- School Leadership Reimagined ​​​How To Create Wow Experiences For Your Students And Staff

How To Create Wow Experiences For Your Students And Staff

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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number seventeen.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson. ​

Hey Builders, welcome to episode 17 of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today, we’re talking about how to create a WOW experience for your students and staff.

Question: Think back over the last month at work. What is the first thing you remember?

I’m guessing it wasn’t the 15 minutes trying to get the copier unstuck so that you could finish copying the agenda for the staff meeting. I bet it wasn’t even that staff meeting you just lead.

And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the paperwork you completed for central office.

If you’re like most of us, your last month was filled with mundane ordinary moments where you completed your work. And yet, when you think back over your last month, I bet that only a couple of moments stand out to you. Those moments were when something really special happened or something really awful happened. And although you probably had 10 or 20 mundane moments for every extraordinary one last month, it is the extraordinary ones that you remember and it’s the extraordinary moments that define that month for you.

Why is that? Why is it that although we have hundreds of moments each month, only a few of them actually are memorable or truly meaningful? Why is it that some moments stick out while others are barely memorable?

The answer is pretty simple.

Some moments matter more than others and if we don’t understand that and we don’t seize the moments that matter, then we miss a real opportunity to shape our school culture and reinforce our core values.

So this week, I want to talk about how you can seize those seemingly random moments in your day and in the days of your students and your staff and turn them into meaningful, even defining moments.

To do that, I’m going to be using Chip and Dan Heath’s book the Power of Moments which I reviewed in the summer reading episode, episode 13 (don’t worry, I’ll link to it in the show notes). Specifically, we’re going to talk about how to intentionally take ordinary moments and turn them into WOW experiences for your students and staff.

Here’s the thing, we don’t have to wait for life-defining moments to simply happen to our students and our staff. We can intentionally create WOW experiences that can shape and enrich our school culture, help us better connect with those we serve, and ultimately help launch your school in a new direction.

And all this can happen in a single moment.

Speaking of WOW experiences...

I want to tell you about today’s sponsor. Today’s episode is sponsored by my on-demand training program called The Feedback Fast-Track Formula. If you found the observation and evaluation process excruciating this year. If you struggled to get into classrooms and were overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork that you needed to complete. Then you need this master class. It’s four lessons that take you through every phase of the observation and evaluation process, from strategies to get yourself organized, to ways to get into more classrooms, to how to use micro-slicing to get to the root cause of a teacher’s practice, to how to complete your post-observation write ups quickly and thoroughly, to how to have that post-observation conversation, everything you need to make the feedback process less of a headache and more meaningful and impactful on teachers’ practice. By the time you’re done with the masterclass, you’ll have an entire feedback process that’s not only streamlined so that it takes you far less time, but is boosted so that your feedback has more power, and more impact on a teacher’s practice. And here’s the best part. You can get lifetime access to the training which means that you can start and stop the training whenever you want and complete it on your own schedule. You can learn more about the masterclass by going to mindstepsinc.com/feedback. 

So let’s jump into WOW experiences. WOW experiences are experiences that do three things:

First, they have to stand out. They are a break from the ordinary. In fact, they often elevate the ordinary to make it more special and more meaningful.

Second, WOW experiences reinforce your school’s core values. This is really important so you’ll probably hear me stating this one over and over. You see, you don’t want to wow for wow’s sake. That’s gratuitous WOWing or what is often called a “Dog and Pony Show.” You put in a lot of work and get very little from those. It’s like eating sunflower seeds. All that work for a tiny little pay off.

What WOW experiences do however is that they take your school’s core values and supports them, makes them stand out, and shows people how you plan to live those core values out in your day to day at school.

Let me give you a for instance. Suppose your school has a core value of leadership. You believe that every student should leave their middle school with the leadership qualities that will help them stand out in the world. It’s a non-negotiable for them.

So you might create WOW experiences that reinforces the importance of leadership for your students. One such experience is that they do student-lead parent conferences. But instead of typical student-lead conferences, they have turned this experience into a WOW experience. In the week approaching conference day, students prepare their data. In math class they create charts and graphs showing their progress and write up paragraph summaries explaining their data. In English Class, they assemble a portfolio of their best writing to share and practice their presentation. In science class they create goals for the upcoming marking period. In social studies class they create a timeline of their academic growth over the marking period.  On the day of the conferences, students dress up and they run the meeting. They present their portfolios and their data. They handle the parent questions. They hand their parents a summary of their progress and explain how they plan to improve their performance over the next marking period. Then they invite their teachers to add anything else that they want to add and they conclude the meeting. After the conference, parents and teachers give students feedback on their performance and the students use that feedback to reflect on the experience and the way that they lead the meeting.

It’s a big day and it serves to not only give parents and students a WOW experience but it actually is designed in a way that reflects the school’s core values.

The third characteristic of a WOW experience is that WOW experiences should provide a moment of insight. In other words, your WOW experiences should actually help people learn something or deepen their understanding of some bigger concept. They should be meaningful. Otherwise you are wowing for the sake of wowing.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean. A lot of people make a big deal about their first day of school. They go all out, the principal and teachers dress up, there are balloons, they even roll out a literal red carpet for students and parents but what does it all mean?

In most cases, it’s fun, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

Sometimes schools even try to have a theme for the year like Launching into Learning with spaceships and the principal dressing like an astronaut or Kids Under Konstruction (and that’s Konstruction with a K for the sake of alliteration) and everyone wears hard hats.

Ok. That’s really cute but what does that mean? How does that connect to your core values and how will you reinforce that theme throughout the year?

In most cases folks have no idea. But you are missing a HUGE opportunity to create a truly WOW experience for your students, parents, AND your staff.

So here’s how you can turn the first day of school into a truly WOW experience. First, choose a theme for the year that you plan on continuing throughout the year. Pick one that reinforces your core values. So if you have a core value or non-negotiable of building life-long learners then you might want to pick a theme like Reading for Life. Then on the first day of school you have a book mobile parked right out front and every student gets to pick a book on the first day of school. Then parents will be invited into the cafeteria for coffee and doughnuts and when they arrive in the cafeteria, they will be invited to sit a few moments and read with their students. When you welcome parents, you give them a reading journal that they will use to record what they are reading with their students each night. You will also give parents a packet with tips for how to help their students become better readers. 

As they walk into the school hallway, you will have reading nooks all over the school where teachers and parents will be reading books aloud to students. In the classrooms, teachers will have a list of their favorite books they read over the summer. Student name tags will be shaped like books. The first assembly will be a read aloud with the principal. The first staff meeting and each staff meeting after that will start with a few people sharing what they are reading at the moment. The principal will share what she’s reading as well. The PTSA will be there signing parents up for a book club where they are reading books on how to support their students reading growth.

So instead of a big hooplah on the first day of school, you have created a WOW experience that actually provides some insight on the importance of reading and equipped parents, teachers and students with tools that help them actually start reading for pleasure and becoming life-long readers.

So now that we have a better idea of what a WOW experience is, let’s talk about when you should create WOW experiences. There are actually 3 types of moments that are opportunities to create WOW experiences for your teachers and your students.

The first opportunity to create a WOW experience is transitions.

Transitions are natural defining moments. Think the first day on a new job as a teacher or the first day of middle school for rising 5th graders or the first day or kindergarten. All of these transitions are naturally defining moments for our students and our staff.

Natural defining moments are really big deals. They mark a period in our lives when we move from before to after, from here to there. The problem is, that in most cases we do a pretty lackluster job of taking this naturally defining moments like transitions and truly elevating them. What what would happen if we recognize how important natural defining moments are, we can shape them -- make them more memorable and meaningful? In other words, what if we were careful to elevate these naturally defining moments into truly WOW experiences?

Well if we did, we could take these transitions which are going to happen anyway and use them to reinforce our core values and creating meaningful learning experiences from them.

So the first step is to look for transitions that are already a part of the school year like

The first day of school

The last day of school

Promotion ceremonies

But then I want you to go further. Think about what about other transitions happen for students like moving from one leveled reader to the next level, or moving from one-digit multiplication to 2-digit multiplication. How about transitioning from one major system in biology to the next? One teacher I know has a graduation ceremony for his credit recovery students each time they complete work for one grade to the next. So if one of his students completes all of his 9th grade English requirements, this teacher will have a ceremony with a certificate signifying that this student has now moved to the 10th grade in English. As a Builder, what if you did that for your students who are behind. What if you celebrated when a student finally started reading on grade level or moved from one level in a text to the next? The possibilities are endless so pick out a few major transitions for students, ones that are aligned with your school core values and find ways to elevate those transitions and celebrate them.

Now although we already do a pretty good job creating WOW experiences for students, we don’t often think about building WOW experiences to commemorate transitions for adults. Do you for example do something special for teachers who are new to your building to commemorate their first day of school? How about the start of testing season or even better, the END of testing season. I mean imagine celebrating shipping off the last tests.

Or here’s a big one:

Remember in Episode number 10 when I talked about battle tested interview questions you could use to recruit and hire the right people for your school? Well why go through all that trouble to attract the right people to your school only to give them a mediocre or worse, disheartening experience their first day of work?

What if instead you created a truly WOW experience to welcoming new teachers to your school. I’m not talking about having them come in a day early, listen to a speech by the superintendent then come to your building and get the grand 30 minute tour and then be left alone in their classrooms all day. That’s not a WOW experience.

Here’s a WOW experience. As soon as a teacher accepts the job at your school, they get a personal email from you welcoming them to your school and reiterating your school’s core values. Then, a few minutes later, they get another email from their personal school ambassador which is one of the teachers on your staff welcoming them to the school, introducing themselves, and giving them the low down on things like dress codes, where to park the first day, and even a floor plan and a picture of their future classroom. They also get a package in the mail with their very own school tshirt and school swag.

When they arrive at your school, they are greeted at the door by their school ambassador who personally welcomes them and helps them get settled immediately in their classroom. They show them where the copy machine is and the staff lounge and then they escort them to the main office where you are waiting there for them with coffee and treats. You mingle with the group and tell them how happy you are that they have joined your team and other members of the administration are there as well.

Then, they get escorted back to their classrooms and sitting on their desks is a welcome basket with staplers, construction paper, scissors, and other little treats they can use to get their desks set up and start decorating their classrooms. The custodial staff drops by to introduce themselves and personally welcome the new teachers and they offer to help move a file cabinet or get a window unstuck. They show them how to work the thermostat and where to find the cleaning supplies. The business manager stops by their classroom and introduces herself and personally goes over any paperwork with them. Other teachers look in to make sure that they don’t need anything.

At lunch time, you order pizza and have it in the staff lounge where you briefly go over any school policies or procedures and hand out the staff manuals. At the end of the day, they get a personal email from you thanking them for an amazing day and reiterating your school core values.

When the rest of the teachers return, instead of making each new person stand up and introduce themselves, you’ve already sent an email to your staff introducing the new teachers in the building with pictures so that the current staff can go out of their way to introduce themselves to the new teachers as soon as they return to the building. Then, during that first big staff meeting, the ambassadors introduce the new teachers to the staff and they are all warmly welcomed.  

As teachers work in their classrooms throughout the first week, you make time to personally stop by each of their classrooms and get to know them better. Then, after the first week of school, you host a small little gathering that Friday in the staff lounge to check in with the new members of the staff, reiterate your core values, and make sure that they are okay. You also commemorate their first week with a special school hat.

Think about what you can do to make a new teacher or a new to your school teacher’s first day memorable and meaningful. What would happen if you intentionally designed a “First Day Experience” that not only welcomed new people to your team but reinforced your core values and made it more easy for them to assimilate quickly into your core culture? What would happen if you offered new teachers to your building an unforgettable first day that made them happy and proud to be a part of your staff and also gave them first-hand experience that reinforced the core values of your culture?

And this is not just about that first day experience. How can you make every significant transition students and teachers make in your school a WOW moment, one that reinforces your core values and celebrates them?

The second opportunity to deliberately create a WOW experience is milestones.

What if we commemorated kindergartners learning their 100th sight word or 11th graders finally completing that big 10-page research paper. What about celebrating the 100th day of school or even better, crossing the halfway point in the school year.

And for your staff. What if you commemorated the successful end of the first week of school, or successfully surviving spirit week, or that moment when you hit a really important learning target or even an employee’s work anniversary?

The thing about milestones is that a lot of them go unnoticed. So I want to challenge you to look beyond the typical milestones we normally celebrate in school and think about those milestones that actually reinforce your school culture and your school core values.

For instance, suppose your school has a core value of showing each person respect. One milestone you might want to institute is a milestone for teachers who learn all of their students’ names. In fact, you could even create a competition for teachers to see who can learn all their students’ names first. That’s a WOW experience that reinforces your core values.

Of suppose your school has a core value of never stop learning. You could create a WOW experience to celebrate students reading a certain number of books outside of class, teachers too for that matter. Or you could create a milestone around the number of PD hours a teacher racks up and create a WOW experience around that.

The idea here is pretty simple. You can use WOW experiences around milestones as a way to celebrate and reward people who actually embody your school’s core values.

What milestones do you commemorate as a school culture and how can those milestones reinforce your core values and create a shared sense of identity and meaning for your staff members?

And I urge you to look beyond the typical milestones to things like going 10 days without a disciplinary referral or going 1 week with perfect attendance, or getting 5 A’s in a row on a quiz, or solving 1,000 math problems, or 100% of teachers getting their grades into the system on time.

The key is of course that you are not picking random milestones. You are looking for milestones that directly reinforce your school core values. Once you find them, intentionally create WOW experiences around them and when you do, you will support and reinforce your core values more powerfully than simply hanging them on a wall or talking about them in staff meetings. You’ll actually weave them into the fabric of your school culture.

The third opportunity for a WOW experience is the pits. 

I think this is the one that most of us miss, even us Builders. We are are relatively good in schools at marking traditions and celebrating milestones but honestly, we don’t give much thought to the pits, those moments when things don’t go as planned, those moments when things actually go awry.

Pits are the opposite of transitions and milestones. Instead of being positive, pits are the negative defining moments, and they are usually full of hardship, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

And yet, if you are attuned to the power of moments, you can even take a pit and turn it into a WOW experience. You just have to pay attention.

I remember one day when I was a brand new Assistant Principal. It was early in my tenure and a student had done something that resulted in my suspending him. I called his father and he started yelling at me. Then he threatened, “I’m heading up there right now!” Twenty minutes later he stormed into the main office and demanded to speak to me. I ushered him and his son into my office and the first thing he said to me was this: “I don’t care what you say, my son will not be suspended today!”

I was quiet for a moment and then I asked politely asked his son to step outside so his father and I could talk.

His father immediately screamed, “You don’t tell my son what to do!”

Calmly I looked at him and said, “Okay, you tell him.”

The father waited a few moments and then muttered to his son, “Wait outside.”

When his son left, the father started yelling again. It wasn’t easy but I let him have at it. When he had exhausted himself, I said “We are at a crossroads here and the issue is not whether or not we suspend your son, the real issue is what kind of man do you want your son to be one day.”

He stared at me for a moment so I repeated my question, “Who do you hope your son will become?’

Hesitantly at first, he started to describe his hopes and dreams for his son and I sat there and listened. When he finished, I asked him, “Do you think that if we let him get away with what he did he will become that man that you hope he’ll become?”

He was quiet for a moment so I kept talking. I told him that I had similar dreams for his son and that if we did not act now, what would that do for his character? He was quiet so I kept talking. I said to him, “If we manage this suspension correctly and use it as a teaching experience, we can turn this experience into a really positive one for him.”

He was quiet for a little while longer and then he said, “you can call my son in and tell him.”

I shook my head, “Let’s make this a win for both of you. You should tell him.”

So that’s what we did. We called his son back into the office and suspended him but instead of it being a horrible experience, we took that pit and turned it into a WOW experience and in doing so, we helped his son take one step closer to becoming the man his father so wanted him to be.

I learned something from that experience and although I haven’t always been perfect at it, it’s stayed with me for the duration of my career. WOW experiences aren’t just about the fun stuff. They are also about the hard stuff. And what Builders know is that If you can take what is typically a bad experience and turn it into a WOW experience, you can intentionally create meaning from the experience and use it to help people grow, connect, and learn.

So think about your school. How are you intentionally taking the pits and turning them into WOW experiences for your students and your staff.

For instance, what would happen if we were intentional about taking some of the inevitable pits for students like the first time a student is bullied, or the first time a student in suspended or even the first time a student earns a failing grade and transforming those pits into WOW experiences?

Or what would happen if we were intentional about taking some of the inevitable pits for teachers like a negative interaction with a student or parent, or a difficult feedback conversation, or even experiencing a personal loss like the death of a parent, and we turned those pits into WOW experiences.

So many times we try to avoid bad experiences but what if instead, we embraced them, or at least not embrace them took them and transformed them into WOW experiences that not only reinforced our core values as a school but helped people deepen their connections, and ultimately learn and grow.

And that is the point of this episode. I want to challenge you to start being intentional about the moments you are creating for your students and your staff because those moments can be powerful. In fact, I would argue that those moments can be the thing that defines and reinforces your culture.

Here’s what I mean by that. Suppose you have a core value or non-negotiable that says we believe that all children can learn and it is our job to figure out how to help each student learn.

Sounds noble right?

Except, what happens when you run across a child for whom you’ve tried everything and she is still not succeeding?

Now is where the rubber meets the road. Will you give up on her or make an exception for her or change your core value to MOST children can learn?

Or will you buckle down and keep working with her until you help her be successful?

Well of course you would hope that your team would say “Yes, we’ll keep trying until we find a way to help her learn because our non-negotiable is ALL students.”

But what happens when things get tough and they feel frustrated because nothing is working? What happens when other students’ needs start to compete with their work with this one student?

In other words, what happens when they are challenged in a very real way as to whether that core value on the wall is truly a non-negotiable?

Well this is where WOW moments come in. They reinforce your core values. They give people the fuel they need to persist in spite of the challenges to live up to their core values.

You see, if you just ask people to persist on their own efforts, they may fizzle out. It’s not that they don’t want to live the core value but at this moment, it’s just that living that particular core value at that moment is really hard.

But if you were intentional about creating WOW moments throughout the year, then you can make living your core values much easier? For instance, what if you marked every bit of progress the student made in a significant way even if she wasn’t all the way where she should be yet? What if you celebrated each milestone she reached and what if you told her and ahead of time what the milestones looked like so that she looked forward to them? And what if you anticipated her pits, those moments when she would want to give up and you created WOW moments around those as well?

What’s more, what if you also rewarded the team for each milestone she reached? What if you intentionally celebrated each transition to the next level the next type of support and what if you anticipated the pits THEY would experience and created a WOW moment around them as well?

Well, maybe, just maybe those WOW moments would be enough to keep both the student and her teachers motivated and fully engaged until they were successful.

That’s the power of WOW experiences. That’s why you need to be intentional about creating them.

When you do, you can defy the forgettable flatness of everyday work and life and create meaningful experiences for your students and your staff.

Let's Recap

  • Wow experiences elevate the ordinary in a way that reinforces your core values and create moments of insight for your staff and students.
  • There are three opportunities every Builder has to create WOW moments for students and staff: Transitions, milestones, and pits.
  • Transitions should be marked, milestones should be commemorated, and pits should be filled.
  • Wow moments don’t need to be so much orchestrated as acted upon. The opportunity to give someone a WOW experience happens every day, multiple times during the day.

But here’s the thing about defining WOW moments. They don’t need to be so much orchestrated as acted upon. The opportunity to give someone a WOW experience happens every day, multiple times during the day. When an irate parent calls the office and demands to speak to you. That’s a chance to give that parent a WOW moment. When a student has done something naughty and now is in need of discipline. That’s an opportunity for a WOW moment. If a teacher is underperforming and you need to have a tough conversation with her about it, that’s an opportunity for a WOW moment.

How many times have you dreaded a call with an irate parent and spent the entire conversation defensively responding to their accusations. What if instead you chose to listen with empathy and fill their pit. In other words, what if you stepped into their anger and created a WOW moment.

How many times have you looked at a disciplinary referral as just another interruption of your day. For you, it’s a momentary hassle, but for that student and his parents, it may be one of the worst days of his entire school career. You have the power to step into that moment and help that student learn from his mistake and vow to never repeat it. You have the power to show his parents real compassion and help them navigate the confusing landscape of raising adolescent boys. You have the power in short, to turn one of the worst days of a students’ school career into a WOW moment that is nothing short of life altering.

How many times have you prepared for a difficult conversation with a teacher and stuck to the script and to channel Dr. Phil, how’d that work for ya? What if instead, you chose to take that difficult conversation and turn it into a WOW moment that not only helped the teacher understand and accept what isn’t working with her practice, but also empowered and inspired her to correct it and work towards becoming a master teacher.

My point is this. If you look for them, opportunities for WOW moments are all around us. Your job as a Builder is to stay alert to the promise that moments hold and to seize those moments when they arrive. Spontaneous moments of compassion and joy and real wonder. Moments that elevate the ordinary, that cushion the tragic, that connect you to the people you serve.

Whether you realize it or not, you have the capacity to make someone’s year, to be a defining moment in their career, to change the trajectory of their lives.

And it all happens in a moment.

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s spon​ser the Feedback Fast-Track Formula which is a 4-part online training program that helps you shave up to half the amount of time you are spending giving feedback to teachers while making your feedback twice as effective. In fact, if you use this process, you can help every teacher you work with score at least one level higher in at least one domain or problem area in one school year. Again, you can sign up for the training at mindstepsinc.com/feedback. 

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on linked in. Would you please find me at Robyn Jackson on Linked In and let’s connect? I’d love for us to be connected.

Next ​week...

Sadly, this episode concludes season one of School Leadership Reimagined. So, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who tuned in, subscribed, shared, and reviewed this podcast.

My goal in creating this podcast was to provide you with free training that would help you on your journey to Buildership and I hope that I have succeeded in giving you tips, strategies, and insight that has made your Buildership journey easier and more successful.

We’ll be back in a few weeks with season 2. In the meantime, you can always reach out to me on Linked in with any suggestions or questions you’d like to see covered in Season 2. Plus, I’ve got a few really cool episodes planned for you so keep an eye out for the return of School Leadership Reimagined in just a few weeks. Until then, you can check out past episodes of School Leadership Reimagined and download cool resources you can immediately apply to your own practice by going to SchoolLeadershipReimagined.com.

Bye for now and I’ll talk to you in a few weeks!

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.