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.
John: All right everybody, welcome to the very first CharacterStrong podcast. Like what is this thing?
Houston: I don't know. It's a work in progress.
John: Yeah. It's going to be awesome though, and we're super excited to be coming to this space and providing what? What are we going to do? What is the whole purpose of this thing?
Houston: Well, we know that in education there's a need, a growing need, a growing movement,in our country fortunately towards social emotional learning, character development, and the conversation about culture which is this big abstract ambiguous word that at CharacterStrong we believe in digging into. And figuring out how do we thoughtfully,intentionally, and effectively build a culture that is safe and positive and that cares. And so our goal in the podcast is not everyone has time for a webinar or a-
John: Because these are things we're doing. We do webinars.
Houston: Oh yeah.
John: We're putting out content, blogs every week, whatever. But the unique space of the podcast is ... what?
Houston: Yeah. Cut the fluff is the theme.
John: Yeah, cut the fluff. Get right to the stuff. What if I don't have 30 minutes?
John: What if I don't have an hour?
Houston: Well at CharacterStrong-
John: Do you have ten minutes on your drive to work?
Houston: The CharacterStrong commute.
John: Yep. Because that's our goal. Our goal is approximately 10 minutes that if you were to dig into these podcasts every day there's either a thought that you can immediately like ponder that might help to put something into action. Or an inspirational piece. Or even more specifically like practical things. Like right now, what is this idea and how can I put it into action? So it's like small wins, quick wins. So the unique space would be quicker touch points where we're having these conversations around culture, leadership. We're bringing thought leaders in. I mean, some of the people we have already who are going to be on the show are leaders from across the country when it comes to this work around school culture and leadership. Pretty -
Houston: Educators and thought leaders and people who are in the business of making change. One of the cool gifts of doing this work is traveling quite a bit to different schools and different conferences and we meet so many people who are inspiring and inspired and have these brilliant ideas and so the ability to share them in really simple, practical bite sized ways is going to be. And through the lens of both story and practice. So there's two main reasons for me. Number one, for a lot of schools or a lot of educators, sometimes this work does feel like a quote unquote another thing on the plate.
John: We're famous for saying that in education.
Houston: Well it is. It's overwhelming. We're responsible for a lot. Education is a huge job and our philosophy at CharacterStrong is that this work is the plate. That relationship building and social emotional skills and character, if we don't take time to foster those things in young people than I think we're piling things on top of broken plates. And in a culture where kids are stressed and anxious and overworked in a culture that focuses so much on achievement in a time where we need more compassion, I think the conversations we'll have here focus on making this the foundation. Relationships. The foundation of everything we do with our school culture.
John: And not just like it is the plate for our students. Like it's the plate for the staff, it's the plate of everything. It's the school's plate. And we want to talk about strengthening that, building that like that foundational tier one what are we doing for all universal approach. And I think the other piece is this idea of our new kind of favorite phrase is like low high. So it's like low burden high impact. If it's like going to be a lot of work, it doesn't take because there's so many things that are actually on our plate. So in reality, what if we could give things that are low burden that's not going to cost a lot on the system or in terms of me, but it is just about being more intentional with what I'm already doing that could potentially have that high impact. In fact, one of my favorite people who's been in this space, education for like 40 plus years, is Randy Sprick. And he talks about this idea of like do what's least burdening on the system and hope that you get lucky. And I'm like, "You've been doing this 40 years and you are an expert in this field and you just said that?" And it's like when you take a step back, yeah that is it. Like let's do something that is do-able and hope you get lucky. And if we don't, then let's try something else. But at least let's be doing something and that something is what we're going to be talking a lot about on this podcast. What are some things that we can do?
Houston: Looking for small wins that turn into what we say and what we believe, that small things that we do, if we do them consistently they end up changing the big things.
John: So this first one is a little bit of like getting to know ... it may even go a little bit over the ten minutes but our normal podcast is looking at approximately ten minutes. Sometimes it'll be less. And sometimes it might be a serious where we have one, two, three in a row with the same person over multiple days. But you should know that when you're listening that we want you to feel accomplished. I listened to it, I got something out of it, right? And then the next day or whenever the next one comes out, I can listen back in. But a part of it is also well what's like kind of the story? Like how we even came together is a fun story and why don't you start it first, because we met in a pretty special place to both of us.
Houston: Yeah. Who are we? Who am I? My name is Houston.
John: Oh yeah, should we introduce ourselves?
Houston: Yeah. My name's Houston Kraft. I over the past decade have had a chance to work with at this point about 600 schools or events all over the world. And it started really in a lot of ways it started at Cispus Learning Center Mount Adams Leadership Camp in Washington State. Very lucky to grow up in a state that values leadership, looks at leadership through a really specific lens. And at this camp I remember I was student body president, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to make a big impact. And I went to this camp thinking it was going to equip me with some tools to put on great events or projects or activities and remember around day two, day three, thinking to myself, "It's a lot bigger than that." And the paradigm shift that was offered from the stage was that leadership was about love and our capacity to serve people. And building influence with people. And that all of us in that room had influence. The only question was what were we going to do with it? And the person on stage was the person who's sitting across from me now.
John: What? Who is that guy?
Houston: Yeah. His name is John Norlin and I went back to my school and I was so inspired. I started this club at my school, Snohomish high school. Random Acts of Kindness Etc. is what we call it. RAKE for short.
John: Very creative by the way.
Houston: We had a big wooden garden rake. Very creative. That was our mascot. And I remember I emailed John. I emailed him telling him about this club and I got the most probably still to this day the most encouraging email back I've ever received. It ended with, "Your biggest fan is here in Puyallup Sumner, Washington." And then John invited me to go to his school and talk about this club to some of his students. Fast forward a couple years later and John was the first person that hired me to speak at his school. It was a Martin Luther King assembly and-
John: You did awesome.
Houston: I don't know about that, but it was a lot of fun. I was super nervous. And after that happened, I started speaking to schools. And the first year was maybe 13. The next year was 30. Then 70. And for the past many years it's been over 100 schools or events all over. And along the way I'd always been listening and watching and admiring John as someone that I knew was really gifted at the work. Someone who's really lived the work more than anyone I knew. The dude was just incredibly intentional. And so it was so exciting a couple years ago when we came together to figure out this CharacterStrong thing. But what's ... how did you get into this whole thing, John?
John: Yeah, I mean the quick version is I had a really influential teacher who really challenged my thinking on what my purpose was even in school. And the idea of that kind of servant leadership mentality and that it wasn't about me. And that led to my senior year doing something just every single day that was really simple but not easy. And just showing up at the front door of the school every day and greeting students, because I wanted them to feel what I felt when someone older than me had reached out. And that student's name was Don Bennion and I wanted them to know that I cared. And I didn't know how to do that but had that influence from a teacher. And so after that experience of standing at the door, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. And not a teacher of like history or science, even though those are great things. I wanted to be a leadership teacher and specifically wanted to change the culture of schools from the inside out. So I knew that could happen. I'd seen it happen. And I literally got to walk into my dream job.
John: Like I literally, to this day, still have only taught one history class, which is what I majored in. And it was in student teaching. And just happened to literally be in a space where the person who was in the leadership teacher role, which was a full time leadership position, like stepped out of that position. Actually there's one history class and then they made it a full time leadership position. And for ten years I did that in the classroom, about 180 students every single day talking about servant leadership, character in action, and really got to see what this can look like. Some people call it in the trenches. I would say in like the beautiful thing called life and school and how if you expose young people to this that they actually want it. And what can happen to their own individual lives but also to a school, a community. And then even beyond that to a state that really started to pay attention to servant leadership and what was happening.
John: And from there got to a point where that work was growing enough that it needed to go beyond just one school. And so at the district that I was in, they created a position called the Program Administrator for the Whole Child. So how do we take this K through 12? And that work led to some pretty amazing connections, including who we now work with regularly, Dr. Clayton Cook who is at the higher ed level. And him at some point encouraging, even though I'm kind of skipping by multiple steps here, but encouraging us to say, "You've got something here. You've got something that schools need. You've got something that young people need that is relevant, that is engaging, that is focused on social emotional learning, character development. You need to put this together."
John: And when he said you need to put this together, all along that path from being in high school to connecting to Mount Adams Leadership Camp, I too remember the day when you came to Mount Adams. One of the most talented young student leaders that I'd ever met in my entire life who I'd seen those types of student leaders before. But they didn't have the humility that you had, Houston. They didn't have that bigger vision and passion and purpose for the work. And so when I said biggest fan in that email, that was a true story because I still remember at leadership camp, when for an entire hour, you led a dance circle where you changed the moves constantly for an entire hour. But what was really cool and unique about that story is the inclusiveness of everybody in that circle. And I remember thinking, "If he can do that, I wonder what else he could do."
John: And got to see you then from that point take that passion and basically go across not just this state, the country, and now even the world, with that message. And I remember the day when we came together to do a gig, and we're like, "This is going to be cool. We're going to make it epic. And what are we going to call this thing?" And I don't remember how many years ago it was, but somehow or another we're like, "Let's call it CharacterStrong." And that was the first seed planting of what now is something pretty special that we're really excited about and really excited about sharing. And so here we are, hundreds of schools, thousands upon thousands of educators trained in the work that we know every single day is needed more than every before. So did I do okay on that?
Houston: That's crazy. Take all the compliments. The goal is still to get everyone dancing by the way.
John: That's right. We will get everybody dancing. Our first training had the most dancing ever in it.
Houston: That's true.
John: For CharacterStrong that we've had.
Houston: And now the bigger work, you know, our goal at CharacterStrong is to change the culture through love. And to make kindness normal in the world and I know that you and I both believe that the only way to create a more compassionate or kind world is to teach it. It's a skill. It's a series of skills that I've taught well. And if you hold people accountable to them and you create those low burden high impact tools for them to put them into action, that's where really cool things happen. And grateful that we all get to be a part of it and grateful we're doing this thing. The CharacterStrong podcast, conversations on school culture and leadership.
John: It's going to be exciting. So here's my thought. My thought is the first one, right after this, that when people listen I want to ask you one question. So this is our little intro of what we're about, who we are. But if we're talking about two big issues, we're talking about this is the plate. So we're always going to be about that foundational piece. And we're talking about low high. Low burden high impact. I want you to be ready because if I only had one question to ask you when it comes to all those schools that you've been working with, what would that one question be? And I want the first episode after this intro to be about that. So stay tuned, listen for us on all the major kind of what it's a podcast thing. Platforms, what Spotify?
Houston: iTunes, GooglePlay, we're in all of them.
John: Okay. And if you would, because I've heard it's good that you, what, it's something like rating and reviewing.
Houston: Yeah. I think it's five stars and write a quick review.
John: This one might not have been five stars but I guarantee you there are going to be some five star episodes.
Houston: Yeah. Please rate and review and share with educator friends you know. Or people that might be moved or inspired to put the stuff into action. That would mean the world to us and tomorrow morning, 5:30, we drive-
John: To Mount Adams Leadership Camp. It's going to be awesome.
Houston: ... to Cispus Learning Center where it all began and the work continues.
John: Yep. All right everybody. Well, we will see you soon. Be listening in. Thanks for listening to kind of this intro story of what this is about, what we're heading into. We're incredibly excited and we'll see you on our your CharacterStrong commute.
Houston: Make it a great day.
John: Make it a great day.
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 Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.