Taking the Time to Be the Difference

If you were to ask me why I got into education I would tell you a simple fact:

I LOVE working with students.  

Seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new.  

Building on their strengths.  

Showing them they can achieve ANYTHING.

Except when I really think about it, I don’t know that ALL of the students I have worked with throughout my career would agree with this description.  The “troublemakers.”  The ones who didn’t fit into my image of what a great student should be.  The ones who talked out of turn too much or didn’t follow the directions or appeared to be completely unmotivated in my class.  What would they say?

Would they agree…

I knew their strengths?

I valued their unique talents?

I BELIEVED IN THEM?

I don’t know.  Some would, but sadly I am pretty sure there are more than a few that would not. 

My short response when they asked a question I had already given the answer to.  The tone in my voice when I told them for what felt like the 800th time to stop interrupting.  The phone calls home to share my concerns of what they were NOT able to do in my classroom.  Classroom interactions focused on my disappointment in their behavior, getting started on work, missing assignments and how if they didn’t change there was not way they could ever be successful in school and beyond.  

Without intending it, these actions told them more than my actual words ever would. 

You are a nuisance.

Your faults are what define you.

I do not value you.

This was incredibly hard for me to reflect on, but I know it’s true.  The worst part is I could have fixed it.  

The Seeds We Sow and the Mark We Leave

When I became an assistant principal one of the things I greatly feared was that my role would primarily be of behavior interventionist.  I had visions of unending days in my office scolding naughty kids, dealing with upset parents and frustrating teachers if I couldn’t fix the problem child in their classroom.  I was pretty terrified.

So I was incredibly grateful last year when I found my role to be more of instructional leader and culture builder than an enforcer of compliance and behavior.  

But then something amazing happened.  I started having more opportunities to work with students who had behavior issues in school.  And it has literally become one of my favorite parts of my job.

Why?  

Simple reason.  We talk.  About anything they want. 

Cars.  Unicorns.  The history of the Ukelele.  How they hate math. Love their brother.  Hate their sister.  Mastering the floss.  Youtube.

I get to know them.  Their strengths.  Their passions.  Their unique qualities.  They teach me stuff.  I teach them stuff.  (Sometimes without them knowing it) 

And yes, we reflect.  We talk about what happened.  Why it happened.  What they will do differently next time.  Why it might be hard to avoid doing whatever it is they did next time, but how they will still vigilantly work to learn from their mistake.  

Instead of seeing them as someone who is disrupting my busy day I see them as a gift.  An opportunity for me to connect.  To Learn.  To Pause.  To help a kid see that even if they made a mistake they are still special, unique, and talented.  School is a good place for them.  They belong here.  They are loved. 

They are not a problem to fix, but an untapped talent with a potential for greatness.  

A Thought

When I was a classroom teacher there were so many pressures and demands of the job that made me feel like I didn’t always have the time it would require to build relationships with my most troubled students.  If we didn’t get through every part of the curriculum each day I was somehow failing as a teacher. 

We tell ourselves things like, If I don’t get through Unit 12 Lesson 9 in math by the end of the year something terrible is going to happen. This students’ behavior isn’t fair to the other kids.  It’s taking away their opportunity to learn.  It sets a bad example.  I need to DO something about it quickly or somehow this behavior will spread like a T Swift album.

I would argue with you the opposite is true.  If we don’t get students to see their unique talents and abilities then we have failed them.  If we don’t make school a place where kids feel connected, develop their passions and leave with a sense of drive and purpose then we are failing society.

Taking the extra time that it may require to build a relationship with a struggling student will actually take up less time in the long run because you will have an advocate in your classroom as opposed to an adversary.   

If you are still struggling with finding the time, I would recommend trying the 2X10 strategy.  I read about it in an ASCD article a few years ago and it has helped many of the teachers I have worked with to build better relationships.  Every day for ten days you take two minutes to share something personal about yourself with that student.  Many times when we ask our troubled students things about themselves they come back with crickets or very little information.  This strategy helps to overcome that barrier and the student starts to see connections with you which opens them up to share more about themselves.  It helps them to see you as a human being as well and not just the daily source of their frustration.  

I promise.  It’s worth it.


One of the reasons I felt so compelled to share this story this week was because of a new book I started reading by Dr. Brad Gustafson called Reclaiming our Calling:  Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education.  The foreward is actually written by a student who discovered his passion for drawing in Kindergarten.  This talent continued to be fostered throughout his elementary career by everyone in the school to the point where he has connected with published authors and is inspiring others and making a true difference.  His talent for artwork could have been seen as a nuisance or something to be put on the back burner for the curriculum, but it wasn’t. Now this middle schooler is inspiring others and making a difference.  Not gonna lie.  This story brought me to tears.

Let’s make stories like this one the norm as opposed to the exception in school.

Take the time. 

Build relationships.

Discover strengths.

Be the difference.

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Thanks for reading.  Christina

What Defines Us

Audio version of this post:

“Why would you want to be like anyone else?”

Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet.  More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.  

My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it.  When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour.  As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did. 

One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years.  How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day.  I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.

From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context.  A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others.  I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him.  An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.

A Personal Reflection

This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator.   When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students.   I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners.  By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback.   The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals.  (Click here for example)  

I welcome risk and crave new experiences.  As a result I see change as a positive.  In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow.   Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking.  In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.

On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described.  Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book.  I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first.  Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?

How Our Perceptions Influence Us

According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.

Vision+Skills+Incentives+Resources+Action Plan+Results 

If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia.  I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.

Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did.   I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing.  Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently.  Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.  

The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together.  Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change.  For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced.  For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.

Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well.  Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences.  Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student.  If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.  

Three Little Questions

So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with?  For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:

  1. What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
  2. What do you value most?
  3. What can I learn from you?

Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways.  I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic.  Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school.  It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them.   When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.

In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids.  Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths.  Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups.   As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.


In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world.  His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view.  I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.  

I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.

Christina