Building School Community with Challenges

By Dr. Rena Hawkins


How do school challenges motivate educators to take action and promote personal growth and a positive school climate? As Principal Dr. Rena Hawkins led the Educators In Action chat on January 31, 2018 about creating a #CaringClassroom community, she shared how she provides challenges for staff and students, like #JoinTogetherJanuary, to build school community. The cohort of educators discussed questions like: What ideas do you use to kick off the school year to promote a strong culture in your classroom or school? How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the culture throughout the year? How do you empower others?


Challenges in Transition

Rena shared how school challenges have helped her school, Maple Elementary, weather a difficult transition: the district is restructuring the local elementary schools, bringing staff and student changes in the next year. Rena was joined by the assistant principal, speech pathologist, tech teacher, and a kindergarten teacher from her elementary school in Missouri — and others from across the country — to discuss their perspectives on the impact that monthly school challenges have had on school culture.


With the anxiety in the school community about the coming transitions, her team focused on community and culture building activities to build a strong foundation for learning. Educators in the chat shared how they kicked off the fall with a series of fun activities for staff and students such as scavenger hunts, Twitter challenges, encouraging notes from parents, family boards, “I am” poems, and more.

Educators reflected on the importance of keeping challenge activities responsive to the community needs and climate. Rena shared, “Challenge may not always be a positive word, but if we think about it as a way to challenge ourselves and push ourselves forward and constantly look for ways to make ourselves better — it can be viewed in a positive light.” Rena and Assistant Principal Eric Carlin discussed how they use tactics like one-word reflections at meetings to keep their finger on the pulse. Over at Caldwell Elementary in central Florida, Nicole Taylor reflected on how getting to know the whole person and reading body language helps her understand how to best serve her colleagues.


Powerful Pick-Me-Ups

Building on the start of the year, the Maple Elementary team launched #NotableNovember to “pump the positive” and lighten the mood around big changes. Eric discussed how he analyzed PBIS data to identify students in the “red” with multiple behaviors. These students were invited to lunch and partnered with “green” buddies to build community. For the staff, they created “Gratitweets” — a board with bird paper where staff could write quick thank-yous to each other for daily kindnesses. During new school placements, they amped up “Gratitweets” to help every staff member feel valued, and in return, the staff gifted Rena and Eric with a gratitweet book of their own.

Nicole shared a similar practice at Caldwell, where blank note cards, fun post-its, and markers are left in the mailroom so staff can write each other thank-yous as they walk through. Tech teacher Sara Freeman enlisted her students as secret note ninjas — writing kind notes for school staff and hiding them around the building. Fourth grade teacher Ashley Hawkins not only uses what she calls “warm fuzzies” in her classroom, but even incorporates it into a lesson on meaningful leadership that resulted in reduced behaviors in her class.


Creative Collaboration

At Maple Elementary School, Rena and her team built on the positive culture they had developed to delve into academics through the challenges for #DaringDecember. They focused on tech integration and online collaboration to model how staff would continue working together across the new buildings. To be eligible for prizes, educators were encouraged to try 6 out of 10 activities such as Twitter chats, Google Hangouts with a class from another state, Hangout with an author, peer learning community meetings over Hangout, creating a green screen video, and more.

Borrowing from Brandi Miller of Caldwell Elementary, one of the activities was to put up special lessons on a pineapple chart — a symbol of hospitality — to welcome others to observe their class. Brandi shared she put 8 lessons on the pineapple chart this week!

This past month, Rena’s team featured #JoinTogetherJanuary, welcoming new staff members to the Maple community. She used the 10 Questions Principals Should Ask Their Staff for individual conversations with each educator. While monthly challenges are now a part of Maple’s culture, she emphasized that they are optional — a way to, as Brandi put it, “empower and celebrate teachers who are seeking to do more and bringing good into your school.”


Meaningful Motivators

Nicole and others also stressed the importance of choice as a motivator for both staff and students: “We want students to own their learning and that comes from choosing what you want to learn.” Assistant Principal Jonalee Searcey used an augmented reality app to gameify learning about her school’s six areas of focus, such as learner agency and relationships. Her staff had the chance to level up as they chose, because it’s “up to them how far they wanted to take their learning.”


As colleagues at Caldwell Elementary, Brandi and Nicole shared the approach to peer empowerment that makes their school a special place. Brandi shared, “I’m a very private person, but in the last few years I’ve really opened up and been willing to share my story. In telling my story, it then allows others to want to take part. If I can be there to support you and help you try new things, then let’s do it. Let’s do it together.” 

Educators discussed the types of small gifts and incentives that give them that extra nudge to try something new. Ideas included jeans days, pancake breakfasts, school swag (especially at the elementary level where it’s less common), conference participation, Echo dots or cool gadgets, gift cards to local restaurants and businesses, and books about teaching and learning. They stressed that local community members, businesses, and PTAs could be a great, often untapped, resource.

Many participants were new to the Educators in Action series, including Jonalee who shared, “just stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit and listening to all your feedback and ideas and advice has given me courage to step outside my comfort zone.” We are grateful you did!


To learn more about what’s going on at Maple Elementary, check out Rena & Eric’s new podcast!


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The Four O’Clock Faculty

The Innovator’s Mindset

Kids Deserve It

Lead Like a Pirate

You Win in the Locker Room First