5 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Everybody in Your School

Jasmine walked into the room with her feet shuffling. At this instant, she was tired. In addition to cross country, she'd been going to cheer practice and One Act Play. Furthermore, it was also the end of the first grading period and all of her teachers wanted everything YESTERDAY. Last week, her team was eliminated from the state softball playoff and Jasmine was still upset about several plays where she knew she didn't do her best. On top of that, one of her favorite teachers just died of cancer and the funeral was on Monday. Tired and heart-weary, Jasmine walks into my room and says,

“Mrs. Vicki, I've never asked this before, but all I want to do for about 10 minutes is just put my head down for a moment.”

In fact, Jasmine is a compilation of several students I know right now but this really did happen. Fortunately, I knew what was going on in Jasmine's life (name changed ;-) In addition to this, Jasmine had kept up in her work and was slightly ahead.

We had a talk about my expectations for hard work when she took a moment. I said something like,

“Jasmine, you're a fantastic student and work very hard. You've never asked anything like this. I know you're having a rough time. You know this is not something we usually do in my classroom, but I think right now, it is the right thing for me to do. Set your timer and take ten.”

For just a moment, I let her put her head down to gather herself together. She resumed work ten minutes later with a smile on her face and with a precious thank you.

“Mrs. Vicki. Thank you for understanding and seeing all the times I've given you everything. I just needed a second. Thank you for giving it to me.”

I think I made the right decision this time.

When I Made a Mistake

However, I could have made the mistake I made early in my career when I had said no. The young man looked broken hearted that I said no, he couldn't close his eyes a moment. To my horror, I found out later that the young man had been up all night with his Mom at the hospital. At 4 am, he had become a big brother!  And at 8 am, I had become a clueless teacher who wasn't clued into his life.

As I looked back on this mistake, I had not taken into consideration that this young man had never asked for me anything and had always done his work! When children suddenly change behavior – there's always a reason!

[callout]Consequently, I've learned to always be in tune with every student's story and know what is happening in their lives. [/callout]

But these are just two examples of how burnout, exhaustion, and high-emotion moments can start looking like disrespect, laziness, and apathy. It isn't just students, teachers have these things happening too. Especially in October, the monsters of de-motivation come out to play in our schools. If we're not careful, we — the teachers — will become the freak show.

Let's tackle an important topic for October from Cathy Rubin's Global Search for Education:

[callout]How do we better engender a healthy, happy, and productive school environment where both teachers and students can flourish?[/callout]

1. Live One Grateful Day at a Time

I died last week. Not literally. I have a teacher friend named Vickie Davis who went home to glory after a fight with cancer last week.  There's nothing like seeing your name on a program and having some people think you're dead to consider your own legacy.

That same night, a precious co-worker who has taught for 39 years also lost her battle with cancer. Today at her funeral, they had every teacher and student take a flower and fill two huge vases with flowers. The flowers were put into vases with trembling hands and watered by our tears. The vases overflowed.

My heart aches for them and their families.

Both women taught students until they had to stop teaching so they could fight cancer. They went from one fight to another.

In one moment their biggest worry was that naughty boy in the corner who didn't want to learn math or parts of speech. Suddenly, they were fighting for their lives and remembering all the great things about teaching. To demonstrate my point, I was told that the hardest thing about the illness for one of them was missing her students.

[callout]A point often overlooked in the busy days of teaching is that working with children is a gift. Let's live one grateful day at a time. Teaching is a gift and we don't get to do it forever.[/callout]

2. Choose to Improve

Dr. Kristy Cooper-Stein is an upcoming guest on my show, Every Classroom Matters(Stay tuned, it will air soon.)  Notably, I was fascinated by her research that showed that those teachers who believe they have a direct impact on student engagement have more engaged students. In particular, the teachers who believe that they can directly impact student engagement, are always looking for engaging ways to teach. Not surprisingly, they become the better teachers.

Conversely, she said that those teachers who blame the students and think there's nothing they can do, have students who aren't engaged and have no improvement.

I haven't learned. I'm learning.

This past Sunday, a 90+ year old precious woman in my Sunday School class says,

“I'm so glad I haven't learned everything I need to know. I'm learn-ing. Learning means that I am learning now and still have more to learn in the future. Learning means I'm not done living.'”

This is clearly a growth mindset! If you look at Carol Dweck's research (see video) you can see that those who believe they can grow and learn — DO! Those who think that their skills talents and abilities are FIXED or that they've already LEARNED everything they need to know — don't improve.

To put it differently, Henry Ford said,

“Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right.”

[callout]We can all grown and learn — that especially includes us teachers who should understand the dangers of refusing to learn. [/callout]

3. Serve and Love Others

My mentor and friend Mrs. Grace Adkins (she's 86 or so) was asked the other day in church, “what makes you most thankful?”  She replied,

“I have the ability to serve others.”

Todd Nesloney, the Principal Who Served Lunch

As an illustration, let's look at what Principal Todd Nesloney did last week. Recently, Todd got food safety certified. When his students came into the lunchroom last week, they had a new server — their principal, Mr. Nesloney! (see picture)


Principal Todd Nesloney gets food safety certified and serves a meal to his students in the cafeteria. That is servant leadership!

Principal Todd Nesloney gets food safety certified and serves a meal to his students in the cafeteria. That is servant leadership!

Just last week, someone left some trash on a table in our lunchroom. Rather than leave it for the janitor to clean, I approached the table and mentioned it to some students that it needed to be picked up — to which several students shook their heads and said,


“It's not mine.”

My response was,

“OK, so it was wrong for the person to leave their trash. I get that. But servant leaders live their lives by serving others. And when not one person is willing to pick up the trash for a forgetful classmate, you also did wrong. I'll clean it up. Anyone want to help me?”

So, I and several students picked it up. Then, I thanked them. (And watched the next day to catch the person who DID leave it!)

People Who Love Other People

They smile. Furthermore, these people know everyone's names and their life stories. As they pass through the school, they ask about people's children and hobbies and vacations. These people are often the glue that help hold good schools together. And if you can nurture that kind of mutual love, respect, and interest – you can end up in a dream.

I'm going to pick on Todd again! I was looking for the photo of him serving food and I found a picture of him going outside and SWINGING WITH THE KIDS! I'm not kidding.

Todd Nesloney swings with his students.

Todd Nesloney swings with his students. Look at those smiles!!

The best schools are full of servant leaders at all levels.

  • We can pick up trash.
  • We can help the janitors if we see something.
  • We can say thank you to others.
  • We can pick up the lunch plates of other teachers when they are done.
  • We can just go hang around and be around our students or faculty.

If you aren't familiar with this kind of leadership, read The Servant. You'll be glad you did.

ATTENTION POWERFUL PEOPLE WITH BIG JOBS. If you think servant leadership is unimportant, listen to the Harvard Business Review podcast Power Corrupts, But It Doesn't Have To and you'll learn that empathy, listening, and serving others are antidotes to the corruption and disconnectedness that ruins people who used to be great leaders.

[callout] We can all be servant leaders who are genuinely interested in others. [/callout]

4. Set Realistic Expectations for Competence


Many of us have watched babies grow. One moment they are creeping along the floor. Then, often just a few days later, it seems, the baby is pushing up on their knees and rocking. Then, they start crawling. Eventually, they pull up on wobbly legs and stand by either holding onto a table or your index fingers with the proudest look on their face. They can stand! And finally, the big day happens. Everyone knows it is going to happen soon and wants to be there. And suddenly, one slow step at a time, the baby takes a step or two towards a person or pet or something they love, only to plop down on a puffy diaper.

Could you imagine what a nightmare it would be if we brought home children and had to immediately chase them around the yard? There's a developmental progression from being a baby who cannot flip from back to front to becoming someone who can run.

Competence doesn't just “happen.”

Too many people want their child to start before they are ready. They want their child to progress without having to pay a price. Just as students walk before they run, they also have to make progress in other areas of life from academics to sports.

In his book, Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders, Pat Williams shares five key aspects of competence:

  • Knowledge — competent and committed to learning
  • Experience — hands on real-life know-how
  • Confidence — assurance and calm under pressure
  • Commitment to Excellence — never tolerating shoddy or second-rate effort
  • Competitiveness — Hate to lose. Play to win

To pretend that life can be easy and you won't have to work for success is a lie. When we give students credit for things that they haven't earned, we are not educators. We have become pretenders. We are liars of the worst kind. We give children a false impression of their competence that doesn't match up with the reality.

Correct and Become More Competent

For example, I like students to correct and complete work that was not done correctly the first time. If every student makes a 100 per cent, it means my course (and I) am useless. So, I want to note what needs to be improved and help students become competent. Students should be encouraged to become more competent and praised for hard work and learning.

Students Need Consequences for Poor Choices

On the other hand, students also need to have consequences for poor choices. The world stood in shock at the claim of Ethan Crouch's father. Ethan had killed four people when driving drunk in 2013 with a total of nine being injured. But instead of serving prison time, his father and attorneys claimed Ethan had “affluenza” or

“an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege.”

But this didn't work. Although Ethan Couch got off on probation, he went missing and was the subject of a manhunt. Eventually, he was found in Mexico with his mother and served two years in prison.

Tough love is rare. So, instead of letting children bear the reality of small mistakes with small consequences, some adults step in to prevent “harm” and in the end, ruin the child's ability to function in the world as a successful adult. That, my friends, ends up having big consequences.


[callout]To expect great achievement without sacrifice and hard work sets kids up for future failure. We can love every student but when we give disingenuous praise or recognition, we become liars in the eyes of our students who know better. When we refuse to allow consequences for anything, we set students up to have a problem with everything.[/callout]

5. Play to People's Strengths and Talents

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins shares this story,

“You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you.

Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: organizational leaders)  immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision.

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”

General Richard B. Myers says,

“Everyone has leadership potential. The secret is to identify each individual's unique strong suits and interests, then encourage active involvement in those activities.”

More school controversy is caused by a good person who is a bad fit for their job. When you're dealing with a bad fit, you have to look past how much you like  someone. Lots of good people are a bad fit.

Think of a person who fits my description in #3 as a likeable person who is in human resources and likes people too much to discipline them. This person may be a great person and love your organization, but they might be in the wrong seat on the bus. Or, think of me being asked to proofread a 150-page strategic plan!! Not a good fit! ;-)

[callout]We must fight the monsters of incompetence by helping our faculty and staff find their best place of service in the world. It might or might not be in their current school or current position. Schools need staff in positions of competence. [/callout]

So, here are our five principles that can make any place better:

  1. Live One Grateful Day at a Time
  2. Choose to Improve
  3. Serve and Love Others
  4. Set Realistic Expectations for Competence
  5. Play to People's Strengths

These five things are not easy. You'll need courage, wisdom, and the willingness to ruffle feathers in the short term to get to a better place in the long term. But when you get there, the people who benefit the most are the students.


Never miss an episode

Get the 10-minute Teacher Show delivered to your inbox.

Powered by ConvertKit
Picture of Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

All Posts »

1 comment

Peter Birney October 20, 2016 - 6:41 am

Hi Vickie,
Thank you again for extending yourself to make this world a better place by ennobling the teaching vocation – it is a far greater calling than a mere profession.
Take Care,


Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere