Goldendale School District is a district of three schools (one primary, one middle, and one high school) and 920 students located in Washington State.

To help kick off the 2019-20 school year, teachers and other school- and district-level staff engaged in The Learner First’s Wellbeing First Workshop, designed to promote professional wellbeing in ways that activate deeper learning for students. The idea behind the workshop is simple: If schools want to take a purposeful approach to developing students’ wellbeing, it’s important they make an intentional commitment to developing the same with professionals.

“The wellbeing training was something that the staff really welcomed––they hadn’t had the opportunity to pay attention to themselves.”

Ellen S. Perconti, Superintendent, Goldendale School District

When professionals connect around the deeper learning outcomes (self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection) and come to understand their importance in their own lives, it illuminates the importance of deeper learning for students. From there, students and teachers are powerfully connected in working to develop the same learning outcomes.

The human connection inherent to deeper learning sparks systems’ journeys down the road to wellbeing. When professionals connect with and value one another––not only for what they do in the system but for who they are as individuals––the path appears clearer than ever before. But deeper learning takes time––districts can’t simply set out for it one day and expect to arrive there the next. For Goldendale, with sights on maintaining their early momentum, “setting out” means starting small.

Working with first-year Superintendent Ellen Perconti, I was inspired by one of her early experiences harnessing the “start small” mindset in Goldendale. Following the district’s Wellbeing First day and during a welcome back address to her staff, she offered her teachers a challenge: learn about one student’s interests and needs and do something positive with what you discover.

“What I’ve found is that if we start small, people are more willing to take on new ideas. When we try to profile every student, the message seems to get muddled in the task. By staff getting to know one student, learning something about them, and doing something positive with that information, we are gaining momentum for change.”

Ellen S. Perconti, Superintendent, Goldendale School District

About two weeks into the school year, Ellen reached out to her staff to see if they had any stories to share. They did––and they’re wonderful.

In a matter of days teachers had connected with students around their interests and needs and used that new learning to make their lives better. After learning about a student’s struggles with ADHD and his “absolute love” of classic cars, one teacher began adding books in her reading class that she felt would connect with the student. She now chats with the student and gives him time to “wiggle around” before class and, knowing that the student sometimes struggles to sit still, encourages him to read on tractor chairs or yoga balls.

Other teachers strengthened their connection with students by connecting with students’ parents as well, from keeping a parent regularly updated on his son’s successes in school to partnering with a mom to provide positive reinforcement to her son both at school and at home.

In a 6th grade class, a teacher noticed that one of her students seemed anxious at the end of the first days of school. She learned that the student is an “acting adult” for her three younger siblings, and that she walks them all home from school every day. Since her siblings (all enrolled in the nearby primary school) are dismissed earlier than the middle school students, they had to wait outside until their sister arrived––which caused all the siblings to worry. With permission from her guardian, the teacher arranged to let the student leave class five minutes early to head to the primary school. Now, no longer worried for her three younger siblings, the student can focus on the learning at hand.

These early successes are worth sharing and celebrating. They demonstrate the power of connection in schools and the potential that’s visible in “small starts” with students. To continue in the direction of district-wide wellbeing, Goldendale’s newly formed district-level Change Team started meeting in early October, with plans to add Change Teams in each of its schools sometime within the current school year.

Look out for more insights from Goldendale throughout the year and, for now, consider accepting the challenge:

Learn about one student’s interests and needs and do something positive with what you discover.