Thursday, February 23, 2017

What Flavor is YOUR Kool-Aid?

Several months ago, one of us received a message from an administrator in another school district who asked if he could come visit our school.  In his message, he remarked, “I want to drink the Kool-Aid you’re drinking.”  

If we visited your school, what would we notice? If we walked the halls of your building, what would we observe?  If we interviewed the teachers on your campus, what would they say… and could you predict their answers?

Bethany and Danny have never met, (in person,) but they have developed a mutual admiration for one another through their connection on Twitter. Because we seem to share many of the same core values about students, teachers, and building school culture, it seemed appropriate to collaborate on a blog post.  

A quick glance at Wikipedia and you see several phrases to describe the phenomenon of “drinking the Kool-aide.”  They include:

“Fervent devotion”

“Great enthusiasm”

To become a firm believer in something; to accept an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly."

Bethany and Danny are “firm believers” in certain ideas. We have a “fervent devotion” to several core values that we have embraced “whole heartedly” and with “great enthusiasm.”  We are drinking the Kool-aide, and we hope to inspire as many others as possible to join the party.

As we thought about the flavor of our kool-aide, three ideas immediately came to mind.

Positive Energy

First, it with begins with our commitment to bring positive energy into the building every day we come to work. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”  We each try to generate enthusiasm in our school in different ways, but it is our goal to be relentlessly positive.

Every morning, Danny begins by playing a clip of an upbeat song (usually no more than a minute).  About once every week or two, he accompanies the song with a contest: the first teacher that emails him the name of the song (or the artist, or the movie it's from; the contest varies), wins the prize. After announcements are over, he takes 3 Hershey kisses to the winning teacher, and gives one to every teacher who participated.  What does this have to do with "instructional leadership?" Well, it's fun! And, in his experience, teachers who are having fun are more effective teachers.  It's fun for the students too!  They love the music, and they enjoy helping the teachers with the contest.  Winning becomes a source of pride for the entire class.  This begins the day with good energy.  After the song, he announces, "It's a GREAT day to be a WARRIOR!" He’s been saying this for over 5 years now.  It introduces some positivity into their morning routine, and it sets the tone for the day. Positive energy can be infectious, and morning announcements are the perfect time to start your school day with enthusiasm and school pride.  Several weeks ago, Danny initiated a project to inject some positive energy into the month of February. He asked every teacher to email him something they admire about several employees. (He assigned the names to ensure every staff member received three compliments.) Each morning in the month of February, he sent the staff an email with the subject: “My awesome colleagues.” The email contains “shout outs” for 5-6 staff members.  This email has provided some positivity and affirmation for all the staff members during a stressful month.

A strategy Bethany has ingrained into her school culture is that of branding through social media. Teachers all have Twitter accounts, and many use them regularly to share greatness from their kids, classrooms, and their school. Their shares are retweeted on the school’s Twitter feed, which tells a continual story of Central Elementary. Each week the school participates in #CelebrateMonday, a hashtag generated by the brilliant Sean Gaillard, to trend the positive in schools. Bethany, along with many staff in her school family, share and celebrate throughout each Monday via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with the #CelebrateMonday hashtag. It has become a Central tradition, one that families and the community look forward to each week as they follow the school’s story. Recently Central did a social media photo challenge where teachers captured memories of playing with children and posted to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Bethany notes, “Reflecting on the school’s brand gives the staff a sense of pride and helps them all remember what matters most in schools...our culture and relationships.”

Bethany visits classrooms frequently, carrying an office on her back rather than working in an office alone. Her backpack holds her laptop, journal, sticky notes of various shapes and sizes, special note writing pens, and tokens of inspiration. Even when some of “the stuff” takes over, such as emails, paperwork, etc., Bethany chooses to complete those tasks within a classroom setting where she can be involved.  Each week she takes the time to do “sit downs” (this would be the opposite of “walkthroughs”). Where she spends time listening, observing, and sometimes participating in classes. She chooses particular kids and teachers to leave handwritten notes and/or tokens of inspiration. This is something Bethany considers to be a source of joy for her, and a way to offer validation for kids and adults at Central Elementary. She also uses Voxer as a feedback tool after spending time in classrooms, which adds an even more personal touch.

Bethany believes visibility is one of the most important traits of a lead learner, and one that contributes to a healthy school climate and culture. It is impossible to lead from an office. The fact is, just about everything required of a lead learner can be accomplished “out and about”. The office is reserved for confidential conversations and phone calls, which mostly happen before or after school. Her advice to principals/lead learners everywhere… “BE where the action is. BE where the kids are. BE where the learning is happening.” This means not only physically, but intentionally engage during visibility time! Make connections, have conversations, observe closely, and do lots of listening. Don’t allow the black hole in the office to suck you in.


The second core value that defines our leadership philosophy is a commitment to cultivating collaboration.  There is an abundance of research that demonstrates the crucial role that collaboration plays in successful schools, and all of our experiences working in schools have reinforced this truth.  Simply put, teachers are more effective when they work together for the benefit of students.

At Central Elementary where Bethany serves, the staff has made efforts to move from the idea of “parent involvement”, to “family engagement”. Not all families consist of a parent, and that word can send a message that only moms and dads are invited to become involved with the school. They choose to have a Community in Action (CIA) rather than a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) because they feel all need to be involved and have a voice in the school. There is no membership required, because everyone is already a part of it. They do have particular facilitators who help coordinate volunteers and manage finances. Bethany says, “We have learned from this experience, and are tweaking things as they build the philosophy of ‘no titles needed’ to lead and become involved.”

One strategy Danny has tried this year to cultivate collaboration within his faculty at Thompson Sixth Grade Center is a competition he called, “Collaboration Bling.”  Teachers earn the bling through observing colleagues, through inviting colleagues to observe them, or through participating in Twitter chats.  Just last month, he and his teachers stepped out of their comfort zone by holding their January faculty meeting via a “twitter chat.”  This month, their faculty meeting was held as an Edcamp.

Connecting with Kids

Without question, the most important value that drives us is our commitment to kids.  We hope that there is never any ambiguity about what our faculty stands for and what our schools represent.  We are here to teach kids, to encourage them, to inspire them, and indeed, to love them. The priority of students in our professional lives is one we hope to live out every day we come to work.  We don’t hang out in our office much; we are in the halls; we are in the classrooms; we are where the kids are.
This year, Danny’s school celebrated students by having all of them write their dream on the ‘Wall of Dreams.”  He also asked his staff members to write their hopes for students on the wall outside of the main office.  His commitment to connecting with students and encouraging them is also evident in two more ideas he launched this year.  He set a goal of making 100 positive phone calls home by the 100th day of school, and he committed to doing “birthday selfies with the principal” on each student’s birthday.
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IMG_6143.JPGBethany uses her visibility to make connections with kids each day. She enjoys capturing success and great character via photo and video to help share the school’s story and to celebrate individual success. She also uses Google Docs to comment on kids’ writing, and for them to share possible posts for the school’s blog. Hugs and high fives are continuous throughout each school day, which not only supports kids, but feeds her soul as well. Purposeful, intentional interactions with kids make lasting imprints on the hearts of kids. We as educators all want to be remembered, and this is a way to ensure that.
Central also believes in the power of the selfie! Bethany encourages staff to capture selfies with kids because it makes them feel important and valued. Kids look to us as heroes, and the fact that we slow down long enough to make a memory with them speaks volumes to their souls. Whether they are 4 or 18, this is the case! Central has a selfie wall where staff post pictures, and they use social media to share them as well. Selfies are personal, and can have a specific purpose, or be taken “just because”!

We are compelled to come to work everyday to make a difference for our students and teachers, and we are convicted by the values that drive us to do what we do.  We are relentless about bringing positive energy, cultivating collaboration, and connecting with kids.

As Matthew Wilder once sung:

“Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride
Nobody's gonna slow me down, oh-no
I got to keep on movin'
Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride”

We are all in -- day in and day out.  So… what is the flavor of your Kool-Aide?  And is everyone in your building drinking it?

Bethany and Danny

Monday, February 20, 2017

Worlds Collide

A number of years ago, when I was an assistant principal, I vividly remember spending about an hour talking with one of our 18 year old students.  He grew up in the inner city, but through a variety of circumstances, had been attending an affluent, mostly white suburban high school for the last few years.  He had been in a lot of trouble at school, but he was scheduled to graduate that year. That week, his teachers had been particularly aggravated with him because he didn't show up for the ACT that they had helped him register for.  He ended up in my office on this day because he and his teacher "got into it."  When I asked him about not showing up for the ACT, he finally admitted that he didn't want to go to college.  Eventually, he admitted that he was scared to go to college.  (Keep in mind that no one in his family had ever gone to college or maybe even graduated from high school.)  I explained that his education, and the help of his teachers, were allowing for him to have a different life. He responded that he didn't want a different life.  In so many words, he indicated that he would never feel comfortable in my middle class world.  He said, 

"Dr. Steele, I'll tell you the truth ... If I became the richest man in the world right now, I'd build a big house right in the middle of the hood ... because that's where I'm comfortable." 

I was reminded that none of his teachers could imagine what it was like to be in his shoes ... and he was scared to death to walk a mile in my "middle class" shoes.  I told him that anything is possible, and that my hope was that he choose a path that he really wanted, and that his decisions would not be based on fear.  We hugged, and we both cried.  That probably wasn't professional.

But I didn't care.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Faculty Meeting: Edcamp Style

According to the Edcamp Foundation website (, "edcamps are organic, participant-driven professional learning experiences for educators."  It is my hope that our faculty meetings are not always mundane monthly meetings for routine announcements or required trainings, but that they actually have practical value for my teachers.  While I do not have much experience with edcamps, I decided to launch an experiment for today's faculty meeting.  I love the inherent relevance of the edcamp concept, and I am always looking for ways to foster collaboration among my awesome teachers.

Last Friday I asked teachers to email me topics that they would like to learn about.  I gave them a few examples of topics and told them the only limitation was that it was related to their professional responsibilities.

Today I picked 5 of the topics and wrote them on 5 different sheets of "post-it" chart paper.  I placed them around the room, each with a group of chairs arranged in a circle.  After 5 minutes of announcements, I explained our edcamp to the teachers.  I told them to pick a topic that they would like to learn about or one in which they could contribute some "expertise."

Today's topics, (based on the emails I received from teachers):

          "Dealing with parents"

          "Google Classroom"

          "Managing student cell phone use in the classroom"

          "Incorporating writing in daily lessons"

          "Formative assessments"

The teachers had about 7 minutes to discuss their topic, and then I told them to rotate.  They had the opportunity to discuss 3 of the 5 topics.  (Our faculty meetings start about 3:20, and they are usually over by 4:00)  The only feedback I have received so far has been positive.  It was an experiment.  We'll see what feedback I get tomorrow.  I love this concept, though.  You ought to try it.