Making Connections: Lighting a Fire in Your Staff and Students

I am not a camper, so I am in no way an expert on building a fire, but I do know (thanks to my high school science classes) that in order for fire to ignite, it needs three elements: heat, fuel and oxygen. On the flip side, being a school leader is something I do know, and culture is something that is talked about all over leadership blogs, articles, books, and tweets. Culture is way more than just a buzzword. Culture is the heart of a school, and the difference-maker between success and failure.

I am going to save you time and money today and help you ignite a positive culture in your school. You don’t need to buy the newest culture book from Amazon or spend your nights ignoring your family in hopes of finding the culture Holy Grail on Twitter.

Culture starts with connections. This is the key to igniting a fire in your staff and students. Without a spark, your culture will never become a wildfire that blazes down the hallways and into the classrooms. And just like an actual fire, for this cultural blaze to ignite you need these three elements:

Element One: Heat Up Some Excitement
We have all had those leaders in our lives that you prayed would finally wake up and show some excitement. I am not saying leaders have to be like Richard Simmons and run at 110 percent energy and excitement all day, every day. That would make those you lead feel anxious and nervous, and we know we don’t want that. What I am saying is, as leaders, we set the tone for the school. One of my favorite people—and who I want to be when I get older—Todd Whitaker, says it best, “When the principal sneezes, the school catches a cold.”

If you want a school culture where people are excited to be there, then YOU need to be excited to be there. If you want teachers to work in PLCs, then you need to be excited about collaboration. If you want your students to connect with the school through sports and clubs, then you need to get your butt in the bleachers and run some clubs. When you lead with excitement for all areas of your school, it becomes contagious and others join to get in on the excitement. It doesn’t matter your personality; you can do it, even if you have to fake it. Here is a simple one you can start first thing tomorrow morning. Take the current book you are reading, throw it under your arm and walk down the hallway looking like you just won the lottery. Trust me, everyone is going to think whatever you are reading and learning from the book is epic. Learning is now modeled through excitement.

Element Two: Fuel the Passion and Love
This second element is crucial to your culture and to the continual burning of that flame. As leaders you need to have passion for your staff and your students. You have to show them that you love them. Yes, I said “love them.” This is easier than you think. Here are two simple ways to show love and can be implemented starting tomorrow. First, listen. When anyone tomorrow talks to you, stop everything that you are doing (yes, put your phone down) and give them all of your attention. Second, respond. Your response is crucial because most leaders (myself included) love talking and are so quick to respond with our thoughts. The key is to respond with passion for whatever is being shared with you—from what the kindergarten student got from Santa to the concerns of your AP Calculus teacher. When you respond with passion, they feel important, which causes the flame to burn.

Element Three: Life-Sustaining Oxygen 
Take a breath. Go ahead, I’m waiting…

Doesn’t it feel good when you can just take a moment and breathe? It does, so as school leaders, it is your job to give your staff and students time to breathe. When we run our schools in a way where everyone feels like they are under the thumb of someone else, it gets really hard to breathe. There have to be moments throughout the day or week that allow your school to breathe and re-energize. These times come in a variety of ways from fun activities: assemblies, games, lunch raffles, outings, and more. When you create avenues in your school where fun can be had and the worries of state test scores and your to-do list can be put briefly in the backseat, your staff and students can see that school is way more than just scores and grades—it’s about life and passion. Don’t wait. Tomorrow, surprise your staff with a great free lunch and have an ice cream day in the cafeteria for your kids.

I hope that you can take these elements—excitement, passion/love, and life—and add them into your daily practice as a school leader. Change the culture for your staff and students. They are worth it!

Are you satisfied with your schools’ culture? Are you connecting with your staff and students? Are you starting a cultural fire or are you just being the extinguisher? What can you do starting tomorrow to light a fire?

Roger Gurganus is an assistant principal of Brownstown Middle School, a 6–7 building in Brownstown, MI. He has a passion for children and education and strives to ensure that every student is connected and feels part of the community he creates. He is the 2018 Michigan Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @RogerGurganus.

2 Comments

  • Nate Artino says:

    Great article! Easy ways to make a big impact. Well done Roger.

  • Mark says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I enjoyed reading it. As a principal of a small secondary school I have scheduled everyone prep for first thing in the morning. What has happened is we use that time to share and laugh. The result has been that we “hit” all three of your elements before we go to our students.

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