Don Bartel has been a teacher and coach in Washington state for 22 years. He has coached and/or taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. He has served as a head coach at three different high schools for a combined 15 years; and has been the head football coach, leadership teacher, ASB adviser, and activities coordinator at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington for the past six years.
We talk with Coach Bartel about the branding campaign they have created at Eastlake High School, how that has positively influenced the school’s culture, and some helpful steps to help get a branding campaign started.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership.
John: Today we're talking with Don Bartel who's been a teacher and coach in Washington State for 22 years. He has coached and/or taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level, and has been the head football coach, leadership teacher, ASB advisor, and activities coordinator at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington for the past six years. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Don Bartel.
John: It's awesome to have you with us, Donny, today. Thanks for being with us.
Coach Bartel: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate the invitation, and anything I can do to help you out, obviously, and anybody else who might be listening.
John: Appreciate it, man. I know that you have some experience being on podcasts. I appreciate you helping us to be better at ours. And our goal with the podcast is to cut the fluff and get right to the point because we always realize, coming from education, that the most valuable resource for an educator is time. And that they don't always have 20 to 30 minutes plus to listen in on a podcast.
John: So, today I've specifically invited you on knowing that you can talk on a lot of topics. But today, if you would, talk about the great branding campaign that you've created at Eastlake High School. What has gone into that, how it has been an important part of creating an ideal school culture and climate for you. Because I feel like the older you get, from elementary to middle up into high school, the more important it is that you do have a branding campaign, and that we move away from just like: Be safe, responsible, respectful. But it needs to be something that students can get behind, that staff can get behind, that even a community can get behind.
John: So, tell me a little bit about this wolf strong pack strong branding that you've put together.
Coach Bartel: I think the first key to any of this, especially when you're talking about high school level where kids they've reached a point where their skepticism is super high, and they've been led down a road of longterm delayed gratification of, "We're going to start you as freshmen, and by the time you're done you're going to get into the college of your dreams, but you're going to have to grind for four years as an academic." And it's really tough. And so, it's tough to win those kids over.
Coach Bartel: So, the reality of it is our standard for it was really low. All we were trying to do is make it individual to our school. Eastlake is a hypo academic school, and in my world that means that kids rely heavily on the feedback they get from teachers both day to day and in the grade book. And so, it's not uncommon to walk down the halls of Eastlake and see kids upset about getting a nine out of 10 on a Spanish quiz, or something like that.
Coach Bartel: So, we're coming at it from the approach of ... I've been at different schools where this hasn't been the case, it's been the opposite. But at Eastlake we have to tell kids to kind of throttle down a little bit.
John: Yeah. That makes sense. There's such a focus on performance that we find so many times that when there's such a focus on that, that idea of perform, perform, perform, that what we see a lot of times is anxiety increase. And when anxiety increases we see an increase in depression, we see an increase in a lot of harmful behaviors from students, even our most high achieving. And when anxiety goes up we talk a lot of times that empathy goes down, and we talk about creating an ideal school climate, culture, even safe schools. What happens when empathy is going down because anxiety is going up a lot of not good things.
John: So, tell me then about how then did wolf strong pack strong come about with that being the focus, and you identifying, as a school, the needs for your students.
Coach Bartel: The big part of it then was like: What's on the opposite side of all this academic stress, and anxiety, and desire to perform? We have a pretty eclectic group of students.
Coach Bartel: And I had an advantage walking in the door at Eastlake in 2013. I had been there for three years previously from 2005 to 2008. What I walked away from, after that first experience, was Eastlake has an incredible population. And at the time that I was there the first time around we had an incredible advisory program where kids were connecting on multiple grade levels through different things from Super Smash Brothers Tournaments on the off days to study sessions on the on days, and the kids were doing everything. We were even responsible for teaching the kids sex ed, at one point, which would be a totally different podcast. The awkwardness of me doing that. But I walked away from there feeling like it was a special place, because kids got along genuinely at a different level than other schools I'd been at.
Coach Bartel: And so, walking back in the door one of the things that was really important was capitalizing on the unique identity of an Eastlake. And the Rudyard Kipling poem, "The wolf is the strength of the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf," really fit in that kids loved each other because they were from each others neighborhoods, first and foremost. So, they were in each others homerooms, or those things first and foremost. And so, we thought outside of that then, socially, there're kids that probably shouldn't interact. Because you have athletes hanging out with the artists, and artists who are athletes, and you have the drama kids whose best friend is the star player on the basketball team. It wasn't uncommon during that first run at Eastlake to see kids playing a guitar in the hallway trying to be the next Jack Johnson, or John Mayer.
Coach Bartel: And I thought it was such an interesting environment, and yet here are these kids were being celebrated for their own individual strengths. Everybody was all over the map in terms of GPAs, and achievements, and SAT scores, and all that. But the strength of our school had always been in, number one, the talents of each individual kid, and, two, the relationships that grew out of support of those talents.
Coach Bartel: And so, what we really wanted to do was take a look at: How can we identify that? What is already present, which is already a strength? Kids see that consistently. Now, if you ask kids they don't have any idea where wolf strong pack strong came from, and I'm not about to ruin it for them. It is something very organic, we didn't hire a company to come in and market anything, we didn't bring anybody from the outside in we just looked around and said, "What works?" We threw some things out there. The kids grabbed onto this. They affectionately call it WSPS. WSPS.
John: That's great.
Coach Bartel: And they've taken it over. They own it. And now it's all over everything that we do, because it is the embodiment of the unique identity of a place like Eastlake where kids really do bring a consistent dedication to achievement, but also skillsets and talents and passions along with that, that really add flavor to our building.
John: That's awesome.
John: So, for this kind of part one of what I'd love to be a series, maybe two or three parts of this, if someones listening in. For this first part, with our goal of keeping these podcasts shorter, like what would you then say, in the developing of this school wide kind of branding campaign and motto, wolf strong pack strong, the tip that you would give an educator and/or school? 'Cause a lot of times schools struggle with this. Just from the lens of like getting started what I heard there is, "We tried some different things, and then eventually it took." Is that how you would explain it again? Or what tip would you give to someone just from the lens right now of if you're just getting started it would be one, what? Identify what is unique about your school. Two, then do this. What would be the two or three things that you would leave someone just with the getting started with a improving of a school wide branding campaign, or starting one from scratch?
Coach Bartel: I would say the number one thing is it has to be true. And what I found through football and education is there is ... Bud calls it the illusion of choice. There really isn't a choice. You either want to be successful, or you don't. If you want to be successful you have to do these things, but we can call those things a million different names. So, what you have to do then is figure out uniquely what is the strength of your school, what is the thing you're trying to capitalize on, what is the thing that needs to be put out there, rally around, and it has to be true.
Coach Bartel: Now, the next thing is it has to patient. Because what you don't it to be is you don't want it to be that hot summer single that hits every May that by the time June is over the kids don't want to hear it anymore, even though they were going insane in May about it. That's not what it's about. It's about longterm. It's about longevity. It's about giving ownership away. It's about letting it mature, and letting it be what it is in and of itself all by itself. And so, the number two thing would just be patience.
Coach Bartel: And then three, I would say, you have to have a group. And I'm blessed that way that I have a group of 120 kids on the football team that we can mentor and work with, and they can become messengers of some of this. And then I have 120 kids in the leadership program, and we can use those kids to talk to them about what this might be, what it looks like, let them own it, and then they can be messengers of it. Because it's the conversations you never hear are what are supporting your brand. What you really think is important, and how you show that every single day. Those would be the biggest things.
Coach Bartel: The biggest thing we did was not push it, and we never gave it to the teachers, we never gave it to the adults. It's always been about the kids.
John: That's awesome. I love that line, and I think that's where we'll pick it up with part two, which is that patience idea, and the turning it over to the kids where they have ownership for it, and what you've done to make that happen.
John: So, as a reminder, as we close down today, we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. We need to always be coming back to these key pieces around school culture and leadership so that we can continue to strive knowing that we never fully arrive when it comes to this work. Make it a great day, and we'll see you again on the next show.
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.