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.
John: Welcome to the Character Strong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today is part four of a five part series with David Guerin, Principal of the Bolivar High School Liberators, a National Blue Ribbon School and Bolivar, Missouri. David is a national digital principal of the year, a speaker, and author of the book, Future Driven Will Your Students Thrive in an Unpredictable World? Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with David Guerin.
John: All right. Excited to have David Guerin back with us on the CharacterStrong Podcast. Been having a week long conversation here on actually parts from a blog that he wrote for CharacterStrong. Many of the topics I remember reading and were a part of his book, Future Driven. An amazing book that I recommend for any educator parent out there. Was a huge influencer to me and my walk in this work. And so David, great to have you back, and excited to talk more today on these different topics.
David: Yeah, yeah. It's great to be here, John. You mentioned Future Driven, and it's been neat to see the response from educators, and how they've connected with it. And one thing I think people mistake about it is that it's a book all about technology. And as you know, it's really not-
David: About technology. It's about a lot of other things that are important for our students, and for schools in terms of how we can change and adapt to prepare our students in all areas for their future. And a big part of that is the idea of character and leadership, and social emotional learning.
John: Yeah, well said. Well that kind of is a nice segue into kind of zeroing in on kind of number four in a five part series here. And you had written in the blog number four character is more important than compliance. Too many schools are focused on simply getting kids to comply. So 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. I would say that is so true. So, my first question I guess is, what are ways that you see classrooms working from a place of compliance? Kind of build that out. What are some of the things you're seeing where it is examples of that compliance, that we don't necessarily want to be staying in?
David: Yeah, I think that classrooms where being responsible, following directions. Basically, the decisions that you make are just to basically do the things that you were told to do. That's not exactly building much agency in our students. Their ability to make decisions for themselves. And as they get older in school, they need to have more opportunities to make decisions so that they can learn to make good decisions. And so, my philosophy has been to try to create an environment in our school where we give kids the opportunity to make more decisions, and to really try to develop character more than compliance. Hey, there's a time for compliance. We do expect compliance when it's necessary in our school. But that's not our focus. And this whole idea actually happened, we were doing job interviews for a position. And one of our interview candidates was waiting out in our office and said ... And it was during lunchtime. And so he was just on the other side of the commons area where all of our students eat. And he said, "I've never seen a more calm, quiet, just friendly feeling lunch room than what I just observed".
David: And of course that made me feel good, and maybe he caught us on a good day because I don't think it's always that way. But at the same time it made me think, that's not because of compliance. It's not because we're out there with our thumb on kids telling them that they need to quiet down, or to act in certain ways, or anything like that. It's just part of how our culture is. It's how our culture has developed. It's taken time to be able to do that. But the idea that even when the students ... Even when there's no one watching your students, no one's there to force their hand, how are they going to act? What decisions are they going to make? And the goal should be for them to be more likely to make positive decisions for them and others, if we're getting the culture right in our school.
John: Well said. So true. So, I'm a big believer that we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught, and within that response right there were even some very practical things. So then let's zero it in. So, what does the school system in your mind then need to do to move away from this thing that so many times we find schools in, which is that culture of compliance. What are then ... Bring us back to even what you just said and then build it out a little bit more about, what does the school system need to do to move away from it?
David: Wow, that's such a big topic. I mean that's ... So, you could write a book on that I think. Because there's so many nuances of that just in the language that you choose, with how you communicate, how you handle behavior issues when they happen.
David: How you communicate. Is your focus on rules? And rules are important and good too. But if the focus is all on the rules, what about, are people understanding the why, the principles behind ... Or can we learn to operate in a shared set of principles that help to guide behavior? And we tell our students, every year when we meet with them at the beginning of the year that we want to give them as much freedom as we possibly can, but we expect them to take on as much responsibility as they possibly can. And that they have a lot of ownership in that. And when they use their responsibility well, there's less need for us to interfere in their day, really, in terms of managing their behavior. And I think they really seem to get that. That, oh, you mean if I take care of things, and do a good job, then I'm not going to need you to be telling me what to do all the time? And that's worked out pretty well for us in our philosophy.
John: That's great. Well, how about maybe to close down this part of the conversation that we've been having this week, and that is, as a principal, my guess is you have regular conversations. Students, adults, and your example, your tone could very much set the tone of compliance, or something else that maybe is more the ideal that you're going after. And there's a lot of principals that listen to this. There's also a lot of teachers. And we all get into those situations where all of a sudden there's maybe a more difficult conversation that's being had. Maybe it's about behavior, maybe it's about a situation.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John: Whatever it might be. Just maybe take me through, how do you approach those? What's your technique going into that? All of a sudden someone's in the famous scenario, they're in the principal's office.
David: Yeah. Yeah.
John: What's your technique?
David: Never happens here.
John: Never happens. Not at your high school.
David: I hear it happens some places.
David: No, it happens. We have 800 humans in the building. And so, people are gonna not show up well, including me sometimes, not being my best, but try to your every day. But yeah, I mean it is. I have a mindset going in that we are going to focus on the future. We're going to focus on learning from this situation. Whereas the compliance mindset would have been, this is what you did, and this is the punishment. That still happens here. We still have discipline measures that we have to take. But the focus and the tone is on supporting people. Just like I would want to be supported if I made a mistake, and learning from mistakes, and recognizing that, hey, this is a mistake, it's a great opportunity to learn, and to move forward in the future so that we don't make the same mistakes again. And that we can understand each other. I think that's a big piece too. If we would spend more time trying to understand where the behavior is coming from.
David: Usually it's not about what the student is trying to put us through, it's about what they're going through, right? I mean, it's about they are having some type of struggle that then manifests itself in a way that is not helpful in our classrooms or hallways, et cetera. And we need to be there to support students in that. Not to enable, not to just go soft, but to be firm, but also to be very, very supportive and caring in that. And let them know that, hey, I'm in your corner here on this. And when they feel that, and they feel they've been treated fairly, they feel like that things aren't held against them, that they aren't labeled a certain way, then that really makes those conversations much more safe and meaningful.
John: Well said. I love, just what I took from that is, just even this idea, the reality is, yeah, there are still consequences that are, my guess, very clearly laid out, and whether that's your school wide handbook and or district policy. And yet even though those are there, and going to happen, what I heard in your approach was, once again intentionality, but with that empathy, and where the focus of that conversation is. So, although there may be still consequences, the focus is one of understanding. The focus is one of, how would I want someone to treat me if I had made a mistake? Because nobody likes making mistakes. And how do I then help this student, or this person, whoever it might be to then work through that, to learn from it? And so, I just think it's easy to lose that focus.
John: And so although there may be consequences, what is the focus of the conversation? And I love that idea. If students, or people in general feel like they are heard, and understood, even though it still might sting, a consequence, it doesn't sting as much because the relationship still is there, and in focus. Even with the consequences that come. So, thank you for sharing that. Thanks for sharing even your approach. I love learning from people and the way that they handle it on a regular basis. And tomorrow we're going to close down this five part series. And I'm just going to ask you to bring that overall message. When we talk about what schools need regarding hope, meaning, purpose, what would be the words that you would want to share to an educator listening in this week. And so, I'm going to give you the night to think about it, David. But we'll come back tomorrow and I want you to share some of that wisdom, that encouragement. Because the work is so incredibly important that people are doing in schools, every single day. And so, thank you for being with us and I'll see you tomorrow.
David: See you soon, John.
John: Thank you. 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 Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.