Brandon Bakke has spent the last 23 year in education, a career that 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.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Brandon Bakke. Brandon has spent the last 23 years in education, a career that 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, Washington. Brandon is currently in his first year as principal of Fife High School in Washington State. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Brandon Bakke.
John: All right, everybody, welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast. So excited to have Brandon Bakke, principal, Fife High School, with us today. Brandon, you and I go way back, but I am so thrilled to have you on because there's some things I want to talk about with you today. But I'm just so excited to have you on the show.
Brandon: Hey, thanks, John. It's a great day in Washington, no rain, and I'm really excited to be here with you guys.
John: Awesome. A day with no rain in western Washington is always a good day, even though it is what helps it stay green. But, yeah, no, man, we go way back. I know you've got lots of great experience. Not only were you a phenomenal classroom teacher, you were an assistant principal for many, many years, even in a building that I worked in, but now you have moved into taking over a new school as the building principal.
John: And one of our goals here at CharacterStrong is shorter podcasts, approximately 10 minutes. We really believe like, cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. So there's two real things, even though there's many more I could talk with you, but two things I want to focus on. One, here you are moving into this new building, Fife High School, you're the principal. Tell me what's one of the first moves that you made that you've seen impact? As the building principal, one of the first things that you've done.
Brandon: Sure, yeah. Well, I tell you, the first thing I knew that I needed to accomplish was building relationships, and that was something that was important to do with staff but as well as students. These are kids that have grown up together. They've been in a single high school community. They're close, and how do you carve a niche into their hearts immediately? Something I had seen students do at the school that I was at before was making a commitment each day to being out, holding the door open for students, greeting people.
Brandon: So I thought what would that look like if the principal actually did that? So I made a commitment to start day one and then just see if I could each day be out greeting people. And it was interesting, because when I actually got to the school and saw the setup of the building, it's not as easy as you'd think. We don't have like a main entrance, so I had to work around trying to figure out how to actually make the logistics of it work. We have two gates students enter from. The older students enter from the parking lot where they drive. There's another arched gate where our bus riders go, and so I just go back and forth each day and greet kids in the morning, which actually's been probably the best thing that I've done trying to connect with kids.
John: I love it. Well, then tell me a little bit more. I mean, one, I love that there's no excuse there. It's not like, "Well, I don't have a main entrance, so I guess I won't do anything." No, it's like, "All right. Here we go. We got two main gates. I'm just going to go back and forth." One, I love that mentality. So many times our mindset of the work is so critical, but tell me then the impact. I mean, here you are, brand new building. You've made this move. What have you noticed either about your own personal leadership and or the impact that that is having on your school wide climate and culture, that one single move. Knowing that it's not just about you. We know that, but you definitely are setting a tone by every day making that commitment. So what are you noticing, then, in terms of impact?
Brandon: Sure. Yeah, well, first of all it feels silly to be on a podcast and talk about your big new move as a principal. And what you'd say is I just stand at a gate and say hello to people. Because that's kind of basic, right? You don't think of it-
John: Simple, but not easy.
Brandon: Yeah, you don't think of that as a big strategic move here, and that's really not what it was about. Like, I wasn't doing this for a gimmick or to make it about me, as you said. I really want to get to know our students. So I just sit there and I connect with their hearts as best I can. Throw on a backpack with music in the back in it-
John: Yeah, that's awesome.
Brandon: ... just play music to kind of make it a little bit unique. And when they walk through I just start connecting with them. It can be on different levels. If I don't know them real well, it might be just commenting on maybe something they're wearing or some cool shoes that I see. Or maybe they're ... a student today, example, was wearing a Colorado shirt. I'm from Colorado. We made a connection. But then what's really grown from it is the night before I'm often at their events, and so the next morning I can talk to them about their softball game or about the music concert or whatever. It's just slowly allowed me to earn some trust and get to know people and immediately jumpstart that relationship that I was coming in late on.
John: Love it. That's so great. Yeah. It's like ... especially coming in new, it's like one day, one week, and then you stop. That could still come across to some students and or staff as a gimmick, but there's no way that someone can consider it a gimmick when you're out there day in and day out and consistently showing up for them and consistently showing up to connect with them. That's really hard to not see that that is meaningful and intentional. Because there's no way that you can fake it that long, right, when it's like, I'm going to keep doing it.
Brandon: You're right. You're right. Honestly, because this is outdoors. I know at Sumner High where I was before, there was an awning and you were dry. Well, not here. I mean, it's in the rain, snow. I mean, the whole bit, and I'm also ... it's taking a sacrifice with just your calendar. People know you can't schedule an appointment with me before school. I won't do it. If teachers come sometimes they want to talk to me while I'm at the gate, I'm like, "Hey, you can stand here, it's great. But I'm talking to the students right now." And that's interesting, just to shift that paradigm. But people have gotten it, and I've got to tell you, John. I have the greatest school on the planet. I really believe it, and I know every principal should feel that way. But my students are so amazing. Like, they are warm and welcoming, and they feed me every morning.
John: That's awesome.
Brandon: They are a loving people.
John: Yeah, you're getting as much out of it as you're potentially giving-
John: ... because if that fills you up, it's like how could I not be doing this every day with what I get from it?
Brandon: Exactly, and I really don't know what happened first. If the love they showed me was reciprocated or visa versa, I really don't know. But it's a neat relationship. When I'm not there, I feel like I'm missing something.
John: Something's missing.
Brandon: The day does not feel right, so that's a neat thing that's come from it.
John: That's awesome. Well, with the short time that we have left, one of the things I think that's really unique that I heard that you were doing amongst many great things that Fife High School's been doing this year to go after their climate and culture, which has been awesome. But we got a lot of people that listen from all over the country, and one of the things that I remember ... it was on social media. I'm like, what is this? I was clicking into it, and then I remember reaching out to you to ask questions and that is this thing that you started to do called ... I don't know what the official name for it is, but you're doing a press conference. Tell me just a little bit about it with the moments we have left of this press conference idea that you started doing. Is it in the Commons? That you did it in the Commons?
Brandon: Yeah, yeah so we have an RTI kind of flex period every day, and once a quarter I hijack that period, and I invite students to come to a press conference. It's a choice they make, and they can come into our auditorium/cafeteria. We set it up like a full-fledged professional looking press conference. We have a backdrop with our logos, and we have the stage set up. What I do is over the course of a quarter, I just start collecting positive news. It's maybe some students who deserve some recognition that you normally recognize. Teachers ... I try to build a wide gamut of different things that we can talk about and then I do a press conference.
Brandon: So the students are in there, and I pull up guests and interview people and we celebrate exciting things. I also challenge the school on some stuff. If I see an issue that I feel like we need to talk about, then I bring that up. Then the neat thing is then I open it up for questions. So this is the vulnerability that comes from this whole thing that is really interesting is I just say, "What questions do you have for me?" And it can be anything ... and allow the students ... the initial idea was just to give students a conduit to be able to talk with me, which they can do anyway, but on a bigger scale-
John: More public. Yeah, that's great.
Brandon: ... and have a voice. Yeah, exactly.
John: I love it. I love ... too I remember asking about the first one and you ... it's a chance to have fun with it, for students to see the fun side of you. I remember where you're saying kind of like an injury report, and we've had Mrs. Whoever out, because you've already connected with like Mrs. Smith or whoever it is, right? We've had Mrs. Smith who's going to be out on maternity leave, and we're really looking forward to having her back. Just like fun report outs, and it's just like what a great idea that is different and you make something like formal, something that our students see. Maybe they watch sports, or maybe they watch the news. Whatever it might be. What a great new, like, just angle that a lot of times we're searching for. What are some new things that we could do?
Brandon: You bet.
John: So thank you so much. I mean, these things go so quick. I'm sure that you and I probably can jump on one of these again at some point, get an update on the work that you're all doing at Fife High School. But just kudos to you for putting the focus on relationships. Love the work that you're doing. I know that you're in the middle of your day. You're probably heading right to a meeting and or something where you're connecting with students and or staff. But just appreciate you taking the time with us today, Brandon.
Brandon: Hey, you bet. I appreciate you, John, and the work you guys are doing. And as we say here in Fife, "Get 'em Trojans."
John: Love it. And how can ... if people wanted to see more, how can they connect? What's your either school social media handle or whatever. If people wanted to kind of see what's going on. I know a lot of times on Twitter, educators are connected there. How can we connect?
Brandon: Sure. I think the easiest way on Twitter, it's @fifehighschool and you can just look for ... we're also on Instagram, Facebook. We kind of hit the full gamut, but love to reach out and talk to anyone who has any questions or other ideas that I could steal as well.
John: Sweet. Right on. Well, thanks, buddy.
Brandon: All right.
John: Make it a great day.
Brandon: All right. Thanks, bye bye.
John: Take care.
John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.