High school biology and chemistry teacher Edward Johns has always believed his job is to help students become the “best versions of themselves.” But he says training sessions offered by the district this summer have given him a new opportunity to do just that.
Johns is one of several staff members who trained to be facilitators in an initiative designed to add a “happiness advantage to the climate and culture of the district,” according to Superintendent Laura VanDuyn.
Participants learned how to not only apply the principles of positive psychology taught through the metaphor of “The Orange Frog” by author Shawn Anchor, but also to be instrumental in actually changing the culture of the entire community.
Training sessions were held in June and again in August. Over 200 people took the course designed to help them cultivate a climate of happiness on campus. They included
teachers, administrators, support staff, some school board members and selected students.
“We are a community and we want to continue to find ways to do that the best that we can,” VanDuyn said.
The basic idea is that attitude is contagious and better learning takes place when students have a positive outlook.
The Orange Frog training sessions “fit right into” Johns’ longtime educational philosophy.
“Teaching is more than curriculum,” he said. “It is helping the students find hidden critical life skills. I have always tried to focus on these principles when I teach, and I am looking to have a bigger impact this year.”
Four Islands, One Special Frog
The book “The Orange Frog” is a parable. The simple story clearly illustrates how much one’s attitude influences performance and affects those around them.
It describes four islands, each home to frogs with different mindsets. A frog on one island stands out from the others because of its orange spots, which appear with every positive thought. Resisting at first, because he didn’t want to be different, the frog gradually learns from the experience and eventually turns completely orange. He also learns that being orange affects everything he does in a good way.
Being and becoming more orange, the story goes, is a choice. Other frogs soon learn that they too can become orange. Eventually the whole group wants to be orange, and choosing orange changes the outlook on the whole island — and eventually spreads to other islands.
The story demonstrates the effects of a positive attitude, and how individuals and the group as a whole face challenges. While there is nothing inherently bad about being green, staying green puts limits on what they are capable of.
Research shows that “getting interested and engaged promotes better learning and retention,” according to Anchor. While his work has often been used to increase productivity in companies, he emphasizes that changing attitudes also can make a big difference in education.
Engaging Students in Becoming Orange
High school junior Taylor Cherry joined in one of the Orange Frog training sessions.
“I am always looking for ways to try to make the school better,” Taylor said. “”There are a lot of people I know that feel really hopeless and don’t see potential in themselves.”
She knows firsthand how hard it is to look on the positive side of things. She said that her school counselor, with whom she visits to talk about her anxiety issues, suggested that she attend. After a few hours in the workshop she said she was getting some good ideas on how to help change her outlook as well as that of other students.
‘I want people to take pride in their school and where they live.’ — Amanda Gerhardt, parks and recreation director
Student leaders were encouraged to attend to learn ways to spread happiness throughout the student body, said VanDuyn. Students are likely to hear about the movement to become orange, even if they did not attend the sessions.
“I plan to read the book to my class,” said fourth-grade teacher Emily Strunk, who also was trained as a facilitator. “It is important to learn that everyone can change their attitude. I have gained a great deal of self-awareness, and now find that I often tell myself to be orange.”
Audrey Debri, who teaches kindergarten, agreed. “It is just looking at yourself as a person — looking at your own mindset and recognizing the positive,” she said. “If we help the students to look at things differently, it will have a ripple effect.”
‘Happiness Advantage’ Spreads to Community
The ripple is also expected to reach outside school walls. Community leaders joined in a training session, including the city’s parks and recreation director, Amanda Gerhardt.
“It isn’t just an education thing,” Gerhardt said. “It is important for us to work together as part of the greater community. I want to help build a prideful community in all aspects. I want people to take pride in their school and where they live.”
Building a culture of change starts by having one person — then more, then more — recognize that being green or just existing and getting by isn’t enough.
The parable ends with the frogs beginning to face challenges that previously seemed too big,
and finding solutions to problems that seemed unfixable. The hope is that the district will also experience the “happiness advantage.”
“This has been a great way to get people super-excited,” Strunk said. “It is a great way to start the school year.”