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Willmar, Minn., school staff gathering talks about motivating kids

Motivational speaker Mark Sharenbroich gestures Wednesday during a presentation to teachers in the Willmar Public Schools system. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — For some children, school may be the nicest place they go.

And it’s up to school staff to make school a welcoming and affirming place for all kids, a guest speaker told the Willmar Public Schools staff Wednesday afternoon. The annual staff welcome was held in the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

“This is a refuge; what you do matters,” Mark Scharenbroich said in a sometimes hilarious, sometimes dead serious talk about the importance of making the coming school year a great one for themselves and the kids in their charge. Classes begin Tuesday morning.

Adults in the district need to acknowledge students and each other by listening to what is said and honoring what is important to others, Scharenbroich said. From there connections can be made.

Scharenbroich, of Hopkins, has spoken at more than 3,500 schools in his career as a humorist and motivational speaker. He recently published a book “Nice Bike” about connecting with other people.

Harley Davidson motorcycle owners provided the story behind the book title, he said. He had a teacher who owns a Harley, sixth-grade social studies teacher Darcy Michener, join him on stage. He joked with her about Harleys and then asked his audience what comment would make her day if she was at a gathering of Harley riders. “Nice bike,” came the answer.

Scharenbroich’s stories often had his audience laughing to the point of tears, but the funny stories illustrated the serious point he was making — they need to reach out to students and motivate them, making a difference in their lives.

“We’re talking about you being amazing at what you do,” he said. “When you connect with kids, amazing things happen.”

When parents ask their children how the first day of school was, the answer should not be “fine,” he said. “Fine is a word Minnesotans use when they can’t think of anything else to say.”

He urged the staff to find ways for kids to give better answers to that question. Don’t spend Tuesday talking about rules and procedures, he suggested, but “grab the good stuff.”

He made some suggestions that had the crowd laughing <\_> rolling out a red carpet to the door of the school, principals in tuxedoes, a polka band outside the high school.

Don’t expect students to be excited if the adults around them aren’t excited, too, he told them.

And he reminded them that they may not always hear gratitude from their students.

“That’s kids; it’s the nature of kids,” he said. A sad part of human nature is that a person who stops hearing “thank you” will also stop saying it, he added.

The teachers and other staff members need to remember to notice what their coworkers are doing and to offer praise. If you don’t stand up for each other, no one else will do it, he said.

Scharenbroich said the school’s success depends on everyone, from bus drivers to district office workers to teachers.

He talked about Willmar’s graduate rate of 77 percent. “This is everybody’s number, not just the high school teachers,” he said.

“Seventy-seven is good, but it’s closer to mediocre than great,” he said. “You can do better; you deserve better; your kids deserve better.”

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he thought Scharenbroich’s talk was a “good starting place for the year.”

Kjergaard spoke to the staff before Scharenbroich about the district’s goals and the challenges facing the district this year.

“Everything we do has to advance the ball for all kids every day,” he said.

Schools will make more of an effort to bring families into the schools and to close an achievement gap, he said, “because the community expects us to get better.”

Some changes include a revamping of the English Language Learner program and implementing 1-to-1 iPads in grades 9-12.

Staff members said they enjoyed the presentations.

Dona Haines, a school nurse who works with special education students, said, “He touched a nerve” and made them realize that they can make a difference for kids.

Haines said she has been excited to get back to school and thought the staff gathering was useful. “It’s nice to have a time when we can come together and really think things through,” she said.

“I think it’s the best speech I’ve ever heard,” said Alanah Karpen, an aide in special needs transportation and a paraprofessional. “We left feeling really good.”

Karpen said the gathering struck a chord with her, too. “I’m going to try to be more of an encourager,” she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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