Podcast S1. Ep.22: Empowering Students - Coley Veitenhans

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Coley Veitenhans who is a National Board Certified Teacher at Thomas Jefferson HS where he teaches 6 sections of leadership, coordinates a student mentorship program, and serves as the student activities advisor.

We talk with Coley about the impact of  empowering students to solve problems, be creative, and take ownership, and how it has created a positive culture at his school.


... it started because of one group of students having a crazy idea and then saying, “Here’s how we would execute this idea so that it’s not necessarily crazy, it’s organized and it’s well thought out and there’s a plan for everything.” It’s been able to create those opportunities for students, and I think it creates a more positive atmosphere...
— Coley Veitenhans

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Coley Veitenhans who's a national board certified teacher at Thomas Jefferson high school in Washington state where he teaches six sections of leadership, coordinates a student mentorship program, and serves as the Student Activities Advisor. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Coley Veitenhans. We're excited because we have back on the podcast Mr. Coley Veitenhans who previously we had talked about the philosophy that he's taken as a school leadership teacher, activities coordinator. Someone who is responsible working with students daily to create an ideal school culture and climate and that shift of moving away from events and more towards creating moments, moments over events. In that conversation a thought that came to mind is this idea of a lot of times students will come up with great ideas and it's so easy with so much that comes out of us to fall into the trap of, "That won't work."

  • John: I know from speaking with Coley that, that is not a philosophy that he has that we want to shift that from, "That won't work," to something more around, "How do we make it work?" Coley thanks for being back on the podcast with us today, and would you be willing to talk about that. Talk about your experience doing that difficult work with students that's so easy to fall into that and how you've shifted that and how it's played out for you in your role.

  • Coley: Yeah, happy to be back. I think the philosophy came from my actual experience in student leadership and my ASB advisor way back when I was a student at Falls High School, created this concept of a larger than life homecoming. We were able to basically transform our entire gym from the floor all the way up to this new experience. He was never one to really say, "No," to things. But would allow us to really dive into our creative sense, so we created a ... My senior year our theme was Aladdin based, A Whole New World. I know I had this big pipe dream of being able to have a genie come out of a lamp.

  • John: I love it.

  • Coley: Super weird and random, especially in 2005 and he was like, "Well what do you mean?" I was like, "Well I want to have this genie get raised out of a lamp with a fog machine and something and ..." His first response was just this look of, "Are you crazy?" But he didn't say that, what he said was, "Well, how would you do it?" Moment just thinking, "Oh okay, now I've got to figure this out." It's one thing to have these great ideas but now the onus is on me to say ... We ended up getting a Lift from the district and building a 20 foot by 10 foot genie lamp out of paper mache and chicken wire and a wood frame and all sorts of stuff. We were able to bring our Wood Shop team and there helping us build that, so we were able to create it. We painted one of the guys who wanted to be a genie blue. We didn't have face paint, we just used the regular Tempura paint which, I'm sure wasn't best ideas but, he enjoyed it and we had our, again, genie pop out of the hydraulic lift and be a huge center point for that assembly.

  • Coley: We've taken that philosophy to the work that I do and regardless of whether it's a homecoming assembly, which we still try to do that larger than life concept, or whether it's just a new thing that we want to do a school, and shifting that conversation from, "This won't work," because again that's our natural job as the advisor, or even as a principal to be able to be the authoritative of making sure that things ... well and things are done right. We all want to say that. But giving the power back to the people that we're hoping to lead and to influence to say, "Well this is your idea, how would you do it? What are the things it would take, has been beneficial for, not just our program, but I think when talking educating students, that's real education and real learning when they're having to go through that problem solving in their mind of, "Okay well, I want to create our homecoming theme, a decades theme." They wanted to create a 10 foot by 20 foot boombox. Same idea, "What are you gonna do? How are you gonna make it happen?"

  • Coley: Just seeing the brain power at work with these kids thinking about, "Okay well if we want to make this big what's that going to look like? How do we do that? What are the things that we can use to construct it?" Is just a cool way of seeing kids process and develop.

  • John: I love that. I love so much about that. One, having been a Student Activities Advisor specifically in that role, I know how hard it can be at times with so much that's going on to even unintentionally squash ideas. We work with a lot of student leaders across this country and I can't tell you the number of times when you are in a workshop with a group of student leaders or telling one on one or they reach out that a lot of times one of the problems is that they feel like their ideas either aren't heard or that they're always just told, "No." I just think about the negative impacts that potentially has on a school's climate culture when student's automatic thought is that any idea that they have is gonna be a, "No." In many cases knowing maybe an advisor in that school, or the leadership of that school, and knowing that the hearts of those educators are great and how it's so easy in the trenches, so to speak, or in the work to maybe fall into that mode. One of the things I love about what you're talking about is, even just literally the practical strategy of the answer always to start is, "How do we make it work?" Or, "How would you make that work?"

  • John: That is literally your first response, 'cause my guess is there's times when the initial idea isn't what ends up happening. That you might know in the back of your mind there's certain parts of this that would not fly, but that's not your response, you guide them through that, my guess is, by having that initial response and then talking through that. Would you say that's correct that there's times when it doesn't happen but-

  • Coley: Yeah.

  • John: …tt's still that opening response is the most important thing?


 
...I consider myself and Optimistic Realist. The realism in me always wants to say, “This isn’t gonna work,” because in my mind I don’t have a plan for it. But the optimistic part of me gives them that opportunity and the coolest part for me is just when these things that I would have never that could actually happen, start to form and start to become a new reality, that’s just a good reminder for me to recognize that there is more possibilities out there than I might have believed in to begin with.
— Coley Veitenhans
 

  • Coley: I think that there's two benefits in that, one, the students eventually will figure out on their own that maybe this isn't as practical as the idea happens. Which then alleviates me from being the bad guy and just saying, "No," and causing resentment in our relationship. I think just as a leadership style it's been effective for me because I don't have to say, "No," to bad ideas I just allow them to become either better or allow them to fail if there isn't a strategy. Going in, yeah, you do know some things just aren't gonna work, but at least giving someone the opportunity to say, "How would I make this work?" Is valuable to me in that relationship sense with the students that I'm working with.

  • John: Yeah. In this shorter podcast model, right, of around 10 minutes or less and these thoughts that we can immediately take or gets us thinking in the work that we're doing. From this approach that you've taken, which I love. I love that approach. I love even the practical nature of just, "How do I respond to ideas that come, not just from students but other people in my life?" What are just a couple like one, two, three? Just give me the ... What are some of the benefits that you've seen either individually from students and/or in your school just by taking that approach? This has happened because of having this outgoing approach where students then feel like their ideas are heard or that they can think big or whatever it might be.

  • Coley: I think just crazy ideas have happened. I think that we often shut down those outside the realm of possibility ideas. This idea of a homecoming that transforms your entire gym is a crazy idea. I mean, when you've got to do coordination with your sports teams that are practicing, your gym teachers. There's coordination of getting different bells scheduled. There's a lot of variables that are in there, so it's able to create more of those things. The idea of creating a a lip dub again, we talked about the last podcast just taking ideas from other people and we call it the CASE Method, copy and steal everything. Just give them credit when credit is due but, a lip dub is not something that we thought we could ever do at our school. Kids said, "Hey, we want to do this," and I said, "Well how would you? What are the steps that you have to take to getting them to go in to pitch it to administration, to pitch it to building leadership team of saying, "Here's how we would do this, here is the plan that we'd execute."

  • Coley: That's become a huge tradition for us now. Every year we're able to do that and it started because of one group of students having a crazy idea and then saying, "Here's how we would execute this idea so that it's not necessarily crazy, it's organized and it's well thought out and there's a plan for everything." It's been able to create those opportunities for students, and I think it creates a more positive atmosphere in just the way in which I think. Because I consider myself and Optimistic Realist. The realism in me always wants to say, "This isn't gonna work," because in my mind I don't have a plan for it. But the optimistic part of me gives them that opportunity and the coolest part for me is just when these things that I would have never that could actually happen, start to form and start to become a new reality, that's just a good reminder for me to recognize that there is more possibilities out there than I might have believed in to begin with.

  • John: Love it. Love the idea. I love how these can keep things fresh and new instead of feeling like it's the same thing that we've always done, which is so key, not just to the longevity of the adults that are a part of this work but, the students and continuing to create that strong school culture and climate. Thank you so much Coley for being on with us today. If someone did have a question or something wanted to follow up or connect, is there a way that people can connect with you? I know you're a busy man, but is there ways that people could connect with you if they wanted to follow up after this, either on social media and/or through email?

  • Coley: Yeah, absolutely. The social media is @Coley.Veitenhans for Twitter, and that's my most frequent platform and then the same at Gmail, Coley.Veitenhans@gmail.com. I'm happy to connect to share ideas, or if you've got some new ones for me I'm always willing to learn too.

  • John: Awesome. Love it, and we'll put that information in the text of the podcast as well. But thanks for being on with us man. I look forward some future conversations with you down the road.

  • Coley: Appreciate being here. Thanks.

  • John: All right, take care.

  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode feel free to share it 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.


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