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!

Good News and Bad News: We Are All Human

Good News and Bad News: We Are All Human

Listen to this post HERE (2 min)

I have some good news and bad news. Which would you like first?

Okay, okay, here’s both at the same time.

We are all human.

Humans are complicated beings, capable of great happiness and great despair. We all come with our own biases, our unique history, and strong emotions that can blur the lines of reality. Being human is a beautiful thing, and we can relate to each other through shared joy, empathy, working hard together. Being human is a difficult as well, as none of us are spared from life’s challenges. All of us must wade through our own emotions before being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

You may have encountered someone who seems to be always negative, always struggling, who often walks right by you without saying a word. You also may have encountered someone who is always smiling, who always has a moment to ask how you are and really seems to care about your answer. Sometimes both of these people are going through similar things in their lives. So why would their reactions be so different?

A short, uncomplicated answer is this:

One of these people is okay with taking their emotions out on the people around him.

The other person wants to lift others up even as he deals with difficult things in his life.

Which one will I be today? How about you?

A Lesson in Falling from an Expert

A Lesson in Falling from an Expert

I fell down in front of a set of elevators, in a dress and heels, with my colleagues watching. Boom! Flat on my face. It hurt in more ways than one. I am short, so I don’t have far to fall. But. That evening, I fell from a great height.

Let me explain.

I was attending a conference for principals from my state, a cherished once a year event where we reconnect and learn together. Not only was I attending, but for the first time I did a presentation myself. I prepared for months, practiced the presentation several times, and it went well. My presentation was earlier that same day and it was so much fun. In fact, I was still riding that high when I fell.

Colleagues were telling me that they were reading my blog and finding it inspiring. I was riding that high too.

So, when my friends told me it was time to head up the elevators to dinner, I finished my conversation and followed behind them. I was doing an exaggerated “run” to be silly as I tried to make it onto the elevator before the doors closed. I got there just in time. They were standing there, watching me approach. Watching me fall.

There were many other principals from across the state standing there too. Watching me fall.

I did what I always do in these situations. I got up. I brushed myself off. I laughed and tried to think of something witty to say. My words failed me as a friend helped me up. My knees hurt for weeks after falling on the hard marble floor.

Falling is one of the most important things we do. It humbles us. It teaches us. It brings us back to center and allows us an opportunity to reconnect with what is most important.

That is, if we let it.

Listen to this post HERE

ABCs of School Conferences for Parents

ABCs of School Conferences for Parents

Blog post co-written by Lindsay Jipping and Allyson Apsey

Teachers are real people with a heart for students and learning. Parents are real people whose children are their heart. We all sing in our cars, get embarrassed when we make mistakes, and have strengths and areas for improvement. When we keep this in mind during parent/teacher conferences and follow some basic tips, working together can be so much more effective and fun. Here are three simple ABCs of conferences for parents.

A= Assume positive intent

Teachers go into the field of education with a service-oriented heart, hoping to change the world one student at a time. Parents hold their newborn child with dreams of the possibilities life will have to offer him or her. When the partnership of parents and teachers comes together knowing that each wants positive things for students, amazing things can happen.

You may have heard an educator say, “We will believe half of what your children tell us about you, if you believe half of what your children tell you about us.” It makes us laugh to think of it that way, but in reality, if parents and teachers approach questions or concerns in a way that assumes positive intent from one another, it is so much easier to work together. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be careful not to assume you have the whole story.

B= Be prepared

Pay close attention to homework, to what your child is saying about their learning, and read newsletters carefully. Doing your “homework” will make conferences much more meaningful for parents.  Teachers would love for you to have a list of questions and they welcome your suggestions. We know that you are an expert on your child.

Teachers not only value you and your input, but they want to know what you think!  They expect you to have questions about what, how, and why they are teaching your child in the ways they are. Start right away at the beginning of the year and get involved in what your child shares and brings home.

C= Cooperation

Don’t let the conference end before you ask the teacher what you can do to support your child over the next few months of the school year. Taking a keen interest in your child’s learning and doing what you can to support what is happening in school will help your child have a successful school year. Teachers view you as an important partner in the education of your child.

Follow up with the teacher after conferences on goals/areas of concerns that were shared at conferences. Conferences are not the only time to talk about this, it should be a conversation throughout the year. Children will sense when their parents and teachers are working together. They will feel more positive about the situation and school.

It really does take a village to raise a child, and following the ABCs will help parent/teacher conferences go well. Additionally, you will role-model ways to form positive relationships and partner together for a shared goal–an exceptional education for your child!

Image credit: HERE

Three Staff Members and a Bee: Perception is Reality

Three Staff Members and a Bee: Perception is Reality

A bee flies into the room and three staff members look up as they hear the buzz.

One barely even notices the bee.

One thinks, “Oh, I hope it doesn’t come near me,” and goes back to her task.

The last staff member cannot look away from the bee, fearing for his life.

The same bee. Three different reactions. Which one is right? Which one is wrong?

The person who barely notices the bee has never had a negative encounter with them. The person who is mildly annoyed by the bee was stung once, with no adverse reaction. The staff member who was fearful for his life is allergic to bees, so the threat is real.

We can understand that the staff members are right in their own perceptions. We understand that the same bee means different things to people based on their values and prior experiences. Do we afford the same grace in other situations?

What about the teacher who is afraid of the student who is showing signs of aggression? Do we remember that she was seriously hurt by a student a few years ago?

What about the parent who is so anxious about his daughter’s academic progress even though she is catching up? Do we recognize that he struggled in school himself and doesn’t want that for his daughter?

What about the student who laughs after he accidentally runs into a classmate? This student was not taught how to show empathy, is embarrassed, and doesn’t know how to react appropriately. Do we give him grace?

Three students get into an argument during recess and each one has a different story. Do we accuse them of lying, or could it be possible that all of them are right?

There is no truth. There is only perception.
-Gustave Flaubert

Once we accept that perception is reality, we open the doors to understanding and empathy. First, we must accept our own biases and skewed view of reality. It is our truth. Then, we can accept the same for others. Exploring what motivates behavior is key to understanding each other.

That mutual understanding levels the playing field and helps us all move forward together. Because…

Logic will never change emotion or perception.
-Edward de Bono

Image credit: HERE

Emailing to Inspire, Not Baffle

Emailing to Inspire, Not Baffle

Have you ever checked your email and groaned for one of these reasons?

  • You see your principal is in “communication mode” so you know you will have a barrage of emails from him/her. While teaching students, preparing for the next day, communicating with parents, etc., you are supposed to read each email thoroughly and remember everything you read.
  • You trepidatiously open an email with one eye open, one eye closed because you know will be the length of a novel because every time this person emails you it is the length of a novel. 
  • You carefully read an email searching and searching for the main message, but you cannot filter through all the words to glean it out.

You can avoid being the reason for the “email groan” by taking the advice of these famous writers:

Brevity is the soul of wit.  -William Shakespeare

Implement the “no scroll” rule for all your email communications. Your message should fit on the screen when a recipient opens it and not require them to scroll. Getting right to the point, skipping unnecessary words or information, or limiting the number of topics in an email can help you implement this rule.

Clarity is the counterbalance of profound thoughts.  -Luc de Clapiers

Use the subject line to communicate the main message of the email. Help your staff avoid the guessing game by making the point of the email crystal clear.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.  -Leo Tolstoy

Save it up and send a weekly memo. Some principals send a Monday Memo or a Friday Update to share important information with staff members. Save up all the things you want to tell staff for this weekly communication. As you are tempted to press send on an email to the staff, ask yourself if it could wait for the Friday Update. Nine times out of ten, it can wait. Besides the benefit to staff inboxes, it also makes the weekly communication more meaty and therefore increases readership.

Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.  -William Cowper

Use a variety of communication techniques–make funny videos, create an “auditory email” by starting a podcast for staff, write handwritten notes, etc. Having novelty and variety benefits staff just like it benefits students.

The smartest person in the room, is the room.  -David Weinberger

Staff meeting time is precious and should never be used for something that could be communicated via email. Reserve meeting time for topics that require collaboration, not as a time for a principal to simply give information.

These thoughtful email practices will help you be a model of effective communication and garner gratitude and respect from your staff. Words are a leader’s most important tool, wield them carefully.

I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve, I wear them on my waist

I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve, I wear them on my waist

When I was in fifth grade, I would say a little prayer each night. I prayed that I would be skinny when I woke up.

I wasn’t fat, I was a little rounded. But, ironically, the way my body looked was beside the point. The way I saw myself was the point. The terrible way I felt about my body at ten years old creeped its way into all aspects of my life and settled there. I was insecure, I doubted myself at every turn, and it influenced my friendships, my school work, and my relationships with my family. I am insecure, I doubt myself, and it influences my friendships, my work, and my relationships with my family.

The first time I lost a significant amount of weight was seventh grade. I was twelve years old. As I said, I was not fat, maybe ten or so pounds overweight. However, I lost more than twenty pounds through eating about 500 calories a day. That was the beginning of the unhealthy weight roller coaster that has been a defining issue in my life.

This very public admission is very difficult for me as I have been ashamed of my weight for as long as I can remember. The physical changes with the ups and downs of my weight is obvious to all who know and love me, and the story behind my weight fluctuation likely mirrors the story of many others. I don’t necessarily wear my emotions on my sleeve, I wear them on my waistline, on my hips, and in my double chin.

When I chose ‘wellness’ as my word for 2017, my weight was on my mind and at the core of the word. 

Yet, I know that wellness is about much more than weight. Physically, wellness is about health, strength, and energy. Mentally, wellness is about learning everyday, embracing challenges as opportunities, being vulnerable and not afraid to fail. Spriritually, wellness is about my connection to God, my connections to others, being emotionally able to be the person I want to be. 

For sure weight falls into the health category, being at an optimum weight has significant health benefits. For me, my weight also falls into the ideas of strength and being emotionally able to be the person I want to be. If I am beating myself up each day as I get dressed and feeling like I am never enough, I cannot lift others.

I have been reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and the first chapter is focused on our cultural problem of scarcity. Here is a quote from the book,

“We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.” -Brené Brown

She goes on to share that our obsession with “never enough” starts as soon as we wake up each day–we never have enough sleep, enough time, enough…you name it. The feeling that I am never enough is the core of my struggle. No matter how much I weigh, I find issues with how I look. In order to embrace ‘wellness’ as my one word for 2017, I have to embrace the idea that I AM ENOUGH.

This fall, I was gifted a photography session for my family. I loved the idea of having family photos on our property. Yet, I almost didn’t do it…because of my weight. We have never had a professional family photo taken, and I was cursing myself that at this one opportunity, I was heavier than I had been in years. I didn’t want the way I currently look to live on forever in our family pictures.

However, I am making progress. 

In the next breath, I said to myself, “…but this is who you are. It is who you are to your family and they love you. They see you like this everyday and still think you are pretty special. You are enough. It’s okay.”

And we took the family photos. And I am so glad we did.

This beautiful photo was taken by the talented Samantha Kraker. You can see her other work at http://www.samanthakraker.com/