Education’s Magic Bullet: happy hour

Common culture in a school is incredibly important. If you know, or have followed me online, for any amount of time, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard me say it.

When schools have a strong culture, everything else seems to work. New directions, adoption of new policy, and even technology integration goes well when there is a strong culture underpinning it.  When I was an educational consultant, I noticed this more acutely than ever before.  There are those schools that you walk into and everything seems to be working for them.  You get the distinct feeling that no matter what is thrown their way, they would end up on top.  Other schools have all the right buzz words, but felt totally dead inside.  These are the “junkies” of schools.  They are constantly looking for their next fix.  New curriculum, new administration, better data, different testing, more technology integration.  When you look at what they propose on paper it can look alluring and like it will work.  Finally, that elusive magic bullet. But despite all the right buzz-words, despite the latest and greatest new technology, it remains distinctly empty.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that what schools lack most is strong culture. There is no strength and camaraderie among the staff, the students are lacking a model of what strong community looks like, and as a result the school is left looking for their next fix.  If you don’t have a healthy culture, those fixes are, at best, temporary.  Band-aids.

What Anastasis has going for it, above all else, is a strong culture.  As a staff, we genuinely enjoy each other. We look forward to coming to work because that is where friends are.  It isn’t that we all agree completely on everything (if you want proof-mention recess duty or prototype lab organization), it isn’t that we all teach the same way, it isn’t that we all use social media to connect with other educators, it isn’t that we have the best*fill in the blank*. What makes our culture strong is that we start from a place of camaraderie and friendship. That friendship leads to great inside jokes, support for one another, lots of laughter, and trickles into a culture for the school.

Matthew and I started Anastasis with a vision and a dream.  We didn’t stop there. We’ve invited every one of those we surrounded ourselves with to be a part of that vision. Then we asked that they would dream with us.  I’ve just created a community vision board on the wall of our office where we can share those dreams visually. When everyone who comes in our school can see our vision, it is more likely to be supported, encouraged and, fulfilled.

The number one catalyst of this strong culture: shared meals and happy hours. Really. There it is, the magic bullet for education (wonder if the secretary of education will ever pick up on THAT as a policy shift). When you share a meal or a few drinks, you start to learn about each other beyond the walls of the school. Inevitably you chat about what is happening in the school as well as in life. You will make time to smile at each other, chat in the hallways, share more freely.  Students pick up on this. The atmosphere feels lighter, happier. Students see community modeled. Now, anything new that comes your way is suddenly doable, because you are doing it together. You are prepared to really support each other.

I often hear, “well sure you can have strong culture-you started the school, but you have NO idea what I am dealing with.”  You’re right, I don’t know what your exact situation is.  But here is what I do know, your biggest road block is you. Culture is possible everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are an administrator or a science teacher. You don’t have to have administrative support to change culture, you just do it. Invite your colleagues out for happy hour or dinner. Do it regularly. (To see how I did this BEFORE I started my own school, check out this post.)

There is a meme that is going around the edu blogosphere lately. It reminds me of chain letters that I used to get (except without the threat of bad luck FOREVER at the end). The idea behind the meme is to get to know educational bloggers better. Which is pretty great. But what are we doing to get to know the wonderful people in the classroom down the hall better?

Little known fact about me: I am REALLY uncomfortable in social situations. I would so much rather meet with a few good friends than attend a get together with lots of people.  I think it boils down to my aversion to small talk. Hate. It. This is probably also the reason I have a love/hate relationship with conferences. Fear of the moments of small talk. Ew. In the beginning, building culture sometimes looks like small talk. You don’t really know each other yet so you are reduced to some uncomfortable chit-chat. But do that more than once, and you run out of chit-chat. Real conversations start to happen.  I’ve now known the majority of Anastasis staff for 3 years. We still learn about each other. I asked them questions from the meme blog post I was tagged in and learned things I didn’t know. Building community.

In addition to meals and happy hour, Anastasis staff goes to see movies together (sometimes we call it professional development).  We do yoga in the park together during the summer. A few of us started walking/running through the cemetery after school together (of course we use the Zombie Run app). Sometimes we shoot skeet together or paint together. We send each other stupid video clips and songs and pictures. We throw each other cat showers. We are silly and vulnerable.

Building culture isn’t about making everyone think the way you do. It is about doing life together and starting to understand their perspective. It is about building friendships and community that spills into what happens during the school day.  Convincing someone to use social media as a method of professional development is a whole lot easier when you have an inside joke to share with them via social media. Working together to better your school is more effective when you are dreaming together.

This isn’t impossible. You don’t have to wait for your administration to do this for you. There is no permission to seek. You have to decide it is important and you need to make the first step to making a personal connection.  Watch how it ripples and spreads through your school. A close community of educators builds a powerful culture of learning and change. It also makes everything a whole lot more fun.

A strong culture is absolutely transformational. When you have a community that works together, it changes the education conversation.

As it turns out, education’s magic bullet is happy hour.




And now, because I was tagged in some “Getting to know you” memes, I give you the following (Thanks @mrskmpeters, you are wonderful!).

11 Random Facts About Me1. As stated previously, small talk is SO painful. I wish I could avoid it for the remainder of my time on earth.

2. My first boyfriend and kiss was my husband @jtenkely…it was in college.

3. No, I wasn’t one of those girls who had crazy ideas about not dating…I just didn’t get asked out in high school. We’ll call it Ugly Duckling Syndrome.

4. I legitimately have taxidermiphobia. It is an actual thing. I immediately get flop sweat and hyperventilate in the face of taxidermy.

5. I’m trying to overcome said phobia with fake taxidermy. It started with a picture that I made myself and has progressed to a metal deer head hanging in my kitchen. (Jury is still out if this therapy is working.)

6. I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Finding a great flavor combination is so happy.

7. When I was a kid, my dad owned a wooden model rocket company called “Retro Rocket Works.” I spent a few summers at LDRS (large dangerous rocket ships).

8. When I grow up I want to be a rocket scientist. And a writer. And a graphic artist.

9. I have rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve had it since I was 9. It is a stupid disease and makes things like buttoning your own pants impossible some days.

10. I live with the MOST incredibly talented person I’ve ever met (that is saying something because my parents are pretty dang talented…see Koostik).  I seriously believe that @jtenkely can do anything. He is like an incredibly good-looking creative super hero. And he loves me…winning.

11. I love crafting and making things. In my own mind I’m the upgraded version of Martha Stewart.


Questions from Kristina:

1. Favorite travel destination: I love Napa…it is so low-key, beautiful  and wonderful. Wine is also involved.

2. How many passport stamps do you have? ummm, I think somewhere around 16… I’ve obviously not kept track. Most of them are to England, one to France, one to Israel, and a few Mexico.

3. Dogs or cats?  Dogs…that act like cats.  Shiba Inu is best of both worlds and SO stinking adorable.  See my instagram for proof 🙂

4. Italian or Mexican food?  If I’m cooking- Italian, If we are eating out- Mexican.

5. If only one social media outlet: Pinterest. I get sucked right in. I LOVE Twitter, but Pinterest totally feeds my inner visual geek.

6. Favorite book in 2013: I have to say, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our 8th graders read it, I read it as a result of a conversation I caught.  Brilliant.

7. What makes you happy? Lots of things. Sunsets are pretty great. @jtenkely is a sure bet.

8.  Favorite Friends episode: Dang, this is a tough one. I like the one where Rachel and Phobe run.

9. Choice of professional development, traditional or edcamp?  I like the more unconventional best.  I’m a little bit of an educational heretic.

10. If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about? My TED talk would be about starting a school. It would be epic.

11. Favorite classroom stories: Student came into my computer lab, “Mrs. Tenkely, can I lick the chocolate off of my headphones?” Me: “Why is there chocolate on your headphones?” Student (very matter of fact): “They were in my pocket.”  Me: crickets…   Student: “I hide chocolate in my pockets because I’m not allowed to have it. It gets melty so I can stick my hand in my pocket and sneak it all day. I accidentally put my headphones in my pocket. So can I lick it off?”   Me: Yep, go for it…chocolate shouldn’t go to waste!


Your turn. Instead of tagging educational bloggers, I want you to have these conversations with others in your school. Invite them out for a drink or a meal. Talk. Build community and culture.


The Gift of Humbleness: On building culture

People often ask @matthewquigley and I how we did it.  How did you start a school in such a short amount of time?  How do you build strong culture?  Our answer: We surrounded ourselves with incredible people.  People who are better, smarter, more creative, more passionate, more talented than us.  We surrounded ourselves with people we respect and admire.  We surrounded ourselves with people who believed in our vision.  Couple that with a strong belief that it is possible and that children deserve better.  That is Anastasis.


Yesterday, one of our all-star teachers brought in a Louis Vuitton purse.  Brand new. Probably worth about $1400.  Lance offered it to us, “I’ve had it for a few years, my wife isn’t a designer purse kinda gal, who wants it?”  The purse is beautiful. I won’t say that I wasn’t tempted to take it.  I have a hard time portraying this image.  Don’t get me wrong, I love designer everything but I’m specific about it.  I view designer dresses, shoes, bags, the way I do art.  If I can appreciate the designer as an artist, if I know their story, if the design resonates with me, I’m all over it.  In other words, designer for the sake of designer doesn’t do it for me.  That may be anti-girl.  The funny thing is, all of the girls turned it down.  “How do people spend that much on a bag, I’m not sure that is the image I want to portray.”  “It is just too big for me to use as a purse realistically.”  “Why don’t you sell it on ebay and use the money for your new baby girl?”  In the end, Lance still had the purse.  He said he would hang onto it for a few days in case any of us changed our mind.

As it turns out, Lance didn’t hang onto the purse.  Instead, he gave it to one of our janitorial staff as a gift.  He asked her if she would teach him Spanish in return.  She happily agreed to this arrangement.

When I walked out of our staff meeting, I saw Betza sitting in a chair with the purse clutched to her in an embrace.  When she saw me, her face broke into a reverent smile.  “The professor gave me this beautiful purse.”  Our student teacher joined me in the hall and translated Betza’s words for me.  She proceeded to tell us about how she was wealthy in her country, the wife of a diplomat.  She has grown children who are all over the world.  One is in Milan studying fashion.  She said over and over again how blessed she was by the kind professor’s gift.  She said, “In the United States, God has given me the gift of humbleness.”  What a statement!

These are the kind of people who surround us.  People who sacrifice for others.  People who love deeply.  People who can laugh together.

How did we build this culture?  When @matthewquigley and I began the interview process with teachers, we agreed that it needed to be someone who shared our vision.  Equally important: it had to be someone we could laugh with.  In the interview process, our last question was, “What is your drink of choice?”  You can learn a lot about a person by their answer.  At first, this was really a joke, to help add a little levity to the interview process.  As it turns out, the answers told us a lot about who each person was outside the classroom.

I don’t think it is possible to create strong school culture until you have a strong staff culture.  I love the people I work with.  We share jokes, life’s rough spots, and relaxation.  We read books together, convince each other it is a good idea to go to a midnight showing of Hunger Games even through we have to work the next day.  We watch basketball games together, have dinner with each other and have shared many happy hours.  We truly enjoy each others company.  That is an easy place to build from.

Our students and families pick up on this.  When you have a staff who can laugh together, you have students who join in.  Students have a model of healthy social interaction.  We work hard to give our students opportunities to work and play together regardless of the age.  Every morning, our whole school walks a mile together.  This is a great time of culture building as students talk, explore, and skip together.  It is incredible to see one student comment on the amount of trash they see on the walk and bend down to start picking it up.  Even more incredible is to watch as the majority of the school community joins in to help pick up trash.

After our morning walk, our school gathers together for a morning devotion.  Having all of the students together like this is so valuable. They are all hearing the same vision cast.  They have this shared experience every day.  Our students also have recess all at the same time, and lunch together every day.  We don’t separate their relaxation time based on an age level.  They do it together.  I can’t tell you how neat it is to watch two seventh grade girls notice that a fourth grade girl is sitting alone at lunch, pick up everything, and join her.  Without prompting from an adult.  That is how community should be done.

We invite our parents to be a part of the community.  Often parents join us on the morning walk (sometimes with dogs in tow).  They sit in on the devotion time.  They stop by to have lunch.  They offer to carpool for field trips.  They come to Parent University to learn together.  They get to know their child’s teacher outside of the parent teacher conference.

As a school community, we are experiencing the gift of humbleness.  Starting a school will do that to you.

Searching for da Vinci

True learners are multidimensional, they are passionately curious about the world around them. The Gateway to 21st Century Skills blog wrote a few posts about Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential example of a Renaissance Man, that got my wheels turning today.  da Vinci was a scientist, inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, cartographer, mathematician, and the list goes on. He had an insatiable curiosity and was deeply creative and innovative.  da Vinci is still highly regarded as a brilliant creative genius, his thirst for learning is just as relevant today as it was 500 years ago.  Here is my question, is the current education system set up to foster the da Vinci’s of the world?

I think education likes to imagine itself as creating a population of individuals who excel in a range of subject areas. After all, we include a variety of subjects and topics that we push students through so that they can learn a little bit of everything.  The problem: our students don’t really excel at any of them because they aren’t given the opportunity to become passionately curious about any of them.  The curriculum that we offer students is one dimensional, it’s purpose has become to prepare students for testing.  Did you get that? We have created a system that prepares students to take a test. Created by the system.  What do the tests tell us? That we have students who can pass tests.  Does that sound like educational incest to anyone else?

Let me give you an example from my student teaching experience 9 years ago.  When I was an elementary student, I didn’t have to take the state test for Colorado (CSAP) because it hadn’t been invented yet.  I took the ITBS test about every 3 years and thought nothing of it.  When I started student teaching, I was curious about this state test that I would be preparing students to take (and we were encouraged to teach students how to take it).  When we got the practice tests in, I flipped through to see what sort of content the test covered.  I wanted to make sure that I had equipped my students with the necessary knowledge so that they wouldn’t have those freeze moments that can throw a students into  standardized test tail spin.  As I was flipping through the 3rd grade test I read the following question:

If you wanted to learn more about Whales, which letter would you search under in an encyclopedia?

Now, don’t cheat and look below at the answer….you said “W” didn’t you?

That would be wrong.

The choices given to students: B, M, T, or F


The correct answer: M for mammal

The answer my 3rd grade students would guess: B for Beluga Whale

Number one: IF any of my students were searching for whale, you know where they would look first: Google. It wouldn’t occur to most of them to go to the encyclopedia as a first reference.

Number two: If my students were searching for whale in the encyclopedia they would look under the “W” first. You know what? They would find whale. They might eventually also explore mammal under “M” when they looked at the bottom of the article and read “see also mammal”.

Number three: This is the most ridiculous line of questioning that I have seen, what information exactly is that question trying to glean? That my students can think critically to solve a problem without an obvious answer?  I would say they did pretty well by choosing “B” for Beluga Whale.

Are we creating a culture that nurtures the da Vinci’s of the world?  No, we are creating a culture that has lost all sense of curiosity, passion, and exploration. We create a culture where there is one correct answer, that we will give you, so that you can pass a test.

If the current culture doesn’t foster a da Vinci outlook on the world, what kind of culture could?  One where students were allowed to explore passions. One where students were allowed to view learning as life. One where students could see that subjects of learning are not really separate entities, but rather that learning is multidimensional, overlapping, and interwoven.  When I look at what da Vinci accomplished, it is apparent to me that this is someone who understood that all learning is life, it is connected.  I suspect that da Vinci didn’t set out to be a jack of all trades; I suspect that he set out to learn and as he learned it led to other disciplines, interests, and knowledge.  What results: a man who was able to use his unique talents and giftings to change the world.

If we send all students through the exact same subjects, the exact same way, to meet the requirements on the same test, do we have any hope of fostering students who are able to use their unique talents and gifts to change the world?  Or, will they graduate from high school with a degree that sends them into the next system where they are now expected to undo all the learning that has made them look the same and decide what makes the unique?

I’m sending out a call to create the da Vinci culture.