It seems to me the beginning of the school year would be a natural occasion for an inspiring back to school speech from a principal or administrator.

Certainly, there are plenty of great Commencement speeches out there.  But those are given as students are on their way out. If one wanted to inspire excellence and drive as students and teachers are walking in, a rousing welcome back to school speech would be in order.

In all my years at school and university, I never heard a speech like that. Digging a bit online, I discovered most school heads kick off the new year in a very low key fashion – staff meetings, prep time, professional development. Yes, there are pep rallies, and often a theme for the year is unveiled. But I had a hard time finding a great Welcome Back to School speech.

That said, I did stumble upon a good one inspired by a talk given by Elisa Carlson. But simply reprinting a good speech seemed a bit lazy, so I added a few thought-starters based on the P.U.N.C.H. methodology I introduced in a previous post. For those of you who didn’t read the post, P.U.N.C.H. is short for Personal, Unexpected, Novel, Challenging, and Humorous – the elements that give a speech its spice. So here is Ms. Carlson’s speech, with a few thoughts on how to take it from good to great by injecting P.U.N.C.H.

Good morning everyone,

I don’t want to keep you long because I know you have a great many things to do in preparation for the upcoming school year, but I did want to be sure to share what’s on my mind. 

Unexpected: Instead of letting the air out of everyone’s sails right away by telegraphing that this speech isn’t important, why not pull out a stopwatch, say that what you have to say is extremely important, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be long. Promise to get it done in under 10 minutes, or everyone gets a Starbucks card!

I hope you had a relaxing, restful summer because you deserve it. The more time I spend in education, the more  I realize how difficult the job has become. Teaching and caring for children with such diverse needs is taxing. The opportunity to refuel is a key component to doing great work in schools. 

Personal: At this point, I’m aching to hear a short personal anecdote about how the speaker’s worldview was shaped by the power of reflection, rest and simply doing nothing. Did grandpa have a lesson on how the harder things get, the more you need to go fishing? You get my point.

Teaching is one of those rare professions where you get a clean slate every year. That always brings hope and possibility. You all expect great things from your students and we, in turn, expect great things from you otherwise we wouldn’t have hired you. Our job at the leadership level is to enable you to empower students. We want you to have the tools and resources you need to do great things. While we may not be able to provide everything you’d like, we feel responsible for doing all we can to support you. We trust that you’ll take ownership of your own learning in the same way you want your students to own theirs. As lead learners, we need you to model that with your students and just as you want them to ask for help, we want you to do the same. 

Challenge: The speaker is telling the audience it’s important they have the tools they need. What about breaking the speaker / audience barrier, wading into the audience, and actually asking a few people what they think they need the most this year? In a flash, the audience will be mesmerized – they know the speaker is flying without a net, and daring any outcome.

Public education can be a complicated thing. States/Provinces set certain criteria as well as local boards/districts/divisions. Then schools add their expectations and finally, the classroom teacher gets a say as well. As much as we’d like all these to align perfectly, we recognize that sometimes they don’t. At the end of the day what is most important is what happens in the classroom and with students. Your voice and experience and your students’ voices and experiences are indeed most important and we want to honour that. Your learning goals and your students learning goals have as much value as any standard or outcome laid out by the powers that be. We want you and your students to pursue those goals. Those goals should be shared with colleagues and classmates who can support and encourage other. For too long your passions and your students’ passions have been often ignored and learning has been something that was done to students and done to you. That has to stop. Learning is personal and schools should help everyone discover their passions and build on their strengths. We need to stop spending so much time listening to the “experts” and instead recognize and listen to the experts that spend time in classrooms every single day. You indeed are those experts. 

Humour: Please, give me a smile before all this talk about experts and administrators depresses me! What about injecting a warm, humorous anecdote – perhaps a story of administrators and bureaucrats getting their comeuppance from a little kid who grasps a solution they couldn’t fathom. I know those stories exist!

I don’t need to remind you how important your job is. Many of these kinds of speeches condescend to teachers telling them things they already know. You’re bright, caring, capable folks. I’m sorry if we’ve not given you the trust and respect to do your job. This is what we as leaders need to do better. It’s the goal I’ve set for myself and you can hold me accountable.  

Novel: How can you hold the speaker accountable? What if s/he produced an accountability scorecard for everyone to carry in order to ‘grade’ the speaker on performance this year? Even further, what if the speaker invited everyone to create their own accountability scorecards?

We know not every day will be awesome. We work with kids. They are much like us only at the beginning of their learning journey. It’s our wisdom and care that they need. If you don’t leave school the majority of the days with a smile on your face because you know you did good work, be sure you tell someone. Talk to your principal or talk to any of those supporting you, including me. If you’re not happy, it’s not likely your students will be either and that’s no way to spend 6 hours a day. My dream this year is that you and your students think of school as a place where communities of learners gather do interesting work that matters. I’m excited to hear your stories so please share them. In turn, I’m going to share your stories with anyone and everyone who will listen. 

Personal: Is this the place to pull out cards for everyone in the audience with the speaker’s contact details? If the message is ‘call me’, back it with real, courageous, personal action.

So go help kids to learn, smile and belong. Ask hard and interesting questions. Try new things. Share what you’re learning. Ask for help. We’ll work at providing the infrastructure and human capacity to make that happen. Defend your students and empower them as we’ll do the same for you. It’s time for some new stories of great learning. It begins now. Go be awesome.

????: I can’t do better than ‘Go be awesome’. Nicely done, Ms. Carlson.

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, founder of Your Ultimate Speech, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… then helps them tell the world. For more on creating an effective speech for your company, connect with Marc and Your Ultimate Speech on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.