This Kid is Ours Too

This Kid is Ours Too

Leadership is about keeping deeply held beliefs in alignment with our actions. It often requires pausing to reflect, diving deep into reflection, listening to our deepest voices, and generating the courage to admit that our behaviors and beliefs are out of alignment.

A core belief I hold tightly, is that: “Those Kids are Our Kids.” All of them. I believe it so deeply that I’ve laid stake to this reflective space, with it’s namesake. If a kid walks through our public school gates, we should see them, push them, care for them, support and believe in them as if they are our own.

 This is easy to say. In some cases, it can be trying to live out.

With one of our 430 students, I’m finding it particularly challenging to maintain this posture.

  • When elopement extends throughout the school day, and we can’t get the student back to class, it’s frustrating.
  • When she indiscriminately kicks kids on the playground, my patience runs out.
  • When I hear that she said, “Whoever invented homework, needs to be murdered,” I chuckle and then feel disturbed.
  • When an entire first grade class has to be reassured that they are safe, despite her threats, I step into the space and take a side.
  • When I spend large chunks of days following this student around campus to keep students safe, I think about the other work awaiting me and take deep breaths.
  • When I can’t get parents to pick her up on a day she is deemed dangerous to herself and others, I know we need outside help.
  • When I look into the eyes of my teachers, doing everything they’ve learned to be effective to no avail, I reassure them.

This student is ours. She is smart and bright and kind. But she is struggling mightily at a comprehensive elementary school.  The childhood trauma and developmental breaks are interfering too much. Despite her intentions, she’s not able to calm herself, trust adults, or participate in the learning with any consistency.

So we activated a referral for a different school placement. They assessed. They observed. They agreed. So she will likely transition into a more supportive, restrictive environment.

If I’m honest, I feel some relief. She will get the support she needs. Perhaps we won’t have to lock the school down for a while. She may gain skills that will give her power over the raging internal storms. She will get back to learning. She will have a new school.

But then it hits me: She is still ours.

She was ours in kindergarten when she showed up with uber excitement and brand new shoes to begin a formal education at our site. She was ours when learning got challenging. She was ours when she created a Van Gough replica that wow-ed the entire school building. She was ours when she hit the sub on the leg, with increasing force, testing the limits of acceptable classroom interactions. She was ours when she shared how hard learning was, when she didn’t have a consistent home to live in.

Lest I forget what I deeply believe and communicate a conflicting message to this student, her family, or my staff.  I will remind myself again and again: This child is ours. Because this child is ours, we will call out this reality. From afar, we will cheer her on. We will check on her progress. We will take good care of her siblings. And we will celebrate her return to our school, in a few months or in a year or more.

When we help this child thrive, academically and social-emotionally, we will be reminded of the deep-seated beliefs that motor our work. All kids can learn. We know how to teach them. Together we have what it takes. And all kids at our sites are “ours.”

Even this one.


Photo by Pete Prodoehl via Flickr
Closing the Literacy Gap

Closing the Literacy Gap

A little less than a year ago, I asked my seventh grade students to give me honest feedback about how they were spending their time.  With reading levels lower than their grade (7th) indicated, I anticipated a lack of commitment to reading.  But their responses ‘floored’ even me.  Time on various screens (computer, phone, video games, television) dwarfed the time spent with books.  As a class, they spent 75 times more minutes with on screens than in the act of reading!  As their English teacher, It’s safe to say that I knew that I had some work to do.

In order to close the achievement gap, it’s critical that ‘our kids’ read at increasing frequencies, duration, and rigors. We know that many of our students see and hear less words, per day, than their peers. It’s a fact that many of our students come to us several grade levels behind. We also know that reading skills are prerequisites for excelling in most college-prep content area courses.

So if we are serious about giving students both a) literacy skills for future success and b) a love of reading and learning, we will:

Increase their exposure to words. While factors impacting a child’s ability to read are many, one factor may trump all others. For over three decades now, we have known, via the research of Stanovich, that reading volume is directly related to a student’s ability to read (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). Simply stated, kids who read more are better at it. In fact, correlations between reading volume and achievement were quantified in a study by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). They demonstrated that students who read 21.1 minutes a day score in the 90th percentile. On the other hand, students who read less than five minutes a day (4.6 and less), score in the bottom half of their class. At the end of the day, students will improve in reading if we can just get them to read consistently.

Vary the format of their reading. We will increase the number of words our students see and take in, if we commit to varying the ways we ask students to engage in reading. We can read aloud captivating pieces. We can read with them, asking them to follow the text with their eyes, at the pace of a fluent reader (shared reading). We can approach a more complex text with a close reading strategies, to move readers into analysis and evaluation. We can have students read chorally, in partners, or in small groups. Additionally, we should have students read independently, both with a purpose and strictly for enjoyment. Varying the approach with students will not only keep text-based instruction fresh, it will increase the chances students engage in the act of reading.

Teach explicit strategies to help them access rigorous content. The truth is, students need more than just ‘time behind the wheel.’ They need some technical know-how. As a teacher of reading at the middle, high school and college levels, I’ve seen how a student’s confidence and competence can surge, when they master a handful of reading strategies. There are a multitude of strategies and approaches that teachers choose to introduce to their students (I personally like Jim Burke’s collection in Reading Reminders). What really matters, however, is helping students find strategies that they can use outside of the literacy context. Questioning, making connections, using graphic organizers, and inferring (to name a few) are all powerful. But if they do not go with students into their future science classrooms, independent reading times, or job training environments, the strategies will become like rusted tools locked in a storage garage. To increase the chances that students carry on with the explicit reading strategies we introduce, we should (1) introduce a wide variety of strategies (2) give them multiple opportunities to practice each (3) push them to reflect and identify a few that really work for them (metacognition!) and (4) recognize them for using the strategies unprompted.

Fight for high quality materials. Access to high quality literature and non-fiction, is an equity issue. If we expect our students to read regularly and we hope that they begin to love reading, then it is on us to connect them to engaging texts. Many of our on-campus libraries are under-staffed and over-dusty. We have access to laptops, but struggle to direct students to text that is appropriately leveled. One solution elementary teachers have used for some time is building leveled classroom libraries. Students then have access to appropriate reading on a daily basis. I decided to create this support for my sixth and seventh grade students last year. This involved hustling for books around campus, asking friends to donate, and writing multiple DonorsChoose grants. It required hours of looking up levels here and organizing them in a way that was clear and inviting. It meant inquiring about student interests and getting a pulse on trending young adult literature. In the end, students respond.

Provide timely feedback on developmental progress. Students should know if their reading skills are improving. Last school year, I made it a point to assess students reading levels at the beginning and end of the school year. Additionally, we celebrated the completion of independent reading books, tracking the totals per student. While this was helpful on many levels, students were left guessing about their in-year progress. Many NCUST award-winning schools have taken on systematic approaches for tracking student’s reading skill development. At the elementary levels, schools employ programs like Accelerated Readers. In the upper grades, schools are beginning to track lexile level improvement with programs like Achieve 3000. No matter the program, students will benefit from a systemic approach that pinpoints their realistic reading levels and tracks their progress incrementally.

Employ research-based principles of motivation. We all want our students to love reading. We want students to see reading as a frontier to be explored rather than an internment camp to endure. Furthermore, we know that positive attitudes towards reading translate to positive outcomes for children (Frey and Fisher, 2013 p.104) To get students there, I argue, we should consider proven principles of motivation.

From a classical behaviorist approach, we should consider reinforcing both big and small behaviors of reading engagement. Following a stimulus-response chain of events, we are hoping to see behavior change that results in more frequent and increasingly engaged independent reading. To achieve this, we should administer positive reinforcement in a timely manner, and in ways that students feel reinforced. This might look like stickers on a chart, special recognition, or treats. Over time, our rewarding of desired reading behaviors should be spread out, shifting from continuous to intermittent. As extrinsic rewards are spaced out, students will begin to experience and value the intrinsic value of reading, including increases in fluency, enjoyment of storylines, feelings of accomplishment, and reading efficacy.

Another approach to motivation, that I believe holds more promise, is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan and Deci, 1985) This framework for understanding human motivation has demonstrated fidelity in multiple domains. In fact, my masters-level research showed its promise in motivating youth in physical activity and exercise. But I believe it can be instrumental with reluctant readers as well. SDT recognizes that individuals are highly motivated when they feel (1) related (2) competent and (3) autonomous. With these critical predictive variables in mind, we could do a lot to help students autonomously select (and have access to) books that they are highly interested in. We have work to do in terms of helping students see their reading progress. If we can do that, their sense of competency will increase. Additionally, we can use book clubs and partner reading strategies to help them feel connected, or related, in the reading experience. There are countless other ways to increase students sense of autonomy, competency, and relatedness around reading. Our students reading skills will benefit if we work towards finding more!

The group of students, represented in the graph above, responded well to the approaches discussed here.  Over the course of a single year, students gained 2.16 grade levels on average (measured using the Analytic Reading Inventory). While most still have progress to make, many are on their way to closing the literacy gap and have promising futures!


Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Rigorous reading: Five access points for comprehending complex texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

How #FightHotCheetos Became a Thing

Often the best way to address real challenges our students face, is to offer better, more intriguing alternatives.

This is how #FightHotCheetos became a thing at our middle school.

We know that obesity occurs at alarming rates in our youth populations. Nationwide, 17% of children and teens are obese (12.7 million students). On top of this, students in urban contexts are disparitly affected. More specifically, students who are Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, from low-income or less educated households are far more likely to become obese (CDC). Students attending my school, in particular, live in a “food desert.” Food detrimental to their health and well-being is offered on nearly every corner of the block.  But organic fruits and vegetables are neighborhoods away. Knowledge about how to work them into an everyday diet, might even be further away.


What we eat affects how we learn.

We know that what students eat affects the way they feel, how much they are motivated, and what they learn. In response to this reality, our school moved to serve breakfast in the classroom.  Our district even worked to improve nutritional offerings during the lunch time hour.


But it wasn’t enough.

The discolored fingertips, lethargic bodies, and neon-red post-run throw up (don’t ask to see the photo!) told us that we needed an intervention. Kids were still making poor food choices. So Ms. Burns and I took up the fight. But we didn’t take Hot Cheetos on directly. No, we were smarter than that. For an entire school year, we worked to present students with ‘delicious but nutritious’ alternative options every Tuesday.


We called it “Try it Out Tuesday.”

And kids ate it up! A majority of students proved brave enough to try on new tastes, new flavors. New fruits. New vegetables.


From dried mangoes to broccolini, from seaweed to tangelos, sparkling water to air-popped popcorn, students tried it all.


Their reactions were priceless.


Their palate increased.


Their consciousness around ingesting lab-created quasi-food (Hot Cheetos) heightened. The pictures tell our story well.


What out-of-the-box efforts are you seeing educators make to meet critical needs of their students?

Building a Winning School Team

Building a Winning School Team

In a different chapter of my career, as a college basketball coach, building successful teams was the ultimate goal.

In the off season, we scoured the local landscape, looking for talented players to contribute. We’d watch them play, introduce ourselves to their loved ones, organize official visits, and push for their commitment to join our program.

During the season, we focused our efforts on developing the team that we had on the roster. For us, this meant developing the individual skills of our players. It meant designing plays where their strengths were utilized. And it meant taking measures to build team unity and stoke positive chemistry.

Building successful teams is central to the job of any school administrator.  I would argue that administrators who are serious about building winning teams, need to think and act more like highly competitive coaches.


Here's the game plan:

Retain the talent that you already have on your team. While teacher retention remains a challenge in the urban context, I know it can be done. Teachers and critical support staff will happily stick around if they feel 1) competent in their work 2) convinced they are making a difference, and 3) connected to their colleagues. Administrators can impact teacher competency through effective coaching and differentiated professional development plans. Administrators can bolster a teacher’s sense of purpose by pointing out the positive impact on students and connecting their efforts to the school’s compelling mission. Administrators can increase teacher’s sense of connectedness to their colleagues by devoting a portion of staff meetings to team-building activities and creating spaces where organic and positive connections among staff are likely to occur (think welcoming lunch room, surprise roller skating trip in lieu of staff meeting, or BBQ at the principal’s place).

Proactively recruit top pre-service teachers.   Administrator Shawn Balnkenship, via The Connected Principal, puts it like this: “It’s simply impossible to improve a school by hiring average people.” Many would point to the limitations that exist, including union contracts, credentialing requirements, and district-level Human Resource (HR) protocol. But I strongly believe that we are going to have to start pushing against some of these boundaries. If we are expecting leaders in hard-to-staff schools to build winning teams, then we have to provide them greater flexibility in hiring. Some districts and schools are already getting creative. South Carolina just passed a bill that gives 42 high-poverty school districts money for out-of-the-box efforts that improve teacher recruitment and retention. My own ideas to attract top pre-service teachers include building relationships with key university staff who are supervising student teachers. I would leverage these relationships to identify top teaching talent and work to set up observations of prospective teachers during their full-year credentialing process. Just like we did with prospective college ‘hoopers,’ I would invite some of these top teachers to visit my site. I’d pitch our compelling vision and communicate our desire to see them apply.  Finally, I’d work with HR to offer contracts on a timeline that rivals with neighboring districts. Currently, many large urban districts offer first year contracts to teachers late, late, late in the summer. By the time contracts are ready to be offered, some of the best up-and-coming teachers have committed to teach elsewhere. For the sake of our students, we can’t afford to lose top teaching talent.

Become the school that passionate, veteran teachers want to come to. Admittedly, this is a long play. But there’s also a reason many successful companies rely on referrals for business. Simply put: it works. When people have great experiences, they talk about it.  They refer friends.  And momentum builds.  Steve Jobs relentlessly pushed Apple to provide “insanely great customer experiences” for this very reason.  We are relational beings.  Many teachers are uber relational. If we create schools where teachers feel competent in their work, convinced they are making a difference, and connected to their colleagues, then teacher retention will cease to become a pressing challenge. Teachers will refer one another to our schools.

And students will be the real winners.

What I Learned from Two Top Schools

What I Learned from Two Top Schools

This week I got the opportunity to travel out of state, to evaluate and learn from two of our nation’s highest performing urban schools. Representing the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST), I was able to get ‘up close and personal’ with these schools, their leaders, the teachers, and the families that put their trust (and their kids) in them.

NCUST exists to improve (and transform) education by identifying, celebrating and studying elementary, middle, and high schools that are among the most effective in the country.  Schools awarded by NCUST are not just good. They are exceptional. These schools are creating school cultures and implementing strategies that are working. Schools are seeing historically under-performing populations of students beat the odds. In these environments, English Learners are proficient at eye-popping levels.  Students who receive free and reduced lunch are out-performing many of their peers.   And ethnic categories are not predictive of assessment scores.

NCUST’s 2016 National Excellence in Urban Education Symposium is just around the corner. And after more than seven years of this work, NCUST released a book detailing best practices.  But there’s nothing like spending a day at one of their award-winning schools. After visiting two schools, on consecutive days, here’s what stands out to me:

1. Everyone feels fortunate to be at their school. Administrators rave about the their “family.” Most teachers have long tenures at the school and many enroll their own children. When talking about her pre-k daughter, one teacher shared, “I know she’ll be successful here. And that’s what I want for her.” Parents share that they “chose” the school, even if it was their neighborhood school by default.

2. School leaders are strong but trusting. Leaders at these effective schools know that teachers excel when they are trusted, challenged, and noticed for their efforts. An Assistant Superintendent of Instruction relayed, “While the ‘what’ [of teaching content] is non-negotiable, the ‘how’ is totally negotiable.” Teachers in these exceptional schools feel that the administrators trust them to meet the needs of their students, without prescriptive approaches. One teacher went so far to say, “Because our administrators trust us, we trust them when they ask us to try something out.” Teachers shared that they were visited quite often by administrators. But the visits were not threatening because administrators communicated a focus beforehand, provided feedback almost immediately, and pushed their staff improve, with great tact.

3. Children aren’t allowed to hide. Texas schools have small class sizes. This, no doubt, increases the chances that teachers will know their students well. But these exceptional schools make purposeful efforts to know their kids, and their skills. They have systematic ways of assessing students and monitoring their progress. They have small groups, inside and outside the classroom, to target student needs. And they keep parents in the loop. In short, students are known well and expected to achieve.

4. Community partnerships are nurtured. One school capitalizes on willing mentors, from a nearby church. Another uses trusted adults to help at pick-up and drop-off. Voting booths crowded the main hallway of one school, serving as a critical “Super Tuesday” community hub. In both places, value-added opportunities are offered to students as a result of the school’s posture and relationship with their communities.

5. Teachers are usually skilled, but always committed. We saw incredible teaching and learning. We saw effective strategies employed that gave students access to curriculum. Admittedly though, we saw a portion of mediocre teachers. But students are still achieving success. I attribute it to the teacher’s commitment. Teachers stayed after school to tutor their students. They naturally and openly collaborated with their colleagues. And they demonstrated a commitment to continual improvement.

6. Data analysis leads to individualized approaches. Student achievement data is taken seriously, analyzed frequently, and used to plan for instruction. Often, teachers form groups of students with similar needs for re-teaching. One grade level utilizes color-coded spreadsheets so that everyone could visualize the progress toward mastery of standards. This grade level ‘just happened’ to see 100% of their students achieve proficiency in math. Another grade level involves students in the tracking of their progress, using Data Folders.

7. Opportunities for enrichment abound. In both settings I observed, students had opportunities for further academic support and enrichment. From Lego clubs to ballroom dancing lessons, student curiosity had room to grow.  Many of these students would not have these kinds of opportunities, absent the school’s offerings.

8. English Learners have low-stakes opportunities to practice language.  The schools I visited had large percentages of English Learners. Amazingly, English Learners at these schools were performing at impressive levels.  I believe these students achieved, in part, because they were afforded low-threat opportunities to practice language skills.  Students often sat in groups.  Their language production was guided by teachers.  And ‘goofs’ weren’t punished with discrete snickering or permanent grades.  These students saw the classroom as a practice field.

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off:  Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off: Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Bluuuooop! Bluuuuoooop! Bluuuuuooooop!

One moment I was teaching, pointing out brilliant uses of figurative language in literature. The next moment, I was flustered, confused about the piercing noises. Once I remembered that the fire alarm was indeed scheduled to occur, I was able to locate the emergency backpack, line students up, and get them to their designated safety location.

By the time I got students back into our room, the class’ limitations became apparent. Learning for that period was over. Soon enough, the passing bell rang, desks were straightened, and students filed out.

Fire drills occur roughly once a month in schools across America. But what would it be like if these were daily occurrences at our schools? What if alarms sounded multiple times throughout your school day, often without warning? Would you switch schools? Would you contemplate a career change? At what point would you deem it intolerable?

This is, in fact, how many of our students experience learning in our classrooms. Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma. These early life experiences, some of them in-utero, have fundamentally changed their brain make-up and wiring. Working with these children, educators and leaders must work to recognize the look and sound of these alarms. We should also work to understand what sets them off, wherever this is possible.

Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma.


What Happens in the Brain
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, in The Whole-Brain Child describe two floors of our brains. The “downstairs” brain is formed at birth and functions for the purposes of survival. The “upstairs” brain isn’t fully formed until the age of twenty-one and is where thinking, decision making, emotional control, empathy, self-understanding, and morality happen. Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.

The amygdala, an almond-sized part of the downstairs brain, is a key player in the limbic system. It functions as a watchdog, sensing possible danger and quickly alerting the body to either fight, run away or freeze. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm of the brain and effectively cuts off the upstairs brain. While this function is critical for human survival, it happens all too frequently for children who have experienced trauma in their lives.

Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.


Impact on Learning
In our classrooms, hardly noticeable interactions or even environmental factors, set off alarms in the bodies of children. Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time. In the words of Siegel and Payne Bryson, “…not only is the upstairs under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.” It’s helpful for us to remember that this shift is often outside the control of our students. They are often stressed, anxious and dysregulated for reasons that even they are unaware of.

Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time.


Recognition is Key
If we, as educators and leaders, acknowledge that this dynamic is occurring frequently, for students we serve, then we are closer to supporting them. When we recognize fight, flight or freeze responses in our students, we know that self regulation is needed before deep learning can happen.  And if we recognize that, “….kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have,” then we are that much closer to increasing learning for our kids!

“Kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.”

Image by Jim Nix via Flickr.
Beyond Required Reading:  “Between the World and Me”

Beyond Required Reading: “Between the World and Me”

Toni Morrison calls it required reading.  For school leaders, especially those of us in urban settings, I’d even go further.  For the leader, pushing themselves towards cultural competence, I’d go further than that.  And for those of us raising black sons in America, I’d go further still.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is beyond required reading.   Here’s why:

  1. Your limited perspective will grow.  Chances are, African American students and families are among the diverse population you serve. And like me, perhaps you aren’t African American.  So you are limited in your perspective. Perhaps you never had to navigate mean streets and urban schools.  I didn’t.  But this is where I gladly live and lead now.  Comparing both spaces, Coates shares, “I suffered at the hands of of both [streets and schools] but I resent the schools more.” How could this be? Read on.
  2. You’ll get a nuanced, passionate, unbridled perspective of a black parent.  One reason the book is so compelling, is because it is a letter written by Coates, to his son.  The worries and convictions and conclusions he shares approximate those of parents we likely know and respect. He is adamant, for example, that, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. [They] are all we have, and they come to us endangered” (82).  He also goes on to share that black parents, “tell their black boys and black girls to be ‘twice as good’ which is to say, ‘accept half as much'”(90).  I recoil when Coates shares with his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (107).  While this shouldn’t be, it probably is. And while Coates is one of 40 million black voices in our country*, we, as educators, should still take pause.
  3. You’ll wonder if our structures are too restrictive.  Perhaps our educational structures and approaches are too inflexible and impersonal.  We, myself included, expect our students to behave and fit into our school cultures.  Sure, we prioritize their learning. But many of our students struggle with being quiet, staying glued to their seats, and being led through pre-scripted learning activities. Coates interpreted his K-12 journey the following way,  “To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly.”  He shares, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity.  They were concerned with compliance”(26). We have to wonder how many bright lights are being dimmed by worksheets and uniform classroom expectations.
  4. You’ll be reminded that establishing relevance for learning is critical.  As educators, we have a duty to answer the “why” for our students.  One of my professors, Dr. Douglas Fisher, calls it a justice issue. Students have a right to know why they are learning what they are learning because we will stand in judgement of them down the road. Coates shares a frustration about disconnection between learning and relevance.  “I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea of why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would” (26).  What would our classrooms look like if all students were convinced that their learning had future relevance?
  5. You’ll witness how a thirst to learn can transform a man.   While Coates plodded through his early education, his college experience proved transformational.  At Howard University, which he affectionately calls the Mecca, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” Burning questions pushed Coates well beyond required reading.  Writers and thinkers throughout the ages confirmed some beliefs and debunked others. They incited further questioning.  His thirst to learn is clear in the statement, “I was made for the library, not the classroom.”  What if this thirst to learn were adequately engaged in his early educational experience?
  6. You will be a better, more culturally competent, leader.  Cultural competence is a non-negotiable for urban school leaders today.  We lead students and families with unique histories, stories, passions and wounds.  Between the World and Me reminds us that realizing student achievement and meaningfully engaging parents will take a whole lot more than freshly published curriculum and morning ‘Coffee with the Principal’ meetings.  We’re going to have to spend time with families, listen well, and sit with their critiques.  A good start may be to assent that many families, many kids are ‘up against’ more. We should honor student interests, fan the flames of their curiosity, and push for more flexible school structures.  If we dare to make some drastic changes, we are more likely to end up with more brilliant minds, like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

*Statistic cited by Eugene Robinson on Morning Joe on 2/13/2016.

Trauma Took Me to School

Trauma Took Me to School

Raising Traumatized Minds
I didn’t set out to become an expert on childhood trauma. But I did choose to adopt. And this journey, taken together with my wife and children, has led me into deep, deep waters. I’ll be more clear:  Trauma took me to school.

Like all parents, I want the absolute best for my kids. I want to see them thrive. As a loving father, I am charged with guiding and teaching and supporting my kids. For our family, this has required far more than rides to soccer, help on homework and a balanced diet.

Because our children experienced significant, nay horrific, childhood trauma, our supportive efforts look much different. In addition to soccer practice, we’ve kept regular attachment therapy a priority. Along with annual well check-ups at the doctor, we’ve spent time with neuroscientists, interpreting brain maps. In addition to Fruity Pebble multi-vitamins, we’ve had to monitor psychotropic medication. And alongside teaching respect for elders, we’ve worked hard to give our kids skills for self-regulation.

In my own home:

  • My learning around this trauma and kids has approximated graduate level action-research.
  • My kids have functioned as master teachers.
  • Evenings of reading books about childhood trauma and attachment and brain functioning, have felt like cramming for finals.
  • Office hours with clinicians. therapists, and residential treatment staff have given our family hope, and taken us to school.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
And now, I bring this earned perspective and developing expertise to the world of education. Here, scores of children and families face similar challenges. The effects of trauma aren’t isolated to a child’s home experience, of course. Our kids, not just those fostered and adopted, bring trauma into our classrooms.

In fact, two million youth in our country are abused and neglected in our country each year. 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, calls trauma, our most urgent public health issue.

Here’s how it plays out: We know (via the Ace study) that early abuse and neglect disrupts healthy functioning of the physiological systems. It ends up ravaging the physical and mental health of young people. It cripples their ability to function well socially. And it rewires the brain, seriously impairing areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. With only limited capacity to stay self-regulated, learning in our classrooms suffer.

But van der Kolk reminds us that, “…we [now] have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively” (358).

The Charge
As educators, we have a responsibility to be trauma-informed. Beyond being informed, I believe that our school communities should be trauma-equipped. That is, we should employ practices, that we know to be effective, with kids who have faced early life trauma.

In the words of van der Kolk, “The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (353).

I want to play a role in helping learning communities like mine accept the challenge to be #trauma-equipped. Will you join me on this journey of preparation and understanding?


Photo by Ian Burt via Flickr.

Six Administrative Moves that Encourage Co-Teaching Brilliance

Six Administrative Moves that Encourage Co-Teaching Brilliance

Administrators have a critical role to play in the setup, support, and celebration of exemplary co-teaching on their campuses.  Here’s why:

When teachers collaborate effectively, students are the real winners!


If we are serious about reaching all students, then we need to set up teachers (and co-teachers) for success.  As administrators, here are some concrete action items you can employ to increase the chances for co-teaching brilliance on your campus!

1. Become a purposeful matchmaker.

As a college basketball coach, a central challenge I faced was putting the right mix of 5 players on the court, at the same time. Decisions weren’t always about talent or seniority. Chemistry and decision-making were critical factors too. As school leaders, we should use a variety of factors before we pair co-teachers together.

2. Crank that master calendar.

The master calendar, at any school, can be a bear. Competing priorities, current staffing, and enrollment demographics can create some serious challenges. I am suggesting that administrators take extra efforts to make the most promising teacher pairings a reality.

3. Prioritize a shared prep period.

In the world of sports, we would never put players on the field/ court together, who have never practiced together. Our teachers deserve the chance to plan together, assess together, and be together (without students). With strategic scheduling, we can make this happen.

4. Consider campus location in classroom assignments.

Location. Location. Location. If shared planning time is limited for co-teachers, we can at least do our best to put them in the same region of campus. When teachers share physical space, they are more likely to share updates about students and function as a team.

5. Host a meet up.

Leading up to the first day of school, administrators map out time for their staff to include professional development, classroom prep, and team building activities. Co-teacher pairings should not come as a surprise on the first day of school. Instead, administrators should roll out the pairings, with some rationale, and even more relational runway. Prospective co-teachers should have the chance to get to know one another, on both personal and professional levels. This might take some prompting from administrators through orchestrated activities. Whatever efforts are taken, the benefit will be apparent. Co-teachers, like parents, work most effectively when they: 1) know one another well 2) take advantage of one another’s strengths and 3) share mutual respect for one another.

6. Check-IN and resource-UP.

Many co-teacher pairings will thrive without much support. We work with passionate and skillful teachers who want the best for kids. But administrators can also expect some challenges to collaboration. As leaders, it is our job to keep a pulse on these partnerships. We should be prepared to help teachers work through conflict and toward better collaboration. And we should always be asking, “What do you need to maximize learning for your students?”

Administrative actions make a marked difference for teachers who are asked to co-teach.  What are “moves” you made this school year to benefit students and support teachers?

Image by Campaign Bootcamp via Flickr.