Hope, Mattering, and Moving Forward
By Michele Israel
Elbow bumps and smiles. Affirmations. Recognizing that everyone matters. Sounds like a lovefest, right? It is, but in school, hope-building and life-affirming practices can grow students’ self-pride and resilience. Such strategies support students as they navigate challenging times (like the pandemic), and build their social-emotional strength to pursue a future rich with possibility, explained educational leaders in the edLeader Panel “Hope, Mattering, and Moving Forward,” sponsored by Gaggle. The panelists shared ways they make students feel they genuinely matter and propel their forward movement with hopefulness.
The Practice of Mattering: Growth and Relationships
Derrick Conley, Executive Principal of Birch and Parkway Elementary Schools in Pine Tree ISD in Texas, is all about student strengths. Creating relationships and growing students are at the heart of his schools’ social-emotional practices.
“With relationships, it’s a reflection every day,” described Conley. “What did I do each day to build relationships with my kids? What did I do to build relationships with my teammates? And then with hope, growth with hope, you get growth. And growth makes kids believe in themselves and [gives] encouragement.”
At each school, student support is intentional, and students are intentionally supported from the start of the day until they leave the building.
At morning drop-off, music plays as teachers and leaders escort students from their cars to greet them with elbow bumps and smiles. In the classroom, there is a 15-minute engagement time with games, music and maybe even dancing so the students have some fun from the get-go. Then, a daily schedule sets in, first with pledges followed by math, reading and writing drills. The end of the day furthers students’ emotional support. On the PA system, Conley or another campus administrator reminds learners how they are loved every single day. The overall structure provides consistency while emphasizing the value of hard work and respect.
Then there are the affirmations, a minimum of five, that Conley’s team is to offer to somebody in the building every day. In the classroom, affirmations create an exceptionally positive culture.
Conley emphasized that affirmation sharing starts with leaders, like him. “I write a personal note to every kid before we welcome them to the first day of school,” he said. “That’s about 1,400 kids! But I also do that on all our formative assessments, I do that on our academic competitions. It’s not about me; it’s about how that spreads.”
And all that positivity spreads indeed in Conley’s schools. It appears in students’ relationships with teachers, in high academic performance, in reduced teacher turnover and, most importantly, the way students have grown and see themselves.
“Our kids give us their best because they don’t want to disappoint us,” Conley shared. “They feel like part of a family, and everybody wants to feel love. But everybody also loves to feel like they’re part of a family or feel part of a pack. And so we create that.”
The Language of Leadership
There are some things Dr. Quintin Shepherd, Superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District in Texas, doesn’t say anymore. That’s because they don’t move people from success to significance.
Dr. Shepherd said that leaders should help others become significant. Using the “right” language is a crucial part of that process. But some commonly used words and phrases used to inspire and motivate do the very opposite. New takes on popular terms substantially shift the language landscape, as Dr. Shepherd outlined.
He prefers “moving forward” to “moving on,” the latter telling students to forget their traumatic experiences. Moving forward is the more encouraging alternative: It allows people to accept what happened—maybe even embrace any good that came out of it—to figure out how to take the next steps toward what lies ahead.
The term “competence” also bugs Dr. Shepherd. It rings of a strength that must be sustained. But if it can’t be, a person is seen as becoming weak or even irrelevant because he or she is now fragile. He believes fragility is a state that competence reinforces. So, it’s compassion, not competence, he believes, that people need to become antifragile, because compassion builds relationships and resiliency that stand the test of time.
And then there’s “learning loss,” a phrase that has become especially prevalent during the pandemic. Dr. Shepherd said he’s tired of its negative bent. Rather, it’s unfinished learning, work that students can complete instead of trying to reclaim.
You won’t ever hear him say to a principal or an executive cabinet member what he wants from them. “I just don’t do that anymore,” he said. “I eliminated that language from my vocabulary. I will not tell people what I want from them because it somehow assumes that you don’t want to do the very best work of your life. How condescending is that?” Instead, he expresses what he wants for them to be able to do their best work.
Finally don’t ever tell Dr. Shepherd he’s committed; he’s disciplined, about the language he uses, about the way he leads, and about how he offers hope to students.
Noticing and Affirming: You Matter Because…
Everyone matters. That’s the message of Angela Maiers, Founder and CEO of Choose2Matter, a movement that seeks to make “mattering” a way of life.
Maiers believes the unique genius and gifts each person holds contributes to the wellness of the world and generates hope that can move people forward to a positive future (think beyond COVID!) that they have helped shape.
“Hope is a practice that we must model, that we must embody and that we must make ‘un-inivisible’ for our children,” urged Maiers.
Noticing is what Maiers began to do as a kindergarten teacher. Taking time to capture amazing things students have done to uplift and inspire—and then letting them know how valuable their actions have been. The practice told her students, “You matter because…”
In the classroom, Maiers used a simple tool to record and affirm people’s strengths: the Noticing Notebook, a running record of moments of inspiration, awe, respect and pride that stem from others’ “brilliance.” (She uses the notebook to this day, documenting what “grown-ups” say and do that have left her “awestruck and wowed.”)
Maiers said the ripple effect of this small act has a profound impact. When she used the Noticing Notebook as a kindergarten teacher, her students began to notice and document their peers’ notable actions. And, decades later, she still hears from former students who were inspired by what she said about their gifts.
She urged leaders to make the Noticing Notebook a practice and to use it intentionally to inspire and become purveyors of hope.
Maiers summed up the power of positivity that school leadership can promote, “We’re not having the typical conversation around education, and change in the future that revolves around skills and strategies and technology. We’re approaching deliberately these invisible forces of hope and mattering and audacious dreaming about a better future and putting that in a place that is equally important as those skills and strategies and technologies.”
This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Gaggle.
About the Presenters
Angela Maiers has been listed as one of IBM’s Top 20 Global Influencers, named by Forbes as one of the Top 5 Education Leaders to Watch in 2017 and 2018, and is among Huffington Post’s Top 100 Social Media Influencers. Angela founded the global movement Choose2Matter in 2014 with a singular mission to help individuals recognize their value and potential contribution to change both their own lives and the world. The non-profit organization grew out of the impassioned response to a TED Talk she gave on the power of two simple words that went viral: YOU MATTER. Her work has been shared in 78,000 classrooms across 100 countries and has rallied more than a million children. Futurist. Innovator. Educator. Entrepreneur. Change Maker. Angela is on a mission to disrupt the status quo and to empower every individual to change their own world, if not the world around them for the better. It is fair to say she leaves no room unchanged.
With a relentless energy and a passion for growing others, Derrick Conley has helped transform the learning environment of three socially diverse, economically disadvantaged, and underachieving elementary schools. All of these three campuses are currently a joyful place for children to learn and teachers to teach. It is his unwavering belief that every student deserves an opportunity to feel loved, and through incredible connections with each other, anything is possible. Winning in any school will happen with a focus on two priorities: Relationships+Growth, and When people matter, they will succeed.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd
Dr. Quintin Shepherd is in his third year as Superintendent for the Victoria Independent School District—and as a Victoria West High School parent. When he came to Victoria, his first priority was to listen to the voice of the community, parents, staff, and students. From what he heard, Dr. Shepherd invited those stakeholders to be a part of shaping the future of the district through several task forces. Members of those groups work collaboratively with district leadership to make recommendations as they begin building that future to meet the current and future needs of Victoria students and the community.
About the Moderator
Paget Hetherington has empowered children to achieve academic success for her entire career, leading sales and marketing efforts for global publishing and edtech companies. As the vice president of marketing, Paget’s focus is spreading Gaggle’s message to school districts across the country, helping to ensure the safety and well-being of students. Prior to Gaggle, Paget led marketing efforts with industry sector leaders VitalSource, Mimio, Lexia Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Dorling Kindersley, and Vivendi Universal Publishing.
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Michele Israel writes about the ideas and best practices that are shared in edWeb’s edWebinars so they can spread innovative and best practices to the education community. Michele owns Michele Israel Consulting, LLC, which serves large and small educational, non-profit, media, corporate, eLearning, and blended learning organizations to bolster products and programs. Her rich career spans over 25 years of successfully developing educational materials and resources, designing and facilitating training, generating communication materials and grant proposals, and assisting in organizational and program development. In addition to lesson plans and other teacher resources, Michele’s portfolio includes published articles covering a range of educational and business topics.