The Non-Negotiables

Responsibility and accountability are essential traits in every organization. When both are present, excellence follows. When either is questioned, or absent, excellence cannot be achieved.

In my elite schools, we had 4 non-negotiables.

1. In our school, we teach children, not grade levels or subjects

2. Everyone walks through the door every day with the desire to achieve and be successful.

3. As the instructional leader, I create the conditions that determine the opportunities for my students to succeed or fail.

4. Since I create the conditions, I am responsible and accountable for the performances of my students.

An important part of our screening, interviewing, and mentoring process with new staff was the explanation of our non-negotiables.

#1 was not a play on words, it was a statement of attitude. There is a difference between teaching second graders and teaching second grade, teaching algebra to freshmen or teaching freshmen algebra. In my first elite school, we took it a step further. Teachers considered themselves first year teachers, regardless of the number of years they had taught. They believed that since they had not taught “these” students, in the eyes of the kids, they were first year teachers. I learned a lot from that staff as a young principal. It certainly was fun watching people with the experiences of many years in their repertoires start each year with the enthusiasm and passion of brand new teachers.

#2 is self-evident. I have yet to meet anyone of any age who starts each day with the desire to be mediocre. Admittedly, sometimes we have a kid or two who want to be successful at something we would prefer was a bit different, ie. acting out in order to gain attention. But once we get to know each student and can identify their passion points, #2 makes everyone’s lives much simpler.

Given the demographics of some of the schools I led, we sometimes had a bit of a conversation about #3. When your district socio-economic demographic is 95% free/reduced lunch eligibility, and, based on a court ordered language assessment screeening of all new students every year, 10%-15% of entering students across all grade levels do not speak any language well enough for it to be considered a home language by definition of the mandated assessment, it would be easy to look at the conditions our learners faced outside of school and allow them to become excuses for what did or did not happen once they walked through our door. But as the instructional leaders in the buildings and classrooms, we made the decisions that determined if the situations “across the street” would be honored and valued, or used as excuses. #3 remained a non-negotiable.

Once you bought into #3, #4 was a blinding flash of the obvious. We did not use student performance as part of the teacher evaluation. I considered it educational malpractice long before it became legislated educational malpractice in No Child Left Behind.

On a side note, if you happen to use a form of virtual schooling, that district helped create the model. We were a founding district of the Virtual High School Global Consortium in 1995-1996. Not bad work for a district with that demographic, but great professionals with a lot of support from their community for some high but achievable goals can do amazing things.

If you are interested in further reading on the subject of personal accountability, I highly recommend The Question Behind the Question and Flipping the Switch by John Miller. You will never regret taking ownership over your responses to the events that happen every day. Life is so much better when you are no longer a “victim.”

And so it goes…

2 thoughts on “The Non-Negotiables

  1. Some have asked where the non-negotiables came from. The genesis was a handout in graduate school, annually shared with staff at the beginning of each school year – “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in my classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”


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