Sharing our stories of positive and supportive relationships and healthy school culture
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” –Charles R. Swindoll
We all have the power to live happier lives and help other school leaders, educators, and students to do the same. It starts with the decision to shift our mindset to focus on the positive in our lives and schools. People who are positive have more success, are happier, and have more energy. Research proves this.
According to Mayo Clinic, choosing to be positive leads to better health, less stress, and more coping skills. Seppala and Cameron (2015) add that positivity leads to productivity, collective efficacy, higher trust, and better attendance, which leads to better staff and students! As school officials, we have the power to write the story. Dr. John Draper speaks about being the positive ambassadors of schools and to stop “belly aching” because as educators “if we talk negatively about them [our schools]…, we give permission for everyone else to badmouth us [education].” Now when faced with difficult and unprecedented times, finding the good is even more important.
Telling the Story
How do we change the story? How do we work to bring back respect to the profession and create a healthier school and community climate? The research supports the work of positive relationships and practices. Dr. John Gottman coined the “magic ratio” over two decades ago in relationship research. He and the Gottman Institute argue that to maintain healthy relationships, we need to have five positive interactions or feelings to offset every one negative interaction or feeling.
This extends beyond romantic partnerships. In addition, with the evolution of social media and the powerful reach it can have, especially when it is in the negative light, it can take three times the positives to undo most harmful posts (15:1). Understanding this, the first step is to choose positivity and a positive mindset, but the immediate next step is to become a positive ambassador and chief storyteller of our schools. If we are not sharing our stories, others will, and assumptions will be made.
Experts who are in current practice of this are Tony Sinais and Joseph Sanfelippo. Their book The Power of Branding, podcasts, and Twitter feeds are great examples of how this can be done.
To become a positive chief storyteller, we must first keep ourselves accountable with a positive mindset as well as increase our self-awareness and focus on positive actions. Then, we need to keep our school teams accountable. We stop the negative and support the positive. We demonstrate appreciation of others and call out negativity by countering and controlling it. Once we have the mind shift, we start to tell our stories. We make the walls around our schools transparent; we make learning visible; and we share the wonderful practices and relationships that we foster.
To do this, we must better understand where to reach our stakeholders. For Milan Middle School, our parents are on Facebook and our students are on Instagram, so we use these media outlets, and we link our Twitter feeds accordingly. Wakelet.com is a great tool to make collections to share, and Hootsuite can assist with one post reaching several outlets. Over the spring, I even resorted to TikTok to connect with students and encourage them to keep up with their work. Check out these tools to save time and to have more reach.
In addition, we like to invite our parents to the school for learning tours. Tours include a presentation on goals and practices, five three-minute classroom walkthroughs, and a building tour. For more details on the tours, check out the reference below (Speakman-Spickard, 2018). After each tour, we usually have a dozen parent ambassadors share positive stories. While buildings are closed to parents right now, we cannot wait to open them back up for tours again when it is safe to do so.
Once we have our outlets for communication, a hashtag can help with efficiency and branding. Choose one that is short, easy, represents the school/district, and has passed the test. Search it to make sure it’s not already being used or used in a negative light. Using a hashtag gives more reach and can be used by all school stakeholders. Add the hashtag to all communication and posts. To make sure we have positive happenings to post, we need to do more than just have a positive mindset, set an example, and hold people accountable to it. We also need to foster a positive environment.
In the remote and virtual environment we are faced with during COVID-19, communication and social media are ways to help keep students and families connected to not only their learning but to meet their social needs as well. Virtual spirit days, video conferencing, and audio/video messages are essential to keeping families connected to school and sharing the story.
Fostering a Positive Environment
Incorporating team building in our schools leads to a collective, connected, and positive environment. Team building needs to be present for all school stakeholders. Admin teams need to do this for themselves and their staff members, and teachers need to do this for their students. We need to make staff meetings and back-to-school meetings fun and meaningful and make sure they build community. Check out “Creating Cohesive Cultures: Big 10+ Ideas” workshop slides with examples and links to team building activities such as the marshmallow challenge, balloon raffle, scavenger hunts, #whyIteach, Twitter challenge, escape room, “Chopped” for educators, solution room, and more (Spickard, 2018).
Even short monthly meetings can incorporate the use of protocols to foster collaboration. One of my all-time favorite resources is Gregory and Kuzmich’s (2007) Teacher Teams That Get Results: 61 Strategies for Sustaining and Renewing Professional Learning Communities, which categorizes strategies by purpose. The best thing about this resource is that once you share the activities with staff, the teachers can use them in the classroom. In addition to team building, demonstrating appreciation for staff through a successory program (see resource in references: Spickard, 2014), shoutout walls, awards, luncheons, treats etc. will support a positive climate for staff. In addition to fostering a positive environment for staff, we need to focus on the students.
Using Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is a great means to support positivity with students. Setting expectations, holding students accountable, and rewarding them for good behavior creates the importance of good and positive behaviors. Incorporating character education or using it as the foundation is key to an environment that supports each other. Classroom meetings, restorative circles, reflection centers, and target time are all ways to support a community of kindness and care.
At Milan Middle School, we teach the whole child and believe in student recognition for not just academics but also character. Students of the month are based on character pillars. We also do #GoodNewsCalloftheDay and positive postcards home. In addition to PBIS and recognition, we think it is vital to do team building. We try to designate at least one day a week to grade-level team building games and activities, and this year we are going to do mixed grade teams to resemble “houses” to foster peer mentoring on a larger scale.
Team building through leadership and mentoring groups is already happening on a smaller scale through student council and advisory class representatives, NJHS and peer tutoring, and other groups such as cybersafety, peer mediators, and SNAP (Students Needing Accepting Peers).
Last spring and this fall we continue to think outside the box to connect students and foster a positive environment. Even for our full virtual students, we continue to have power time and build a network of support. We still meet virtually as a staff and work together to continue to support our students. Students can sign up for social-emotional support and participate in activities virtually.
Fostering a positive and supportive environment and having a story to tell cannot be done alone or in isolation. Having all staff on board and building capacity with students, parents, and community members will be key in spreading the word. Using the hashtag makes it possible for any member to share school happenings. One of my favorite ways to build social media capacity with staff is to use Mike Domagowski’s created “Twitter Challenge,” which not only adds people to sharing the message and creates exposure, but it is a great way to team build with staff. Creating a task force composed of staff, students, and parent ambassadors is also a way to share the responsibility of telling the story. Having someone or a group of people responsible for every event—taking pictures, creating posts, and summarizing it—helps make the invisible visible to parents and the community. Using existing journalism or yearbook classes/clubs, or creating new ones, helps to empower students to be a part of the mission to spread the positive word. Student council members, class reporters, and PR appointees can add weekly postings to their list of duties.
We all have the power to help evolve the climate of education and the culture of our schools. Try a book study of one of John Gordon’s books (The Energy Bus, The No Complaining Rule, and The Power of a Positive Team are a few of my favorites.) If you have some difficult staff or students, read Allyson Apsey’s Through the Lens of Serendipity, which reviews Glasser’s five basic needs through story and experiences. If you are looking for a good motivational read, try Ryan Sheehy’s book Be the One for Kids: You Have the Power to Change the Life of a Child. Each of these books has helped me keep my eye and heart on positivity.
This is not to sugarcoat the work, difficulty, and mental health issues we have been faced with over the past nine months. It’s about coming together and making the best with the cards that have been dealt. It all starts with one: me…you. We can build a team from there. We can work together to help others see all the wonderful things we are doing to support our students and their learning. Educators are working harder than ever to connect, educate, and care for our students. Don’t be shy about it: shout it out, share it, and spark others to do the same.
Draper, J. (2011). Stop the negative. Share the positive [Video]. http://www.johndraper.org
Gottman, J. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. W.W. Norton & Co.
Gregory, G. H., & Kuzmich, L. (2007). Teacher teams that get results: 61 strategies for sustaining and renewing professional learning communities. Corwin.
Mayo Clinic. (2017). Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950
Seppala, E., & Cameron, K. (2015). Proof that positive work cultures are more productive. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive
Speakman-Spickard, S. (2018). Take parents on a tour. Principal, 98(1), 60.
Spickard, S. (2018). Creating cohesive cultures: Big 10+ ideas. https://sites.google.com/view/dr-shanna-spickard
Spickard, S. (2014). Starting a positivity (successory) program. http://sspickard.blogspot.com/2014/03/starting-positivity-successory-program.html
Shanna R. Speakman-Spickard, Ed.D. is principal of Milan Middle School in Milan, Michigan. She has been a middle level administrator for 14 years and has more than 20 years of experience in education. She is a nationally certified principal mentor, education leadership graduate instructor, and a leader, speaker, and advocate for the state and national K-8 associations NAESP and MEMSPA.
Published in AMLE Newsletter, November 2020.