Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Power of Choosing 'Must' Instead of 'Rather'

Last night I watched the film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as the 16th U.S. President. It was great to finally see it. I'm kind of a history nerd, but for some reason I had never watched it before. It's an incredible film covering the final four months of Lincoln's life. Daniel Day Lewis is outstanding in his portrayal of the president.

As I watched, I noticed several times how Lincoln used the word must as he considered the decisions and actions he would take as the leader of a bitterly divided nation. He was a courageous leader who stood firmly on principles in the face of incredible opposition and obstacles.

I reflected on the difficult decisions he made. I'm sure there were times he would rather have taken an easier path. He faced hardships and failure throughout his life, and he could've veered off course, retreated, or just settled for the status quo. He probably didn't want to carry all of the heavy burdens of a Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. 

But he did carry those burdens and remained a steadfast leader. He stood firm. Because he felt a moral imperative. He felt he must

We are all faced with challenges as educators. We are often faced with choices about what we would rather do versus what we must do.

And while our decisions may not be described in history books, our work has great significance in the life of a child. We might be the best hope for some. We don't always know what might hang in the balance. We don't always know what difference we might make for this one child.

We usually have the opportunity to make the greatest difference when we choose must over rather.

I would rather not have that difficult conversation, but I must.

I would rather not have to learn something new, but I must.

I would rather not be creative today, but I must.

I would rather not call that parent, but I must.

I would rather not give that extra effort, but I must.

I would rather not be enthusiastic today, but I must.

I would rather not have to repair that relationship, but I must.

I would rather not consider another idea or perspective, but I must.

I would rather not give that kid a fresh start today, but I must.

I would rather not change my lesson, but I must.

I would rather not deal with new technology, but I must.

I would rather not overlook that offense, but I must.

Every day I see educators choosing must over rather. But we should always, always, always be asking, "What is best for kids?" 

In this situation, "Am I choosing must or rather?"

Do you ever struggle to choose must instead of rather? I think we all face that. Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

15 Ways to Increase Focused Energy in Your Classroom

You have a choice when it comes to your attention. You give it to things you value, the things you find interesting or rewarding or helpful. And you withhold your attention from things that seem less valuable to you. We are constantly making decisions about our attention, where to focus it, and how to spend it.

And your students are no different. They also make choices about where to focus their attention. And that's why it's so important to provide a classroom experience that students will find meaningful (this is important to me) and rewarding (I can be successful here).

What if we treated students like volunteers? What if we acted as if they had no obligation to learn the things we must teach? What if we made it our mission to cause them to want to learn more?

Wouldn't it be great if students saw learning as something they get to do instead of something they have to do?

What if we decided it was up to us to create a force that pulls them in? After all, students make decisions with their attention just like the rest of us. Let's make learning so great it becomes irresistible. 

How strong is your lesson's gravitational pull? Be a force field of energy. Bring so much passion, enthusiasm, and creativity to your lesson that students think, "There is no way this teacher is gonna settle for less than my best!"

Bring that type of energy. Are your students pulled into your lesson? How is the energy in your classroom? How is your culture of learning?

When I visit classrooms, every single one feels a little different. But when things are working right there is a kind of energy that makes learning go. It's focused energy. It's energy that's driving learning forward.

It's kids really connecting to learning. There's a kind of positive tension, a push forward that comes with growth. 

And none of this is necessarily about specific teaching methods. There are lots of different methods that can work. But where is the attention flowing? Are you pulling them in? The teacher may be sage on the stage, or guide by the side. Lots of methods can work.

But the method doesn't matter most. Whatever the method, the room is focused. It might be noisy or quiet but there is intentionality. It might be teacher-centered or student-centered, but ultimately it's learning-centered.

So be intentional about how energy is flowing in your space. And don't settle for mediocrity. Aim for excellence. Is attention flowing toward learning? Does the energy pull them toward success?

Here are 15 ways to get attention focused and get energy flowing toward learning. I've divided them into three different categories.

Connect. Students will focus energy on learning when the relationship with the teacher is stronger. 
1. Greet students.
2. Call them by name.
3. Smile.
4. Make eye contact.
5. Learn something new about each student.

Communicate. Effective classroom communication helps focus energy in desirable ways. 
6. Clarify expectations.
7. Start with why. Explain context and relevance.
8. Tell stories to illustrate concepts. Stories capture attention.
9. Increase student voice and choice.
10. Redirect unfocused energy. Call out energy drifters.

Inspire. When learning is meaningful and authentic, students will give more. Don't play the game of school. Do stuff that matters and makes a difference.
11. Connect learning to student interests.
12. Challenge students to design, think, and problem-solve.
13. Make surprises routine. Mix it up.
14. Be the Chief Energy Officer. Lead the fun.
15. Incorporate curiosity and creativity consistently.

What else would you add to this list? How would you take these ideas deeper? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Is Empathy? And Why Is It So Important?

Someone else's experience is different from mine. 

It seems obvious doesn't it? But I think it's one of the most important things to come to terms with in developing empathy. It's important to recognize another person's experience is different than mine and then honor that experience and try to understand it.

That's empathy. It's the emotional skill of being able to recognize, understand, and honor the feelings of another person.

I have to admit, sometimes I struggle to understand another person's experience. It seems so obvious to me how they should respond or how they should feel in a given situation. If I'm not careful, I start feeling the need to convince them why they should feel more like I do about this thing. My sweet wife will confirm this I promise!

But that's not helpful. Every person has every right to every one of their feelings. They belong to that person. And that's okay. 

I've learned better how to respond when I have those thoughts, when I'm tempted to expect others to see it my way, right away. In the past, I felt frustrated and even angry if a student or colleague (or my wife or kids) was being unreasonable in my view, if they didn't see it my way, if they didn't feel the same as me. 

It's so important to keep healthy emotional boundaries. I'm not going to let your (emotional) stuff bump into my (emotional) stuff.

Instead of responding with anger or frustration, I've learned to try to respond with curiosity. Rather than being upset by someone else's feelings, I respond with curiosity and puzzlement. Hm? I wonder what this person is experiencing right now or what this person has experienced in the past that makes them feel this way? I'm curious. I want to understand.

And that creates the safety for dialogue. It keeps safety in the conversation. And it requires me to listen. When I'm curious, I want to know more. I want to understand how this person is experiencing this. I remind myself that my feelings are still mine. I can feel a certain way while honoring another person's feelings too. It helps me to show up well in the situation and work toward win-win solutions.

When we honor the other person's experience, it opens paths for shared understanding. Most of us want to be understood. In fact, one of the things that bumps into me more than just about anything else is feeling misunderstood. I'm sure many of you can relate to that.

Some people (mainly guys) might see all of this as soft or weak, but it's not. It's actually being a much stronger person. You are stronger when you have your emotional abilities in hand. Weak people fly off the handle and act like toddlers when they don't get their way. Strong people don't feel threatened easily by someone's differences. There is great strength in accepting differences.

But of course, it's still completely appropriate and beneficial to call out bad behavior. We must hold people accountable when they act badly. Empathy is not being tolerant of bad behavior. But it is being tolerant of another person's experiences and feelings. It's addressing the behavior in a way that tries to understand what the behavior is communicating, because all behavior is communication.

Empathy helps us think about the needs of others, and ultimately when we do this we are much more likely to have our needs met too. We're more likely to have authentic conversations that lead to better decisions. We're also more likely to feel heard when we are able to have honest conversations that keep empathy at the center. 

So clearly I value empathy. Why is it so important? Here are 9 reasons for educators.

1. Empathy leads to kindness. It fosters acceptance and understanding. Empathy lifts up others. It meets needs. It believes the best about others.

2. Empathy brings people together in community. It helps us to connect in spite of our differences, no matter what our differences.

3. Empathy results in better lesson plans. It seeks to understand how students learn this best, how they are experiencing learning. It values them as learners. 

4. Empathy results in better discipline plans. Empathy is not punitive, it's corrective and supportive. It seeks to understand and prevent the causes of poor behavior. It is essential to resolving conflict.

5. Empathy improves teamwork. Effective teams are build on trust and togetherness. Empathy allows for constructive conflict.

6. Empathy improves problem-solving. It opens us to new possibilities and it considers the end-user and how solutions will impact others.

7. Empathy improves performance. Performance is stronger when people value risk taking and accept failure as an opportunity to learn. Empathy provides the safety for that to flourish.

8. Empathy builds stronger relationships. Most people want to be liked, to have more friends, to have people we can really count on. Empathy is essential to developing stronger bonds between people.

9. Empathy can reduce anxiety and depression. When people feel heard, feel understood, and feel supported, it can help ease anxiety and depression. Depression for teens, especially has been on the rise. I wonder how a culture of empathy might ease this in our schools.

I want to hear from you. Why is empathy important to you and what are you doing to cultivate it in your classroom or school? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Note: Header Image Retrieved

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Build Relationships and Be Relentless

George Couros had a great post recently, Relationships Are the Foundation of Great Schools (But They Aren't Enough). He points out that it's essential to build great relationships in schools, but we can't stop there. It's also essential to leverage strong relationships into growth for self and others. We become stronger when we are connected and when we are committed to pushing for better outcomes.

This discussion reminded me of the study from Judith Kleinfeld (1975) where she coined the term Warm Demander to describe teachers who are both warm (relationship builders) and demanding (communicating high expectations). She found that students whose teachers combined these qualities were more successful academically. But I'm guessing they were also more successful in a whole variety of ways.

I've noticed over the years just how difficult it can be to balance warmth and expectations. Some people tend to be really relationship-oriented but struggle to communicate and insist on high expectations. Others have very high expectations and push students to succeed but don't make the personal connections that are needed to go next level.

I believe students will always do better with a teacher who cares about them, believes in them, and seeks to know them better. Strong relationships are extremely valuable in the classroom. The teacher who is demanding but fails to build relationships may get results in the short term, but it will probably only last as long as they are still pushing. 

The teacher who can build relationships while maintaining high expectations has the best chance to inspire learning. They can have a transformational impact. They help a student have a pivotal experience. They help them change directions. The student takes a new path entirely because of the influence of the teacher. 

From the beginning, warm-demanding teachers are communicating with students that they are going to push them. They let their students know they have very high expectations because they care about them. Let students know up front that you're going to expect more of them than they think they can give. Then it won't be a shock when you actually do expect more of them than they've been used to.

I noticed this tweet from Tobie Taylor Jones and thought it captured the essence of the warm-demanding teacher.

It's so important to bring this type of energy and attitude to the classroom. Life will be demanding, and kids can't develop the resilience and perseverance needed if they aren't pushed out of their comfort zones. We don't want to send kids out of our schools believing they are entitled. In life, you must work for everything you get.

Here are some other resources that provide more information about what it means to be a warm-demanding teacher. It's important to build relationships and be relentless to ensure students are meeting their growth potential.

Being a Warm Demander - Steve Barkley

How does a teacher communicate caring and expectational beliefs in a way that most positively impacts student achievement? Judith Kleinfeld coined the term warm demanders when describing teachers who most successfully supported student achievement. Creating four quadrants with a vertical scale running from low to high expectations and a horizontal scale running from low to ...

The Warm Demander: An Equity Approach | Edutopia

"Warm demander" teachers expect great things from their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them reach their potential in a disciplined, structured environment. Recently, I was talking with a high school student about his frustrations with a first-year teacher. The student said, "I like [the teacher] because he's understanding, but he doesn't require enough discipline.



Where are you on this continuum? Do you build relationships while also being relentless? I think it's true for teachers and for school leaders. It's important to be caring and to communicate expectations. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I want to hear from you!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Kindness Is the Most Important Indicator of Success

It was awesome to recently hold our first ever Jellybean Festival at our school. The Jellybean Festival brings together students of differing abilities to work with each other and perform for an audience. Think of it as Special Olympics meets the performing arts or even America's Got Talent.

It was great to see the celebration of ALL our students and the opportunity for our students with special needs to really shine in front of their peers. One student even commented after the event, "I feel like a star!"

Our school has an organization called Character Council that promotes acceptance, positive decisions, kindness, etc. They organized our event and served as coaches for the participants, helping them develop acts and performing alongside them.

We were thrilled to have Howard Martin, the founder of the Jellybean Conspiracy, in attendance at our program. He shared his story and some thoughts on kindness and acceptance. 

His comments were profound...
At the Jellybean Festival we celebrate two things. First, every life matters. Every life, every single life matters.The second thing is thisit is kindness that makes us most human and most divine.
I'm going to tell you something now I don't think you're going to believe. But I challenge you to put aside your doubts. The most important indicator of success in life is kindness. The most important thing you can learn in high school is to be kind.
You want a definition for kindness? Kindness is becoming important in the life of another human being, especially the one is most likely to be left out.
You want another definition of kindness? See what happens today at the Jellybean Festival.
 In my recent post, I presented 5 questions every person is trying to answer:

1. Am I important to someone here?
2. Do I belong here?
3. Am I good at something here?
4. Who will listen to me here?
5. Is my presence here making a difference?

We all have a responsibility to BE the answer to these questions for someone. We all must help others know they are valued and that they matter. It is so important to do this.

The Jellybean Festival was a way we could do that as an entire school. It was a way to show how we should value each other. We were able to celebrate differences and just have fun together. 

I think the Jellybean Creed really says it best.

I've included the video highlights from our festival. You can get an idea of what our event was like in case your school wants to do something like this too. If you want to bring a Jellybean Festival to your school, I am happy to share more about how to do that. 

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