It is your fault

If everyone is giving you a break and providing excuses for your students’ lack of growth, it is time to address those failures head on. Hold yourself accountable if you want to make a difference.

*This video contains graphic language*

Back to back Good Will Hunting videos. However, the message being pulled for this post is the opposite of the movie’s intention.

At the start of the scene Will (Matt Damon) shares that he recently broke-up with with his girlfriend, Skylar (Minnie Driver). The failed relationship is just one more setback for Will. From being an orphan to physical abuse to imprisonment, every aspect of Will’s life has been challenging.

As the disappointments and setbacks continue to plague Will, it is easy to see how he blames himself. It could not be a coincidence that all these bad things happen to one person, unless the person is at fault.

Sean (Robin Williams), recognizing Will’s guilt, attempts to remove that burden by assuring Will, “It’s not your fault.” Needing to hear those four words, Will breaks down and embraces Sean.

Will needed permission to separate himself from the circumstances that have plagued his life. And, Sean was able to do that.

Implications for Education

When students fail, who is to blame? The parents? teachers? administration? society? Everyone points at each other. When this happens, the child loses.

“It is your fault.” Taking ownership of failure focuses you. If you know the burden will fall on your shoulders, you are more likely to do something about it. If the buck stops with you, you are willing to exhaust all avenues to grow students.

Take money as an example. If your come from money and your family finances your poor spending habits or lifestyle decisions, you are more likely to be laissez-faire with your cash. But, if you are on your own, every money decision you make is critical because there is no one to bail you out. You plan, prioritize, and review your finances to ensure that your money habits are putting you in the best position to be successful.

When students fail, if your first instinct is to blame parents, you are expecting them to bail you out. Reflect on what happened: What did you do? What could you do differently? What resources do you need to do it differently?

Removing parents as a safety net puts the pressure on you to be the best educator you can be. It takes a village to raise a child. But, there are aspects of the village that we do not control, so it does no good to focus on them.

Back against the wall with no one to blame but you, what are you going to do to ensure that all your students achieve?

Muddying the accountability waters may provide more job security or help you sleep at night, but it will not help our students. If “It is our fault” we can spend more time addressing the problem and less time pointing fingers.

Surround Yourself with the Right People

Teachers spend an exorbitant amount of time at school. The relationships created within the school walls last a lifetime. Engage with the people that are going to support, challenge, and grow you as an educator.

*This video contains graphic language*

Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is making the psychiatrist rounds. In this session, he meets Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) for the first time. While Sean tries to make small talk, Will circulates the room taking inventory of his new surroundings.

Will hones in on the many novels around the room. Like he has done with previous therapists, Will tries to goad Sean. But, Sean is not taking the bait. Unable to insult Sean, Will questions Sean’s taste in books, “You want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.” Unwilling to back down, Sean counters with, “Better than Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent?”

Refusing to answer any of Sean’s questions, Will closes by telling Sean, “You fuckin’ people baffle me. You spend all your money on these fuckin’ fancy books. You surround yourselves with them, and they’re the wrong fuckin’ books.” Without missing a beat Sean responds, “What are the right fuckin’ books, Will?”

Sean’s question extends far beyond books. He is talking about Will. What friends is Will surrounding himself with? What opportunities? What jobs? The answer to these questions, and more importantly why Will makes these life choices, is what the movie sets to discover.

Implications for Education

The saying goes, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Since most educators live in their schools and classrooms, there is a good chance that a few of those five people are fellow educators.

The question is, “Who are you choosing to surround yourself with?”

Growth Groups

HONESTY – Students are not going to get better if people do not provide honest feedback. You want to know when lessons go well, but you should also want to know when they go poorly. Constructive feedback helps us as we fine-tune our instruction.

OPTIMISM – It is going to be okay. No matter what the situation, positivity helps pick people up and move them forward. An optimistic group will look for the silver lining in every situation. They will use setbacks and obstacles to improve their instruction.

COMPETITION – It feels good to be pushed. When you hear about that amazing lesson that was delivered by a grade level peer it sparks a little bit of jealousy, and that is a good thing. When teachers challenge each other, they better themselves as educators. And, the best part is that individual successes are shared with the group, so everyone wins.

REPRIEVE – It does not always have to be about education. Sometimes you need a group that is going to make you laugh. Sometimes you need a group that is going to give you show or movie recommendations. As mentioned earlier, you are living at school, so it is beneficial to take a break from it every once and a while.

Toxic Teams

UNACCOUNTABLE – “It’s not your fault.” “He did nothing for me last year” “Have you seen his mother?” It is never good to be around others that will make excuses for you. Especially, when those excuses place the blame solely on students and their families. If student outcomes are predetermined, then why teach in the first place?

CYNICAL – Everything is a bad idea. Things will never get better. The glory days are long gone. When these types of comments are heard repeatedly, they get internalized. This type of negativity impacts the demeanor and disposition we bring to our students. Students will never respond to a teacher who wears negativity on their sleeve.

CONTENT – The mountain peak is continuously rising. You will never get there. Because, what worked for students last year, won’t necessarily work for students today. That is what makes education so wonderful. It is student centered. You have to develop relationships with your students to understand how to best reach them. Relying on what you have always done implies that every student is the same. This mindset will lead to stagnation or even deterioration in your instruction.

DISHEARTENING – If you leave a conversation with educators feeling worse than when you arrived, it is probably not a group you want to be hanging around with. Misery loves company. Educators who choose to be unaccountable, cynical, and content need others to mirror these toxic attitudes. Otherwise, they would stick out like the sore thumb that they are.

Teaching is a very solitary profession. However, it is amazing how much we take from our peer interactions into the classroom. Reflect on the adults in the school who you spend the most time with. Do those relationships make you a better teacher? If not, start surrounding yourself with “the right people.”

Attitude Reflects Leadership

In a time of uncertainty, it is more important than ever for principals to model the characteristics they wish to see in teachers. Educators will mirror a positive attitude, calm demeanor, and solution minded outlook when that is what they see from the building leader.

Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) are unable to co-exist as defensive standouts on the T.C. Williams High School football team in Remember the Titans. This conversation starts with Gerry half-heartedly trying to learn details about Julius’ life so that he can placate Coach Boone (Denzel Washington), who will ask him to talk about his teammate. The topic quickly shifts to Julius and Gerry critiquing each other for their play on the field.

During the back and forth, Julius is criticized for playing selfish football, leaving his teammates “out to dry.” To counter, Julius condemns Gerry for not getting on the white offensive lineman for failing to block for Rev (Craig Kirkwood), the black quarterback. Gerry’s silence equals his acknowledgement. Julius explains that he will continue to lookout only for himself.

Not wanting Julius to “win” the conversation, Gerry states, “That’s the worst attitude I ever heard.” Julius poetically finishes with, “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”

Gerry has no rebuttal, because Julius is right. Even though Julius is not listening to his coaches or making plays in the best interest of his teammates, Gerry has no grounds to chastise him, because Gerry is not portraying the leadership qualities necessary to bring together a racially divided team.

Implication for Education

As student return to schools, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Teachers are playing out worst case scenarios. There is a pervasive glass half empty mentality sweeping the nation. The worry and concern are justifiable. But, the fact of the matter is kids are coming back, and we need to be ready for them.

What do our students need?

They need teachers to make them feel safe. When the classroom door closes, the outside noise needs to be turned down. The emphasis has to be on teaching and learning and not the uncertainty of the future.

What do our teachers need?

They need principals to make them feel safe. When the building door closes, the outside noise needs to be turned down. The emphasis has to be on teacher and learning and not the uncertainty of the future.

The best way for a principal to support educators is to model the traits they hope teachers will model for their students.


There is light at the end of the tunnel. It may be difficult for others to see, but it is the principal’s responsibility to bring it into view for the staff. Approach the day with optimism and the mindset that things will continue to get better.

Students are the energy that makes a building run. A school is transformed from a sterile workplace to a warm environment when kids return. Focus on the joy, curiosity, and love of learning that they will inevitably bring back to schools.

Always share what you are grateful for. Even during a pandemic, there is a lot to celebrate. The amount of ingenuity, creativity, patience, grace, and understanding from teachers is at an all-time high. Take a moment to acknowledge all the wonderful things teachers are doing.


Teachers will look to the principal when problems occur. What you want to hear them saying is, “If they’re not worried, than neither am I.”

Things are going to go wrong. Things go wrong when there is not a global pandemic. It is the response to the problem that makes all the difference.

In preparing for the return of students, a lot of time and energy is being put into process, procedures, structures, and systems. Some of that time will have been wasted, because there are factors that cannot be known until students return to the building. When things do not go as planned there is a natural inclination to stress. But, if you accept the reality that plans will need to be reworked beforehand, you are less likely to lose your cool when issues arise.

Solution Minded

Now that you are remaining calm when all your plans fall apart, it is time to start taking action. Staff will fixate on the problem when no one is working on a solution. Move quickly to brainstorming ideas, because that shifts the energy from negative to productive.

Utilize as many staff members as possible when searching for solutions. This helps in a number of ways. Most importantly, teachers and instructional assistants have a boots on the ground perspective, which enables them to flush out potential problems and address unique details. Second, it helps minimize anxiety. People fear the unknown. But, with everyone collaborating on a plan, no one is nervously waiting to be told what to do. They have a say in what “we” do. Finally, what ultimately gets a staff through a pandemic is the culture of the building. When everyone works together the family atmosphere of a building is strengthened


As a principal, it is important to know that teachers will look to see how you react to challenges over the next six months. It is imperative that principals model calmness, positivity, and attack problems with a solution mindset, because that is what we hope teachers demonstrate for their students. After all, “Attitude reflects leadership, principal.”

Too Busy Winning

There are a thousand areas where teachers can direct their attention. It is hard to know where you will get the most return on your energy investment. Be careful not to dedicate your valuable time to something that might come across as impactful, but ultimately has little to no benefit on student learning.

Happy Gilmore’s Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald) is a highly unlikeable character. The man is trying to steal a sweet grandmother’s home. As much as you grow to hate Shooter over the course of the movie, in this scene he is absolutely correct.

Shooter just finished winning another golf tournament. Instead of focusing on his victory, the media is solely concerned with Shooter’s opinion of new golf pro, Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler). Not a single question about his performance. Rather, several questions about Happy’s extraordinary ability to drive the ball over 400 years.

Obviously upset, Shooter provides two of may favorite quotations when pressed to discuss Happy: “I was too busy winning” and “Yeah, how’d he finish again? Dead last?” At this point in the movie, Happy is a circus act, with no real golf game. Shooter has every right to be upset with the line of questions, as the emphasis should be on his performance.

Implications for Education

Beginning Teacher

A teacher has just landed her first job. Does she wait for the fall to get started? No chance. She is coming in over the summer to get ready for the start of the year.

So much to do. Where does she get started?

There is a giant corkboard right outside of her classroom. It looks like it has not been updated in several years. She thinks that this is the perfect place to begin. She will spruce it up to hook students before they enter her classroom.

With ribbon, color photos, borders, construction paper, and a bedazzler in hand, she is ready to go. Over the course of a week she spends hours rearranging the layout, adding, taking things away until finally it is just right.

She takes a step back to admire her work. While this first year teacher is basking in the glow of a beautiful bulletin board, a couple of teachers walk by and comment on how great it looks. Reassurance that all that time and effort was well worth it.

Veteran Teacher

At the same time that our beginning teacher is designing her corkboard, the veteran teacher next door has been hard at work inside her classroom.

This year she is dedicating her summer reviewing last year’s assessment results. She is going through each test to pull out the most missed questions. Next, she is linking those questions to the state standards. Once she has all of that information she will rank which standards gave her students the most difficulty. She plans on creating daily warm-up questions that focus on these standards. Her students will get a daily dose of the most challenging material, so that when summative assessments come around, they will be thoroughly prepared.

Additionally, she is transitioning all those assessments to be taken online. This way she can link the standard to each question. Now she will not have to go back by hand to identify the most missed standards. The grading software will disaggregate it for her.

Open House

The Wednesday before school starts, families are invited back to school. Parents and students come streaming in the building to meet their teachers, catch-up with classmates, and get a glimpse at what is new this year.

As parents walk by the beginning teachers classroom they can’t help but notice the gorgeous bulletin board. Many stop to talk with each other about how promising the new hire is. In fact, people are taking pictures of the board and posting them on social media. The images are getting lots of likes. In fact, other teachers from around the county are commenting on how they will be stealing some of the ideas.

When these same parents walk by the veteran teacher’s room they notice a bulletin board with important information about the curriculum and the different ways she will be communicating with families. Nothing flashy. If parents choose to go into her room, the veteran teacher is more than happy to discuss curriculum, pedagogy, rigor, and all the ways she plans on growing her students that school year.

The night ends. And, as families leave the school, the principal overhears parents discussing how impressed they are with the beginning teacher.


If you fast forward to the end of the first quarter, the new and veteran teacher are at two different positions.

Because of all the effort the veteran teacher put into her warm-ups, her students were well prepared for that first assessment. The scores were markedly improved from last year’s first test. Students have more confidence heading into quarter two. Also, the new warm-up process has helped mitigate behavioral concerns that typically occur at the beginning of class.

And where is the beginning teacher? Her bulletin board is not looking as beautiful as it once did. Over nine weeks the pictures have faded, some of the construction paper is ripped, and the material that is displayed is no longer pertinent to the instruction happening in the classroom.

Inside the classroom she has been struggling to keep up with the curriculum. With her head just above water, she is less patient when it comes to student behavior. Spending more and more time on classroom management is only putting her further behind with the curriculum. She wishes she spent more time over the summer learning the curriculum, designing lessons, and creating systems to maximize instructional time. Every time she passes her bulletin board, she shakes her head.


People naturally gravitate towards the new and shiny. It is hard to not put time and energy into the things that garner recognition and praise.

But, you can’t be all sizzle and no substance. It has to be about the students. You must be, “Too busy winning.” And for educators, winning is all about teaching and learning.

Somebody trying to help

It is hard to know if the actions we take are having any impact on our students. The “thank you” is rarely there. Even if your efforts appear to be falling on deaf ears, you never know how a student really feels about the time and energy you put in to support them.

Short video. Big message. A River Runs Through It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. One of the major reasons being there is so much to take away from it.

In this scene, Norman Maclean (Craig Sheffer) and his brother Paul (Brad Pitt) are fly fishing on the Gallatin River. Norman was supposed to take his girlfriend’s brother, Neal, with them. Unfortunately, Neal had too much to drink the previous night and passed out on the walk to the river.

Norman is frustrated and believes that his girlfriend will be upset that he did not help her brother. He states, “He doesn’t like fishing. He doesn’t like Montana. And he sure as hell doesn’t like me.” To which Paul replies, “Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.”

This is an incredible line, because we discover later that Paul is really talking about himself (no spoilers here, even though the movie came out in 1992). Secondly, it perfectly puts into words how your good deeds will not always be received in the way you want them to be.

Implication for Education

The last day of school. The student you have been pouring your energy into for the past fours years comes into your room with a letter. It is a college acceptance letter. They start crying. You start crying. You hug. Fade to black.

Okay, that never happens.

What will happen is you will be in your classroom grading papers after school. You turn around and see a former student at the door. Maybe a student who made your job a lot more challenging than it needed to be. You exchange pleasantries and ask them how high school is if you are a middle school teacher or how college is if you are a high school teacher. They tell you it is a lot tougher. You smile and tell them how proud you are of them. They reach out to shake your hand and then leave.

That’s it.

They never said thank you. They never said how grateful they are for how you prepared them. They never said how much it meant to them that you never gave up on them. They never said how you changed their trajectory simply by caring.

But, did you catch it?

They came back to see you. And what that “says” is thank you for caring, thank you for believing in me, and thank you for never giving up on me.

Of course it would be nice to hear those things. Even better it would be nice to hear those things when those students are in your class. But, it does not work that way. It is hard for adults to acknowledge an appreciation for help. It is near impossible for students to verbalize it.

All that means is that you can’t let a student’s response, or lack of one, dictate your actions. You must continue to do what is best for students even when there is no sign that they care, or even want your help.

It may seem that students are disinterested in the help that you are trying to give. But remember, it might be that what they like is “somebody trying to help” them.

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