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Always Strive to Be a Better You

In the 1950s and 1960s, novelist Ian Fleming created a character for a series of books, a secret agent whose triple-digit identity is as well known today as any string of numbers worldwide. He also gave his spy a mantra: "Live and let die." For James Bond, whose professional and private lives intertwined quite intimately, that four-word phrase gave definition and direction to his very existence.

I believe in the power of a motto. When it's utilized deeper than a tagline, a motto can offer a very clear, literally spelled-out reminder of what drives us as individuals. It can be a printed inner voice, conjuring images of the ideal. Like an alarm clock or the howling horn of the 6:00 eastbound express, a mantra contains the power to jolt us headlong towards our goals.

Many years ago, I adopted this credo: "Always strive to be a better you." Its origins sprout from the ancient Greek philosophy of paideia, which espouses the belief that life's true goal is to attain one's ultimate potential. The nifty twist is the idea that rides shotgun: the closer one approaches, the more one's ultimate potential expands.

Thus, the result is the pursuit of an ever-elusive quarry, the constant challenge to obtain the unattainable.

Think of it this way: Perhaps I have a goal to become a better disciplinarian. Our school has some behavior issues, but the students are far from out of control. Nevertheless, I enroll in a workshop on "discipline with dignity." Then, I attempt to discuss our school rules more frequently with the students. Over the course of several months, the overall conduct improves and discipline referrals decrease.

I could stop there, but I don't. I make a concerted effort to spend more time on the playground and in the lunchroom during the recess and lunch periods, thereby offering more supervision and presence. Now, we have even fewer behavior problems. But I know I can help us improve further. I am still looking for a way to connect with our habitual discipline offenders, to interact with them in a positive manner as frequently as possible, to help guide them towards a positive path.

The point is, there's always something more I can do. I can always make it better. I can always strive to be a better me.

The "Always strive to be a better you" maxim, not unlike Commander Bond's, transcends boundaries between work and home, private and public, personal and professional. Ideally, it substantiates a philosophy that we can follow in every aspect of life.

When I share this perspective with co-workers, friends, or politicians, I am often asked, "Does this make you feel like the hapless racing greyhound, endlessly chasing that silly fake rabbit?" On the contrary, I reply, it leaves me ecstatic with the pursuit. I understand and embrace that my quest may never be fulfilled, yet it is the hunt itself that becomes the goal.

The end result is the continuous growth and improvement of my self, on all fronts. As I attempt to better myself as a father, brother, soccer coach, supervisor, lecturer, driver, or barbequer, my capacity for growth and improvement likewise gain.

My work as the principal of an elementary school demands that I adhere to this philosophy wholeheartedly. Under my daily charge are 520 children and 50 adults; as their leader, I must exhibit strength of character during every interaction, incorruptible integrity even in the most trying times, and the courage of rationality in the face of absurdity.

The principal must model not perfection, but the pursuit of it. I must demonstrate the unyielding desire to improve, and the humbling realities of my weaknesses. I must share the beauty in shunning complacency and tackling the hard work inherent in change. These accompany the calling of the job.

To me, the principalship is the ultimate post. Though I often consider a switch to international espionage, the calling to manage hundreds of children's futures proves too irresistible to ignore. And so as I forge onward, seeking opportunities for continuous growth along every path I tread, I commend my colleagues for making an unmistakable difference. And I urge you:

Always strive to be a better you.

Learn More...

To learn more about Pete Hall, winner of ASCD's 2004 Outstanding Young Educator Award, go to his Web site,, or click one of the links below:

Article by Pete Hall
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