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Creating a Culture of Possibility

When school leaders empower educators and students to reimagine what's possible together, we unlock the full potential of learning.

Wheeling Country Day School has intentionally designed a culture to multiply innovation. We support teachers to create innovative programs that engage students in topics that matter and impact their lives beyond classroom walls. Students develop the intrinsic motivation to value learning and honor their passions more than grades. Our model of school leadership makes it possible.


Information on this page is provided by the innovator and has not been evaluated by HundrED.

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Target group
December 2018
...if we get the culture right, if we encourage diverse talents, if we encourage individuality, if we create the conditions in which people can thrive in more collaborative become more engaged and, as a result, our outputs improve

About the innovation

Can innovation take root so every child can flourish?

Prepare to Close

Wheeling Country Day School is the only independent elementary school in the state of West Virginia. After 80 years in existence, the school found itself a decade ago facing massive financial and enrollment issues. An accreditation report in 2009 recommended we prepare to close within the year. Under new leadership, we created an environment of purpose and nurtured trust first among the faculty and then parents. We put textbooks on the shelves, relegated testing and outcomes to the background and afforded teachers autonomy to create new learning opportunities. A capital campaign revived existing facilities so we had pride in our spaces, but most importantly it provided a faculty enrichment fund, which allowed interested educators to chase their passions and begin integrating innovative ideas into their classrooms. A sense of It's Possible Here began to take root. Early adopters were embraced when presenting a new or weird idea.And they were tasked with spreading the word.

No longer would our small school resign itself to the quiet sidelines of educational transformation. Today we partner with like-minded innovators, both locally and nationally. We do not just attend, but presentat conferences. We would become a thought leader for a region in desperate need of such belief.

Creating a Culture of Possibility

A supportive culture of possibility is at the core of all innovative teaching and learning. For any program to take root and achieve its full potential, the soil must be rich. Otherwise, innovative lessons are left at the door of an individual classroom.

Such a purposeful school culture allows students and teachers to experiment and explore in an effort to fail forward, where mistakes and missteps are inevitable but reflection and upcycling of an idea is expected. A teacher evolves into a mentor, facilitator and fellow learner with the autonomy to create engaging and resonant learning experiences.

KissHead of school, Elizabeth Hofreuter, challenges the faculty to step out of their comfort zones and embrace their passions in 2015.

Creating such an environment requires leadership to think differently about student and teacher learning."If you believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential," suggests Todd Rose, author of The End of Average. To nurture this environment the school leader also becomes a mentor and fellow learner.

Always curious to learn more and do better, leadership must be willing to ask a few simple questions... why? ... couldn't we at least...?how can I support you?

"Why isn't learning like this all the time?"
Multiplying Pockets of Innovation

At Wheeling Country Day School we saw deep learning happening in our week-long summer camps.Here our teachers were willing to experiment. It felt less risky, made them less vulnerable. For example,Creek Weekchallenges children to trek knee-deep in our creek to examine evidence of water quality.Even with more than 20 children bent over clipboards drenched in creek water, the teacher was enthralled by challenging questions and everyone was engaged in the task at hand - finding water pennies. A school leader asked, "Why isn't learning like this all the time?" and followed that with "How can I support the teacher to make it happen?" With support, Creek Week turned into a Water Study Project and ultimately into a learning partnership with Ohio State University on Lake Erie.

In a drama elective, another safe zone, a pair of teachers partnered with a community theatre troupe to design a 1940s style, live-action radio show bringing to life historical change makers from our community. Yet another redesigned a long-standing LEGO Robotics competitionto incorporate WCDS campus landmarks into the unit and personalize the process using challenges we face every day on our campus that robots could simplify. A third teacher developed a zoology project for third graders in partnership with The Good Zoo at Oglebay. After learning in depth about an animal, nine-year-olds designed and created "toys" to enrich the experience of the animal and zoo visitor.

These placed-based projects allow children to touch history, science, and math while providing a truly intimate perspective and creating a contextual as well as conceptual learning experience.On the other hand, some teachers offered children a chance to learn things they may only dream of but never touch, as preschoolers travel to a new country each week or fifth graders touch the sky with the design, creation and lift off of a weather balloon.

Creating a supportive learning environment

Where our success has completely changed the game, is the work we are doing with struggling learners. In our culture of possibility, we refused to see learners as lazy or blanket them with a message to "try harder." We opened the Center for Multisensory Learning within our school to better understand and nurture the potential within those students who learn differently.Employing Orton-Gillingham and multi-sensory methodologies, we met students where they were and abandoned one-size-fits-all learning in favor of differentiation. Still, a diagnosis of autism or dyslexia makes the total school experience a frightening and confusing place with social and emotional landmines that are difficult to navigate and tolerate. As we know to do, we changed the environment. Learning does not happen in a vacuum, absent of the relationships a child has at school or the beliefs that a child holds about him or herself, so the total environment needs to bemodified - the people, the materials, the physical surroundings, and the expectations. We take the principles of universal design for equity into all of our classrooms for all learners. After all the short term needs of a child whose parents are getting divorced are as important as the long term needs of a child living in trauma.

TELESCOPEScience Teacher, Luke Hladek, and 4th grader, Sammie, look at The Great American Eclipse in 2017.

What these projects have in common is a combination of passion and authenticity, as well as a blurred edged partnership between educator and learner. Why are they multiplying exponentially year after year? Because the culture and tone is one that asserts It's Possible Here.

From the school's leader to the youngest child each person pushes out of a comfort zone where one must humble oneself to truly learn. That's the lightning in a bottle - every individual as alearner, as arisk taker with a mission to leave something better than we found it and with the scaffolding to support possibility for all kinds of minds.

What's next?

We are opening a deep learning middle school. It will be an innovation like our area hasn't seen. A comprehensive approach to teaching and learning, the middle school will discard departmentalization in order to embrace a student-centered approach to developing the content mastery, communication and thinking skills and social emotional competencies for success. Learning from our mistakes and progress in the projects described above, we are creating a safe environment that allows teachers to empower student agency but also challenge students and support them when they struggle.

Before you think this is too hard for your school, remember we are doing this in a city of 26,000 people with the demographics being such that a progressive independent school should not exist. We are in a state that ranks 47th in education in some polls, yet it was possible here because we did that one courageous thing - we started.

Implementation steps

Make the Weather: Create a safe environment

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather..." Haim Ginott

To create a safe environment, the school leader must set the tone. To get in the right mindset, think of that child (and her parents) for whom you would move mountains to support her growth as a learner. Push from your mind the red tape, test scores, bell schedules or standards that might hamper your actions. Ignore the playground mafia casting blame on you or the school. Think only of that child and family. Now include in that picture a teacher. Choose that professional who stops at nothing to unlock a child's potential. Pair them in your mind. That is your audience.

Start with Why

To borrow the phrase from Simon Sinek, we need to start with why. In education we have long focused on what and how. What that safe environment needs is a point on the horizon to serve as our true north. Together with the community we define why our work matters. A collaborative mission-driven community empowers teachers and students with the voice and the agency to make a difference.

Moreover, the leadership must communicate a vivid story of the vision and mission of the school, so efforts to innovate get traction with teachers and with families. More on storytelling in step two.


Make time to sit with teachers yourself. Listen to their voices. Be patient. Be interested. Watch them for nonverbal cues as to what they want and need. Be inclusive and compassionate with the use of simple phrases to illicit ideas.

"Say more about that."

"Yes and..."

"Please ask me questions, challenge this idea and help me extend my thinking."

And when the conversation ends, genuinely thank them for their time and their ideas.


Talk won't be enough, you must also walk the walk. You'll show your character not in what you say, but what you do.

Be the one to pick up the shovel on a snowy morning. Stop and pick up the trash yourself. Hold the door open.

Take care of your teachers. As a leader our priority is our faculty. If they feel safe, supported, and encouraged to try, they will go out of their way to do the same for the students. When a teacher loves what he/she does, innovation thrives. When a teacher feels fear, everyone suffers.

When genuine and consistent, there is a connection that grows from this combination of honest communication and personal action. Others feel safe to be part of the conversation and participate in innovation.

The Heart of a Lion: Be courageous enough to be vulnerable

"Yet only when leaders demonstrate the courage they wish to see in those around them will they be able to unleash the human potential within their teams and organization, tap ingenuity, raise the bar on innovation and optimize the value their organization contributes to all of it's stakeholders. It doesn't take the brains of an Einstein to do that, but it does take the heart of a lion." Margie Warrell- a Forbes contributor.

Be Seen

School leaders stand out front and greet students, parents and teachers as they arrive. We think of this as being seen around campus. This is a greeting. It is not being seen. When Brene Brown says, "Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen," she means have the strength to be yourself with flaws, weaknesses and much to learn.

That child, parent, teacher team who you have in your mind's eye is a trusting audience. You know they will have empathy for your personal story, so you can share your true self. They will be inspired by your insatiable thirst to learn more.

Lean into your own emotional self-awareness. As you learn about yourself, your habits, the ruts of the side of the road, the pitfalls, the jumping off points - share those stories.

Connect with teachers and parents emotionally through storytelling. First tell some of your own vignettes.

Why not finding your daughter's matching sock made you late for work today.

Why dinner had to be dry cereal last night.

Share your reverence for that person who planted the seed to become a teacher, a leader.

Reminisce about the day you almost walked out on that dream.

Start small, but start storytelling.

Once you have their attention and trust, paint a clear picture of the vision you have for an innovative future. Emotionally connect to that possibility through stories.

Do something that scares you.You cannot accept "good enough" from yourself. When a challenge arises, be honest about the fear of taking it on. Then take it on with fear if you must.

We involved our leadership group in team building activities such as zip lining, blindfolded trust walks, horseback riding and more. Including an activity that scares you personally is imperative. Be honest about the fear. Publicly take on an endeavor you cannot YET accomplish. Our head announced she would cross the monkey bars. She practiced in front of children and teachers at recess. She fell. She tried again. She humbled herself publicly. Others have accepted a part in the school play. It helps to take on a task others (especially children) can do easily. As I have heard Viola Davis say, "If you are afraid to dive, then you must dive with fear." Then go ahead and get on that horse.

More than anything, embrace the fear to confront the ideas that fly in the face of your innovative future. Look beyond your like-minded thought leaders. Identify resources that contradict your thinking. Invite nay-sayers to join the conversation to extend your thinking and deepen your resolve.

Step outside the comfort zone. As the leader you must step first.

Embrace the Weird: Motivation to Innovate

You've walked the walk and talked the talk. Now it is time to dance.

As trust emerges within a safe environment where people feel they know you , those willing to take a risk will come forward. You will recognize early adopters for they have already created pockets of innovation. Purposefully create opportunities to work with them. Treat them as an equal. Invite them to join you in conversation, attend professional development together, listen to the ideas of a thought leader - even something as simple as watching a TED talk together. In that person's presence expound on the possibilities of changing the status quo, and taking a risk as an organization.

Your first innovator is motivated because something isn't working "doing school" as we've always done it. The push of the current situation causes contemplation to make a change. The risk to innovate is worth the effort because you have shared a clear picture of the reward of your vision. She/he can see it. Once attempted, there is an "aha" moment when learning is so rich and rewarding that the challenge to innovate was worthwhile. The joy is palpable and your first follower is dancing with you encouraging others to try. It is enticing. The next to try something new pushes the needle for the organization and an innovation advances. This magnetism creates a pull for other teachers to try.

While you and your first followers have humbled yourselves to take on risks, you made it clear that others are safe to do so as well.

Pilot projects

These first two innovators are creating pilot projects. Their practices must be straightforward enough so others can easily adapt a similar project. While doing the work themselves, those first innovators need to "picture themselves eventually bringing their colleagues on board."

Using the "Jobs to be Done" model created at the Harvard Business School, Michael Horn, Bob Moesta, and Tom Arnett, in a piece written for the Christensen Institute, consider why teachers seek to make progress. While not an exhaustive list, they identify four patterns that motivate more teachers to innovate.

1. “Help me lead the way in improving my school."

2. “Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable."

3. “Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student."

4. “Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.”

The first two groups need to realize practical ways to keep a new idea up and running in their classrooms with professional support imbedded to work toward success quickly. Replicating pilot projects and starting small will work for teachers in these two categories.

Brave New Worlds

While everyone needs room to fail, the third group needs it most. This motivation may require bold changes beyond a small project. Horn, Moesta and Arnett suggest "give those teachers a degree of autonomy from the needs of the rest of the school. Depending on how experimental and unproven the new practices may be, school leaders may also want to create low-stakes settings for teachers to explore these new practices—such as after-school programs, elective courses, or new remedial courses that are supplemental to students’ core instruction."

The motivation of the fourth group will not lead to engaging learning. This group needs to continue to play the part of audience until the magnetic pull of innovation draws them to a different "job to be done. "

Foster engagement

To foster engagement and encourage innovation leaders must help a teacher to feel early success. An innovative project that engages students, especially those who are struggling, will lower a teacher's anxieties to try something new.

Be patient. Once this is happening in multiple places, you are cultivating a culture of possibility.

Walk with me: Reimagine Feedback

After we had piloted a few small innovative projects, we took a bolder step. Throwing out textbooks and tried and true curriculum, our fifth grade teacher and his science students undertook the design and launch of a weather balloon to prove the curvature of the earth. As a school leader, I interceded and tempered parent concerns. I invested in materials, which were minimal. I showed up in the classroom to participate in testing. When recovery of that first payload involved a two-hour trip, we set out together - school leader, teacher, his spouse, and a student. It was a joint adventure. Once we had video evidence secured, we shared the images far and wide. Publicly we applauded the success and I thanked the teacher for pushing us all out of comfort zone. Privately, we reflected on improving the project. I remember saying, "You could have asked them to open to page 67 in the textbook and kept it easy, but you didn't. You pushed the envelope and on behalf of all of your students how you have inspired, we are indebted to you."

That public applause and genuine gratitude created that magnetism for others teachers to try and parents to cry out for more (the same one whose concerns I silenced through the process).

A shared process of feedback

A culture of school improvement and personal growth happens when it is no longer the job of the administration to evaluate the work of teachers, but it is the practice of the entire team to openly give and accept feedback from peers.

To achieve this we borrowed the practice of medical rounds from the healthcare industry. Small teams of teachers practice learning walks,an intersection of walkthroughs and professional learning networks. The mission of learning walks is continual school improvement. This must be intentional and purposeful. There is no language of comparison or competition. For our teachers it included a three step process.

1. A team of teachers (and administrators at times) visit a classroom for fifteen minutes. Their focus is on the students - the learning, not the teaching. The purpose is to gather specific evidence without judgment. During the walk, the teachers observe, take notes and ask students questions (best completed if some individual task happens within the visit).

2. A debriefing meeting brings everyone together to consider the collective evidence and agree on what learning results from what was observed. We share relevant observations based on evidence (hold each other's feet to the fire). We group evidence to look for patterns, then question gaps, omissions, and repetitions. This step involves hard conversations and vulnerability, which are at the heart of valuable feedback. It may require some practice activities to help teachers communicate in this way.

3. Allow teachers to propose solutions and recommend actions (professional development). Leadership then identifies what resources are needed to support teachers for improvement. Find the funding to allow teachers and leaders to be students as often as possible.

As the school leader it is imperative to applaud great effort. Whether you attend the debriefing meeting or not, the school leader needs to do this.

Share praise and show gratitude

Your mother already told you this, but send a thank you note or a text if you must. Teachers needs to know you noticed the risk they took.

Take a walk with a teacher. Sure you can make a list of all the things for which you are grateful in your work, but taking a gratitude walk heightens the expression. Invite a teacher to walk with you. Set out with three things you want to praise or acknowledge and then allow the pace of the walk to turn the conversation into reflection about you both could do even better next time.

Others create a praise wall. We create visualtop tens each week to showcase innovative learning.

It is just as important to be grateful for mistakes. Acknowledge a failure and ask... What does it have to teach us? What opportunity do we have now? Share these questions and their answers publicly.

By applauding effort the leaders become connectors - allowing voices and ideas to come together. Your praise leads others to want to be part of it...not just teachers, but parents and members of the community too. Soon you have diverse voices, multiple perspectives and divergent thinking.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." John Quincy Adams

Spread of the innovation

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