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Start with The Heart First

Community is everything. If you’re not convinced of that by now–in April 2021–principal Elias Villa and instructional coach Nicole Lalumiere-Weaving will make you think again. For these Weaver Middle School educators, it didn’t take a global pandemic to understand that everything must be built on a foundation of trust that is bolstered by evidence of care and concern. While this is always a work in progress for these educators, creating a thriving community is at the core of every decision they make.

Weaver is located in a rural community in Merced, California, which is part of a swath of agricultural land known as the world’s breadbasket. This diverse community is growing and Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving are poised to ensure that its diverse population of learners, 85% of whom are socio-economically disadvantaged, have every opportunity to grow and learn in a deeply caring community. 

As devoted as educators are to their students, Weaver leaves nothing to chance. “We are explicit about what we mean by a ‘culture of care.’ We have a group of caring educators, committed to meeting the needs of every student. We know that many of our families are facing challenges and our students will absorb the heightened anxiety.”

One of the driving strategies at Weaver is restorative practices. Every educator is learning how to facilitate conversations that offer students a chance to share what is happening in their lives in a safe and supportive community. Students are learning to articulate their emotions while building empathy for one another–the same is true for the adults in the room. 

“Our staff is not just learning about restorative practices, but they are using the strategies themselves. This is how we build community amongst ourselves. We’ve started book studies that deepen our understanding of a topic, then we get in a circle, just as our students do, and we talk. We bond. We learn how it feels to get vulnerable. At Weaver, we don’t ask our students to do anything that we haven’t done ourselves,” explains Villa. 

“We allow kids to have a space to talk and to hear each other. They will talk differently in a circle than they will on the playground. They need a safe space to have an opportunity to hear one another. We want everyone to know what it feels like to be in the company of good humans. This is a place where kids have respect for one another and most teachers seem happier. Our teachers model what a positive and respectful conversation looks and sounds like,” says Villa. 

“Connection before content is our guiding principle, shares Lalumiere-Weaving. We know that teachers are overwhelmed and kids have a whole new world to navigate. There’s a lot to do. So, we want everyone to trust that not only is it okay but it’s essential that you can show up as a human first. Trust that you have time to do the tasks that need to get done. Start with the heart first. The more heart, the more purpose and meaning,” she adds. 

“We give teachers permission to take time each day to make those personal connections. One of our goals is to continue to increase attendance. School has to be a place where kids want to go. A place they feel cared for–where someone is really listening, where they feel heard and seen. School should always feel like a comfortable place where our students want to be. When students connect with the adults, they want to do more work,” says Villa. 

Weaver Middle School is part of the “Schools to Watch” network, which is a program of the Institute for Excellence in Education (IEE). This national network provides an opportunity for schools to grow and share best practices as well as a supportive place to share challenges. As Lalumiere-Weaving points out, “The cool thing is that being recognized as a School to Watch is not an end point, it’s a beginning point. The message is: ‘We like what you’re doing and we want to join you and follow your journey.’”

One of the areas of focus for Weaver is engendering goals and future orientation among students. At the foundation of this is “Seeing that every kid is a person of worth and dignity and allowing them to make choices,” explains Lalumiere-Weaving. “Often, as adults, we want to control what is happening; we try to avoid that temptation and instead create an environment where choice is not only available but encouraged.” 

“In Homeroom, students reflect on their learning and take charge of what they need to do to grow. They write their own plan of action. This goal setting and reflection builds learner agency. Thrively has really helped students feel that they’re a part of the school. Our kids get to know themselves, which has been crucial for all that we do, from goal setting, to restorative practices. Our students have become much more self-aware and reflective, and our teacher uses this information to help students become more empowered learners,” explains Villa. 

Student empowerment is supported by several outlets for exploration in the arts and sciences. The award-winning band and the drama department, which sells out the annual Disney musical every year, are community treasures that highlight the persistence and drive of Weaver’s young performers. Students who do not find their passion in music or theater are encouraged to find their passion in sports, the Greek Olympics, and in hands-on science and math. Lalumiere-Weaving explains, “Our teachers are so passionate about their subjects that they have created a place where kids feel like it’s cool to learn new things. In English, the theme was window and mirrors–‘what are you reflecting to others and what are you seeing in another person’s world?’”

“We’re never just going to teach students and give them a quiz. We ask questions and provide the space to think about them, in writing and out loud. Think, talk, listen, triangulate who they are as they relate to others. Interactive conversations help students search for understanding and meaning. Our teachers have thoughtful, meaningful discussions that center on ideas that are relevant to their students and, in turn, students search for answers to big questions,” shares Lalumiere-Weaving. 

“Teachers want to be authentic, but they need a roadmap. We spend a lot of time recognizing one another’s contributions, listening to one another to seek understanding. We don’t have one approach for our students and another for our educators. Everyone is treated with respect and dignity. We are always in a constant state of growth and this can only be achieved with support in a nurturing environment that places a culture of care as a top priority for the entire community,” emphasizes Villa.  

Weaver is making great strides, but Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving emphasize that there is ample room to grow and to learn. Weaver educators are striving together to create a culture that reflects their shared values and goals and each day is a testament to that pursuit. Every child has a genius and they deserve to thrive!

Human Potential is Limitless

Human Potential is Limitless. We know this to be true. We know it because we feel a surge of adrenaline that covers our bodies in goosebumps when watching humans attempt the seemingly impossible. We root for the underdog because we know what it feels like to be a David up against a Goliath, and, when we prevail, we get a nice ride along the dopamine superhighway–and it feels good. What if you never felt those goosebumps or that dopamine surge? What if it were easier to wear off the jagged edges of high expectations for yourself and live safely? What if experience told you that it made more sense to hide than to proclaim: This is me! This is me, and I am trying! 

What fosters this sense of agency and positive learning identity that allows for such emphatic proclamations? At the core, it is the relationship that teachers have with their students. When students don’t just feel but have evidence of being known and valued they feel safe, and safety is the nutrient-rich soil from which all robust and healthy growth emerges. As with any relationship, interactions have to be rooted in true interest and concern and they have to be reciprocal–human being to human being, rather than keeper of knowledge to seeker of knowledge. 

Years ago, when I was a teacher in a Title 1 school in Los Angeles, my go-to strategy was Shared Inquiry. What I discovered was that my role wasn’t to guide my students to achieve a particular understanding of a text, but to grow their curiosity through my authentic curiosity about their perspective. I would encourage them to share where their ideas had come from and to say more, delve more deeply. With each inquiry, a student’s confidence would grow. It was magic, and it was so simple: All I had to do was make the time to ask. Not so easy though, right?

So much is expected of our educators today because we know so much more about everything from neuroscience to the long-term effects of trauma. Each child brings a range of experiences to the classroom. What can teachers do when they carry large rosters or serve students with wildly varying needs? Consider for a moment Dr. Edith Eger’s question: “How do you spell love?” It’s a four-letter word, she reminds us. Ready? “It’s spelled t-i-m-e,” she says. How do teachers find time in a day that requires so much of them? With the 1,500 decisions that teachers make a day, where do they find the time to authentically inquire, build meaningful relationships, and engender trust? 

Teachers, by the very nature of their work, have become models of efficiency. Watch your colleagues standing at the physical or virtual door, taking the time to look in each person’s eyes and welcome them. Teachers who use collaboration interfaces like Thrively might note how a group member brought a new idea to the team. “Something Miguel said yesterday inspired me to share this article with your group.” Or, “I was curious about an idea that Jazmine shared and I wanted to ask the group to explore that today.” These interactions only take a moment, but they are evidence of care, concern and genuine interest, which are all essential elements of trust. 

A culture of trust provides a solid foundation upon which all learning is built. Imagine a space where a student knows that she can be vulnerable, make wild hypotheses, color outside the lines figuratively and literally, push boundaries, feel those goosebumps that attend exploring the unknown, feel her pulse quicken, and get the dopamine surge that comes when her curiosity is encouraged. 

We can create a place of limitless possibility when we make the time ignite our own sense of wonderment and awe about the humans sitting right in front of us. What are their strengths, what are their dreams and aspirations, what makes them laugh, what makes them think? Everyone deserves to feel the excitement of discovery and who better to build that launch pad than a trusted teacher?


Jane Patterson – Senior Vice President, Customer Success, Thrively

I am a first-generation college graduate. Reared by self-educated intellectuals and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneurs, I have learned that intrinsic motivation is the key to personal fulfillment. What motivates us? What inspires us? What piques our curiosity? What moves us? I attribute my success in life to my mother and my 4th and 5th-grade teacher, Gene Howard. Mr. Howard knew that social-emotional growth underpinned current and future success. He encouraged me, saw the best in me, and was the person I could rely upon in turbulent times. Gene Howard would be proud—but not surprised—that a girl from challenging circumstances earned her undergraduate degree and doctorate from UCLA and joined Thrively to spread this message: Every child enters the world full of promise and brings their intrinsic strengths to the conversation. I join Thrively with gratitude and a clear vision of what is possible for our young people and for our collective future.

Community-Based Organization Responds to Covid Crisis

If you try to park in the lot at the offices of Strengths-Based Community Change (SBCC), don’t expect to find a parking space. SBCC staff and volunteers have commandeered the space to make room for an outdoor classroom. This resourceful team has scrimped, saved, and trimmed to purchase tents, tables, desks, and extension cords to ensure that every child in the community has an opportunity to learn.

In its 45th year of operation, one thing about SBCC remains fixed: an unrelenting drive to adapt to the changing needs of the community. Founded by a trailblazing team of licensed marriage and family counselors, SBCC is now a model for collaborative, community-driven change. Executive Director Colleen Mooney had aspired to be a social worker, and then she discovered SBCC at the Hometown Fair in Manhattan Beach. After a few years of volunteer service, SBCC’s Board of Directors placed Mooney at the helm. She’s been claiming that, while there’s an important place for therapy, healing also happens in families and communities. The evidence? SBCC serves 10,000 families a year in Los Angeles County.

“Community organizing is the cornerstone of our work. As a result, we’ve moved away from offering programs to building community capacity through what we call ‘ventures.’ The three ventures center on community activation, economic vitality, and the capacity to thrive,” explained Mooney. “We are catalyzing a deeper investment in communities through the ventures that we co-create with the residents in the communities we serve,” she added.

“SBCC’s mission is to help residents gain access to power. Access is driven by our belief that every person has gifts and talents and when those are lifted up, families can determine opportunities that make the best use of their talents; they can decide for themselves how to make the best use of their time.” This emphasis on strengths-informed choice is what attracted Mooney to Thrively. The alignment between SBCC and Thrively was clear to Mooney from the start: “Thrively helps young people discover and share their strengths, interests, and aspirations,” said Mooney. “Thrively is a natural fit.”

Thrively Strength Assessment measures students against 23 different strength factors. It also takes an inventory of your students’ career aspirations and their extracurricular interests.

Imagine an entire community where the members value themselves and one another for the internal assets that they bring to the table and where what’s on the table is shared. “When people are on a path to meaningful and values-aligned discovery, they become excited about making a positive impact and the entire community benefits,” emphasized Mooney.

Whether it’s distributing 2,000 grab-and-go meals a day, providing essential self-care products, registering people to vote, or educating children in a safe and welcoming outdoor setting, SBCC and their resident partners are making an impact where it’s needed most. This responsive and flexible approach is supported by the United Way and other values-aligned foundations that believe in the community’s power to drive positive change. Mooney sums up the veracity of this approach: “What we are seeing from residents is that no matter the level of their specific need, they want to help, they want to be of service and give back in whatever way they can. We all feel empowered by these remarkable acts of courage.”

Student agency and student empowerment

Most educators would agree that this is the dual aim of our individual and collective efforts. How then do we move from aspiration to action? If students are to become agentive, we need to create the conditions for their authentic voices to emerge. Authenticity is the outcome of being one’s true self, which results from self-awareness. Students feel safe to express their authentic selves when they believe that they are known and valued.

The core resource for transforming our schools into vibrant learning environments brimming with curiosity and creativity is sitting right in front of us: our students. When we value students as partners with us, we unleash limitlessness potential. Recognizing this, the principal at a high school in East Los Angeles posed a question: “What would happen if we empowered our students not just as learners but as learning facilitators?

The principal, Dr. Faatiai, at the Engineering and Technology Academy on the Esteban E. Torres High School campus launched a two-day professional development workshop for twenty-five students who would learn how to facilitate their Advisory classes. The students were a heterogeneous group comprised of both student body leadership and those who struggle with self-management. At the end of the workshop, all students were ready to lead an Advisory grounded by an authentic desire to know every student’s strengths and aspirations in the school.

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Students took Thrively’s Strengths Assessment during the workshop, which was designed for young people to increase self-awareness and surface their top five of twenty-three strengths. After the assessment, students discovered themselves and saw their peers in a new light. The facilitator began to call out each strength and asked students to stand and say, “Like me!” when they heard one of their top five strengths. The facilitator began, “One of my strengths is compassion.” Three students stood up and said, “Like me!” “One of my strengths is creativity!” Five students stood up: “Like me! With each new affirmation, new bonds were formed.

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When the twenty-three strengths were shared, students were asked to reflect. An 11th-grade student said, “It’s pretty hard to tease a kid who has compassion as a strength.” One of the more tentative students in the workshop added: “Individually, our strengths make us awesome, but when we put our strengths together, we’re unstoppable!”

Live Oak Elementary School educators do not leave student empowerment to chance

When students feel known and valued, they feel safe speaking out in front of their peers and speaking up when confronted with a challenge. Live Oak educators help students amplify their voices by showing them how their strengths and particular intelligence make them uniquely powerful. This approach has increased the effectiveness of peer collaboration as well as conflict resolution.

The school year begins with inviting students to share their strengths with their parents. Teacher Kim Yerkes explains the effect: “I have been amazed at the connection it provides for the family and how appreciative the parents are to see and hear about their child’s gifts.”

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Yerkes and her colleagues believe that families want to understand their child’s strengths and how the child is demonstrating growth based upon these strengths. When this strengths-based approach is established at the beginning of the school year, it becomes a means of motivating children and addressing challenges that may arise. When parents understand their child’s strengths that can inspire them to build off of those strengths to experience success. At Live Oak, the teacher, parent, and child are working collaboratively around a common purpose and with a shared understanding of strengths and intelligences.

This penchant for collaboration isn’t reserved for the adults; Yerkes analyzes Thrively strengths data to “better understand the dynamics” of her class. She establishes cooperative groups that build on each child’s assets, enabling all to work together to solve problems and work more effectively as a team. Yerkes uses student journal reflections as formative data to better understand how her students are processing what they’ve learned.

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Down the hall, Yerkes’ colleague, counselor Sarah Latham, is building rapport with 1,000 students at a time. Latham is the counselor for two schools with more than 500 students each. She uses Thrively to get to know each student’s strengths and multiple intelligences. Latham recounts a time when two students, despite conferencing and other supports, could not resolve a conflict. “I had two students that I was struggling with. I looked at their strengths and before I began, I said, ‘I want to show you your profiles on Thrively.’ They both had problem-solving as a strength and as soon as I told them this, their demeanor changed and they were more open to solving their conflict. Each took responsibility for their actions.”

When students are acknowledged and celebrated for what they and their peers bring to the learning environment, they experience a comfort level that allows them to trust that they will be heard. The educators at Live Oak reinforce this each day by seeing and honoring the whole child.