The Heart of School Culture

Book: How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey
Image Credit: ASCD

“Create your school culture” is common advice that administrators receive on social media, in blog posts, in academic journals and beyond.

But, the quandary with the phrase, “create your school culture” is that it creates assumptions. Assumptions, like:

  1. A school culture does not exist until you say it does.
  2. You can create school culture yourself.
  3. The end result is a finished product.

The fact is that none of the assumptions above will bring sustainability or excellence to an organization’s culture.

Instead…

We have to shift our thinking to understand:

  1. A school’s culture is always existent. But, that does not necessarily mean that the culture is positive or in sync.
  2. It takes the efforts of every single person in the school to build a school culture that prospers.
  3. School culture is not an end result, it is something we have to work at every second of every day

School culture is the daily interactionsseen or unseen, the values among peopleshared or unshared, and patterns of behavior. Moreover, the school culture is its people.

As leaders and educators, we each have to take personal accountability for the energy we bring to the spaces we occupy: Hallways, classrooms, and every inch of our building. Our values and actions have to match up in order for our culture to flourish. Whether we realize it or not, we each are currently setting either a positive or negative tone in our building- And our people are taking notice. 

In the book, “How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom” by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian ask this question:

“Can our school be so welcoming, so inviting, and so comfortable that every person who walks through our doors believe that they are about to have an amazing experience?”

What if we all asked this question constantly? 

What if we all LIVED by this question?

In order to build a welcoming space, it will begin with each of us having conversations with one another to change the paradigm behind the language and meaning of school culture: How do we view it? What does it mean to us? How do we value it? What do we do about it?

Shaping a positive school culture takes time, consistency, and unity. At the heart of any positive culture is a desire to move collectively towards the future and giving one another grace for mistakes made.

In closing, as Henry Ford says, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” 

Image Credit: Slo Dive

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Be the Man in the Arena

 

Image Credit- Kara Knollmeyer
Previously published post- 2016

On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt delivered the “Citizenship In A Republic” speech in Paris, France. The small excerpt from his 35-page speech, which you see above, is widely known as the Man in the Arena. This notable passage was most arguably the finest speech of Roosevelt’s entire Presidency.

It is remarkable that a message stated over 100 years ago can be just as powerful, magical, and moving; When a message can touch generations, there must be a common thread that people can relate to time and time again.

After much introspection, here are my six takeaways from the Man in the Arena:

1. Feel your fears

In many cases, the critic is someone who is just fearful as the man in the arena; Fearful of their inadequacies, fearful that they could be more successful than measure, and fearful that others may know more and be more than them. Feel your fears. OWN your fears. Do not let your fears embody a critic mindset that flattens the spirit and gusto from those around you. Feel your fears and deal with your own insecurities first and foremost.

2. Be Brave

Everyone feels inadequate at some point in time. It takes pure guts and bravery to overcome inadequacy and trying times. We are each capable of becoming the metaphorical “Man in the Arena.” Moreover, any critic can turn into a champion if they have the steady heart to persevere.

3. Discomfort Equals Growth

Putting yourself out there is not easy, and no one said it was. Furthermore, I do not think it is supposed to be easy; It is supposed to be meaningful. Times of discomfort prove that you are growing and learning. Accept it and appreciate the uncomfortable process.

4. Focus on the Man in the Arena

It is not about the critic. the naysayers are usually not the individuals evoking change…The man in the arena is.

Sometimes it can appear that critics are as prevalent as your need to blink. When you are the “Man in the Arena,” you may feel like a spectacle under the watch of analysis. Stay steadfast with your doggedness and zeal. In time, you will see the successes of your efforts.

5. Do Not Judge

If you see an individual struggling- that is not their story. If you see a highly successful person- that is not their only story. Perception is not reality. The beauty of life is that each individual is a unique collection of stories; One snapshot of someone’s life does not tell all. Do not judge a person for their highs or their lows in life, because there is always more unseen and left to understand.

6. Be an Advocate

Nothing is done well without passion. Find something worth fighting for and go after it. By doing so, your zest for life will rise exponentially. When you love what you are doing, you start giving less emphasis to the critics; The doers are too busy to be worried about the critics anyhow. Focus more on the vision, more on the future product, and refrain from sweating the small stuff.

Remember:

If you do not advocate for what you want or what you believe in, people assume and interpret that it is not of value.

Here’s to all the men and women in the arena…

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Engaging vs. Empowering Students

Inspiration

If you have read “The Innovator’s Mindset,” you will remember George’s idea on the difference between “engaging” students and “empowering” students. Through the differentiation that George made between the two concepts, I started reflecting on intangible and tangible results that I have experienced as an educator in the classroom which inspired me to create the infographic above.

Student-Led Learning

As an educator, I’ve always been intrigued on teaching students through student-led learning. “Student-led” or “student-centered” learning can take on different meanings depending on the circumstance or the interpreter. I knew that I wanted to empower my students through this process. I did not want to be THE keeper of the knowledge, instead, I wanted to be the caretaker of student talent.

Needless to say, it can be overwhelming to begin such a mindset shift. “Big ideas” are wonderful, but to be implemented properly, it is beneficial to think of your “big idea” in mini-steps, while reflecting and changing footing as you go.

Therefore, to start my student-led process, I first started by recruiting my students and gaining their help. Together, we took student goals and learning standards and reworded them to student-friendly language. In time, students then started leading small reading goal setting groups and conferring groups.

Learning Curve

I must say that success in these groups did not happen overnight. There was a HUGE learning curve, for myself and for students, but that is okay. My students were not used to leading and being “in charge” and I was not used to it either; These symptoms were a direct side effect of inexperience. But, instead of chalking up the attempts as failures, I started asking my students what they felt they needed to successfully lead groups and to work as a team.

Fact: If you ask 6th graders for “honest feedback” you will get just that. They usually do not hold back; Which is terrifying and humbling all at the same time. Nonetheless, their answers surprised me: They said they needed to learn “how to work together” and how to “help other kids to talk when they wouldn’t say anything.”

I pride myself in using collaborative skills and cooperating learning strategies, so their honest feedback was an eye-opener for me. However, I took a step back and realized that in my cooperative learning techniques, I was showing them how to be collaborative in well-structured settings where I was overseeing every interaction. As a result, when the tables turned and students led the groups, they were not able to apply these collaborative skills to new settings that were completely unfamiliar.

In other words, “I,” the teacher, was leading the movement and swooping in as needed rather than allowing them to learn organically. In my infographic above, I give general statements that fit under “engagement” and “empowerment,” although many could fit in both columns. Likewise, this does not mean that student engagement does not matter. It does matter. But, if we think of how we learn as adults, most of us would rather be in the driver seat to a certain degree, rather than sitting in passenger seats waiting for delivered information at a uniform pace. It is a balance. I wish I could create a formula of instruction that works in all cases, but I cannot. As we all know, it depends on the individual learner and what that learner needs at any given moment.

As George Couros says, “Should we be a sage on the stage, the guide on the side, or the architect of learning? – The answer is that teacher should be all of those. The art of teaching is figuring out when you should be which one.”

“We’re All in This Together”

Consequently, through listening to straightforward feedback from my students, I was able to help model interactions that were more conversational based from student-to-student. I quickly saw students taking their own spin on how they spoke and interacted with others. Looking back, I believe that with time and practice, students became more comfortable with more freedom and lack of limits.

But, when I say” lack of limits,” it is important to note that I am not implying that high standards and expectations were not set. Alternatively, through consistent student input, I did not need to constantly iterate MY expectations and mine alone. Instead, the process was natural; It allowed for all of us to come together to build reasonable expectations as a team. The instruction moved from teacher-led to student-led, to “we are all in this together.”

Through watching my students excel through the steep learning curve, I learned how to reangle my approach. It was never about students leading in the first place, it was about students needing to feel heard and valued. Once individuals feel that their opinions evoke real change, leadership and empowerment naturally happen.

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The Fear of Not Being Enough

Usually, on blogs or social media, we tend to display the highlights of our lives. The best of the best.

And what are we too afraid to put online? Our inadequacies.

Why?

If we write someone on paper, we can toss it in the can and forget its existence. When we write online, it is imprinted forever.

But, in this post, I want to be vulnerable. My hopes are that through this post, I can help others feel that they are not alone.


To give you a little backstory, within the past couple of weeks, I have moved, gotten married, and will be starting a new leadership position.

A lot of change; Good change, exciting change, but still change nonetheless.

Throughout these recent and pivotal changes of my life, where I see all I have ever wanted before me, one question keeps hitting me harder than the rest:


Am I going to be enough? 

  • Will I be a good enough wife?
  • Will I make my husband happy?
  • Will I be able to make the positive impact I dream to make in my new leadership position?
  • Will I be able to give students and staff everything they deserve?

Although my husband and I have dated for years previously to our marriage and in my career I have had a myriad of educational leadership experiences, I cannot help but feel the feelings and ask myself these questions.

Change in all areas in life is incredible. But, it still looks like and feels like vulnerability.

But, I am learning that a part of being human means we have to start allowing ourselves to feel the feelings that come along with it. To be honest, to be raw, to be authentic.

We were born to be imperfect; To have polarizing emotions. Some days I feel confident, other days I do not. No one may ever know or be able to tell if I confident or not, but it still does not mask my inner feelings.

This is a message for you (and me):

Asking yourself,  “Am I good enough?” does not make you any less of a person or educator. It does not mean you cannot handle challenges. You absolutely can.

Being brave enough to ask that question means that you care deeply; You love people and want to help more than you can even describe.

I can feel, even as I write this, that opening myself up to unknown and embracing it, rather than feeling inadequate because of it, is the best thing I could do, not the worst.

Remember: You are enough.

You will continue to make a difference because you are the difference. Click To Tweet

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Leveraging Data to Support Students

Recently, George Couros wrote a blog post titled “From Data Driven to Evidence-Driven.” George brought up several superb points, one including this, “If we are going to change the way we teach, we need to also change how we assess, not just what we assess.” I agree with this thought process- As we become more innovative, we also need to let that innovation flow into everything we do as teachers: Teaching, learning, collaborating AND assessing.

I similarly read another post on Evidence Based Practice from the Data Science Association that I found especially informational. Within this post, Walker says that the three reasons why Data and Evidence Based Practices are not effectively used are due to ineffective talent, processes, and technology. Though Walker was referring to how these reasons were applied in the business world, I find it fascinating to figure out how we can cross over approaches.

We all believe as educators that being student focused is our first and most important compass. What we do day-to-day should be all about students, not the data. However, I do think that data often has a bad reputation in the educational sphere. I venture to say the problem is not with the data, the issue is HOW we use data ineffectively. We lack vision on where we are going with the data, which leads us often unequipped to analyze the abundant information headed our way. I believe there is a place for both data and evidence-based practices to have a happy marriage in education. Although, in this post, I will stay focused on leveraging data, some of the principles can apply to evidence practice as well.

Leveraging Data to Support Students

  • Vision

    If you do not have a vision or purpose for why you are using data, then it is usually done in a trivial and lackluster fashion. If this occurs, change your path and ask yourself: “What are we trying to achieve?” and “Why are we interested in data?” 

  • Value

    If data does not truly help teachers teach and students learn, then no one will ever find value in it, and rightfully so. To find value, begin viewing data as an asset, rather than the “end all, be all.” Whenever data is the main word mentioned in meetings or in e-mails, students and staff will be immediately disengaged. No one gets inspired by data alone, but data is informational when used properly.

    As a Mentor Teacher and Technology Integrationist, I used Google Forms to track my day-to-day plans with teachers. With the data, I was always able to view in pie graph form and in charts how often I met with each teacher and team in the building, future plans we had for instruction, which subjects and standards we integrated technology with the most, and reflections on the lessons. All of this curated information was easy to insert and view, which allowed me to take action to meet with teachers in a timely and meaningful manner.

  • Target

    Sometimes when data is collected, it feels like you are tracking anything and everything there is to track, which can be enormously ineffective. The best kind of data is purposeful and targeted for optimal results. Similarly, think of your intentions as you collaborate with students and staff: Through the data, do you hope to make small instructional changes or to have huge radical changes? Your answer can guide your plan.

  • Data Management

    Once you have the foundations covered, it is crucial to have conversations with your staff and students to determine how often data will be collected and maintained. Be proactive and clear. Teachers want to feel prepared to plan and teach adequately with the data they receive, rather than always wondering when the “data is due.” Make the data management and maintenance process as streamlined as possible.

    Also, will students track goals and progress? Students love to see their own personal successes and to share them with you, others, and their family. I always loved embedding goal setting into everything I did with my middle school students. After inviting students in on the journey with me, they would keep me in check. If I went a day without talking about goal setting, they would say, “Ms. Welty, you forgot to talk about goal setting today!” Moreover, they always created such fun and creative ideas to track and visualize goals and visions for the classroom.

  • Data Infrastructure

    This subject is almost never talked about, but it is essential. Teachers and principals spend so much time working with improper technologies, infrastructures, and operating models that make data analysis time consuming and frustrating. Once the data is collected, the technology should do as much of the work as possible to sort, organize, and tell the story.

    I hope we can begin spending more time on reflecting, planning and determining how to develop better instruction for our kids, and less time dealing with faulty systems and processes.

    But, with fields like Data Science booming, there is a lot that will continue to change for data in the future. The skill-set needed in this area, and in big data, is in HUGE demand. Over the next couple of years, I am eager to see how developments in this area can directly benefit school systems.

    What does your infrastructure look like at your school and what programs or tools do you use to track data and progress?


Image Credit- LinkedIn

In the digital age we live in, we need to stay focused on our people first, while still keeping an eye to how data will change and how platforms will integrate better with technology over time. With collaborative apps like Google Apps for Education and student reflection video services like Recap, I see a bright future where data is not always a number and students have more agency.

As Carly Fiorina says, “The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.” By focusing on insight gained rather than data or information alone, we can take the action that will help our students soar to new dimensions.

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Understanding the Challenges of Others

Image Credit: abettermedaybyday.com

Each day when we interact with people, we are encountering diverse individuals like us who have a multitude of blessings and struggles they are trying to overcome in their lives.

Despite the exact situation, one thing is clear- Every single person has a story. We know and remember this when trauma arises; But, with the complexities of daily life, having the opportunities to pause and reconsider this fact may feel few and far between.

Discover Others

Nevertheless, one of my favorite discoveries in life is taking the time to DISCOVER other people. Human beings are fascinating- Each person is a book with a novel story that is unmatched by anyone else.

Except, have you ever noticed how often we book our schedules with unnecessary items, but we still constantly feel this urge to be busy? What if we “booked” more time to get to know one another more as human beings and less as students or colleagues?  
I believe that we can build powerful ties that will strengthen us as individuals and teammates if we spend more time being present in each moment.

Inspiration

During the last few days of school, students Kindergarten through 5th grade placed letters in my mailbox. As I was reading through the notes and drying my watering eyes, one card especially hit me like a ton of bricks:

“Dear Ms. Welty, Thank you for understanding the challenges of others and wanting to do something about it.”

This student described me and my demeanor better in one sentence than I ever could have. It is a profound reminder of how closely students look up to us.

Having said that, this student was correct- If we want to build stronger teams, we must understand the challenges others face and DO something about it.

Try This!

It’s the little things over time that become the compilation of the BIG things that matter. Try adding these little actions into your daily routine:

  • Add More Deep Conversations into your Day 

Instead of always asking questions like, “How are you?” or “How is your day?,” Ask more probing questions that show you are sincere and you want to get to know that person better. Remember this: Authentic questions deliver authentic answers.

  • Take the Time to Listen

It sounds obvious, but it is the most vital skill to learn. Sometimes we ask people exceptional questions, but then through our body language, we show we do not care about their response. Do this: Take the time to let others express themselves without thinking about your personal distractions, like tasks you need to complete. We may think we are great at multitasking, but people can usually tell when we are truly listening or not.

  • Follow-up 

Once a colleague or student has shared something going on in their lives, follow-up with them about it and ask about it again. It always is refreshing to be around others that think of you and take the time to check-in.

  • Take Initiative 

In every school, there are staff members, families, and students who are facing severe family illnesses and other crises. Whether you can help with an act of service or simply be the listening ear, take an active approach to be there for others. Many we encounter each day will never ask for our help but need support. When we take the initiative to offer comfort, we show we are a faithful crew.

  • Do Not Let Stress Take your Best

With all of this said, we too encounter our own personal hurdles that we face outside of school as well. Everyone has bad days and we each deal with stressors differently. Yet, be mindful to ensure that over time your stress does not take the best out of you and others.

Sense of Caring

In closing, this quote by Anthony J D’Angelo is everything, “Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.” I have found that nothing is more valuable than time spent loving one another and understanding each other; It is the heart of what we do as educators. When we care about each other like family, we build community.

There are no shortcuts, just love.

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Be Their Diehard Fan

A fan is someone who is enthusiastically devoted to their sports team, musical artist, author, or an entertainer. The best trait about a diehard fan is that no matter what happens, even during the weak points, in the end, that fan always give their team their full support, with the knowledge that it will all eventually fall into place. Some of us call this unwavering faith.

I believe that the best educators and leaders apply these same foundations to their classrooms. Great teachers are not fair-weather fans, and they are DIEHARD fans for their students. Great educators also believe that student behaviors, academic levels, or backgrounds will NEVER stop them from loving or fighting for their students just as hard. After all, when our students show signs of distress is usually the moment they need our cheers in the fan section the most.

While working alongside students and showing that I will never give up on them, students taught me more about life, resilience, strength, and love than I could have ever imagined. I am better because of their strength.


Isn’t it a beautiful thing that while we dedicate ourselves to become their fans, that they become our number one supporters, too?


Whether students have positive or negative behavior stats or have winning or losing records in school- Be their diehard fan. Even our most supported students need us in their fan section more than ever. You will have no greater of a fan than your students if you become their diehard fan FIRST.

A thoughtful card I received from a student.

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How to Strengthen Relationships with Students

Building relationships with our students and colleagues are THE most important work that we do as educators and leaders.  Taking the time and energy to strengthen relationships with kids will help them grow to be better individuals and learners. Moreover, human connection is THE essential piece in LIFE, not just the field of education.

But, my caveat is this: Do not try to “manage” kids, but instead INVEST in them. When you invest in students and their interests, talents, and skill sets, your return on the investment will always be greater and more rewarding. Whether you are a kid or an adult, everyone wants to feel genuinely cared about.  Therefore, you can never go wrong by devoting your spirit to those you serve.

Throughout the years of working with kids, here are some of the most meaningful pieces that I believe are crucial to enhancing the relationships that you create:

  • Be present

  • Greet and welcome every single student

  • Listen and value their different perspectives

  • Get to know more about their family, hobbies, and passions

  • Look at every student interaction with a non-judgemental lens

  • Let students start over with a fresh slate when mistakes happen

  • Never, ever give up on them

  • Show that you want to learn from them, too

  • Bring the strengths of every single student to the forefront

  • Empower students to lead and make a difference

  • Be true to you; It inspires kids to be true to themselves

  • Be fun; Never take yourself too seriously

Image result for rita pierson quotes
Image Credit: TED/PBS

Significant mention: When thinking of strengthening relationships with students, the above quote from the beloved Rita Pierson is the beacon of what we should all strive for. Even if you have already seen the TED Talk 1,000,000 times like me, share it with someone else to ignite the spark within them as well (Or watch it below!)

Whether you are reading this during your last few weeks of school, or next October, or in August of 2049- Relationships will always be paramount. Everything changes in life, but relationships are our constant. The year, the month, the season does not matter. What matters is that we never give up on our students and always find time to strengthen the connections we already have to help them become who they were destined to be.

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Are We Fostering or Suppressing Lifelong Learning?

Lifelong learning is a crucial process that is unarguably paramount for any human being to survive and thrive. Each day, we learn new things about the world around us.

Yet, lifelong learning is more than acquiring new information over your lifetime. The important piece of the puzzle is having the desire to actively seek out new ideas while being able to transfer and apply these concepts to a variety of contexts and dimensions.

When we think of lifelong learning, we need to do everything in our power to ensure we avoid:

  • Trying to forcefully manufacture lifelong learners
  • Over structuring learning in a way that makes it unrewarding for kids
  • Spoon feeding every learning experience students have

Although we have good intentions with the learning for our students, we sometimes get stuck in a pattern of doing things the same way we have always done it; Therefore, we can inadvertently suppress the passion for learning.

Nevertheless, we can rewire our thinking to give lifelong learning the definition it deserves so we can foster and inspire environments to be the spark for new ideas, new passions, new interests, and new discoveries. But, these discoveries are not made to be information banks. Imagine the problems that can be solved, the ideas that could be created, and the connections that could be built if students saw first-hand the beauty of learning and the power it has on changing the world.

Discovering new learning has power. Just imagine the problems that can be solved, the ideas that could be created, and the connections that could be built if students saw first-hand the beauty of learning and the capability it has on changing the world.

Lifelong learning in its true form is:


ongoing

voluntary

self-motivated


Now, let us embed students as THE focal point and take a moment to visualize your school day tomorrow. Ask yourself:

  • Are learning opportunities ongoing for students?

In other words, do the learning opportunities expand in breadth and depth over time while giving students multiple opportunities to apply and connect learning?

  • Are students voluntary members in how they learn?

In other words, do students have a choice in their learning? and Do they want to be apart of the process?

  • Are students self-motivated and empowered to learn? 

In other words, are students trusted partners and included in their learning conversations, while given the power to help guide how they learn each day?

Based on the answers to these questions, make small tweaks to your approach day-by-day to include these elements and watch the progress that occurs. While you organize and create your content and curriculum, keep these questions at the center of what you and your school does.

Remember this:

We can develop the best curriculum, but if we undervalue the inquisitiveness of our kids, we miss the mark.

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Unleashing Your Limitless Potential

Image Credit- Tamara McCleary

What are some of your OUT of this WORLD dreams and aspirations? Which dream is so big and crazy that you even doubt its possibilities?

Name that goal: _______________________.

We are often told to dream big and to reach for the stars, but on the same token we are later advised to be “realistic.” Being logical is important in many instances, but what is actually needed more in this world are people who are OBSESSED with their dreams and passions. People who have dreams that seem unfeasible to the average person. People who can visualize their goal to see the picture of success within their minds. Then, ultimately people who do whatever it takes to make their dreams a reality each and every day.

We need people who are not trying to be realistic. We need people who are trying to change the WORLD for the better; And when you are trying to change the world, you do not do ordinary things. Instead you commit to…


Reach for aspirations that are limitless.

Welcome failure.

Never stop soaking in knowledge.

Continually adjust and adapt.


Do not welcome or invite the crab-in-a-bucket mentality into your thought process. If you have not heard of this theory, let me explain: Sailors notice that while traveling across the blue seas and capturing crabs, that one crab in a bucket can claw his way out of the bucket successfully with determination. But, once the sailors start adding more crabs into the bucket, the other crabs start fighting and clawing relentlessly to ensure that one crab does not escape.

As the Chinese proverb says in the image above, “The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

When we minimize the potential of others, we diminish the leaders and possibilities that “could be.” But, the worst case of all is when we also crush the potential within ourselves. It starts with us. When we shut down our possibilities and start believing that it “can’t be done,” we belittle our true GREATNESS.

Now, remember the goal you named earlier in this post. Unleash that dream and limitless potential within; These dreams are your calling. Be unstoppable and welcome dreams that are illogical, for this is the only way we can change the world.

Then, through your motivation, modeling, encouragement, you can help give that same gift to others which is the greatest gift of all.

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