Podcast S1. Ep 37: Wolf Strong, Pack Strong - Coach Don Bartel

Houston Kraft · John Norlin · June 27, 2019

Don Bartel has been a teacher and coach in Washington state for 22 years. He has coached and/or taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level.  He has served as a head coach at three different high schools for a combined 15 years; and has been the head football coach, leadership teacher, ASB adviser, and activities coordinator at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington for the past six years.


We talk with Coach Bartel about how their school branding campaign, “Wolf Strong, Pack Strong” has patiently come about and gives some practical tips on how they have kept the campaign fresh for the students and staff at Eastlake.


“...here at Eastlake we believe through intentional actions we can create an environment where students and staff feel safe to fail, feel appreciated, and feel loved. That idea of love, and turn it into the agape sense of unconditional action based, what are we gonna do for you to make you feel loved so we don’t have to say it with words and have you be skeptical about it. We’re actually going to do something about it. And so the credo guides everything”

— Coach Bartel

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the Character Strong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Don Bartel who has been a teacher and coach in Washington state for 22 years. He has coached and/or taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level and has been the head football coach, leadership teacher, ASB advisor, and activities coordinator at East Lake High School in Sammamish, Washington for the past six years. Are you ready? Let's get Character Strong with Don Bartel.

  • John: Donny, thank you for being back with us in this part two. I just want to get right into it. Cut the fluff, get right to the point. Talk to me about the patience part. Talk to me about that group of students that you need to have, so that you can be speaking that truth to, and how your school branding campaign has come about with Wolf Strong Pack Strong.

  • Coach Bartel: Well, I would say the patience piece has a lot to do with like personal ego. It's something else to think that you're going to walk in and you're going to have all the answers, and the idea that you put forward is going to be the one end-all, be-all. The reality is that you're just throwing those things out there to see what sticks. We've had lots of little ideas fail. We've had lots of little slogans or phrases or motto's or things that never got picked up. It's not like anybody set out to make WSPS happen. It was WSPS was part of a whole package. WSPS, PSWS, there were a lot of little things that got said along the way and you just have to have patience with what's going on and be able to say that your first ideas are not always the best ones, typically aren't the ones that last.

  • Coach Bartel: So once you start throwing things out there, people start to connect it. People hijacked the brand. You know, there are a lot of people that would email me and say, "Well, that isn't very WSPS of them." You don't even know what means first of all and you continue to work and find opportunities and go "yep, that's it, yep that's it, yep that's it", over and over and over again. The most important part at the end of the day it has to be true, it has to be honest, it has to be intentional and sincere.

  • John: I love it. I love that you said the goal was never the motto or the brand, but it was about being a part of something bigger than yourself. That really rang true to me to that patience piece.

  • Coach Bartel: Everyone wants that, so you're giving them what they need and what they want. And so at the end of the day, you've got to be able to apply it to all different kids and that's where being a coach is so beneficial for me is that. I don't have just quote unquote "leadership kids" in my daily interactions. I have all kinds of kids and then once we were able to expand the leadership program at East Lake. Then I stopped having just leadership kids in my classes, and so I think that's the first and foremost thing.

  • Coach Bartel: I was never a leadership kid in school and I, to be honest, probably brought a negative attitude about that type of kid with me into this job the very first couple of years. The reality is kids see that. We always had people who maybe were doubters because those kids who are more cynical or more skeptical, those are the kids that are the stone that you grind the sword against to sharpen it. Those are the kids that you know when they say iron sharpens iron. Those are the kids that forge that to come up with those ideas about well, what about this then? And so you start looking at, like, for I don't know if I want to skip ahead here, but to the practical ideas. It's like, you know we say that we're Wolf Strong Pack Strong and that the strength of us as a school is the individual. Then why don't we highlight individuals?

  • John: That's a great point.

  • Coach Bartel: Example, let's take a look at homecoming. When we got to East there were like, 200 kids who went to the homecoming dance the year before. My first year there it was like 250, 300.

  • John: And how many students in your school?

  • Coach Bartel: 2000.

  • John: Okay.

  • Coach Bartel: I took over, it was more like 1700 or 1800. But, the point being, what purpose does it serve? Well royalty was once one of the things that we tackled right away. Why do we have homecoming royalty? It had been reduced to, if you're dating someone in your grade, you're eligible to be king and queen, prince and princess, royalty, whatever in that grade. Which I thought was counterproductive to what we were trying to do, so we abolished that whole system, created something that was all student driven, called homecoming heroes.

  • Coach Bartel: And, then we also started to highlight, what is that week really supposed to be about? We're not trying to get people to do what we want by dressing up in costumes for five days in a row for seven and a half hours a day. That doesn't do what we're trying to do, it doesn't accomplish what we're trying to accomplish. And what we saw was, homecoming shouldn't be the event, it should be the reward for the events of the week leading up. Which just further enhanced as a school and what our identity is based on what we actually believe and what we actually do.

  • Coach Bartel: And at the end of the day, this all came out from East saying at the beginning of the year, the second year, we're canceling homecoming. We heard the arguments, the screams, the "you can't do that" "Oh yes I can, I absolutely can. Why would we have a dance where only 200 people show up?" Hard for two or three weeks, and right up to the last line of defense for whether or not we were going to have it or plan it. Just cause I wanted them to reevaluate, why do we even do these things? And then you saw steady increase as we move forward and now we had 1000 kids show up at our homecoming dance this last year.

  • John: Wow, wow.


“Who we are and what we believe unites us and so the idea of having these things out there in the school, if you came in the school, nothing is spelled out. Our goal would be to have you walk in, see WSPS in our commons, see it hanging off these giant boards on the common hallways, and then ask somebody what it is. So they have to own it and explain it”

— Coach Bartel


 

  • Coach Bartel: It's all patiently getting there, patiently getting there.

  • John: What I love about that, two things that have stood out in this brief conversation is one, the idea of opening up your leadership program and creating a understanding, a in a sense, a model that like, we're all leaders. So you're getting people from all different walks of life, all different groups in the school. And that that is a key part in that that other piece is that your brand, your motto, your truth really then drives everything that you do. Including your approach to the activities that you do, and that was a great example with homecoming. What is a couple other things that you've done just to stoke that? Now that you've created this and that this conversation could go much longer, and it would be fun to have you back on and talk about this idea cause I think a lot of people struggle with branding and creating a motto and that truth, especially when it comes to high schools.

  • John: But what is a couple other things, practical ideas, that you've done to keep stoking that? Being patient but keeping, cause we gotta keep it fresh, we gotta keep it relevant, if not it so easily goes away. What are a couple things that you've done as a school to keep it fresh with students and staff?

  • Coach Bartel: Who we are and what we believe unites us and so the idea of having these things out there in the school, if you came in the school, nothing is spelled out. Our goal would be to have you walk in, see WSPS in our commons, see it hanging off these giant boards on the common hallways, and then ask somebody what it is. So they have to own it and explain it. Things that we've done was look at spirit days for homecoming. We used a couple different years, we used love languages as each one of our daily themes. So it was what can we give people to make them feel loved? And then the other piece would be, we backed up the whole idea of our identity with a credo.

  • Coach Bartel: Super simple, here at Eastlake we believe through intentional actions we can create an environment where students and staff feel safe to fail, feel appreciated, and feel loved. That idea of love, and turn it into the agape sense of unconditional action based, what are we gonna do for you to make you feel loved so we don't have to say it with words and have you be skeptical about it. We're actually going to do something about it. And so the credo guides everything and then once we had the credo we decided we needed to have a week in the latter part of the year. We have it the week we come back from spring break, that is our Wolf Strong week that basically says, "this is what we believe, we're going to remind you cause the next little haul from spring break through June is gonna be a rough one."

  • Coach Bartel: There's a lot of testing and a lot of difficulty and people are going to be sentimental about leaving, the people who are gonna be nervous about moving up, and it's trying for teachers and students. So let's have something that refreshes, reminds us, focuses on things, and away we go.

  • John: Love it. Those are outstanding ideas and I, one of the things that really just stand out to me is just the power of it, for really going to one; focus on supporting the whole child, two; really get serious about creating not only safer schools, but schools where people want to be there versus feel like they have to be there. If we're going to create that ideal school culture and climate, we need to infuse it into the daily fabric of what we're doing. We always say character strong is much more than the curriculum, it's a culture and what you have done at East, as a community, I think is just outstanding and I want to thank you for the work that you're doing. I think it's something that more and more schools and people need to take a look at, and it's hard and difficult work, but it's intentional work.

  • Coach Bartel: And it's worth it.

  • John: Yep, and it's totally worth it. And then you see those results in that patience instead of just going for those quick wins. Give us a little bit, how can we, in terms of following you, I know you're active on social media. Where can, if anybody was to kinda see some of your tidbits of wisdom, they're out, there's Twitter, the best base, how can we follow a little bit more if we wanted to know more?

  • Coach Bartel: Yeah, I've kinda consolidated my social media presence with Twitter. My handle is @CoachDBartel. I would say, too, that one of the things that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention is, a couple things that I've learned that I'm not good at with all of this, that I think would be great if other people were good at them right away. It could have helped me a ton. One was better, more publicly when these moments happen that reaffirm your culture, and your brand of who you are as a school, first and foremost. And then number two, I spent so much time thinking about what the whole needed, the whole school. Well this is what our guys need to hear, and this is what our girls need to hear, and this is what the main problem is right now.

  • Coach Bartel: That I forgot how badly I needed to get into those small fringe groups of, you know, we have in our dynamic is much more diverse than it's ever been, but we still only have 70 to 75 kids in our school that identify as African American. And spending time with that group and giving them their voice, being intentional about going there, and grabbing them, and saying we want you to be a part of this. Instead of waiting for them to come and saying, "well they're not doing anything about it." Well of course not, cause they'd never been a part of it. Two biggest mistakes and so my focus for my next calendar year especially is making sure that I'm getting better at those two things. And those are mistake that if I'd been aware of those early on, we could have been much more efficient and effective. And so I just want to put those out there to help people that are traveling that same path as me.

  • John: Well said, well thank you for one, demonstrating vulnerability and sharing those what you've learned from what you consider either those mistakes or areas that you need to improve in. How relevant is that focus today in the sense of any group, any minority group, any group that feels not connected to any community, school, whatever it might be, and changing that mentality of "what am I doing to reach out?" Instead of always expecting, even sometimes, subconsciously where we expect well why aren't they, whoever they are, why aren't they getting involved. Or why aren't they, when in reality, switching that paradigm to what am I doing to reach out and connect and to be more intentional to do so. Outstanding, loved having you on the show. If you would, would you be willing to come back on again at some point and talk a little bit more?

  • Coach Bartel: Oh a hundred percent. Yeah, anything I can do to help out, but I'm really looking forward to listening, cause I'm sure you can have some really cool people on here, and we're gonna be a whole lot better off because you guys started this thing. So I'm really appreciative for that.

  • John: Thanks, buddy. Appreciate you being on. Thanks for helping us to be better.

  • Coach Bartel: Thank you for having me.

  • John: And we'll talk more soon. Go Wolves!

  • Coach Bartel: Go Wolves!

  • John: Alright, take care.

  • John: Thank you for listening to the Character Strong 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 Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening, make it a great day.


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Houston Kraft

Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses nationally. He has spoken at over 500 events and counting. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 12 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership.

John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.