Changing School Culture One Word at a Time
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Someone in my network sent me a video called: “The Skateboarding Principal” because she felt that I reminded her of the principal featured in the video. After watching the video, I remember thinking that I wished I were as outstanding as that principal and that I LOVED the word Relentless (which later became the title of his book). I had never used that word before that I could remember. To be honest, I don’t remember ever even hearing that word. I know! How could I be 50 years old and have never of heard or used a word that powerful? It’s one of life’s great mysteries.
However, that video, like many others, inspired me toward action in many ways. One was to share this revelation with my staff at our next faculty meeting. I showed the video and explained what I was learning about myself. I have always felt that I should model to my staff how to keep learning and improving. This faculty meeting led to a great discussion which created the momentum for one of the coolest projects I’ve ever participated in for our students (and staff).
We began to discuss the concept of what specific words, if we could truly communicate the power behind them, could benefit our students throughout their life. Using myself as an example, what if I would have learned the word relentless when I was in high school… or better yet, elementary school? I feel that word could have served me my entire life in many ways that may have pushed me to make better decisions and possibly make an even bigger difference in the world.
As a staff, we ultimately came up with eleven words that we thought our students could benefit from the most throughout the rest of their lives. Relentless, Trust, Confidence, Honesty, Integrity, Love, Respect, Dedication, Perseverance, Determination, and Compassion. We had phenomenal, deep discussions both as an entire staff and as individual teams. Teachers would pick their favorite word, then would be inspired to change to another word after discussions with their peers, then switched back again to their original word, etc… This was my second year at this school, and these conversations were perfect for bringing our team together at a very challenging campus with a new leader. Really, I would have loved to have these discussions at any of the three schools I led, but the victory I want to highlight here is that this project sparked collaborative communication and deeper thinking within my team.
Little did the teachers know that I was having shirts made for each teacher with their word on it. I used my Leadership Team to intentionally pick the color, style, and font for these shirts. I wanted them to feel special. I wanted them to last, and to not only look great, but feel great.
The day finally came when we had the faculty meeting to attach the word conversations to the shirt reveal. It was like an Oprah show! You get one! You get one! The teachers were going nuts. I asked the staff to put their shirts over whatever they were wearing, then find a partner. The excitement was great. Then we got serious, and I had each staff member explain why they had picked their word. I had them pick another partner and do the same. The excitement steadily decreased but the seriousness increased. We did this again and again until I felt everyone looked comfortable explaining the power behind their word to others.
If you work in education, you know that wearing jeans is a big deal. It makes a difference to many… such a difference that when they get to wear jeans (something more comfortable/casual) to work, it’s a notably better day. I don’t care for them at work, but I never liked being the dress police. I had an understanding with my staff that they should wear jeans when they felt like they needed to wear jeans. My only criteria were that they looked professional; no holes, no faded designs allowed. So, I told them they could wear jeans anytime they wore this shirt. It was an Oprah moment again! It seemed like confetti was falling from the ceiling and music was blaring. Everyone was so happy. But I explained to them there was one catch: while wearing their shirt, if a student asked them about it, they would have to stop and explain why they chose that word for the student’s life. The confetti stopped dropping and there was no music. The staff immediately began thinking about this catch.
We had fostered such great conversations that this catch was immediately understood, and teachers almost started crying. I explained that it is far different to explain to a PreK bilingual student vs a 5th grade native English-speaking student. Those are two different conversations! I could see the deep thinking going on and it was amazing! As a leader, this is what you hope for from your staff. Not only were the conversations about the meanings behind the words a joy to witness, but we were about to take this project to the next level.
The next morning, I went on our video announcements wearing my Relentless shirt. I explained to my students the whole thing. I believed in my students. They were becoming hungry for learning, and I felt they would not necessarily understand the depth of this initially, but they were beginning to trust me and if I said I needed them to do something, they were willing to do it. I wanted them to stop every staff member they could find and ask them about their word…and they did.
It was AMAZING to see day after day! Staff and students talking. Listening. Sharing. Maintaining eye contact. Hugging. Talk about something to enhance a positive culture!
As always, I involved my entire staff to include cafeteria workers, custodians, and office staff. Have you ever seen your head custodian stopped in the hallway or in the cafeteria by a student to have a conversation? I have! Repeatedly! We had back-ups in the cafeteria line because of conversations (we finally had to adjust that whole thing).
I had my bus drivers asking for shirts. I had our district maintenance workers wanting to buy shirts. All of my district support personnel wanted shirts (and wanted to be on my campus more) so that they could participate in our Walzem Words initiative, especially those who had supported this campus in the past and understood the impact this could have on such historically underserved students.
I will never know the full impact of this effort, but I am confident it will make a long-term effect. However, the short-term effect I had the privilege of witnessing was worth every penny and every minute we put into it. One word at a time my staff spoke to my students; connected with my students; felt a deeper commitment to my students and what they deserved from us. I can tell you that from this effort on, we made better decisions for these students and the community. If we could make THIS big of a difference with a few words, just think what kind of impact we could make if we took a little more time and intention planning engaging lessons, searching for better quality resources to teach with, or creating another opportunity to affect our students’ lives long-term.
One word at a time!