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Finding Common Ground

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

Teachers & Leaders: Is Your Behavior Worthy of a Lunchbox?

By Russell Quaglia & Lisa Kinnaman — September 11, 2014 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-authored by Russell J. Quaglia, the President and Founder of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, and Lisa Kinnaman the Co-Director of the Idaho Leads Project at Boise State.

A new academic year, full of hopes, dreams, and challenges is upon us. When students see each other for the first time after summer break, there are hugs, wide smiles, and enthusiasm. It is the same with teachers as they greet their colleagues and swap stories of their summer adventures.

It is a magical time of the year ... that sadly lingers for too brief a time.

We think this diminishing enthusiasm can be attributed to what we are calling the lunchbox philosophy. Decades ago, one of the coolest things about the beginning of school was picking out a new lunchbox. We’re not talking about the ones that are made out of vinyl or recycled tires, or have designer fashions and labels, or are so neon you can see them from the moon.


We are talking about the metal lunch box with a handle that had a superhero on the outside and a matching thermos on the inside. They were impractical, cumbersome, and did not keep food particularly warm or cold, but they were awesome, and they had meaning.

This type of classic lunch box was first created in 1935 by a company called Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. None other than Mickey Mouse graced the original design. Before long, students everywhere were proudly carrying their lunch boxes, and soon the box mattered much more than the meal. It didn’t matter if you had a steak sandwich or leftover tater tots for lunch. It was all about the box - Superman, Superwoman, The Beatles, The A-Team ...

Should publishing companies abandon books and return to producing classic lunchboxes? Of course not, but we do recognize the symbolism of the lunchbox era. In the 50’s there were Mickey Mouse and Roy Rogers; the 60’s, The Beatles and Star Trek; the 70’s, Six Million Dollar Man and Barbie ... countless numbers of characters on our lunchboxes.

But for kids, it was not about promoting a movie or band or cartoon. It was about being inspired. It was about carrying a hero with them every day to school. The lunchbox stood for something. It provided a sense of purpose. And the irony is, we didn’t even know it; we just thought it was cool!

Who are our students’ heroes now? Do students readily display their heroes?

With today’s technology, one does not need to look further than the nearest computer or handheld device to find an example of a hero. Students identify all kinds of heroes - from sports legends and firefighters, to pop-stars and astronauts. But for students, it is important they have heroes outside the screen, heroes who have a direct impact in their daily lives. And to find your students’ hero, you only need to look as far as the nearest mirror. YOU are a hero to your students - whether you like it or not, whether you asked for it or not. Your only choice in the matter is what type of hero you want to be - how much and what kind of an impact you want to have on your students’ lives.

Students need role models in school, and unfortunately they are not finding these heroes as frequently as they should. Data collected this past year from the Student Voice survey from over 65,000 students found that:

  • 52% of students believe teachers are willing to learn from them
  • 44% of students believe teachers make school an exciting place to learn
  • 52% of students believe teachers care if they are absent from school
  • 55% of students believe teachers care about them as individuals
  • 57% of students believe teachers make an effort to get to know them

While the days of superhero lunchboxes are behind us, the need for heroes in schools is not. As a matter of fact, nothing is more important, and we must take action to address this data. It is not complex, and it does not take superhero powers to solve: You need to let students know they matter to you.

Most educators would agree to a gut instinct that it matters if students know we care about them. However, there is also a substantial body of research to back up this feeling of the heart. In his groundbreaking work Visible Learning, John Hattie provides a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement (2009).

Teacher-student relationships scored significantly high in the zone of desired effects with an effect size of 0.72.

Building relations with students implies agency, efficacy, respect by the teacher for the child brings to the class (from home, culture, peers), and allowing the experiences of the child to be recognized in the classroom. Further, developing relationships requires skill by the teacher-- such as the skills of listening, empathy, caring, and having positive regard for others" (Hattie, 2009, p. 118).

When students or adults are asked to think of teachers that had a significant impact on their life, 2 or 3 teachers typically come to mind. We may or may not be able to remember the teacher’s name, the content standards mastered, or even what letter grade was earned in that class. The reasons these teachers come to mind are usually backed by comments about believing that the teacher cared, and that they believed in the person as an individual (Hattie, 2012).

This is a theory that not only holds true in education, but is also emerging in cross sector research. An article titled Is it Better to be Feared or Loved? published in the Harvard Business Review provided as its key argument that, “Decades of sociology and psychology research show that by first focusing on displaying warmth-- and then blending in demonstrations of competence-- leaders will find a clearer path to influence” (Cuddy, Kohut, & Neffinger, 2013, p. 57).

So basically the old adage of don’t smile until Christmas ought to be thrown out the window.

Students are much more concerned with knowing that we care about them than the millions of facts we happen to know about science, social studies, or any other given content area. Yes, the content is important; but it is far more critical that we first show students we are their champions. We are there because we care about them. We want to be their heroes.

It is one thing to agree upon the fact that students need heroes and that teachers are uniquely positioned to play that role in the lives of the students they teach. Teachers have the opportunity on a daily basis to inspire their students to excel, to positively influence their attitudes and lifestyles, to connect with them on a personal level and to listen and value their ideas. But what does this actually look like when teachers foster heroes thinking in their everyday practice?

Here are some suggested strategies for teachers looking to serve as a hero to their students:

  • Take your role as a hero seriously
  • Listen to your students
  • Give your students daily words of encouragement
  • Recognize heroes in the school community
  • Show students you respect and value them
  • Attend after school events and functions
  • Take the time to ask your students how they are doing
  • Be fair and consistent with all your students
  • Talk with your students about their hopes and dreams (Quaglia & Corso, 2014)

The diminishing enthusiasm in schools cannot be totally blamed on the disappearance of classic metal lunchboxes. However the symbolism is not to be missed. Yes, the chance to have your face displayed on the top of a lunchbox has passed - those days are gone. But your chance to be a hero? Far from over. That time is now.

You don’t need special powers, just an authentic commitment to your students - a commitment to let them know you care about them as individuals, that you believe in and support them, and that you intend to spend the school year learning side-by-side with them. Let them know you are in this learning endeavor together. No cape required. Just hopes and dreams that will take you to infinity and beyond!


  • Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Neffinger, J. (2013). Connect, then lead. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 54-61.
  • Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Quaglia, R., and Corso, M. (2014). Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

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.