Secret Sauce

How To Transform School Culture - A Journey With FuelEd

FuelEd’s programming is unique and transformative.

Unlike the vast majority of professional development programs available, FuelEd isn’t meant to be consumed, rehearsed, and then performed - it’s meant to be experienced. Our intention with your time is to expand the mind and the heart, to ignite a personal journey, and to offer a shift in perspective that can be applied to improve relationships in every area of life.

Growth in our programs is continuous, interpersonal, and layered, and just like there isn’t one “right way” to grow in relationship with one another, there isn’t a “right way” to engage with FuelEd.

The mechanics of a FuelEd partnership are context-specific and vary in design based on the needs of the partner, however, we do have a set of guidelines and best practices when deciding how best to equip your educators with the science, skills, and self-awareness necessary to transform school culture.

Transforming School Culture Starts With Building Curiosity

Committing to a new priority like “school culture transformation” can feel overwhelming. You will likely encounter competing needs from multiple stakeholders, fear, ambiguity, and resistance to bringing on a “new program”.

We get it.

Educators are busy.

Change is hard.

And new programs seem to pop up each and every year.

Fortunately, FuelEd is different. As one recent participant said after attending a training, “Fueled isn’t another program. It’s a way of being.” If you have attended a FuelEd program you would know this to be true, but that sentiment can be hard to convey in internal discussions about paths forward.

Getting key stakeholders to experience an intro workshop or webinar is a low-pressure way to pique curiosity, build buy-in, generate momentum, and spark critical discussions.

Fueled isn’t another program.

It’s a way of being.

This same strategy can be applied at the school or district level as well by exposing your educators to one or two FuelEd workshops during a professional development day.

In addition to sparking curiosity and providing some valuable relationship-building skills, your educators will begin to develop a common language and framework about the role of relationships in school culture transformation.

Voluntary participation in FuelEd workshops goes a long way in gaining buy-in from educators, and providing our workshops as an option during larger professional development days can be a great way to get started. Following the event, an effective best practice is to survey participants on how well the FuelEd workshop/s met their expectations and what their appetite is for additional FuelEd training.

Building Buy-In At A Very Traditional District

In the fall of 2018, Galveston ISD hosted two introductory workshops for two hundred and thirty educators across five campuses in its Causeway Galveston Initiative.

Science of Relationships
(ninety minutes) provided a basic scientific understanding of how we, as humans, are biologically wired to connect, and Trauma and the Healing Power of Empathy (ninety min) exposed Galveston’s educators to concrete ways they can actively heal trauma by employing a few relationship-building skills designed to make others feel seen, heard, and valued.

After the workshops, administrators and staff collectively requested opportunities to further their learning.

They have since hosted a three-day site-based Leadership Institute for campus leadership teams and Empathy Schools on each of the participating campuses. In year 3 they plan to host Genuineness School and as well as add two new campuses for FuelEd training.

Transforming School Culture Requires Leadership from the top

Leaders committed to the lasting transformation of school culture understand that the work must start with the adults.

Student initiatives designed to promote SEL are not positioned for success without first improving the relationships amongst teachers and between campus staff and administrative teams.

Healthy, strong, and trusting relationships must be visibly cultivated and modeled throughout every layer of the system.

Transforming our schools to be places where relationships drive learning necessitates a break from traditional sit-and-get professional development for teachers, and toward a collective commitment to doing the hard work of better understanding ourselves and our actions as they relate to our personal histories - and doing that together at all levels of the system.

Building a coalition of diverse stakeholders who can speak to the FuelEd experience, who can model securely attached behaviors in their own work relationships, and whose shared experience will improve decision-making, is one of the boldest moves an administrator can make.

This commitment to lead the cultivation of a school climate where adults feel the emotional support of their peers and bosses, and where students and teachers feel seen, heard, and safe, is an instrumental step in the transformation of your school climate.

A successful initiative often begins with 5-8 campus and district leaders attending FuelEd’s flagship Leadership Institute retreat together. The experience will strengthen the skills and relationships of that cohort and empower them to become internal champions for intentional implementation.

Upon return, the team should gather and reflect on the following:

  1. What did I gain from this professional development experience?
  2. What did I learn that came as a surprise?
  3. How can the educators I work with benefit from a similar experience?
  4. How can this training inform our work to support a healthy school culture?


School Culture Transformation Case Study - Purpose Built Schools (PBS), Atlanta.

PBS in Atlanta, Georgia sent 4 educators from its charter network to Houston’s Leadership Institute retreat in the winter of 2018. This group included both their Chief Community Officer and Social Work and Wellness Specialist.

Upon returning to their campuses, this group of educators began to model and promote securely attached behaviors for their campuses which created a buzz within the entire charter network. The educators in the community were curious about this new way of interacting and saw something that they wanted to be a part of.

Later that year FuelEd was invited to Atlanta to host a site-based Leadership Institute to expand the number of educators equipped with the common framework and vocabulary necessary to strengthen school culture through personal growth.

Purpose Built Schools has now committed to hosting Leadership Institutes every year, with the goal of serving every staff member, and plans to have all new teachers attend Leadership Institute as part of their onboarding as well.

Transforming School Culture Means Becoming a Healthy Adult Community

Transforming school culture is a complicated, nuanced, and ambitious undertaking, and it’s critical to think of this work holistically.

FuelEd was not designed to, nor will it, solve any one problem metric nagging at your system (e.g.suspension rates).

In fact, solving for that singular problem metric will likely obscure your ability to see, and solve for, the larger, underlying issues behind it.

In contrast to other adult educational programs, the FuelEd experience provides teams with a common framework and vocabulary from which to design and implement relationship-driven practices and policies of all kinds.

If you’re wondering just how your school, district, or organization might begin the journey of transforming culture, here are two different paths you could take in partnership with FuelEd.

Path 1: Leading from the top

1. Host a three-day site-based Leadership Institute for leadership cohorts of 3-5 from across the district/network. Invite leadership teams from each school, typically composed of the Principal, Assistant Principal(s), Counselor, Instructional Dean/Coach, and Behavioral Specialist, and or grade level chairs or deans. Institutes need a minimum of 25 people and reach capacity at 70. By hosting the Institute locally you are demonstrating your commitment to - and belief in - adult emotional wellness. Participants will bond through the three-day experience, getting to know each other in a safe and accepting environment.

2. Bring our one-day Empathy School to your campus. Campus leaders are now ready to lead through vulnerability but need staff to join them in the journey. Empathic communication is the most powerful tool we can access to regulate emotions in others, de-escalate conflict, and solve problems. What if your school culture could be rooted in the four tenets of empathy: taking others’ perspectives, recognizing others’ feelings, communicating understanding of others’ feelings, and staying out of judgment?

3. Follow Empathy School with our one-day Genuineness School. While Empathic communication teaches you how to mirror the needs, feelings, and thoughts of others, Genuine communication teaches you how to speak your own truth, or how to authentically communicating your needs, feelings, and thoughts to promote collaborative problem solving. Together empathy and genuineness comprise secure communication.

Path 2: Full Immersion

Train all educators across the entire district/network in Leadership Institute. This can be accomplished by hosting multiple Institutes concurrently or hosting campus-based Institutes on a rolling basis.

This approach firmly roots school culture in attachment theory, employing all staff to work towards developing secure attachment behaviors.

With the knowledge that a single secure attachment can heal trauma, rewire the brain, and is fundamental to learning, this approach empowers your entire school community to create that safe, optimal environment for learning by caring for both the students and each other.

Everyone giving and receiving empathy allows the culture to be collectively held and cultivated versus being reliant on the energy of an individual leader.

It's Not Too Early, Or Too Late, To Begin To Transform School Culture

Because our work is rooted in an experience, in becoming self-aware as a prerequisite to skill development and knowledge gains, it is never too early nor too late to begin.

FuelEd believes that the great promise of education is to promote human development. Join us in this movement to put relationships at the center of every school in America.

About the author

Sarah Mushlin

Partner - Houston TX

Sarah has over a decade of domestic and international experience evaluating education and youth development programs, leading strategic planning and implementing operational excellence at growing organizations. Prior to joining FuelEd Sarah worked as a consultant and coach developing and implementing training for change leaders, nonprofit practitioners, teachers, and school administrators in evaluation practices and building an evaluative work culture. Sarah is experienced in developing and managing innovative approaches to conducting evaluations, strengthening evaluative thinking, and leveraging leadership skills. Her unique approach draws from her academic background in Anthropology, Education, Public Policy, International Development, and Leadership coaching.

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