Sanée Bell

Leading and Learning with Purpose

Every day when I walk into my school, my number one objective is to be a better leader than I was the day before. My second objective is to make sure that I add value to someone’s life. As a principal, my job is to be present, be accessible, be active, and to be among the people. One of the sayings that I held true when I was a teacher was that teaching happened on my feet not in my seat. The same is true for me as a principal. Leading happens on the field not in the locker room. It would be unheard of for a coach to call plays from the locker room while watching the game live stream. The same is true if a principal is making decisions about the school from their office. The principal should spend the majority of his or her day out in the field. How will you know what to lead if you are not observing where all the action is taking place?

Someone reading this might ask, “How will I get my work done if I don’t spend time in my office?” It is amazing how much work never makes it to your office if you are out of your office and in the school. Try it. So many things come to the office because the principal is not out coaching and giving feedback. As the principal, you have a broader view and a deeper knowledge of the game being played. You see many pieces of the puzzle, which equips you to use your insight, knowledge, skills, and provide resources to help others grow. In order to get tasks and projects complete, I schedule office time so that I am able to complete the “tasks” that only the principal can complete. If someone else can do it, I delegate it. This allows me to spend most of my “time” being the principal because no one else in the building can do that but me. I carry a back pack at all times so I can work remotely from classrooms. Office time is reserved for tasks that require full attention without interruptions. 

Being the principal means spending time each day building relationships with students, staff and parents through the giving and receiving feedback. Building relationships only happens through visibility, accessibility, and active engagement. Remember, even though a school has many teachers, assistant principals and support staff, there is only one principal. Recognize the influence you have on the organization and seek to maximize your influence daily.

Challenge: Spend the whole day in the building. Reflect on what you see and what your learned. Act on your reflection and make the necessary coaching moves to improve your school. 

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…History is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin

We all have bias. Implicit bias is the automatic thoughts we have about others based on a variety of factors. These are things we don’t even think about and this is what makes implicit bias a significant barrier to the experiences, expectations, and achievement of students. There are many resources available to educators about the importance of being culturally responsive and inclusive; however, it is impossible to be culturally responsive if you are culturally unaware and not in tune with how our implicit bias impacts how we engage with others. 

This topic is very personal to me as an educator and a parent. I have experienced the effects of implicit bias personally and through the eyes of my children. These experiences were the driving force behind the chapter I wrote for Education Write Now Volume 3: Solutions to Common Challenges in Your School or Classroom. Having worked on this project for the past 2 summers, I wanted to share a topic that needs to be addressed boldly. Education Write Now is a collaborative project that brings together 10 thought leaders in the field of education with the challenge of writing 10 different chapters that will contribute to advancing a school of thought and actions in the field of education. All of the proceeds from this project go to The Will to Live Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing teen suicide by improving the lives and the “Will To Live” of teenagers through education about mental health and encouraging them to recognize that love and hope exist in the relationships we have with each other. With so many students being marginalized at school each day, I can’t think of a better topic to bring to the forefront of the minds of educators than to address how implicit bias is crippling and limiting the potential of so many students.


Below is an excerpt from my chapter:

“One of the challenges that many school leaders face is trying to solve the vast problems that present themselves in their schools or classrooms. The schoolhouse is a microcosm of society, so societal issues will inevitably become school issues that educators will have to address. Knowing how to tackle every issue can be extremely overwhelming for a leader because everyone is looking to him or her for guidance and direction. Being able to “fix” everything is not possible for educators because we all have different life experiences that affect how we view the world.

On one occasion, I got a call from a colleague seeking advice about an issue she was facing. She was extremely frustrated because she had done everything she knew to do to try to solve this issue and nothing was working. She seemed to be in a helpless state when she called me for advice. She began to share with me that she had a group of black female students who were not responsive to any of the interventions that were put in place to improve their behavior. She said the students traveled in a pack and they were loud and disrespectful to anyone with authority. Her administrative staff had tried every consequence that was available to them to correct the behavior, but nothing worked. My colleague was at a point of no return, so she called me because she felt she had nowhere else to go. Now, for the purpose of this conversation, it is important to know that my colleague is white, and I am a black female. This is important to the story because in a moment of need, I was the only person of color she felt comfortable being vulnerable with and it was her hope that I had some insight and perspective about how to reach her students. I will never forget the question she asked me after she shared her struggle, “I have done all that I know to do. Am I missing something?”

It took me a few seconds to respond because I was expecting her struggle to be related to instruction or general leadership, not about how to connect with black female students. As we began to unpack her question together, I shared some strategies and pointed her to resources that she could use to educate herself. Shortly after talking about this topic with my colleague, I had the same exact conversation with another principal friend having the same issue. The questions I began to ask myself include:

  • Why are people having a difficult time engaging with students of color?
  • Is there something occurring systemically in our schools that is making this issue more common? 
  • What is my role and responsibility in offering perspective on the issue? 

I felt compelled to dive into this topic further and what I learned from talking with some of my staff and other principal colleagues is that educators, who are not members of marginalized groups, feel inadequately prepared to make connections with students of color in ways that make the greatest impact. Racial equity issues have always been a sensitive topic to discuss in our schools. It is like the elephant in the room that everyone sees and smells but no one does anything to remove. People become immune to the sight and smell of the elephant and learn to work around it. 

The complexity and sensitive nature of race exist because of our inability to discuss it from multiple perspectives. Until we really open ourselves up to having the conversation about how race and ethnicity impact the experiences of students and teachers in our schools, we will continue to create schools that perpetuate racial inequity and social injustice. Our greatest challenges and fears cannot be addressed until we become critically aware of our own implicit bias and how our racial and ethnic perspectives impact how we see the world and engage with others.”

After working on this project for three years in a row, I am once again surprised at how well the chapters link together. Check out excerpts from Lynell Powell, Rachelle Poth, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Josh Stumpenhorst, Jeff Zoul, and David Guerin. Stay tuned for next week’s post from Ross Cooper


I am looking forward to year four of this project. I would like to thank Jeff for really spearheading this idea and execution of this project for the past 3 years. It has been a pleasure serving as a sidekick to this great leader! Jeff will be signing off as co-editor, and I will take the lead as we invite a new team of nine to continue this great work started three years ago.  I want to especially thank Routledge and Senior Editor Lauren Davis for your continued commitment and dedication to this project. Be sure that you have Education Write Now Volume I and II in your personal library.  Education Write Now Volume III: Solutions to Common Challenges in Your School or Classroom will be available this winter.

In my opinion, implicit bias is the number one barrier to student achievement. And unfortunately, there is nothing that a student can do about it. It is an adult issue, and it is prevalent in our schools, classrooms, policies, and practices. It is often the invisible glass ceiling that prevents teachers from realizing their potential to inspire and impact the lives of students of color. It robs students of what could have been because the adult in the classroom was unable to recognize how their own bias impacted how they were able to relate to a child.  I don’t need to cite research to make this point. I am the research. At some points in my schooling career, this was my life.

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Many times when race and ethnicity came up in the classroom when I was a child, some teachers would act as if they did not hear the discussion or glossed over a topic so a discussion wouldn’t spark. This made me feel insignificant as a student because we would spend time talking about things that I could not connect with or relate to, but the time when I had something to say or offer about what we were learning, we had to quickly move on so other students wouldn’t ask questions that would make the teacher or students feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, I did have some teachers who, whether they were aware of it or not, checked their implicit bias at the door before entering the classroom. Below are the observable strategies I remember seeing when I was a student.

Care about their story. Not all students of color have the same story. Don’t ever assume that just because students come from a similar race or share an ethnic background means they have the same story or experience.  This marginalizes your students and minimizes their existence as an individual. It is important to get to know your students. Care about who they are and get to know them individually not just a member of a larger group. All students have lessons to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.

Be authentic. Acknowledge, even if it is only internally, that you will never know what it is like to be a student of color. After you are able to make that acknowledgment without making any justification for it, you will then be able to empathize and then strategize ways to ensure that students in your classroom or school are not marginalized. Accept the fact that marginalization does happen in schools every day, even if it is not on your watch, and then be the voice and advocate for students of color.

Couple high expectations with support. A child’s zip code, race, or ethnicity should not be a determining factor for the quality of education they receive. We should have high expectations for all students. The bar should be set and the only thing that should every move is the level of support that is provided for each child. Be careful not to let your implicit bias and perspective about race lead a student toward the stereotypical paths that have been perpetuated in our society. More importantly, do not push them away from ideas or issues that are a part of who they culturally. All students, I mean ALL, have strengths and talents. They may not be apparent to them yet, but your job as a teacher is to help them discover what those talents and strengths are and how they can use them to reach their dreams. If they don’t have any dreams, help them create them.

My post may not be researched-based, but it is human-based. It is my experience and the experience of my children. Not all things have to be studied. It’s unfortunate that learning how to relate to students of color has to be a class, textbook or seminar. When it comes to interacting with people, it is my opinion that we can move the needle by caring about the children we serve as if they were our own, and by being open and honest about who we are, what we believe, and how that impacts the students we serve each day.


Originally shared via Larry Ferlazzo’s Edweek Column 





Summer is a time for personal and professional self-reflection. The pace is slower, which gives us time to rejuvenate and reconnect with self, family, and friends. This summer I had the pleasure of doing all of those things, but I had the bonus of meeting and working with 7 new friends on the #EdWriteNow project. This was my second year working on the project, so I was extremely excited to be invited back, but more importantly, I was honored to be asked to co-edit the project with Jeff Zoul. The inaugural Education Write Now experience was a highlight of my career, so needless to say I was eager to contribute to this great work to which all the proceeds of the book will go to the Will to Live Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing teen suicide.                                              Screen Shot 2018-09-23 at 3.18.37 PM

This year, we met in Chicago prior to the start of the National Principals’ Conference. Unlike last year, I had only met one other person who I was going to be working with on this project. For the most part,  all other relationships had been formed and developed via social media. Because of our digital connection, we instantly connected personally and professionally. It was because of the relationship bonds that were forming as a result of working non-stop on the project for 48 hours that the team agreed on relationships as the theme that was connecting all of our chapters together. We realized that no program, policy, law, or initiative will ever take the place of relationships. Onica Mayers so candidly stated, “Relationships matter, people!” after Jeff and I participated in a light-hearted bantering session about which baseball organization, the Cubs or the Astros, was the better team. Needless to say, relationships do matter,  and unfortunately, relationships in schools do not get to the place where they could be because of the fear of engaging in productive conflict. In my chapter, I challenge the reader to reframe the word conflict and their perspective regarding how they feel about conflict from one that evokes negative thoughts and emotions to an idea and principle that is essential to getting the best ideas on the table.

Here is a short excerpt from my chapter:

Conflict. Just hearing the word or seeing it in print has the tendency to conjure negative emotions, thoughts, or memories. The word by sheer meaning is negative, and if left to stand alone without any additional qualifiers, is a word that offers little hope, peace, positivity,  or closure. Conflict denotes that there will be winners and losers, and those who are able to voice their opinions or views the loudest will claim stake to victory. Conflict forces one to choose sides, hold on to narrow perspectives, and engage in unproductive dialogue that doesn’t lead to better solutions.

Conflict does have its place in the world. There are just some fundamental truths and moral practices on which we must stand firm; but as educators, how can we reframe conflict into an activity that will result in the best possible outcomes and solutions for the students we serve? Is it possible to engage in productive conflict, which for this chapter means the sharing and acceptance of divergent ideas, perspectives, and experiences, to get the best solutions to the challenges and problems that plague our education system?

Engaging in productive conflict is not only necessary but it is critical to reimagining an educational system that is committed to fostering and developing high-performing teams that know how to engage productively with those who have different perspectives and experiences. Without productive conflict, one is not able to grow or be challenged cognitively or philosophically. Refinement only happens through the convergence of new ideas and experiences. In fact, without productive conflict, the best ideas will never be presented which will result in more of the same. Embracing the struggle and dissonance that will occur, while also practicing the art of vulnerability, is the only way that productive conflict will lead to positive outcomes.

When engaging in productive conflict there is no right and wrong—only different. Being able to see someone else’s perspective for what it is rather than through the filter of what you think it should be is the first critical step. Productive conflict does not occur by appealing to the logical part of the brain. If you want anyone to change, it is a must that you appeal to the emotional side of the brain first. Emotional intelligent individuals practice self and social awareness and are strategic in managing relationships. They have the ability to control their emotions and understand the effect their attitude and actions have on others, which enables them to adapt their behavior to elicit positive and productive outcomes. People need to feel and connect before they are able to change. True connection cannot happen in the absence of true relationship building. Authenticity will not grow if planted in inauthentic soil.

As Peter Senge simply states, “In great teams, conflict becomes productive. The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.”

If doing the work that is required to cultivate high-performing teams is important to you, you will find the time and create the space; if it is not, you will find an excuse. The role of the leader is not to have all of the answers to the many challenges we face. The role of the leader is to create an environment where all ideas are shared, valued, respected and appreciated. Take the time to do the culture work that is necessary to create environments where productive conflict can thrive, for it is the strength of the team’s culture that will determine the altitude of the group.

After working on this project for two years in a row, I am once again surprised at how well the chapters link together. Check out excerpts from Jeff Zoul, Randy Ziegenfuss, Rosa Isiah, Elizabeth Bostwick, and Laura Gilchrist. Stay tuned for a post next week from Onica Mayers where she really opens up about the power of relationships. In the next few weeks, Winston Sakurai, Sean Gaillard, and Danny “Sunshine” Bauer will be sharing thoughts on their experience and excerpts from their work. 

I am looking forward to year three of this project. Jeff and I will continue to lead the work as we invite a new team of eight to join us. I want to especially thank Routledge and Senior Editor Lauren Davis for your continued commitment and dedication to this project.  Until then, add Education Write Now-Volume I to your library and complete your collection by purchasing Education Write Now: Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture Volume II this winter.  


On a daily basis in schools across the country, adults in the building review data to determine what action steps need to take place to help students achieve.  Unfortunately, far too often students are left out of this conversation. If it would be unheard of to discuss the progress of a weight loss plan without the voice and participation of the person who is executing the plan, why is it the norm to not include students in the process of reviewing their academic progress and goals? As educators, we need to rethink our approach to setting academic goals and reviewing student progress. 

For this post, I want to use the letters in the word G.O.A.L. to discuss the importance of reviewing academic progress and establishing goals with our students. 

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Growth. Without setting goals, how will students know when they are learning and improving? We certainly cannot rely on grades to be the only measure of growth. In fact, grades measure compliance more than student growth. The assigning of grades is a teacher task and involve little collaboration or input from the student. On the other hand, goals should be collaborative decisions made by the teacher and the student and include various measurements of progress along the way.

Ownership. Students become owners of their learning through goal setting. They are not able to be passive participants who wait for the teacher to determine if they have mastered the learning objectives. When students own their learning, they understand the standards that have been set, and through scaffolding and support from the teacher, they have a clear path on how to improve. Standards should be written in student-friendly language so that students can articulate exactly what is expected of them. Students should be given exemplars for self-evaluation and reflection, as well as a place to collect evidence that demonstrates their progress toward the learning standards. Lastly, when students are able to facilitate a student-centered conference about their progress, it gives them the opportunity to share their learning with their parents and teachers.

Awareness. Typically, students become most aware of their progress during progress or report card time. On most occasions when students receive graded work, they often look at the grade without little thought about the learning that occurred. Goal setting helps students to be more aware of the learning they are expected to experience. This awareness helps students to be engaged in the learning process. Mastery-oriented goals give students the opportunity to focus on learning standards and their own growth. Without goals, student motivation and engagement decreases because students are not aware of what they should be learning and have no idea about their role in the learning process.

Learning. Learning cannot occur in the absence of feedback. Goal setting with students must be accompanied by individualized, targeted feedback. Goals without feedback will not increase student achievement. Choosing a limited number of goals will help teachers focus on the most important needs of the student and will help students focus on the most critical areas of their learning. Goals should be individualized for each student, and an entry point that is challenging but attainable for the student is a great starting place when it comes to setting goals. When students experience success, they are motivated to continue to push themselves.

Setting goals with students inform teacher practice, engages and motivates students during the learning process, and creates a partnership between the teacher and the student. Think about how you can begin to include students in the process of setting goals and reviewing academic progress. They are an essential part of the equation and they deserve to sit at the table.

Life experiences can be categorized in two ways– as mountain-top highs or valley lows. Working with the #edwritenow team has certainly been one of the most personal and professional mountain-top highlights of my life. Being able to contribute to this project to help other educators grow was definitely rewarding, but knowing that the proceeds from the project will support the work of a worthy organization is fulfilling.

Ten educators were charged with writing a book on some of the most pressing topics in education. We were given less than 72 hours to complete the project. Bringing different educators from all over the country, with more varied perspectives than similar ones, to produce a book that sounds like one voice was AMAZING! Kudos to Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza for their vision on this project.

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As we began to write, the collective genius and professional capital in the room was so exciting; but more importantly, the personal relationships that were developed while writing on this project outweigh the satisfaction of its completion.  

During my writing breaks, I talked to some of my esteemed colleagues about their work. Tom Murray was one of my accountability partners. As I read his work, Changing the Way We Think About Technology, I couldn’t help but think about how much technology has changed the way we do business. On the other hand, Tom also challenged my thinking by pointing out that in many cases technology has just replaced worksheets and other low level tasks. He challenges educators to use technology authentically so that students can connect with others in ways that they never have before to create things that would not have been possible without technolgy. 

I also took some time to talk to Starr Sackstein about how “assessment” has become a word that causes teachers and students so much stress. Unfortunately, when the word assessment is spoken in our profession, many think about standardized testing. The era of high-stakes testing that we are currently working in has led to, in my opinion, the lack of teacher engagement. In my contribution to the book, I outline ways that leaders can create an environment that promotes, ecourages, and supports active teacher engagement. 

If teachers are responsible for student engagement, what role do leaders play in teacher engagement?

While the responsibility cannot totally fall on the shoulders of leaders, it is important to note that they certainly play a significant role in creating and sustaining a culture that encourages, promotes, and supports active teacher engagement. As professionals, we have the responsibility to continue to learn and grow, regardless of the working environment and leadership we may encounter, but it is my opinion that strong leadership can move the teacher engagement pendulum. I do believe that teachers must have the desire to move from being disengaged or engaged to become actively engaged, but I think leaders should see themselves as part of the process of removing barriers that hinder teachers from becoming actively engaged in their work.

Being a leader is a huge responsibility. Teachers, students, and parents are watching your every move. People want to know what makes you tick as a person, and it matters to them what you think. Because of my position as a leader, I recognize that I have a responsibility to the people I serve each day. Although there are days I fall short, I seek to add value to someone’s life each day. I am not perfect by any means, and unfortunately, I do miss opportunities. When that occurs, I constantly think about what I need to do the next time to correct the missed opportunity to engage with teachers in a meaningful way. If you, as the leader, are not making others who work around your better, then I question your purpose. Leaders must see every single encounter with a teacher as an opportunity for authentic engagement.

Leaders must be able and willing to help teachers connect their “why” to the work. Being able to anchor the work to a greater purpose is what will sustain and motivate teachers through challenges. In addition, when teachers are a part of creating the purpose of the organization, the long-term benefits of ownership will carry the organization further along than the short-term wins that buy-in promises. Furthermore, leaders must be intentional about developing a culture that promotes, encourages, and cultivates learning by giving teachers the opportunity to learn from one another. Encouraging this type of collaboration will not only build the professional capital of the teachers, but it will also deepen and enrich the collegial collaboration amongst them as well.  When teachers know that they are appreciated, valued, and supported in all aspects of their lives, they will be committed to their work and to those around them. This commitment will fuel them with the desire to become better each day.

Although leadership is not the only gatekeeper to teacher engagement, it is certainly a critical component to creating an environment that fosters active engagement. Leaders must be willing to change the way they think about their responsibility in cultivating a  working environment that promotes and supports active engagement. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence will exist, but with strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.

Next week’s post will be shared by my friend and colleague, Amber Teamann. As you continue to think about ways you can create engaging working environments for teachers, I encourage you to read Amber’s ideas on changing the way we think about leadership. I guarantee you will be challenged and encouraged to think about leadership in a different way.

Be sure to pick up your copy of Edcuation Write Now in December 2017.


In the past few months, I have presented at a couple of conferences on the topic of leadership. The primary audience at these conferences have been principals or aspiring administrators, and in my opinion, there is nothing more challenging than presenting to my peers. Principals can be an intimidating audience because they have a range of expertise and experiences. When I know I am presenting to principals, I always try to share something that causes them to reflect on their own leadership.
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When I am preparing to speak, I always have to personally reflect on who I am and what I am about as a leader. Recently, I have discovered that there are three fundamental principles that drive me as a leader.
  • Bring Value to Someone’s Life Every Day
    Being a leader is a huge responsibility. Teachers, students, and parents are watching your every move. People want to know what makes you tick as a person, and it matters to them what you think. Because of my position as a principal, I recognize that I have a responsibility to the people I serve each day. Although there are days that I fall short, I seek to add value to someone’s life each day. I am not perfect by any means, and unfortunately, I do miss opportunities. When that occurs, I constantly think about what I need to do the next time to correct the missed opportunity. If you, as the principal, are not making others who work around your better, then I question your purpose. As a leader, I see every single encounter with a student, teacher, or parent as an opportunity for transformation.
  • See the Possibilities in Every Situation
    One of the main life lessons that I learned in college was that excuses are tools of incompetence. I believe, wholeheartedly, that is my responsibility to help teachers see the possibles in every situation. Making sure teachers have the resources and training they need to do the job is my number one priority. Giving quality feedback, in a supportive learning and working environment, makes the “impossibles” become “I’m possible.” When teachers have the belief in themselves to do the work, they feel confident and equipped. If the principal does not believe the organization can be successful, then the conditions necessary for success will not be created or cultivated. Excellence cannot thrive while being surrounded by mediocre thinking; thus, being excellent involves possessing an attitude and work ethic that rises above and repels mediocrity. It is my belief that every situation has possibilities and untapped potential yet to be seen.
  • Be Excellent on Purpose
    “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude” (Ralph Marston). I don’t know many people who wake up each day and say, “I want to be average, below average, or completely ineffective.” Being excellent on purpose means setting a standard for success and doing whatever it takes to close the gap from where you currently are to what you are striving to become. If someone is pursuing excellence, they are able to see past the barriers that are preventing them from achieving their goals. They surround themselves with others who are going to push them and make them a better person. Seekers of excellence aspire to inspire others around them to be great. When you are excellent on purpose, you make it a priority to make others around your better by building them up instead of tearing them down. Being excellent on purpose means being intentional with your time, the company you keep, and where you focus your thinking and energy.
These are my leadership principles. This is what keeps me grounded in my integrity as a principal. When I deviate from these principles, I am acting outside of my integrity. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with people who always bring me back to my practical leadership principles.

What are your leadership principles? More importantly, who have you surrounded yourself with that can keep you focused on who you are as a leader?

I recently read an article written by a poet who struggled to answer questions on a Texas standardized test. As the author, one would think that she would be able to analyze and answer questions about poems she wrote. I found this article to be amusing, sad, and full of common sense wisdom. I read this article two days before the state of Texas released a model of district and campus A-F ratings to meet the legislative requirement of HB 2804.

Even in the midst of standardization and scrutiny of public education, which comes mostly from those who have never set foot in public schools, educators around the world are working hard to create memorable learning experiences that cannot be standardized or measured on a test.

A student at my school drew this picture from a photograph that was given to her by one of her teachers. The artistic talent that is displayed in this drawing blew my mind! How can this be the work of a 14-year-old self-taught artist?


When I saw this student during the passing period the next day, I complimented her artistic ability and workmanship. I also asked her what her fee would be for drawing a portrait of my children. At the conclusion of our conversation, I shared an idea with her that I had about creating a piece of art to remember our dear counselor who passed away in the fall. I already had a meeting scheduled with Andrew, the artist I use often, but I felt that having a student create the piece would be more meaningful. This student has proven to be a serious artist, and I know that she is more than capable of doing an exceptional job.

During my meeting with Andrew, I showed him the picture above and he was amazed. I went on to inform him that I had just reassigned a job I had slated for him to complete to my student artist. We continued our meeting, which led to us walking the building to look at some areas we had in mind for some upcoming projects. During our walk, we ran into the student artist we had discussed earlier. The conversation that transpired between the two artists was AMAZING! A student with a dream talking to a person who is living his dream of making a living sharing his passion and talent is what school should be about. This is learning. Schooling in the 21st century is about the possibilities and the realization of dreams, not how quickly content and strategies can be regurgitated to pass a test.

At the conclusion of the conversation, my student artist said that having the opportunity to talk to an artist who uses his talent to make a living was an answer to her prayers. She shared with us that she had been talking to her mother about what a future career would look like as an artist. I told her that with a little guidance and support, she could be a 14-year-old entrepreneur today! Her eyes popped out of her sockets, and she grinned from ear to ear. Passionate students, with the right influences and relationships, pursue excellence that positively contributes to making the world a better place. I am not sure what learning objective that is, but that is what I want my personal children to learn after 13 years of public education.

How would you measure the moment this student had? What letter grade can we put on this experience? Which experience would you want to have as a student? Furthermore, which experience do you want your children to have? I don’t know about you, but my school, my children’s school, my district, and my neighborhood are so much more than a letter grade. My children and the children I serve each day are greater than what a standardized test can measure, and the professionals who chose our worthy profession deserve more than a letter to measure their effectiveness, commitment, and dedication.

At the time when we need to be helping students find their passion and talents so they are equipped to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century, and are prepared for jobs that do not yet exist, we are using the most simplistic form of measurement to determine if they are ready. For those who need to measure the effectiveness of public schools, I would encourage you to choose your metrics wisely. Be sure your metrics can easily be explained, replicated, and not manipulated. As for me, I will take my chance on passion, creativity, personal stories, and connection over a letter grade any day.

I was reading a devotional a few weeks ago, and I came across a reading that really resonated with me. It made me think about what is often done to students in schools. In our profession, students are often sorted and labeled based on their achievements, appearance, activities, or abilities. The phrases “those kids” or “these families” instead of “our kids” and “our families” are often used when describing students who are underprivileged.

Unfortunately, students who are underprivileged are often viewed as a problem that needs to be fixed or addressed by somebody else; however, the somebody has not been identified by the people closest to the need. Oftentimes, the somebody is the person who is looking outward for someone else to identify and address the student’s needs. When we signup to be educators in public school, we do not get to pick and choose what comes through our doors. A child’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive.

Screenshot 2016-09-03 21.55.31As educators, the only thing we can pick and choose is our attitude, our dedication, and the amount of determination we will pour into “our students” and “our families.” We are the somebody’s who will help our students see the possibles. We must remove the boundaries and labels that others have put on our students. Labels become impossibles. No label teachers see every child as if they were their own personal children. No label teachers are committed to student growth, regardless of where the starting point may be. No label teachers seek to find the possible in every child and are committed to helping them become their best possible self.

Labels are useful when sorting items, organizing groceries or sorting laundry. Labels are necessary for organizing our time, our things and our activities; however, labels for people quickly turn into impossibles (Martin, 2013). No label teachers don’t see impossibles. No label teachers are committed to finding a way to reach every child because every child is someone else’s whole world. Every student who walks through our doors are “OUR KIDS” and they should mean the whole world to us!

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Gallup, only 30% of teachers are engaged in their work. When I first saw this statistic, I was somewhat surprised. After reading the report further, I asked myself the following question, “Who is responsible for teacher engagement?” Before I share my thoughts on this question, I want to define the levels of engagement that were discussed in the report: engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged.

The actively disengaged employee is not only unhappy with his or her work, but they want to make sure others are unhappy and unsuccessful, too. This type of employee is a culture killer who seeks to create and spread toxic energy. They undermine any good that is occurring on a campus or in the professional lives of others. They are so miserable in their role, and probably with their life, but yet they keep hanging around instead of seeking other employment opportunities.

The employee who is not engaged can be described as being compliant. They go through the motions without any purpose or passion. They do what they are asked to do, not because they believe in it, but because they were told to do so. This type of employee is on auto pilot. They are not causing problems by rocking the boat, but they are not interested in making any positive waves. Compliant employees are not hot or cold, but can be considered to be lukewarm. With support or a nudge from the right influencer, they can move up on the employee engagement barometer.

The engaged employee is committed. They are constantly seeking to grow professionally. They own their professional learning and see the value in connecting with others to improve their craft. Engaged employees do not view the teaching profession as work. They  view their chosen profession as an ongoing passion project with endless possibilities.

1. Read more books2. Get a new hobby3. Try rock climbing4. Be more creative

If we believe that student engagement is the responsibility of the teacher, what role does the principal play when it comes to teacher engagement? Below are three suggestions for leaders about how to create a more engaging working environment for teachers.

Give teachers permission to take risks and support them when they fail. Teaching is an art and a science. I don’t know of any artist or scientist who did not fail during the artistic or scientific inquiry process. Teachers must be given the opportunity to think outside of the box as they focus on how to meet the multiple needs of the learners in their classroom. The ability to solve problems and think critically are key characteristics of risk takers, and in almost every risk, there is a high probability of failure. Failure is not the end; it is just the beginning of a breakthrough. Engaged teachers are risk takers, and they need principals who will encourage and support them in their risk taking efforts. Principals need to give them quality feedback on identified areas of growth, recognize their effort and desire to improve, and celebrate their success.

Listen to the voices of teachers. One of the main points of the study discussed the lack of teacher voice in the profession. Teachers surveyed during this study expressed that they felt their voice was not heard, and their opinions did not matter. Historically, our profession is one that follows the bureaucratic model. Typically, initiatives are top down from the federal and state government to the local agency, from the local agency to the principal, and from the principal to the teachers. Ultimately, teachers are the doers, but they are often the furthest away from the decision-making table. When rolling out campus initiatives or embarking on the change process, it is important to have teachers sitting at the table. Allow them to be part of the conversation. Listen to their suggestions, concerns, hopes, and fears. This discourse will help leaders think through the change process and make more informed decisions that impact the lives of the teachers on the campus.

Help teachers innovate inside the box. There are many aspects of schooling where educators do not have a say in what happens in public education. The role of the principal is to make sure that the campus is compliant in those areas, but it is equally important for leaders to help teachers innovate within the box. Giving teachers permission to work through the parameters that have been set, without neglecting the compliance pieces, is possible if the leader has developed a collaborative culture that values shared decision making. Shared decision making leads to a culture where teachers understand the big picture, are committed and dedicated to the work, and can see impossibles as possibles in waiting.

Strong principal leadership is a contributor to a positive, engaging working environment for teachers. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence can exist. With strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.


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