Our Champions' Culture

Todd Simmons's picture

Written by Todd Simmons, Principal at Pewamo-Westphalia Middle/High School and Region 6 Representative on the MASSP Board of Directors

I've been asked numerous times over the last couple of years, and by various practitioners, "What is your school culture all about at P-W?" In fact, just this year alone, we have been honored to host several educators, coaches and school leaders who have come to spend part of their day with our staff and students to see for themselves what we are all about. In all cases, we attempt to demonstrate to our guests that our champions' culture is the foundation of everything we have done, and everything we hope to do.

To start, we recognize our scholastic culture stems from a very strong community tradition, from teachers, support staff and district leaders who laid a foundation before us, not to mention unbelievable students, parents and residents that have matriculated through our hallways over the last 50+ years. To know our culture, you first have to understand our school district community. Surrounded by bean and corn fields and dairy cattle and calves on all sides, Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools is a rural beacon of agriculture, family values and work habits. Our residents take great pride in their homes, farms and villages, and our students are taught the value of dignity and character at a young age. Our kids, and their parents, understand the need for high standards and realized potential. Coupled with the great legacy of retired educators and graduates, a solid foundation of pride, respect and spirit was secured in place years ago.

As aforementioned, at Pewamo-Westphalia Middle/High School, our shared vision for our school is that of a champions' culture. Our vision is that of a truly holistic experience for our students, staff, parents and guests, where our success is not defined by state ranking, SAT scores, state championships, awards from national publications, nor scholarships earned, but rather, by whether or not each and every one of our students and staff reaches his/her personal best, or in other words, their fullest potential. The formation and growth of our champions' culture is what we spend most of our time and resources on. Whether it be PD sessions, S.I.T. meetings, parent forums, assemblies, initiatives, decisions and/or daily reminders, our culture guides, drives and focuses our days.

Our champions' culture is created and framed by our staff. We have been very intentional in our hiring and mentoring practices. We understand the requisite of hiring for character first, as skills can be taught over time. By bringing in high integrity, high energy staff, we have been able to accomplish more of our goals and objectives at a faster rate. Our teaching team authentically wants to do what is best for our kids, and it is exemplified in their daily attitude, work ethic and commitment. To that end, we believe our culture and champion process all comes down to people – in other words, it's not about the "X's & O's", but rather, it's all about the "Jimmy's and the Joe's." Strategic plans, academic philosophy and district mission statements are all great things, but without high character, passionate educators, students and community members, all scholastic methodology is futile.

It starts each year when our School Improvement Team forges our vision targets – the collaborative success criteria for our building, forged by our teacher-leaders within our shared leadership model. For as many years as I can remember, our S.I.T. has chosen the growth of our school culture as our #1 vision target for the school year (as listed).

Our 2017-18 MS/HS vision targets:
#1 we will grow our champions' culture
#2 we will utilize our data to drive instruction via interim assessments
#3 we will implement proven, effective instructional methods (teaching is for learning)
#4 we will make tech. an ingredient to quality instruction
#5 we will increase the frequency, SAT format, and rigor of our formative, interim, and
summative assessments
#6 we will keep our Atlas curriculum mapping "alive"

This fact speaks to and affirms not only the ownership that our S.I.T. takes in our process and planning, but perhaps more importantly, their buy-in and support for the school environment we envision. At our monthly S.I.T. meetings, the members exhibit the characteristics of the shared leadership model, coupling problems with potential solutions, providing transparent inputs, and taking on an authentic ownership for our building's mission and success. From creating and funding a "helping hands account" for our less fortunate students, to creating specialized student events that grow relationships, and from buying kids clothing, to providing them with a positive place to hang out after school, our teacher-leaders are the guideposts of our culture.

Furthermore, we use our staff to test the quality, effectiveness and authenticity of our culture. Like a dipstick into an oil pan, we use measures such as teacher shadows, Bernhardt surveys, observation dialogue, S.I.T. brainstorms, individual goals meetings and daily "check-ins" during conference periods to see if our "dipstick reading" matches our intent and vision. Such feedback, data and insights are studied and reflected upon, as our team members' thoughts and opinions hold significant weight in determining our next steps.

In addition, we "feed" our champions' culture by recognizing exemplars. We start every PD by having educators give a brief elevator speech on a colleague who is a "fruit of our culture." We honor at least one staff member every year with our Champion Clydesdale Award, and thus, a "day away with pay," earned by the team member who garners the most votes from peers, as evidenced by an extraordinary level of personal best. We hand deliver fresh baked cookies to all the staff in the building at random times throughout the year, and leave "champion thank you notes" and personal best bracelets in the mailboxes of educators who are going above and beyond for our kids. These forms of recognition, coupled with innumerable Facebook and Twitter posts, and shoutouts in emails, public forums and on our website, give encouragement, affirmation and support to our team members who best exemplify champion attributes.

As important as staff buy-in can be, student buy-in is the engine that powers our building. In other words, our culture only goes as far as our kids take it. This past school year, the Class of 2018 took us to new heights. Our seniors took control of our champions' culture by starting a Student Voice forum, meeting once a month with me to share their inputs on the mission, vision, and purpose for our school. Our Student Voice had a profound impact on our incoming 7th graders this year, coming alongside them to explain our standards and "P-W way," and also by taking the lead with our new student orientation. Our Class of 2018 also took our peer-tutoring and LINKS programs to a greater effectiveness, giving of their time and talent, to those students most in need, while seeking nothing in return. Finally, our PLANK peer-mentoring initiative was energized by this year's graduating class, as they did everything within their power to mentor younger students, provide food, toiletries, and clothing for peers in need, and assist the numerous transfer students we garnered last summer. In fact, one of our senior PLANK leaders sent me a text just last month regarding a transient student who decided to transfer back out of our building. She explained, "Oh no!... I wanted a shot at helping her out. It just stinks when we as students can't provide what a transfer student is looking for. But it's on us to fix it, not on you. Thanks for the opportunities regardless. Stay Up!!" Whereas, another one of our newest transfer students just sent us a letter stating, "I just want you to know you should be proud of this school – it is truly a champions' culture school. I want to thank you for everything you gave to me. This school is my home and my happy place and I want to thank you for everything you made possible for me. I am eternally grateful for everything this school has done for me." Such testaments, ownership, responsibility and buy-in, comes directly from our students, as they, and specifically our seniors, are encouraged, and expected to be the epicenter and driving force of our champions' culture.

Finally, I focus on giving my personal best to fall in line with the standards of our culture. I pray that I can be the most positive, hard-working, high-character person possible, seeking to serve our students, staff and community to the best of my ability. My servant-leader role starts every morning before school when I serve as a "doorstop." Every day, as our kids get off of our buses, or come in from our student parking lot, I hold the door open, shaking hands with each of our students, and attempting to start each of their days with a positive, caring, energetic message. From that point forward, until the dismissal bell at 2:57 p.m., I try not to step foot in my office. Rather, my intentions are to spend the entire school day in our classrooms and in the hallways, interacting with our students and educators, granting them affirmation and feedback, and growing relationships. In other words, I want to be "where the rubber meets the road," and that only happens if I give my personal best to truly connect with teachers and kids by sitting alongside them in the classrooms throughout the school day. I believe this gives me an authentic view and assessment of our culture and allows me to work hand-in-hand with our stakeholders to ensure that it remains champion. We believe the "speed of the leader, is the speed of the team," and thus, I must also be held accountable for demonstrating a champion process.

In summary, although many will tell you that our standards at Pewamo-Westphalia Schools are extraordinarily high, those expectations revolve around the simple belief that every individual, whether it be middle school student, a veteran teacher, a nighttime custodian, or even a MS/HS principal, can bring a positive attitude, tremendous work ethic and high character to our building on an everyday basis. These aforementioned attributes are the barometer we use to determine personal best. All are well within every person's control, and thus, we believe every student and educator can display them. No longer encouraging our kids, team members and community to base their value and success on results and outcomes, but rather, finding joy in a champion process, that in the end, tends to produce champion results. When our people are provided the autonomy to focus solely on their potential, not comparing, contrasting, nor stressing over other's advancements, we have found that a greater number are inspired to perform, take risks, innovate and give. Our participation in extracurricular activities has grown, our service organizations and clubs have added members, our behavioral issues have decreased and our school climate and atmosphere has been energized. We believe, and it is expected, that every, single person in our school district can and will give their authentic personal best, which is the foundation, the engine and the fuel that drives our champions' culture.