When You Know Better #KidsDeserveIt

When You Know Better

This post initially appeared on the Kids Deserve It blog. To find out more about Kids Deserve It, take a look at #KidsDeserveIt on Twitter or check out their newly released book here

When we meet students under the most ideal circumstances, we know a lot about them. We know about their interests, their family life, their academic performance history, and their behavior at school. We know about what books they like, what works for them, what not to try with them, and what might really push their buttons. When we’re working in the ideal, we know enough that we don’t have to make any assumptions as we prepare to educate the student.

But, all too often, life is not so ideal.

So we set out to do our best with less than an ideal amount of information about students. We try to get to know them as well as we can as soon as possible. We try our best, and in most cases, achieve remarkable results in rapid time. Teachers–you are incredible in your ability to work with so many variables that seem to always be changing as you educate the students you are given.

At some point, though, assumptions begin to creep in and fill the gaps in what we know about our students. I think they’re even made with the best of motivations so that we can serve students as well as we can as soon as we can.

Maybe it’s when things get busy. Maybe it’s when we get tired. At some point, we slip up and do the thing we said we wouldn’t–make an incorrect assumption about the student, and we have to work our way out of the unintended consequences of that assumption.

I’m not going to spend time listing out the ill advised assumptions that are sometimes made. They are out there, and they are too common. What I’d rather focus on is what we can do differently.

What if we committed to making these two assumptions about everyone we interact with at school?

People are doing the best they can.

When you know better, you do better.

I’m not asking you to be naive or to live with your head in the sand. I know that there are exceptions to nearly every rule, but this isn’t a post about those outliers. This is about the everyday. This is about how granting grace to each and every person with whom we interact–even if they’re the fiftieth person who’s doing that thing that annoys us that day.

Operating out of these two assumptions is about not letting little things get to us. It’s about believing that kids can (and will) do better when we teach them. It’s about how we should stop looking at the half empty/half full glass and get busy filling people up.

What if you approached each and every day with the attitude that students were doing the best they can? What would change?

Think about it. Tomorrow, what would change if you moved through your day with those two assumptions?

People are doing the best they can.

When you know better, you do better.

How would you respond to misbehavior?

How would you intervene when you noticed academic struggle?

How would you handle minor misbehaviors that you allow to get to you over time?

I’ll be the first to admit that changing a habit isn’t easy. But this is worth it.

If we made this change, I think our schools would be different. I think they would be better.

Even if things aren’t bad now–even if they’re great now–defaulting to these two assumptions changes our posture as we educate students. Every kid deserves a fresh start with us each morning. Every kid deserves a chance to learn in an environment that’s going to push him and support him as he takes on new challenges. Every kid deserves to be known. Each kid deserves a chance.

We can be the ones to make the difference. We can imagine it better. We can change their world for the better at our schools. Our kids deserve it.

5 Positive Hallway Conversations

dreams don't workunless you doI spend a lot of time in our hallways.

At the very least, I’m there before school, during every passing period, in the cafeteria at lunch, and at parent pickup after school. (Ok, I’m expanding to include some of our common areas, but work with me here.) Part of my job in each of those locations is to look for any issues–times where students aren’t meeting campus expectations–but while this is important, it’s not exactly the sort of life giving work that I wanted to do when I grew up.

Over time, I began to wonder how I could use this time differently. I needed to accomplish the initial goal, but I wondered if I could repurpose or reframe my time in the hallways to make it more than just enforcing expectations.

Going into this year, I wanted to find ways to make my interactions more positive with students. I’m one who believes there’s great value in initiating positive interactions with students, and it always frustrated me when I felt like all I did during a passing period was remind students to be on time, wear their IDs, and enforce the dress code.

So I set out to try something different. I’ve been trying these ideas out over the past week. Some are easier fits than others for the first week, but I’ve tried each. Because so many educators have time assigned to be in visible in the hallways, I want to share them (and I want to know what you’d add to the list). Here are five things I’ve tried.


1) Address a student by name during each passing period. I’m not great with names. Right now, I know a lot of names, I know even more faces, and they’re slowly matching back up; still, the process is slow for me. This active step helps me constantly push the number of student names I can easily recall up. If you see someone you know, ask him or her how the day is going. If you don’t see anyone you know, learn a name. Students often walk the same routes. Get to to know them as they move past your location in the building.

2) Hold a door open for students. This afternoon, I held the door open for students as they left toward our parent pickup area. It created a natural conversation space for me to interact with students, and some positive conversation came out of it that wouldn’t have otherwise. As an administrator, the perception can grow among students that my job is to correct mistakes. Of course addressing students who are not meeting campus expectations is part of my job, but it’s far from the entire (or even the majority) of what I do. Holding open the door puts me in a place of service to students. I like that.

3) If you’re on a campus with athletics programs, wish students good luck at their events on game day. We have close to 500 freshmen on campus, and seeing the volleyball, football, and cross country athletes in their respective gear has already helped me learn several names during time in the hallways. By no means am I saying reduce students to their involvement in extracurriculars, but I’m far from the first to know it’s a great foot in the door to get conversation going with students.

4) Thank students for meeting expectations. This seems odd when I mention it to some people, but I’m a big believer in taking time to provide positive reinforcement for our students who choose to meet our expectations (and yes, this includes everyone from the ones who often struggle to those who could teach the expectations to others). In a seven period day, students could encounter nine sets of expectations (one for each class, one for the cafeteria, and one for the hallways; I’m sure I could list more…). Getting this right is no happy accident, and rewarding students with a bit of acknowledgement shows that we are noticing their work do do things the right way. I think that matters.

5) Ask a consistent question and notice when you get an irregular response. For me this revolves around student IDs. Our students are expected to wear their school IDs when on campus (much to the chagrin of some), but everyone forgets daily expectations from time to time. I regularly ask the same basic question–“Sir/ma’am, do you mind putting on your ID for me?” No, it’s not the most direct way to communicate the “put your ID on” message. Yes, they can say, “No,” in response, but I’m good with that. It’s actually that way by design. You see, what students see as a simple question about a campus expectation I use for much more. I’m constantly looking for students who might not react appropriately so that I can intervene and figure out what’s going on. Maybe life got turned upside down since school ended the day before. Maybe something’s going on between this student and another. Maybe the student missed breakfast for one reason or another. Asking a consistent question helps me intervene when bigger issues may be at play. It has a fringe benefit of identifying students who might need some coaching as to how to address adults well (which happens if I consistently get less than ideal responses to my question). Either way, it’s informing my next steps, which I like.

What other ideas do you have for engaging in positive interactions with students? Share them in the comments or get in touch with me on Twitter (find me here). Hope your time in the hallways is well spent!

5 Positive Hallway Conversations

The Invisible People In Your School

Right now, there are invisible people in your school.

No, not some sort of ghosts like those who haunt people in books and movies; in your school are students who are “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see” them for who they are (not unlike the unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man whose self-description is quoted here).

They’re largely unnoticed, many are compliant, and all are disconnected. Some of them think this is the only way they’ll ever experience school; after all, they missed the welcome to high school orientation, they’re not sure who to talk to about sports or clubs, and their older siblings preceded them in living the invisible high school life (maybe graduating, maybe not). So why expect anything different?

They’re in more of our classrooms than we’d guess, even in unlikely places–places where lots of people are, where people look like everything is ok, where school doesn’t seem to be a struggle, where students live in poverty or affluence or alone or in fear.

But do we even know who they are?

At your school, do you know who is involved and who isn’t? Could you put pen to paper and create a list of who is connected to this sport, that teacher, this club, or that group? Do you know how students would answer the question, “Who are your people?” on your campus? It’s time we look into how we ensure that we’re reaching out to all students who are part of our campuses.


You’d be hard pressed to find an educator who would argue against the positive benefits of relationships; however, if we really believe that relationships impact student success, that belonging at school is prerequisite for many students’ belief in their own ability to attain success, we need to take action on their behalf.

Look at the students who were new to your campus this year. Who struggled? Who continues to struggle to meet academic and behavior expectations after spring break? What needs to change in your models and instruction as you teach students to expect better of themselves on your campus?

As you think through those questions, consider what the best ways to prepare students who are new to your campus to meet your expectations next fall. What have you done so far to know who your struggling students are likely to be in the group who will be new to your campus next year? What are their greatest needs? How do you know? What will you do to connect them to something positive in your school community?

Whatever your response to those questions, resist the easy path of believing the rumors about that next group. Instead, determine their gaps and find a great way to teach them expectations and engage them as part of your school community.2 (2)

On my campus, we’re brainstorming options for a number of different populations among our incoming 9th graders. We’re talking about how to serve students who continue to struggle academically with minimal attendance and discipline issues interfering with their school work. We’re talking about how to serve students who might have large gaps in understanding our behavior expectations at our school. We’re talking about how to intervene before high school even begins in order to establish positive relationships while providing a taste of academic success for students who have traditionally struggled.

Though we have experienced success with several new initiatives this school year, I’m thrilled that our success this year is driving conversations toward helping more next year. If you’re reading this with the successful programs you have in place in mind as justification for not starting new conversations to help those invisible students on your campus, you’ve missed it.

What will you do different next year to help these invisible students?

Yes, right now, there are invisible people in your school community. They’re in mine, too. We’re actively looking for them and learning along the way. You should, too.


Speak Into the Lives of Others

When I was in the classroom, much of my favorite student writing came in response to an assignment I often ended the school year with in my English classes that dealt with two weighty ideas.

Students first encountered this claim—“The thing about humans is that they are constantly comparing themselves to one another”—before moving on to the idea that with few exceptions, we are “people who [are] wired up so that something outside [ourselves] tells [us] who [we are]” (both quotations from Donald Miller’s, Searching for God Knows What).

That’s a lot to consider, but in class, when we kept the conversation focused on how this might apply to the literature we covered throughout the year, we not only found this idea to be true, but we also found this truth to be much more tolerable when applied to anyone other than ourselves. It seemed much easier to see that Huck Finn believed in half-truths and bald faced lies throughout his story than it was to ask whether we have treated others as less than human for the same reasons. Likewise, it seemed much easier to condemn the community that shuns Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter than to look at the reasons we accept or reject people today.

Despite the relative discomfort caused by bringing this all up in class, my students overwhelmed me with their responses as they wrote about taking care of their families, setting goals to make people smile daily, and how exhausting it is to try to keep everyone thinking that everything is going great in their lives. Many wrote about clinging to the values that had been instilled in them. More than a few wrote about the relief of not having to be known as “the funny guy” or “the quiet one” after high school.

If we are truly wired up so that something outside of us tells us who we are, we need to identify who we are letting in (and maybe spend some time evaluating what’s healthy and what’s not so healthy). More than that, though, what need to recognize that we have to say to others—friends and foes, new and old—matters more than we might have previously believed.

I hope you seek out opportunities to speak life and truth into the lives of those around you—both those closest to you and those you’ve not even met. It’s your responsibility and your privilege to be able to invest in others in this way.

It’s incredibly encouraging to watch students and staff carry this sort of challenge out on campus. The power hidden within our words is obvious in the yellowed thank you letters that hang in classrooms around campus and in the conversations I watch students make time for when a friend needs their undivided attention. It’s also there in that look in a student’s eye that says, “I want to say something life-giving right now, but I just don’t know how or I’m not ready to let my guard down with these people,” and it’s in a hundred other places as well.

Speak life 2

Regardless of your role at school—admin, teacher, support staff, student—let go of whatever holds you back, take the opportunities to thank those who have poured into you, and challenge others to continue to do likewise.

As you move throughout your week, be deliberate—go out of your way—to speak life into the lives of others and build them up.

Think about it before you move on to the rest of the internet, and make a plan to build someone up.

How (not) to Think of Social Emotional Learning

season ending%0AsaleA Lesson From 5th Grade PE

I can’t remember much from 5th grade P.E., but one day is as clear as can be in my memory.

On the day that I remember well, our P.E. teachers had us run and run and run for the first half of class (and I ran more than most as running was my thing). Once when we were basically worn out, the coaches used the second half of class to drive home a point about the value of taking care of yourself. They gave each student a straw and told us to run until they blew the whistle. So I’m running, running, running, and getting pretty tired. Finally the whistle blows and I think I’m going to get some reprieve when they give us our instructions: we are only to catch our breath through the straw we’ve been given.

As it turns out, that’s nearly impossible for a bunch of exhausted 5th-graders. I cheated because there was no way I was going to admit I couldn’t. I could hardly breathe.

My P.E. teacher went on to connect this to why folks with emphysema experienced exhaustion so quickly. I have no idea how accurate this comparison is, but for the first time, 11-year old me understood that this was why my grandmother always needed to take breaks while we were playing.

How We Think of Social Emotional Learning 

All this came to mind as I began to wonder if we’ve begun to treat Social Emotional Learning as a solution to self-inflicted problems. If we’ve ever characterized our audience for SEL using this sort of mindset, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you have to be mean-spirited to make this mistake. In fact, I think that can happen even with the best intentions in mind. I never intended to think of SEL as a solution for narrowly-defined groups, but my practice has probably said otherwise at times.

That’s not okay.

It’s imperative that we’re telling the right story with regard to SEL. Too much is on the line to stumble here. Framing SEL poorly tarnishes the life-giving value that Social Emotional Learning holds in the proper context.

Why Do We Narrow Our SEL Focus?

On the campus where I serve, part of our vision is that all of our students will know the value of giving more than they take, will be responsible for their own actions, and will know that they are an important part of our school community. If our work with Social Emotional Learning is narrowly targeted to specific groups, I’m not sure that we can do that.

We often narrow our focus with the best intentions as we try to accomplish ambitious goals like the one listed above. We believe addressing the areas of highest need best will solve the immediate problems, and the immediate problems are always what get the most attention.

I think there are a few myths out there that drive some of the decisions to narrowly focus SEL instruction. I’d like to share a few and offer a wider view that may help re-center some of our views of SEL.

Myth #1: SEL is for younger students.

Reality: While it’s true that younger students, whether they be elementary school students or freshmen at your high school, need a more fundamental set of skills for both academics and behavior, students of all ages can work to know themselves better, relate better to others, and make responsible choices.

Myth #2: SEL isn’t for students who excel academically.

Reality: While students who achieve well academically often present as having it all together, they’re often under a tremendous amount of pressure. Anyone who has spent time with students knows that this isn’t unique to high achievers. All students benefit from making good decisions about their needs as individuals and in relationships.

Myth #3: SEL is for students who weren’t taught to behave at home.

Reality: Although it’s commonly thought that some students simply know how to behave when they enter the school doors, I believe that it’s our job to make sure we’ve taught our expectations with fidelity to every student. At schools where most parents read to their children, teachers don’t forgo their reading instruction, do they? All students should be equipped to manage themselves and their relationships with others in the school setting.

Despite the fact that it is sometimes treated this way, Social Emotional Learning isn’t an antidote for the side effects of youth, academic achievement, or behavioral gaps. It’s the means by which we can open all students up to the possibility that they could learn more about knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions than they thought possible.

Social Emotional Learning in Focus

Let me be clear: Even the best SEL instruction doesn’t level the playing field for every student. Students are going to struggle, it’s still going to be tough, and some will want to quit trying. That shouldn’t deter our efforts. It would be irresponsible to remain passive when we know that we can provide teaching to help students know themselves, relate well to others, and make responsible decisions.

If we’re not able to find time to help our students develop these qualities, I’m worried.

I think it is more than possible that students can be equipped with the knowledge and skills to choose something better than ignorance when it comes to knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions.

How could we allow that to not happen?

Did he really know better?

A few years ago I was asked a simple question that has impacted nearly every academic or behavior conversation I’ve had since. Sitting in a training (with admittedly low expectations), this question surprised me:

If a student in your class made a mistake on an academic assignment, would it make sense to say, “You knew better than that” and move on expecting more from the student the next time?

You’d be hard pressed to find any research based teaching practices to back this tactic for academic purposes, but nearly anyone with teaching experience has seen this line of logic applied. Most have done it themselves. I did it, too. On particularly stressful days, I’ve found myself falling into my old habits more than I’d like.

This mentality creeps in not when we’re providing instruction on academic content, but it appears regularly when we address inappropriate behavior on campus. The reality is, we expect our students to know how to behave before they enter the door.

Much to the chagrin of some, our expectations for student behavior have to be taught for students to become the young men and women we hope to graduate from our schools. Still, in too many schools, that’s what we often do with student mistakes regarding behavior.

The more I’ve thought about it and read about it, the more I believe the issue is less about differing perspectives regarding the way we teach our academic concepts or correct identified behavior concerns. It’s much more closely tied into how the brain works and how people learn. Without looking at how we learn, we’re going to fall short teaching both academic content and behavior expectations to students.

Brains forget (2)

More than likely, you have a vast repertoire of covert and overt methods of reteaching your academic standards to struggling students in your classroom. Maybe you intervene by asking the student where he or she got stuck (or figure this out by asking the student to explain his process for solving the problem for you). Maybe you ask one of his peers who understands the process to step in and teach the concept in a different way. Maybe you produce something visually that helps make sure you and your student are on the same page. Regardless of the particulars of your strategy, you have many effective options at your disposal.

Think about how powerful it would be to teach behavior with the same fervor and authenticity and passion on your campus. Next time you are frustrated by the way your students are behaving, remember that (in all likelihood), they’re not actively trying to drive you up the wall. Their brains forget and think of an inventive, novel way to reteach your expectations.

Reframe your best teaching practices for teaching behavior expectations and reap the benefits of a classroom and campus where nobody has to guess about behavior expectations.

While this sounds easy in some respects, so does good teaching (and we know what a challenge–albeit a very rewarding challenge–good teaching can be).

Brains forget (1)

Here’s a model based on our first attempts at my school. Keep in mind that this is intended to be a model to spur you on to think of what will work for your learners on your campus. This was a start down the road toward the answer; not the answer. I hope it’s a decent first step in the right direction.

My goal was to keep in mind the principles of learning our district was refining and use them to clearly present a very brief overview of how people learn and reiterate our campus expectations for a few situations that had the tendency to escalate unnecessarily.

So, knowing that I have no future in a career as a video narrator and that I will do a lot differently next year, here’s a link to a video we showed our students that hits on a few of these issues.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear what you’re doing to help students learn how to learn.