Podcast S2. Ep 22: Leading The Culture & Climate Of Your School - Dr. Bill Ziegler

Character Strong · November 3, 2019

Dr. Bill Ziegler is the principal at Pottsgrove High School in Pennsylvania. He has served as a school leader for twenty years at the middle and high school levels and is the co-author of a Corwin book, Future-Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change. Dr. Ziegler serves on the NASSP Board of Directors and the Apple Distinguished Schools Advisory Board. Dr. Ziegler was honored to be selected as the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year, the 2015 NASSP Digital Principal Award Winner, and as a member of the United States team of Principals to present at the Great Leaders Summit in China. Bill has also served as the President of the PA Principals Association on two separate occasions, 2014 and 2016. Dr. Ziegler is an adjunct professor for Temple University, and served on the rewrite team for NASSP's Building Ranks framework for schools. Bill resides in PA with his wife Kim and two children.

We talk with Dr. Ziegler about how the culture of our schools reflects the tone that we set as leaders, how building collaboration & celebrating others shapes our staff culture, and he shares some of the results that he has seen as he has made time for this culture & climate work.


“...I think it's more about changing the culture for kids every day in our school, to where kids want to run to school rather than away from school. And I think the school leader needs to be intentional and strategic and working to design a school culture that they would want their own kids to come to. It doesn't come naturally. This isn't something that just happens. You have to be strategic and intentional as a principal to make sure that the culture is what you want it to be.”

Dr. Bill Ziegler

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Hey CharacterStrong commuters, whether you're listening for the first time or have been an active listener of the show, if you like what you hear, we would like to invite you to check out to see if we're going to be in your area leading an educator training sometime soon. These trainings are building champions all around the country on how we can infuse social-emotional learning and a focus on relationships into the daily fabric of our classrooms and our schools. Visit characterstrong.com/educators to learn more. Now, onto today's show.
  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Dr. Bill Ziegler. Dr Ziegler is the principal of Pottsgrove high school in Pennsylvania. He has served as a school leader for 20 years in the middle and high school levels. Bill's the coauthor of a Corwin book, Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change. Dr. Ziegler serves on the NASSP board of directors and the Apple Distinguished Schools advisory board. Dr Ziegler was honored to be selected as the 2016 Pennsylvania principal of the year, the 2015 NASSP Digital Principal Award winner, and is a member of the United States Team of Principals to present at the Great Leader Summit in China. Bill has also served as the president of the Pennsylvania Principal's Association on two separate occasions, in 2014 and 16. He is an adjunct professor for Temple University and served on the rewrite team for NASSP's Building Ranks framework for schools. Bill resides in Pennsylvania with his wife Kim and two children.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Dr. Bill Ziegler.
  • John: All right, we are so thrilled to have Dr. Bill Ziegler on the CharacterStrong podcast with us today. How are you doing?
  • Dr. Ziegler: I'm great, John. Thanks so much. It's such an honor to be on CharacterStrong. I'm pumped.
  • John: Well, it was fun talking to you briefly before because you run your own podcast, which tell us first of all, what's your podcast that you're running right now?
  • Dr. Ziegler: So I run Lead the Way with Dr. Bill Ziegler. It's a five minute or less podcast for school leaders by school leaders. So they can learn from school leaders in the field right now on what school leaders are doing.
  • John: That's awesome and I applaud you. I love that. I think we have in common that goal of those shorter podcasts, which I think just shows the knowledge and understanding of the audience, which is we want it in short bursts, right? Something we can actually listen to that we can find and pull little pieces of wisdom and/or ideas from. And it was funny, you were saying when I said I was listening the last couple days to your podcast, and you're like, "Well, you're an expert. What do you think?" I'm like, I am not an expert. I am learning-
  • Dr. Ziegler: That's good.
  • John: Every piece of this and have really enjoyed it. So I really encourage people to listen in, to find that podcast, and to hear from so many great people that are in the work and their wisdom. So here's the angle that I'd love to go today with you in our shorter... We always say cut the fluff, get right to the stuff.
  • John: Well, you've got a lot of experience, right? Looking at your bio and high school principal, Apple Distinguished Educator, you're on the NASSP board of directors, you're digital principal, CEO of Chase Learning, all of those things. I just think about the power and importance of the building leader role, right? And I've seen it done really well, I've seen it be lukewarm, and I've seen it not done well. And so I'd love to start pulling from you. When it comes to leading that school-wide culture and climate work, what are some things that you have done both from the macro, micro level, whatever angle that might be some just bits of wisdom for our listeners today? What's some of that intentional work?
  • Dr. Ziegler: Yeah, that's a great question, John. I think one thing you could tell as soon as you walk into the school, you can tell a lot about who the leader is by the culture of the school. Because I'm a big believer that the culture reflects the leader, and what happens is that leader sets the tone and then everyone follows it. And they set that tone collaboratively. I think that's one of the first things you have to do. You got to get the energy together with other people. If you don't have collaboration and buy-in and leadership capacity within your, we call it staffulty, faculty and staff together, I think you fall short. And that's where I think the number one thing you can do is to build collaboration.
  • Dr. Ziegler: I think another piece is the really to get energy around celebrating people. One of the things that we love to do is to celebrate people here. We have a thing called the Positive Principal Referral where we celebrate what kids are doing the right things. We have a Staffulty Celebration Award where we have staffulty, faculty or staff, recognize one another for the great things that they're doing. And when you begin to celebrate the achievements of people, they get excited and pumped.
  • Dr. Ziegler: And I think those are just two small, easy things that you can do as a school leader is one, get a team together to begin to dream about what your culture can be and what you want it to look like, and two, begin to celebrate some of the awesome things going on in your school.
  • John: I love it. And I love the staffulty, and is that connected in any way to Renaissance? I've heard that before.
  • Dr. Ziegler: Yeah, so we are a Jostens Renaissance school, and we stole that idea thanks to Jostens. We could use that. And I got to tell you, Jostens Renaissance has really transformed our school culture. We have become a school culture that's just positive and upbeat and focused.
  • Dr. Ziegler: One of the things that I love that Jostens provides is they provide all these ideas that you can do as a school and the different strategies, but they also provide a student survey called the pulse survey. This is an outstanding survey, and we gave our pulse survey last year to our students and then we gave it to our teachers. And what we found is that there's a discrepancy between what students think and what teachers think.

“First thing is to model what you want to see. Number one, you got to model what you want to see. It's all about representing and being the leader of what you want to see in your people. Second thing is to treat people with the utmost respect and regardless if they're your weakest teacher, your strongest teacher, whoever they are, let them know they're highly valued. We talk about making sure that every single person in our school feels valued. So I think that's another component that's really important.”

Dr. Bill Ziegler


  • Dr. Ziegler: For example, one question is my teachers know me by name and take an interest in my life. 100% of our teachers thought that they did this. Well, only 60% of our students thought teachers did this. So we have that gap, and we have to fix that gap. One thing we do to fix that gap is we do the dot project, and what we did was we printed out our entire student roster. We put it on the cafeteria during a faculty meeting, and we had all of our staff members, all of our staffulty members go through and put a dot next to a kid's name if they can tell if that kid's having a bad day. And then we counted up the dots. We found that some kids had 20 to 30 dots. We had probably about 20 kids in our entire school that had zero dots. And we intentionally seek out after, connecting them with a caring adult, because that's one of the most important things we can do in the school culture.
  • John: That's so good and so practical, and I think maybe to get you to speak to this as someone who is making time for that, which we would always say we make time for that which is most important. And I think that line is important because there are so many things that are on not only a building principal's plate, right, a teacher's plate. We always say though that this is the plate. And so maybe speak to that. With all the different things that are coming at you and what you're called to do and put a focus on, what are some of the results that you've seen from making sure that you are making time for this work, right? Recognition of staff, recognition of students, right? Doing that work of... I've heard of the dot project before. I think that's brilliant because it's like, let's literally visually see it and then we can intentionally move from that space and make sure that no students are being left behind and/or are not being connected with, right? So what are some of the results you've seen from making time for that work?
  • Dr. Ziegler: Yeah, we've seen a real culture where people join together in celebrating. And I think one of the most rewarding thing is that we see students and teachers coming together, students and staffulty coming together to really work to make our school a better place. And we have Renaissance teams that look at different areas of our school and how we can get better and how we can improve. And this year we're pretty pumped to have... Our school is actually hosting a Renaissance rally through Jostens for the entire area here where we live.
  • Dr. Ziegler: But I think it's more about changing the culture for kids every day in our school, to where kids want to run to school rather than away from school. And I think the school leader needs to be intentional and strategic and working to design a school culture that they would want their own kids to come to. It doesn't come naturally. This isn't something that just happens. You have to be strategic and intentional as a principal to make sure that the culture is what you want it to be.
  • John: So good. Yeah, we always say changing the definition of school spirit from the stereotypical one of the rah rah rah, or the number of students wearing the school colors, or loud and proud to what if your definition had to be to get all students and staff, and that's important, all students and staff to want to come versus feel like they have to come, which goes right in line with what you just said. And so many times that starts with the adult relational practices, right? That buy-in work and that readiness work.
  • John: And so you talked about it at the beginning, the collaboration piece. I know that you've even written a blog on this, right? The 4 T's to leading collaborations. So maybe we could end with with that today for someone that's out here that it's like, yeah, that's great. I believe in that. But a lot of times we get hung up on well, I'm having trouble with buy-in. And then when you dig in, it's maybe a small number. But we also know that there's always a reason for every behavior, right? And so there might be a reason why staff are resistant or whatever.
  • John: Any just tidbits, bits of wisdom on helping to get buy-in from your staff? And maybe it goes back to putting a focus on that recognition piece with them and building first the climate culture within our staff. But what would you say to that in terms of that collaboration piece and getting buy-in?
  • Dr. Ziegler: Yeah, I think getting buy-in is the central for school leaders, and again it's something you have to work on. First thing is to model what you want to see. Number one, you got to model what you want to see. It's all about representing and being the leader of what you want to see in your people.
  • Dr. Ziegler: Second thing is to treat people with the utmost respect and regardless if they're your weakest teacher, your strongest teacher, whoever they are, let them know they're highly valued. We talk about making sure that every single person in our school feels valued. So I think that's another component that's really important. And I think the other piece to this is really making sure that you set aside time. Time to really build capacity into people and make sure that every single person's on the same page, and that doesn't come easy.
  • Dr. Ziegler: I think the last piece to it is, is that you really have to work to provide strong expectations. High expectations. This is what we expect from every staff member, and then work to follow up with those. One of the things I talk about is courageous conversations, and as school leaders, we need to have those courageous conversations and be brave enough to have them to make sure that all staff are buying in and are celebrating and doing the things they need to do. And then lastly, we need to trust that they're going to do it, and support them.
  • John: So good. Well, I thank you. I know that your time is precious and your wisdom here has been great, both the practical as well as the inspirational. I just really want to highlight on that last little piece, just a few things. The idea that we have to model what we want to see, right? The idea going all the way back to what, Remember the Titans? Attitude reflects leadership, and the number one way that we're going to teach this is to role model it. So not just our teachers to our students. The number one way we're going to teach strong character, social-emotional learning is to role model it. But also as the building leader, the number one way that we're going to teach that to our staff is to role model it. And to do that we have to make time.
  • John: And yet behind that though, I love what you just focused on, and that is we need high expectations with high supports, and a lot of times you see one or the other, right? We got high supports and everything is friendly and kind, but we don't really hold that high expectation piece, and we need both not only in the classroom but in the school. And sometimes that takes those courageous conversations and that's leadership.
  • John: And so thank you for the work that you're doing and that you're role modeling, the example that you set, and for leaving those bits of wisdom with us today. Maybe final piece, how can people connect with you? Because I know that you're putting great work that's out there. Leave us with that today.
  • Dr. Ziegler:         , so if you want to connect, we'd encourage you to connect at chaselearning.org. That's chaselearning.org. You can find me on Twitter at DrBillZiegler, that's Z-I-E-G-L-E-R. And finally go to iTunes or wherever you do your podcast and go to Lead the Way with Dr. Bill Ziegler.
  • John: Awesome. Thank you, Bill, for your time and make it a great day.
  • Dr. Ziegler: Thanks so much, John. Take care.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening, and make it a great day.

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