Celebrating School Culture

Celebrating School Culture

A collaborative post with @allysonapsey, @Tim_McDermott1, and @jodiepierpoint


A culture of celebration can be created and fostered through celebrating the little things everyday.

“Give people high fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.”

Kid President

As educators, there are things that we can celebrate any day of the week. We love kids, we work to get better every day, we work through challenges, we embrace changes we never asked for, and on and on.

As a principal, my main customers are my staff members. I celebrate them in many ways:

  • Positive feedback for their awesomeness, sharing specifically the amazing things they are doing for kids.
  • Allow the school community to celebrate with us by posting videos on YouTube highlighting strengths. Here is an example: https://youtu.be/SQjpZIvrP0Q.
  • Tweeting out the great things teachers are doing for our kids:

tweet example.png


Key to culture of celebration is the consistency and focusing on specific things that contribute to the culture and the success of students. When the school leader celebrates teachers and their successes, teachers will celebrate students and their successes.

Celebrating the little successes every day leads to big successes! Amazing things happen when people feel positive and strong–they celebrate each other, they are willing to take risks, they approach problems with a growth mindset, and there is joy in the air.

Developing relational culture takes time

  • Tim (@Tim_McDermott1)

Developing relational culture takes time. That is why it is important for principals to celebrate the wins as teachers make changes with their instructional practices, the way they collaborate, the way they manage their classrooms, or when they take risks and try something new.  The small wins matter to people (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). They build momentum and keep people moving. A talented principal recognizes these moments and knows when to celebrate and recognize them. DuFour (2015) states, “Effective principals will not wait for monumental accomplishments before celebrating” (p. 242). A culture of celebration and recognition leads to developing further trust among the members of a school.

In my first principalship, I wanted to build relationships and create a culture where we would celebrate our learning and our growth. So we instituted a tradition or ceremony of “tossing dogs”.In Batavia, we are all Bulldogs so I thought that would be an appropriate stuffed animal to toss. At every staff meeting teachers could take a small stuffed animal and publicly recognize another staff member and thank them for something they did for another teacher or a student and toss a stuffed dog to them. If a staff member received the dog they were able to keep them. It was really cool to walk into a teacher’s room or a specialist’s office and see a small collection of dogs sitting on a shelf or a desk.

I also dedicated one staff meeting towards the end of the year where teams would get up and share a celebration from the school year.  The only rule I had was that they couldn’t do a dry and boring PowerPoint. Here is an example of the fourth grade team and their journey of implementing guided math. Teams needed to be creative in the way the wanted to celebrate their journey and growth.

The final tradition I started took place at the end of the school year where we would spend time together as a staff honoring those members who were moving schools, retiring, etc… and then we would do something to recognize and celebrate each other. The first year each person had a piece of construction paper mounted to cardstock that went over their head and hung on their back with a piece of yarn.


Every staff member had a pen and we spent 15 minutes walking around writing personal notes on each other’s paper. It was really great to provide meaningful comments to a teacher and to look around the room to see the same thing being repeated dozens of times.

Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Dufour, R. (2015). In praise of American educators and how they can become even better. Bloomington, IN: The Solution Tree Press.


  • Jodie (@jodiepierpoint)

Derek Oldfield and Paul Bailey and I were part of a Voxer book study reading Kids Deserve It. Although we were active in the book study group, the three of us often chatted in a separate voxer chat and the idea of spreading positivity throughout schools nationwide was inspired.  We brainstormed and decided we would have a high five challenge, encouraging teachers, staff and principals to give out high fives as well as write letters and make phone calls home.  

We promoted our challenge through Twitter using the hashtag #high5challenge.  We were amazed at the responses, videos and pictures that we received from across the United States. Teachers were writing messages on student’s desks, writing positive notes on bracelets, dancing and high fiving in cafeterias!  Looking through the hashtag every night simply brought joy to each of us.

To celebrate the educators we sent out #high5 #KidsMatter bracelets in hopes that although the two week challenge ended that the positivity would continue.  Kids do matter, and celebrating them with such simple ways as high fives and notes home sure does go a long way!


Culture is built over time, through deliberately focusing on celebrations, whether big or small. Spread positivity, celebrate daily, and then bask in the warmth and joy that exudes from the environment.

We would love to hear how you have built a culture of celebrations, share with us in the comments or tag us on Twitter!


Fill Your Mojo This Summer

Fill Your Mojo This Summer

Mojo is the moment when we do something that’s purposeful, powerful, and positive and the rest of the world recognizes it.

-Marshall Goldsmith

Summertime is the perfect time to fill your cup of mojo! Here are TEN surefire ways from the Compelled Tribe to keep or get back your mojo this summer.

Exercise – @Jennifer_Hogan

I find that when I get to exercise, it keeps me motivated, energized, and confident. Exercise is a time when I can disconnect from the world and just be “inside my head.” It allows time for ideas to percolate without interruption… time that I value and appreciate. It also provides the whitespace I need as an introvert. For me, it encourages creativity and problem-solving while the endorphins are being released! Done consistently, it’s a true mojo-maker!

Connecting – @jon_wennstrom

For me, I draw energy from being around positive people. Connecting with educators during summer learning sessions, sharing and learning from others on Twitter about books we’ve read, and of course blogging and reading blogs. I’m definitely an extrovert and being around other educators helps inspire me and always leads to new ideas to implement and helps me keep my mojo!

Theater- @sandeeteach

I love Broadway musicals, plays, and other theatrical productions. It’s a way for me to escape and immerse myself in a story. One of my favorite theaters spoofs popular shows. For example, this year two of the shows will be “Indiana Bones Raiders of the Wal-Mart” and “Captain American Fork The Worst Avenger”. (American Fork is the city where I grew up.) The actors and actresses are masters of improvisation which makes for a night of laughter. Another favorite theater performs in the round which is always a delightful experience. There are beautiful theaters in downtown Salt Lake City for Broadway musicals and outdoor shows in many local communities. For a few hours, I can lose myself in another world. But upon further reflection, I always relate the experience to teaching because that’s just what teachers do. We get ideas that benefit our students from everywhere.

Find a good read, or two – @Vroom6

There are lots of ways to find joy and rejuvenate during the summer months. And, I am all about work hard, play hard. With that, one of the greatest joys I get from the summer months, and a way in which I keep my mojo running full steam ahead, is by catching up on some of that much needed reading that took a back seat during the school year. Often times the days we are in session with students and teachers are filled with more scripted reading and writing. So for me, it is the summer months that I get to find that much anticipated new release on best practices in our field. Whether striving to become a better leader, or a better learner, it is the books that I carry with me to the beach, the pool or the park that I enjoy the most.

Dream big together – @allysonapsey

When my mojo needs a pick me up, I dream about what could be for our students, but I don’t do it alone. Just like everyone else, I find myself focusing on the trees rather than the forest from time to time. When monotony sets in, I push back by collaborating with the amazing teachers I work with. I am astounded after each conversation–we feed off each other, we divide and conquer, and we multiply our creativity for the sake of our students. Through these type of conversations this year, we came up with an amazing service learning project, we started plans for a Makerspace, we piloted new reading initiatives, we shared professional reading that has inspired us and so much more. While we are dreaming big together, we are building stronger relationships, laughing, and challenging each other.

Pause and Reflect – @KarenWoodEDU

When my mojo needs some rejuvenation, (and it sometimes does), I first take a few minutes to reflect. I find that sometimes my initial desire to “rejuvenate my mojo” may have my efforts focussed in the wrong areas or in areas which may not be productive for educators or students in the long run. Reflection leads to focus and clarity. From clarity goals can be set and then the fun begins! Once my goals are established I jump in full force and do so with collaborative efforts. It is very important that the shared vision of success is truly understood by all. The last strategy I feel is essential for rejuvenating mojos is time to step away from work. I admittedly do not do this well, however I find when I can clear my head (by going to the beach, going for a walk, kayaking, swimming, or practicing yoga/meditation, etc.) I return refreshed, focussed, and ready to ramp up my mojo and the mojos of others around me.

Get into some music! -@PrincipalStager

I was a music major in college and a music educator prior to becoming a principal. Whenever I need to get my mojo back or need to decompress, I find a piano and PLAY. I play in a group at my church so I have the opportunity to play rather often. I understand not everyone has the ability to sit down and play a musical instrument, but when I don’t have a piano to play, I drive in my car or just put my headphones in and JAM! There is nothing like a great playlist of uplifting and energetic music to get your energy back and your cup overflowing! This is my sure-fire way to get back on track.

Make a “bucket list” – @jodiepierpoint

I decided to make a “bucket list” of things I wanted to accomplish within a year, but I’m finding summer is a perfect time to accomplish them. Things such as volunteering and baking cookies for friends have been real pick me ups! Training for a quarter marathon has led into a half, simply because I’m out with great friends chatting while I’m doing it. I check my list all the time, call a friend, and pick an activity to do – it’s a great way to rejuvenate not only myself, but others too!

“What if People” & Quiet Time -@Debralcamp

I do my best thinking when I am with people that like to say “what if”. There is something about the words “what if” that allows walls to come down. When discussions are lead with the words “what if” it takes away the threat of there being wrong answers and allows for brainstorming to happen in a way that doesn’t in a lot of conversations. I find it very motivating to be pushed and pulled by other people’s thoughts and ideas. Positive energy comes when people work together and create as a group. There is a collective product that is created as well. I find on the flip side that quiet time and reflection after being with “what if people” takes me to a space in my head where more ideas can be generated. Revisiting and reflecting again with the same group consistently allows for new ideas to develop and to be tried. (They don’t always work but the process sure is fun and motivating.)

Balance – @Abond013
Often times when I am feeling overwhelmed, I find that I need to prioritize. It is important for educators in any role to find time to take care of themselves. We need to give students our best and that is challenging when we are running on empty. Besides exercising, traveling, and spending time with family or friends, I find that fueling my passion keeps me going. For example, if you are passionate about literacy, continue to take interest and learn more. Surround yourself with people who share your passion.

What Is Your Top Ten?

What Is Your Top Ten?

“If they don’t stand for something, they will fall for anything.”  -Gordon A. Eadie

What do you stand for? Who are you as an educator?

I have been working with my staff to come up with our school’s “30-second elevator story” and we have a solid shared vision that will continue growing and evolving as we grow and evolve as a staff. It got me thinking–what is my 30-second story as an educator?

I admire people who whole-heartedly know exactly what they stand for. I don’t think I have that crystal clear vision of who I am and what I stand for. Or do I? I was brainstorming ideas, and I came up with this top ten, in no particular order. 

  1. Strong positive relationships
  2. Need-satisfying environment for students and staff
  3. Supporting student emotional intelligence and character development as much as academic growth
  4. Empowering students to be curious life-long learners
  5. FUN, including lots of laughter and light-heartedness
  6. Assuming good intentions
  7. Continuous improvement
  8. Listening to understand
  9. Looking for strengths
  10. Solution-oriented, keeping problems small

I know I will refine this list and change it as I continuously learn and grow as an educational leader. Educators out there, I am curious, what is your top ten? Comment on this post or share your top ten on Twitter and include @allysonapsey.

    …And Then I Was

    …And Then I Was

    A feedback story, as a student:

    “You are a good writer. Would you consider tutoring students in writing at the Tutoring Center?”

    Then, I was. A good writer, even a teacher of writing.

    That was all it took.

    I was a junior at Grand Valley State University. It is the only time I remember a teacher identifying a strength in such a specific way.

    I was 20 years old.

    A feedback story, as a young teacher:

    In my first couple years of teaching, there were times when teacher leaders or administrators would recognize a strength they saw in me. 

    In those instances, I was driven to capitalize on that strength for the benefit of my students. I would read books, talk to others to get new ideas, take risks, and work hard to grow even stronger in that area.

    When I was criticized by an administrator, I felt defeated, weak, and unsure I was in the right profession.

    So what?

    Through my experiences as a student and a young teacher, and now a leader, I learned that strengths-based feedback is the most powerful feedback. It has the greatest potential to affect continuous improvement, and isn’t that the goal in the first place?

    Giving students and colleagues feedback about strengths empowers them. When we are strong, we feel like can accomplish anything. We experience joy through or work.

    On the other hand, giving others criticism and making judgements helps them feel weak and defeated. When we are weak, it doesn’t feel like we can do anything. Everything feels overwhelming and we drag our feet to work.

    Given these realities, how do we uplift the strength of others while promoting continuous improvement in our classrooms and schools? Does this mean we shy away from addressing concerns and growing in areas that need to be strengthened? Absolutely not. Our students and our staff deserve better than that.

    How do we implement strengths-based feedback AND honest conversations about areas that need to improve? As a school leader, I believe the answers lies in learning together, asking the right questions of each other, and being an avid learner myself.

    A different model of teacher observation

    This year, my staff was open to a different model of classroom observations. Instead observing their classrooms and providing feedback just a couple times per year, they were open to shorter, monthly observations with feedback meetings within 24 hours after the observation. The goals are to identify strengths, and then to figure out a way to move forward together with a next step. The next step evolves out of the feedback conversation.

    These same concepts can be applied to the classroom–students benefit from timely feedback that identifies strengths and next steps just as much as educators do. We want the same things for our students as we want for ourselves…to feel empowered, to believe that they can accomplish anything, and to find joy in the work they do at school.

    The story of the new observation model we are implementing is certainly to be continued. The real testament of the effectiveness will come at the end of the school year, when we reflect and provide feedback on whether the new model added value to teaching and student learning.

    I can tell you without a doubt that I have grown so much as an instructional leader based upon the new model. I know so much more about the teaching and learning in the classrooms at our school. I have always been in classrooms and out and about in the school a lot (see my post about my standing desk), but this year my focus and purpose has shifted to more frequently watching teaching and student cognitive engagement. Our feedback conversations open the door to learning together, and having those conversations monthly not only fuels our relationships but helps us get to know each other as educators and to share ideas.

    Forward motion together

    I observe teachers and have follow up conversations to add value to student learning, to highlight and uplift teacher strengths, and to learn together as educational professionals. The strengths-based feedback model empowers students and staff rather than weakens them; it does not invite fear into the environment, rather it invites collaboration and risk-taking.

    What successes have you had with strengths-based feedback, and what challenges has it brought?

    Let’s learn together on Twitter…@allysonapsey

    The new model of observation and feedback was inspired by what I learned with Debbie McFalone during a Leverage Leadership training series. Leverage Leadership is written by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.

    Call Me What You Want…I Am a Principal

    Call Me What You Want…I Am a Principal

    I am an elementary school principal.

    Call me a leader, a lead learner, boss lady, shorty…call me what you want.

    I am a principal and I am proud of it.

    The other day I participated in a Twitter chat and one of the questions asked me what I love about being a leader. I had a very hard time answering that question. My first instinct was, “EVERYTHING”! However, that is not exactly true. It is hard to pinpoint one thing though. Here is an incomplete list of five things I love about being a leader:

    1. I love forward motion. I love working hard for the benefit of students. I love the possibility of inspiring someone to see themselves in a way they never have…to see themselves as stronger than they thought they were…as doing the best they can at the time but, with new information, wanting to do better next time.
    2. I love smiles and hugs and laughter. I love supporting students and adults through the ups and downs of life. I love being really dorky and cheesy and everyone being okay with that, even appreciating it.
    3. I love listening and collaborating, and the fact that together we are stronger than we are as individuals–that energy that comes from an idea sparking another idea, and another idea, until the end result is something mind-blowingly amazing.
    4. I love teaching. There is nothing better than that “ah-ha” look in the eye of a student, colleague or parent. I have learned that I don’t have to talk to teach. I can be a role-model, a listener, and ask questions to teach.
    5. I love learning, and I LOVE that I get to watch learning happening all day long. I love walking into a classroom and thinking, “Yes, yes, YES!” when I see deep, engaging, empowering learning happening.

    This list is alive and it will grow and change as I continuously improve, but that chat question the other night left me hanging. I wanted to spend some more time thinking through what I love about being a leader…a principal…head dork, whatever you want to call me. A teacher even called me “Glinda the Good Witch” yesterday. I am a principal. I wouldn’t want to be anything else.

    Principals and teachers out there, what do you love about being a leader?

    Let’s collaborate on Twitter: @allysonapsey

    Why I Look So Creepy in this Picture

    Why I Look So Creepy in this Picture

    “Mom, why do you look so creepy in this picture?” said my 9-year-old son.

    “Well, when I was young you couldn’t see the pictures before you had them developed,” I replied.

    “What does ‘developed’ mean?” he asked.

    What a great reminder of how times have changed. I feel old saying that, but it is so true. I am not old though, because rather than lament the changing times, I embrace them and try to understand what it means for our children.

    My 9-year-old-son never lived in a world without remote controls, cell phones and YouTube, much less having to wait for a photo to be developed before viewing it.

    Let me state this clearly again, I am NOT old. However, I did learn how to type on a typewriter, I remember the excitement when we got a long cord for our cable box so it could reach the couch, and we had rotary phones in our house when I was a kid.

    Now our children have can watch practically anything they want at any time on YouTube, their parents have remote start on their cars, they can see a photo as it is being taken. They live in a world of immediate gratification. Wait, actually, WE also live in a world of immediate gratification. What does this mean for our future? What does this mean for schools?

    I had a similar conversation with my 9-year-old a few weeks earlier when he asked me if we had YouTube when I was younger. I told him that we didn’t even have the internet (don’t forget, I am NOT old). He said, “Wait, you couldn’t even google things?” The idea of not having information at our fingertips is not something he can even comprehend.

    When I walk into classrooms and see desks in rows or groups and hear conversations similar to the ones we had when I was a child, part of me feels nostalgic and happy that not everything has changed. I love that they are learning things that they would not be exposed to in the world outside of school. That we open their minds to history, nature, classic works of literature and playing with each other IRL (‘in real life’ for those of us who remember 8-tracks).

    There is another part of me, one that wonders how we can do more to make sure that the learning we are providing students is relevant in today’s world of immediate gratification. I think about how I learn best, and it is truly through being connected that my mind is opened to new ideas and ways of thinking. Those connections happen in person, in reading books and through social media. The fact that I can learn what others are doing across the nation, across the world, makes being connected on social media so powerful.

    Skyping with authors, connecting with other classes on Twitter, having students write blogs so their writing has real authentic audiences are just some of the things we are exploring to get our students connected. We know we need to continue moving in this direction–not only for the benefit of student academic achievement, but to also make sure we keep students excited about school and engaged by making learning meet them where they are.

    How are you embracing what our students need in the 21st century? How are you getting your students connected?

    Let’s collaborate on Twitter: @allysonapsey


    Students Sharing Passions: Snow Day Edition

    Students Sharing Passions: Snow Day Edition

    Do your students cheer or moan when they hear the words, “Snow day!” in the morning?

    Michigan tends to have quite a few snow days, so many schools decided to try to engage learners even on snow days through “Snow Day Challenges”. We jumped on the bandwagon last year. Today we had our second snow day of the year…check out our second snow day challenge QuincyElementarySnowDayChallenge2.

    This time, we decided to encourage students to share their passions anyway they want to, they could write about them, draw a picture, make a movie, etc. I was inspired by ideas in The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, and our staff jumped on board because they love to celebrate the unique people our students are.

    As I was working from home during this snow day, the responses to the challenge began to trickle in. First, I received this email from a quiet fifth-grade student. I was blown away by her passion for dogs who are homeless or living in shelters and the sacrifices she wants to make to help them. Notice how her fifth-grade teacher has inspired her by sharing his passions with his students!

    Next I received this stop-motion animation from a creative third-grader. It is so fun to see her express her love for her American Girl dolls and what she is learning in technology class.

    I even received a challenge response from one of our incredible paraprofessionals. The students will love seeing her passion and how she spent her snow day! If you love snow and dogs, you won’t want to miss this.

    I know the resGracie snow day challengeponses will keep coming in, and there is no way I can write about all of them here. We will be sure to share them all so our students and their families can learn about each other. I have to share just one more–dear Gracie is a second-grader who loves art and school. She drew this picture of Quincy Elementary on her snow day. How cool is it that she is thinking about what a special place her school is even on her day off!

    Ironically, this morning I came across this blog post from The Tempered Radical by Bill Ferriter. It challenges us to learn from these amazing things students did OUTSIDE of the classroom and figure out ways to bring it into the classroom. I wrote about how I felt about education as a student in this blog post, and unfortunately, many students still feel this way, especially as they move into upper elementary and secondary school. Tapping into their passions has the potential to change this for our students.

    What is next? How can we incorporate student passions into the learning that happens every day in our schools? How can we create an environment where students shout with despair instead of joy when they find out there is a snow day?

    Jarett is featured in the top image, showcasing his passion for drawing and cars.

    Feel free to collaborate with me on Twitter: @allysonapsey