Dr. Lara Gilpin has been in education for 29 years. Her career with the St. Joseph School District began in 1993 as a P.E./health teacher at Spring Garden Middle School. In addition to teaching, Dr. Gilpin coached basketball and track at SGMS as well as varsity basketball and volleyball at Benton High School in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1999 she became assistant principal at Robidoux Middle School and later moved to assistant principalship at Truman Middle School in 2001. The following year, Dr. Gilpin became principal of Spring Garden Middle School, where she remains after 18 years as the principal. Dr. Gilpin has spent 24 of her years in education at Spring Garden Middle School in the capacity of a teacher and administrator. She has received a Bachelor's, Master's, and Specialist Degree from Northwest Missouri State University and received her doctorate from Baker University. Dr. Gilpin was named the Northwest MOASSP District Middle School Principal of the Year in both 2017 and 2019.
We talk with Dr. Lara about the Monday morning huddles that she does with the entire staff at Spring Garden, the importance of time for reflection and feedback, and how these huddles have impacted the climate and culture at her school.
“...it is bringing our community of adults together. And what I love about it is that, not only are we working with our instructional staff, but we include everybody within our building. So our maintenance come to our huddles. Our kitchen staff comes to the huddle. And really it has just been an excellent time to kick off the school week on a positive note. I mean, who doesn't want to start the week off with some laughter, cheer, some energy, and we're really intentional about the delivery of that dare.”
— Dr. Lara Gilpin
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Dr. Lara Gilpin. Dr. Gilpin has been in education for 29 years. Her career with the St. Joseph school district began in 1993, as a PE health teacher at Spring Garden Middle School. In addition to teaching, Dr. Gilpin coached basketball and track at SGMS, as well as varsity basketball and volleyball at Benton High School in St. Joseph, Missouri.
- John: In 1999, she became assistant principal at Robidoux Middle School and later moved to assistant principalship at Truman Middle School in 2001. The following year, Dr. Gilpin became principal of Spring Garden Middle School where she remains after 18 years. Dr. Gilpin has spent 24 of her years in education at Spring Garden Middle School in the capacity of a teacher and administrator. She's received a bachelor's, master's, and specialist degree from Northwest Missouri State University and received her doctorate from Baker University. Dr. Gilpin was named the Northwest MOA SSP District Middle School Principal of the Year in both 2017 and 2019. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Dr. Lara Gilpin.
- John: All right, we are so excited to welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast Lara Gilpin, principal Spring Garden Middle School. How are you doing today?
- Dr. Lara: I'm doing great, thank you.
- John: Well, thank you for taking the time. We were joking a little bit as we were talking before the recording about all of the things that are on a principal's plate and whenever we have a principal that we're scheduled to get on the podcast, I always know that we might have to have an audible and record at a different time because there's all these things that sometimes spring up and so just grateful. I know that your time is valuable, but appreciate you taking the time to be with us. I wanted to dig in. We have the shorter kind of natured podcast but dig into a really important topic and one of the things we believe at CharacterStrong is we got to do the staff work first. And one of the things that you brought up that you do is something called the Monday morning huddles utilizing the staff character dares. Talk to me a little bit about that.
- Dr. Lara: So we jumped right in with our character dares for our staff this year, so we're in year one of implementation across our building for both students and staff. So we were trying to figure out how do we bring our staff together real quick like, and really model what we would expect in the classroom. And so what we've done is, we have a Monday morning huddle that's really just a stand up time together that usually takes about four to five minutes. And what we do is we present our dares to all of our staff at that time.
- Dr. Lara: What I've found though, and once again we've just started this year, but really it is bringing our community of adults together. And what I love about it is that, not only are we working with our instructional staff, but we include everybody within our building. So our maintenance come to our huddles. Our kitchen staff comes to the huddle. And really it has just been an excellent time to kick off the school week on a positive note. I mean, who doesn't want to start the week off with some laughter, cheer, some energy, and we're really intentional about the delivery of that dare.
- Dr. Lara: So what we do is we'll model some instructional relationship things that we might do, strategies that we might use within a classroom. And so it's kind of fun to go back and to watch as the staff have received their dare, how do they present the dares to their children or to their advisement groups when they go back. So that's one piece that we've done and like I said, we just started that implementation and it is going well. I also have utilized some of our own staff within our building. I might ask them to present the dare for the week and what I'm doing there is it sure builds our leadership capacity across our building. And so once again, just trying to be really intentional and working really hard as far as our culture and climate here at Spring Garden Middle School.
- John: That's great. I love so much and I'm taking notes as you're sharing, but I love one just to highlight, just like you said, how intentional and a lot of times conversations that we have because we know that the worst thing we could ever do as an organization is just say, "here's the curriculum, good luck". We can never do that because that never works. It is all about implementation.
- John: It is all about the adult work that's happening first because then it has a much more likelihood that it's going to take, that we're going to get traction. Ultimately where we want it to more than anywhere else and that is what the students that were called to serve. I just love hearing that intentional approach because a lot of times it's like, okay, what could we be doing better here, when we're talking about implementation with schools? Or what about this? And really what it comes down to is there's a lot of different ways that you could do things, but the key is that it's done intentional and that it works for your staff and I love the different things that you just described that were so intentional, including building leadership capacity within your staff by having them present.
- Dr. Lara: And I would like to share that part of our four to five minutes together we also go into a time for reflection, feedback if any of our staff members try to dare. So it's kind of fun just to hear their stories of how it played out within their own advisory room and really, really empowering to others. I had one staff member that pretty emotional about how she had challenged the students on one of the specific dares and how it was so impacting for her. And what was exciting is it was probably one of our students that was a little bit more challenging. And so really just validating the CharacterStrong curriculum at that moment in front of all of our staff. Of course, we were excited to hear that as well.
- John: That's great. And I'm sure you faced it for many years, but one of the big roadblocks that we hear is, well we don't have the time. And I love the... We're talking four to five minutes, four to five minutes that we make time for. And my guess is that based on what you're saying has been worth the time. And so what are some of the things that you've noticed? Take us a little further into that. What are some of the examples? What has it done maybe overall with your staff? Is there a difference in feeling or is there a regular occurrence where you're getting more noticeable buy-in? What are some of the results that you've seen?
- Dr. Lara: You know, I would say in this particular building, we did have some turnover in our staff. And so I feel like just bringing us together as a team, realizing that really we are all in it together and we need one another to do the very best for our kids day in and day out. And so it is fun to see when they come into the groups and we huddled together and we always depart with some type of high five. We might do a huddle cheer like they would do on a team. But just to kind of see the different folks that engage with each other during that time is great. I also would say that we are seeing some, I would guess some pay off and how our climate and culture is shaking out.
“I think probably one of the most important pieces of all of it is that you do have time for reflection and feedback. And I really just think that building a community amongst the staff and collegial relationships is the key to everything that's going to impact the climate and culture. And it has to be very intentional.”
— Dr. Lara Gilpin
- Dr. Lara: We have 550 in our building, which isn't a huge building, but we do see some challenges as we transition a sixth grade into our organization. We used to be just seven, eight. And so I really love just the interaction because this is our first year that our students have passed during the time together. And so really one of the dares early on was saying hi, smiling, high fiving, and what have you. And really just to see the kids in the hallway. I feel like we've made some strides and I do believe it's a direct relationship and from the work we're doing within our advisory program, through our CharacterStrong curriculum.
- John: I love it. I love it. Well, I want to try to maximize a couple more questions here before we run out of time. And one is with the staff piece and then I want to transition even a little bit more into that student one. And that is the idea of the character dare, is that it's an invitation. It's a play on it so we can also have fun in doing it. Like you don't have to do a dare. And a lot of times it doesn't work with students and it doesn't really work, especially with adults to say, "you have to do this."
- John: And so have you noticed that it's been a positive experience to utilize something like the character dare process where it's like this week staff character dare is this, which is an invitation to either take the challenge on or not or maybe it gets another idea started because it's an idea. And sometimes it even reminds us of something that we used to do in the past, but maybe have not been as focused on or intentional. Have you noticed that that process, the idea of the character dare invitation versus saying you have to do it has worked?
- Dr. Lara: Yes. And I can even give you a probably pretty clear example on that one. I've always expected and asked our advisors to call their advisee parents, first line of communication. And so one of the staff dares early on in the year was "ET call home." And so just the presentation of that was super exciting because probably me being a little bit silly at times I dressed up as ET.
- John: Okay, that was you. I remember seeing this on social media, this is awesome.
- Dr. Lara: It was me, yes. And I was ET and it totally I think just changed their mindset of going out and really calling three to five. And so I would say our feedback and reflection, I don't know if it had anything to do with ET, but we had quite a few that came back to share their experience calling. And it was one of our staff members, she said, "you know, it wasn't only a positive experience for the parents and the student," she said, "but I felt so good about myself and for our kids that day." She says, "totally a different feeling," which I love to hear. And so they were very reflective on taking on that role versus me telling him that they had to call, they chose to call at that point. And that's exciting.
- John: Absolutely. And just something that I would highlight from the outside listening in is it's the law of the lid. And that idea of don't ever expect people that you're leading to bring more to say the room, the school, whatever, so if it was the principal, don't expect people to bring more, staff, to the day than what you're willing to bring as the principal. Or if it's the teacher, don't expect students to bring more to your classroom than what you're willing to bring.
- John: And I love that idea of like when you're bringing an ET outfit and you're putting it on and going above and beyond, really one of the things that says is I can have fun. This can be fun too. It says I'm willing to push my comfort zone and sometimes making those phone calls is pushing our comfort zone. And as much as it might seem like a little thing, I think it's a big thing. Well, let's end with this. The student piece is really one of our ultimate goals, right? And education, serving our students. And you're in year one of implementation. Any words of wisdom to other schools who either are utilizing the curriculum and/or considering it in terms of something that might be helpful?
- Dr. Lara: I would say that I love the fact that not only are we implementing curriculum for our students, but we're also working with our staff. And I would say when everybody's working on it together, really it's a team effort across the building. And so the students, they would feel part of this from the staff dares as well. And so I just think both pieces coming together, super exciting. I think probably one of the most important pieces of all of it is that you do have time for reflection and feedback. And I really just think that building a community amongst the staff and collegial relationships is the key to everything that's going to impact the climate and culture. And it has to be very intentional.
- John: Yep. So good and such a great line to end with because that was a theme throughout this conversation was the importance of being intentional in the work that we're doing. And so grateful for you and the example that you've set. And love that the ET piece was brought up because I was thinking in the back of my mind was that this school and then I'm like, yes it was when you said that.
- Dr. Lara: It was us, yes.
- John: How can people connect with you if they had questions? If they wanted to follow? Do you have either a school, a social media account or anything where people could reach out to you in any way to learn more?
- Dr. Lara: Sure. I'm on Twitter. Dr. L. Gilpin, our Spring Garden Middle School, and would be happy to visit at any point in time.
- John: Awesome. Well thank you Dr. Gilpin for your vision, for your passion for the work, and I look forward to our paths crossing, hopefully in the near future.
- Dr. Lara: Thank you so much.
- 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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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.