The director of Culture and Strategic Leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals’ Association, Todd Nesloney, describes the importance of school leaders building the desired school culture. How instructional coaching and peer coaching impact a school’s culture are included.
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Steve: 00:28 Coaching the desired school culture. Todd Nesloney is joining me today. He’s the director of culture and strategic leadership for the Texas elementary principals and supervisors association. Todd was previously a principal lead learner and teacher. Todd encourages educators to think differently about how students can be encouraged to grow as leaders. As I was doing my research and visiting his website, I also discovered that Todd facilitates a program for school leaders titled, Building a Campus Culture,” so I invited Todd to join me and talk a little bit about his work in that area. So Todd, thanks for doing the podcast with me.
Todd: 01:23 Hey, I’m always excited to get to chat with you so thank you for inviting me.
Steve: 01:28 Would you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a principal and what would you say you learned about school culture?
Todd: 01:37 Okay, do you have like four and a half hours for me to just share 20 of them?
Steve: 01:42 [laughter]
Todd: 01:42 But no, you know, I was a classroom teacher, loved the work that I was doing, and I got my masters right away when I was a teacher. Not because I actually wanted to use it, but because I just wanted to be the first person in my family with a master’s. And so I always swore I would never be a principal. And I started to get a lot of recognition for different leadership, things that I was doing in my classroom. And president Barack Obama brought me to the white house to amplify some of the work we were doing. And so a superintendent at a neighboring district, reached out on Twitter and was like, “hey, would you be interested in working in our district?” And I said, “nope, I love where I’m at.
Todd: 02:17 I love what I’m doing.” And he reached out again about a week later and said, “do you want to be a principal here? We know you had your certification.” And I said, “no, I like where I am. And I like what I’m doing.” And then again, he reached out a third time and said, “well, you’d get to hire your entire staff. Would you come now?” And I said, “well, we can talk”
Steve: 02:38 [laughter]
Todd: 02:38 Because, you know, it’s kind of always a dream of educators to build our own school. And so I met with them, loved their ideas, and ended up interviewing and getting the job and being the next there for the next five years, really working on not only improving the academic performance of the school, but also the culture. The culture was a really negative one, not only with the adults, but also within the community and getting the community to respect what was happening and support and be a partner in what we were doing.
Todd: 03:06 And it was always my strength as the classroom teacher and I just loved doing that as a principal. And I think there’s so many lessons I learned every single year, but I think one of the initial lessons that I learned when going into leadership was that in the classroom, I was in charge of everything. I got my ideas, I accomplished them and I worked with my students. When I became a principal, I thought the same thing would be the case. Like, that whole idea of if you want it done, right, you got to do it yourself. Like, that was the mantra I’d always had. So I come up with the crazy idea, okay, I’m going to be the one in charge of it, because it was my idea and I have a vision and I’ve gotta be the one that makes it happen.
Todd: 03:48 And what ends up happening is, as a principal, you don’t know this before you get in the job, but when you get in the job, you realize there are like 5 million things on your plate every day that were not in the schedule and we’re unplanned and you’ve got to balance all of it, or everybody’s mad at you. And I started adding more and more to my plate and going, I can’t do what I used to be able to do as a teacher. When I say, if I want it done, right, I have to do it myself. I had to learn the hard way by overwhelming myself, that everybody on my team has a strength. Let me figure out them in their strengths and then pull them in to say, okay, you are really great at organizing events and tables and decorations. Can you do this?
Todd: 04:32 Here’s my vision, but you take and run with it. And what I found was, when I learned how to delegate, and I learned how to trust my people, the dreams I had in my head were done a million times better by somebody who had an additional passion or strength then what I would have done on my own, even if I would have had the time to really make it mine. And so I think as a leader, you’ve got to understand the role of
delegation and the role of really saying my team’s here because they bring great things to the table. I’ve got to amplify those and let them lead.
Steve: 05:06 So does the work leader-full fit? It sounds like you’re talking about a culture that is leader-full.
Todd: 05:13 Yep. You’re in you’re exactly right. And you know, and again, it comes down to building those relationships with your people. You’ve got to get to know them to be able to identify their strengths. And many times, even though they’re adults, they don’t see what you will see in them. There were countless educators on my team who I would say – I would watch them in action. And they would be a natural speaker when they’re sharing something or they would write the best word in emails or things like that. And I would go to them and say, okay, I really need your help with this. And they would go, oh, I’m not good at that. Like, isn’t there somebody else’s better? And it wasn’t because they didn’t want to do it or they had too much on their plate, it was always a self-doubt. And being somebody, myself who struggles with that often that I always took that as a challenge to go, you may not see it in yourself yet, but I’m going to work my butt off to let you see how good you are at this so when you finally believe it all, you’re going to make us all better.
Steve: 06:15 So your role really was building leaders?
Todd: 06:18 Yeah. And you know, I remember one of my favorite principals that I worked under, she told me one day, she said, Todd, if I’ve done my job as your principal, you are the most marketable educator around and people are going to be clamoring to get you at their school. I don’t need to be hindering you so that I can keep you here for me. If I’m doing my job as your leader, then you are going to want to go and be branching off and trying new things because people are craving to have you because you’re that good.
Steve: 06:53 Cool, cool. I’m wondering what thoughts you have as to schools opening up this fall in the post pandemic climate as to what that means about the climate and culture of a school that is somewhat different or stretched. You need a different consciousness going into this year?
Todd: 07:16 I think if anything, during the last year or so, that we’ve learned is the importance of self care and social, emotional learning. And a lot of that conversation in education has been focused on the students and their social, emotional wellbeing and how we can address that. And that’s important. But I think sometimes that we often forget the adults and their mental health and their social, emotional wellbeing. I always think of Todd Whitaker says, you know, if you don’t feed the adults, they’re going to eat the kids. And so you got to make sure that you are pouring into your team too. And so how are you going to check in on people? How are you going to encourage them? How are you going to know them well enough to know how personal things are going in their life, they need additional supports in place.
Todd: 08:00 And how are you going to really work with your team that they are taking self care moments? Because as educators, we’re the worst at self-care because we just pour, pour, pour into others until there’s nothing left and then we think we’ve got more to pour into them. We don’t know why we’re so tired or why we’re getting burnout. And so when we’re entering this new school year, and we’re – almost everybody’s going to be in person now, we’re going to be going back. It’s kind of like a fresh start. It’s an opportunity to bring so much excitement and joy and celebration that we are back together, that we are back in that ability to fist bump or say hello, not on a computer screen, or to bring a gift that we can hand to somebody. Like, I think we’ve got to bring that joy when this year starts out so everybody sees how happy we are to be back together. It’s still going to be different. There’s still going to be pain, anxiety, frustrations, hurt all this kind of thing going on. But as long as we’re making sure that we’re taking care of our mental health, and we’re bringing that joy and excitement, I think we’ll see pieces quickly fall back into the way we know that they’re meant to be.
Steve: 09:16 Thanks. Thanks. Todd, I’ve spent a large part of of my career working on coaching as an element of of school leadership. Training administrators in their coaching role, working with instructional coaching programs, getting peer coaching programs implemented where teachers as part of professional learning communities see coaching each other as a key element, I I’m wondering your thoughts on, on how coaching fits into the
desired school culture and climate.
Todd: 09:52 I talk about this quite often, too and even in my book, “Stories From Web,” that I wrote with my staff at Webb elementary, so they’ve all got stories featured throughout, we talk a lot about that in there. And you know, there’s several things that I think that when it comes to coaching and that is, first of all, as the leader, you can’t lose touch with what’s happening in the classroom. And so you’ve got to be visible, you’ve got to be out there, but you also have to be not afraid to go team teach a lesson with a teacher or model, teach a lesson. You know, for me as a campus leader, when I took over, I had experienced teaching fourth and fifth grade, but I was now at an elementary with Pre-K through fifth grade. So how are the kindergarten teachers going to trust me, how are the second grade teachers going to trust me when I haven’t taught those content areas?
Todd: 10:36 So I would go in and ask them, what’s a really difficult standard that you teach? Okay, let’s plan a lesson together. I want to teach it and I want you to stay in here and give me feedback over what I did well or what I could have done better because we learn best by watching others in our natural environment. And so my teachers would go, wow, he’s really going to teach a lesson and I get to watch and critique him? And I would sit there and go, yeah and then take the feedback and go, ah, okay, I’m going to try that next time. That’s a really good idea. But it’s a manipulative way too, for me to kind of be like, hey, you know I’ve been wanting them to use this strategy in their teaching and they’re not so I’m going to use it when I model teach so they can see it in action and see the value that’s there.
Todd: 11:19 But we also did something on my campus every year called switch day, which is where I would partner every single staff member with somebody else on the staff who was not in their content or grade level area and they would have to switch for an hour and a half to three hours and they would go teach that other content. So those fifth grade teachers who swore they would never go down to kindergarten, guess what? I’m putting you in a kindergarten room for an hour and a half so you can see that kindergarten teacher is not just babysitting. It’s a lot of work. Or third grade teacher who just always makes comments about how PE is just so easy, they just go in there and play. Okay, you’re going to be the PE teacher for two hours on this day and that PE teacher is going to come in and teach your class.
Todd: 12:04 And so it’s like an opportunity to walk in each other’s shoes, but also gain new appreciation for the work that each of us do. Because even I switched places, I switched place with the first grade teacher, the first grade teacher became principal for an hour and a half, and I became the first grade teacher. And so it gives you that appreciation, but it also opens your eyes to new interests you may have that you didn’t know. Like, I had a teacher who was in fourth grade who, she switched with a pre-K teacher and she was like, I thought I’d hate pre-K, but that was actually kind of fun. Like we already have another day set up where we’re going to switch again, because I want to try something else with them. And so it’s those kinds of avenues. It’s terrifying. The staff, isn’t always excited about it the first time they do it, but once they do it, they’re like, okay, let’s do it again next year. That was cool. That was fun. That was different.
Steve: 12:54 It’s interesting Todd, as I listen and think back to the podcasts that you did for me with parents and teachers, and now this one. Knowing, is a constant word that comes out of your whole leadership development, that the teachers need to know the kids, the parents need to know the kids, the administrator needs to know the teachers needs to know the students. And in what you just said about that switch day, I can just see all the knowing about a colleague and knowing about a situation that comes out of that.
Todd: 13:32 Well, you know, and what I think it’s important for people to understand is there is no silver bullet where you do one activity or whether there’s one thing that happens one day that fixes everything for you that makes the culture perfect. Culture is a never ending job that is always fluxing and changing and what you do one year may not work the next year because the people may be different or the needs may be different. And so I want people to understand too, that when it comes to building culture and when it comes to coaching your people, you’ve got to be ready to be flexible, to be fluid, and to just continually push yourself to saying, you know, how do I need to connect with these people now today? Because we also have things that happen in our lives that change us as people, when we have a loss or a financial difficulty, or we have a breakup or things like that, those change the way we reflect and respond to different things. And so we’ve just got to always be ready to turn on a dime.
Steve: 14:26 When I was reading the information on your website about the the course that you are facilitating on building a campus culture, I read this statement and I wanted to share it and have you respond to it: “you can create experience and memories that will stick for a lifetime.” It caught my attention, so you want to expand on it a little?
Todd: 14:53 Well, you know, I always reflect on my own experience and education as a student and there are so many parts of my school that I have no memory of. I was always pretty quiet. I was always well behaved because I didn’t want to get spankings from my mom when I got home and I knew she’d follow through. So I always didn’t get in trouble. And when I think about that, you know, I was that student that kept all A’s, but was quiet, not in trouble. So I don’t really remember any educators in my life pouring into me or spending extra time with me because so often we are drawn to the kids who are misbehaving or underperforming, or the kids who are killing it and we just want to go and pour into them even more. And so I think of our jobs as educators and leaders is providing these opportunities that are so unique, so memorable that kids are beating on the door in the morning to get into the school, rather than counting down the seconds to leave.
Todd: 15:47 And, you know, I don’t think that whatever your role is on campus, that doesn’t eliminate the opportunities to create unique experiences. Whether you are the art teacher, the principal, the secretary, the nurse, you can create those cool things. And as a school leader, some of the things that I talk about in the course too, are, you know, even – I’m in Texas and it doesn’t snow here, except for our snowpocalypse we had like earlier this year, but besides that, it doesn’t really snow here so many of our kids have never seen snow before. So I bought a snow machine and set it up in the main hallway one day in December and just had it snowing like a blizzard in the hallway as the kids came in that day. There was no academic value. There was no – it didn’t last more than 15 minutes, like it was over and done with, but those kids talked about it for weeks because, you know, they got to experience snow.
Todd: 16:33 And if people are listening today and they’re going, yeah, but you’re elementary, like I’m secondary. What I always tell them is, people, kids are kids. I have worked with high school seniors who will work harder for a scratch and sniff sticker than a five-year-old will and I’ve been to high school, pep rallies with more extensive costumes than my second graders wear for Halloween. Like, don’t tell me these ideas won’t work for secondary. As a high school student, I would have thought that was super cool. Like why is there a snow machine in here? And, you know, we would have been high school students you’d be like, that’s so dumb. Why would they do that? But you know, we’re going home when there was snow at the school today. Like, I don’t know why there was snow, but there was a snow machine with snow and it was kind of cool and you remember it years down the road. And so that’s what we have to do. We have to create those memorable opportunities.
Steve: 17:21 Yeah. Very few of our memorable opportunities are content specific or test scores.
Todd: 17:30 Right. Exactly.
Steve: 17:30 They are that moment that the – I think the teacher told us were special.
Todd: 17:35 I always tell people, you will never have a kid come back to you in 10 years and say, that worksheet you gave me on January 6th, number five just really resonated with me all these years later. Like, that’s not what they remember, but when you were there, when their died and you supported them, or you were there when they fell down on the playground and got a scratched knee, or you created a transformation where they got to come and be explorers for the day in the classroom, or even just sending them a note, telling them they’re doing a great job, all those things are things that resonate with people. I’ve got a drawer full of notes that I’ve received over the years of people telling me either I’ve done a great job, or they appreciate something about me because when I forget who I am and when I lose sight, I still go back to it as a 36 year old adult. Those aren’t things that expire. And so we’ve gotta be pouring in and creating those experiences. I want to be the teacher and the leader that was remembered because I made a positive impact. I don’t want to be either forgotten or remembered because of a negative thing. So that’s all on me. I can control what I do. So I have to build that up.
Steve: 18:42 It’s the stories that are told that the high school 25th year reunion as the people sit there and share their memories with their with their classmates 25 years 25 years years later.
Todd: 19:02 Exactly. You are exactly right.
Steve: 19:07 Todd, just wrapping up here, I’m wondering If there’s a closing recommendation or suggestion you’d like to make to the administrator
and teacher leaders who are listening in and have that responsibility for building the cultures in their school.
Todd: 19:22 I think what I would say in closing is, you are going to have a lot on your plate and you are going to have a lot of doubt seep in daily. Are you doing a good job? Do people appreciate you? Are you meant for this? It’s going to be a really hard time, but if you’re put in that position, you were meant to be there and you have incredible worth and incredible value. And you know, what, if nobody has told you that recently, maybe that’s the reason you were meant to listen to this podcast today, is so you could hear somebody say, you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. You’re doing a great job, keep up the work. We know it’s not easy, but nothing ever worth it is ever easy.
Steve: 20:05 Thank you. That’s a message that I know, especially as this school year is closing out that people people really needed to hear. Todd, would you let folks know the resources that you’d have available that they might want to look into and how they can find them?
Todd: 20:22 Yeah, so if you go to toddnesloney.com, you can see all the books that I’ve written, my videos, my TEDx talks as well as my two brand new self-paced online courses that are linked on my site and all my social media is on there. Everything’s on my web page. I made a one-stop shop for you. So you can check that out at toddnesloney.com.
Steve: 20:42 Great. And we’ll we’ll be sure to put that link in the lead into the podcast. Thank you so much for everything you’ve shared with me.
Todd: 20:48 Thanks for having me.
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