Podcast S1. Ep.13: Calling A School-Wide Press Conference - Brandon Bakke

Brandon Bakke has spent the last 23 year in education, a career that has has spanned five different high schools in two different states. He taught history, government and coached basketball for the first seven years before becoming an assistant principal for 15 years in Tacoma and Sumner WA. Brandon is currently in his first year as Principal of Fife High School in Washington State.

We talk with Brandon about starting out as a new principal and the unique way that he began his time at Fife High School serving his staff and students as well as a unique idea he brought to promoting his school wide culture and climate.

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Ten Tips To Tune Up Your Self-Care Alternator

Written By: Barbara Gruener

Today I’m on location in College Station, TX, at Allen Honda awaiting installation of my van’s new alternator. Full disclosure as I set up the story, it’s not that we neglected the care of our car; our issue was a recently-installed faulty alternator failing. Let’s back up to Saturday night.


We were about two hours down the road from our home to attend our son’s final Jazz Band concert; our evening was ending on such a high note, until about 20 minutes into our return trip, when the red battery light on the dashboard came on. Heart racing, I quickly conducted an online search to figure out what that means exactly while my husband tried to decide our next steps. In a barren stretch of highway between towns, we saw a mileage marker; Navasota was 12 miles away. My husband could not get there fast enough so he could turn the car off. I, on the other hand, wanted to keep going. As long as the car was running, we’d be fine, right? I figured we could cruise on home and get it checked by our trusted mechanic on Monday; who’s with me? But before the van found its final resting place and ultimately in tow to the Honda dealer, we watched its headlights dim, felt the power steering fade, and heard it choking as if desperately gasping for air.

How many times, I wondered, has this been me, journeying at full speed with my sights set so firmly on my destination that I’m willing to ignore my own personal red battery light that’s warning, urging, telling me no, demanding that I pull over. Being stranded on that Saturday night served as a poignant metaphor that gives me pause.

And pause is a powerful place to be because it’s there that I’m reminded that self-care is a non-negotiable. Automobiles don’t work without the alternator that powers the electrical system and keeps the battery charged when the car’s engine is running, so why is it that we sometimes think we can continue without a proper charge?

Author and activist L.R. Knost puts an exclamation mark on the importance of self-care with these words that echo: Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean me first, but me, too.

And because we simply cannot serve from an empty vessel, we benefit from setting intentions on how to repeatedly say Me, Too before our Self-Care Alternators threaten to leave us stranded on the side of the road.

Here now, ten no-cost Self-Care Alternator ideas to fuel your journey to this year’s finish line:

  • Go to bed a little early, then get up when you wake up. Are you sleeping enough? Most healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep; sometimes just a few extra minutes will make all the difference as you work with intention to restore the rhythm of rest. Then in the morning, rather than lying there and hitting snooze after a good night’s sleep, get up as soon as you wake up for that jump-start on your daily ritual.

  • Do something for the kid in you. In the busy-ness of our days, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that adults tend to be just little kids in bigger bodies. Unleash the power of play to become childlike again, even if only for a short while. Try dancing with your inner child and see how incredible it feels.

  • Allow extra time to get places. Nothing spells stress quite as quickly as the feeling that you’re running out of time. Pamper yourself by building in a 10-minute window to get to where you’re going to see what a big difference the gift of time can make.

  • Write down inspirational stuff that’ll feed your soul. Motivational mogul Zig Ziglar once said: “People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing; that’s why it’s recommended daily.” Substitute the word motivation with inspiration and relish finding soul food for your spiritual side.

  • Eat healthy meals and drink plenty of water. Trust me on this one; your body will thank you profusely. Make sure you’re eating from a variety of food groups at each meal; an easy way to check that is if you’ve got at least four colors on your plate. And some sources now recommend that we drink half of our body’s weight in ounces every day; I’ve been trying this for the last six months and even my skin feels better.

  • Get moving. It’s no secret that movement is like a magic elixir to our bodies and brains. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina suggests we move every six minutes for maximal benefit. Exercise is an antidote to so many ailments; get ahead of those red-light moments by staying active and heart happy. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, reminds us to stack a new habit with something we’re already doing, so, for example: After I drink my morning coffee, I’ll take my power walk. He reminds us not to worry if we miss a day, but advises not to miss two days.

  • Enjoy the great outdoors. Get outside and look for mindful minutes, those bite-sized moments of time during which you simply focus on being where your feet are, mindfully aware, without judgment. Awaken your senses by noticing different colors, listening for new and familiar sounds, touching different textures, smelling sweet or bitter things, imagining how certain things (like those not-yet-ripe berries on that vine) might taste.

  • Slow down and savor while building the capacity to do nothing. My favorite definition of the word savor is its alternate meaning, to delight in. Consider the last time that you were actually able to savor, to delight in something. Slow yourself down on purpose today, and see what you’re able to savor more deeply. Consider pulling into a parking spot and do nothing for a bit. To quiet the internal noise. To savor being still. To just BE while you breathe in calm.

  • Delegate tasks to capable others. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we are not the manager of the world. Or even our little corner of it. Think about tasks or responsibilities that you’d be willing and able to give away, and start delegating. It’ll be a win-win because there’s likely someone out there who’s ready for the opportunities that you’ve been keeping to yourself.

  • Choose gratitude. Gratitude has many beneficial effects on the brain and the body; research out of the Templeton Foundation found that overall positive emotions can add up to seven years on your life. Make gratitude a verb by naming three thankful things each day, sending kind texts, making day-maker phone calls, giving someone your full, undivided attention, writing thank-you notes, keeping a joy journal, or sharing an uplifting song, like Shakira’s Try Everything.

Remember self-care isn’t about waiting until you’re running on empty to replenish and restore; be proactive about tuning up the Self-Care Alternator that powers your mind, body, and spirit to ensure you’ll be able to stay the course and go the distance.

Time now to let my Odyssey (with its shiny, new Honda-certified alternator) take me home.

About the Author:
Barbara Gruener enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learners from Pre-K through High School for  34 years, first as a Spanish teacher and then as a school counselor. She is the author of The Corner on Character blog and the book What’s Under Your Cape? Her newest passions include hosting her Character Speaks podcast, being a Character Strong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach.

Podcast S1. Ep.12: The Importance Of Laying A Good Foundation For The Students & Staff At Your School - Lauren Ambeau

Lauren Ambeau is the principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD, former elementary school principal, strong advocate for increasing SEL in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership. She was the Clear Creek ISD Secondary Principal of the year in 2016-2017 and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled Vulnerable Leadership.

We talk with Lauren about some intentional strategies that she uses to lay a strong foundation for the staff & students at her school.

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Podcast S1. Ep.11: Our Schools Need More Hope, Meaning, And Purpose - David Geurin

David is the Principal of Bolivar HS Liberators a National Blue Ribbon School in Bolivar Missouri. He is a National Digital Principal of the Year, a Speaker and Author of #FutureDriven - Will your students thrive in an unpredictable world?

We talk with David about how we all need to feel hope, meaning and purpose in what we are doing.

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Podcast S1. Ep.10: Character Is More Important Than Compliance - David Geurin

David is the Principal of Bolivar HS Liberators a National Blue Ribbon School in Bolivar Missouri. He is a National Digital Principal of the Year, a Speaker and Author of #FutureDriven - Will your students thrive in an unpredictable world?

We talk with David about how character is more important than compliance. So many schools are so focused on compliance, we want students to learn to do the right things, for the right reasons, not just because someone else told them to.

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Podcast S1. Ep.9: Soft Skills: Valuable For Our Future - David Geurin

David is the Principal of Bolivar HS Liberators a National Blue Ribbon School in Bolivar Missouri. He is a National Digital Principal of the Year, a Speaker and Author of #FutureDriven - Will your students thrive in an unpredictable world?

We talk with David about why non-academic “soft skills” are so important as they support the academic skills of students. David speaks on how these human-only traits are becoming even more valuable as technology becomes more integrated in our lives.

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The CharacterStrong Podcast

Written By: John Norlin

We are excited to announce that April 1st we launched the CharacterStrong Podcast, where each week we will be having conversations on School Culture and Leadership. We are firm believers that we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught and our goal is that each week we will provide you reminders from amazing educators and thought leaders around the country who are doing amazing work to create safe, positive, and caring cultures.

What makes the CharacterStrong Podcast unique is that each episode is approximately 10 minutes in length. We know that busy educators and leaders don’t always have 20-40 minutes to listen in to a longer podcast, so we want to provide this content to you in short, bite-size episodes so that you can listen on your way to or from work, or even while planning for your next class. You might even call it the CharacterStrong Commute!

We hope that you find the CharacterStrong Podcast a useful ongoing resource that will provide practical strategies and ideas that you can immediately put into action in your daily work or that push you professionally and personally to be even more intentional and impactful. We would love it if you would give it a listen! On iTunes we would be grateful if you subscribe, rate, review, and download a few episodes -- that’s what impacts where we sit on the charts! You can find The CS Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.

After you listen, let us know if there is someone you think we should interview on the show or if you have an awesome idea or strategy to share connected to school culture and climate, social-emotional learning, character development, or leadership.

Podcast S1. Ep.8: Being Intentional About Developing Character And Leadership - David Geurin

David is the Principal of Bolivar HS Liberators a National Blue Ribbon School in Bolivar Missouri. He is a National Digital Principal of the Year, a Speaker and Author of #FutureDriven - Will your students thrive in an unpredictable world?

We talk with David about the roles that non-academic factors play in the future success of students. Change is happening so fast in today’s world and it’s important to help students to be able to develop “human only factors”.

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Podcast S1. Ep.7: Relationships Are The Foundation Of Everything We Do As Educators - David Geurin

David is the Principal of Bolivar HS Liberators a National Blue Ribbon School in Bolivar Missouri. He is a National Digital Principal of the Year, a Speaker and Author of #FutureDriven - Will your students thrive in an unpredictable world?

We talk with David about how relationships are the foundation of everything educators do, and gives some tips on how to be intentional about building better relationships.

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Podcast S1. Ep.6: Essential Truths For Principals - Danny Steele

Danny Steele is in his 26th year of education, and this school year marks his fifth year as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System, just south of Birmingham, Alabama.  Prior to this position, he served as a high school principal, as an assistant principal, and as a teacher and coach. He has written two books with Todd Whitaker which were released last month. (Essential Truths for Teachers and Essential Truths for Principals)  In the fall, Steele will begin teaching full time at the University of Montevallo in the department of Instructional Leadership. He resides with his wife and three children in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Podcast S1. Ep.5: Essential Truths For Teachers - Danny Steele

Danny Steele is in his 26th year of education, and this school year marks his fifth year as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System, just south of Birmingham, Alabama.  Prior to this position, he served as a high school principal, as an assistant principal, and as a teacher and coach. He has written two books with Todd Whitaker which were released last month. (Essential Truths for Teachers and Essential Truths for Principals)  In the fall, Steele will begin teaching full time at the University of Montevallo in the department of Instructional Leadership. He resides with his wife and three children in Birmingham, Alabama.

We talk with Danny about his book Essential Truths For Teachers, how he helps teachers connect with students, and how he champions for the teachers at his school.

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Podcast S1. Ep.1: Welcome To The CharacterStrong Podcast!

CharacterStrong is an organization that provides curricula and trainings for schools internationally. Our trainings help educators infuse character and social-emotional learning into the daily fabric of any classroom or campus. Our curricula focus on character development in order to help students cultivate social-emotional skills, their emotional intelligence, and help them develop a stronger identity and purpose in school and in the world.

We sit down with CharacterStrong co-founders John Norlin & Houston Kraft as they talk about what the CharacterStrong podcast is all about and how CharacterStrong got its start. 

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The Classroom Temperature Check

Written By: Bryan Slater

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Second period on October 31st, 2017 was just like any other ordinary second period on All Hallows Eve in my classroom full of 12th graders; a few students were in their Halloween costumes and others had the audacity to dress up as high school seniors. I was busy reading the temperature check data that was coming across my Google Sheet which included some formative data on a recent lesson I taught on the Cold War. As is always the case, before asking students to prove to me that they’ve retained important content, I always ask two questions: “How are you?” and “Why?” The “Why?” portion of the temperature check is always optional and I never draw attention to a student’s choice to not respond; it is entirely their choice.

“Oooh we got some folks in here wearing some pretty fly shoes!” I said at 8:39AM leaving the student nameless on purpose as always. I followed that up with a blanket statement of solidarity to express my disdain for Chemistry so that the many students in the room who were fresh off of their first period Chemistry exam felt supported (my wife is the Chemistry teacher so really, it was just to express my audacious belief that History is better than Chemistry). “Hey folks, don’t forget! Playoff soccer tonight! Be there!!” I do this for the playful stuff to show students that I care enough to read what they’re telling me. But some students are in no mood for play as I learned 11 seconds after 8:40AM when a student checked-in at a 2 with this for their why: “I’ve been struggling with depression for a long time and I hit my lowest point yesterday. Nothing I generally want to talk about. I had a long night and I’m thinking of talking to my parents about seeing someone.” The student scored a 12/14 on their (I will use gender-neutral pronouns so as not to remotely reveal the identity of the student) quiz and without having the audacity to ask how they were doing, I could have easily assumed they were doing just fine.

Immediately, I went into that mode that any teacher who has ever experienced a student in crisis knows all too well. My inner voice was frantic. “Alright, don’t show any change in demeanor or those 32 pairs of eyes looking at you will immediately know something is off… alright, think… think... DING!” I opened up my email and sent the student a message. “Hey, just saw your temperature check. At 8:43, raise your hand and ask to use the restroom. When you step out, stay there. I’ll be there in a minute.” I asked my entire class to check their emails as I had responded to a few students individually and then I stepped into my neighboring teacher’s classroom and asked if they could keep an eye on my students when I stepped out in a few minutes (we share a common door so this was pretty easy.) The teacher agreed. As I was now finishing up reading the rest of the temperature checks, the student’s hand went up and a minute later I was out in the hallway thanking the student for sharing and walking the student down to our counseling office where we’d support the student over the course of the rest of the day through the crisis. Two months later I would receive a letter from the student thanking me for saving their life that day.

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This is serious business and by no means do I tell you this story to paint myself as some sort of hero of my own story here; that would be audacious. Many of our students are in a state of crisis today and if we have the audacity to only assess their retention of material in our respective classrooms, we are failing to assess the whole child. Imagine the magnitude of the pain our students and staff would have experienced if nobody had taken the time to ask, “How are you?”  Imagine the additional liability if I had asked, “How are you?” but failed to actually read the responses?

The temperature check is a really simple tool you can use on a weekly basis to collect formative data on student assessments as well as student wellbeing. I myself typically check the temperature of my student population on Fridays but do checks more often toward the beginning of the school year while I’m building relationships. If you are a Google district or a Microsoft district, it’s as simple as making a Google/Microsoft Form and asking a “Linear scale” question. I’ve been doing these for several years now and can’t fathom not having this tool at my disposal. From time to time, students will have the audacity to ask, “Hey Mr. Slater, we haven’t had a temperature check in like a week… what’s the deal!?!” and I’ll quickly make a copy of the previous week’s temperature check, change the date, and send it out. It takes two minutes and I’m always thankful for what I learn about my students after issuing it.

Some pointers: If you’re going to have the audacity to give these out, you have to read all of them. Failure to do so opens you up to some very serious liability legally, but more importantly relationally. Second, the “why” portion of the temperature check must always be optional. Third, in the description portion of the linear scale question, put how you’re doing. In the description portion of the “why” question, explain to the class why you scored yourself where you scored yourself. What better way to help your students know how you’re doing than to share it with them while they’re sharing it with you? An example of what that looks like is below:

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If you’re not interested in using technology for this, it’s as simple as asking students to take out some scratch paper to write it out instead of typing it out. It is my position that there is never a wrong time to have the audacity to ask how our students are doing and we can’t do it enough. Imagine the day a student walks into their last class period of the day and says, “Arghhh… another one!?! Every single teacher has asked me how I’m doing today!”

The audacity.

About the Author:
Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has taught high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA since 2002. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics, Advanced Leadership, and Theory of Knowledge to 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.

The Four Big Lies - Lie #1: The Performance Trap

Written By: Kay Dodge and Brent Grothe         

“The basic personal need of each person is to regard himself as a worthwhile human being.” - Lawrence J. Crabb Jr.

What makes our lives worthwhile? Surely this question must have an answer, for to consider the alternative is a terrifying thought. Is it not one of our deepest, darkest fears that there is no meaning, that we have no significance, that the whispers telling us we are worthless are right? And so we spend our lives trying to prove those voices wrong, trying to find some way to justify our existence and consider ourselves worthwhile because, “the feeling of significance is crucial to man’s emotional, spiritual, and social stability and is the driving element within the human spirit.” Our lives are all quests for significance, quests that unfortunately often lead us down paths where we latch on to any answer at all to keep the fear at bay. We never take the time to examine our chosen answers, to see if they are really correct, and before we know it they take over our lives, leaving us helpless.

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There are certain false answers, certain lies, that we tend to universally use to fill that question of our worth. These lies can be split into four main categories, each of which we call a ‘Big Lie’, and over the next few months we will be devoting a blog to explaining and debunking each one of them, starting today with the first Big Lie. Some people identify with only one of the big lies, while others find that multiple of the Big Lies are running their lives. The number of lies you struggle with doesn’t make you any better or worse of a person; the reason why we want to identify our lies is so that we can begin to see them for the falsehoods that they are, and begin to be set free by the truth. Doing so not only makes us happier, fulfilled individuals, but better people--and better leaders. As one high school student put it, “...if you don’t know what the truth is, you will always be deceived by the lie.”

Big Lie #1: I must meet certain standards to feel good about myself.

The first Big Lie tells us that our worth as a person comes from what we do, our achievements, our success. We are what we do, and the only way we will ever find joy and fulfillment is through our accomplishments. Because who we are is based off of our success, any mistakes we make, any failures throw our sense of self-worth off balance, and we immediately interpret such failure as proof of our worthlessness.

Such failures that can tear our lives apart are often perceived from others as minor setbacks, but because our identity has become so ingrained in what we do, anything less than perfection is unacceptable: placing third instead of first at State, getting an A- instead of an A on the test, being accepted into our second-choice college but not our first. Our need to achieve strangles us, preventing us from enjoying any accomplishment at all unless it is the very best--and all too often, the ‘best’ is defined through comparison to other people. “I’m a big lie number one type of person,” writes another fifteen year old who goes on to say, “Fear of failure has been affecting me and my life a lot. I want everything to look perfect, feel perfect, and be perfect. Being perfect defines my happiness. I often think that I need to do something perfectly or not at all. I hate to fail and feel embarrassed if I fail. It’s hard to forgive myself if I fail. Too often I find myself thinking how someone else did something better than I did.  I compare myself to other people. And I want to get rid of this. I’m working on it, but it won’t change in just one night, unfortunately.”

We that struggle with Big Lie #1 are constantly comparing ourselves to others. If we deem ourselves better than someone else, we, “develop an inflated view of ourselves that leads to pride,” but the self-confidence we try to portray is only a “facade to hide our fear of failure and insecurity.” We are haughty over anyone we have greater success than, and we hate anyone who has greater success than ourselves.This great comparison-game of our lives prevents us from ever taking part in the joy of seeing someone you love succeed--any award our best friend wins is an award that we didn’t win, something which we resent them. Our accomplishments make us special, and we find worth in that specialness. It may seem egotistical, but the reality is we are constantly battling a little voice inside us that tell us we are not, and will never be, good enough. Failure is always only a few steps away, and we run ourselves ragged trying to escape it.

We believe that we can do everything on our own without ever needing anyone else--in fact, because we find our personal worth in our actions, a helping hand invalidates our accomplishments as our own, and so we find in nearly impossible to ask for help or to work with others in general. Thanks to the tight grip our lie has upon us, we are exhausted all the time from running around trying to do the work of ten people.

A clarification before we continue: There is nothing at all wrong with working hard and doing a job well. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best possible outcome. The problem happens when self-worth is placed upon the ability to get the job done well and achieve the best possible outcome. That is what Big Lie #1 is.

Living by Big Lie #1 often turns us down one of two paths: compulsiveness or withdrawal. Compulsiveness is the incessant need for perfection, driven by our belief that not only is perfection possible, but we are worthless until we reach it. Our fear of failure drives us to do whatever we can to succeed. This side of Big Lie #1 is where we see the StuCo President so involved she’s never home for dinner with her family, the so-called genius of the class who has turned to Adderall to help him stay up all night studying for the SATs, the drum major who refuses to take any feedback that isn’t a compliment. We are often controlling, angry ( at ourselves for our failures and at those around us for theirs), and exhausted. There is little joy to be found in anything we do, for we don’t do it for our own pleasure, but for the recognition and achievement we have to gain by doing it. Because we are human we will never actually achieve the perfection we strive for, but because we never achieve it we have no proof that it won’t give us the fulfillment and satisfaction we crave more than anything.

The other path we may go down is one of withdrawal. Our fear of failure becomes so overpowering that instead of working to keep ahead of failure, we decide that the best way to avoid failure is to never try in the first place. Low motivation, despair (I’ll never be good enough, so what is the point in trying), and risk avoidance are all sure signs we have fallen down the second method of coping with Big Lie #1. A freshman boy put it well, “It got to the point where if I didn’t think I’d be successful I wouldn’t even try. I believed that I wasn’t good enough so I had to be successful to be loved. Even right now I’m battling this.”

“If we cannot tolerate failure, how many of life’s opportunities will we allow us to pass us by without our taking the challenge?” - Robert McGee

The battle with Big Lie #1 is a struggle that many of us live with unknowingly. Sure, we have the vague feeling that something isn’t working, we slip into depression here and there, we have a twinge of guilt now and then that we are using people to make ourselves feel and look better - but for the most part we just continue tap dancing like mad hoping that somebody will see us as worthy. “Our desire for acceptance pressures us to perform to gain praise from others. We strive for success, driving our minds and bodies harder and further, hoping that because of our sweat and sacrifice others will appreciate us more.” However, “despite our efforts, we will never find lasting, fulfilling peace if we must continually prove ourselves to others. Our desire to be loved and accepted is a symptom of a deeper need—the need that frequently governs our behavior and is the primary source of our emotional pain. Often unrecognized, this is our need for self-worth.”  Again, a freshman high schooler nails it, “I put pressure on myself to be the best, and to always need to succeed in order to feel this sort of identity and validation in myself. I have become addicted to always needing to succeed and it gets to the point where I will do anything to avoid failing, even if it means bringing other people down or avoiding things in order to not fail. This doesn’t allow me to be as vulnerable, and I feel like I miss out on many opportunities, experiences, and amazing people because of this.”


When Big Lie #1 rules us, we are not the only ones that suffer -- we hurt those around us, too. There is no room for loving or serving others, for we are so caught up in doing everything right, in our own personal rule-book and how well we play the game, that we have no energy left to focus on anyone else. We often hold those around us to the same unreasonable standards to which we hold ourselves, suffocating them under our rules. Those who we perceive to be better than us are hated, those in the way of our success are plowed over. We may love our friends and family, but we will also manipulate them so that they contribute to our own achievement.

Clearly, when we are living under Big Lie #1, we cannot be servant leaders, we cannot sacrifice for others and love them as they deserve, and as we wish to. So, what do we do? How do we escape the clutches of Big Lie #1? First we need awareness that we are living a lie in the first place. The more sensitive we become to the fear of failure, the more we will understand our own behavior as well as that of others. And once we begin to understand why we act the way we act we can then replace our lie with truth.

The Truth: My actions do not define my worth . The truth is that what I do does not determine who I am. Love defines me.

If we base our worth on our abilities then our behavior reflects the insecurity, fear, and anger that come from such instability. We must begin to believe the truth that what we do doesn’t determine who we are but rather who we are determines what we do. And not just believe it in a logical, intellectual way-- we must believe the truth in our hearts. Only then will we will begin to slowly but joyfully learn to live our lives from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. The voracious yardstick of measuring up to standards that will gain us worldly success and approval will no longer hold power over us, and so we can begin doing things for the pure joy of doing them. No longer will we be trapped in our fear of failure, instead we can vulnerably lean into uncertainty with curiosity and excitement. We will begin to reject popular, damaging cultural expectations that focus on self in favor of counter-cultural actions of self-sacrificial giving.  We will begin to believe that our best shot is our best shot, that the highest standard we can live by is love for others.

So now comes the real question: how do we escape out from under Big Lie #1 and start living in the joy of the truth? The good news is, we have already taken the first step by gaining the awareness and knowledge that we are controlled by this lie. Armed with this knowledge, we can begin to notice what situations “flare up” the lie, and then ask yourself why. A couple of good questions to always have on hand are: 1. Why is this situation making me feel the way that I am, and 2. How would I react in this situation if I lived and wholeheartedly believed in the truth? The key is that the more we act in light of the truth (the more we act like we believe it), the more we will begin to actually, truly believe. Transitioning from the “slavery and compulsion of a have-to mentality to the freedom and strength of a want-to motivation is a process. Bondage to such thinking is often deeply rooted in our personalities, patterns of behavior, and ways of relating to other people. These patterns of thinking, feeling, and responding, learned over time, flow as naturally as the course of rainwater in a dry desert riverbed.” Change requires time -- a long time, and we can’t do it alone. We need the wisdom of like-minded, wholehearted others by our side, people who are willing to gently and humbly confront us in our lie as we learn to be likewise gentle and humble. We need faith, faith that we don’t need to justify our lives with social and material success in order to be significant, faith that love wins in the end, and faith that there is something much bigger than ourselves, our fears and anxieties, much bigger than any lie, something beautiful, vulnerable, and so, so true.

About the Author:
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.

Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.

Influencing Moments: What’s At Stake?

Written By: Barbara Gruener

Every choice we make has stakeholders, a truth that comes crashing our way hard when something criminal happens, like the recent college-admissions bribery scandal. It’s not just the person who makes the poor decision, for example, who feels the consequences of that choice. In the case of paying money for a spot in a college, the child who was denied acceptance is a stakeholder in that decision to cheat.

My first attempt at explaining what a stakeholder is, exactly, to elementary-aged students wasn’t as successful as I would have liked it to be:

Me: Does anybody know what a stakeholder is?
Student One: Someone holding a steak?
Me: Sort of. But not the kind of steak that you eat.
Student Two: Wait, there’s another kind of steak? We don’t get it.
Me: Does anyone here go camping? {A few hands go up.} What keeps your tent from falling down?
Student Three: The poles.
Me: {Eager to be getting somewhere} Yes! And what keeps the floor of the tent from moving around?Deafening silence. Blank looks. Nervous awkwardness.
Me: Stakes. They’re called stakes. They hold your tent in the ground, to secure it.

Have I mentioned that this intro didn’t really go as planned?
So, I went a different direction.

Me: Basically, everybody has stakeholders. A stakeholder is someone who has a stake in your story, the people who are affected by the choices that you make, everyone that cares about your decisions.
Student Four: You mean, pretty much anyone who’s involved?



I knew that they got it when they’d come to me to talk, and our conversations started like this:
Mrs. Gruener, you are never going to believe how many stakeholders are in this story.
What came next was the thing that matters, the most important part, the point I didn’t want them to miss:
With our every interaction, we are making choices that matter to someone, maybe to a lot of someones, sometimes even to someones whom we had no idea were even remotely involved.

So how do we make sure that our decisions positively influence and inspire those stakeholders?
We owe it to our learners to teach them to stop, look, and think before deciding.

Stop: More often than not, our decisions don’t have to be made right there, on the spot, so the age-old advice to “sleep on it” rings true. Things often tend to be clearer in the morning. Take walks to help with clarity or process thoughts and feelings verbally through conversations with key stakeholders and/or through writing in a journal. Much think-through power exists in the ability and willingness to pause.

Look: This step invites us to take a closer look at all of your options. Leave no stone unturned when you look at all of the potential directions and outcomes.

Think: In this part of the decision-making process, we are encouraged to think through possible outcomes, the consequences of said decisions, and the stakeholders whom our decision will affect. This is another great opportunity to brainstorm every crazy possibility through lists or by drawing an if-then flow chart.


Decide: Finally, it’s crunch time, when that decision has to be made. And while the aforementioned steps don’t serve as an antidote for failure nor do they guarantee success, once it’s time to move forward into deciding, we can rest assured that we’ve done our due diligence to make the best decision yielding the best possible result for everyone in this moment.

Back we go to what’s at stake in our decisions; we must always consider whom the decision affects. When we ask ourselves Who will care? we’ll quickly find our stakeholders.

Think back to the 1980’s television commercial for Faberge Organic Shampoo, the one in which Heather Locklear suggests that this shampoo is so incredible that you’ll tell your friends and they’ll tell theirs and so on and so on. I can still see the multiplier effect on the screen when two Heathers became four, then eight, then sixteen. Simply put, those people are our stakeholders because of their stake in our story.

Want to help students understand the gravity of their choices? Try this engaging activity by starting with a simple scenario to identify the stakeholders:

Imagine that your starting pitcher for your baseball team is running late for the game. Who will care? Invite seated participants to stand as they think of an answer to that question whereby representing that stakeholder in this situation. As the class brainstorms who the stakeholders are, expect everyone in the class to think about someone whom the tardiness of that one player affects, so that eventually the entire room is standing.

With intermediate-aged learners, go a little deeper: The school’s counselor is hit by a drunk driver. Who are the stakeholders?

With older students, use a headline from the news: Girl sneaks out of her room; killed during midnight joy ride. Who are the stakeholders?


As with anything, our learning is in our reflection, so make sure to process through not only who the stakeholders are, but also why it’s important to thoroughly think through every decision we make. Ask how outcomes might have changed had different decisions been made.

An important reminder: Stakeholders aren’t just there in troubled times. Look for stakeholders to celebrate with us, too.

Try this: You earn a scholarship for your Rodeo Art. Who are the stakeholders? It’s likely that the entire class will end up standing as they represent the grandparents, the parents, the babysitters, the neighbors, the teachers, the friends, the judges, the college where you’ll use the scholarship, and so on and so on. It might just feel like a well-deserved standing ovation.

Compare and contrast your ability to influence moments with your every move by standing some dominoes or blocks up vertically and tap the first one to watch them all fall. Or drop a pebble into a bowl of water and watch it ripple out.

Looking for a few picture books to punctuate the concept of stakeholders? Check out Because by Mo Willems, Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein, and One Voice by Cindy McKinley.

About the Author:
Barbara Gruener enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learners from Pre-K through High School for  34 years, first as a Spanish teacher and then as a school counselor. She is the author of The Corner on Character blog and the book What’s Under Your Cape? Her newest passions include hosting her Character Speaks podcast, being a Character Strong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach.

Empathy To The Rescue

Written By: Barbara Gruener

After 34 years in the classroom, I retired from school in May. And while there’s a lot of stuff I’ll forget as my distance from school widens and my memory fades, one thing I won’t ever forget is my final faculty meeting, right before our district’s retirement luncheon. Unfortunately,  I’m not remembering it because we got to bond over something super fun, like a Potato Launch or a Turkey Bowl. Nope. It’s memorable because we were talking about school safety, in particular, whether or not to adopt a School Marshal Plan.

It was in that moment, during that discussion, that this truth shot straight to my heart: The most important thing that we can arm our school family with isn’t a firearm, but empathy.

I’ve been studying this amazing virtue for more than a dozen years now, since I first saw my empathy hero, Dr. Michele Borba, on stage in 2007, oozing with passion at the prospect of making our world a better place simply by elevating empathy.

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Check out these simple suggestions that Dr. Borba offered that day:

  • Point out how people are feeling. Say to your child, “Look at that friend. How is s/he feeling? How can you tell?”

  • Ask people how they are feeling. If your child can’t tell how someone is feeling, invite him or her to ask. Consider practicing through role-play; use puppets if it’s less threatening at first.

  • Imagine how people are feeling. Houston Kraft tells us that empathy is intentional imagination. Ask your child how might they be feeling based on where they are, what they’re doing, how they look.

  • Switch roles to feel the other side. Ask what it would feel like if they were that person or in that situation.

  • Imagine what people might want or need. Ask your child what they think that person wants or needs right now. Or later. What might they need in a week or month?

  • Imagine what you might want or need in their situation. Ask your child to switch places. If this were happening to him or her, what would they want or need. Once they’ve answered this question, it’ll be easier to make an actionable plan.

She also added that reading fiction is a strong way to elevate empathy.

But it was when I heard Dr. Borba caution that “dormant empathy does no good,” that everything changed for me and my work with students, staff, and stakeholders.

I dug in deeper, coupling Dr. Borba’s work with the expertise of Daniel Goleman, and I came up with the conclusion that empathy actually gives kindness its why. In fact, it’s a prerequisite.

Consider empathy as a mindset, a cognition; it’s the ability to understand, share the feelings of someone else. Empathy invites us to switch places with another person, to step into their stories, to understand their wants and needs. It’s an exercise in perspective-taking that asks us to consider another’s point of view. But just understanding isn’t enough and can, in fact, lead to empathic distress.

What we need next is for empathy to ripple out as compassion, the affective piece of the puzzle. It’s a heartset. Compassion literally means co-suffering, embracing those needs because of your concern for the misfortune of others. I like to view compassion as thinking with our hearts. Compassion, according to the Dalai Lama, is “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it.” When empathy is elevated, compassion more easily mobilizes.


When compassion is on full blast, we’re ready for the behavioral piece of this terrific trio, kindness. Defined as the quality of being kind, doing a kind act or favor, kindness means acting to fill those needs we worked on understanding during the empathy stage, to do something about alleviating the suffering. Simply put, kindness is a skillset that makes empathy actionable

Head. Know it.

Heart. Love it.

Hands. Do it.


But how can we help elevate empathy? Try setting up situations so that students can experience someone else’s challenges and practice walking in his or her shoes. For example, simulate visual impairment by asking students to do a simple task wearing a blindfold. Put a pencil in their non-dominant hand and invite them to sign their name in the hand that isn’t as skilled at writing. Encourage them to play catch with their feet instead of their hands, to simulate upper-body paralysis. To simulate dyslexia, ask students to write a poem {It’s empathy, it’s empathy; when you put yourself in place of me, that’s empathy.} backward so that when it is reflected in a mirror, it reads perfectly. What other situations might help you unleash empathy, the most powerful weapon around?

Once students have a strong understanding of what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, let empathy come to the rescue by mobilizing compassion, then jumpstart your kindness crusade to find your school family soaring to new heights in your character building.

For additional reading, check out these related posts:

Student Anxiety, The Empathy Gap, and Social And Emotional Learning by Houston Kraft

Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy by Michele Borba

There Are Actually Three Types of Empathy by Justin Bariso

About the Author:
Barbara Gruener enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learners from Pre-K through High School for  34 years, first as a Spanish teacher and then as a school counselor. She is the author of The Corner on Character blog and the book What’s Under Your Cape? Her newest passions include hosting her Character Speaks podcast, being a Character Strong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach.

What Does It Take To Be Prepared For The Future

Written By: David Geurin

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What does it take to be prepared for the future? In the 20th Century world there were mostly predictable patterns of going to college or learning a trade and then getting a job and working in the same career for many years.

But as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus astutely observed, "The only thing that is constant is change." Truly, we are living in a world of unprecedented change and complexity.

In past decades, soft skills were abundant. Even the TV shows included character lessons. There was the Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. Mister Rogers Neighborhood spanned decades highlighting social and emotional learning. Being respectful, helping others, and doing one's best were all values that were encouraged.

While soft skills were abundant, knowledge was scarce. The teacher was the purveyor of knowledge. Experts held onto most of the knowing. It was possible to train for a profession and perhaps what you learned would serve you well for many years, maybe your entire career.

Finding information involved learning from an expert in the field or maybe exerting the effort to visit an actual library. Compare that to today's connected world where we have access to the sum of human knowledge at any time, in any place, at the tip of our fingers.

Soft skills were abundant and knowledge was scarce.

And now it seems that has flipped. It's possible to learn in ways like never before. Is knowledge still important? Absolutely. But the abilities to empathize, listen, connect, and accept differences are skills on the rise.


As technology becomes more and more pervasive in just about every aspect of life and productivity, the skills that are becoming most valuable are human only traits.

So what's that mean for educators? We need to make sure learning in schools includes a focus on developing character and leadership. We need to make sure it's intentional. And we need to make sure it's systematic.

How is your school becoming intentional about developing leadership and character? We can just hope our students are learning these lessons at home. We can hope individual teachers will do the best they can to impart these skills. Or, we can activate the entire school culture to promote these skills. We can all pull in the same direction.

As the world continues to change, we don't know what technology might bring. But we can know for sure, if our students take with them more kindness, understanding, forgiveness, selflessness, and honesty, the world will be a better place.

What is your school doing to be intentional about developing soft skills in your students? Our school has partnered with CharacterStrong for training and curriculum to enhance our efforts to teach social emotional learning and leadership development.

I believe it's the missing piece for many schools. We must reach the heart before we can teach the mind.

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In my book, Future Driven, I challenge educators to consider if their students will be prepared for an unpredictable future? I believe if we teach as we've always taught, we're preparing kids for a world that no longer exists. We need adaptable schools that are preparing adaptable learners.

And one important way we can adapt is to be more intentional about teaching character and leadership in our schools.

Here are five reasons you should have a systematic approach to character education for your school:

1. Relationships are the foundation of everything we do as educators. Kids will learn more in classrooms where relationships are nurtured.
2. If we're not intentional about developing character and leadership, it won't happen in our schools. We can't just hope some of these lessons will stick. Non-academic factors will play a critical role in the future success of our students.
3. Soft skills are more becoming more valuable for the future. Technology can "take over" many tasks that were reserved for people in the past. But human only traits will become even more valuable and essential as technology becomes even more integrated into every aspect of life.
4. Character is more important than compliance. Too many schools are focused on simply getting kids to comply. Do what you're told, when you're told. But compliance won't get you far in life. We want kids to learn to do the right things for the right reasons, not just because someone else told them to.
5. Everyone in our schools needs more hope, meaning, and purpose. We all need reminders about what's most important. When we build connection and empathy into the rhythms of our schools, we are creating places where everyone will flourish.

About the Author:
David Geurin has served as principal and lead learner of Bolivar High School since 2008. In 2013, the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School and Missouri Gold Star School. More recently, he was honored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) as a 2017 National Digital Principal of the Year.

David is the author of Future Driven: Will Your Students Thrive in An Unpredictable World? He’s passionate about leadership, school culture, and authentic learning experiences.

David shares insights with educators at the local, state, and national level through his keynotes, workshops, and presentations. He also shares his voice regularly via his blog, davidgeurin.com.