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.
We talk with Barbara about the launch of PurposeFull People, CharacterStrong’s new K-5 Character Toolkit coming in the Fall of 2019.
Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, Houston talks with Barbara Gruener. Barbara Gruener has enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learnings 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 CharacterStrong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Barbara Gruener.
Houston: All right everyone. Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast. My name is Houston Kraft, one of the co-founders of CharacterStrong and today with us is Barbara Gruener and I'm so excited to be chatting today because this is a unique CharacterStrong podcast. Today we are launching for presale our elementary character and social-emotion learning toolkit, K through 5, and Barbara Gruener not only is a presenter for CharacterStrong, keynote speaker, long time educator, but she also helped write and shape this elementary toolkit so we thought who better to share with us a little bit today about what we're up to in the elementary department than Barbara herself. So, thank you Barbara and for context for those listening, Barbara is in her van right now because it's a crazy day in the neighborhood. Tell us a little bit about where you're at right now.
Barbara: It's mobile studio. I am sitting on my driveway in my Honda Odyssey van because we needed soundproof. I thought maybe outside, but the wind was picking up a little bit. So I am here in Friendswood, Texas, on location, while Sheetrock is being repaired in my house and it is a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Thank you Houston for having me.
Houston: The life of even a retired educator, nonstop, which brings me right away to you were in schools for over 30 years. I know you taught at just about every level, you also were a counselor for a long time so you have a bunch of different lenses to look at this work. Tell me why you think right now, why do students and staff need character and social-emotional learning more than ever?
Barbara: Right now. If not now, then when? We needed it right now back in 1984 when I started but we weren't really looking at loving our students first. We were looking at delivering content and it is time for a mindset shift for sure because anxiety is up, empathy is down, school violence is prevalent, and this is going to get at the heart, at the very core, of what schools are all about. A place where kids can connect and grow in a safety zone while they spread their wings and learn to fly.
Houston: I love it Barbara. I love that idea that we've always needed this work but it's what we're looking for, what we value, what we give our time to, shapes those behaviors and so if not now, then when. And starting them young, we know, is critical to the development of the whole child. So this new toolkit which for those listening, this is the first time we're saying it out loud, publicly, our new toolkit called Purposeful People not only focuses on tools in the classroom, but it also focuses on staff, families, and the playground. Why do you think sort of that wholistic approach, you know, we sort of came up with this framework together Barbara, so why is that important that we look at this wholistically?
Barbara: You know, I think a model has been stop everything, it's time for your character moment this month with the guidance counselor and we don't even like to be called guidance counselors anymore. We're moving into a more wholistic school counseling approach. We're doing more than just guiding. But our job is really to work ourselves out of our job by turning some of that ownership and efficacy over to the teachers and saying man, it takes a whole village to educate these people and hold their hearts. And if we wait until it's time for them to put their character into action, to start delivering this content, it's going to be too late and we're going to be wasting precious moments.
Barbara: So starting them out as soon as they come to school with the this is how the way things go at our school and we are a character school and we are a safe place where you matter and you belong and we see you and we are so happy to hold your hearts while you're here. What better time. What better place.
Houston: Yeah, and I love the turning over a little bit of the ownership that it's not, this work, social-emotional character relationship building, helping young people wrestle with their purpose. That's not just a one person job, right, that's an all hands on deck kind of thing. So, making sure that we're equipping all the players in that puzzle with the tools to do that well, I think is huge and what I love about us having really worked together to build this thing Barbara, my experience being in lots of different schools all over the world and your experience at every grade level thinking thru different positions over your time. We got to equip staff with the low burden tools to do it in their classroom like you mentioned. What about staff and families, their own personal character development? Why do you think that's important?
Barbara: Oh because we're never done, right, so we all need character development and I got to tell you, I needed it a lot this morning when they knocked on my door and it wasn't on the schedule to put the Sheetrock in today. And you have to be purposeful about intentionally carving out places for self-growth and for growth side by side with your colleagues and in your families. How much time are families actually interacting with one another these days. I think, what, 90 seconds of intentional, valuable time with one another, and so to say listen, we're going to do what the school's doing at home to give you guys an extra dose and you're going to help teach us what you're learning at school. That family piece is just going to be so what's been needed.
Houston: Yeah, 90 seconds of maybe meaningful connection. I've heard this stat that it's like around 30 minutes a day even connecting at all, and so what do we do with that time, right? The things that we give our time to, the things that we value, so are we equipping families who we know play ... So much of what we do at school can get undone overnight at home and my empathy statement is parents and families, they weren't equipped. If teachers aren't being taught to teach SEL or behavior or some of these things explicitly in their own college education preparation programs, we can't expect families to know how to teach this stuff well.
Houston: I love that idea that not only do we need to role model, obviously as educators in the building what this looks like in our own work, which is why we have some purposeful pursuits for staff to take on, but we also have family challenges that connect directly to whatever we're teaching at the school. So, this learning, I think we know, it's about dosage. We always say repetition's the key to fluency. So if they're getting it in class, and they're seeing it role modeled by their teachers and their counselors and their administrators, and then they go home and that conversation continues, it's that full circle right, that dosage, that's how we really make impact which I know that you believe in and which is why I'm so grateful that you've been a part of this process Barbara.
Houston: You've been helping create so much of this content I want to know which trait was your favorite to create? You know, we were focusing on this initial launch, we're focusing on 10 traits, character and SEL related, you've had your hands in all of them. Which one was your favorite to work on?
Barbara: I'm going to have to say number 6 and they're not in any particular order except for us to create them they were, and that's the one we just finished on and my husband sometimes jumps in and helps me. It's been so much fun. It's kindness. And I'm thinking about ways to make kindness not only to others, but also to self, also to the earth, also to your property, also to your play spaces, and to just really be thinking outside of the box. Like, how do you make that so actionable. Like there's maybe even a character object lesson or two and it may or may not involve an egg.
Barbara: And I have had so much fun remembering what we did in my 34 years with kids, trying to mentor and shape and nurture and grow them, and then throw little out of the box thinking. Like what would a brain break look like? And what would a mindfulness meditation sort of, you know, five minute calming, centering kind of activity look like? And which books do I want to recommend to my staff members and for the kids, for the families? And what does that look like on the playground?
Barbara: And just how do you make that actionable because kindness is so easy to just say okay, be kind. I'm wearing a t-shirt that says be kind today, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that actually look like for those kids beyond that platitude that sounds really nice, be kind.
Houston: You know I'm passionate about that.
Barbara: Here comes the confetti. Go ahead.
Houston: Yeah, one thing I fight back against in our culture, and I know you know this, but for me, I spend a lot of time thinking about kindness and for me I think a lot about that idea that we throw that word around rather flippantly, you know, and now it's on just about a bunch of different t-shirts which is great, you want the message out there, but you can't have the message without the meat. The meat behind kindness is really that it's a lovely, abstract character trait that's informed by a whole bunch of different skills underneath and those skills look like perspective taking. It looks like cultivating empathy. It looks like responsibility. It looks like self-love, self-compassion, self-talk. It looks like, you know, what does kindness look like through all those different lenses you mentioned? I love that, that it's towards our environment, it's towards ourselves, it's towards others.
Houston: And so as Barbara sort of alluded to, each one of these character and social-emotional traits gets built out really thoughtfully through a whole bunch of different perspectives. Ways to practice it in the classroom, she mentioned mindful moments, brain breaks, activities, energizers, images, quotes that inspire conversations, experiential learning activities, maybe involving eggs. So a bunch of different ways to do in the classroom but also bringing to life on the playground, in our staff, in our families, and kindness is just one of 10 in the Purposeful People. We want to help create young people who are full with kindness, full with empathy, full with creativity, with responsibility, with honesty, with perseverance.
Houston: So those are just a couple of the topics that we're going to focus on, but I love that kindness has been your favorite so far. I have a heart for it too which sort of brings me to the next question here which, you know, there's a lot of sort of content. We pride ourselves at CharacterStrong at the secondary level of having staff that's engaging and relevant because often times there are some cool tools K through 5 and then they get to secondary and we're like oh, they got it right. Wait a second, kids need to be reminded more than, we all need to be reminded more than we need to be taught, but what makes Purposeful People sort of different or relevant as a K through 5 sort of set of resources or tools that sort of maybe makes it stand out against I'm sure some other stuff you've used at the elementary level?
Barbara: Yeah, that's such a great question. I came across the Maslow quote just this last weekend. "If all you have is a hammer, then all you're going to see is nails." And really, I love that it's a toolkit because it's not like this huge outrageously priced curriculum that we're going to struggle to get our hands on because of our budgetary constraints. It's going to supplement and put the meat on the bones of whatever framework you're using.
Barbara: Since I am a Character Counts school and I've got my 6 values, all of those 10 traits that we're using for Purposeful People can be used to enrich, to enhance, to support what you're already doing. And, help put it in a teacher's hands so they don't have to re-create the wheel. I've heard it so many times, oh man, I've got so much on my plate, now I'm supposed to also teach them to be good citizens. We say the pledge in the morning, isn't that enough.
Barbara: And teachers don't mean to, you know, stop short on this stuff, but if they don't know what to do and it kind of goes back Houston to competence which you talk about a lot. If they don't know what to do, they're not going to be able to do it with any kind of passion, enthusiasm, efficacy, and so this will be a resource that will be so very easy for them to use, to incorporate. There's a K-2, there's a 3-5, but they'll go back and forth so if you've got some 2nd graders ready for some of our 3rd grade suggestions, we're going to pretty much say go for it and vice versa. I think it's going to be just a spot-on, really user-friendly enrichment for whatever you've got going on.
Houston: Yeah. If my only tool's a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That's so true when it comes to this content. If I don't have a lot of tools in the toolbox, because I'm focused on my content which makes sense, then I'm always going to default to the one or two or three things that I already know how to do. And sometimes that full scope and sequence of a curriculum, we know that even at the elementary level, the day is packed.
Houston: So maybe it's less about adding a whole other curriculum component, and maybe more of this work ... we always believe it's like how do we weave it in? How do we infuse it into everything we do? Our personal development as educators, those moments where we know kids need a brain break. Okay, let's give them a brain break but let's make it purposeful by weaving that brain break and connecting it into courage, or connecting it into empathy, or connecting it into responsibility. So taking things that we're already doing, but having more tools in my toolbox to directly tie it to the character trait we're focusing on that day or that month.
Houston: Which sort of takes me to the last question with our short time together because the CharacterStrong Podcast is all about cut the fluff, right to the stuff, so we wanted to give that high level, sort of like this is what we built, this is why we built it. But we always want to end with a practical strategy, so the CharacterStrong Podcast is about all those things. What's one thing you could do with your students today to help them cultivate, you said kindness is exciting, what's one thing you could to today in your elementary classroom to help students cultivate kindness and then let's end with how we help staff cultivate kindness?
Barbara: Okay, let's start with the students. Absolutely. Encourage them, invite them, coerce them, no, really just ask them to invite someone new to sit next to them either on the playground, while they're waiting for school to start, in the hallways. Or maybe just meet somebody new. Give them a smile. Give them some love. Model what friendship looks like. I'm certain in these schools we don't all know each other and if they could just extend some kindness. They have no idea what one drop of kindness is going to create for that other person as well as for them.
Houston: Yeah. I love that. We get really sort of intentional because I think people know the idea of let's reach out to someone who's sitting alone or sit next to someone new, but whenever we put people into partnerships, even in the language of our content, we're always really thoughtful about how we do that, right? So it's like find a partner who has the same color shoes as you. Find a partner who has the same length of hair as you do. And then you get to facilitate some of those connections in a way that maybe is more meaningful than just the challenge of putting them out there.
Barbara: Yes. Yes. And somebody who's got something in common, or somebody that has nothing in common and you can learn something new from. Again, the kindness is a boomerang, so as you put it out, it's coming back. You just don't know always when or how.
Houston: I love that. And I'm looking at the content right now that you've been putting in here Barbara and there's so many cool things. I see the one about eggs, we'll let people discover that on their own. But you even have something like, you know, we have 1 to 10 minute activities, so one of them I'm seeing here is color a smile. So showing kindness doesn't have to be grand or take a lot of time to be great. You got your students to color a cheerful picture for someone in need and you have a link of a coloring sheet where people can go and find that, so I'm just looking at these things because I think it's important to know that I think we all want to weave these things in, but unless we're given a really low burden entry point, then it's easy just to default to the things we already know. We default back to the hammer. So I love that idea and maybe some of the practical strategies around that idea. Let's talk, how do we cultivate kindness in our staff?
Barbara: Yes, because we're trying to facilitate, we're trying to just make it easier to connect student to student, staff to staff. Here's one that you know we talk all the time about checking in at the door with the kids but how about checking in on a colleague? And instead of simply saying how are you, and then keep on going, try where are you. Like, where are you today? Sometimes that question is going to take them on a different path toward a different answer and then the gift of time. Don't be in a hurry while they're enjoying that next question, while they're sharing with you where they are.
Houston: I love that Barbara. I'll offer one more thing that I'm reading here. One of the staff purposeful pursuits, be kind to your selfie. We cannot serve from an empty vessel so this purposeful pursuit invites you to take a selfie of you doing an act of self-care. Take a picture of yourself entering the door of your favorite spa, show us your nails, take a picture of you out in nature if that's what refuels you. So how cool would it be if in the staff lounge one of the challenges was to take care of yourself through kindness and you post pictures about it and you can even make it kindly competitive to see who has the coolest or most interesting, unique way for self-care.
Houston: So a couple of just really practical ideas on cultivating kindness directly out of our Purposeful People content, launching today. So Barbara, thank you for your heart for this work, thank you for all the energy you've poured into helping create this through some really brilliant, unique ideas. This episode is a little bit longer than they normally are, but in honor of launching what has been a huge labor of love, our K through 5 character and social-emotional learning toolkit, Purposeful People. This is for all of those educators who are passionate about the whole child. We've been at the secondary level, we're moving into the K through 5 space to support the work in any way we can. So thank you for showing up and make it a great day.
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.