Fit to Learn

Our staff at Hidden River Middle School in Snohomish, WA, recently hosted teacher leaders from a school district in our state that is in the initial phase of laying its foundation as a professional learning community (PLC) as defined by Solution Tree. It’s always an honor for our staff to share our story and the important lessons we’ve learned along our own journey as a PLC. Whenever we have visitors, I try to make sure some of our own teacher leaders are a part of the visit, because they have a valuable lens on the work from the classroom and team level. The process of sharing our journey with others is a great way for us to reinforce the things that are foundational to our own success and accomplishments as a school.

On this day one of the visiting teachers commented that, in spite of how difficult and daunting the work can be sometimes, the culture of collaboration and commitment to growth came shining through at Hidden River. One of our teachers quickly responded with an insight that served as a great reminder for me as a principal. She shared that what allows us to press forward through any challenge is the way we celebrate each other and our progress along the way. She went on to articulate many of the ways that we recognize each other for the effort and commitment that it takes to achieve our purpose as a school. As I listened to her, it struck me how the things we do to celebrate at Hidden River have not only propelled us forward and kept us united on the things that matter most—they’ve become a critical element of our culture upon which our staff places a high value.

Throughout our journey as a staff, there are a few key lessons that we have learned and principles we have followed as we use celebration to move us forward. Probably most important of all, we use celebration to support and reinforce the foundational beliefs and behaviors that we have agreed are most critical to achieving our goals as a school.

For your school, what are those foundational beliefs and behaviors?

If you have yet to wrestle with that question as a staff, getting clarity on what is most important for your school is a great first step. The book Learning by Doing by Rebecca DuFour, Richard DuFour, and Robert Eaker is an excellent resource and road map for any school in the beginning phases of defining the foundational components of mission, vision, collective commitments, and goals—the pillars upon which everything else in the school is built.

Without those foundational components in place, your celebrations may or may not be reinforcing what you want. If you’re not careful, celebrations could be reinforcing the wrong behaviors. At Hidden River, our foundational tenets include serving our students in highly functioning collaborative teams, continuously learning and growing together, putting the needs of students ahead of our needs as adults, and ensuring that every student receives what they need in order to achieve mastery of the skills we believe are essential. As a result, the celebration structures we have in place intentionally reinforce those essential elements of who we are and what we believe in.

Build Celebrations Into the Natural Flow of the Workweek

The second important lesson we have learned around celebration is that the processes and structures for it need to be intentionally built into the natural rhythm and flow of the workday and workweek. Because it is so easy to focus on all of the things that need attention or are not going well, authentic and purposeful celebration can often be forgotten or left to chance. These planned opportunities do not have to be big ordeals or special events that feel uncomfortable and awkward. When the structures are simple and frequent, the celebrations become a natural part of the day or week that staff members look forward to.

For example, every week our admin team sends out a short nuts-and-bolts email that captures some of the information that staff members need, which we intentionally leave off our collaborative team agenda and guiding coalition meeting agendas. Within that weekly email, we always highlight at least one staff member or team for an above-and-beyond type of effort that is an example of one of the tenets that we believe is important in furthering our goals as a school. At every staff meeting, we set aside the first five minutes for what we call our “staff spotlight,” and any staff member can recognize one of their colleagues for doing something that fits into what we believe is important as a school. These moments are priceless—at the end of a sometimes long and exhausting day, our staff get to pat each other on the back and bring a little positive mojo back to the room. I can’t even count the number of times those simple celebrations lifted my spirits.

Another example: In our weekly collaborative team or leadership coalition meetings, our teams take a few minutes to share an “All Means All” story or two—stories of specific students who have met mastery on an essential skill, or maybe a student who has finally met his behavior goals for the week. This quick storytelling opportunity is built into all of our team and coalition agendas because it helps our staff remember that we have committed to all students at Hidden River. It reinforces our belief that all students can meet the learning expectations we have for them. Those are just a few examples of ways that we have built celebration into the natural ebb and flow of our work. The key point is that it is easy, simple, and necessary!

All Can (and Should) Participate

The final lesson that we have learned and principle that we try to follow is that when many opportunities are created, everyone can celebrate, and everyone can be celebrated. To cement celebration as an integral part of the culture, one or two people shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for recognizing others, because that’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t foster ownership of the critical elements that are important to your school. When you create many opportunities for staff to recognize each other and those structures and processes happen naturally, it causes all staff members to participate in the process, and it allows for many winners.

Over time, your staff will begin to look forward to those moments, and as you sit back and watch them recognize and celebrate each other, you will begin to notice that your staff is paying attention to the cultural elements you are trying to reinforce. It has a snowball effect; the opportunities not only lift up a staff member or a team for their actions and beliefs, they also call attention back to what’s important for your school, which, in turn, embeds those critical elements further into the fabric of your culture. It is amazing to watch that process unfold, especially over the course of a couple of years.

Author, speaker, and response-to-intervention expert Mike Mattos, when referring to the work of a PLC, will often say, “If this work was easy, everyone would be doing it!” This work we are engaged in together is often challenging, daunting, and difficult, which increases and highlights the need for regular celebration within our schools. When we celebrate the things that matter to us, it reenergizes us in the work and moves us forward in accomplishing great things for the kids we serve.

So, what’s your next move in adding opportunities for celebration at your school? For me, as I continue to look for ways to improve in this area as a leader, I’ve started leaving one handwritten note for a staff member or colleague every day that connects an action or belief back to what is important at Hidden River. It’s simple. It takes less than five minutes, and it’s intentional. As I’ve started doing this, I’ve noticed that it’s causing me to pay more attention to what’s important, which is a good thing!

Celebration is a key driver in growing forward as a staff as you work together to create the school you have envisioned. Don’t underestimate the power of it. Once it’s embedded and becomes a normal part of how you operate, it can’t be stopped, and it truly will cement the actions and beliefs that you have agreed are most important in your school.


Brett Wille is the principal at Hidden River Middle School in Snohomish, WA.


Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Result-orientation

When milestones are reached successfully, you can celebrate the results and the people involved. As a school leader, here are some steps and actions to celebrate success:

  • Create regular opportunities to celebrate progress and the accomplishment of goals.
  • Publicly celebrate exemplary instructional practices and highlight them as best-practice examples to support other teachers.
  • Privately and publicly celebrate milestones in all areas (e.g., academic, sports, health, arts, service) so that each student and each adult has the opportunity to shine.

Result-orientation is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.