Maslow’s Hammer Time

Written By: Bryan Slater

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails.” -Abraham Maslow

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I believe it was the Fall of 2012 when I first read this quote to my Theory of Knowledge seniors as we began preparing to write the infamous TOK Essay. I remember the explosion of curiosity it generated in the classroom as we began to discuss points and counterpoints to this claim. “Does it mean we force people to cave to our will?” implored one student. “I don’t know. To me it means that we turn all people into things that they are not in order to make sense of them,” responded another. The beauty of Maslow’s Hammer is that it can apply to so many concepts in education, one of which involves the way we approach challenges in our own classroom.

“When the only tool you have is detention, all problems can be solved by detention.”

“When the only tool you have is an outburst, all problems can be solved by outbursts.”

“When the only tool you have is to belittle people, all problems can be solved by belittling people.”

As the years have passed, I’ve found myself going back to the concepts embedded in this quotation time and time again. It applies to so many of the methods our students use to solve the problems in their lives. While personality certainly plays a role in the *way* students approach solutions to their problems, the tools they have at their disposal when it comes to solving those problems vary greatly and are taught in many different places - some students learn about them at home, some at their place of worship, some from the School of Hard Knocks - each context providing a unique set of approaches to problem-solving.

I recently had a student who approached me because he was frustrated: “Mr. Slater, it just doesn’t feel like these kids care. None of them are listening to the solutions I have to a massive problem in our school. What am I doing wrong?” As I listened, I noticed the student was using the phrase, “these kids,” pretty frequently. I then referred the student to Maslow’s Hammer and explained: If you see someone trying to drive a screw into the wall with a hammer with no success, what are you most inclined to do? You’re going to tell them all about a screwdriver and then show them how to use it, right? But if you approach that person by saying, “Hey idiot…haven’t you ever heard of a screwdriver? Gah…these kids don’t know anything,” how likely are they to be receptive to what you know? And in that moment, there was an “ah ha.” I had just taught him about Maslow’s Hammer by using the concept of Maslow’s Hammer. And he was receptive! “These kids,” was the wrong tool. “My peers” or “my classmates” makes all of the difference. “So you’re saying if I approach them as if they’re my equal, they’ll be more likely to listen?”


The same holds true for teachers; when you refer to our students as “these kids,” you are releasing yourself from responsibility to the solution. On the other side of the coin is the use of the term “my kids.” I was talking with my sister about this and she told me this great anecdote of what can happen when we refer to our students as “my kids.”

When I taught I always referenced "my kids", but even that's a problem. Because I had a lot more patience or love with "my kids". When I would hear one of "my kids" walking down the hall doing something not up to par in regards to say language or wearing their hat when they shouldn’t have etc…I’d have the patience and love to handle that situation with accountability and grace for the student. Did I have the same patience or love enough to talk to the student I didn't really know or think of as one of "my kids"? In other words, was I treating all students as “our kids?” Probably not. If I saw all of "our students" as "my kids" maybe I would have”.


Try using the tool, “our students,” and see what changes in both the receptivity that others have to your ideas as well as the receptivity your own students have to be a vested party in your career/life.

Maslow’s Hammer raises more questions than it provides answers, there’s no doubt about that. However, it does make one wonder, “What social-emotional tools are my students coming to my class prepared with on a daily basis?” “What if every social-emotional “tool” their parents/guardians use at home is a hammer? How/why would they know that a screwdriver exists -let alone know how to use it - if they’ve never been exposed to one and seen the ease it brings to the lives of others? Every one of our kids today deserves to know how to use the whole gamut of tools available to them to solve the many problems they will encounter on a daily basis. Hammers don’t always work. If they don’t know the tool exists and as a result don’t know how to use it when it’s made available, whose job is it to teach them? It is my position that this task, to a greater extent than it already is, falls on the shoulders of the education system and that system is obliged to introduce the tools of respectfulness, patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment; the tools of love. Beyond that, they are also obliged to teach students what it looks like when those tools are used correctly. To learn more about these tools and the importance of them in the lives of our children, check out this video.

About the Author:
Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has spent the last 15 years teaching high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics and Theory of Knowledge to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sumner High School. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. He believes the Eight Essentials are the key to those relationships and works hard to challenge his fellow colleagues and students to think about how they are creating their "Character Brand" as teachers and learners through the 1,000's of choices they make each day.

Overcoming Adversity - Together We Rise

Written By: Lauren Ambeau


On August 27, 2017, in the dark hours of the morning, I turned on the TV and the images shown there will never leave me. I saw a neighborhood I knew well, a neighborhood which over a third of our students lived, with houses engulfed in water up to the top of their bottom story windows.  I saw three students I knew personally, their younger siblings, parents, and pets, in rescue boats with no shoes, their eyes filled with fear and loss. Hurricane Harvey and the flood waters it brought offered no mercy to our hard-working families. As my mind began to run through the list of students whom I knew resided there, I thought of the 600 other students who lived just miles from this area, staff who lived amongst our students, and then of our building, less than 2 miles from the scenes playing on repeat on TV, and now forever in my head.

Three days later when the water subsided enough for me to enter the building, my fearful suspicions were met with confirmation. The building still held at least a foot of water throughout. Bookshelves in classrooms and the library were upturned and swelled with water, cozy couches where students once curled up to learn and collaborate were soaked. The smell of mold already settling in, the wood of classroom doors, desks, chairs, and tables were damp and bulged. Both gym floors, just replaced the summer before, curved like a skate park.

Just 2 days after the storm hit, a picture of the front of our school. We had not yet been in to see what the inside may hold.

Just 2 days after the storm hit, a picture of the front of our school. We had not yet been in to see what the inside may hold.

My head swam with worry and my heart was overwhelmed with sadness. The building which once served as a refuge for so many of our students was now destroyed. The very students who had just lost their homes would now realize they lost their warm classrooms as well. Staff who poured years upon years of thought, time, energy, and money into making their classrooms inspiring, engaging and safe homes for our students were gone. As I exited the building and walked to my car that afternoon, I prayed for the strength to know what the next steps were and for the right words of comfort and hope to share when the time came. While the world I knew was afloat, I would find myself relying on the foundation we had spent the last two years building more than I could have ever imagined.

Boxes were piled high as we packed in preparation for the re-build process to begin. Time was of the essence. We desperately wanted our students to return together with the rest of Clear Creek ISD in the same building.

Boxes were piled high as we packed in preparation for the re-build process to begin. Time was of the essence. We desperately wanted our students to return together with the rest of Clear Creek ISD in the same building.

I became principal at Brookside Intermediate in August of 2015 after having served as an elementary principal for 4 years prior. Upon entering the halls of Brookside for the first time, I was overcome with work ahead of me to create a place where students and staff WANT to be, a place where students and staff CHOOSE to be, and a place where the voices of EACH member of our school family matter. The foundation was rocky, crumbling, and in dire need of repair from the inside out, from the hearts to the heads. Over the next two years, the work to repair and rebuild what we stood for and stood on was grueling, emotional, and exhausting.  It was also exhilarating, rewarding, and life changing. Without this work to move to more solid ground, collectively we would have drowned as a result of Harvey. We would never have survived the rebuild of our homes and hearts while still providing our students a place to belong and learn without the firm foundation we had so intentionally labored over.  

Laying a foundation in which real learning and real relationships can form is the very foundation needed to overcome adversity as a team. Little did I know at the time that our foundation would be tested to such measures.

Here are three things I have learned about building a strong foundation:

1.   Move from a culture of compliance to a culture of caring.

When students are forced to come to a school created for and designed for what makes the adults in the building comfortable, students quickly become disillusioned, resentful, and apathetic because school is happening to them as opposed to with them. When students become resentful, disillusioned, and apathetic this manifests as behavior. When behavior strikes and the adults in the building are not afforded proper supports, curriculum, and deeper understandings as to the root of the behavior, we begin to overemphasize compliance over learning. Our actions show students we care more about the following of the rules WE made than we do about their well-being, learning, and happiness. When we as leaders fail to create a place where educators can receive the emotional support they need to learn and grow to best support students, we end up with toxic cultures focused heavily on compliance and not enough on caring. Had we not spent so much time analyzing the root of our students’ behavior, we would have been grossly ill-prepared and equipped to support our students as they grieved the loss of their worlds post-Harvey.

2.   Create space for social-emotional learning (SEL).

Picture of one of our classrooms with dehumidifiers and stripped of carpet. Carpet was fully replaced across the entire building by February of that year.

Picture of one of our classrooms with dehumidifiers and stripped of carpet. Carpet was fully replaced across the entire building by February of that year.

The gym floor repair work begins. Students were bused in the early hours of the morning for a year for practice while the gyms were repaired throughout the school year. We hosted our first home basketball game on our new floors for the first time in a year just a few short weeks ago!

The gym floor repair work begins. Students were bused in the early hours of the morning for a year for practice while the gyms were repaired throughout the school year. We hosted our first home basketball game on our new floors for the first time in a year just a few short weeks ago!

After Hurricane Harvey, our Brookside teachers took on the role of first responders to our students’ social and emotional needs daily. Many of these very teachers had been flooded themselves. They became really good at tucking away their own stress, fear, and anxiety so they could be present for their students. A year before Hurricane Harvey hit, through analysis of office and counseling referrals as well as student, staff, and family climate surveys, our Brookside staff unanimously agreed we needed time and space to better connect with our kids outside of content, as well as a safe place for students to express themselves. We added a daily 25-minute “class meeting” time to our schedule fully committed to use this time with intention and keep it sacred. Our staff needed the same for themselves and for each other. One of the greatest lessons in my leadership journey came at this time, in year 2 at a new school. I had to ask myself the honest question,

“How am I intentionally nurturing the social & emotional needs of our staff?” I made a commitment to be thoughtful and strategic about creating safe places and time for adults to learn and grow. “After all, people will only value what you have allowed them to experience.” Adults deserve and need this opportunity too! Looking back now, I know for certain without “class meeting” time as students and staff returned from Harvey, we would have left many adults and children without the emotional resources they needed to recover.

3. Define and know your purpose.  

When we as leaders fail to set a compelling and agreed upon mission which we reference frequently, we begin to see cracks in the foundation of our organizations. Through these cracks, complacency, mediocrity, and confusion seep into daily practices and become a part of our organizational DNA. It sounds obvious that as schools our purpose would include learning. The tough part for our team which required the most trust and honesty was HOW we believe we bring about the highest levels of learning for ALL students daily. Repairing the cracks in our foundation meant honest self-evaluations about our roles as it relates to student learning and how prepared we felt we were to do this work. When I talk about purpose, I am stressing the importance that EVERY member of the organization is deeply committed to their role in the school’s mission. We link arms and agree that we don’t settle when new behaviors emerge that challenge our thinking. We grow and change together in response to our changing student demographic. We post our mission and purposes visibly so we are reminded daily to measure our actions and thoughts to ensure alignment. We share our purposes often and reflect on new learning required to achieve this purpose daily. Through the flood waters of Harvey, our clearly defined purpose was the anchor reminding us all why we are here.  

Each staff member routinely reflects on their purpose as it relates to our Brookside mission and has them posted outside their doors. We share our purposes with our students in our “class meetings.”

Each staff member routinely reflects on their purpose as it relates to our Brookside mission and has them posted outside their doors. We share our purposes with our students in our “class meetings.”

Research shows that 12-18 months after a tragedy, such as Hurricane Harvey, can prove to be even tougher than the initial aftermath. In our case, we would say this is true for so many of our families whose “normal” has yet to return and whose houses still lack the feeling of home. Relying on the steady foundation we spent quality time building is helping us weather this “second” storm.  

Our “BulldogStrong” staff as we prepared to open the doors to our students for their “second” first day of school after Harvey. We were ready! The amount of love and dedication this team showed to get our building ready inspires me often!

Our “BulldogStrong” staff as we prepared to open the doors to our students for their “second” first day of school after Harvey. We were ready! The amount of love and dedication this team showed to get our building ready inspires me often!

Another example of a note posted outside a staff member’s door. We share our purposes with our students in our “class meetings.”

Another example of a note posted outside a staff member’s door. We share our purposes with our students in our “class meetings.”

Character Dares to try as you lead your campus or classroom:

  1. Give your students a voice in the creation of campus/classroom rules and procedures.  Challenge yourself when teaching procedures to explain the “WHY” behind them so that students can clearly see the place of concern and care the procedure supports as opposed to the overemphasis on compliance for reasons they may not understand.  

  2. Make time to connect with students on a social and emotional level and watch what it does for your campus/classroom culture.  It may appear you are taking valuable instructional minutes, but in the end you will get this time back as students are more ready and prepared to enter into new learning with you and for you.

  3. Publish your personal mission for the work you do daily and share it with kids.  Post it in a place for all to see. Then empower your students with time to write and share their personal mission statements.  When we know are “WHY” our “WHAT” becomes more powerful.

About the Author:
Lauren Ambeau is the principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD, former elementary school principal, strong advocate for increasing SEL in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership. She was the Clear Creek ISD Secondary Principal of the year in 2016-2017 and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled Vulnerable Leadership.

Discovering the Joy Beyond Happiness

Written By: Kay Dodge
Brent Grothe                                           


Bookstores are full of books on how to be happier, and if you don’t like reading, you can find hundreds of podcasts on the subject. Characters in TV shows and movies tell each other all the time they, “just want them to be happy,” and make major life changes in pursuit of their own happiness. The radio is full of songs about happiness (or lack thereof), as is poetry, and social media feeds, T-shirts, stickers, water bottles--you name it, and you can find one with a smiley face on it, or some other message about happiness. Everybody wants to be happy--after all, it is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

One would think with everyone wanting to be happy, we would be pretty good at it. It turns out that is not the case, in fact, the opposite is true: we are exceptionally terrible at finding happiness. We don’t understand what happiness is, and this causes us to chase after illusions and misunderstandings that ultimately bring us no closer to our goal than we were in the first place. One misunderstanding is thinking that happiness is a thing. We think that the next A on a test, the next pay raise, the next new car or new boyfriend will bring happiness.  We get so used to the habit of getting more things to feed our happiness cravings that we even begin to treat people as things - they become “its” to us that we use to get the feelings we so desperately want. However, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” Eventually, we lose everything, and yet we put an awful lot of hope in things, including people. What once brought a smile to our face will inevitably become old news, and no longer bring us the happiness we seek. So, we move on to the next thing-- the next test, the possible promotion, a newer car, a better boyfriend. Instead of understanding the ineffectiveness of treating happiness as an object, we become even more determined to find the next big thing to give us that happy feeling, thinking that next time, next time, that feeling won’t go away. Except it always does.


Another big misunderstanding we have is thinking that happiness comes from comparing ourselves and coming out on top - also called the happiness of comparative advantage. We compare how we look, how much money we make, how much prettier our girlfriend is, how smart we are, car models, houses, social media posts, careers, and on and on and on. It never ends. If we compare and believe we are superior, we feel good, but if we compare and believe we are inferior, we feel resentment. If a comparison is the dominant source of happiness, we will constantly be obsessed with seeking that next win, and paranoid that others are trying to keep us from it. We must admit that this comparison comes from our pride, and so Lewis says, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” Just like treating happiness as a thing, trying to find happiness in comparison only brings a temporary jolt of happiness, and ultimately leaves us feeling the same or even worse than before.

Even if we were able to figure out how to be happy all the time, it still wouldn’t bring us what we are seeking. Think about it-- the reason we can feel happiness is because we have something to compare it to -- sadness. Without sorrow, we can’t appreciate happiness, and furthermore, will never truly experience deep joy. Kahlil Gibran describes it perfectly in the excerpt from his poem “On Joy and Sorrow.”

   Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes
Filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more you can
 Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the
Potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was
Hollowed with knives?

The truth is, we only think that we want to be happy all the time. Yes, we are seeking something, but that something isn’t happiness -- it is meaning, and from meaning -- joy.


Instead of thinking that life owes us something, and asking what life has to offer us, we need to change our mindset and ask what we have to offer life. We are the ones that owe life something.

This is the switch we need to make to get away from our methods of obtaining false happiness and move towards a meaningful, joy-filled life. Erich Fromm put it well when he said, “The essential difference between the unhappy, neurotic type person and him of great joy is the difference between get and give.”    

Sometimes life can be really, really hard. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes the car breaks down, and we lose our jobs, and the people we love get sick, and it feels like the entire universe is against us. If we live for happiness, our lives lose meaning when we suffer, for suffering destroys the conditions necessary for happiness. Searching for happiness is a black hole - it sucks the life right out of us; we never get enough, and we are never good enough. Yet if we live for meaning, suffering won’t have the same devastating impact. Joy expands; the more joy we give, the more joy we have to give. Staying late from the football game to help clean up or standing outside to hold doors for people during the winter are unpleasant tasks, yet it can be a suffering we gladly choose knowing the greater purpose it serves. When we remember the people we are loving through our service, our suffering becomes flooded with meaning. Then we are willing to joyfully embrace suffering, knowing we are living for a bigger purpose than our own happiness.

Character Dares

  • The next time you’re in the midst of suffering, instead of looking inward and slipping into self-pity, look outward to see if you can respond in a loving way to something or someone around you.

  • Work on catching yourself when you start comparing to others. Rather slipping into resentful inferiority or prideful superiority, make a connection with that person instead, and let her know how much you admire the effort she is making, or how happy you are for his success - and mean it from your heart. Notice how, over time, this will erode your natural, but nasty comparison habit.

  • The next time you are involved in an activity or relationship, take a moment to reflect on whether you’re doing it for joy or to prove something to yourself and others in an attempt to make you feel like you’re enough.  

  • Be attentive to how you listen and speak in your relationships - do the hard work of examining your heart for hints that you’re manipulating and using people in attempts to make yourself happy. If you find those signals, which we all do, confess it to yourself and then change to more other-focused, loving, empathic responses. It’s difficult and humbling to do, but over time will lead to increasingly meaningful, authentic relationships where we will eventually even choose to suffer for the sake of the others - and consider it pure joy.

About the Author:
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.

Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.

My CharacterStrong Pilgrimage - One Teacher’s Journey to Build Character

Written By: Andy DiDomenico

When I was a teenager, my ninety-two-year-old grandfather came to live with my family. He was born in the nineteenth century, worked as a lawyer at New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall, and was a man of his times. By the 1990s, much of his perspective on the world was outdated. His views were intolerant, biased and, sometimes, bigoted. I accepted him for what he was: a grumpy, old man. But one event changed my worldview and, in retrospect, my life forever.

One afternoon, I was bounding up the stairs when I stopped before my front door to hear my father scolding my grandfather. My dad was instructing him there was an impressionable teenager in the house and his behavior had to stop. The lessons from that brief interaction stuck with me to this day. Prejudice and intolerance are not acceptable. We must not judge people by race, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation but, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “by the content of their character.”  My journey into manhood and into the education profession has been focused on creating inclusiveness, personal relationships, and character culture.

Fast forward to 2006, I accepted the head football coaching position at my high school alma mater. The program had fallen on hard times. It was a mess practically, philosophically, and culturally. From the outset, our staff embarked on building a program of character and an organization of which our families, school, and community would be proud.

We committed weekly practice time to character education lessons centered on love, commitment, grit, humility, and service to others. The positive impacts were felt immediately.  Our program flourished on the field and in the school community. By 2013, along with a world-class athletic director, Dr. Liam Frawley, our football and athletic programs were recognized locally, regionally, and nationally culminating with the National Public High School Athletic Program of Excellence awarded by Coach and Athletic Director magazine. Building on our athletic successes, Dr. Frawley and I looked to extend the character focus and infusion of core values into the classroom.


This is where our progress stalled. We compiled research and anecdotal evidence in support of introducing a character and leadership class.  Yet, even with years of reading, professional development, and conference attendance, we were unequipped to implement a comprehensive, intentional character development curriculum at the high school level. That’s when the Twitterverse intervened.

In February 2016, I stumbled across a tweet by John Norlin containing the Greek word, agape.  Agape is deliberate, selfless, unconditional love and care for the well-being of others. This one word was my hook. I dove into John’s tweets to learn more about his philosophy, mission, and vision for bringing social-emotional learning to young people. The more I read about John and the CharacterStrong team, the more I knew I had to bring the CharacterStrong curriculum back to New York.

In August 2016 my wife and I flew to Seattle for a five-day vacation culminating in a full day CharacterStrong training. As soon as I met John and walked into the room full of like-minded educators I knew I had found the answer. The why, what, and, most importantly, the how was so evident and the CharacterStrong curriculum has become the connective tissue of our social-emotional program. Enrollment in our character leadership class has quadrupled in just three years as students gravitate to relationship-building, servant-leadership, and intentionally practicing our core values.

While that day in the early 90s changed my worldview forever, our CharacterStrong pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest gave me the tools to bring my vision for a more just world to life - in my classroom and beyond.  

About the Author:
Andy DiDomenico is a History and Leadership teacher at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY, Sprint Football coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and advocate for building character culture and social-emotional wellness in schools and education based athletic programs. He has had the opportunity to share his mission and vision with educators nationally, most recently at the National Convention in Washington, DC, and recounts his character journey in his blog titled My CharacterStrong Pilgrimage.

Leaving a Legacy: Character Lessons from Dr. King

Written By: Erin Jones

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Martin Luther King, Jr.,"I Have A Dream" speech, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

Everyone in the United States and likely most people around the world have heard this speech. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a federal holiday to honor the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, often recognized as the chief spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. We celebrate this holiday every January. All public institutions have a day off on January 21st. Most public schools have assemblies and other special events the week before or after to honor Dr. King for his sacrifices and promotion of nonviolent protest.

Martin Luther King Speaking.jpg

After serving in schools for over 25 years now, my experience has been that most students believe MLK Day is just about Black people. Most students (and often educators) are only familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech and the fact that King was assassinated. Although this speech was pivotal in propelling King to national and international recognition, Dr. King cared about more than just the rights of Black people. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War and initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that hoped to compel the government to do more to help the poor get jobs, health care, and decent housing.

In the last 10 years, I have had the opportunity to speak in over 100 MLK assemblies. I see each one as an opportunity to promote the character required to live a life of consequence, to challenge young people to believe their actions and words matter, that they, too, can make a significant difference in the world. They don’t need to have a title. They don’t need to be adults. They don’t need to take on a big cause like the Civil Rights Movement. They just need to be willing to stand for something bigger than themselves and to believe their words matter.


I challenge young people to start small. Do something as simple as sitting with a student who is eating lunch alone or be intentional about telling a classmate you like their new hair color or earrings. Say “please” and “thank you” to the students and adults who help you or take an action that benefits you. Then move into something requiring greater responsibility - start a food or clothing bank at your school and be on the lookout for ways to support students who are in need. Learn to say “hello”, “how are you”, “thank you” in the language of a student who is a recent immigrant or an exchange student.

In a speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967, Martin Luther King said, “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

Great character does not require doing the big things that lead to having a national holiday in your name. Great character is how you choose to live in the “regular” moments, how you choose to treat others around you when you are not in the spotlight. 20 or 30 years after your death, how will people remember you? That is character.

About the Author:
Erin Jones has been involved in and around schools for the past 26 years. She has taught in a variety of environments, from predominantly Black to predominantly White to some of the most diverse communities in the nation. Erin received an award as the Most Innovative Foreign Language Teacher in 2007, while working in Tacoma and was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year in 2008 while teaching in Spokane. She received recognition at the White House in March of 2013 as a “Champion of Change” and was Washington State PTA’s “Outstanding Educator” in 2015. After serving as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, Erin worked as an executive for two State Superintendents. Erin left the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012 to work in college-access at the school district level. She left her job to run as a candidate for State Superintendent and was the first Black woman to run for any state office in Washington state, a race she lost by a mere 1%. She and her husband of 25 years have a daughter who recently graduated from Central Washington University, a son who is a senior at Harvey Mudd College and one who coaches high school football with husband, James, who is a high school teacher in the North Thurston School District.

Don't Take Anyone For Granted: A Survivor’s Take on Being CharacterStrong


Written By: Parvati Shallow


When I was 25, I competed on a little game show that some of you may know called Survivor. For those of you who somehow missed it...or if you have just gotten swept up in the incredible world of Netflix, Survivor is a show where 20 castaways are stranded on an island and have to compete with one another to win the ultimate title of “Sole Survivor” and the million dollar check that comes with it.

The craziest aspect of the game is that the people with whom you are competing and voting off will ultimately have the power to select the winner of the game. To win, you have to vote people off in such a way that they still like you and respect you enough, in the end, to give you their winning vote.

On the island, we’re stripped of every comfort. We have no food, no shelter, no warm clothes, nothing to protect us from the elements. Daily life is consumed with the basic tasks of surviving— gathering wood, starting a fire, boiling water, opening coconuts.

As if this isn’t grueling enough, we are placed in a group of eccentric people who come from vastly different backgrounds. We are huddled together at night for warmth, working together to survive and joining forces as a team to win challenges. Some of these people are cool, and some are seriously annoying.

But at 25 years old, I was a competitive beast. With every beat of my heart, I heard the words, “Win it...Win it...Win it.” Yeah, you could say I was in it to win it. I knew that, in order to win the game, I needed to create relationships with all of these people.

But one person on my tribe really got under my skin. I mean this girl was Annoying with a capital “A.” You have probably encountered someone who makes you feel this way — whenever you hear their voice, you just want to run far, far away. And no matter how far you run, they always seem to pop up just around the corner. Well, this girl popped up around every bush and palm tree that I tried to hide behind. She talked incessantly. She was completely paranoid and jumpy. She was always watching me. On top of all of that, she wanted to vote me out!

Because I wanted to win so badly, I knew I needed to try to be nice to her, but I could not get past how much she irritated me. So instead of trying to get to know her to understand more about why she was so unsettled or why she was targeting me, I was mean. I made fun of her and talked about her behind her back with the other girls. I kept her out of the group and isolated her.

When the show aired, I watched my mean girl behavior on national TV. It was brutal.
I felt horrible about how I had treated this girl. It’s rare in life that we get an opportunity to see our actions and words played back. I got to see myself as an outsider. I didn’t like what I saw.

About a month later, the whole cast gathered at the live finale where the winner was announced.
I won! Do you want to know why I won? Because the girl I had been so nasty to — she voted for me. She had the power to ruin me — and instead, she helped make my dream come true. I was in shock. I was humbled. I felt like a total jerk. I knew I didn’t deserve her vote, but she had given it to me anyway. Wow. Why?

This experience taught me so much. I learned that everyone matters. You never know when you will be in a situation where you will need the kindness of another. It’s important to value everyone. Be kind to everyone.

Photo courtesy of reality TV World

Photo courtesy of reality TV World

Live your life like you’re going to have to watch yourself replayed on national television. Will you like what you see?

When you find yourself in a situation like mine — where you are put in a place with someone who you don’t understand and you may not like very much — take a moment and remember that everyone matters. Choose kindness. Treat each person well. Who knows, that person just may become your biggest supporter. Maybe someday they’ll be in a position to make your biggest dream come true. And when that day comes, be sure that you are worthy of their vote.

P.S. - To be clear, after taking the time to get to know this girl, my perception about her evolved. Now, I’m glad to consider her a friend.

Here are some CharacterDares to Foster Connection With People Outside Your Normal Sphere:

1. Think of someone who you see regularly and that you typically avoid talking to — seek out that person to engage in a conversation with the goal of finding an area of similarity with them. When you have discovered how you are alike, acknowledge it, and notice if/how that changes how you feel about the person.

2. At lunch, look for someone who is sitting alone (either a student or colleague). Ask if you can sit next to them. Pay them a compliment and then share something about your life with them.

3. Give the lunch server or the custodian a high five and a compliment. Thank them for always showing up, and let them know how much you appreciate the great work they do. Take it one step further by sticking around for a few more minutes and asking them about their lives. For example, “Hey, I’ve always been curious, what do you love to do outside of work?"

About the Author:
Parvati Shallow is a Life & Business Coach and yoga teacher. As a three-time competitor and winner of CBS’s hit series SURVIVOR, she learned that kindness can coexist with competition. In her coaching work, she helps people to create the life of their dreams in service to their own hearts and empowered from the inside out. Starting in 2019, she will be a CharacterStrong presenter. You can find her on sunny days cruising the streets of Venice, California with her husband John and her new baby girl Ama.

3 Things Your Students Need Coming Back From Break

Written By: Lindsay Norlin

Coming back to the classroom after two weeks off is often times not only difficult for students, but teachers as well. It's important that we all take a day to ease back into the swing of things and also gauge the well-being of our students. As we all know, the holidays can be a joyous time for some, but for others it can be a source of stress and instability. Here are three things you can do that first week back to check-in on your students, build community and remind them of your expectations.

1. Temperature Check - It is important to check-in with students to see where they are at coming back from break. In secondary classrooms this can be tough provided the amount of students a teacher has and the difficulty it might be for some students to share what is going on publicly for all to hear. Here is a simple google survey you can replicate that is a quick, but effective way to do a temperature check on all students that allows them the privacy to share with you individually. Feel free to make a copy and use it with your own students. We have seen teachers use check-in tools like this on a weekly basis, which over time allows students to feel more and more comfortable to share what is going on outside of the classroom. This allows teachers the opportunity to connect individually and show interest in their current situation or provide support if needed. It can take the guessing game out of teaching when a kid has their head down or seems uninterested in the lesson. It can also provide opportunities to build relationships with your students on things they share through the survey.


2. Revisit Expectations - It is our belief that ALL people need to be reminded more than they need to be taught. As a teacher, I often needed to be reminded of my copy code in January and what lunch I had on late start Wednesdays. Our students need these reminders as well. Coming back from break is a great time to remind students what the expectations are in your classroom surrounding daily procedures like cell phone use, when to use the pencil sharpener and how to transition from one activity to another. It helps to actually give students scenarios and let them physically practice it. Add some humor by allowing kids to demonstrate the wrong way to do things, just don't forget to model the correct way as well! Remember, that besides your normal classroom expectations, what kind of expectations do you have around building relationships inside and outside your classroom each day?


3.  Build Community - Every teacher knows the feeling of those first staff meetings coming off of summer break, and any great administrator knows it would be a terrible move to start off that staff meeting going over the school improvement plan. Provide your students an enjoyable activity to remind them that building relationships with their peers is important and enjoyable. Your students will thank you for giving them one day to ease into the swing of things before jumping into your lesson on the "Causes of the Great Depression" or "Newton's Three Laws of Motion". Here is an activity you can use with your students to get them up and moving and interacting with their peers. If you have done this activity before, it never hurts to do it again. Simply encourage them to find a new partner to conduct the activity with.

Enjoy this first week back and remember that for some of your students the one consistent safe and positive place in their life is your classroom. As tough as it is coming back from break for most of us, the impact you make on a daily basis is unmatched by most professions. Thank you for what you do each day for kids. Let’s make 2019 a great year that focuses on supporting the whole child!

About the Author: Lindsay Norlin was a Social Studies Teacher for ten years at Sumner High School where she taught U.S. History, Contemporary World, You and the Law and IB Psychology. She strongly believes developing character and supporting the Whole Child is key to a student's success as she saw first-hand the impact it had on her students. This year she began working for CharacterStrong in terms of helping coordinate trainings, support schools implementing the curriculum and provide CharacterStrong resources for teachers. 

5 Reasons to be Grateful this Holiday Season

Written By: John Norlin 

Student and coach laughing

Let’s be real: working in education can feel at times like a thankless job. Ever-increasing demands, lack of time, resources, and support can easily lead to bitterness if an attitude of gratitude is not developed and maintained. However, there is a lot to be grateful for this holiday season when it comes to working in education. Many times the most purposeful work isn’t connected to financial paychecks, but what I like to call the “million dollar paychecks.” These paychecks come from knowing the work you are doing is potentially impacting the trajectory of young people's’ lives each and every day. It is knowing that the world was possibly made better because of your influence. Henry Brooks Adams once said, “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.” As educators across our country finish up what can be an exhausting stretch before the holidays, let’s remember these reasons to be grateful for the important role they play in the lives of students and families.

1. The Job Of An Educator is Never Boring
One of the best parts of working in education is that no day is ever exactly the same. Students bring their different personalities, their moods that are sometimes up and sometimes down, and their hopes and dreams - whether spoken or unspoken, known or not known. There are times in teaching when everything seems to click, and you feel the new learning bulbs lighting up everywhere. There are other times when you feel the weight of carrying the adversity your students are dealing with and teaching your content area seems so far from what your students need. The master teacher embraces the dynamic nature of their classroom and can find joy in realizing that there are so many fun and meaningful moments that can come from working with young people.

2. You Will Be Remembered
It is important to realize that, as an educator, it is not a question of whether you will be remembered, it is just whether it will be for a positive or negative reason. Although servant-leadership has been around for a really long time, it was Robert Greenleaf who coined the phrase in the 1970’s. Greenleaf noted that the ultimate test of a servant-leader is whether people are better off because of your leadership, especially those with the least amount of power. I think the same ultimate test should be used in teaching. Teachers influence students every day. What a gift to know that you are thought of and spoken about each week by so many students in so many families. Not only will you be remembered in the present, but also in the future - decades after you’ve taught them as students. Your name will be mentioned at future high school reunions or even when your students are telling stories to their own children. That is both a responsibility not be taken lightly and a gift to carry you through the difficult times. Students are always watching and learning. Everything you do is a teachable moment.

3. You Get To Be a Constant
Research has shown that school leaders and classroom teachers need to be consistent in their approach each day if they want to see positive results. Consistency develops trust in your school and individual classrooms. Developing trust includes having high expectations and high support in the relationships educators build with their students. At the foundation of an educators work, it is all about relationships. Of course this relates to the systems that we create in our schools and classrooms related to academics and behavior. But the most important constant is unconditional love. The reality is, for many students, an educator may be the one constant demonstration of unconditional love that they experience all day. The number one way we are going to teach strong character and emotional intelligence to students is to role model it as adults. The key reminder with unconditional love is that you don’t have to “feel like it” to do it. In fact, when you understand that you can love someone and not even like them, you are beginning to learn what real love is. What a gift to give students each day. To receive them with patience, open arms, forgiveness, and commitment.

4. Teaching Humbles You
Why would someone be grateful for something that humbles them, especially when it is through difficult situations that sometimes rock your core - the ones that cause you to question if you were even meant to be a teacher in the first place? The reason is that it tests your ability to persevere. Teaching pushes you to stick with things, even when it is hard and humbling. Educators are responsible for the learning and well-being of so many young people’s lives each day. Unlike many other professions, educators don’t really have the choice to take days off, (especially when it is more work to be gone than it is to show up when it comes to writing sub plans). When you are humbled, you grow in ways you don’t always realize. You learn not to take yourself too seriously. This creates the ability to respond to undesirable behavior in more creative and positive ways. You learn to cherish little things because you realize it is a lot of little victories that lead to the big results we are hoping for. This creates the ability to focus on the whole child, even when it seems like the pressure of getting results seems overbearing. One of our favorite speakers, Tyler Durman, likes to say, “A commitment to growth is a commitment to pain.” Joy in teaching is a gift wrapped in a lot of humbling moments.

5. Purpose
Ask a majority of people around you what their ultimate goal is in life and many will say it is to be happy. Maybe the key to finding happiness is actually in striving for clear purpose? Why do you do what you do? When you know your WHY, your WHAT becomes much more powerful and effective. Education is an incredibly purposeful profession. Anybody who has ever done anything great in our world can thank some teacher in their life for helping them along the way. The key is staying in touch with that purpose, even when times get hard! What a gift to be working in a profession where you wake up each day and know that what you do matters beyond what can be measured.

There is a lot to be grateful for. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and notice it. As educators head into the holidays, let’s not forget the incredibly important role each plays in the lives of students and their families. When thinking about all the different types of professions in the world, there are few that are asked to balance both being skilled at their profession and skilled at loving and supporting each of the people that they encounter every day they show up to work. Teachers don’t get to choose who their clients are, yet are required and willfully choose to relentlessly love their students in order to accomplish their goal of educating them. This is no easy task, but incredibly rewarding.

About the Author: John Norlin is a co-founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.

A Better Way

Written By: Kay Dodge and Brent Grothe         


Humility is a tough lesson. As humans, we think we know what to do based upon the fairly arrogant assumption that our minds, our own reason, is all we need to figure things out and find the right answer. Ask any high school kid from where truth comes, and many will claim that it comes from inside themselves. In other words they think they invent, so to speak, their own truth. Many adults agree, including the famous poet Walt Whitman, who wrote, “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”

Such writing suggests that there is some source of truth within us, that deep within our hearts we know better than our teachers, preachers, and any book we have ever read. To say such things is to dismiss thousands of years of accumulated wisdom which has been passed down in writing, shared experiences, and endless discussions. When we say truth comes from within us, we are really saying that we already know everything we will ever need to know. When we take a step back it becomes clear how our claim to truth isn’t one of knowledge, it’s of our ego. And history has, time and time again, shown us just how foolish and dangerous it is when we let our egos run the show.

Here’s a simple story to illustrate: Brent purchased a brand new truck. Unfortunately, his snug garage could barely fit his beautiful vehicle. The garage door barely closed over the back bumper. The driver’s door couldn’t open all the way without banging into the chest freezer. The basement door opened just far enough to let a person through without hitting the front bumper. The fridge door could open up just enough to wiggle out a gallon of milk before it hit the front tire. The drivers-side door could open with barely enough room for Brent to get inside. The potential for dents and scratches would make any new-car owner shiver.

So, Brent decided to truck-proof his garage. He hung a tennis ball from the ceiling to bump the windshield at just the right place to stop as he pulled straight in to make sure he didn’t hit the front of his truck while still being able to close the door. The corner of the chest freezer was covered with cardboard and duct tape. By the time he was done, the cramped, tiny garage was considerably less of a danger to his truck’s paint job. It took an hour to set it up and, when done, the truck was parked straight and secure. He called his wife Jan out to the garage to see his work, proudly explaining his brilliant solution to the truck-and-garage dilemma. She said, “That’s nice, sweetheart,” and retired back into the house. Brent stayed behind for one more satisfied look before following her into the house.


A year went by, and Brent continued to park his truck straight in the garage without a single scratch. Yes, it was difficult to get in and out of it, to get the milk out of the fridge, and to get downstairs, but it was worth it. Then, one day, Jan mentioned that she needed to borrow the truck to run a few errands. A couple hours after she returned, Brent went out into the garage to get something from the freezer. What he saw stopped him cold - Jan had parked the truck crooked, at an angle, in the garage! After all his work! Bothered, Brent stalked back to the kitchen to confront Jan as to why she parked the truck crooked.  She looked up from her work and said matter-of-factly, “because it’s easier to get out of.” He paused for a moment and then returned to the garage for a second look.

With the truck parked at an angle, the drivers-side door didn’t even come close to hitting the chest freezer. The basement door swung completely open, as did the fridge door.  All Jan had done was crank the wheel to the right as she came to a stop to create the slight angle. Brent stared for a full minute until he muttered aloud: “Brent, you’re an idiot.” It was so simple. So easy. Park the truck crooked. Wow.

Then it hit him: there was a better way to park the truck. There was a better way to park the truck. He hurried back to Jan and breathlessly explained his realization. “See?” he cried out. “I thought there was only one way to park the truck and that was to park it straight in! It never occurred to me to park the truck crooked because I didn’t think anybody did!” Jan nodded slightly.

“But you parked it crooked! See?” Jan nodded again, but this time with more enthusiasm.

Brent concluded, “We think we know the right answers, we think we have something all figured out, we think we know how things are supposed to be, but we really don’t know much! There’s a better way!”

So what does parking a truck in a garage have to do with humility? Why should we care whether or not Brent can easily access the milk in his fridge? The first answer is because it reminds us how, whether we like to admit it or not, the right answers we claim to find within ourselves actually come from the world around us. Brent didn’t think that parking his truck straight was the right way to do it because his parents parked their cars straight, his friends parked their cars straight, and he had only ever seen cars parked straight in garages. Our environment and past experiences impact us more than we realize. When we talk about from where we get our truth, it’s never a question of whether we find it within ourselves or from some outside source. The real question is from which outside source influence our understanding of the truth. As servant leaders, we must remember and be humbled by this fact - that our answers are not our own.

The second reason we should care is that Brent’s story demonstrates the importance of acknowledging, and fixing, our own mistakes. There are hundreds of different ways to practice servant leadership, and there are plenty of different ways to be a servant leader, yet all servant leaders understand their own limitations and have the humility to ask for help. We can’t come up with the best answers on our own. There is a better way to park the truck and we can’t figure it out by ourselves. When Jan parked the truck at an angle, Brent was humble enough to realize that her solution was better than his and changed his actions accordingly. When we hear things that go against what we have always done, with what we think is the truth, we need to be able to open ourselves up to the possibility - to humble ourselves to the possibility - that there is a better way to park the truck.

About the Authors: Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.

Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.

Push Past Obstacles

Written By: John Gaines          


I remember it like it was yesterday; I was in the process of planning my wedding, remodeling a house that I needed to have ready by my wedding day of September 23, 2017, I was speaking at assemblies all over the Pacific Northwest, and I was preparing to quit my job in corporate America. On top of all of that, I was the primary caregiver for my dad as he battled stage four lung cancer that would eventually take his life three weeks before my wedding. Through this particular season in my life, I realized that obstacles are real, but I also realized that, in life, we would never have to deal with more than what we were created to handle. I've built a business helping students and educators learn how to PUSH (patience, practice, persevere, etc. until something or success happens) past their obstacles. But in this season in life, it felt like every speech was an internal self-conversation that just so happened to take place out loud in front of thousands of people. As a child, I faced a tremendous amount of adversity and obstacles. I was no stranger to hard times, but for some reason through this specific season in life, my perspective on obstacles and how I viewed them changed forever. I learned three critical life lessons that helped me "PUSH past the Obstacles" in front of me. I hope you find these three lessons as beneficial as they were to me.

1.    We can’t always control the obstacles that come, but we can always control our response.

Newton third law of motion captures the essence of life obstacles in a simple yet profound way; for every action, there is always a reaction.  It is, therefore, up to each one of us to “react” appropriately to every emerging obstacle in order to be able to shape our life course (Ravich, 2017). The unpredictability of life in its happening means that we must always be ready for both good and bad if we are to be successful in our endeavors. Understanding this helps us be prepared and adaptive to life challenges, in such a way that does not distract us from our real-life purpose.

2.    Pain may be inevitable but always remember, suffering is optional.

As humans, we cannot choose who or what hurts us. However, we can decide if we are going to let the pain of being hurt dictate the rest of lives (Seligman, 2018). Most people who succumb to pain end up being miserable. I am not saying that we should not hurt nor show that we are hurt; instead, I am saying we should embrace the pain as a reality that allows us to understand ourselves, our students, our friends, and our community better.  

Fighting pain.jpeg

3.   Staying optimistic and positive in the midst of adversity does not guarantee everything will be okay, but it does mean that YOU will be okay no matter what happens.  

Optimism is a shield that should empower one to see beyond the immediate pain. Just like there are good times, buoyancy allows us to appreciate the bad times as a reality of life and a lesson to help us improve and strive to attain better results in the future (Pritchett, 2014).  

If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere. I learned a long time ago that the best preparation for tomorrow's obstacles is to do our best with managing today's obstacles. When, not if, but when you face your next obstacle remember those three critical lessons above, be your best, and most important do everything in your power to PUSH past that obstacle...your school, your students, your family, and your community need you to be GREAT.


Pritchett, P. (2014). Hard Optimism: Developing Deep Strengths For Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, Adversity, And Change.Arkansas: Pritchett, LP.

Ravich, L. (2017). Everlasting Optimism: 9 Principles for Success, Happiness and Powerful Relationships. Abingdon-On-Thames: Routledge Publishing.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. New York: Vintage Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. New York: Vintage Books

About the Author: John Gaines aka “John PUSH Gaines” is a former at-risk foster kid turned youth advocate, author, NCAA champion in football, motivational speaker and is the founder of the PUSH for Dream Leadership Academy. He has shared his inspiring story on television, at universities, nonprofit organizations, youth conferences, NBA skill camps, churches, and schools. He has worked with NBA superstars, Congress, educators, coaches & mental health professionals. You can read more about John on his website at or on

Dear New Advisor

Written By: Sally Rusk

Mrs. Markov stepped on the conductor box and her students immediately lifted their instruments with precision.  They played beautifully and looked at her with adoration and a hope approval. The next day I complimented her and their performance and she immediately launched into all the mistakes that were made.  The next day her students also highlighted mistakes that my untrained ear could not discern.

As a young advisor, I wanted that.  I wanted that precision and I wanted that adoration.  It’s embarrassing to admit that I wanted that adoration, but I’ve learned to lean into honesty and vulnerability.  Did I ever say, you must be perfect? Of course not, but my subtle message was, now that I’ve taught you how to be a good human, you must be a good human.  ALWAYS. When teachers told me about my leadership students’ mistakes in other classrooms-I came down hard and discussed how they were embarrassing the program when it was really they were embarrassing me.  Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that I was teaching them that perfection was the goal and behave because Ms. Rusk, the moral police was on the lookout for ways that they were messing up. Human beings mess up all the time but my process wasn’t honoring the journey.  I wasn’t someone that they could go to when they were struggling because they were working so hard to please me and be perfect in that process.


Being a teenager is hard.  It’s messy. Being a teenager in the era of social media and digital communication is even messier and one that I don’t think those of us that grew up excited when we got a landline in our bedroom can even begin to understand. After 9 years of guiding over 250 kids a year through social and emotional learning, I’ve grown tremendously in my approach and in my support of students.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Modeling vulnerability and growth is critical.  I mess up all the time and sometimes in my biggest mistakes, I’ve grown the most but only because I was willing to admit the mistakes and reflect.  Tell your students your mistakes. Model your thought process and be willing to be vulnerable when you’re working through some tough things. I don’t believe I have all the answers and I won’t stand up in front of them and act like I do anymore.  I believe this modeling has allowed students to see this 43-year-old is still growing. I always tell my students that the world is doomed if they’re done growing at 12,13, and 14 years old but I also think it’s doomed if I’m done growing at 43. Every week I put my character goals on the board.  Every week I tell them if I hit my goals or if I drove the struggle bus that week. Some weeks, I drive the struggle bus and they know when I do.

Allowing for growth reduces burnout for you and your students.  I used to make a big deal about how servant leader burnout is real and how we all have to be on the lookout for it.  I realized in a meeting with a former student recently that I don’t really talk about it anymore with students. Now don’t get me wrong, I still get drained in the gauntlet of activities but because the focus is on growth and not perfection, I feel more aligned with my purpose and I believe my students do too.  We write down our WHY every week and model character goals based on our why each week. We talk about how if our goals start to get away from our WHY we may be moving too far out of purpose. Most will agree that when we are rooted in purpose, we feel far more energized and are able to continue the servant leader journey.

An emphasis on growth activates trust with your students.  Trust is key in any relationship and especially when working with teenagers.  They have an almost inherent distrust in adults at this age and we must work to build that trust for them to allow us to speak into their lives.  If students come to us they are not only trusting us to keep things confidential, but they’re trusting us that we won’t condemn them when they are grappling with serious issues in their lives where they need guidance and support rather than judgment.  When students know that you expect mistakes, they’re far more likely to own the mistakes and reflect which we know is critical for growth.


I had the privilege of seeing so many of my former students I adore play their last home football game at Eastlake High School.  It was senior night and I was honored to cheer on former students on the field, in the band, on the cheer squad and dance team. So many former students came to say and hi with big smiles.  As I drove home, I reflected that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to going but I really wanted to cheer on some of the senior players. At times when I went up to the high school, I wasn’t always greeted with big smiles.  I think so many of them saw and remembered what it felt like being around someone that was far too demanding. But when I had this group as 8th graders, collectively, they were kind of a hot mess. There were many challenging kids in that class and they made many mistakes.  That year, I didn’t have the luxury to demand a perfect symphony from them. I couldn’t conduct and expect the notes to always sound perfect. We struggled, we cried, and we grew. We were messy and we honored that mess in the hopes that we would all keep striving to be our best self even when we fell short.    The most challenging group taught me far more than I taught them. They allowed me to embrace the messy human symphony of teaching leadership.

About the Author: Sally Rusk is a leadership teacher and ASB Advisor at Inglewood Middle School.  She is currently on a planning team to open a brand new middle school in the Redmond area.  Previously she taught in the Edmonds School District and Bellingham School District.  She was the 2018 Washington State Middle Level Advisor of the Year and firmly believes she has the greatest job in the world teaching leadership and helping kids work on developing their best self. 

The 3 Ms of Emotional Regulation

Written By: Barbara Gruener


As a child, I had no idea how to self-regulate or manage my feelings. At all. During my formative years, I was routinely sent to my room to get over my bad attitude (angry feelings) more than I care to admit. If only someone had explained to me at an earlier age that we all have feelings and that all feelings are okay, that our job isn’t as much to monitor which feeling might choose us as it is how to manage our responses to that feeling, I wouldn’t have had to seclude myself in that sanctuary so often, trapped trying to figure out the key to emotional regulation all by myself.

Since something like emotional literacy is too important to leave to chance, we simply must be intentional about teaching it to our children. But whose job IS that?

If you subscribe to the African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” then you know that it actually falls to all of us.


The first and most powerful way to teach emotional regulation is to model it; consider this Dorothy Law Nolte wisdom, “Children learn what they live.”  Full disclosure: I grew up in the home of a father who got very quiet when his feelings got uncomfortable and a mother who stuffed all of her emotions down until they boiled over like a volcano, spewing lava on everything and everybody in the path. Needless to say, it followed that I was a hot mess when it came to emotions. When we get quiet because of uncomfortable feelings, children learn to handle their conflicted feelings with the silent treatment. Conversely, when we yell at children because we’re angry, guess what those children learn? To deal with their anger by yelling. Additionally, when we beat ourselves up for what we’re feeling, our children learn to berate themselves for what they’re feeling. A much healthier strategy is to stay in the moment with your feelings. Honor them. Appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel them. You could even try thanking the feelings, for choosing you. Resist the urge to judge them as good or bad, positive or negative. Just know that when a feeling chooses you, it’s important to be with that feeling and to respond to it in a healthy way.

Beyond modeling, we need to intentionally teach feelings vocabulary to help students express themselves adequately. Talk through words like angry, mad, sad, glad, happy, scared, afraid, confused, frustrated, embarrassed, hopeful, proud, excited, playful, lonely. Pair feeling words with what a face looks like when it’s experiencing that emotion. Use a mirror to help children see how the feeling is expressed in their eyes, on their foreheads, on their cheeks, on their mouth, on their jaw. Encourage them to observe others, paying special attention to their affect, how they show their feelings. Point out how people might be feeling: “That child is crying; maybe she is feeling scared.” Ask how people might be feeling: “I wonder how the boy who lost his puppy is feeling?” This will open up a conversation to increase emotional literacy while you model empathy and compassion.

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Use picture books like F Is For Feelings, The Cloud, Visiting Feelings, or The Color Monster to heighten feelings awareness and increase emotional literacy.

Once the children know, understand, and embrace their feelings, help them live out these three Ms of emotional regulation:

Monitor them: It’s important that we, young and old alike, stay in touch with our feelings – big and small, easy and hard, comfortable and uncomfortable – and validate them in ourselves and others. We can choose to work with intention to monitor how we’re feeling in every moment, day in and day out. And it helps to know that feelings can change; something that made me happy yesterday might not invoke the same reaction today. It starts with teaching our children about the feelings and pairing the feelings word with how our bodies might respond physically. Anger, for example, might show up as red cheeks, a furrowed brow, clenched fists, an increased heart rate. Encourage students to figure out what the triggers are that might heighten these emotions in them. How can they tell when they’re feeling sad? What has their experience with sadness been? How can they be in the moment with their sad feelings, even though there might be a perception that sad is bad?   

Move through them: As they recognize that a certain feeling is about to choose them, it’s critical that they move through it rather than going around it. A good first step is naming it and claiming it. Try saying it out loud: I feel really sad today. Or I’m starting to feel angry. As soon as they identify the feeling, they’re going to be able to employ their strategies for moving through the emotion. An uncomfortable emotion might pass quickly, but it’s possible that it will linger for a bit, so it’s important to have self-awareness about what it’s going to take to move through it with grit and grace.

Try these suggestions to help children move through their emotions:

  1. Talk it out. Encourage children to talk through their feelings with a trusted mentor, family member or friend. Listen carefully to what the children are saying as well as what they’re not saying. Behavior often does the talking for our younger learners. Help them understand the feelings behind their actions.

  2. Tap it out. Have you heard about the technique of therapeutic Tapping? Since every feeling begins with a thought, this technique can help unlock those thoughts that keep us stressed, from feeling safe, by helping calm the amygdala.

  3. Strum it out. Music is an incredible outlet for feelings management. Try strumming your worries or hard feelings away on a ukulele or guitar. Or grab something to drum on and beat out some rhythms until you’re back to baseline. Pound it out on a keyboard until your big feelings have melted away. Let these instruments be the therapeutic resource  to calm and comfort you. Prefer listening to music than making it? Relax with the music of Gary Lamb which complements our natural body rhythms.  

  4. Draw it out. Feelings may flow more freely on a blank canvas with the right medium. Invite children to draw their emotions; if their heart is twisted up like a tornado, for example, then they might draw a tornado. Ask them to tell you about the pictures if they’d like, and listen without judgment.

  5. Write it out. Keeping a feelings journal can be a fantastic way to emote. There is no right or wrong thing to write into a journal. If students get stuck, invite them to look for three thankful things and write about that. Remember that feelings literacy includes feelings like happiness, joy, and hope, too.    

  6. Breathe it out. Breathing deeply with intention is a proven way to process big feelings. Using a mantra like inhale comfort, exhale chaos can help. For the littles, pretend you’re smelling a flower and then blowing out their birthday candles. Try Box Breathing or Finger Tracing. As another option, exhale first, then inhale to give Backward Breathing a go. Let the exhales be a bit longer and more forceful than the inhales. Try involving the sense of smell by employing scents that relax, like lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree, and spearmint.

  7. Work it out. Exercise to release negative energy; doing it outdoors provides the added benefit of fresh air. Find a labyrinth, track, or cul-de-sac to move through feelings in a circular venue. Swing. Jump on a trampoline. Run. Swim. Skateboard. Ride a bike. Take a nature walk. Dance. Do whatever fits you physically to helps soothe and calm anxious feelings.  

Manage them: Even though feelings choose us, we still have the power and the responsibility to choose how to respond to and manage them. Gather these resources and teach the skills proactively so that they will be available to children when they’re in the throes of big, overwhelming emotions that are threatening to overtake them. And just like a car needs regular tune-ups, check in periodically to modify any out-of-tune reactions so that you’re able to regulate your emotions for smoother sailing. You’ll be happier, healthier role model when your emotions are in check; our children will naturally follow suit. Thinking back, I wish I’d have had someone explain to me that we are who we are and we do what we do and we feel what we feel because we think what we think, that all emotions begin with a thought. Byron Katie’s Four Questions are super helpful to unlock errant thoughts or beliefs that prompt certain emotions to choose us.

If emotions get too big or uncomfortable to manage without professional help or medication, do not go it alone. Seek out a medical doctor, a professional counselor, or both, to help you regulate and get back on track.

About the Author: 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.

Action First, Happiness Follows

Written By: Houston Kraft

One of the core beliefs we have at CharacterStrong is that our actions should align first with our beliefs and values instead of just aligning to our emotions. To put differently, sometimes I just don’t feel like being kind...but that doesn’t mean I can’t choose it. Does that make the choice easy? Of course not. But is the choice to be kind possible even when we are feeling frustrated, angry, jealous, exhausted, stressed, or ______? Of course. It is a choice very connected to the social-emotional skill of Emotional Regulation (which, by the way, is closely aligned with long-term fulfillment and financial success in life).

What choices do we make with regards to our Happiness? There is messaging in our culture that would suggest that we can simply “choose to be happy,” but at CharacterStrong we believe that happiness is the result of other choices, not the choice itself.

“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” ~Brother David Steindl-Rast

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Perhaps a better message to teach ourselves and the young people we serve is this: Happiness is the byproduct of an intentional focus on compassion and gratitude. We don’t find happiness - it finds us when we are doing the hard work to love others and ourselves.

There are two powerful choices we can make every day that will bring more happiness into our lives. The first is to find opportunities to serve others. In giving kindness or working to support people who need help, we often get to experience the gratitude of others. The result of intentional kindness towards others can sometimes create responses like: “Wow, thanks for noticing! These are new shoes!” or “You totally just made my day.” or “I couldn’t of done this by myself - I appreciate your help.” Your actions just created gratitude in someone else. When other people tell share their gratitude for you, we experience the profound happiness of knowing we helped. It’s science!

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The other choice we can make to increase happiness is to practice gratitude ourselves. Writing down what you’re grateful for with consistency, taking a mindful minute in the morning to exercise gratitude for what is right in front of you, or meditating on what you have (instead of focusing on “lack”) are all proven ways to boost your mood. How cool is it that we don’t even need other people around for this one? We can induce happiness simply by practicing internal gratefulness - that’s science, too!

Here is a simple exercise you can do with your students or staff today:

  1. Start with the word Gratitude at the top of your new Happiness Flow Chart.

  2. Draw 2 lines moving downward that connect to the boxes “External” and “Internal”

  3. Have participants help you brainstorm different paths that could be created from each. Talk about how External gratitude is created through acts of kindness or service and how Internal gratitude is created through self-reflection. What can these things look like? Draw a line to a few boxes under each with some of these ideas.

  4. Now, ask participants to describe the potential feelings or outcomes that happen as a result of these actions. Tell them the only word they can’t use is “Happy.” This can be an opportunity to talk about the potentials outcomes that don’t always feel good. For example, you can try to give a compliment to someone and could get laughed at or rejected or ignored! How do we respond in the face of those feelings?

  5. Finally, write Happiness in a big box at the bottom. Have participants direct you to draw lines from whatever outcomes or feelings from the row above might create or feel like happiness.

  6. Use this as a way to discuss that Happiness is not a pursuit itself, but a result of the purposeful, hard work of Gratitude!

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About the Author: Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong - an organization that provides curricula and trainings that help educators more effectively teach the Whole Child and create positive and safe school cultures. He has worked with over 600 schools or events internationally to develop communities of compassion and character. His work has been recognized by the Huffington Post and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. He is a speaker, curriculum developer, and kindness advocate.

It Starts with Me...

Written By: Lauren Ambeau

“It’s all about relationships!” I heard myself saying to more than a few teachers last week. As a campus principal at an intermediate school, I truly believe this with all of my being. I firmly believe real learning or growth does not occur without a deep authentic teacher-student relationship. I believe the absence of a strong teacher-student relationship can contribute to student misbehavior, absenteeism, lack of motivation, and disillusionment. I have witnessed the changing of student lives by teachers who recognized the importance of hooking students’ hearts first then their heads. I also recognize just how incredibly challenging establishing an authentic and genuine relationship with each student can be. It’s hard… very hard. Pressures of covering content at a rapid pace, standardized assessment performance, and the tough, hardened exteriors of students are just a few factors making establishing real relationships insurmountable at times.

Here’s the truth… it starts with me. Supporting teachers in connecting with kids at the levels necessary to take huge learning risks daily, starts with me, the campus principal. Too often, the charge placed on teachers of establishing relationships with each student is oversimplified by the administration. If we are not careful, the phrase, “It’s all about relationships”, can become overused and meaningless. It’s our moral imperative as campus leaders to give value, power, and meaning to this phrase.

Here’s how…

Teachers will value what they have been given the opportunity to feel. Make it your business as a campus leader to live out this phrase with each and every one of your staff members. If we truly believe the key to unlocking a students’ potential is rooted in a strong teacher-student relationship, then we must also believe the key to supporting a teachers’ continuous growth in an ever-changing industry is relationships with each one of them. Make time to get to know your teachers outside of their content and role on your campus, know their personal children and spouse’s names, their hobbies, and interests outside of the school building. Be clear and passionate about your purpose- to SERVE them, to ensure their success with all students. Celebrate them publicly through “staff spotlights” at meetings, social media, and over announcements. Mail thank you letters to their spouses for all the time they give to the campus. Get out of your office and into their classrooms to honor their hard work with kids and colleagues. Never let a staff member (or students for that matter) walk past you without a greeting ensuring they feel seen, heard, and valued. Never let them doubt that you are in the business of connections.

Students take time at a staff meeting to give “teacher shout outs” to celebrate their teachers who they have deeply connected with this school year!

Students take time to recognize teachers who have changed their lives at our “Let’s Hear It for Our Heroes” Event. This was our welcome for teachers on their first day back to kick off the school year!

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2. Make time
Relationships don’t just happen. They take intentional and thoughtful time built into the day. Teachers need permission to take time to connect with kids outside of their content. Build time into their day to allow them to do this work of fostering deeper relationships with all students. Whether it is creating homeroom or advisory classes dedicated to connecting with kids and fostering positive classroom communities through class meetings/morning meetings to being clear with teachers that it’s always okay to take time to connect or re-connect with kids during class when a relationship shows it needs a little more.

3. Provide tools
Simply telling teachers you value relationships is not enough. Even providing time to do so will not truly empower teachers with the tools they need to reach ALL students. Provide teachers with specific strategies, curriculum, and training needed to engage all students in positive relationships that will allow deeper learning to occur. Too often we, as campus leaders, assume all teachers are comfortable and skilled in building relationships and establishing a positive classroom culture. I agree that most of the teachers I know value relationships, but many will tell you they need help in reaching the toughest of students who come to us with stories that break our hearts. Stories that shut them down at the first sign of adversity or challenge and stories that have created defensive barriers so thick it takes a variety of tools implemented over time to unlock their hearts.

Relationships are complex partnerships requiring high levels of mutual trust. Let’s vow as campus leaders to never allow our actions or words to imply ease in this work of establishing authentic teacher-student relationships. May we always remember… it starts with me. After all, the culture of campuses depends on it!

About the Author: Lauren Ambeau is the principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD, former elementary school principal, strong advocate for increasing SEL in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership. She was the Clear Creek ISD Secondary Principal of the year in 2016-2017 and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled Vulnerable Leadership.

Expanding Emotional Vocabularies and Building Empathy

Written by: Houston Kraft

The average student today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s. In her practical and insightful book Unselfie, Dr. Michele Borba explains that as anxiety goes UP, empathy goes DOWN. And it makes sense: the more stressed or worried I am about what is going on in my life, the harder time I have thinking about what is going on in yours. As a result, empathy has dropped 40% in college students since 2000. Dr. Borba calls this inverse relationship between anxiety and empathy the “Empathy Gap.”

As educators, we must work to fill this Gap! One anecdote to anxiety is the intentional building of relationships and the recognition that “I’m not alone in these feelings.” Here are two practical strategies that can increase emotional awareness and empathy for the students you serve:

“RULER.”  Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence ,

“RULER.” Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence,

Where’s Wall-do: Use a space on one wall in your classroom that can be used as a daily or weekly tool for the social and emotional skill of emotional/self-awareness. RULER from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence created this simple chart of 100 emotion words. Most of us, at first glance, only identify with the basic emotions: mad, sad, glad, and “afrad” (afraid, but afrad is a fun way to keep it rhyming).

As students walk in to your room, have them pull from a bucket of clothespins and “check in” by clipping their primary emotion for that day. A simple way to 1) have students practice self-awareness, 2) expand student’s emotional vocabulary, and 3) give you immediate insight into your classes collective emotional state that day. If 60% are clipping the word “anxious,” it may change how you teach that class! It can also give students a moment of collective empathy that they aren’t alone in any of their wide-range of emotions.

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Quadrant Questions: Have students walk to the corner of the room represented by which of the four quadrants of feelings they are in that day (in the image, they are color-coded red, green, yellow, blue - you can choose to do this in another way if you like!) Then, have them pair up with a person from their same quadrant and have them walk through different question levels, starting at Level One. Depending on time and the current social-emotional reality of your classroom, you can bring students from Level One questions up to Level Four - but be sure that you take it slow, making your way through each Level slowly and with multiple questions (even over multiple days). The higher the Level question, the most trust required for it to work as an empathy-building tool!

Repeat the process at another time knowing that their quadrant may change day to day or week to week! Vary the structure by having them partner with someone from a different quadrant as opposed to their same quadrant - there are empathy building opportunities in both situations!

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Empathy is a skill that combines self-reflective emotional awareness and the character practice of asking good questions and listening patiently and respectfully to peoples’ answers. Build these simple activities into the weekly routine of your class to start to fill the Gap between Anxiety and a more Empathetic world.

Download the worksheet here.


About the Author: Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong - an organization that provides curricula and trainings that help educators more effectively teach the Whole Child and create positive and safe school cultures. He has worked with over 600 schools or events internationally to develop communities of compassion and character. His work has been recognized by the Huffington Post and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. He is a speaker, curriculum developer, and kindness advocate.

Leadership Lessons From Halloween

Written By: Amy Stapleton


I was six the first time I remember eagerly waiting for Halloween. Practically hopping from one foot to the next as my mom got the most epic of costumes ready: a purple unicorn. And not just any unicorn — a unicorn with a golden horn and a rainbow mane and tail! I was going to be the best dressed of Ms. Miogan’s first grade classroom.

The holiday arrived and I happily set off to school to show off my magically costumed self — only to find that my bestest buddy was Catwoman, along with three of the most popular girls in the first grade! The class photo shows them front and center with their arms wrapped around each other — and a grumpy purple unicorn in the second row.

Reflecting on this small memory from more than 20 years ago, I find that this day and that experience has taught me so much about being a leader and teaching leadership.

Identity Matters
On Halloween, we can be anyone. And the masks we put on allow us to blend in with a crowd that maybe we never truly belonged to in the first place – such as a group of Catwomen. Leaders need to own who they are, in all aspects of their lives. It is only when all of ourselves — in person, in the classroom, online, at home, at work — match that we are honest with both ourselves and the people around us, but especially those looking to us.

What masks do you wear? How do we show our authentic selves?

Engagement Matters
One of the very best things about Halloween is how engaged people are. You can dress up a little or a lot. You can hand out candy or go trick or treating. You can attend a party or watch scary movies in the dark at home. But everyone participates!

Leaders have the unique opportunity at their schools to be engaged and to engage others. We can engage people in a multitude of ways from simply inviting another person along to help set up an event or asking for whole system feedback to improve yourself or an activity. Or to simply look for the grumpy purple unicorns and invite them in.

Who are our isolated people, just waiting for an invite? What discourages participation? And if we don’t engage, but expect others to, what does that say about us?

Creativity Matters 
For Halloween, I’ve seen everything from people shopping their closets for DIY costumes to creating elaborate designs from duct tape and cardboard. Halloween spurs creativity. As does leadership. When we encourage our students to use their gifts and allow them the freedom to do so, they shine.

Unfortunately, in the age of testing, in the fear of being left out, we’re discouraging the purple unicorns of our leaders due to a variety of reasons.


In what ways are we killing creativity at our school? How can we encourage creative thinking, processes or problem solving? What traditions might need to be re-examined?

Fun Matters 
Halloween is all about fun! The holiday continues to be so popular among children and adults because it is simply that -- FUN. In the first grade, it was an excuse to get out of our uniforms and do things that were special and different. Now, working in a high school, looking at students and all their stress and pressure to succeed at school, work, extracurricular activities, to fit in…maybe what we all need a little bit more fun.

What is fun about your school? Where do we need more opportunities to play? What opportunities can we create for play?

About the Author: Amy Stapleton is a leadership teacher, Spanish teacher and ASB adviser at Yelm High School and constantly challenges her students (and herself) to serve their school, to find light in dark situations and to light the way for others. In addition to working on Mt Olympus camp staff for AWSL, she is also a CharacterStrong advocate and strives to make education about building relationships and teaching the whole child.

Breaking Educational Norms in Nepal by Putting Students First

Written By: Laura Handy-Nimick

One of the great things about being a teacher and working on Life's Handy Work is that, at times, my day job and non-profit life collide. This is one of my favorite collisions.


Greeting others is a norm at my middle school. Upon arriving at school, students are welcomed into the building with music, a "good morning" and a high five. Dawn, our head custodian, has become our chief door greeter, with students joining her to greet their peers as they enter the building. Then, as students enter their classes throughout the day they are greeted by their teachers. These greetings usually entail a high five, kind words, or in the case of my friend Anna's students, a handshake followed by a silly question like, "dinosaurs or dragons?" Greeting students has become part of our daily routine and part of our culture thanks to the whole child emphasis at Sumner-Bonney Lake School District and implementing strategies from CharacterStrong.

Greeting students seem like "small potatoes" when thinking about the gauntlet of challenges schools and teachers face, but the reality is that time spent making students feel valued and welcomed from the moment they enter school establishes a personal connection, conveys a culture of caring, decreases behavioral challenges and increases learning.

Before traveling to Nepal in July, I reached out to Prashana Bista, director of the Chelsea Education Community Center (CECC), to see if there was anything I could do to support their teachers, some of whom are children of Nepal Orphans Home and whom we've had the privilege of supporting during their time in college.  Prashana was eager to put me to work improving learning for the younger children who were coming to CECC for an extra two hours of school after finishing a full day of learning at their primary school. I knew right away that creating consistent, positive and personal connections with their teachers was group zero for increasing engagement.

Last summer I had the privilege of taking a working road trip with Anna (dinosaurs or dragons lady) to a training put on by CharacterStrong, a company that trains teachers on social-emotional teaching and learning. Throughout the weekend Anna and I solidified what we've always believed about teaching and learning; when we value students as unique individuals and ensure their social and emotional safety, we can do amazing things in our classrooms and school communities. I was eager to take their work international and apply it at Chelsea Center.

After spending some time observing, I met with Sumi, a class ten student who was teaching younger children at CECC after she finished school every day. During our meeting, Sumi expressed frustration that her students were disengaged and had poor attitudes about attending her classes. I explained greeting at the door as the first step towards better attitudes. She seemed skeptical but was on board.


Over the next week Sumi and her students connected each day on their way in the door. She high fived, checked-in and laughed with them as they entered the room and prepared for the next two hours. Their moods shifted and their desire to be there increased with each day she was at the door waiting for them.

A few days in and Sumi and her students were ready for another CharacterStrong strategy. After previewing the day's lesson for students, Sumi took 3-5 minutes to check-in with them by asking about their day. No learning was to take place during this time - just personal connections.


On the first day, Sumi used the 0-5 finger strategy. Nonverbally, students told her how their day way. She followed up with a quick whip around the room for explanations from every student. Students shared their successes, lamented about how tired they were, and confessed that they were stressed about their homework.

The next day she used the thumbs up, down or neutral strategy, asking them to nonverbally share how school went that day (remember, they are coming to her straight from a six-hour day at their primary school), which was again also followed by a quick whip around the room for an explanation. One boy shared about an experience he had being punished in front of his entire class for not completing his homework while others shared their frustration with the monsoon rains or their nerves about upcoming exams.

Even though we'd never talked about how to reply, Sumi responded with empathy, kindness, and concern. Students felt valued, heard and supported in less than 5 minutes.

Then, the learning began.

Throughout the week I witnessed noticeable changes in Sumi's young students. Students who were responding to external stress by acting out or being unable to focus were focused, openly asking for help, and enjoying their time with Sumi even though it meant more learning at the end of a long school day.

In Nepal taking time to connect with students is not part of the educational culture. Learning is rote, students are meant to be seen and not heard and they are often left behind when they don't learn skills fast enough. The teachers at Chelsea Center, including Sumi, are an exception to these norms. They are kind, compassionate, and eager to think outside the box. With a little help from CharacterStrong they are supporting students in Nepal in ways that make them feel safe and valued while breaking unhealthy and restrictive cultural norms.


About the Author: Laura is a co-founder of Life's Handy Work, a non-profit supporting orphaned children in Nepal, and a full-time middle school teacher of 15 years. She currently teaches leadership and language arts while also serving as an ASB advisor at Lakeridge Middle School. In addition, she is on the Nepal Orphans Home Board of Advisors, focusing on improving education and teacher training in Nepal. 

Why getting kids to interact intentionally isn’t touchy feely, it’s critically needed.

Written By: John Norlin

For the past 20 years I have been presenting to students, educators, and parent groups on how to create stronger classrooms and schools by teaching strong relationship skills and the principles of servant-leadership. It has been exciting to see the number of educators and schools who are not only buying into this work, but taking ownership of it as well. However, every once in awhile, we will hear from a school that is experiencing resistance because some staff feel that the work of teaching social emotional learning, character development, and relationships skills is too “touchy feely” and they are having trouble getting “buy-in.” This is troubling to me. Let us take a step back, just for a minute, and see what is missing in our society, what is missing from our schools, and specifically what is missing from our students’ lives. More and more educators that we work with are noting that students are struggling significantly with the skills needed to succeed relationally in today’s world. Here are five reasons why teaching relational skills and character development is not “touchy feely.”

#1 - Anxiety is crushing empathy


I once had the honor of hearing Dr. Tim Elmore speak and was astonished when he shared, “The average teenager today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.” At first I didn’t believe it, but then I started to think about my experiences the past 15 years in education and how I have seen an increase in anxiety in the students I served. The danger is that when anxiety goes up, empathy goes down. We can put metal detectors and increase police presence in schools to address a problem, but if we don’t put a focus on strengthening relationships and teaching strong character and social emotional skills, we will never get to the root of that problem.

#2 - High Expectations + High Supports = Recipe for Success

Too many times I have heard statements from educators that believe you can’t have both high expectations and high supports at the same time. “I don’t smile until the winter holiday and then I slowly ease up,” as if to say the only way to be successful in teaching is to be really hard on your students and not connect personally for a certain amount of time. “I am best friends with my students,” yet when asked more specific questions you learn that students aren’t necessarily being held accountable or held to high expectations daily, as if to say that it’s only about being positive and fun as an educator.

I still remember being a first year teacher, and during my plan period, a veteran teacher taught in the same classroom I would prep in. I remember a 12th grade student in this psychology class breaking down during a discussion and explaining that she thought she had it great because her mom was her best friend and let her do whatever she wanted. Her mom would let her host parties and even would party with her and her friends at times. The girl explained that it was wonderful until she needed her mom to be her mom. When she needed true support, her mom just wanted to be her friend. I believe the true key to success is to be both tough and tender. Hold students to high expectations and be relentless in your approach, but also get to know your students, connect one-on-one, and give students the opportunity to connect with each other. Create a classroom and school environment where students feel paid attention to and appreciated, but also that you believe in their potential. Don’t be confused, tough love is also relational work! Students will thank you for it, even if they don’t verbalize it to you while in your class.

#3 - Soft Skills are the new Hard Skills

We were introduced to a business community that had come together to talk about the issues they were seeing from students coming to them right out of high school, certificated programs, and/or colleges. They discussed how many of them did not have the basic people and character skills to be successful in their organizations. They often had solid technical skills, but lacked the ability to communicate with team members and customers, self-motivate, actively listen, or be disciplined enough to set deadlines and get work done. These business leaders realized that they were spending millions of dollars collectively teaching adults relational and character skills needed to be successful in their business or organization. They realized that these “soft skills” were the new “hard skills” and were committed to helping bring the work of developing these soft skills to 26 school districts across their area to help curb this problem and ultimately create a better upcoming workforce, community, and world. You can read about it here.

#4 - It’s as much for the adults as it is for the students

CharacterStrong provides educator trainings all over the United States and even abroad. We get to see firsthand the power of working with educators on why they do what they do and practical strategies on how they can infuse character development and social emotional learning into the daily fabric of their classrooms and schools. We have also seen the power of what happens when educators in a school intentionally put a focus on relationships with each other and how that translates into better serving students each day.

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I remember speaking with an educator from a school who had experienced powerful results from intentionally implementing our CharacterStrong curriculum as well as having staff go through our CharacterStrong training. He said, “The work we do as teachers is not easy, but for whatever reason this year it hasn’t felt like work. I actually look forward to coming to work each day!” When asked why he thought that was the case, he said the two things that stood out was 1) having a common language as a staff with the work of teaching character and social emotional learning to all their students, and 2) the focus on building relationships with each other as a staff. These are powerful words in today’s school and classroom.

Many times the term “touchy feely” from a staff member is a result of being uncomfortable teaching something that they aren’t use to teaching. This does not make it any less important to teach, but it does mean that we need to support our teachers and give them opportunities to experience it firsthand and learn how to teach it. With our CharacterStrong curriculum, we were very intentional about having teachers who were actually in the classroom help us be content editors. We knew that the lessons needed to be built by teachers for teachers and easy to implement. You can see some sample lessons here.

#5 - Intelligence without Character is a Dangerous Combination

In the book Character Compass by Scott Seider, he talks about how different schools and districts have approached the work of teaching character development to their students. At the beginning of the book he quotes Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard. Dr. Gardner said if you look at the last thirty years in our country there have been many situations where thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, were impacted in a negative way because of a lack of character decision making by people in positions of leadership. Gardner states that negative character decisions were made by our “best and brightest,” and in many cases, Ivy League students. Who needs character development? The answer is everyone! So what are we going to do to make sure that all of our students receive a consistent and viable curriculum, not just for their academics, but also their character and emotional intelligence?

We are interested in hearing about what your school is doing to make the teaching of relational skills and character development relevant and important. Let us know what approaches you are taking. You can learn more about what CharacterStrong is doing to support schools in this area by clicking here.

About the Author: John Norlin is a co-founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years. 

Celebrating Character Day 2018: 8 Days of #CharacterInAction

Written By: The CharacterStrong Team

To celebrate #CharacterDay2018, CharacterStrong is putting #characterinaction! For 8 days, we are working to bring the 8 Essentials (Patience, Kindness, Honesty, Respect, Selflessness, Forgiveness, Humility, and Commitment) to come to life in stories, photos, and videos.

Tag us (@careacter on Twitter and @characterstrong on Instagram) and use the hashtag #characterinaction to win CharacterStrong gear & even registrations to our Educator Trainings!‬


Watch as Houston walks the street near where he lives to try some awkward compliments.


Houston creates some Selflessness sandwiches to give to new friends.


John actually sits still for 20 minutes (which is a supreme exercise of Patience for him!)


Houston does dining right with this exercise in Respect.


John gets asked "Truth or Dare" in a really cute way to practice Honesty.


Lindsay breaks Forgiveness down for us in an exercise of self-care.


Watch Houston getting humbled as he asks for help learning a new sport…basketball!


John and Houston make a CharacterStrong commitment to character in action in 2019!

5 Sentences Your Students Need to Hear From You

1. “I think you’d be good at it.”

In close to 20 years of working with a state student leadership program, I can tell you that the line I hear more than any other on why a student decided to step up and have the courage to get involved or run for office is, “I think you’d be good at it.” There is something about this simple, yet powerful statement that causes people to act and push their comfort zones. Maybe it has something to do with meeting the basic human need that all people have, which is to be paid attention to and appreciated.

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