Jon Harper interviews school principal Danny Steele about how he learned to make supporting teachers a priority. This interview is lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Jon Harper: John Harper here. Welcome to My Bad, the show about how and what extraordinary educators learn from sharing their own mistakes. Today I’m speaking with Danny Steele. As you know, My Bad is all about sharing big mistakes. So, Danny, what’s a big mistake you want to share with us today?
Danny Steele: I was an assistant principal. I’d been an assistant principal for a few years, and I really, really wanted to be a principal. It was really my biggest professional passion at the time. I’d been an AP at this school for two years when the principal retired, so I really thought that this was a job that could be mine. I thought I had dibs but I guess, I was a little too cocky about it.
I was going to be interviewing for the job that summer, and I remember driving back from a meeting with my principal when the job came up. He said, “Danny, I think some of the teachers view you more as an advocate for students than as an advocate for the teachers.”
My first instinct was almost to roll my eyes, and I thought, “Well, yeah, I’m here for the kids. I’m not here for the teachers.” My visceral response was a little bit of resentment and bitterness that advocating for kids would ever be held against me. As it turned out, I didn’t get the job, and I was devastated. I eventually started doing a little bit of soul-searching. I realized that I needed to be viewed as supporting teachers, not just viewed, but I needed to actually support them, so, I decided to change my administrative paradigm.
Now the rub was I never intentionally didn’t support teachers. I thought I was supportive, but as I reflected on it, I realized that I’m sure subconsciously I resented some of what I had to do for teachers. For example, when I would see discipline referrals all day long, and I thought that those discipline referrals could have been avoided if the teacher had handled it differently. I did resent some of that, so my attitude probably came through in some of my interactions.
Jon Harper: Can you give me a time where you know for a fact that you supported a kid first without really giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt?
Danny Steele: There’s one instance that I do recall. We had a dress code where guys had to keep their shirts tucked in, and I was the only assistant principal, and so I was the shirttail police. I was on the second floor, it was a class change, and I saw this kid walk out of this classroom with shirttail out. I went to the teacher, and I don’t remember the exact words, but I think I probably said something like, “Why’d you not write this kid up?” I did not give the teacher the benefit of the doubt, and I remember the teacher, she said several things, and they were like, “Well, maybe he untucked his shirt right after he left my class,” or “Maybe his shirttail was untucked, and he was sitting down, and so I didn’t notice it,” or “maybe I was too focused on teaching that I was not paying attention to being a dress code policeman.” And she just really let me have it.
Danny Steele: I thought about that interaction often, and I realized how important it was that I go out of my way to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. This shift in the way I was interacting with teachers was really a game-changer for me. It was heart-breaking when I didn’t get that principalship, and it was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I was not supporting teachers like I needed to. I was not communicating that support, but it has had a profound impact on me over the last 15 years, for sure.
Jon Harper: That’s tough to hear but as tough as it was, it sounds like your principal and those teachers were right. Sometimes the toughest mistakes are the ones we don’t even know we’re making, and then someone points them out to us.
So you’ve said you’ve changed. If I were to go into your building now what would look different?
Danny Steele: You know, it’s a lot of subtle interactions. I think as a young assistant principal, my goal was to win over the kids, and I still love our students, and I’m still trying to win over our students. But I learned that as an administrator that I really have to make a concerted effort to win over every adult in the building, and that’s not just the teachers but the custodians and secretaries and CNP workers. They do the hard work in the school. They do the most important work, so I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s really a matter of trusting them, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and actively communicating your support.
We talk about teachers having light-bulb moments with students. That’s the rewarding moment when a kid’s face lights up. It’s so rewarding for the teachers. As administrators, we don’t really have those light-bulb moments with students, and so what I’ve learned to appreciate is that my lightbulb moments are when I can do something to support a teacher, when I can communicate to them that I’ve got their back, that I’m going to do everything I can to encourage and support them and defend them in a parent conference. If a student is giving them grief, I’m going to do everything I can to support them. It was a lesson. I was devastated when I didn’t get that principalship, but it really had a profound change on my career, I think, in terms of communicating to me the importance of winning over teachers and just having their back 100%.
Jon Harper: That’s a powerful story, and it sounds like that may have been one of the best things that that happened to you. The experience made you the leader you are today. I like that you’re sharing this, because it’s so easy to say, “We do everything for kids. Kids come first.” It almost sounds crazy to argue with that. But as you said, the teachers and the adults in the building are the people taking care of the kids, and if we don’t take care of them and do everything for them, then you’re not going to have any light-bulb moments, and they’re not going to have the light-bulb moments, so I appreciate your sharing this. It’s a powerful story.
Danny Steele: Yes, I have a lot of opportunities to work with young administrators and aspiring administrators, and one of the first things I tell them is that you’re going to be defined by your ability to support your teachers. Winning over the teachers doesn’t always come naturally to young administrators, because we all got into education to make a difference for kids, not the adults. So as an administrator, you can’t assume that the teachers know you’re there for them. You have to go out of your way to show it and prove it to them every day.
Jon Harper: I want to stop right there because I think that’s a mic drop moment. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Danny Steele: Well, man, I appreciate it. I appreciate the platform you give educators. We don’t grow if we’re not vulnerable, and your podcast here really provides a great context and platform for that, so I appreciate what you do.