to be a productive risk taker. Not all risks are productive of course, but most people actually make too few mistakes, not too many.

Former IBM President Thomas Watson boldly proclaimed, "If you want to succeed, double your rate of failure." It's through our mistakes that we learn. When we take risks, we either win or we learn. Not win or lose. Win or learn.

So how do you become a stronger risk taker? How do you find the courage to step out of your comfort zone and into your growth zone? Here are 7 ideas.

1. Allow Yourself to Be Vulnerable

Risk taking involves the possibility of failure. Be content with doing your best even if the outcome isn't what you hoped for initially. 

2. Take Many, Smaller Risks to Start

If you want to grow as a risk taker, take more risks. But don't think they have to be gigantic risks at first. In fact, it's not wise to take larger risks to start. Taking lots of smaller risks helps you gain the confidence, practice, and good judgment to take larger risks eventually.

3. Hang Out with Risk Takers

If you spend your time with people who protect the status quo and simply try to stay comfortable, you'll be more likely to do the same. Bring people into your life who are taking risks and living their dreams. It's very difficult to rise above mediocrity if that's what you are surrounded by every day. Seek excellence. And know that when you take risks, it's going to make some people very uncomfortable.

4. Do Something a Little Wild and Crazy

There are lots of wild and crazy things you can do that might feel frightening but really aren't that risky at all. You might risk embarrassment if it doesn't work out, but that's about it. Later this year my daughter Maddie and I will be contestants in our community's Dancing with the Stars fundraiser. So although dancing in front of a big crowd is way out of my comfort zone, what's the worst that could happen right? It should actually be fun. And I know it's an opportunity to practice risk taking and just going for it.

5. Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

It might feel safer to just be content with how things are. It might feel more comfortable to just go through the motions. But if you want to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone. There is always that little voice telling you to play it safe. You have to push past that resistance. I've made it a habit to read and learn and spend time on personal growth at least 5-hours every week. At first, that was very difficult but eventually it became easier. What was uncomfortable as first became comfortable and increasingly valuable over time.

6. Be an Adaptable Learner.

Our world is changing faster than ever. The rate of change is accelerating. And since we're not teaching kids from 20 years ago, our classrooms and schools shouldn't look like 20 years ago either. Things are changing so quickly that even schools that are taking risks and making bold moves forward are likely still falling behind. Our students need to see us as adaptable learners. They need to see us model growth, change, and adaptability. 

7. Make No Excuses 

No one want to live an average, ordinary existence. Don't sacrifice your capacity for excellence by listening to the voice telling you to settle for less. You can live an extraordinary life and have extraordinary impact. You just have to do it. You have to push through your fears and stop making excuses.

What risks are you willing to take this year? How will you push yourself out of your own comfort zone? I'd love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Aiming for a Breakthrough


Most people get to a certain level of effectiveness in life, work, relationships, etc. and then just hit cruise control. It's normal to just get comfortable and then go with the status quo. The current level of success becomes a sort of boundary they don't cross. They grow content with how things are. After all, things are pretty good.

It feels safe.

But that's not the way to create continual and extraordinary growth or develop amazing classrooms or schools. For me, I want to be relentless in pursuing a breakthrough or tipping point, where we go from good to great.

I want to remove the limits. I believe most people (teachers, students, principals, etc.) have incredible reserves of untapped talent and possibility that goes unrealized. How can we create an environment that brings out greatness?

It means taking risks.

Most schools have tremendous capacity that isn't being realized. The school is the people. And when the people in the school aren't pushing the limits, we settle for much less than is possible. And that's not to devalue the work anyone is doing. It's just saying, I believe in you. And I believe each of us has capacity to do so much more. I want more for you.

Our work matters too much to settle for less. Kids are counting on us. There is a future at stake. We can be the difference.

Mediocrity isn't being bad at something. Some people get caught up in mediocrity and they're actually pretty good at what they do. They just become content with being pretty good at what they do. 

Mediocrity is being satisfied with the status quo. It embraces apathy. It’s choosing, either intentionally or unintentionally, to stay the same. 

Excellence, on the other hand, is not necessarily being good at something. A first year teacher may not be a great teacher yet. They may really struggle. But they can have a relentless pursuit of improvement. They are excellent, not because of their current level of performance, but because they seek growth at every turn. They are pushing their limits.

Excellence is always striving to change, learn, and grow. It’s making the choice to get better every day.

So don't aim for just good enough. Don't even aim for a little better. Aim for a breakthrough. Set out to be a game changer.

Unfortunately, there are far more examples of mediocrity than excellence. Mediocrity is easy. Excellence is hard. When you notice someone who is doing something with excellence, take note. Learn from them. 

What will you do this year to aim for excellence and be a game changer in your school? Don't be satisfied with just a little better. Let's push the boundaries and unleash greatness. I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.
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