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.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Lauren Ambeau, who is the principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD near Huston, Texas. Lauren is a former elementary school principal, a strong advocate for increasing socio-emotional learning in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership.
John: Lauren was the Clear Creek ISD secondary principal of the year in 2016 and '17, and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled, "Vulnerable Leadership" Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Lauren Ambeau.
John: All right. We're so excited to have Lauren Ambo on the CharacterStrong podcast today. Welcome, Lauren.
Lauren: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
John: An all the way in Texas, down my the Huston area, correct?
Lauren: Yes. We have a cold snap here today. I think it's about 43 degrees.
John: Man, if a cold snap is 43 degrees, I'll take that any day up here in Washington State. Well, Lauren, we're big fans on the CharacterStrong podcast, kind of getting right to either a strategy, or an idea, so that people can immediately dig into that and think about it.
John: Tell me a little bit about, from the angle that you play as a building leader, and you've been in multiple different positions, situations, just talk to me about the importance of laying the foundation as a building principal and as a school.
Lauren: Absolutely. So, in my experience, and really working with elementary staff all the way to intermediate staff, when we don't intentionally, as campus leaders, focus on campus culture, lay a strong foundation, and really sink our beliefs as a campus staff. We're in great danger of running into a toxic culture, which can lead to complacency, which can lead to, honestly, a lot of arrows moving in a lot of different directions, and I think we lose sight of our purpose.
Lauren: It's been really vital to really building a strong foundation, in essence really transforming each campus I've worked at into a strong positive culture that really focuses on students. A strong student center culture would, number one, would be making sure that we have a very clear and compelling mission. Making sure that every staff member at Brookside Intermediate, every staff member at Ferguson Elementary truly understands, and hears from me, number one, how important they are to our organization, our mission, our vision, our core beliefs, and that we each understand the role that we play in bringing this mission to life.
Lauren: So, really having a driving, compelling purpose, and we've gone as far as campus, I've had the privilege of leading to post those outside our doors, so that each time we walk by that resonates with us and each day we can challenge ourselves to say, "How am I living out that purpose daily?" Also sharing those with our students in our class meetings, hearing those with our students on the announcements and asking students to hold us accountable has been a really powerful strategy as well. I think first and foremost I would say make sure you have a mission that each stakeholder is aware of, and number two make sure that each staff member and each student understands their purpose in that organization.
John: I love that. So to make sure I'm hearing you correctly so not only do you have that school-wide, which a lot of us have experienced at some point in education. Like, "Here's our school-wide mission and focus" But you're saying that from there, as a staff you ask every staff member to write down their specific purpose connected to that greater mission and then share it with their students and even post it outside. Is that what I heard you saying?
Lauren: Yes, John. So basically, we come together at the beginning of the year at each faculty meeting and review our mission, and our mission is to what we aspire to be as an organization but we take that further, and I challenge staff and we talk about when we why our 'Why' our 'What' becomes a lot more powerful. Yeah, we encourage each other to really reflect on that, we do some turning talk at our staff collaboration meetings and then we eventually publish that, and it becomes a part of our DNA, each of our DNA but really our campus DNA and then that is posted and probably about the third or fourth week of school, we invite our teachers to really be vulnerable. Believe a lot of vulnerability, so kids can open up and share that with our students and we've even taken it as far as in several years, to have students then write what is their mission, what is their purpose as a 6th, 7th or 8th grader. Which creates great conversation, it also helps our staff get to know students on a much deeper level.
John: Yeah, I just think about the power of that purpose piece. I remember Angela Duckworth and her team at University of Pennsylvania and the character lab talking about, we need to get students grappling more with the concept of purpose, and saying that if you ask the average high school student what their purpose is, besides, "I don't know." The number one answer is, "To graduate." Which is a good goal but that's not a deep purpose. So when asked, "How do we do that in education? That was one of the first things out of her mouth, it was, "Have the educators working with, leading the students on a daily basis share their purpose with their students." Because the number one way that we're going to teach this, is to role model it.
Lauren: And so for students to hear, "That is why you do what you do." And then as a student, me see you as the teacher both be successful at that and struggle with that, and I think about the vulnerability piece which I love by the way, because you're down in the Houston area which means you're in more proximity to Brené Brown so no wonder you're probably talking about vulnerability... [crosstalk 00:05:57].
Lauren: Yes! Love, love Brené!
John: ... Just because you're close, you're naturally probably talking about it more.
Lauren: Right, right. Yes.
John: And so I mean for our time today, and I'd love to even have a continued conversation, even have you back on the podcast but one of the things I do know is that you're doing this intentional work and as an administrator, I'll hear a lot about, "I want to make sure that all my staff feel like they're valued and appreciated." Just like you did. Tell me how do you do that? Because there's a lot that's put on your plate as an administrator, and it's so easy to get off that path. Like, we have that as a great goal, I believe that everybody believes that, they want to do that. What is something that you do, even practical, to help you stay focused on making sure that your staff, not just one or two but all your staff feel valued and appreciated for their work towards that mission.
Lauren: It's a strong passion of mine John, honestly. It's to ensure a teacher gets an awesome leader that makes them feel valued, I've worked for some incredible leaders which really inspired me to go into this work. So first and foremost, I am a firm believer in if we want teachers to make time for students to fee valued, if we want teachers to value social, emotional learning, connected with kids, valuing relationships, deeply believing that relationships come before learning ... we have to model that for our staff.
Lauren: And in my experience, when teachers can feel truly valued based on the leader's actions and interactions, and they are more apt to want to try [inaudible 00:07:33] times for this in their classrooms. The first that comes to mind is we have completely reshaped our staff meetings, and every staff meetings starts with time for personal and professional celebration. Teachers at first, John, there was crickets. We're coming together and it's like, "You want me to share something personal, right?!"
Lauren: Because honestly teachers become silenced, they're alone in their classrooms teaching all day and making time and valuing time on the clock for them to come together and personally and professionally celebrate each other. Personal accomplishments, professional accomplishments has been huge for us. We also do an activity in each staff meeting called 'Coke and a Compliment'. Simple strategy, bring five to ten Cokes, the teachers know to grab those as they come in and they get to pay it forward.
Lauren: So I think the number one thing a leader can do is to build time for staff to recognize each other, build time for staff to recognize each other's strengths. We do that, it really encourages teachers to make time for social, emotional learning and encourages teachers to value this time on the front end, to build in time for that, to connect more particularly with kids. Not to oversimplify this concept of leadership, ensuring that staff know their place and feel valued but John I am a firm believer in visibility and presence.
Lauren: Nothing beats being in a teacher's classroom, honoring their work. Teaching is hard, it is hard work, and there is so much pressure around teachers so being present and being visible ... And even taking it a step further, placing those personal note cards in the teacher's boxes. I have a challenge, I make a goal of five a week for my campus. I also make personal phone calls to homes and spouses, we send Christmas cards to spouses to thank them for their time.
Lauren: Those are just a few strategies that come to mind but I think when people really understand their role and that their role is truly unique, they're more apt ... to do this for kids, right? And we want to keep these awesome people on our campus. So it's really about staff retention, as well.
John: Yep. Well said, well said. I love the reminder just as we close down today, that there is a big difference between leadership and management.
John: And we manage things, and there's important pieces with the systems in what we're doing, and that is an important part of our role as a leader. But on the leadership side, we lead people and you can be a really great manager and a terrible leader.
Lauren: Absolutely, absolutely. I heard a quote a few weeks ago and it was, "We can't communicate for the trust gap." So it's this idea that no matter how many, I am privileged to lead. And right now that's over 100, it is absolutely my moral obligation and my moral imperative to know them as people. To know their families, to know their children's names, ask their spouses, make sure that I fully understand a day in the life of their shoes. How hypocritical would it be, John, for me to expect this, and teachers who teach over 130-150 children, if I'm unwilling and not doing that for my staff of 100+. So it's absolutely the greatest part of my work, the people are what draw me back, I want to empower people so they can be the best for kids. So, I feel incredibly privileged to do this work for them.
John: Well, thank you so much, Lauren, for being with us today. Thank you for intentionality, thank you for your passion and your vision. Would love to have you back on the show at some point talking about more things that you're doing. Look forward to the next time we get to talk, and have fun with that cold snap.
Lauren: Me too. Yes, thank you so much. You guys have a great day.
John: You too, take care.
John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you liked this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening, make it a great day.