Podcast S1. Ep.6: Essential Truths For Principals - Danny Steele

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Danny Steele is in his 26th year of education, and this school year marks his fifth year as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System, just south of Birmingham, Alabama.  Prior to this position, he served as a high school principal, as an assistant principal, and as a teacher and coach. He has written two books with Todd Whitaker which were released last month. (Essential Truths for Teachers and Essential Truths for Principals)  In the fall, Steele will begin teaching full time at the University of Montevallo in the department of Instructional Leadership. He resides with his wife and three children in Birmingham, Alabama.


... as the leader, you set the tone in building. What you value, the people in the building will value. What your priorities are will trickle down. I’ve got a sign in my office that says, “I am the difference.” I believe that leadership does matter, but it’s a lot of responsibility. It’s certainly one I think that leaders need to take to heart.
— Danny Steele

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the "CharacterStrong Podcast", where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Danny Steele. Danny's in his 26th year of education, and this school year marks his fifth year as principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System, just south of Birmingham, Alabama. Prior to this position, he served as a high school principal and assistant principal, and as a teacher and coach. He's written two books with Todd Whitaker, which were released in February of 2019. "Essential Truths for Teachers", and "Essential Truths for Principals".

  • John: In the fall, Steele began teaching full-time at the University of Montibello in the Department of Instructional Leadership. He resides with his wife and three children in Birmingham, Alabama. Are you ready? Let's get "CharacterStrong" with Danny Steel. All right, everybody. Welcome back to part two with Danny Steel. Danny, it was awesome getting to talk you in our first podcast, and I wanted to have you back again. We're talking about two books that recently came out that yourself and Todd Whitaker put out. Got to see Todd at the National Principal's Conference. Was so inspired by him.

  • John: I know you mentioned in the first time that we talked that he's been an inspiration to you, even a mentor to you. I just wanted to come back and talk a little bit more about some of the practical strategies, practical things that are coming from these two books, so thanks for coming back with us.

  • Danny: John, it was a joy to speak with you before, and I appreciate the opportunity to connect again. Yeah, I appreciate what you guys do to elevate the voice of educators, and to focus on building relationships with kids and creating cultures of care.

  • John: Thank you. Here's what I love. I know that the work of both teachers and administrators is really hard. I also know how important the role of the principal is on that climate and culture of a building, and one of the things that struck me right at the beginning is in the preface. It says, "Everything comes down to leadership. When things are going well in school, it comes down to the leader. When things are not going so well in school, it comes down to the leader." Can we start with that? Talk to me a little bit about the importance of that and the importance of being reminded of that.

  • Danny: Well, it's hard for me not to quote Todd from years ago. I remember him saying, "When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold." It's just a matter of being mindful of the fact that, as the leader, you set the tone in building. What you value, the people in the building will value. What your priorities are will trickle down. I've got a sign in my office that says, "I am the difference." I believe that leadership does matter, but it's a lot of responsibility. It's certainly one I think that leaders need to take to heart.

  • John: Yeah. And having been, for 15 years, in public school buildings as both teacher and program administrator, I know that one of the things you hear a lot, and I believe this wholeheartedly, I think every single principal that I come across, they want to make a difference. We go into education because we wanna make a difference in kids' lives, and yet sometimes we get really bogged down by the difficult work that is coming day in and day out. One of the things, I think, that sometimes happens is we feel like, for example, that we can't get out of our office because there's so many either meetings or calls or whatever.

  • John: And so, even in chapter 5 of your book, "Essential Truths for Principals", it says, "School cultures made in the little moments," and we all have those little moments where we can make a difference everyday. So talk to me about how you do that personally. As a principal who has a lot on his plate, just like any other administrator, how do you stay focused then on making sure that that work you know really matters, because it all matters, but that work on the relational side that sometimes gets pushed to the side?

  • Danny: I think it is important for leaders to remember why they're there, and to remember what drives them. When it comes down to it, I still really, really love kids.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And I've learned, over the years, to really love teachers and appreciate their work and appreciate the sacrifices they make and the extraordinary patience that they demonstrate with students everyday. And you know, ultimately, it's not about the paperwork. Ultimately, it's not about getting the reports done for central office or the State Department. It's not even about the higher test scores. Ultimately, you know, we're trying to make a difference for the people in the building. As a leader, I'm trying to make a difference not just for kids, but I'm trying to make a difference for the teachers and the support staff. I'm trying to make a difference for our custodians and for our office staff. When you realize that, you know that your focus needs to be relationships. Sort of with that mindset, then it just flows naturally from there.

  • John: So good. I remember each year at the high school level, our seniors would get to take a survey, and one of the questions was kind of identifying a staff member who was most influential in your walk through high school, and so many times, who was the person that they were putting down? It was the custodians, it was the front office secretary, it was a food service worker that they had during third lunch, and it's like when you have that right leadership perspective and knowing that by influencing and positively impacting every staff member in my school, they may be the one every single day then that is uplifting that one student and how important that is.

  • Danny: You know, it's easy if you're in your office and you're responding to e-mail or you're getting some work done, and someone comes into your office. You could view that as an interruption, or you can view that as an opportunity to make someone's day.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And how you respond to that person, that's what determines that. Every time you interact with someone in the hallway, that little conversation you might not ever remember, but the conversation might end up being the highlight of that person's day.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And it might be something that sticks with them for a long time, and so when you remain mindful of the potential that you have to make everyone around you feel special, it helps to keep you grounded, and it reminds you to make the most of those small moments everyday.

  • John: I love it. Before I get to just some real practical type strategy questions, because I know just being in the work everybody's got some different things that they've seen, in chapter 17 you talk about MBWA. And there's probably many people that know what that is, but for our listeners, tell me about the importance of MBWA, and what that stands for.

  • Danny: Sure. I've heard it described as "Management by Walking Around", or "Management by Wandering Around".

  • John: I love it.

  • Danny: It's just that as an administrator, you don't ever make a difference in your school, really, in the office.

  • John: Mm-mmm (negative).

  • Danny: You don't build relationships sitting in your office. You do it by being in classrooms, by being in carpool, by being in the lunchroom, in the hallways. It allows you to ... From a management standpoint, it allows you to be aware of what's going on in the building. It allows you to notice if a class is not covered because a sub didn't show up, or if there's water spilled in the hallway that needs to be mopped up, or if there's a conflict between a couple of kids at class change. There's a lot of practical value just from a management standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint, it allows you to keep your finger on the pulse of the school. It gives you opportunities to connect with teachers on their turf in their classroom.

  • Danny: It gives you a lot of opportunities to build relationships and to collaborate informally, and ultimately, that makes you a better leader. There is no way that I could ever be an administrator and stay in my office much, and I really think it's hard to be effective staying in your office.

  • John: Yeah. Well said. Someone told me once, and it always resonated with me, because I think both are happening by doing that, and that is, "We lead people, we manage things." You could be a great manager, right, of systems and things, and a terrible leader. And vice versa. And by getting out and moving around, in that description you just gave, both are happening. Management is happening of the building, as well as the connection point, the leadership side, the relationship with staff and with students, and so I love that reminder. We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught about the importance of, "We gotta get out."

  • John: And you always see the very best are out and they're about and they're moving and they're connecting, and I'll never forget going into to present at a school once, and I had a boy who was a senior at this high school, and he was working the tech booth up in this auditorium, and the principal came out of the school to give an opening address, and he wasn't even talking to me, he just kind of without thinking just said, "Oh, that's who our principal is." I'm like, "What grade are you in?" And he's like, "Oh, I'm a senior." He's like, "That's what my principal looks like." He didn't even know who the principal was. I'm like, "Oh, goodness."


 
... ultimately, it’s not about the paperwork. Ultimately, it’s not about getting the reports done for central office or the State Department. It’s not even about the higher test scores. Ultimately, you know, we’re trying to make a difference for the people in the building. As a leader, I’m trying to make a difference not just for kids, but I’m trying to make a difference for the teachers and the support staff. I’m trying to make a difference for our custodians and for our office staff. When you realize that, you know that your focus needs to be relationships. Sort of with that mindset, then it just flows naturally from there.
— Danny Steele
 

  • John: How important is the role of the principal to be that face out there connecting relationally? Well, let's end with this. Go ahead if you wanted to share on that. Did you have a thought with that? Sorry, I didn't know if you were gonna share something.

  • Danny: Well, I'm reminded that people learn what you value by how you spend your time.

  • John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

  • Danny: When teachers and students see me in the classroom, they know that I value instruction and I value learning. When they see me in the hallways at class change giving high fives to kids, they know that I value those personal connections. It's just so hard to communicate your priorities from your office.

  • John: Yep. So true. Well said. Well, I cannot let you go without getting some just practical wisdom from you. Let's go. You have two books, "The Essential Truths for Teachers", "The Essential Truths for Principals" that you wrote, Danny, with Todd Whitaker. They just came out a month ago. People need to get those books. They're great reminders, got me thinking in a lot of different ways. Let's start with the teacher's side. Give me a couple of things, a couple of practical things that a teacher who's listening on that relational level, maybe something that you've seen recently.

  • John: It doesn't have to be the number one thing ever, but a couple of practical things for teachers, and then a couple of practical things for principals when it comes to this work.

  • Danny: Well, this is not a novel or original idea, but it is just so important to connect with kids as they're coming into the classroom. So being at the door and giving fist bumps and taking five or 10 seconds to have a conversation with kids when they come in the room, that's a novel or original idea. Teachers all over the country do it, but they do it because it has value and because it goes a long way to establishing a type of class climate that is conducive to learning. I think one of the things that can also go a long way towards building good class climate is when teachers don't take some of the disrespect personally.

  • John: Mm.

  • Danny: You know, when kids act out, it's usually because of the results of an unmet need. And when they're disrespectful to the teachers, it's almost never about the teachers.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And so the students ... The teachers that are able to overlook some of that behavior, I'm not saying they tolerate it, I'm not saying they lower their standard, but they don't take it personally, and they don't forfeit the opportunity to build the relationship. I think those are some specific things that is really good when teachers are able to do that.

  • John: Yeah.

  • Danny: In terms of principals, I think little things ... You know, it's important for school leaders to have fun. When the administrators are having fun at work, it's a lot more likely that the teachers are gonna have fun, and when the teachers are having fun, it's more likely the kids are gonna have fun and enjoy being in the school. So, you know, I play music every morning for about 30 seconds to a minute on the intercom at morning announcements.

  • John: Nice.

  • Danny: Sometimes I'll do a little song competition where the teachers have to e-mail the name of the artist or the name of the movie where the song appeared.

  • John: Nice, so they're getting their class involved, I bet probably. They're like, "What's that song?" Yeah.

  • Danny: Kids are trying to give out the answers.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And then I go around and give out chocolate to the teacher that one first, or anyone who participates gets a little bit of chocolate. That really doesn't have anything to do, maybe, with raising test scores or instructional leadership, but it's about just creating positive energy in the building. Another thing I would say is important is administrators need to always give their teachers the benefit of the doubt.

  • John: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

  • Danny: Always assume the best intentions.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: And when teachers feel safe in that relationship, when there's that trust there, then they're more likely to step out of their comfort zone.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: That's the only way professional growth happens is when you feel safe enough to take some risks. So the extent to which there's gonna be innovation in the classroom is usually gonna be a function of the trust that exists between teachers and their administrators.

  • John: Yep.

  • Danny: So reinforcing teachers, giving them freedom to fail and never missing an opportunity to reinforce what they're doing.

  • John: Yep. So powerful. Those are such powerful reminders for anybody leading anybody, in general, people. But especially principals with teachers. If teachers feel safe and that trust is there, they're far more likely to step outside of that comfort zone, to try something new that might really impact kids in a positive way. Love it. Love the practical advice, love the key reminders. Danny, it's been awesome. I wish I could talk with you all day long, but I'm just grateful that you took the time to be with us. Remind us again, how can we find these two books, "Essential Truths for Principals", "Essential Truths for Teachers", because I would recommend them. I've read both of them already, and you need to ... If you're listening to the podcast, you need to be getting these books.

  • Danny: Well, I appreciate the shout out. They're easy to get off of Amazon. I think they're delivered pretty quickly. My twitter handle is at "SteelThoughts", and I've got a blog that I write, steelthoughts.com. John I appreciate what you do for educators, I appreciate what you do for schools, and I'm always grateful for people like you who care about kids, but also care about empowering teachers to build relationships with them and help create brighter futures.

  • John: Thank you. Well, appreciate having you on. Best of luck as you push to the end of this year. We know this time of year, you've gotta push and be there for your teachers and students just as much as ever before. So thanks, Danny. Have a great rest of your year.

  • Danny: Thanks, man.

  • John: Take care. Thank you for listening to the "CharacterStrong Podcast". If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day. [Music 00:15:54]


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