If you’ve ever seen the movie Remember the Titans, you may know this quote: “Attitude reflects leadership.” As a school principal for over a decade, this quote is one I choose to keep close to my heart, embedded in my deep belief of servant leadership. I know the way I choose to lead will make or break the critical work that needs to be done on a daily basis in my school. 

Educators want to believe in the work they do. They want to see purpose and value in the countless hours they pour into their beloved profession. There is not one person I’ve met in my 20-plus years in this profession that doesn’t want to feel part of a team, a family, and a larger purpose. How we cultivate that purpose in the work is everything.

I have always been a big believer in creating a high-energy learning environment. As a teacher, that looked like transforming my classroom into a place where I wanted to be every day or transforming a challenging lesson into something in which my students wanted to engage. As a principal, it is even bigger than that. That belief in creating a high-energy learning environment needs to fuel every classroom and every lesson. It has to be safe to take risks and make mistakes. It is something that I fully commit to each year and can be observed in the actions I choose to make every day.

Creating a Hook

Deciding where my leadership practice can make the biggest difference and have the greatest impact is deliberate. My staff, former and current, will tell you I go BIG to kick off the school year. It is something that I put a lot of thought and energy into, and it translates into a high-energy culture that sets the tone for how we will serve our students, each other, and our school community throughout the year. I’ve come to realize the importance of setting the tone in a way that inspires innovation, creativity, and risk-taking. It truly drives the work. I’ve gone to many lengths to make that happen for my staff, spending weeks (or months) creating a theme and vision that will last all year long—and I keep it a secret. 

It’s a hook. It’s intentional. They never know what to expect, where they will go, or what they will see—both the anticipation and the implementation captures their full attention (and their hearts) every single time! As Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) says, “School climate is what is said during a staff faculty meeting. School culture is what is said in the parking lot after the meeting.”  I want our staff so engaged in the work that they are talking about it in the parking lot—in a good way.

I’ve utilized themes, movie clips, experiences, educator celebrities, and complete transformations of the environment to align my content and move my staff, in mind and heart, to in turn go BIG for their students. For example, my administrative team and I transformed our school library into Fertitta Royale and used movie clips from James Bond to create a motto of going “All In” for our students and emphasizing the need to take risks to make big wins in our teaching. 

This year, I knew there would be lots of sharp turns and bumps in the road while we completely changed our teaching practices, so I partnered with a local business and held our kick-off at Mini Grand Prix in Las Vegas with the theme of “Dare to Drive.” We focused on the necessity for differentiated support and the need to adapt to the changes in our road ahead. We drove race cars and used our lap times to model how we could respond to instruction through use of data. 

The relatively small investment on my part to start the year with a high-energy vision has, in turn, led to so many creative and extraordinary ideas across our campus. It’s not about the fluff. It’s about encouraging risk-taking, creating a safe space, and breeding innovation in our work with students on a daily basis. We share the belief of two of our favorite educator celebrities and authors. In their book The Wild Card: 7 Steps to an Educator’s Creative Breakthrough, Hope and Wade King write, “When your students can’t wait to see what you’ll do next, you become the wild card that just might change the game for them.”  It has become what we do, ingrained in the culture and heart of our school. Hope and Wade recognized our school in their book, writing, “Once you find your own creative power, share it. Spread the magic. Don’t focus on who is getting credit for an idea. Imagine what education could become if we all worked together and supported each other like Dr. Ellis supported her teachers. We wouldn’t just be saying we want to change the world; we would be the change.” 

We truly will go to any lengths to ensure engagement; 2020 distance learning has made that even more evident. If we want our kids to engage, we need to show up. Every. Single. Day. 

Setting the Tone for a Challenging Year

If I’m being completely honest, I really had to dig deep to kick off the 2020–21 school year in a way that held up to the expectations of the past and how we do the work on our campus. I had to create a new way to set the tone for our work that also took into account the health and safety of our staff in the way we conducted “normal” business. I pushed myself to model the same level of creativity and care I was going to be asking our educators to give on each day forward for our students—the same level of creativity and care that we lived and breathed as a staff before a global pandemic turned our school (and our lives) upside down. 

I knew that I’d be asking teachers to continue to be positive, creative, and innovative; take risks; and work harder than they have ever had to work before—in the midst of full-time distance learning and a complete transformation of our educational practice, teaching, and learning. I had to do the same. I had to be positive, creative, and innovative in the way that I worked with our educators on the steepest learning curve of their careers. I had to find the energy and the passion to ensure we maintained a positive culture that would allow us to move forward in education together. It is what our staff, our students, and our school community deserve.

As leaders, we will always set the tone on our school campuses, and our attitudes toward the hard work we have ahead of us in our current reality will only shine more light on that impact. I’ve always known that. I know deep in my heart that my attitude contributes to the purpose and passion of critical work every day, and in my experience I’ve seen how positivity can be just as contagious as negativity. Teachers, students, parents—they pick up on it. They are inspired by it. 

A Wide-Angle View of Our School

I had an opportunity to visit innovative schools across the country last school year with a team of my staff members in an effort to continue to redesign what teaching and learning looks like for our students. The experience was truly priceless. Having the opportunity to learn and grow alongside others will always take our expectations and performance to another level. Our main takeaway from the school visits was the realization that a 360-degree lens to anything we do is much more powerful in our work. So while writing this blog article, I thought about that—how can I share that 360-degree view of our school? I can share with you, from my role as the school leader, how I perceived to have been successful in creating a high-energy culture of innovation on our campus. I can show you memorable moments with our staff, students, and school community that create an image of what that high-energy culture looks like. But, to clearly illustrate this point, I thought you should really hear the perceptions from our students, staff, and school community on how a leader contributes to the culture of a school (follow this link to read). After all, in regard to a school’s culture, perception is reality. 

Taking the time to seek out a wide-angle view of how others perceive you can be humbling, intimidating, and even courageous. It is an act of vulnerability, and as Brené Brown says in Dare to Lead, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” It is also a powerful opportunity to build trust. As school leaders, we must learn and grow alongside our staff and students. They must trust us and see us as allies in the work. They must see that our attitudes are unwavering as they reflect our values and beliefs in the vision and mission of the school—and our beliefs in them as individuals, as humans. I truly believe in doing so, you create an environment that leads to innovation and excellence. In reading the perspectives from my current and former school community members, I feel honored, humbled, and reflective. They make me want to work harder and be a better leader. Anything is possible when the culture of our schools encourages and inspires others to be better. 

About the Author

Dr. Cailin Ellis is principal of Victoria Fertitta Middle School in Las Vegas, NV, and the 2020 Nevada Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@VFMSPrincipal).


  • Great read. Many of the things you mentioned could be used in a business setting and create the same type of results. You are a great administrator.

  • Haley Payne says:

    Always inspiring, Dr. Ellis! I’m proud to have been lead by you.

  • Wendy Katz says:

    I loved your blog. As a former principal, I relived your “spot on” descriptions and examples of how you generated a positive, engaging, relevant culture for students to thrive. Wish we could capture your enthusiasm, and expertise and bottle it for all schools in America. Hats off to you!

  • Jeff Makelky says:

    Thanks for sharing your passion on creating such energy within your school. As school leaders we must model what we expect of others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *