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  • Writer's picturerobertthornelltx

Five "F-Words" for the new school year

Fair, Firm, Faith, Focus, and FUN!

I am fortunate to travel around the country in my work with schools and see and hear many perspectives. This summer as I have worked with educators from Texas to New York and many places in between, the sense I have gathered is that there remains a tremendous amount of anxiety over the coming year. School leaders cannot find enough staff to fill open positions and teachers that have stayed are nervous they will be met with overloaded classes and unrealistic expectations. Meanwhile, the news of achievement gaps and the impact of Covid on both academics and mental health continue to pile up. (Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning)

This week, before speaking to a group of school leaders, I was able to listen to their superintendent share his opening address. His "state of the district" was full of many of the things we are all used to in those types of settings, it was one part inspiration, one part vision, and one part sense of urgency. Near the end, he share something that resonated with me and I wanted to expand on it because I think it offers a perspective worth remembering in the coming school year.

As we think about how to prepare for the challenges we know we will face this school year, I hope educators, no matter their role, can engage in FIVE specific "F" words, and no, none of them is FAILURE or of the vulgar variety.


"When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something." - John Lewis

Goal #1: What does FAIR look like at your school? Fairness can be a lot more difficult to implement consistently than it should be. The easy way is to treat everyone exactly the same, but the reality is that we aren't all the same. Students come from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences and so do teachers. Being "fair" as a school leader often means knowing your campus needs and acting accordingly, no matter if that is how you spend your time, your resources, or your service. Are the policies and procedures at your campus "fair"? Do all students and staff have the access to the same classes and high-quality learning opportunities (kids and adults)? Let's make treating everyone in our schools fairly a goal for the upcoming school year.


"High expectations are the key to everything." - Sam Walton

Goal #2 for the year, be FIRM. That doesn't say be mean or ugly. It doesn't say be inflexible. It does mean setting a certain standard and consistently reinforcing it. Coming out of the pandemic, this may seem harsh but it is actually a layer of support that many people need. Human nature, especially with many educators, is to sympathize with the struggles of others. As we continue to create a new normal in schools, the word I am hearing more and more is "empathy" rather than "sympathy". There may be many interpretations of what exactly empathy means, but for me, I gravitate toward the idea that I want to know and understand what someone is going through and what their reality or perception of any given situation may be. I believe great leaders and great teachers (one and the same) do this instinctively. However, I have also seen a great many educators drift into the sympathy side and allow things to happen that they should not. They do this, often with the best of intentions in their heart. Daily examples might include such things as allowing students to turn in work late or grading a student differently because they "tried real hard", or possibly allowing students to come to class tardy because "at least they are here". While there is an exception to every rule, examples such as these do not help students in the long run and ultimately contribute to a culture of mediocrity or worse. We can make excuses for our failures or we can look for solutions. Being FIRM in your standards and expectations for behavior, student work, etc. helps everyone, no matter if it's the classroom or the entire campus. And remember, nobody rises to low expectations. Students need us to be the constant in a world of variables.


"If you lose faith, you lose all." - Eleanor Roosevelt

The third "F" word is FAITH, goal #3. Educators have been through a

tremendous amount in the last three years. For some, I have to believe, it is their faith that has gotten them through the tough times and it is faith that keeps them coming back.

As we move into this year, the fourth that will be impacted in some way by the pandemic, faith in ourselves, faith in one another, and possibly faith in something bigger than ourselves, will be important as it has ever been. If you are a research type, there are literally tons of articles around the terms self-efficacy and collective efficacy such as The Power of Collective Efficacy In layman's terms, they all say basically the same thing, educators that believe they have the ability to make a difference are far more likely to do so. Teams (collective efficacy) that all believe and work together have an even greater impact. If you aren't into the research, just think about the many stories you know of heroes, underdog sports teams, turnaround schools, etc. that did what others thought was impossible. In almost all cases, they have one thing in common. They have faith and they believe. We have to have faith in ourselves and faith in our teams. If we do then as things get challenging, and they will, we will not waver. Some key things to listen for at your school to judge the faith: Do you hear phrases like, "it's just these kids" or "that won't work, our parents won't do that"? If you do, do not let those statements detour you from your goals and the goals of your school. A simple activity I like to use to build faith is to work with teams to change the sentences starter from "If only we had (insert whatever you think you need or don't have) to "Even though we don't (same answer). By changing to "even though we don't, we still will" you are setting a tone for FAITH to grow in your classroom or your campus. You have to believe in yourself and your students!


“Exceptional leadership requires us to choose the right things to focus on and then devote our ongoing efforts to them with ‘simplicity and diligence' - Mike Schmoker

The 4th "F-Word" is FOCUS. The challenges in education have never been greater than they are headed into this school year. While there have been signs of students recovering from the pandemic there are still many obstacles ahead of us. School leaders must be intentional about the areas of focus and intentional in how they implement any new changes to their staff. A recent EdWeek article by Dr. Tyrone Howard, Start the School Year with Purpose, shared the concept of leading with purpose and prioritized five key elements. Prioritization is the key. As educators are pressed from various areas to do more and more, perhaps the key to success is not in doing more, but rather to focus in on a few key practices and doing them consistently well. In my experience, the most successful teachers, schools, and districts have what could be described as an obsession with a few key initiatives/practices and then work to establish a clear course of action for implementation, monitoring, and feedback. Possible action steps to prioritizing the focus and providing clarity on what is important on your campus might include simply reflecting on a few questions: What structures do we have in place to ensure every teacher, regardless of experience, is aware of our priorities? How do we ensure all teachers have the proper training to implement the priorities? What is important on your campus and what evidence do you have to support your response?


"Never, ever, underestimate the importance of having fun" - Randy Pauch

Classrooms and schools should be FUN. Let's not forget this, and in fact, let's make it Goal #5 for the school year. How can we make school fun for students, teachers, and yes, even parents? Having FUN is contagious and can have a powerful influence on your campus. Do your students like coming to school? Do teachers?

The social and emotional issues that are challenging many educators and their students are very real and there is no easy answer, but without a doubt, having fun while learning is a step in the right direction. Too many schools and too many educators need permission to have fun. Dance a little. Take your class outside. Sing. Dress silly. Do whatever it takes to engage your students and they will respond and they will remember. One of my favorite books, The Power of Moments shares the simple philosophy that many successful businesses, big and small, use intentional memorable moments to enhance their customers' experience. If we could commit to making our schools fun and using social media and other tools to share that fun, our entire school community will benefit.

Having fun in your school can, and often is, spontaneous, but if you adopt the benefits of fun as part of the overall culture of your building then you can look for intentional ways to increase the enthusiasm of your campus. So many great things can happen with the benefits of play:

  • Happy people treat others well.

  • Fun leads to creativity

  • The time passes quickly

  • Having a good time is healthy

In his TedTalk, The Happy Secret to a Better Workplace, Shawn Anchor talks about the science around happiness and the potential that bringing "fun" into the workplace can have on both productivity and emotional needs I believe it is true. If you can let your guard down and have a little fun while doing great work, just imagine how your students might feel doing the same thing!!

So there you have it. The "F-words" that really matter. Have a FANTASTIC school year!

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