January 24, 2020

Catholic School Week Supplement

Principal shares five keys for creating positive school culture

Principal Rob Detzel is completely focused as he participates in a fun typing competition with fourth-grade students at St. Lawrence School in Lawrenceburg. (Submitted photo)

Principal Rob Detzel is completely focused as he participates in a fun typing competition with fourth-grade students at St. Lawrence School in Lawrenceburg. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

If you’re around Rob Detzel for a while, you’re likely to get a box of candy, a card or a story from him—like the telling one he shares about a Mr. Foster.

“He was my old principal and boss,” says Detzel, now a principal himself at St. Lawrence School in Lawrenceburg. “I had an offer to go to another school—my alma mater—and when I went in to talk to him about it, he said, ‘You have to do what is best for you.’

“At that point, I decided to leave and take the new job. At the end of the day, he came to my classroom and said, ‘I still want you to do what is best for you, but I don’t want you to leave. You are a great teacher, and it would be a big loss for us if you left. I should have told you that earlier.’ After that, I knew I was staying even though I would make less money. I just wanted to feel valued and know that I was appreciated. I have never forgotten that lesson.”

Detzel shared that story—and the reasons he gives cards and boxes of candy to people—with an audience of educators during the Blue Ribbon Schools National Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 14.

They were all part of his presentation on “Positive School Culture”—a presentation that stems from his 26 years as an educator in Catholic schools. That includes 2018 when he was the principal of St. Cecelia Catholic School in Independence, Ky., when it earned the honor of a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

In his presentation, Detzel shared his five principles for creating a positive school culture.

‘Establish relationships’

For Detzel, candies and cards are essential parts of his efforts to establish relationships, which he considers key to creating a positive school culture.

“Invest in people!” Detzel says. “Relationships are perhaps the most important part of establishing a school culture that is perceived as—and breeds—caring.”

In the first week of a school year, Detzel brings boxes of truffles when he meets with the police chief, the fire chief, the mayor, the mail carrier, business owners and local principals and superintendents in the community.

“You will need the support of these people at some time,” he says. “It is just a little way to say thank you for what you do for us. People appreciate the gesture and feel valued.”

He also meets individually with everyone on his staff, asking them about their families, what is great about the school, and what can be done better.

He also makes sure he has a selection of cards to share with people in the school community, whether it’s offering congratulations, sympathy or gratitude.

The idea for the cards “came from a professor of mine at Xavier University who said to always have different cards on hand because as the leader of your school, sentiments should come from you, and cards are a fantastic way to express them,” Detzel says.

“When people feel valued, they are more likely to work harder and work better.”

‘Find the right people that fit your culture’

Detzel says that hiring good people is “the most important thing” a leader can do.

“A culture of greatness requires that you find the right people that fit your culture. Then you develop and coach them by mentoring and training. Then empower them and let them do what they do best.”

To find the right people requires spending more time getting to know the people interviewing, he says.

“We meet someone for 30 minutes and call their references and hire them,” he says about the usual process. “We need to spend more time on the hiring process. Call more than their references. Google them. Check their social media accounts.”

‘Get out of the ivory tower’

At the start of a school day, Detzel greets the students. He also makes time to visit every classroom every day. And if a child has been sick, he welcomes the student back when he or she returns.

For Detzel, it’s all part of being visible and being positive. He also instructs teachers to share positive phone calls and e-mails with parents.

“Parents fear phone calls and e-mails because they are usually made because their children are either sick, hurt or in trouble,” he says. “Teachers should make at least two positive calls and/or e-mails a week.”

In response to this approach, Detzel has seen parents “reciprocating with calls of their own,” creating better communication and a more positive connection with teachers.

“Being positive doesn’t just make you better, it makes everyone around you better. I can’t guarantee you that you will succeed by being positive, but I will guarantee you that you will not succeed by being negative.”

Praise, promote and smile

Detzel shares another story about the importance of promoting the great parts of a school. It’s a story from his previous school where 21 clubs and activities were offered to students, but the parents’ ratings of those experiences for their children were “only in the 60s” out of a possible 100.

“The teachers were furious because they all volunteered for a club,” Detzel says. “I told them that this is why we do the surveys. Our problem was not that we didn’t offer enough clubs and activities, but that we didn’t promote them enough. That year, we posted club pictures every day on social media. We featured them in our parent newsletters. We sent out updates on mass e-mails. That year we only had 19 clubs and activities, but our parent survey rating for clubs and activities was in the 90’s.

“The lesson was that you can do great things, but unless you promote them, your stakeholders will not be aware of the wonderful things you are doing for your students.”

It’s one more step toward creating a positive school culture, he says.

“Praise everyone and give them room to grow. Creating a culture where people are afraid to fail leads to failure. We learn from our mistakes and become better.”

‘Make it cool to do the right thing’

Detzel says the fifth principle for creating a positive school culture is built on this foundation: “Have the fortitude to start change. Make it cool and people will follow.”

To emphasize that point, he shares a story about Bill Eubank, the maintenance person at his previous school.

“We had problems with the rooms being really messy, and Bill couldn’t get to each room every day,” Detzel notes. “He asked me if he could start a clean room contest for each week and announce the winners on the PA on Friday, with the yearly winners getting a prize the last week of school. I said yes, and he organized the whole thing.

“The kids got really into it. When I announced the different grade level winners each week, you could hear the roar of cheers all the way in the office. The school was never that clean before, and it freed Bill up to do the things we needed him to get done. You have to hire good people and let them do their jobs and they will do amazing things.”

Detzel believes that sharing the Catholic faith with students, staff, parents and the community is at the heart of establishing a positive culture.

“Being a Catholic is all about having faith, being positive and helping others. Those are three things that will lead to a positive culture. A positive school culture goes hand in hand with our Catholic faith.” †

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