Ask Better Questions

By: Houston Kraft

In a time when we are connected digitally, we are also more isolated than ever. We must continue to teach, explicitly, the skills of building meaningful relationships. One of the most foundational skills of interpersonal relationships is asking great questions.

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In working with over 500 schools across the country, I have noticed that when I ask students to engage in conversation with a partner they don’t know that well, there seems to be an immediate spike in sweat and discomfort in the room. It’s not that kids don’t want to be connected to one another - it’s that they don’t know how to do it.

Consider this: most of the way we communicate today via phone is short, shallow, and sent at our leisure. Text messages, tweets, snapchats. Perhaps even more importantly, education for many today has become transactional - meaning most students identify getting good grades as more important than the experience of learning.

The byproduct? When I ask students to talk about any given prompt, Partner 1 shares and then Partner 2 shares and then they stand awkwardly looking at the ceiling or their phone or their neighbor. Why? Because the “assignment” I gave them was over.

So, I dive right in and talk about how conversation and connection isn’t transactional! That, no matter what question I asked and when you each finished answering it, there is ALWAYS more to learn about a person and we must practice and cultivate curiosity in the stories of others.

I’ve started to compile some meaningful questions to help young people practice the art of great question asking. What if, at the beginning of each class, you spent the first 2-3 minutes having students engage each other in great conversation to prime the pump for the learning to come? You build relationships in your class AND you get their brains primed for what comes next.

Here’s the list. Obviously, some of these questions are meant for smaller groups, groups that have established trust, or a different setting than your classroom:

Economic Class Background;

  1. Growing up, did you feel like you had equal access to the things you wanted as the people around you?

  2. The people you live with - what do they do for work?

  3. Do you believe that money is more often helpful or more often hurtful? What is your personal relationship to money?

  4. Have you ever saved up for something you really wanted? What was it? How long did it take until you got it?

  5. If you had unlimited money, what would you want to buy first?

Psychological Maturity;

  1. What is the thing that is irresistible to you? What thing tests your willpower?

  2. What do you think your role at school is? What do you think your role at home is?

  3. How do you decide who your friends are? What are the qualities, to you, of a great friend?

  4. How do you process strong emotions? Do you talk to a close friend or family member? Do you tend to bottle them up? Do you channel them in other ways?

Ethical/Racial Identity;

  1. What is one thing you love about your culture or ethnicity? What is one thing that makes you feel trapped by your culture or ethnicity?

  2. Tell me about a time where you felt judged or discriminated against because of the color of your skin or the cultural background you come from?

  3. How do you honor your heritage? Is there anything you do that is counter-cultural for your background?

Chronological/Developmental Challenges;

  1. Tell me about your earliest, most vivid memory of being a kid.

  2. What has been the biggest hurdle or challenge you’ve overcome to become the person you are today?

  3. What period of your life have you grown the most in? How did you grow or what did you learn?

  4. Share with me the 3 things, moments, memories, or experiences that stand out most in your life so far.

Trauma and other Threats to Well Being;

  1. Tell me about a time in your life where you felt really scared.

  2. How do you define the difference between pain and suffering?

  3. What helps you heal through pain or find hope when you are suffering?

  4. Tell me about a time when you had to forgive someone (or yourself) for something that they did.

Family Background and History;

  1. Who do you consider to be family in your life?

  2. What is your favorite family tradition?

  3. Tell me about a memory that makes you laugh when you think about a member of your family.

  4. Who in your family has been the most positive influence in your life and why?

  5. What are or what do you want to be the 3 most important elements of being a part of your family?

Unique Physical Characteristics;

  1. What makes you entirely unique - different, you believe, than anyone else in the world?

  2. What part of your body makes you feel most confident? Most unconfident?

  3. How does your physical self affect your mental self and vice versa?

  4. How do you define beauty? How does the world define beauty? What is an important difference you want people to understand between those two?

  5. What is one weird thing you can do with your body?

Location of Residence and Languages Differences;

  1. Where do you feel most at home?

  2. How often have you moved in your life? Which time was the hardest and why?

  3. What physical location makes you feel the most comfortable? Most uncomfortable?

  4. What things are a part of the Universal Language to you?

  5. How does the way you speak affect the way you are perceived?

Other meaningful questions to grow in understanding:

  1. What does a perfect day look like to you?

  2. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

  3. If you could witness any event of the past, present, or future, what would it be?

  4. What would you do differently if you knew that no one was judging you?

  5. What are the things that stand between you and complete happiness?

  6. How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

  7. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

  8. If you could ask a single person one question, and they had to answer truthfully, who and what would you ask?

  9. What do you “owe” yourself?

  10. Whose life have you had the greatest impact on?

  11. What do you like most about yourself? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

  12. Who do you most admire or look up to and why?

  13. What frustrates you about the world? What is the greatest challenge we face?

  14. What do you feel is your mission or purpose in life?

  15. Where do you feel the most safe? Why?

  16. What is the most common thing you feel judged for? How do you feel you are perceived and what feels right or not right about that?

  17. What is your greatest fear? How does it shape you? Why are you afraid of it?

  18. What brings you the greatest happiness? How often do you pursue it? What gets in the way of it?

  19. If you could change one thing about your life so far, what would it be?

  20. What challenge holds you back currently and how do you want to conquer it?

  21. What is your definition of love? How have you come to that conclusion? When do you feel the most loved?

  22. If you could travel for one month with one person - where would you go and with who? Why?

  23. What is the most important advice anyone has ever given you? What is the most important advice you have to give?

  24. What are the words or ideas that you live by? How often do you challenge or reflect on them?

  25. Talk about a time when you’ve treated someone really poorly. Talk about a time when you’ve treated someone really kindly.

  26. What has been the hardest thing you’ve dealt with with your friends? With your family?

  27. How do you want to change your school? Your community? Your world?

  28. If you could snuggle with any cartoon character, who would it be and why?

  29. If you could be related to any celebrity or historical figure, who would you want to be related to and how? Why?

  30. What is your favorite sound? Your favorite taste? Your favorite sight?

Let’s keep asking our students to practice the skills that will shape their life and learning for the better!

The Earned Privilege of Teaching

Written By: Bryan Slater, Sumner High School

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We’re seeing some pretty dramatic transformations taking place in the 21st century classroom. Many districts are employing 1:1 initiatives where every student, instead of receiving 6+ textbooks to lug around every day, receives a laptop or Chromebook. Our students are glued to their world, which happens to be the size of their palm and doesn’t require a dial-up modem and America Online. Boys don’t have to muster up the courage to call their crush, knowing full-well that dad might be the one to answer the only phone in the house; the one in the kitchen with the 30 foot cord that’s a tangled mess. This has in many cases, revolutionized the classroom. Many students use their district-issued laptops to fact-check you as a teacher, on-the-fly, simply by doing a quick Google search. Anyone who currently teaches History can relate to the dreaded hand-raise by Josh in the middle of a lesson followed by the “Uh… Mr. Slater… it says here on Google that…”

And this is a good thing.

Teaching today is different than it was just a few years ago. Today’s generation of students require teachers to earn the privilege of teaching; it’s not automatic anymore. Arguably, it has never been automatic.

And this is a good thing.

Now before I get into depth on this topic, I think it’s important to first establish a central tenet to this essay: teachers must earn the privilege of teaching. I don’t mean this in the literal sense of earning a college degree which allows you to teach - I mean this in the sense of “influence.” Teachers must first earn the privilege of influencing their students which will in turn allow them to teach their content, and perhaps impact the lives of the children they influence in other positive ways as well.

Let’s break this down and get into why I would argue that this approach by students to require their teachers to earn the privilege of influence and ultimately the privilege of "teaching" is not just reasonable (I mean that literally - “able to be reasoned” using logic) but also in accordance with the principles of Servant Leadership. You may have read my previous blog post titled The Duty of First… in which I argued that teachers and other leaders have the duty of being the first actor when it comes to showing respect and the seven other essentials. To dig deeper into how the privilege of teaching goes hand-in-hand with the Duty of Firsts, let’s look at the rationale behind why today’s students have it “right” when it comes to requiring teachers to earn the privilege of teaching.

When looking at privilege, I think we can agree that privilege is something that all people do not have access to. It’s special, in other words. You can really only get privilege in three ways: buying your way into it, inheriting your way into it, or earning your way into it. Consider this: what’s the point of knowing what you know, if those you are teaching have not given you the privilege of teaching them what you know?

Look back at your own generation - broken homes, divided families, poverty, etc. - you’ll see that many of our students are coming from similar homes where the practice of showing kindness, respect, forgiveness, and the other essentials is just not employed on a daily basis. Therefore when a child gets to school and sees that piece of paper on your wall that says you graduated from college and are certified to teach children, all they may see is a piece of paper. That’s it. “Nice work. You graduated from college. Yet there you are, standing there proudly, expecting a cookie and some respect from me as a result? Nope… not today. You gotta earn it.” This developing adolescent consciousness is real; students today really think these things and the faster you accept this, the faster you will earn the privilege of teaching those who think these things. The teachers who stand before a group of students and expect the privilege of teaching without earning it first are confusing what they have accomplished in their lives with the earning of the privilege to teach.

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To help illustrate this, let’s consider a stepfather-stepson relationship. Has an individual who has earned the title of “husband” also earned the role of “father” in the lives of his stepchildren? It all depends, right? It depends on whether the children decide to give him the privilege of being their father. It’s not their mother’s choice, it’s not their stepfather’s choice, it’s the stepfather’s job to earn the privilege of being called “dad.” Maybe he’ll be successful, maybe he won’t be.

Teaching is very similar to the aforementioned scenario. Earning a college degree that entitles you to talk in a classroom is not the same as earning the privilege of teaching. Every student who sits before you has the authority, and the decision, to grant you that privilege. This means you have to earn it. Earning it requires you to act on the Duty of Firsts.

I imagine you might be thinking at this point, “This is wrong. I disagree… I think students should be obliged to show me respect even if I haven’t earned it yet.” But in this retort, I believe you are confusing my position - a teacher has to *earn* the privilege of teaching their students - with the concept of being *worthy* of earning the privilege to teach. Those are not the same things. I tell my students on day one, “Perhaps I have done nothing to earn your respect; but it is unlikely -barring some outside-the-classroom interaction - that I have done anything yet to lose it, either.” In other words, “Don’t confuse my self-imposed necessity of earning your respect as some sort of statement of me not being worthy of it.” To be clear, the intent behind this approach is not to communicate to my students, “You have free rein to abuse me until I’ve earned the privilege of teaching you.”

My point is this: the students who sit before you daily have the authority to give you the privilege to be their “teacher.” It’s not automatic anymore, and arguably, it’s never been automatic. I imagine you could identify right now which teachers you assigned that privilege to and which teachers never earned that privilege in your life. So what’s the hold up? Tell your students you are aware that you have to earn the privilege of influencing them and that it’s an absolute honor to even have the opportunity to earn their respect. Tell them you believe you are worthy of their respect anyway because they *are* worthy, but tell them every day that you’re going to work hard to earn it. Let them know that you are aware of the fact that once you’ve earned the privilege, you are capable of losing it and that if you do lose it, you’d appreciate the opportunity to earn it back. The duty of firsts requires you to be the first actor if you lose the respect of your students, and I imagine if you go all-in with me on acting on the practice of showing it, you’ll find yourself doing a lot more teaching and a lot less talking in your classroom.

And this is a good thing.


About the Author: Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has spent the last 15 years teaching high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics and Theory of Knowledge to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sumner High School. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. He believes the Eight Essentials are the key to those relationships and works hard to challenge his fellow colleagues and students to think about how they are creating their "Character Brand" as teachers and learners through the 1,000's of choices they make each day. 

Measuring the Impact of Character and Relationship Building on School Spirit

Written By: Enterprise Middle School 

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What does SCHOOL SPIRIT have to do with this? While the traditional definition of school spirit falls flat and may only reach 10% of your school, creating a community where everyone belongs, seems like a sure-fire way to positively impact student learning through a new vision of school spirit.  School Spirit occurs when students and educators both WANT to come to school! When everyone wants to be at school, grades/attendance go up and bad behavior goes down.  This makes sense because humans need all of the following: purpose, validation, respect, safety, and trust.  If both students and staff want to come to school then these basic human conditions must be being met.

How would Character and Relationship Building impact someone’s desire to come to school?  That’s easy!  When people feel connected to something bigger than themselves they figure out “why” they come to school.  Simon Sinek taught us that when we understand our “why” we get excited to come to work or school.  The why-focused school community begins having a passion for learning, interacting with one another, and making a better school.  

Ok, school spirit might be a great gauge of a school’s work on Character and Relationship Building but how the heck do you measure it?  The same way you measure everything else in schools with hard data from grades, attendance, discipline, and test scores.  It’s no secret that students who have high social-emotional learning going on, have better hard data.  By understanding their “why” and having human conditions met, productivity increases all over campus.  Educators work harder and students accomplish greater success in these positive learning environments.  AND at EMS we’ve seen improvements across the board in these hard data measures.  But, if you’re like us, these cold, impersonal snapshots of school spirit leave you wanting more.  So, here’s a few recent anecdotal measures that matter to us on the impact of Character and Relationship Building on School Spirit:

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  • Following a CharacterStrong Assembly one girl wrote a note of forgiveness to another girl.  Next day, the other girl reciprocated!
  • After receiving a CharacterStrong Award for Commitment, a girl posted a picture of the certificate and explained how proud she was for winning the award.  She went on to post that her elementary teachers had always told her she had dyslexia and that she felt she was dumb.  “This is the first teacher to believe in me!”
  • A high poverty, low academic skilled student reported that her band teacher had pointed out her “technique” and called it “outstanding” in front of the entire class.  She was asked to demonstrate her “finger positions” and detail it for her classmates.  She was overwhelmed by this experience saying: I’m not used to being told that I’m OUTSTANDING or treated like a leader!”
  • During a CharacterStrong lesson two girls became emotional as they detail who/why the person they looked up to MOST in the world was the other girl.  Despite a room full of squirrelly boys and girls you could hear a pin drop as everyone respected the two girls moment.  The Safe, Respected, Relationship-Building Culture that the teacher had created was Magical!
  • A local news reporter came to our school to do a 45 minute interview and get some footage for an anti-bullying piece she was doing.  She ended up spending nearly 3 hours.  Near the end of the interview, the principal, reporter and I were sitting wrapping things up when the reporter began to cry.  She explained that she’s overwhelmed with emotions about all the amazing things we’re doing with our school culture.  “Why isn’t EVERY school doing these things?”  “Why wasn’t it like this when I was in school?”

These are just a few of the anecdotes that we’re being flooded with since jumping into CharacterStrong.  They’re IMPACTFUL to us because they conjure up real students/staff who are being positively impacted by Character Education and Relationship Building.  All of these positive moments are enhancing School Spirit and in turn Learning!  


About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 

Follow them on Twitter @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emsleadership and @emscounseling to see the incredible things happening at their school.

4 Steps to Implement an SEL Curriculum Building-Wide

Written By: Enterprise Middle School

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Before trying to implement any new idea or thing in a school, a TEAM must be created to roll out the new program.  Picking the team is an essential part of the process.  Team members should have a growth mindset, be highly influential educators, and open to new ideas.  Ideally, a cross mix of individuals who can infuse their positive energy into some new direction.  Often times, schools make the mistake of selecting educators who are stuck in their ways and may need some fresh ideas or thoughts.  The thinking being that this new program will light a fire with these folks.  However, these educators tend to love or hate whatever the new thing is.  Teams with close minded folks tend not to inspire other educators to jump on board.  Other times, schools open team membership up to committees of interested people.  These committees have all the passion but none of the school influence to lead the new program into sustainability.  These self-selected teams can be highly effective AFTER a building influence team has begun the early implementation process.  

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Once a capable team is created, the team must focus on TRAINING.  Training must be formal and informal in nature.  Professional Development allows this group of people to become the core support for the rest of the school.  As questions and opportunities arise within the program’s early implementation, this team will be equipped to lead the way.  Training has 3 phases: Initial Team Training, Initial Entire Staff Training, and Ongoing Training.  The team gets up to speed and then trains the entire staff (including paraprofessionals, secretaries, itinerants, etc).  Lastly, schools must offer small doses of ongoing training through staff meetings, book studies, emails, etc.  

Next up is PLANNING.  The team must make decisions on how things will all fit together.  Some of the key items on the agenda include: Themes, Assemblies, Staff meetings, who/how Advisory lessons are taught, and how will teachers be supported.  These teams must build in ways of celebrating successes of the program; both student and adult, AND how these successes will be communicated with parents/families.  Lastly, effective teams plan regular check-ins and identify how they’ll gauge success of the new program; both with real data and anecdotal.

ACCOUNTABILITY is the final step in implementing a building-wide SEL program.  If your team did their homework, then you’ve chosen an exceptional program which is both fresh and engaging for students/staff.  However, every school has a need to make sure all staff are on track.  A highly effective method that we’ve used is to get into classrooms every Friday during Advisory time.  During this time, the office team engages with students, offers support, and take pictures/videos to share out.  We also send highlights of amazing moments from these observations through emails, social media, and/or google classroom.  By focusing on outstanding positive teaching and publicly recognizing educators, we’re able to encourage the types of relationship-focused work that’s a game changer in schools.  The TEAM is also in the perfect position to coach, support, and/or have difficult feedback conversations with staff members who are not delivering their best efforts with the new program.  

By establishing a TEAM of highly influential, TRAINED educators, schools are able to PLAN for the dynamic new SEL program all while holding each other ACCOUNTABLE!


About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 

Follow them on Twitter @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emsleadership and @emscounseling to see the incredible things happening at their school.

The Duty of First...

Written By: Bryan Slater, Sumner High School

Everyone knows you must give respect in order to get respect. This raises a very important, and yet often overlooked question: who has the duty of giving it first?

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As a servant leader, you have the duty of giving first patience, kindness, honesty, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, humility, and commitment. If you’re walking around your classroom or workplace expecting your subordinates to show you respect first, you’re simply not leading. So what does the “duty of first” look like?

The Duty of First Patience:

Leadership is all about influence and influence is all about relationships. Every action you take as a leader will do one of three things: increase your influence, maintain your influence, or reduce your influence in the relationship. Therefore, when you demonstrate patience in your relationships by choosing to listen first it can only follow that you will, at a minimum, maintain your influence in your relationships. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by choosing to listen first? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first patience in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to listen first before acting.

The Duty of First Kindness:

Kindness is likely the most powerful way of showing your students or employees that they matter to you. Imagine all of the possible love languages out there that tie directly to kindness: gift-giving, acts of service, words of affirmation, etc.. It’s a guarantee those you are leading feel loved whenever their respective leader speaks their language; therefore you have the duty as the leader to show them first kindness. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by choosing to be kind? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first kindness in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to show kindness to others while leading them.

The Duty of First Honesty:

If you want those you lead to be honest with you, then you must show them honesty first. This essential in leadership is very challenging but also one of the most rewarding. When leaders demonstrate honesty, they are likely also demonstrating humility at the same time. If those you are leading see you are willing to own your own mistakes and take responsibility when you fail, then they are going to be a lot more willing to be vulnerable themselves and own their mistakes. It’s very important as a leader that you show forgiveness when those around you show honesty. Think about it; how many times has someone lost long term influence in your life by choosing to be honest? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first honesty in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to be honest over being dishonest with others while leading them.

The Duty of First Respect:

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The Golden Rule. You are the first actor. Treat others as you wish to be treated, but you must be the first to do the “treating.” Respect is the most commonly misunderstood term in leadership. So many leaders believe they are “owed” respect based on the things they’ve done to earn the position of “leader” in their workplace. The issue here is that respect is not “owed”, it is “earned.” What’s more, once you’ve earned respect from those you lead, it is not permanent. Don’t get it confused: you are absolutely worthy of being treated with respect. But so are those you lead. As a matter of fact, they are worthy of your respect before they’ve even shown you any. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by choosing to show you respect? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first respect in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to give respect before receiving respect from others while leading them.

The Duty of First Selflessness:

What does it mean to be selfless? Seems pretty easy right: putting others before yourself. When leading others by serving others, you are putting their needs ahead of your own. The challenge here is putting their needs ahead of your own and still getting your own job done. It might seem counter-intuitive to sacrifice your own performance so that your employees can do their job but what you’ll find is by choosing selflessness over selfishness, the amount of time those you are leading will spend helping you in return will pick up the slack. AND, by serving you in return, those you are leading will increase their influence in your life making the workplace a much more respectful place to be. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by choosing to be selfless? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first selflessness in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to be selfless over being selfish while leading them.

The Duty of First Forgiveness:

Honestly, this could also be the duty of first apology. But nonetheless, there will be times when you fail as a leader. There will also be times when those you are leading will fail. When they do, it’s critical that you be the first to forgive them for whatever they failed at. Approaching those you are leading with grace will create a workplace where people don’t want to disappoint, as opposed to a workplace where people don’t want to get in trouble. The difference there might sound pretty miniscule, but harken back to the days when someone you looked up to told you they were disappointed in you. Remember that feeling? It was far worse than the feeling you got when you messed up but didn’t really care about disappointing the person. Disappointment can only be felt by those who care about doing the disappointing; in other words, you can only disappoint someone who you have earned influence in the life of. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by choosing to forgive you? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first forgiveness in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to forgive over harboring a grudge while leading them.

The Duty of First Humility:

As mentioned above, it’s critical as a servant leader to be the first to own your own mistakes. There is going to be failure and if those you lead know that you are not perfect, they will likely treat you with kindness, patience, and forgiveness when you fail. But that can only happen if you are humble enough to admit your shortcomings. Beyond admitting failure, it’s important that you understand that you are entitled to feel proud of the accomplishments you have earned as a leader in the workplace. Celebrating those accomplishments while acknowledging you could not have accomplished those things without those who choose to support you is selfish and arrogant. People don’t follow people they don’t like and often times the reason they don’t like someone is because of their arrogance. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by showing humility? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first humility in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to be humble while leading them.

The Duty of First Commitment:

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Why would anyone follow someone who was not committed to the task they are being told to accomplish by the person leading them? They wouldn’t. Therefore, it must follow that the leader must be the first to show commitment to the cause they are asking those they lead, to accomplish. Think about it; how many times has someone lost influence in your life by showing commitment to the things you deem important? That number is likely very small. You have the duty of showing first commitment in your relationships and you will likely see your influence increase the more you choose to be committed to the tasks you empower them to take on.

These are your eight duties as a servant leader in your workplace and beyond. If you choose to believe in and act on these eight duties to the best of your ability, you will find those you are leading will begin to believe that they have the duty of returning patience, kindness, honesty, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, humility, and commitment and once that happens, buckle up because you’re about to have an entire workplace filled with servant leaders! Think about the potential...


About the Author: Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has spent the last 15 years teaching high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics and Theory of Knowledge to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sumner High School. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. He believes the Eight Essentials are the key to those relationships and works hard to challenge his fellow colleagues and students to think about how they are creating their "Character Brand" as teachers and learners through the 1,000's of choices they make each day.

 

Honoring Those Who Sacrifice for Us

“To lead is to serve.”

Written By: Karl Karkainen, Enumclaw Middle School

In our classrooms, every lesson is important. The same is true with school events and activities. They are all important - otherwise we wouldn’t be doing them. Holding the door open on Friday mornings so that all students know that someone recognized they are there is important, just as student-led monthly advisory sessions on how to build a positive school community is important. However, there is one event that I distinguish in our student leadership program as one that must be treated with the highest level of respect: Veterans’ Day.

Veterans’ Day is a two-part event at Enumclaw Middle School. One day is our traditional Veterans’ Day assembly featuring student speakers, vocalists, performances by our band and opportunities for students to acknowledge veterans they have known in their families. It is a special time to reflect on what we have been given and the sacrifices that were made for it. It brings the school together knowing that so many know or have known a veteran who has served. It is a time for students to think about “sacrifice” - just about every student speaker uses that word at some point.

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Two years ago, we determined that we would love veterans to hear our performance. Realistically, we came to understand that it is challenging for many senior veterans to attend. We decided to bring our presentation to High Point Retirement Village in Enumclaw for an afternoon performance. In attendance were fourteen veterans amongst the crowd - including several in their 90s who were remembering their service as far back as World War II. Several residents were related to the visiting students.

Students had the opportunity to demonstrate the Character Strong practical skills learned in our leadership class to help make this visit successful. We had practiced what a handshake looks like - after all, first impressions matter. We had practiced what it looks like to have a conversation by looking others in the eye and spending more time on listening to others than bragging about ourselves. We had practiced how to hold a microphone and how to keep the appropriate tone in a speech. And we had learned through Character Dares the importance of writing a personal note, inspiring students to write a letter to each veteran at High Point Village.

A gentleman named Frank was in attendance when we presented at the retirement center. Frank had a big personality - he loved to laugh. But he was also sincere. One of my favorite images from that day is of Frank wiping away a tear during a speech. Afterwards, a surprised student mentioned, “The man in the front row - he was crying during my speech.”

One of my favorite moments that brings a tear to my eye every year is creating the picture slideshow featuring veterans who are related to our students. At our assembly, when a student’s relative is shown on the screen with the background music playing, I can only imagine the sense of pride felt by students as they think about the service and sacrifice of their loved one.

We also include the veterans at High Point Village in our picture slideshow.Two years ago, we had fourteen residents in the slideshow. However, it came as a surprise to me the next year when we had just ten - I was informed that four of the residents had passed away the previous year. For these four veterans, including Frank, our presentation was the last Veterans’ Day show they probably ever saw. It is our sincere hope that these senior citizens felt appreciation, respect and love - and a feeling that their world was left in good hands to these students who had so eloquently talked about the importance of service and had taken the time to individually greet them by name. This year, there will be eight veterans who will be honored. In addition, we will be recognizing widows, parents and grandparents of those who are actively serving or who have served in the past.

Every year we have visited High Point Village, a woman named Mary has been in attendance. Mary is a veteran who has worn a red hat every time I have seen her. Whenever we visit the retirement center, Mary usually asks us, shakily, “Why are you here? Why would you want to come and see me?” And I love being able to teach students how to respond to her when she asks us that question this year:  

“Ms. Mary, we are here to see you. Thank you for your service.”


About the Author: Karl Karkainen is a leadership teacher at Enumclaw Middle School in Enumclaw, WA. Karl is constantly challenging his students to be CharacterStrong by serving others in their school, home and community. Karl's students frequently publish videos showcasing how they are choosing to love others in their building, interviewing students on SEL topics and much more. Subscribe to their YouTube channel here and follow them on Twitter @emswolfie to see some of the amazing activities they are doing to serve others! 

A Relationship Tool for Any Classroom

Clock Partners

By: John Norlin

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Clock Partners is a simple and effective tool that any classroom teacher can use to immediately create four different partner pairings as well as a vehicle to promote interactions between students that you can teach relational skills to support the development of the whole child.

Time Needed: 5 minutes

Procedure:

  • Give each student a copy of a clock partner sheet.
  • Tell students that when you say “Go”, they are to move about the room and find one 12 o’clock partner, one 3 o’clock partner, one 6 o’clock partner, and one 9 o’clock partner.
  • When a student finds a partner with an open time slot, they should write that person’s name down for the identified time slot and have their new partner write their name down for the same time slot.
  • At the end of the time given to find partners, help students by asking if anyone needs a 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, or 9 o’clock partner. Help students find partners and or have a single student who is left over become your partner if needed.
  • Ask students to keep the clock partner sheet near the front of their binder or notebook for quick reference throughout the semester.
  • During any class lesson you can say, “Find your 6 o’clock partner or 9 o’clock partner” to immediately have students move and interact.

By creating a tool that you can quickly and easily have students interact with four different students you can accomplish multiple positive outcomes:

  1. Having students stand up and move, especially after lunch, increases blood flow by 11% immediately and helps keep their attention.

  2. Before having students discuss an academic question connected to your lesson, first ask students to greet each other with a proper handshake, that you have previously taught, and then ask students to do one of the following relationship building activities. This allows them to build relationships with students in their class that they may never formed before.

Relationship Building Tasks:

Ask students a “Get to Know” question to answer together before giving them the academic question to discuss. Some example questions are:

  • What is a special talent that you have or have been told that you have?
  • What is a special talent that you wish you had and why?
  • What is a highlight for you this past year?
  • What object that you have in your life is most important to you and why?
  • What relationship is most important to you in your life and why?
  • What is the best news that you could receive right now and why?
  • If you could visit any part of the world that you have not been yet, where would you choose to go and why?
  • Who is someone that you have always wanted to meet and what is one question you would ask them?
  • What are you most passionate about in life and why?
  • Ask students to share one thing that they are grateful for today.
  • Have students challenge each other to a game of best two out of three rock paper scissors and whoever loses asks a question to get to know the person that beat them.
  • Give students a mind puzzle or brain teaser that you have previously prepared and challenge them to figure out together.
  • Ask students to come up with a creative solution together to a question like, “If you could put two animals together to create a new animal, what two animals would you choose and what would the new animals name be?”

By intentionally finding ways for students to regularly interact relationally and practice even the most simple of relational skills that are so critical for them to learn, we can infuse Social Emotional Learning and Character Development into the very fabric of our school. When students get to know each other, it is harder to demonstrate negative behaviors like bullying, intimidation, and harassment. When students know each other, they are more likely to help each other when someone is in need. When students know each other, they are more likely to ask for help from their peers. When students interact with each other in a positive way, you continue to promote and create a positive school climate and culture where students and staff want to come to school and this positively impacts larger school goals around attendance, academics, and behavior.

Wildcat Nation’s 3 Keys to Building a Climate of Kindness

Written by: Enterprise Middle School Staff

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COMMUNITY directly correlates with Climate! Communities are a group of people who share an interest, action or place.  In a school community, we have the unique opportunity to share all three.

By rebranding ourselves as “Wildcat Nation” we’ve been able to focus on a shared belief and action that everyone at EMS wants to have a safe, kind school.  And this isn’t exactly a leap of faith!  Isn’t a safe, kind world what we all strive for?  At EMS, the phrase “Wildcat Nation” conjures up an image of the ideal school we’re all shooting for!  

 

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Schools that build a climate of kindness are INTENTIONAL with their effort, decisions, and actions.  At EMS, we plan and implement certain over-the-top projects which reinforce our Wildcat Nation mentality.  For instance, we’ve taken “The Golden Broom” and magnified it!  The golden broom is a way of demonstrating Service to those who Serve Us.  Essentially, we overwhelm someone with love! But at EMS, we make it a public demonstration.  Students who witness intentional acts of kindness are both moved emotionally and toward future acts of kindness.  Pay it forward, right! Also, by teasing upcoming Golden Broom surprises and/or other special projects over social media we build intentional anticipation of future positivity for students.  Students get excited over who, what, when the next kindness celebration will happen.  You can bet that when the Golden Broom or some other surprise pops up at EMS, students have their phones ready to snap pictures/videos to capture this magical moment.  Plus, they want to be involved with the next crazy over-the-top act of kindness that’s in the works….

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A Climate of Kindness IS NOT created on an Anti-Bullying day or a Friday Advisory lesson.  Why do mix-it-up days or random acts of kindness weeks fall flat or fail to sustain over time? Simple. If it’s not part of everything you do, then it’s seen as being contrived or phony!  Kindness is created by focusing SCHOOL-WIDE EVERY DAY on our meaningful theme: “What will You Do for Others Today?” This question needs to be asked of adults and students on a daily basis.  At EMS, this school-wide question shows up in staff meetings, on posters/banners, in science lessons, over e-mail, announcements , and on social media.  We have “Thank-You” boards, “Character Strong Sightings”, and a google classroom designed to highlight awesome moments at EMS!  We demonstrate our theme by welcoming and high-fiving students/parents each morning at both school entrances.  Staff wear CharacterStrong or Make Kindness Normal t-shirts every week and nominate students each month who have demonstrated one of the CharacterStrong words of the month.  And guess what those students receive? A cool certificate, peer recognition, and a kindness t-shirt which provides continued advertisement of our School-Wide Intentional Wildcat Nation Community focusing on: KINDNESS!


About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 

Follow them on Twitter @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emsleadership and @emscounseling to see the incredible things happening at their school.

 

3 Ways to Build Relationships Into Everyday Practices

We are always fighting against time. There is so much to teach young minds and so little time to fit it all in! Fortunately, weaving relationship-building into the fabric of your daily teaching practice doesn’t have to take hours of team-building activities or trust falls. Here are a few of our favorite ways that educators all across North America are weaving relationships into what they are already doing…

  1. Taking Role: A friend of ours in Texas is on a roll with her simple relationship-building technique. Before she calls out names, once or twice a week she will share a question that would have a one-word answer. As each name is called, she learns something short and simple about each of her students - a much more valuable use of time than “present” or “here” times 30! Some questions might be…

    1. What is one word to describe your weekend?

    2. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life…?

    3. Favorite movie?

    4. The name of your first pet?

    5. The TV show or book you are reading right now?

  2. Entry Task Imagery: A teacher in Washington does a Google Survey at the beginning of the year to gather some humanizing information about his students. Then, after confirming it is okay to share, he incorporates some of this information into his powerpoint slides that has the daily “Do Now.” Each day, in the upper right hand corner, he features one of the students in the class with a piece of information to deepen the classes understanding of who they show up to learn alongside each day. For example, for a whole month you might see a picture of every student’s pets and their pet names. The next month, it might be a picture of a student’s favorite place to relax.
     

  3. “What Have You Done For Others Today?”: One of our favorite math teachers in Connell, WA has an entire wall dedicated to the question that doesn’t get asked enough: “What Have You Done For Others Today?” He says that if his class ever has a few extra minutes at the end, he points to the wall and asks the room the question. In his own words, “I witness them thinking through their day trying find a point in time where they have helped others…Sometimes it turns into a classroom full of laughter, other times it turns into a more serious conversation. I never imagined such a simple quote could change the dynamics of my classroom in such a positive way.”

We don’t need a lot of time to build better communities - we just need to change the way we are using the time we already have. Share with us in the comments below your favorite way to incorporate meaningful relationships and conversations into your daily teaching practice!

If Surgeons Have to be Reminded to Wash Their Hands…

I was recently at a conference on Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) and was able to hear long-time Educational Consultant Randy Sprick present. Randy Sprick is an educational consultant and trainer in Eugene, Oregon who was the primary author of Safe and Civil Schools. I was inspired by Randy’s wealth of knowledge and ability to give practical and helpful tips for teachers and administrators to implement immediately in their classroom and schools.

 
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One analogy that Randy provided really stuck with me. He mentioned how hospitals each year have to find new and creative ways to remind surgeons to wash their hands. The studies show that if hospitals do not regularly remind doctors to wash their hands, only approximately 50% would do so. We also know that if surgeons don’t wash their hands, the chance for infection and death increase dramatically for that patient. If surgeons have to be reminded to wash their hands, we definitely need to remind ourselves of the importance to intentionally build our character. We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught and so do our students.

If surgeons have to be reminded to wash their hands, we definitely need to remind ourselves of the importance to intentionally build our character. We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught and so do our students.

We know from the research of psychologist, Angela Duckworth, that it is actually character traits like grit and self-control that are higher indicators of success than a student’s grade point average, IQ, or SAT score. We need to teach both academics and character to our students. We need to find ways to remind them daily about what good character looks like. At CharacterStrong it is a core belief that students want to do good, they just don’t always know what good looks like.

 
 

To do this we need to provide training, ideas, and most importantly a solid example of what strong character looks like. We need to present our students with a consistent and predictable environment that they can count on. We need to grant teachers the training needed to be successful in building positive relationships and managing a classroom in a proactive way, since so much of our time is spent reacting. Many schools measure the climate and culture of a building using questions about a student's feeling of whether there is at least one caring adult in the school that believes in them. What is your school doing to intentionally teach the whole child? What are you doing?

In order to develop normally, a child requires activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one, first, last, and always. -Urie Bronfenbrenner Co-founder of Head Start

To learn more about how to intentionally teach, reinforce and model strong character traits visit www.characterstrong.com/educators to learn more about our CharacterStrong Educator Trainings.

Character Day 2017

Today is a day we are excited to celebrate as people all over the globe will be participating in #CharacterDay2017 created by Let it Ripple. The goal of Character Day is to spend time within your classroom, school, home...really anywhere, discussing what it looks like to focus on improving one’s character. Let it Ripple has quite a few free resources, including this great video called “The Science of Character” that you can show in your classes today. The video points out what we know to be true, that if you focus on character traits and intentionally look at how you can improve them, an individual can strengthen their character thus improving their own lives, but those around them as well.

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The Journal [Blog Post]

At Arapahoe High School in Colorado, they refuse to be defined by a tragedy. In 2013, a school shooting left one girl, Claire Davis, dead and a school in shock. Days later, the Davis’ family spoke to the school and said they forgave the boy and that the school must pursue Love - not bitterness or hate or anger...

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The Apology [Blog Post]

It’s pretty common, especially in a larger school, that there will be someone in the audience at an assembly that doesn’t want to pay attention. Usually, a dramatic pause or a carefully placed moment of direct eye contact (aka the “Teacher Look”) will remind the student that they can still be respectful whilst uninterested. More rare is the reoccurring pain in the butt...

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How Teaching Servant-Leadership and Character Impacted One School

There are few people in this world who will disagree with you when you ask them if we should be teaching our students how to be more kind, patient, committed or humble, but it’s not everyday that you come across a school that builds their master schedule with one teacher whose full-time job is to teach students what solid character looks like. Inglewood Middle School is doing just that and has data to support the fact that it is changing their school’s climate and culture for the better and has seen a decrease in out of school suspensions by 90% since emphasizing the importance of teaching character-development during the school day.

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5 Success Tips for Strengthening Your Student Leadership Team

Being a student activities coordinator is challenging. But even more challenging is being a student activities coordinator for over a decade. You really have to be in touch with your why to make it through the busy Fall when you are working 80+ hour weeks, the winters where you come to work in the dark and leave in the dark, and the long springs where you are doing everything possible to motivate your student leaders to the very last day to fight back that ever present “senioritis”.

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5 Sentences Your Students Need to Hear From You

1. “I think you’d be good at it.”

In close to 20 years of working with a state student leadership program, I can tell you that the line I hear more than any other on why a student decided to step up and have the courage to get involved or run for office is, “I think you’d be good at it.” There is something about this simple, yet powerful statement that causes people to act and push their comfort zones. Maybe it has something to do with meeting the basic human need that all people have, which is to be paid attention to and appreciated.

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