Empower Q&A: Jimmy Casas on Better School Culture

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As ASCD gears up for Empower20: The Conference for Learning, Teaching, and Leading Together on March 13-16 in Los Angeles, Inservice will publish a series of Q&As to preview the wide range of featured speakers.

By Kate Stoltzfus

Featured Session: Culturize Yourself

Session time: Saturday, March 14, 2020, 3:30–4:30 p.m.

Session description: Remember when you wanted to become a school leader? How excited you were? How you were going to inspire others to be great? Do you still have that same fire? If not, why not? Well, you all get a pass because you are doing the best you can, but we all can do better when we have a better understanding of the skills we need to develop to become more effective. In this session, the presenter—a 22-year veteran principal and best-selling author of Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes.—will share his shortcomings and the crucial truths that he learned the hard way on his path to becoming a state and national award-winning principal.

Tell us a little bit about what to expect from your session.

Jimmy Casas: What I often tell people is that I recognize and want to celebrate all the successes they currently have in their schools, but how do we continue to move in that direction and take a look at the overall culture and the role they play in it as leaders in their classrooms and buildings? I try to give practical examples of how we can generate healthier cultures not only for our students, but for the people who work on our campuses. When we walk into our classrooms or schools, we typically see the culture through our eyes. How do we see the culture though others’ eyes? If I’m a teacher, I want to see the culture through the eyes of students. If I’m a principal, how do I see it through eyes of students, staff, parents? Everyone has the capacity to lead, but we need to put the frameworks and processes in place in order to make that happen.

How did you become a principal, and why have you stuck with it for so many years?

JC: My motivation came from a few different places. Number one, I didn’t have good school experience myself. Number two, I had an assistant principal who really encouraged me to continue with school. Once I became a teacher, I was inspired by supervisors who encouraged me to go down the leadership road. I became a building principal when I was 26 years old and served in that capacity for 22 years. But I feel like I’ve had two careers: my first 12 years, when I was figuring out how to do this crazy job right, and the second 10, when I reflected on my own leadership practices. I realized I wasn’t being effective, and it makes you question whether you can make a difference, whether it’s all worth it.

As soon as I changed my thinking and behavior, it completely transformed my experience. I’m talking about how we live excellence in every aspect of life. When we don’t get results that we want in our work that we do or the lives that we lead, we have to look at our own behaviors, attitudes, and bias and say, “What part did I play in that?” We’re all responsible for the climate and culture of organizations.

What is the most pressing issue facing principals today?

JC: I think the biggest issue right now that we face in all organizations, not just education, is ineffective leadership. When I say leadership, I mean all of us. Especially in schools, the adults are creating most of the issues, not the children. The real skill of effective leaders is that when something happens related to culture, they can draw on a characteristic in that moment to not hurt the culture. If someone comes in upset, you have to quickly draw on empathy (instead of impatience) to conduct yourself appropriately, so when that person walks away, they believe they were treated fairly.

People want to talk about lack of resources or standardized testing, and those are all certainly major factors. But if we had more effective skills, then we wouldn’t be so prone to think we have to do it all by ourselves. No system is perfect, but what you’re trying to do is minimize the undercurrents in organizations, have processes in place to address the challenges in a positive way, believe in the collective efficacy, and make positive change happen so everyone feels good about going to work every day and kids feel good about the environment.

What is one book that has inspired you in your work?

JC: I’ll pick Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz because it gave me the foundation when I wrote [my book] Culturize. The idea is that you bring your very best every day and don’t make assumptions. When I read that I started thinking, how does that pertain to my everyday work? I wasn’t leading from a core value system. If we can create a culture where people understand and invest in a purpose, hopefully it inspires them to live their lives as well. Culturize is based on my four core principles. I talk about what it means to be a champion for kids, to expect excellence, to carry the banner, and to be a merchant of hope. For administrators, to be a champion for kids means being a champion for teachers. That is all about relationships and how we invest time in others. Expecting excellence is about modeling the behaviors we want to see repeated. Carrying the banner is being a positive voice for others. How do we engage with others so that when people walk away, [they also want to be positive]? With hope, I believe everyone deserves to be part of something great. How do we create environments through our own leadership to give others the opportunity to live their legacy?

Why should people attend Empower?

JC: ASCD has a reputation for bringing high-quality presenters and speakers where a lot of learning takes place. As a principal, I took my staff every year. What I love about it more than anything else is the quality not only of the content, but of an atmosphere and environment where people can connect. Hopefully when people leave, they take that message back to their campuses and continue to do great work.

Jimmy Casas (@casas_jimmy) served 22 years as a school leader, including 14 years as the principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa. Under his leadership, Bettendorf was named one of the Best High Schools in the country by Newsweek and US News & World Report. He was selected as one of three finalists for NASSP 2013 National Secondary Principal of the Year. Casas is also the author of four books, including his latest release, Stop. Right. Now.: The 39 Stops to Making Schools Better. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Drake University and is the owner and CEO of J Casas & Associates, an educational leadership company.

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