SMART Strengths at Tindley Schools

Tindley Accelerated Schools, located in Indianapolis, Indiana, began with one school in 2004. Today, the Tindley network has five schools that serve K-3, Middle School Girls grades 6-8, Middle School Boys grades 6-8, High School grades 9-12, and a “turn around” middle/high school. Tindley emphasizes a very rigorous curriculum that provides opportunities for a high-quality education with their students.

Tindley’s 200+ teachers and staff came to Tindley from other schools in Indianapolis and from the Teach For America program. Tindley asks for 100% engagement of students and staff. Everybody works hard at Tindley and over the past several years, the hard work has paid off. Tindley has made strong strides with test scores and college acceptances. But, the work takes a toll.

Recognizing the need to insure sustainability for the focus and effort of Tindley’s staff and students, Chief of Staff Tiffany Kyser worked with the faculty and settled on a strengths-based approach. They reached out to SMART Strengths co-author Dr. John Yeager to develop systematic ways to increase staff’s ability to identify, develop, and maintain ways to cope when confronted with adversity, bounce forward in the face of change, and contribute to organizational health which is scholar and solution focused. Tindley’s engagement with SMART Strengths seeks to support staff and students to work better and smarter in achieving their vision.

Tindley’s first action with SMART Strengths was an initial one-day training with 20 principals and leaders from Tindley schools. This approach aligns with Best Practice #1 for implementing SMART Strengths, “Get top-level buy in.” The leaders participated in a “Right Spotting” activity that focuses on what goes right for them in the Tindley schools. With the rigorous demands on administration and staff, it can be easy to fall into “negativity bias”. Then, the leaders learned how to interpret the Values in Action Inventory (VIA) and how they can best Spot, Manage, Advocate, Relate and Train strengths with themselves and others. In preparation to work with their school staff, under the tutelage of SMART Strengths facilitators, the leaders participated in a Strengths 360° Gallery as they learned the nuances of how to implement the exercise with their respective teachers. Also, they were introduced to the Discovery and Dream phases of Appreciative Inquiry approach.

After the initial training, Dr. Yeager and SMART Strengths facilitators conducted an introductory two-day program with the entire 200 Tindley staff. The principals and other leaders from the initial training led the strengths work with small groups from each of their respective schools, including activities such the Strengths 360° Gallery and an Appreciative Approach to living, learning and leading at Tindley. An Appreciative Approach helps teachers create what Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan calls “high quality connections” among themselves and with their students.

SMART Strengths’ Appreciative Approach is based on the Appreciative Inquiry work of David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney. (see SMART Strengths – Chapter 10 – pp. 252- 269) The approach focuses on the notion that there is something good in any organization, and it is important to identify the “positive core” of the group in order to move forward. The path of the inquiry goes in the direction of the questions that are asked. The questions include Discovery – What is the best of what is at Tindley? Dream – What might be for Tindley? What do you envision the possibilities of Tindley to be? Design – What should be at Tindley? and Destiny/Deployment – How do we sustain and empower the good that we do?

Many organizations in business, education and other fields will spend 3-5 days in undertaking the AI process. All members of the organization matter and there is a lot of partner and group interviewing based on the essential questions. During our inaugural time together with the Tindley staff, the focus was on the first two phases of the cycle. This allowed Tindley staff to share a lot with each other about what is good in their schools, instead of trying to find fault in the network. The results were gratifying, which they tend to be when employing Appreciative Approaches with groups.

Discovery questions considered by the staff included:

• What do you value most about yourself and your work (in general), at Tindley?
• Tell us about a high point/peak experience at Tindley. What made it a high point/peak experience for you?
• What are your strengths and how do they support the Tindley mission?
• When have you been most proud of being a part of Tindley?

Dream based-questions included:
• What does our positive core indicate we can be – taking Tindley to a new level?
• What are the most enlivening and exciting possibilities that Tindley can undertake?
• I will be most proud of Tindley in 2019 when what occurs?

What was most striking about the day was observing the number of teachers and staff who experienced visceral positive emotions during the Discovery phase. As part of the Strengths Gallery 360 °activity, other staff shared what they thought were their fellow staff members’ strengths. This is a wonderful way for teachers to declare what they see as good within others.
Here’s some feedback from the respective schools’ Dream discussion:

Tindley Renaissance – Grades K-3
• I will hopefully continue to focus on the positive and continue to grow as an educator. I want to be able to contribute to the decisions that will shape this network for the better. I want to be a game changer instead of just a spectator.
• I now understand that I need to take a greater leadership role in my school and my community. This means sharing my opinions and reflections with my colleagues and school leaders in order to make my vision become a reality. A leader is only as good as his or her communication of convictions.

Tindley Collegiate – Girls – Grades 6-8
• Taking the time to talk about the good has been a real eye opener. I would like to continue being there for my girls and giving them the opportunities they deserve.
• This can be integrated in to work and community by discussing what is possible and working as one to make it happen.
• Appreciative Inquiry has given me a new perspective on how to be solution-driven in a way that lets you dream and wish, but also gives you plausible goals to drive your actions. I feel this is especially important for my school, as we are very new and still working our way through in some respects. A genuine and collaborative vision will give us a unity and direction that could lead to a very bright future.

Tindley Preparatory School – Boys – Grades 6-8
• Helps me understand how to evaluate how we can grow and be a better well-rounded people.
• This was interesting as to how we all see each other and the school.
• The activity reinforced my “why”. It further encourages me to do the work I do.

Tindley Accelerated School – Grades 9-12
• Use with seniors regarding orienting future students entering the Tindley Accelerated High School.
• Asking students what they envision or want from their school in the future can really help foster positive behaviors from students depending on how invested they want to be.
• Look for the positive first. Getting students to look at what is good in their lives.

Arlington – Grades – 7 – 12
• Focusing on strengths and then moving to positive framing of dreams.
• I love this way of inquiry and problem-solving. It’s so much better than thinking only about the “problems” It was also great to see so many similar reflections.

With the rigorous demands of Tindley, the SMART Strengths engagement provides Tindley staff with a “tool kit” to bring out the best in all the adults who serve the students. SMART Strengths is helping staff be even more nimble and flexible through having them do “strengths work” in their own lives. Jane Gillham, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Resiliency Project, and a faculty member at Swarthmore college, reminds us that teachers and counselors need to understand curriculum at an adult level, to make it part of their daily life. Any teacher can hold fast to a curriculum script, a type of blind adherence, but to be competent with any program is to think and to apply the wisdom of that model. There needs to be a fit and readiness, so that the teacher’s strengths come alive in appealing to student strengths. As Ted Sizer, the author of Horace’s School, says, “Having the skills today is a small part of the whole. Being committed to using them consistently tomorrow is the crux of it . . .Habit, obviously, relates to disposition.” (SMART Strengths, Chapter 2, p. 75).

We look forward to engaging the Design and Destiny stages with Tindley, as well as learning how the appreciative approaches will come alive in the classroom. Now that the Tindley staff has a more collaborative picture for the future, and a new set of “tools” in their education tool kit, the odds of the vision becoming a reality are much higher!

Cooperrider, David. L. and Whitney, Diana. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Build and Sustain High Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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