Podcast S1. Ep 44: Intentionally Recognizing Students - Paul Dols

Character Strong · July 22, 2019

Paul has spent the last 23 years as a classroom teacher. The last 21 of those years have been spent at Monrovia High School in beautiful Southern California, mostly as a social science teacher. In 2008 he became the Renaissance Coordinator. In 2018 Paul became the school's first Climate & Culture Coordinator, with responsibilities of Renaissance Coordinator, Activities Director and Link Crew Coordinator. In 2012 he was chosen as the Monrovia Unified Teacher of the Year. In 2013 Jostens Renaissance recognized Paul as a National Coordinator of the Year and last summer he was inducted into the Jostens Renaissance Hall of Fame.  Paul and his wife Lisa and I have 2 fantastic kids, Steven who just finished is junior year at Point Loma Nazarene University and Kaitlyn, who will be starting her freshman year at UC San Diego in September.

We talk with Paul about one unique and intentional way that they recognize seniors at Monrovia High School and he shares about Monrovia’s school-wide night of recognition and the impact that it has had in the lives of both students and teachers. 

“...one of the difficulties of our job, but it's also a gift, is that we plant seeds in kids and those seeds will turn into something beautiful 5, 10 or 15 years from now. We'll never know. But it's the impact that you have and the love that you give a kid that makes a difference. And kids need to be loved, they need to be seen, heard and loved. And if you do that on a daily basis, the rewards will come. You just don't know when.”

— Paul Dols

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Paul Dols. Paul's wrapping up his 23rd year as a classroom teacher, with the last 21 of those being at Monrovia High School in beautiful Southern California. He has served as a social science teacher for most of those years, and in 2008, became the renaissance coordinator. In 2018, became the school's first climate and culture coordinator with responsibilities of renaissance, activities director and link crew coordinator. In 2012, he was the Monrovia Unified teacher of the year, and in 2013, Josten's Renaissance recognized him as a national coordinator of the year, and last summer was inducted into the Josten's Renaissance Hall of Fame.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Paul Dols.
  • John: All right. It is awesome to have Paul Dols with us today on the CharacterStrong podcast. Paul, it is awesome. I've been learning about you as a fan from afar, and I know our co-founder, Houston Kraft, has had more touch points with you and connections, but I feel really privileged that I'm the one that gets to interview you today. I know that Houston actually was hoping that he might get to be the one. So thank you for being with us and making the time.
  • Paul: Oh, no problem at all, John. Thanks so much. It's really an honor to be with you and to be part of this podcast, and it's going awesome. I've loved what you've done already, and it's truly an honor to be a part of it.
  • John: I appreciate it.
  • John: Well one, you have an incredible resume, and I know that comes from a lot of hard work and a lot of passion and love for kids and the work that you're doing, and over many, many years. I mean 23 years is it in the classroom?
  • Paul: Yeah. Finishing up number 23 right now.
  • John: Yeah.
  • John: And having been a student activities coordinator for a decade in Washington state, looking at all the different hats that you wear, I think that educators, people in education could appreciate knowing, on top of everything else ... because what are you, social sciences teacher ... that you've been, you also are renaissance coordinator, you're the school's first climate culture coordinator with the responsibilities of renaissance coordinator, activities director, link crew coordinator. Love that in 2012, you were recognized ... is it Monrovia? Is that how you pronounce the district that you're in?
  • Paul: That is perfect.
  • John: You're the teacher of the year. And then I know this is a big deal, in 2013 you were the Josten's Renaissance national coordinator of the year. So just congratulations on that. I know that you wouldn't tout that and/or put it out there, but I do think that is earned from a lot of hard work. So one, thank you for the work you do, and congratulations on those recognitions that that you've had over the years.
  • Paul: Well thank you for the shout out. I appreciate it. A lot of accolades, but without the kids that I work with on a daily basis and the inspiration I get from them, and they do a lot of the hard work and I get a lot of the credit.
  • John: That's right.
  • Paul: It's been a great run, and I've really enjoyed it. But yeah, it's pretty cool.
  • John: That's awesome.
  • John: Well, one of our big beliefs here on these shorter podcasts is cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. So I think, knowing that you could talk on a lot of topics, one of the things that we talked about for this show is talk to me a little bit about the recognition piece. And specifically, I know you do some really intentional things with your seniors, things like sign the line, people's choice awards. Talk to me a little bit about that practical nature, what you're doing to really be intentional with the recognition, because those are relationships that have been built over many, many years, this is a huge life moment for seniors who have put in a lot of hard work, in some cases might be the first people ever in their family to graduate, whatever that might be.
  • John: So that recognition matters. And I think sometimes where schools can go wrong is they try to recognize, but maybe it's only a certain group. Those that have the highest GPA or whatever else. So talk to me about what you do.
  • Paul: Yeah, well it's kind of ingrained in the renaissance way of life, but we try to celebrate as many kids as we can for as many different reasons as we can. The sign on the line concept came from watching ESPN covering the athletes in their national signing days. And that's a huge deal for those kids. But it's such a small percentage of kids in our school and in the country that get the opportunity to do that.
  • Paul: So we started back in 2009, I believe, of giving our seniors the opportunity to have that signing ceremony during lunch. Once they make their commitment to wherever they're going to go and whatever they're going to do, we set up a stage in the middle of our campus at lunch time, we invite their families, we invite folks from the board of ed, their teachers and their friends, and we surround them, and we basically have a signing celebration for as many seniors as we can from March until the very last day that they're here on campus.
  • Paul: We do it individually. A lot of times they'll sign up with their friends. We do between seven to eight kids every lunch period, nearly every day between March and June. And it's a blast. It's a chance for them to get their name out loud. We celebrate, and we put ... any time you put balloons up, people come.
  • John: That's right.
  • Paul: It really serves two purposes. It does celebrate those kids and gives them that moment in the spotlight. And because we do it in the middle of campus, we're Southern California, lunch is outside, it's usually beautiful, we've got freshmen and sophomores and juniors walking by, are joining in the celebration and they're seeing these kids get celebrated, which gives them a little bit more motivation.
  • John: That's right. Influence right there happening for sure.
  • Paul: For sure.
  • John: Well one, I'm super jealous that you get to do it outside in Southern Cal, being up here in Western Washington state, where it's raining all the time. But no, I love that intentionality. I feel like too though, I don't know if it was off of the work you were doing or whatever, but I remember actually reading in the book, The Power of Moments, about this type of idea.


“ Anytime that we can evolve and continue to find different ways to celebrate kids, especially those kids that are a lot of times, they're left out in the margins on campuses, that really gets my blood going and gives me an opportunity to take that message and spread it even more that every kid matters and every kid's story is a unique and special story for that individual.”

— Paul Dols


  • John: Even our podcast, we're recording today, but the podcast that came out today for CharacterStrong talked about the power of moments, and that even in the student activities work that you do, we can work on really big projects, and those matter and can have huge impact, but a lot of times it's the power of moments and the idea that whether it's in school, whether it's in my own personal life, I don't have to get every single moment right for someone to feel like, "Wow, I'll never forget that moment where my family showed up, and it was in the month of May, my senior year, and I got to sign on that line, and I didn't necessarily have to be the 4.0 student, I didn't have to necessarily be going to a D-I athletic college scholarship type situation, but I did the work," and the fact that you're intentionally recognizing that, I think is just awesome.
  • Paul: It really gives us an opportunity. It started out as we were celebrating kids going to four years, and over the years it's evolved, and we celebrate our JC kids who are going, our military kids who have signed up and enlisted in the military, we do a day where we celebrate them.
  • Paul: One of the things I'm most excited about is our special ed. One of our special ed teachers reached out to me this year, and for the first time, we have four seniors in our special ed classes that are graduating and moving into the workability program. And next week, we're going to celebrate those four on their own special day. And we've never done that before. Anytime that we can evolve and continue to find different ways to celebrate kids, especially those kids that are a lot of times, they're left out in the margins on campuses, that really gets my blood going and gives me an opportunity to take that message and spread it even more that every kid matters and every kid's story is a unique and special story for that individual.
  • Paul: I'm getting kind of goosebumps, which is weird because it's 80 degrees here. Sorry.
  • John: It just goes to your heart, right?
  • Paul: Yeah, for sure.
  • John: You think about that though. We talk about at CharacterStrong, climate and culture, and climate really you could define it in one word. Climate is a feeling. Culture is behavior.
  • Paul: Absolutely.
  • John: And we have more control over culture. So that's a culture that is happening at your school, and that is a behavior that is intentional that we recognize each other, we recognize that all, and we do it in this way. And because of that culture, that behavior, you are more likely to have an overall feeling of fill in the blank. And I can only imagine the feeling that then gets created when the sophomores are walking by and they're seeing that happen, or the student who's experiencing that, or the family of that student.
  • John: And even just going to recognizing the fact that, okay, here we are in this situation, we're going to be recognizing some students from our special needs program, we're going into the workforce or the life ready ... who's to say that the grit and the perseverance and the skill that was needed in that situation wasn't anywhere less than ... anybody else who got a 4.0, that student might've demonstrated more grit than any other student in the school. Why wouldn't we be recognizing that?
  • Paul: Absolutely. No question at all.
  • John: And that takes intentionality. Yeah, that's awesome. And that grit is not just from the student, but their families and the support network. And that comes with all your students. So the fact that you're bringing them in, then there's that climate connection as well. I think that is awesome.
  • John: How about this, one more ... I love the practical nature. Tell me briefly about the people ... was it the people choice awards? As well on how you recognize seniors.
  • Paul: The people's choice awards is the simplest recognition we do, and it actually goes school-wide, it's not just with our seniors. We invite our staff to pick one kid each that they want to celebrate, and we do an evening event where we invite the student and their families to come into our auditorium, and for about two and a half hours, teachers take turns getting up and inviting that kid to the front of the auditorium, and for two minutes they share what's important about that student for that teacher and how that student has touched that teacher's life.
  • Paul: It is by far the most emotional night of the year. Teachers are coming and sharing their hearts and their souls, but most importantly a lot of them are choosing kids that, you mentioned earlier, it's not always the 4.0 kid who gets all the celebrations, and we really go after kids who we know maybe have never been recognized before and who have made a difference in our lives individually, that we put up on that stage and share about them.
  • Paul: And for me, I picked ... I ran into a mom at open house this year, and she stopped me and she said, "You don't remember me, but you taught my daughter as a ninth grader, and you changed her life. And she never gave up, and it's been a struggle, but she kept fighting."
  • Paul: And I just went back to my room after talking to her, cried for 10 minutes, and then I chose that student to recognize that night, just because it meant so much to me personally that I had an impact on her. And she reciprocally gave the same thing to me. And it's an incredible experience. And I think one of the keys, John, is that a lot of times we forget that really what it comes down to is the relationships, and the curriculum and all the rest of that stuff will take care of itself. When we build relationships with kids, and then have the ability and the opportunity to celebrate them for who they are and who they're gonna be, it's probably the best part of the job, frankly.
  • John: That's right. Yeah. There's so much that's there. It's in giving that we receive stands out to me, that idea of behind every one of those stories ... I always call them the million-dollar paychecks, because they don't always come, but they're worth so much more than any financial gain ever. And that's why teachers are awesome, because they're obviously not in it for the money, because that reward is so much greater.
  • John: And just that reminder, and maybe we can close with this, as we're at our time here today, and that would be one of the things that really resonates for me in that is just that reminder at this time of year for teachers to don't forget that, don't forget that behind every one of those that we get to hear about are potentially a hundred more who maybe will never tell you. And there's a lot of reasons why they might not tell you. Maybe they didn't fully realize the impact until later on. Maybe they don't have the skill to tell you, but deep down in their heart they feel it. And I think sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
  • John: So if you were to send teachers off right now with wherever they're at in their year, when this podcast comes out, what would you say to teachers as they're in the work right now, working with kids and working with other adults, and it doesn't always work the way I want to, and relationships are messy, and yet the purpose and the impact is there. What would you say to them today to send us off?
  • Paul: I think the thing I would say would be thank yous come in a lot of different ways, and sometimes they're delayed by weeks or months or years, but the impact that you have on a kid as a teacher is something that can never really be measured, and we never really know. And that's one of the difficulties of our job, but it's also a gift, is that we plant seeds in kids and those seeds will turn into something beautiful 5, 10 or 15 years from now. We'll never know. But it's the impact that you have and the love that you give a kid that makes a difference. And kids need to be loved, they need to be seen, heard and loved. And if you do that on a daily basis, the rewards will come. You just don't know when.
  • John: Yep. Right on.
  • John: Well Paul, thank you so much for not only your passion, your practical ideas tonight, your wisdom, and I got a feeling that this won't be the last time that we have a conversation on this podcast, but I also look forward to continuing to learn from you, and even outside of this to follow up with you. So thank you for what you do. Finish strong. I know it's the end of the year. And look forward to hearing how the rest of these recognition projects and intentional things that you're doing finish out for the rest of this year as well.
  • Paul: Thanks so much, John. I appreciate it.
  • John: You bet. Take care.
  • Paul: All right. Bye bye.
  • 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 iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. 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.