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Empowering Strengths to Transform School Culture

Originally published on Gallup Strengths Center – March 23, 2015

Picture of Rachel Edoho-EketRachel Edoho-Eket is the Kindergarten Instructional Team Leader at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, Maryland. Her top five strengths are Maximizer, Arranger, Communication, Developer and Achiever.

Last spring, I attended a training on the strengths-based initiative that our school would implement this year. I was surprised to learn that we would focus on what is strong, not what is wrong. This idea presented a huge shift in my mindset because, historically, teachers have been trained to identify areas of weakness and provide remediation rather than pinpoint areas of strengths and provide reinforcement. But a shift in mindset alone was not enough to transform a school and a culture. The following is a glimpse into the intentional experiences we created and explored to truly bring strengths to life in our school.

Name tags with student strengths

Students receive name tags, created by Ms. Katherine Kidd, that list their top three StrengthsExplorer themes.

Before we began implementing this initiative at our school, each staff member took the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to identify our top five Signature Themes. As staff began to discover their personal strengths, I immediately noticed a shift in the culture throughout our building. Teachers were talking openly about their strengths, providing examples of how they use their strengths both personally and professionally and comparing their strengths with colleagues. Our focus centered on ways to use our natural talents and to do what we do best every day. Ongoing professional development, individual coaching sessions, and team building were essential components to ensure that staff remained highly engaged and applied the principles within each instructional team.

Our kindergarten team possesses a wide range of talents and strengths. As we engaged in strengths-based conversations, we realized that the key to our effectiveness was the direct result of our strengths in action. For instance, my top Signature Theme is Maximizer. This means that my primary talent is to focus on the strengths of others to stimulate personal and group excellence. My colleague’s top Signature Theme is Restorative. This means that she is very strong at figuring out areas of deficit and resolving problems. Upon closer examination, we discovered that her strongest talent is my weakest strength! Many people would assume that because of our seemingly opposite strengths, we would clash often, but this is not the case. In fact, because these are complementary themes, we have the ability to offer multiple approaches to solve common problems more efficiently and productively. Just as teachers are finding more ways to engage with strengths, students in fourth and fifth grades have taken the StrengthsExplorer assessment to reveal their three strongest talents and abilities.

Grow Strong Bullentin Board

This board displays pictures of the kindergarten staff, along with each teacher’s top five themes.

One of my favorite components of the strengths-based initiative is its emphasis on identifying and cultivating student strengths. Our school has implemented a number of school-wide activities to empower students to begin to use their personal strengths every day. We have a series of weekly videos that focus on the “Five Grow Strong Weeks,” students have “table talk” conversations about their strengths during lunch, and there are strengths nametags on desks and families receive suggestions to help foster their children’s strengths at home. In our classrooms, teachers are using strengths to teach in innovative ways. In Amanda Pagnotta’s fourth grade class, student cooperative learning groups are now structured according to individual talents and strengths.

“Each member of a cooperative learning group represents a different talent. I then assign jobs to each student within their specific strength to use when participating in the activity. For example, a student with the strength of Presence may be assigned the role of presenter while a student with the strength of Achiever can help keep the group on task — it varies with the activity chosen,” said Pagnotta. In her reflections, Pagnotta affirms that, “When creating cooperative groups by this new ‘strength’ formation, students feel a greater sense of responsibility and purpose. In addition, they demonstrate more confidence because they have a role that directly ties to one of their top strengths. This allows students to apply their strength, and helps the group achieve the task at hand.”

When we first began the strengths-based initiative this year, I certainly underestimated the transformation that would take place in our school’s culture. Now that strengths are highlighted and encouraged on a daily basis, I regularly hear conversations framed around talents as opposed to deficits. As teachers, strengths provide a larger frame of reference for understanding our students, our colleagues and ourselves. For students, strengths-based education offers an opportunity to build upon powerful inner talents that will continue to develop throughout life. These experiences are indeed essential because they will transcend any other lessons, unit plans, or projects that teachers can provide in school.

Group Of Teenage Pupils Outside Classroom

A Student’s View of Exceptional Teachers

studentphotoJake Rodriguez is a senior at Glenelg High School and Glenelg’s Executive SGA President for the 2014-2015 school year.

It has been a privilege to be a student in one of the greatest school systems in the United States. The Howard County Public School System has afforded my peers and me many amazing opportunities, resources, and educators to ensure our success once we leave the system. Recently I was asked, “What makes an exceptional teacher?.” As graduation approaches, I reflect upon this question. According to the dictionary, exceptional means, “unusual; not typical; outstanding”. Although I have been taught by many outstanding educators, there are two, in particular, who come to mind immediately.

Exceptional teaching looks different from class to class and teacher to teacher. It is what teachers say, do, and how they make students feel. Exceptional teachers aren’t necessarily the easy teachers, in fact, they may be some of the hardest teachers you encounter. These educators challenge students to do their best and provide endless support, even if it isn’t always convenient for them. They are passionate about creating an environment in which students can question, make mistakes, and grow academically, socially, and emotionally.

Ms. Chawkat, my AP 11 English teacher, is one of these exceptional teachers. She is a teacher who takes the time to get to know the many different learning styles of her students in order to provide an environment where all students can thrive. Ms. Chawkat would prefer to grant an extension for an assignment rather than allow a student to turn in a rushed product  simply because it was due. She holds very high standards for her students, and expects them to do their best. To her, growing as a learner and writer is more important than a grade. Ms. Chawkat’s lessons are creative, current and relatable. She teaches, engages, and inspires students using interactive lessons to help us understand different genres. She spends hours outside of class providing constructive feedback to our writing, in order to ensure, with each essay, we become even stronger writers. Ms. Chawkat is respected by all of her students because she never belittles us. Instead, she treats us like adults, respects our opinions, and challenges us to consider other perspectives.

Mrs. Shearer is another exceptional teacher who profoundly impacted my career at Glenelg High School as my Spanish 2 and 3 Honors teacher. What makes Mrs. Shearer exceptional is that she is a teacher who takes the time to find out about her students and how she can help them succeed. She knows many of her students learn in different ways and provides multiple methods for capturing notes, completing assignments, and taking tests. She offers different opportunities in which students can show proficiency. Mrs. Scherer’s class is definitely not a “one stop shopping” for all. In addition to being there for me in so many different ways in class, Mrs. Shearer was there for me outside of class as well. Mrs. Shearer is approachable. I know I can talk to her about anything, and I do. She gives me advice about study habits, high school stresses, and college. Every student is special to Mrs. Shearer. Her extra effort to get to know her students personally, outside of her classroom, truly defines her as extraordinary.

I know Ms. Chawkat and Mrs. Shearer love coming to work everyday and are passionate about what they do…helping students achieve their maximum potential. To me, this is what makes a teacher “exceptional!” I look forward to beginning the next exciting chapter of my life in college, and hope that my professors embrace teaching as much as the teachers in the Howard County Public School System.

Reblog: Two Languages, One Common Heart

The blog post below is adapted from an article that appeared in Centennial High School’s online newspaper, The Wingspan. The post was written by Centennial sophomore, Minnie Gregorini. Students Izzie Chausse, Shalini Malhotra, and Minnie Gregorini contributed pictures.

On Feb. 9, a group of Chinese students walked through the door to Centennial High School and set foot into a whole new world rich with very unique cultures.

blog3Twenty-five students from Tianjin 25th Middle School came to America with one common goal: to experience the culture of American life. Of those 25 students, 16 went to Centennial High School, while the other nine were sent to River Hill. CHS and River Hill welcomed these students as a part of a Memorandum of Understanding between HCPSS and Tianjin 25th Middle School.

The students weren’t just randomly picked. The entire student body at Tianjin 25th Middle School, whose first years are equivalent to an American sophomore, were given two tests. The 25 students who scored the highest were given the opportunity to learn in American schools. The test was administered to evaluate a broad range of subjects, so many of the 25 students excelled at math or science but were perhaps not as strong in English, for example. It was a common struggle for the 16 students at Centennial, and even harder if the CHS students they were shadowing didn’t speak fluent Chinese.

One Chinese student, Wang Xin Yu, said the hardest thing for him was “[Speaking] was hard to communicate. But, I have learned more English already.”

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Another student, Li Rui, said that it was difficult ordering lunch. “The hardest thing was telling [the lunch ladies] what I wanted to eat. I couldn’t understand them. They couldn’t understand me.”

Despite the language barriers, many of the students liked the American school system. Li Shang said she liked the dynamic between teachers and students. “The teachers and students are a lot closer in America than in China … It’s really nice.”

Most of the students had many of the same feelings toward the common cultural practices here, though each of them seemed to have his or her own favorite part of America. One student, Li Xiao Zheng, stated that his favorite thing was the American people. “They’re really nice here,” he said.

“Computer Science. I really like Computer Science,” said student Liu Ming Yang.

“I really like the cafeteria,” said Gao Jin Sheng. “The food here is good!”

The CHS students being shadowed also got to experience a lot culturally. “I was really nervous at first because I was sure I would embarrass myself with my Chinese,” said junior Tess Hawkins. “But we ended up getting along really well,” she said about her and her shadow, Li Hao.

Brian Reed said, “It was nice showing [Jun Ran] around the school. It was fun learning more Chinese from him and I realized that the things that we take for granted sometimes they don’t have. So it’s really been interesting.”

Some of the Chinese students were hosted by CHS families and their children/students, including Teresa Whittemore, Ryan Sorak, and Abby Pavuk.

blog14“I really liked sharing a house with the girls we hosted. It’s funny because I didn’t think I would spend much time with them at all, but I spent a lot more time with them than I thought I would. I really like my shadow too,” Abby said. “I’d always wanted to be a host to an exchange student so when my mom got an email and asked if we wanted to host, I immediately said yes.”

All in all, this program has turned out to be a success for both CHS and Tianjin 25th Middle School. Hopefully, in the future, Centennial will be able to participate in more programs like it.