“People’s perception becomes their reality and so we must shape the perception to create the reality we want people to have when they think of us.” My superintendent, who hired me for my first administrative position (and taught me a LOT about the politics related to this job), used to say this to me on a daily basis. Initially it was rooted in the fact that I didn’t necessarily wear a suit or shirt and tie each day to school and he felt strongly that the way I looked shaped the way people viewed me and interacted with me. They had a perception of me that spread through word of mouth and thus became the reality. I was still relatively young at the time and would always fight back because I argued it shouldn’t matter what I looked like but instead my words and actions should matter. Eventually I started to think about the perceptions I created solely based on the way someone looked and I realized the only way I was going to get people to hear my words and attend to my actions was by creating a certain perception (that may or may not have been related to my appearance) and in turn my reality.
This idea came back up again about a year ago when I heard Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) speak about using the power of Social Media to our story and “brand” our schools. Brilliant - absolutely brilliant! Think of the Golden Arches - everyone knows about McDonalds and what a deal it is to eat there. Think about Apple - everyone knows they are always looking for the next iPhone or iPad - they are innovators and risk takers! Right now, I am in Aruba and they have branded themselves as One Happy Island and you know what? EVERYONE perceives this place as One Happy Island (because of the amazing people and their daily efforts). Branding is key. Telling our stories is key! Eric was 100% right and I knew that I had to get behind the idea and tell our story - I wanted to influence the perception of our school by sharing the daily realities. I wanted to help brand Cantiague Elementary School as the best elementary school on the planet! Why should we allow people to create their own perceptions, which could be rooted in misinformation, based on word of mouth or what is published in the local paper?
Branding, which typically is a “business world” thing, is exactly what our schools need today! There is so much bashing of public education in the media today and the landscape of public education is not a pretty one but as educators - whether a superintendent, classroom teacher, support specialist, or the Lead Learner of the building - we still control everything that happens in our schools. And since we control what happens in our schools (even with state/federal mandates and policies, the final execution is our call) we know there are awesome techniques/approaches/etc. unfolding in our schools so let’s spread the word; let’s brand our schools; let’s fuel the perceptions; and let’s create our realities!
For me, that journey began with my iPad. I am fortunate in that my whole school is WiFi so this year I made a conscious decision that I was going to spend as little time as possible in my office and as much time as possible walking around the building visiting classrooms, talking to children, taking pictures, tweeting about our daily adventures, emailing parents with the highlights of our work and blogging about our successes in a weekly staff newsletter. Well, I am thrilled to say that one year in, and our school’s brand is really taking shape! Our community knows we aim to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of individual students. Our community knows we believe in as much small group instruction as possible and that whole class/direct instruction is at a minimum. Our community knows that we believe in the reading and writing workshop models and our goals are to nurture life long readers and to support passionate authors who cannot wait to publish their work. Our community knows that we are Bucket Fillers and that we support the Super Six - Be a SUPERStar by being responsible, respectful, positive, safe and kind (these are the pillars of our success). Our community knows that we work diligently to make technology integration a seamless and powerful component. Our community knows that we value two way communication. Our community knows that we invest in building school and community spirit. And most importantly, in my eyes, our community knows that we love our kids and are dedicated, not only to their academic development, but also their social, emotional and psychological growth.
I don’t share this information as a way to “toot our own horn” but instead to share that when a conscious decision is made to brand your school and tell your story, the possibilities are endless. I have seen conversations at our PTA Meetings go from talking about the logistics of fundraisers to discussing the concerns over high stakes testing or the power of book clubs as a way to differentiate instruction. Our community is informed and that is what we want at Cantiague. It means that we have to be transparent. It means that we have to be confident in our choices. It means that we have to be open to feedback - good and bad. It means that we have to show that with every success there are at least three failures. It means that we are comfortable flattening the walls of our school and proudly telling our story so we can shape perceptions and build realities.
If you are ready to brand your school and create your reality, here are 5 starting points...
1) Twitter - create a school twitter account (encourage teachers to do so also) and tweet about all the exciting things happening in your school and classrooms. Share your story - shout it from the rooftops before someone else does it for you! Don’t just use it to share when the next baseball game is happening or what time the bake sale starts - use it to share practice from inside the classrooms!
2) Storify - we used this resource to amass all our tweets from the week that were heavy on pictures and really helped shape the reality. Click here to check out the Cantiague storify page that features our use of Twitter - this is a great way to share tweets with families not on Twitter.
3) Email parents (if you can) and tell them about all the awesome things happening in your school across all grade levels! Click here for a sample of an email that I share with our community about 2 times a week.
4) Create a staff newsletter/blog and give everyone a glimpse into each other’s spaces so they can all see the awesome things they are doing! We often spend so much time in our own little spaces that we don’t get to share ideas and learn from each other - here is a great way to start that process! Click here for an excerpt from our staff newsletter!
5) Jump in the deep end of the pool and take a risk! Be the storyteller for your school and contribute to the perceptions that will create the realities - don’t let someone else do it for you!
Also, check out these other amazing educators who are telling their own stories in their own way...
Matt Gomez (@mattBgomez)
Erin Klein (@KleinErin)
Ben Gilpin (@benjamingilpin)
Jimmy Casas (@casas_jimmy)
Knapp Elementary (@KnappElementary) led by...
Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza)
Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher)
Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ)
Matt Renwick (@ReadByExample)
Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann)
These are just some of the awesome storytellers out there! Please leave a comment below and share examples of other amazing perception builders... share your story too!