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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Ways to Hack Opening Day!

By Randy Ziegenfuss — September 02, 2015 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Randy Ziegenfuss, Superintendent of Salisbury Township School District.

Starting a new school year is always exciting! It’s an opportunity to begin fresh with new colleagues, new students, maybe a new curriculum or even a new and inspiring initiative. It’s a time of year filled with enthusiasm, nervous energy and lofty expectations for ourselves and our students. Having set the stage, enter the all-staff Opening Day...

I’ve attended nearly 30 Opening Day events across two districts throughout my career. Some have been inspirational, but many have been the opposite - endless, un-engaging and without a clear message or focus. The energy and anticipation of a new year can easily be killed off by a poorly designed event. As a new superintendent, Opening Day is a defining moment, one where the subtext screams either “Status quo!” or “Wow....that was different!” Working in tandem with our new assistant superintendent, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, I was determined to cleverly reimagine, or hack, Opening Day to foster a positive district culture, inspire the full staff to build upon the current work, and begin creating lasting change for the long haul.

Here are 4 ways we did it followed by some detail for each hack:

Share ownership in the planning process - Lynn and I began the process of planning for Opening Day last April, many months before the big day. We started by bringing principals and central office administration together to creatively answer the questions: (1) What’s the “big idea” of Opening Day?; (2) What do you think worked well in the past?; and (3) What would you like to see added or changed? We then asked principals to take the same questions back to their staff (both professional and support staff) for another perspective. Weeks later, we reconvened as an administrative team, looking at the data to identify themes and collaboratively create the agenda for the morning. Four important themes emerged from this work: (1) make it fun; (2) make it inspiring; (3) recognize the accomplishments of the staff; and (4) include music.

While the planning process took time and human resources away from other needs in the district during the busy spring semester, ownership of the event became distributed across the entire staff. This Opening Day wasn’t going to be “owned” by any 1 or 2 people. Every staff member had the opportunity to put their ideas on the table to be considered.

Recognize accomplishments - Let’s face it, we all like to feel good about our work, to feel valued and appreciated. In the current climate of school and educator accountability, it’s not always easy. While we’ve regularly recognized staff accomplishments formally and informally in our schools and throughout the district, the Opening Day recognition needed to be different, something we hadn’t done before. The longevity of service by staff was something that met the need. We decided to start a new tradition where those with 20 and 30 years of service would be publicly recognized for their contribution and service to the district. This included both professional staff and support staff.

As an organization, all staff members play an important role in the success of our students. The recognition of longevity as well as the welcoming remarks from the school board president and vice-president of the support staff association (never before invited to address the assembly) reinforced this belief. As a result, the roots of a positive school culture were fostered to grow more deeply as demonstrated in this feedback:

This was the best Opening Day yet. It was the first time a representative from the support staff was invited to speak. We all felt included.

Build in fun - Things that are fun are engaging. We remember fun. Learning can be fun. Opening Day should be fun, too. But not just fun for fun’s sake. The fun needs to be connected to a larger goal. In our case, it was our focus for the year - creativity, innovation and the importance of play in the process. Our elementary schools have adopted the Leader in Me program, implementing the program’s 7 habits for several years. During the planning, one of our elementary school principals suggested we focus on Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw by inviting staff members to lead short sessions. Staff members as well as community members stepped up to offer engaging activities on healthy eating, mindfulness and other opportunities designed to promote thinking about how to renew energy and keep balance throughout the year.

A second layer of fun found its way into the program - a premier performance of our in-house band, Period 5. What a great opportunity for the staff and school board members to see their colleagues in a different light, having fun and sharing creative energy with the entire audience! Organized by our business administrator, Mr. Robert Bruchak, the band consisted of current and retired staff members who rehearsed over the summer and shared songs with inspiring lyrics (Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, Dream On and Don’t Stop Believing) encouraging us to think about the future, tieing nicely into the overall Opening Day inspirational message.

Deliver an inspiring message with substance - As the morning concluded, it was time to bring it all together with an inspiring message to remind everyone of past accomplishments and a vision for what is yet to come in the district.

To frame the message, Lynn and I tapped into the ideas shared in a recent blog post of mine about three aspects of leadership in education: the urgent, the important and the significant. Far too many districts, schools and Opening Day messages from superintendents focus on the urgent and important - teacher accountability, student tests scores, facilities improvements, budget constraints and the like. While important, they are a very narrow slice of what we must do in our schools. Instead, we challenged the staff to focus on the significant, thinking creatively and innovatively over the course of the next year, with the deliverable being a collective vision for teaching and learning in our classrooms for 2020 and beyond. We also sent the message that we are no longer going to be controlled by the “urgent” and “important” things too often hoisted on us by policymakers and bureaucrats. Instead, we’ll be focusing our energies on the “significant.” That’s a not-too-often heard message.

So was our hack of Opening Day successful? What do you think? Here is what a staff member shared.

I was feeling very overwhelmed the past few days. On my way into the high school I was grumbling about not having the time for this and thinking about all the things I could be getting done. I have never felt that way in the past. I truly love the opening day ceremony for helping me recharge. So I wasn't feeling very good about my mood. Then I walked into the drumming session :-) I was surrounded by such fun loving people, and playing those drums made my bad mood melt away. Then Period 5 made their debut and I was dancing in my seat. All the speakers were inspirational, and I was reminded why Salisbury is the best place to work. My bad mood melted away, and I was ready to take on the piles of work on my desk. So THANK YOU for taking our suggestions and making this a very memorable Opening Day.

“Opening days” are all around us if we think about it. What’s your “opening day”? How can you hack it to inspire those in your district, school or classroom?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.