Podcast S2. Ep. 28: There's Always A Reason For Every Behavior: Looking Past Rules And Seeing People - Charles Moss

Character Strong · November 24, 2019

Chuck Moss is in his 23rd year as a professional educator, all but 6 of those years have been at the middle school level. He currently serves as the principal at Dinwiddie Middle School in Dinwiddie County, Virginia and is the Middle School Representative on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Association or Elementary School Principals. Chuck started his career as an 8th grade civics and English teacher, has coached football, wrestling, and soccer and is the PA announcer for the Dinwiddie Generals Varsity Football Team. Through it all, relationships have fueled his passion for education and he is dedicated to transparency and sharing his school’s story.

We talk with Chuck about how sometimes we need to look past rules to see the bigger needs of our students, some tools that can help us better respond to difficult behavior, and the importance of reading the moment to better understand the why.


“Often, you'll have a student who is disruptive or is doing something that you know they know they're not supposed to be doing, but they're doing it because there's a bigger need, there's something they need to tell you. There's something that's been bothering them that's holed up in them. And that emotional moment allows them to let that out. And sometimes, you have to be able to sit back and say, "You know what, I'm going to let this thing, that would ordinarily put me over the moon, I'm going to let that happen because I need to find out what's going on in the life of this kid.”

Chuck Moss

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with principal Chuck Moss. Chuck is in his 23rd year as a professional educator. All but six of those years have been at the middle school level. He currently serves as the principal at Dinwiddie Middle School in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, and is the middle school representative on the board of directors of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals.
  • John: Chuck started his career as an eighth grade civics and English teacher, has coached football, wrestling, and soccer, and is the PA announcer for the Dinwiddie Generals varsity football team. Through it all, relationships have fueled his passion for education. And he is dedicated to transparency and sharing his school's story. Are you ready? Let's get Character Strong with principal Chuck Moss.
  • John: All right. It is such an honor to have Chuck Moss with us today, principal in Virginia at a Dinwiddie Middle School. Did I say that correct?
  • Chuck: You did, yes, sir. Home of the Generals, we're the DMS Gens.
  • John: I love it. Well, it's awesome how this all works because I think I was talking with Jonathan Alsheimer on a podcast. And we get done, he's like, "Man, you need to talk to my friend Chuck Moss." And I'm like, "Great," because this is what it's about. It's about getting out there to people who are in the work, doing great work. And so honored to speak with you. And I know your time is precious.
  • John: And so I just want to dig right in. We say cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. And so let's talk about, today, as a building leader, which is leading this work, how do we create stronger climate and culture in our buildings? Well, a lot of times that comes down to how we are proactively and reactively better responding and dealing with the behavior that comes. And at CharacterStrong, we believe there's always a reason for every behavior. So tell me your thoughts on looking past the rules to see that person.
  • Chuck: Well, that's one of the things, is sometimes as leaders, we're kind of a little afraid to do because we don't necessarily want to look past rules. We feel like we set the rules. Often, you'll have a student who is disruptive or is doing something that you know they know they're not supposed to be doing, but they're doing it because there's a bigger need, there's something they need to tell you. There's something that's been bothering them that's holed up in them. And that emotional moment allows them to let that out. And sometimes, you have to be able to sit back and say, "You know what, I'm going to let this thing, that would ordinarily put me over the moon, I'm going to let that happen because I need to find out what's going on in the life of this kid."
  • John: So good, yeah. I think we work a lot with Dr. Clayton Cook at the University of Minnesota. And when I was at the district level as the program administrator for the whole child, and we were really working on like, "How do we implement this K through 12 in our district?" I remember, many times, just the simple strategies, but he's like, "You know what should be in the back of every classroom is a stop sign." And it's that whole idea of reminding the teacher that before you go there, stop and just give yourself that extra moment to think. And in many cases, maybe it's thinking exactly what you just said, like, "You know what? Right now there's a bigger thing at play and I'm going to let that go, because ultimately, that idea that there's always a reason for every behavior. Instead of thinking, what's wrong with you? What if my mindset was either what's going on with you or what's happened to you?" Powerful reminder.
  • Chuck: Well, and I have a quote that I keep on my wall and I've kept this on my wall since my very first position as an assistant principal. And it says, "It isn't what happens to you, it's how you respond to what happens to you that determines the quality of the conversation." And that's kind of been my guiding principle, just how I react determines if this turns into an experience where the child and I get to understand each other or if it leads to a further shutdown and more inappropriate behavior later.
  • John: Yeah, so good. Well, let's even dig into that right there. I mean, because whether you're a principal, whether you're an assistant principal or you're a teacher, we all are handling, managing, dealing with, responding to behavior each day. And as much as we want to be proactive, which is a great goal, a lot of what happens to us is how we actually react. What are some of the tools that you've picked up, dealing with a lot of different situations, on how to better respond to behavior so that can turn into say that teachable moment instead of escalation or a negative experience?
  • Chuck: Well, let me answer that with kind of a story. This is my second year here at the middle school. And last year, kid came down the hall. We have something called the Good News Call Of The Day. He'd been that a couple of weeks before. And then something had shifted in the kid's life. And I looked down the hall and here he's coming down the hall, he's got his cell phone to his ear and he's yelling and screaming at the cell phone. Well, my first thought is, "I'm in a school building. Nobody should have a cell phone." But then I realized, as I continued looking, that this was a kid who was in crisis. And for me to take that cell phone away from him, would do nothing but add to the crisis. So instead, I wheeled him into my office, got him into my office, and I said, "Okay, finish your conversation."
  • Chuck: And he looked at me and the person he was mad at was his dad. And recently, they had been living with their mom, she dropped them off with their dad and left. And so suddenly, now, they had a whole new set of expectations to live up to with the new adult. The adult he had been relying on for his whole life was gone. And if I had suddenly said to him, "Give me that cell phone," that is not information I would ever have had. But because I was able to bring him into my office ... and I said, "I don't want to take your phone," because even tried to give it to me at the end of everything. I said, "I don't want your phone. I didn't need you to have an audience and you didn't need an audience. This needed to be a private moment and it could only happen in a place." And if I taken that phone, then that whole conversation would have been meaningless because, for him, it would've started and ended with me taking the phone.
  • John: Yup. And it not only would have not given you that information in the moment, it would have been damaging that relationship in the bigger picture. Right?
  • Chuck: Right.
  • John: Gosh.

“And you've got to read the moment. That's the biggest tool, is just reading the moment. Because there are going to be kids that act out, there always are. There have been forever. But the more you get to understand the why, and the why is not about excusing their behavior, but it's about helping you address the root cause rather than covering up with a new coat of paint. Let's see if we really need to do some body work.”

Chuck Moss


  • Chuck: And you've got to read the moment. That's the biggest tool, is just reading the moment. Because there are going to be kids that act out, there always are. There have been forever. But the more you get to understand the why, and the why is not about excusing their behavior, but it's about helping you address the root cause rather than covering up with a new coat of paint. Let's see if we really need to do some body work.
  • John: So good. And I wonder, because that's so difficult, being in the work. One of the big reasons why teaching is so difficult is it's not just about teaching your content, we're dealing with human beings. And human beings have emotions and feelings as well as the teachers. And that's not easy to deal with when you're carrying, in many cases, the weight of the lives of the students you serve. And sometimes we're on our game and sometimes we're off and we have to reflect. I mean, that's what makes teaching so hard and yet so rewarding.
  • John: What do you do as a staff? Like is there moves that you make to help in this area? Is that how you put a focus on it? Is it a certain set of strategies? What are some of the things that you've done, even looking at it through the lens of we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. Because some of these come across as so obvious, but they're not in the moment. That's difficult work.
  • Chuck: Right. Well, and then a lot of times what I'll do, after our first open house before school even starts, I'll say, "Okay, what was your most memorable experience at open house?" And no one ever says, "When that kid got an A on the test," because that's not what happened at open house. At open house, he spent some time getting to know who was there. And that's one of the things we kind of remind each other of, is the fact that you know the people that are coming into your room, they're people.
  • Chuck: Something happened to them that morning that set them up for a great day or for a day where you've got to change the course. And so what are the experiences we remember? Not necessarily the academic ones, but the ones where we knew somebody cared about us. And I tell the teachers here all the time, and the teachers here are fantastic at it, because what they are able to do is to say, "There's behavior I don't like, but there's a kid here that I love and I got to find out why they're being less than what they can be."
  • John: Yup. So good. Have you ever dealt with, Chuck, and this is where it gets really difficult on the principal as the leader. One, how you guide that. The intentionality did not miss that moment before conferences to bring that up, to ask that question, to remind us, while we're in this work, that is not easy, but super purposeful and rewarding. Don't forget this. Or let's have a conversation about this.
  • John: My guess is, also, and I wonder if you've have experienced this, there comes that rub where teachers are experiencing it a lot and then like sometimes the approach of really seeing beyond just what's happening in that moment. And then you can have maybe educators who get frustrated and they're like, "Well, we're not holding students accountable." And have you ever dealt with that and how do you best deal with that as the principal? Does that make sense?
  • Chuck: Yeah, absolutely. And we do deal with that, the conversation about homework and different things and accountability. And I finally just say to the teachers, a lot of times I'll say, "Has there ever been a moment in your life where you've done something that you don't want to be the way you're judged? Is there something in your life, like connection you can make, where you're hoping that people will not determine the course you're going to take by how you behave that day?" And I say, "That's middle school." That's the way kids are here all the time. They're always on the brink of a decision. And they got to decide, am I going to go for the right or am I going to go for the wrong?
  • Chuck: And our job, as educators, is to be there to catch them and to say, "Yes, there might be consequences, but more importantly, there's a reset button." And that's the key to so many of these things, is being able to say, "Where, in your life, have you had an experience like this one? And imagine, if you're trying to deal with all of that frustration as a teenager, how much harder it would be."
  • John: Yup. So good. I mean, what I'm hearing there, the practical move, the practical nature is, I mean, I'm going to use the word humanizing it for them, but it's like connecting it to their lives, I think is such a practical and important way. Because we can all go, "Yeah." And a lot of times, if we treated each other, say at staff meetings, the way that we sometimes do in a classroom, we would be really upset.
  • John: If you called me out in that way in front of my peers. And sometimes like that reminder is so important. Well how about this? I love this convo. I would actually love to have you back at another point. Maybe it's later in the year because this flowed so well and I think there's more places we could go. But I want to hold to that time of about the ten minute nature. What are some ways that people can connect with you if they had questions and or even just wanted to connect with the great work you're doing?
  • Chuck: Well, I'm on Twitter at DCPSMoss. Also Dinwiddie Middle is on Facebook, the DCPSMoss is also my Instagram handle. I try to be as transparent as I can about what we're doing here at this school. And so that's a great way to connect with me because so much of what I want people to know is about the good work that we're doing here. And, again, I just love to show those things off. Also DMSDCPS, that's our YouTube account and we have a whole bunch of different videos and stuff on there. Just, again, it's impossible for someone to believe the worst about a place if they're seeing the best about it every day.
  • John: That's right. And how important is that, our role in the work we're doing, to be showcasing it. And I just think, now, there's no excuse anymore to not be connected to really positive things that are happening with the increase of social media. And that is one of the real positive things about it, is you can find educators and people that are in the work doing great things, find inspiration and ideas from each other.
  • John: Well thank you, Chuck, for your inspiration. Thank you for the work that you're doing and I do look forward to connecting with you again. And especially if I'm out in the Virginia area, going to have to stop by and say hello.
  • Chuck: Hey, you're welcome here anytime. We've got a button we'll give you, they got our logo on it, got some stickers. It's all yours, man.
  • John: Love it.
  • Chuck: And for my fellow CharacterStrong commuters, I love the ten minutes, man. Because it gives me a chance to hear several different stories, important stories on the way to and from work every day. And sometimes I hear exactly what I needed to hear to help my day go the way it should.
  • John: Awesome, I appreciate that. Thank you so much and make it a great day, my friend.
  • Chuck: Hey, thanks. You, too. Have a great one.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.