Power of the Dog


by Taber Akin (@taberakin) and Bret Domstrand (@bretdom)

Junkyard Dog, Snoop Dogg, School Resource Dog

Which of these sounds like something you want to share at your school? I hope the answer was easy: School Resource Dog (SRD). Since 2014, the Lakeville Area Schools have been hiring School Resource Dogs dogs to play an important role working with students. Although the work of each School Resource dog looks slightly different at each site, the results are pretty clear – students enjoy working with this unique instructional tool.  

In Lakeville, we have five School Resources dogs. All of our dogs were trained for 2+ years as service dogs by Pawsitive Perspective Assistance Dogs (aka PawPADs). They were dual trained to be mobility assistance and diabetic alert service dogs.  For different reasons, each dog was seeking a career change and were placed with ISD 194.  Similar to police K-9 officers, all of Lakeville’s School Resource Dogs are owned by the school district, assigned to a primary handler who feeds and cares for them as well as lives in that person’s home. Three of our dogs have a principal as a primary handler, one is with a school psychologist and another lives and is cared for by one of our an elementary school counselors.

Hero Reading

We see each dog as an instructional tool for our students.  The work of the dog is differentiated based on the needs of the students or the school.  Of course, unlike most instructional tools (such as iPads or pencils), these tools have tails, heartbeats, and wonderful personalities. With five full-time School Resource Dogs there are lots of stories to tell about their work and the connections they make.  The connections our dogs make range from being the school tour guide/ambassador for new students and families, supporting specific students in the academic and social venues or simply help change a bad day into a great day by interacting with a student.

Starting the School Resource Dog program in ISD 194 wasn’t incredibly difficult, but we did encounter some resistance.  That small amount of resistance and anxiety about a dog in a school on a regular basis would be nothing compared to what would happen if we tried to end the program and remove the dogs from Lakeville schools. How many students have easy access to the dog depends on the setting that the dog is placed in.  In both of our cases, all students have access to Seamus and Hero.  Some students have more consistent access to the dog leading to integrated regular connections between the dog and students.  Other students may occasionally seek out a dog for a little canine love. The power of the dog is amazing as some students will work tirelessly towards meeting all of their daily goals in exchange for spending time with Hero, others find time for a quick visit with Seamus to help them return to class and re-engage in their work, and it doesn’t stop there as adults also have strong positive connections with their School Resource Dog.  

Adding a School Resource Dog is a commitment. Having a team of handlers makes the difference. Providing training for teachers, parents and staff members is the critical component to maximizing the use of your dog. The possibilities are endless!

If you want to know more about how we brought School Resource Dogs to Lakeville or have questions in general, please do not hesitate to reach out to either of us.

Taber Akin  Taber.akin@isd194.org

Bret Domstrand bret.domstrand@isd194.org

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Trust Your Wisdom (and Play to Your Strengths)

by Jake Donze, Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal, @PrincipalDonze

BasketballLast week I attended ‘open gym’ at one of our school buildings to play some basketball. I expected to find a bunch of middle-aged people like myself who wanted an evening of gentle exercise, lots of rest time, and mostly self-deprecating camaraderie. What I found was a gym full of twenty-somethings (many of whom were former students) all looking like they turned down a night with the NBA to show off for the locals.

I halfway decided I wasn’t going to stay, but my friend convinced me otherwise and told me “our wisdom will be our advantage.” Wisdom. I knew it was just a code word for Old, and on this night I wasn’t sure how that would help us. But hey — I was wearing my “vintage” 90s basketball shoes, so I might as well get some use out of them. It’d been a long time since the glory days.

Speaking of the glory days, mine were less than glorious, athletically speaking. I can spin a basketball on my finger exceedingly well, which is not actually a move that anyone on the court uses, unless you’re a Harlem Globetrotter. This “talent” was the direct result of spending a lot of time on the bench, needing an activity to keep me occupied. (It has proven to be very impressive for the elementary kids — an unexpected perk for all that lack of playing time!)

After the ritual of shooting free throws to decide teams — Who will be shirts and who will be skins (Why does this still exist?) — I took to the court, hoping my overly-wise self wouldn’t get maimed in the midst of these behemoths.

This is when things got surprising.

No — I didn’t play out of my mind and shoot the lights out. No — I didn’t become the de facto leader of this athletically-inclined dunk squad, though that would make for a cooler story.

What was surprising was that I wasn’t entirely embarrassed or even particularly outmatched. I was certainly out-sized and out-youthed… but I soon discovered that thinking a little quicker might be the key.

So I began anticipating runs to get a little distance on the surrounding cheetahs. I kept running, all the time — even slowly — and it turned out that most of these guys didn’t like being in constant motion to keep up with me.

Granted when I got the ball, even a lay-up was no guarantee… but I did get the ball. I even got some points. And some assists. And some weird cracking noise in my knee whenever I turned too fast.

So why this extended sports anecdote in a principals’ blog? Because our experience as principals is not far off from this evening on the court. Our job as principal is not to be better at everything than everyone else. We’re not — so be okay with it. You spend your day surrounded by experts doing what they do best. It is our job to anticipate, think fast and stay ahead of the game. It’s our job to go to the people who can get the job done right, and then let them enjoy the glory that comes with it. And yes, we’re also always running — certainly metaphorically and sometimes literally — and that’s all part of the game. You might not end up with a trophy, but we all know trophies aren’t why we chose this profession.

So I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your practice during this busiest time of year. Think about what you’re good at and where you shine. Consider what a great team you have at your school. Revel in your wiseness, even if for a moment.

The best part is, even after a little reflection, you’ll still be able to walk the next day without being sore.

Have a safe and relaxing winter break, everyone.

Jake Donze

Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal



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What MESPA is Thankful For This Year

by Jon Millerhagen, MESPA Executive Director


Dear MESPA members,

Happy Thanksgiving! At this time of year, I like to reflect on what I’m thankful for here at MESPA.

The biggest thing I’m thankful for, of course, is all of you. Our members make MESPA what it is: a relevant, thriving, member-directed organization. So far this year we have 941 total members – that’s a staggering number of you from around the state who are committed to developing your skills and improving the educational experiences of the students you serve.

MESPA has always been about making sure members are getting what they need. That’s why we’ve made it an organizational goal to have as many of our professional development opportunities as possible be designed and led by MESPA members. No one knows what principals need like other principals who have been there before. So I’d like to send my thanks to our incredible professional development design teams who put together sessions including our Early Career Principals Workshop and 21st Century School Office, and helped design our PreK-3 series.

In 2016-17, nearly 1,600 principals and school teams took advantage of our 50 days of professional development. That number is already at 551 this year and on a similar pace as last year. In 2016-17, our sessions combined for 271 CEUs – an immense number that speaks to the variety of different options Minnesota principals have to expand their horizons and find the professional development opportunity that meets their particular needs or challenges.

I am thankful for MESPA’s flexibility and ability to explore new ideas and always stay on the forefront of providing our members with what they need. I am thankful that so many of our members are able to give themselves permission to leave their buildings for professional development – so they can come back reinvigorated and recharged with new ideas and new tools to accomplish them.

As one MESPA member said, “I appreciate this opportunity to learn more about how to serve the students, staff and families in my community!”

That’s what it’s all about. Giving you the tools and knowledge you need to succeed for your staff, your building, and, most importantly, your students. I’m thankful for all that you do for them, for all the hard work and long hours that can go unnoticed. We see you, and we applaud you. And we want to make sure that MESPA continues to champion the idea of principals helping principals. Because no one can do it better than you.

Wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Thanksgiving,


Jon Millerhagen

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12 Things School Leaders Should Stop Doing Today

by Institute 2018 Keynote Speaker Jimmy Casas

This guest blog was originally posted at https://jimmycasas.com/blog/. Reposted with permission from the author.

Stop Casas

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a group discussion where a building principal shared that he had been called to the superintendent’s office. You could tell by the tone in his voice that he was a bit nervous about why his superintendent had requested the meeting. He shared that it wasn’t the first time he had been called in to have “a talk.” This got me to thinking how often we behave in similar ways (both intentionally and unintentionally) as building and district leaders when it comes to managing conversations and our decisions, and the negative impact this can have on the overall culture of any organization. Please know I share these with you because at one time or another I have acted in the manner I describe below, even though my intentions were to want to be better, not only for members of my school community, but for my growth as a leader. As I grew and matured into the role of a building principal, I did my best to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, knowing full well I would fall short at times.

As a building or district leader, here are a few things you might want to consider stopping today. Let’s begin by addressing the scenario above:


  1. Calling staff to your office without offering some explanation of what the meeting will entail. This causes a person’s anxiety level to increase because from the moment they receive notice, their mind will begin to swirl with possibilities of what the meeting is about. And in most cases, people will think the worse.
  2. Giving excuses when you fail to follow up. Understand that when you don’t get back to people in a timely fashion it gives others the impression that you are not organized or in some instances, that their needs are not important to you.
  3. Holding faculty meetings for the sake of just holding them. Unless you have a specific purpose to bring your team together, considering passing on the meeting and showing them how much you value their time by giving it back to them.
  4. Talking negatively about your staff to other staff. Speaking negatively about others actually says more about you than it does about the people you are singling out. Besides, you are kidding yourself if you think that won’t get back to those who you are gossiping about.
  5. Allowing the adults in your school to bully other staff. This is one of the biggest issues facing school improvement initiatives today. We cannot cultivate a high-performing learning environment in our schools if staff is intimidating their own colleagues through their words or actions. This type of negative behavior should never be tolerated and must be addressed.
  6. Using the word “they” when” referring to other members of your school community, especially when things are not going well or we are not happy about an outcome. Focus more on “we” when celebrating something positive or trying to work through any significant challenge.
  7. Making assumptions. It is never a good idea to go into a conversation or a situation believing you know more than you actually do. This has all the potential to create trust issues so avoid doing so at all costs. If you want to know what the issue or dilemma is really about, simply ask before you respond.
  8. Getting frustrated when you think people are not following your directions to your level of expectation. Begin by asking yourself if you provided enough clarity. In other words, were your directions as clear as they could have been? If not, own it, regroup, and try again, this time focusing on more specifics of what you want.
  9. Expecting everything to go as planned. Working in schools can sometimes be unpredictable because the variables (students and teachers) are always changing. How you conduct yourself in these moments will either inspire of deflate your team.
  10. Responding to harsh and not so complimentary emails you receive with an email of your own. Recognize that these moments of frustration, blame or accusatory language expressed in written form by others who are not happy is often more about other external factors and has nothing to do with you. So don’t assume or make it about you (see #7). Pick up the phone and call the person and ask, “What can I do to ease your frustration or disappointment?”
  11. Asking your staff for feedback and then not doing anything with the feedback. If your staff gets frustrated because they don’t think you did anything with the feedback and you think you did, then reflect on how you could have communicated more effectively so they would know the progress you were making with the information they provided you. By taking action and communicating your progress, you will get people to be more invested and honest in their feedback because they believe that something positive is going to come from it.
  12. Trying to manage and lead the school all by yourself. You cannot sustain this pace and do it effectively for any length of time. If you try, it will come at a heavy price – your health or your family. Both options are a loser deal for you.

There isn’t a day that goes by in the work of a school or district leader that is free of challenges. The never-ending stream of problems and challenges that flows across our paths during the course of an entire school year can leave even the most positive and passionate leaders feeling exhausted and depleted. It is easy to get sucked into the daily trivialities that drain our energy and overwhelm us with a laundry list of things to do. So what can you do to provide yourself with a little relief in order to stay fresh and energized in hopes of offering some of that positive energy to others?

Maybe we are thinking about it all wrong. Rather than ask what can we start doing, perhaps a better question would be to ask, “What should I stop doing?”

What thoughts do you have? I would love to hear about them.

Jimmy Casas has more than 22 years of experience as an educational leader, has won several awards (including 2012 Iowa Principal of the Year, 2015 Bammy Award for National Secondary Principal of the Year), and currently serves as the Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education. Register today to hear his keynote at MESPA Institute 2018. 

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Fork in the Road: A Symbol for the School Year

Header image

Emotions are the gateway to learning for our students as well as for our staff. How can we tap into that as we start the year? As we know, our first interactions with staff during August workshop week are important for setting the stage for our important work with children. Each school year, I try to find an activity or an object as a touchstone for the year. This year is the Year of the Fork.

Presentation Excerpt from Our Opening Staff Meeting

Everyone this morning received a fork with your name etched on it. I made it just for you. This small gift is a symbol and reminder as we start this important journey of the 2017-2018 school year together.

First, this fork represents a fork in the road. We have 19 new teachers and paraprofessionals this fall. Professionally, the beginning of this school year is a fork in the road for many of you as you join our Kimberly Lane family. Also, it is a fork in the road for all of us as we now get to learn with you and from you. We are so glad you are here. Welcome.

Secondly, each fork has your name on it. No one’s fork looks the same. It represents the personalization we will bring to our work this year. We need to meet each and every child where he or she is, and help each child be better, every day. Academically. Socially. Emotionally. That is our charge for the year. And it is our honor to dedicate our time and talents be a part of such meaningful work in shaping the future. Together.

Finally, I wanted to share a personal story that involves my Grandpa Orville – and forks. Orville carried a fork in the breast pocket of his shirt to every event that involved food. Family reunions. Potlucks. Coffee cake socials in church basements. You name it. All through my youth I didn’t really notice this idiosyncrasy until someone pointed it out to me. At that point, I remember asking Grandpa Orville why he carried the fork. He replied, “So I am always ready for dessert, and a reminder that the best is yet to come.” At his funeral several years ago, we made sure to place a fork in his breast pocket before he was laid to rest, and his eulogy included fond remarks about that trademark fork. Hopefully the fork you received will be a part of many meals, celebrations, and fond memories that you will share with this Kimberly Lane family this year and in the years to come.

As we look ahead to the school year in front of us, I want to thank you in advance for all of your hard work and dedication and for all of the great things we will accomplish together this year. Thank you for all of your efforts to personalize, to help each child be his or her best self every day as we take this journey from this fork in the road. Yes, I can feel it. 2017-2018… the best is yet to come.

Kari Wehrmann

Kimberly Lane Elementary, Wayzata Public Schools
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10 Quick Tips For A Great Year

Welcome to the 17-18 School Year! I hope you had a great summer and are ready to work with students and staff once again.  As you can tell, I didn’t win the Powerball, so I too am hard at work.
As we begin this year, I want to share with you my top ten tips to having a good year:
  1. Take time to build and foster relationships with staff, students and families.
  2. Empower your staff.
  3. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating the right foods; yes, chocolate can be a food group!
  4. When the crazy train filled with other people’s drama comes by, remember that you don’t have to get on; wave and let it pass by.
  5. When you have a bad day, perform a random act of kindness for someone else.
  6. If it’s 5:30 pm and you are still in your office, leave. You aren’t very effective after 5:00 pm anyway.
  7. If it is Saturday or Sunday and you are heading into work, don’t; weekends are meant for family, friends, fun, and rest.
  8. Surround yourself with people who uplift you.
  9. Value yourself and appreciate others.
  10. Develop a new hobby or any hobby for that matter.
  11. Laugh daily, smile always, sing often, and dance for no reason.  (Sorry, it was only supposed to be ten. Ooops!)
As always, let me know if I can ever be of assistance.  Best wishes to a great year!
Nancy Antoine
MESPA President
Principal, Bridgewater Elementary
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Executive Functioning in Early Childhood


At conferences and talks, many early childhood educators are interested in information about executive functioning in children. Recent brain research is demonstrating that the skills and abilities of executive functioning are essential to academic success and effectiveness in the workplace. What can teachers and parents do to support these critical thinking skills?

Luckily for parents and teachers alike, there is a lot that you can do to support these developing skills and capacities. The foundation of executive functioning comes from responsive, consistent, language-rich, child-focused everyday interactions with children.

So, what is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is the coordination of several areas of our brain that allows us to tune out, remember information and manage our actions and reactions. Think of it as the Air Traffic Controller of the brain. The Controller deciphers and remembers information, focuses and prioritizes attention while disregarding the unimportant, and manages internal reactions and distractions, like panic or boredom.

Executive functioning is a set of skills and abilities that begin to develop early in life. It involves the coordination of capacities rooted in the brain. And, they can improve with practice and training. So, what do we want preschool age children to practice?  

  • Self-control. Young children are developing the abilities to regulate their reactions and attention. They are learning to express a full-range of emotions and manage those emotions. At the same time, they are learning to direct their attention and ignore distractions.
  • Flexibility in thinking. Problem-solving skills develop in the second year of life and continue to blossom throughout the first decade of life. Creativity and imagination are central to developing mental flexibility.
  • Memory continues to grow, develop and become more refined. Being able to reflect on what is remembered is an emerging capacity.

Preschool children are just beginning to develop these brain-embedded skills and abilities. The coordination of these areas is just coming on-line. For example, children are learning to focus their attention and solve problems. They are expanding their abilities to wait for turns and listen to others answer questions. Preschool-age children are working to coordinate their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As parents and teachers, there is much that we can do to encourage three-, four-, and five-year-olds to practice these emerging skills:

  1. Play games that require memory, like I Spy or Simon Says.
  2. Invite pretend play that allows children to invent and reinvent themselves, props and themes.
  3. Encourage problem-solving by asking children to think about how something could happen. For example, we want to eat fruit salad, but there is no fruit in the house. Ask the children, “What should we do?”
  4. Build delay of gratification skills by encouraging children to follow three-part directions, use phrases like “first this, then this” (“First we will cut the fruit and place it in a bowl. Next we will set the table. And then we will eat the fruit salad. “)
  5. Play start and stop games. Count to 10 before starting something. Use “ready, set, go” to announce the beginning of an action. Dance when the music plays and have everyone freeze when it stops.
  6. When putting away clothes or toys, say aloud how the items group. “All of the blocks go in this bin and the cars in the other bin.” Encourage children to help.
  7. Ask children why and what happens questions. “Why do you think we fold the clothes?” “What happens when the letter goes in the mailbox?”
  8. Allow your children to retell stories of their day, their projects or their activities and events. While they may need guidance with the sequence and accuracy of the details, the practice of remembering and retelling is essential.
  9. Play board and card games with simple and “flexible” rules.

Executive functioning begins developing early and forms the foundation for being able to concentrate on important issues with focus and agility. Playing games, encouraging pretend play, supporting problem-solving in young children creates the foundation for future positive school achievement and success in the workforce.

Article by:
Dr. Terrie Rose, Psychologies and Child Development Expert

Dr. Terrie Rose is a licensed psychologist and wellbeing advocate who is transforming our understanding of emotional health and development by seeing from the child’s point of view. Follow her at www.drterrierose.com.

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