Justin Pierce has been a teacher, coach and assistant principal for the last 12 years in SW Washington. He is blessed to have married his best friend who challenges and supports him, has birthed their 3 boys, and is his partner in life. Justin believes teachers are the ones that make the magic happen in school buildings and that relationships are the key to their influence in the lives of our children. Justin’s mission is to create a Non-Anxious environment where his family, friends, and colleagues feel valued, loved, supported and challenged. He believes in the CharacterStrong Curricula and its use of low burden high impact tools to cultivate a culture of character, develop social-emotional skills, and challenge students, staff, and the community to make kindness normal.
We talk with Justin about the importance of focuing on kindness in the things that we are already doing, and he shares practical examples of how his school has put a focus on creating a strong climate & culture.
“And through our lens as educators, kind of thinking through being in front of a staff in my role or in front of a classroom of students as an educator's role, you never expected the students to bring more energy than you're bringing as the teacher”
— Justin Pierce
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Justin Pierce. Justin has been a teacher, coach and assistant principal for the last 12 years in Southwest Washington state. He is blessed to have married his best friend who challenges and supports him, has birthed their three boys, and is his partner in life.
- John: Justin believes teachers are the ones that make the magic happen in school buildings and that relationships are the key to their influence and the lives of our children. Justin's mission is to create a non-anxious environment where his family, friends and colleagues feel valued, loved, supported and challenged. He believes in the character strong curriculum and its use of low burden, high impact tools to cultivate a culture of character, develop social emotional skills, and challenge students, staff, and the community to make kindness normal. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Justin Pierce.
- John: All right, I am thrilled to have on the CharacterStrong podcast with me today my friend, Justin Pierce. How are you?
- Justin: I'm doing great, John. Thanks for having me. I just wanted to say thank you for having me and for letting me be part of the CharacterStrong team because it's just allowed me to be part of something bigger than myself. And it really has sharpened me personally as an educator, as a leader, and even as a father, husband and a friend. So I just wanted to thank you for that opportunity.
- John: Well, absolutely. And we always turn that and are just grateful for passionate educators who are in the work, and serving teachers and serving students, and I know you do both as an assistant principal. You're in the battleground public schools in... where did you say? Southern Washington?
- Justin: Yes, Southwest Washington.
- John: Great. And you present for us as well, you've been an active presenter. And maybe we even start there, talk to me about how that experience has been for you in terms of how it has sharpened you as a leader and/or what you have seen while working with schools that are outside of your district as well as your own?
- Justin: Yeah. So it's been an amazing opportunity to go and learn from other great leaders and great schools. So my opportunity to go and present affords me a time to connect with people before I go, and it also affords me the time to connect with them while I'm there. So I've been able to go and serve these schools who are on fire for relationships with their staff and relationships for their students. And then I also get to spend time with their leaders and their staff members outside of the presentation itself, and just learn about the amazing things that are going on.
- Justin: So from a professional development standpoint, this has been one of the biggest professional development opportunities for myself, learning from other people and learning alongside them. So I'm thankful for that. And then as it sharpens me in my role as a leader and an educator, and there's several ways. So one of them is the idea of law of the lid from John Maxwell, which basically is that you never expect anyone else to bring more energy to the room than you bring. And through our lens as educators, kind of thinking through being in front of a staff in my role or in front of a classroom of students as an educator's role, you never expected the students to bring more energy than you're bringing as the teacher.
- Justin: So kind of thinking through that lens and how I can impact that and model that in the building. Every day I'm out in the hallway before school starts and the in our main hallway, as 300 to 400 kids are coming in and I'm high fiving students or I'm fist pumping them depending on what the day is, and then I'll pick a something to say.
- Justin: So I'll say, "Make it a great day," and I'm high fiving and everybody. And as 10 more kids go by I'll say the same thing. Or I'll be saying, "You got this," or, "Let's rock today," or, "Today's Thursday, let's do this." Or I'll be saying, "We believe in you. You got this." And so as they're going, I'm messaging something intentional about what's going on, either maybe something's coming up, something's just happened or something's coming up and I'll tie that in too.
- Justin: So it's kind of an interesting thing that we go through there. And then I kind of relate also that that idea of the law of the lid does something my wife says, she always tells me, "Every party has a party pooper." Right?
- John: Yep.
- Justin: So you ever heard that one?
- John: Oh yeah.
- Justin: So she says that to me and it, and it kind of reminds me at times, what's the energy that I or someone else is bringing to the room. And then another idea that that idea of the law of the lid kind of connects to is that 10% of life is what happens to us, 90% of life is how we react to it. And that's a Charles Swindoll quote. And we can always choose to have a positive impact or we can just let life happen and react to it. So that idea of the law of the lid is really been something for me that's sharpened me to be intentional with the things that I choose to do on everyday basis because I have time to be intentional with the things that I'm already doing.
- John: Yeah, man. It's such an important thing because I remember when we brought that into our trainings, it was even not on accident, but it wasn't a part of the initial plan for the day. And it was role modeling a lesson, like, "Okay, if we're going to bring in social emotional learning, character development in maybe more of a once a week type of fashion," and in this case it was in an advisory classroom. And let me give you two examples that I remember sharing. The first one is, "All right everybody, go and take a seat. We're going to be starting these character strong lessons that we have to do." Right? And it's like, "Well, I've killed it in the first sentence." Now there's a reason why I say that. Maybe it's because I'm more uncomfortable or whatever it might be, but what if we flip that.
- John: And it starts with the law of the lid and it's okay to be authentic and real. "I'm not used to these lessons. I didn't write these lessons. In fact, I'm going to be learning right alongside you. But here's the thing, I want you to know why these lessons are so incredibly important, not just for you as students, but for me as the educator." And then working from that place and every day reminding ourselves whatever it is that I'm teaching that don't ever expect students to bring more to the room than what you're bringing in.
- John: And I love how you've taken that and gone, "If this is what I expect from educators, teachers in my school, then I better be role modeling as an administrator." And I just love that reminder of the law of the lid. So many people resonate with it because I think it's that key reminder that we need. Well, how about this? Take it now from some of the personal examples you gave to that, I know we talked a little bit before the recording here, some of the tangible examples of how this has played out in your school. What are some of the things that you're doing to put an intentional focus on creating a stronger climate and culture?
“I can pick up someone's books, I can hold open the door. But kindness requires us to really see the good in others.”
— Justin Pierce
- Justin: Yeah, so one of the things, and this is something that's not new, but we send postcards to our kids and we send postcards to our staff. So last year we had a 30 day challenge, and the first 30 days let's send one postcard to every single student. So this year our challenge is a little different. We have a challenge for every six weeks. We want to send a postcard to every single student and every single staff member in every six week term. And so we have a structure laid out that we're doing, that we keep track of it and we pay for postage and we get all this stuff. And so that idea kind of came from trying to make sure that we're being intentional with the way that we connect and message things to all of our students. And that we're also trying to do it in a way that we connect with them through the various classes that we teach.
- Justin: So we're trying to be intentional on that piece. So another way, from my role as a, as an assistant principal and an evaluator and a leader, one of the best things I can do is be out in classrooms as much as I possibly can throughout my day. And so unless you're intentional, it can be easy to go to the same classrooms over and over and over because the great things are happening there and you want to see what's going on in those classrooms.
- Justin: So myself and the, and the principal that I work with, we are being intentional to make sure that we are in every single classroom, every single six week term, leaving some type of positively phrased note about what we see going on in classes. And that idea came from one of the previous podcasts that you guys launched or did with Alicia Jensen where she talks about staff chips. So we just spun that instead of drawing a staff chip and intentionally connecting with them, we are intentionally going into the classroom and making connections in there.
- John: Love it.
- Justin: And then a third way that we do that is we're doing it through confetti kindness, which was one of the character dares for the staff dares a year or two ago. And so we do this during the second half of the year. And the way we do it is that anytime a staff member is gone for the day, I go into their classroom, I pick a period, I go in their classroom and I have a bunch of cards and envelope and some confetti in the envelopes and I just kind of tell the kids about what it is. "We're going going to write a note to your teacher that shows them kindness or thankfulness or encourages them about something that you know is going on in their life. And then we're going to put it in the envelope and we're going to seal it up and leave it in a spot that we know they're going to find it."
- Justin: And then I can take that opportunity to talk to the kids about how we do things just out of the goodness of our heart. And what humbleness looks like out of this piece, because sometimes we feel the need as people to do something nice and then make sure that we feel good because we did it. But in this case, I get to coach kids to help them recognize it. When we do something nice, let's just do it and leave it because they'll know it, they'll feel it and it's just we're doing it for them.
- John: Yeah. Well, what is both the gift and the curse of these podcasts is they go so quick. That's the curse. And the gift is many people listen because they're in those shorter bursts of time and they get those little gems. And there's so much here that I just love and I just want to really give you a kudos on just one thing that has really stood out to me here, and that is how intentional your approach is and in many cases from the school wide level. So I love the intentionality of not only writing notes but where they're coming from, that all staff, all students are being hit and from what classes. And I think about the intentionality of going into a classroom when the teacher's gone and leading that exercise.
- John: That is all intentional and what it says to me is this, sometimes we kind of just when we feel like it, we get these little bursts of kindness here or there. But there's a much better way and it's the idea that you don't have to get every moment right to have an outstanding overall culture and climate in your building. If we were intentional in certain ways and we were consistent in that, you can leave people feeling like, "Man, my experience at my school was that people cared about me, people saw me. I was connected to staff, to students, to something bigger than myself," and I just think that it's amazing to hear that come out.
- John: Well, let's end with this because I know that you believe in this and you could even dig into it more, but really what you're describing is the difference between nice and kind and that nice is really reactive. Kindness is proactive. And when we are intentional in that way and proactive, that is kindness and action. And that's much different than being nice. And so maybe to close down today, what are some ways, because you've got some great ideas that you're putting in action, what are some ways that people can connect with you moving forward? If they wanted to learn more?
- Justin: Yeah, they can connect with me on Twitter. So I'm going to Twitter. You can find my handle. It's JPierce_CMS_AP. That stands for Justin Pierce, chief middle school assistant principal. And I really love that you hit the kind versus nice because nice is reactionary.I can pick up someone's books, I can hold open the door. But kindness requires us to really see the good in others. And it's for me, it connects to that to another quote, that, "Love conquers all. Let us surrender to love." And for me, I really feel like the power of love is so great. And one example of that, and from my life is just my own kids.
- Justin: I have three boys and if they're having a tough time and struggling to manage their emotions, I get to have the wonderful gift to choose how to react in that moment. Life is 10% what happens in 90% how we react. And if I choose to add fuel to the fire and react in a negative way, I'm missing an opportunity. But if I choose love in that moment, it just instant. I swoop up one of my kids and show them love and it just melts away that instant where they're struggling to manage their emotions. So that quote there, "Love conquers all," just for me really connects to the idea of kindness is greater than nice because kindness, we actually are practicing seeing the good in others.
- Justin: So I wanted to thank you, John. Thank you for this opportunity to talk on your podcast and thank you also for allowing me to be part of the team. It's just been a wonderful journey so far.
- John: Grateful for you, my friend.
- 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 character strong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.