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Lead with Joy: A Retiring Educator’s Legacy

Remember the children’s book, Ms. Nelson Is Missing? Ms. Nelson was not appreciated by her students until the stern Ms. Viola Swamp took her place for a while. Suddenly, students had a new appreciation for Ms. Nelson!

I recently had a day that reminded me of Ms. Nelson and Ms. Viola Swamp. It involved conversations with two different school principals with a similar juxtaposition between them. 

One was starting from a place of joy. The other… well, not much joy.

Both administrators are preparing for their final year of service before retirement. One is working to “leave my legacy with my beautiful students.” The other is creating a program for students with “a history of discipline,“ who are at risk for suspension.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with developing an at-risk program. However, my concern was the approach. When asked which option of our program -books or software-  was better for meeting her objectives, I had a clear opinion. “Software! It’s far more dynamic and engaging than workbooks, especially for a self-directed setting like yours.”

She replied sternly, “Well these are children who need discipline. They don’t need ‘fun and games’ or electronic distractions, they need paper and pencil!”

Yes, students need proper correction when they make wrong choices. However, reinforcing a few errant moves with a long-term commitment to “no joy” will only shut them down farther. This is a spiral that will twist in the wrong direction. But, as you might guess, our conversation ended quickly. 

Meanwhile, there’s Mrs. Smart. (Yes, that is her real name!) I first connected with her just before the school-year began, when I visited her school to host some trainings. That’s when she told me this would be her last year and that she intended that the skills from SOAR would be part of her legacy; she believes these skills will serve students throughout their life.  

Mrs. Smart had special cookies made for their kick-off celebration of SOAR!

Mrs. Smart was so full of joy for her students, it was contagious! I didn’t see her student kick-off. (I was there to work with the teachers.) But, she planned for a school-wide celebration to launch SOAR. “We’re going to make it fun!”

They began with a short ceremony, where students posted a personal goal on a large, whole-school display. Then, students moved around to: stations where they set up their binders and planners, refreshments they enjoyed with friends, and a photo booth where friends could take group photos behind big, cut-out frames decorated with the word “SOAR!”

Mrs. Smart sent me several photos from the booth, each filled with smiles all around! (I sure wish I could share them, but obviously must respect students’ privacy.)

Not everyone can turn a few refreshments, a photo booth, and some planner and binder stations into a legitimately FUN celebration. But, Mrs. Smart can because her students know that she genuinely loves them. And, that she values joy.

That was all set in motion several months ago. Three academic quarters had passed when Mrs. Smart recently informed me that their failure rates have dropped in half!

More joy!

I know that we are all burdened with many layers and expectations. But, like Ms. Nelson, Mrs. Smart is a lovely reminder that we can choose how to navigate these barriers and guide our students to success; we can lead with joy or no joy.  

One is far more effective… and fun for everyone!

Thank you, Mrs. Smart, for your years of dedicated service to your students and for sharing your joy with us all! It has been a sincere honor to have been invited to be a part of your legacy. 

To your new grandbabies… and to our students’ success,

Susan

Mrs. Smart was exceptionally gracious to us on our visit to her school in Needville, TX. During lunch, she took my daughter (who came along as my assistant), on an alligator hunt to the nearby swamp. We didn’t find an alligator, but we did enjoy lunch in the park.
Mrs. Smart showing Maddie the flood line on the trees from Hurricane Harvey.
I couldn’t resist taking this photo. I had only just met Mrs. Smart, but it was evident that this captures her essence as an educator, walking side-by-side with her students, guiding them along their path. Now, she’ll get to do the same for her brand new twin grand-babies!

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