5 Takeaways from the National SAM Conference

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 11th Annual National SAM Conference. SAM (which stands for School Administration Manager) is a process to ensure that School Leaders increase their instructional time in their schools. The program was created by Mark Shellinger who was a former teacher, principal and superintendent.

This was my second SAM Conference and I am in the second year of working with the program. I know I need to do a blog about how crucial SAMs has been to my leadership but for now I will just focus on the conference.

Here are my 5 Takeaways from the conference:

  1. SAMs is inclusive! The SAM conference is one of the only conferences that secretaries and school leaders attend together. The idea behind SAMs is to increase instructional leadership at all levels.
  2. SAMs is innovative! All of the keynote sessions were in the sand on the beach at Marco Island Marriott Resort. I can honestly say I have never imagined listening to speakers with my feet in the sand. In addition, this year at the conclusion of the conference we had a “choose your own adventure.” There were three speakers to choose from at the same time (LaVonna Roth, Willow Sweeney, and Ken Williams) and with a headset you could listen to one or toggle between the three.
  3. SAMs focuses on listening! One of the best workshops I went to was on Deep Listening by Kirstin Olson. We learned techniques to become better listeners for our students, staff, parents and community members.
  4. SAMs focuses on Professional Development! I received 6 books at the conference. Marc Shellinger made sure that we received all books from the Keynote speakers. I now have a long list of reading to do! Here are a list of the books we received: The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair; Successful Women Think Differently by Valorie Burton; Visual Intelligence by Amy Herman; Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny; 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong by John Antonetti.
  5. SAMs is about networking. Throughout the conference I worked with educators from throughout the country. I met colleagues who were able to share ideas with me and challenge my thinking.

This was such an amazing conference. I am re-energized to improve my daily practice as a Principal at Lakeside Middle School. I am prepared to be a better listener and encouraged to take chances to improve my leadership!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click AwayBreaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

My #oneword 2018 Gratitude

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ 

I am not setting any New Year’s Resolutions. I haven’t joined anything new, or set out on any new adventures. In year’s past, I have set and achieved New Year’s Resolutions (Blog 365 Challenge, ran a marathon, and lost weight). I have also set and failed to follow through on countless New Year’s Resolutions (way too many to write about).

This year I saw something interesting on Twitter… What is your “one word” for 2018? I thought that sounded interesting and achievable. So, I chose the word GRATITUDE. If you have been reading my blog, you will have seen a lot about gratitude. It really has become something essential in my life. No matter how difficult or trying the day has been I can always find at least 5 things that were good, positive, worthwhile, and even excellent. Why not continue with it?

Thank you for reading this!

When you get a chance…. tell me something good!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards.  Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

How to Spread Gratitude at Your School

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

Over the last year and a half I have been dedicated to practicing gratitude every day. Yes, every day when I wake up I reflect on the previous day and identify 5 things that I am grateful for.  After identifying these 5 things, I incorporate them into my daily meditation. In short, this daily practice of gratitude has transformed my life. No matter how tough my day was, I know that I can find at least 5 things to be grateful for. Based on this transformative work, I began to initiate activities at my school to spread this unique gift.

My first step in spreading gratitude at my school was sharing my personal journey with the staff. This wasn’t easy as I had to display vulnerability in front of 150 educators. Fortunately, best selling author and Ted Speaker Brene Brown gave me the courage to be vulnerable as she said, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection.”

Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection. Brene Brown

It got easier to share my experience the more I allowed myself to be vulnerable. In staff meetings, I continued to discuss my gratitude journey. I talked about how it transformed my perspective on life. In addition, I worked closely with the administrative team and we spent time in each meeting discussing our own gratitude. Encouraged by the positive feedback from the staff and administrators, I sought ideas on how to spread the gratitude throughout the school.

Based on the feedback from the staff, we implemented a Week of Gratitude at Lakeside Middle School in the fall of 2016. During this week, we delivered blank thank you cards to staff and encouraged them to thank someone, anyone. In addition, we gave blank paper to students and also encouraged them to write thank you cards to each other or staff. What may have seemed like a benign activity turned into an incredible buzz throughout the school. Teachers started spreading gratitude on their own by buying each other flowers, sending anonymous gifts and candy to each other.  

Over the summer I reflected on the impact of gratitude. It was clear from the positive feedback that gratitude was having an impact on the school. I could tell because of the conversations with staff at the end of the year and how they cherished the way their colleagues were treating each other. Some of these conversations brought me to tears. Who would have thought that seemingly random acts of gratitude could have such a profound impact?

I decided to take the gratitude to the next level. At the first meeting of the 2016-17 school year I distributed blank journals to each staff member. I talked with the staff about how they could use these journals to write 3-5 things each day that they are thankful for at Lakeside Middle School. I modeled how I use the gratitude journal personally and professionally. I shared that sometimes it is easier to find things outside of the school to be grateful for so that I was going to start a specific gratitude journal for the school.

After distributing the journals, I asked the staff to write their gratitude list individually and then share it with their small groups. I then asked for volunteers to share with the entire group. One teacher shared that she was grateful for her colleagues because her personal life had become very challenging. She then connected it to the experience that some of our students have and how important it is for us to create a safe space for them. This sharing brought tears and validation that we were going in the right direction with gratitude.

The teacher planted a seed with me as she shared her connection with the students. Prior to the Thanksgiving break, I decided to create a process for staff to share their gratitude with the students and families.

Here is what I did

  • Developed a Google Form for the staff with areas for them to identify about 3 students, why they are grateful for them, and the staff name.
  • Sent out the Google Form to the staff and gave about 2 weeks for them to fill it out.
  • I wrote a general letter for the parents and left space to add in the individualized information from the form.
  • Over a weekend, I copied each student name, staff name and gratitude into the letters. I would recommend doing a mail merge. 
  • We then printed out and mailed 140 letters the week before Thanksgiving.

Here is what I learned

  • The impact of these letters was incredible. Staff reported that parents sent them thank you cards, called, emailed or even pulled them aside at an event to personally thank them for the kind words. Many parents took pictures of the letters and posted them on Social Media, and their friends left positive comments on the activity.
  • The staff received the activity very well and were appreciative that I provided the platform.
  • As the principal, I learned about the identified students through reading the comments about them from their teachers.
  • I decided that this needs to be done several times throughout the year.

Since the gratitude letters had such an impact on the school climate and culture, I integrated this into my professional goal for the school year to hold myself more accountable. I then prepared another Google Doc for December. This time I allowed the teachers to nominate as many students as they wished and they responded. We sent 360 individual letters to students the week before the Holiday Break.

Blessed with another surprise in the mailbox today! The Staff at Lakeside Middle School nominated a total of 326 students they were grateful for. My daughter was nominated for her many fist bumps and positivity! Thank you to Mr. Williams for the nomination and to Dr. Cook for the awesome surprise. Michelle Asselta, Parent

One day as I was walking out to my afternoon duty, a student pulled me aside to talk about the gratitude letters. He said he was very thankful that we sent out these to the students but then he asked me this question, “How can the students do this for the teachers? Is there a way you could create a Google Doc so the students could tell the teachers why they are grateful for them?” I thanked him and told him that would be the next step in the spreading gratitude throughout the school!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards.  Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

My Top 6 Posts from 2017

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

Blogging provides an excellent resource for reflection. As I thought about this year, I was able to look through my posts (on this blog and on other sites) and see how much I have grown. Over the course of the year, I learned a lot about balance and the power of gratitude. As I look into 2018, I am poised to continue to help other educators through my writing, podcasts and presentations.

Here are my Top 6 posts/moments that I am grateful to have experienced. Please click on the links to help me travel through 2017!

Lakeside STEM Day (Written by Joseph Smith)
This was such a great experience for our students at Lakeside Middle School to see the many offerings at Millville High School.
Innovate My School is an amazing resource for educators. The site is based in the UK but has a global reach because of the resources provided!
We took a much needed break to work on other projects and to truly understand the work/life balance. This podcast was very fun and we decided to continue podcasting in 2018.
EdWeb.net is one of the best resources for educators through online learning. They provide relevant topics presented by practitioners who seek to make others better.
As I scanned the blog for the most clicked on post for 2017, this post on gratitude was at the top. I am very grateful for the support and it encouraged me to work on a follow up to be published very soon!
I am big fan of Solution Tree and they continue to send me excellent resources for review. From Leading to Succeeding is a book that I was able to put right into action at my school!
Thank you so much for your support of Insights Into Learning. I am looking forward to more posts in 2018.

We All Float On: My First Float

Source: Discovering Legacies

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

One of things on my bucket list for the winter break was to do a “float.”

For those of you who have no idea what a float is or never heard of a sensory deprivation tank, here is the best description I can find:

Floating is an experience of ultimate peace and relaxation in which you spend one hour in a private, specialized tank filled with ten inches of highly-saturated Epsom salt water causing one to float completely effortlessly atop the water at near zero-gravity.” Float Haven Spa, Pitman, NJ

There are many benefits from floating and it has been around since the 1950s. Recently, Float Tanks have become popular from celebrities such as Joe Rogan and Stephen Curry who use them on a regular basis.

I wanted to give it a shot for a few reasons. First, I have never tried it and I believe in the statement, “When was the last time you tried something for the first time?” Secondly, I wanted to experience sensory deprivation in order to gauge my mindfulness practice. Lastly, I have had many people I respect in the yoga/mindfulness community highly recommend it.

My Takeaways

  • An hour isn’t enough – It does take some time to chill out once in the tank. For me this process took a while even though I was practicing my breathing.
  • You are going to bump the walls – I laid as still as I could be inevitably I gently bumped against the walls of the tank.
  • Eyes open and eyes shut – Throughout the experience I tried a few different techniques. I would keep my eyes shut for some time and open as well. Since there is literally no light in the space, it probably doesn’t matter.
  • It is salty – I could feel the salt crystals on my face and chest as I floated. This salt is what keeps you buoyant and provides restorative healing. After the float you can wash this salt off but I was instructed to let it stay. I sort of feel like I just got back from the beach.
  • One session isn’t enough – I plan to go back at least two more times. Now I have a better grasp on the experience, I feel there are things I can do in preparation to ensure that I get the most out of the float.
  • Visuals – It is dark, very dark! 

Overall, I had a very positive experience during my first float. I wasn’t able to solve all the world’s problems, or invent a new form of technology, but I was able to get an hour of peace, disconnected from the world with literally nothing holding me back.

Want to learn more about Float Tanks? Check out these Frequently Asked Questions courtesy of Float Haven in Pitman, NJ.


Book Review – Transforming School Culture

Source: Amazon.com

Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, Anthony Muhammad

Book Review – Spike C. Cook, Millville, NJ

Are you looking for a leadership book on school culture that integrates data, practical advice, and strategies tailored to your school’s unique needs? Honestly, anyone who is an administrator in a school is looking for such a book! In Transforming School Culture (2nd Edition) Anthony Muhammad provides a road map for aspiring and current school leaders who are interested in addressing the daunting task of improving school culture. For this new edition, Dr. Muhammad has updated the research, added a frequently asked questions section, and added further guidance to equip leaders to take their school’s culture to the next level.

Throughout the first section of the book, Dr. Muhammad provides an overview of the current reform movement as well as a detailed analysis on the four types of educators he found in schools while doing his research. The four types of educators and their goals:

  • The Believers are focused on the core values of healthy school culture, feel that all students can learn and that they have a direct impact on student success.
  • The Tweeners are new to the culture and still experiencing the honeymoon phase.
  • The Survivors are a small group of educators who are burned out, overwhelmed and struggle to survive.
  • The Fundamentalists are vehemently opposed to change and through political power become a major obstacle in reform. They are usually against the Believers.

Source: slideshare.net Linda Hopping

As you read the brief overview of the four types of educators, did these descriptions make you think about your faculty? If you had to group your faculty into the four groups, how long do you think it would take? According to Dr. Muhammad, identifying these four groups is essential in understanding the real culture of the school. The next step, and perhaps more difficult, is to take action so that you can transform your school culture. Through this work, you will learn how (and why) to transform the culture by developing the following:

  1. Systemic focus on learning
  2. Celebrating the success of all stakeholders
  3. Creating system of support for Tweeners
  4. Removing the walls of isolation
  5. Providing intensive professional development
  6. Implementing skillful leadership and focus

These six steps may appear more difficult to implement because of the overwhelming tasks required to operate a school with the demands of the 21st century. Have no fear because Dr. Muhammad provides practical, easy to implement exercises to support you on your journey. All you will need to do is put the framework provided into practice!

In the final chapter, Dr. Muhammad includes the questions he has encountered from the emails, messages as well as the in-person discussions since the release of the first edition in 2009. These questions will resonate with you as you may have already penciled them into margins as you read the book. For instance, one of the questions could spark a much needed conversation on the four types of educators such as what if a Fundamentalist believes that he or she is a Believer? I can honestly say I thought the same thing!

In conclusion, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division 2nd Edition will be worth the read. Dr. Muhammad understands school culture not only as a researcher and author, but also as a former teacher, vice principal, and principal. He led a staff transformational process in a high poverty, high minority school with a toxic, low expectation school into a nationally recognized school and earned a Principal of the Year in Michigan for his efforts.


Spike C. Cook, Ed.D. is Principal of Lakeside Middle School in Millville, NJ. Connect with him via twitter @drspikecook or check out his personal blog drspikecook.com.

What to do over Holiday Break?

Source: elephantjournal.com

The Holiday Break is upon us. There are many educators who thought about this time for the past week, month or maybe even since September, but no matter how long you have prepared yourself it is finally here. There seems to be a lot of preparation and planning about what to do over the break.


I saw this quote on the Elephant Journal website and I thought I would share. I think it is powerful…

Stop waiting for Friday, for summer, for someone to fall in love with you, for life. Happiness is achieved when you stop waiting for it and make the most of the moment you are in now. Elephant Journal

I am grateful that I saw that quote during the most stressful time for schools (which is clearly the week before Winter Break). The quote made me stop and think about the present moment. Most of us are always wishing for that time or person who will make it all better as opposed to seeing the beauty in the now.

This Winter Break I plan to do the following (not necessarily in any order) and these plans are not definite.

  • Read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I am intrigued by her work on vulnerability.
  • Float. I’ve heard about Float Tanks/Sensory Deprivation tanks for some time. Basically, you get into a tank for a few hours and become suspended in your thoughts, intentions without any distractions.
  • Hike. I love to get out into the woods and walk. Southern New Jersey is somewhat mild in the winters and there are plenty of trails near where I live.
  • Couch time. Although I sometimes struggle with couch time, I feel it is essential practice to a balanced life. Whether I am watching a documentary, sporting event, movie or binge watching a television series, I find solitude on the couch!
  • Write. I am working on a few things and I could see myself spending time in a coffee shop typing away at something or nothing!
  • Friends. I love hanging out with friends. There is always an adventure on the horizon.
  • Podcast. We recorded a podcast this morning on the PrincipalPLN. Our goal is to get one more in before the new year.

So now is the time for the break. How are you going to spend your break?

Do you have Financial Peace?

Source: daveramsey.com

Recently I had the pleasure of going through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University through a local church in my area. I was very reluctant at first. In fact, I think the first time I was introduced to FPU was about 5 years ago. For some reason, though, this time it clicked. Who doesn’t want Financial Peace?

Preconceived issues with money

At the beginning of the class we were asked to write and discuss our philosophy on money. This was an excellent exercise because I had a lot of issues with money and I wasn’t afraid to share. In my journal I wrote the following:

  • Money is the root of all evil
  • People with a lot of money are not philanthropic
  • Some debt is good especially for housing and education
  • Balancing a budget is as easy as looking at your ATM statement
  • If you need more money then you need to work more
  • If you can’t afford something then just put it on a credit card and pay off later
  • Truly religious or spiritual people do not care about money
  • Trips to Starbucks are a necessity!

Source: daveramsey.com

In Dave’s first session, Super Saving, he literally gets to the core of what money is and isn’t. He also uses Biblical references to support his claims. I was dumbfound because almost everything I wrote about (in regards to my preconceived notions about money) Dave addressed. I felt like he was talking directly to me! I can honestly admit that all my preconceived issues regarding money were wrong!

Throughout the remaining 9 weeks we reviewed Dave’s videos, worked in our notebooks and discussed the concepts plaguing most people. We learned about the baby steps to Financial Peace as well as how to relate with money in our relationships, how actually plan and execute a budget, how to purchase big ticket items, how and why we need to save, and ultimately how to be more philanthropic.

You can take this course online or through a local church or organization. The curriculum was impressive. The videos are informative and easy to follow. The workbook severs as a guide to take notes and to further the understanding of the concepts. On Dave’s website there are countless additional resources and tutorials.

By the end of the class I was definitely sad. I really looked forward to Tuesday nights. I met some really cool people in the class who were in the same boat as I was in. Our facilitator was very open and honest with us, and did a great job of guiding us through the process.

If you live like no one else, later you can live and give like no one else ~ Dave Ramsey

I will be honest that in order for FPU to work, you have to do a lot of work. I probably allocate at least 5 to 10 minutes a day on my personal budget. I spend at least an hour a month reflecting on the previous month of spending and planning the next month. Since beginning the class, I have only used my credit cards twice and both times I paid those purchases by the end of the month. I have an active savings account. I have a plan to pay down my existing debt and not to incur more debt. Starbucks visits are a treat, not an everyday occurrence. I now view my relationship with money so differently. I use the Financial Peace University philosophy as a grounding exercise and budgeting no longer causes anxiety.

Check out this video about Financial Peace University

Finding the Young!

Mya Reid, 11 year old poet

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

As a Middle School Principal of 1,100 students it is sometimes difficult to make individual connections. We are all busy but there are times when we have to stop in our tracks and listen to the youth, and find the young! Earlier this year, 11 year old Mya Reid, published her first book of poetry apply titled Finding The Young.

When I talked with Mya about her passion for writing, she told me that she started in 4th grade when a teacher gave her a journal. Since that time she has written many poems, short stories and ideas in that journal. Fortunately, she connected with Mikey Wayward, a local Millville poet, who helped Mya to take her poems to the next level. She admits that life hasn’t always been easy but she finds solace in her writing.

Mya’s partnership with Mikey Wayward, known as Mr. Mike, has continued to flourish. He has helped her and encouraged her to continue writing and expand her language. They have a new, collaborative book of poetry due out this month.

I highly recommend you check out Finding the Young. There are 44 poems in the book and you will be mesmerized by her words! Here is one of my favorites:

Friendly Hollow
I’ll be leader, you be the follower.
I’ll show great leadership
Because my name is friendly hollow.
I sleep in the night
You play in the day.
We’re totally different
But, we think the same way
Your friendship I don’t borrow
I keep
I know because you sweep me off my feet
I respect your expectations.
So you I follow.
I hope you follow me, friendly hollow.

An Attitude of Gratitude

On October 4, 2016 I met with a Professional Development coach hired by the district to assist administrators with whatever they were struggling with as a leader. At the time I was stressed about a lot of things such as the beginning of the year challenges, there were a few initiatives that were not going so well, and personally I was drained.

Her first question to me after I went through everything that was going wrong really threw me off… She asked, “So what are you grateful for?” I struggled to even remember what gratitude meant, much less what I was grateful for.  I quickly replied, “I am grateful for my kids.” She validated my answer but challenged me to look more micro. She went on to talk about sunshine, trees, life, food, someone smiling, showers, etc. Then it hit me … there is so much to be grateful for.

She taught me how to make a gratitude list and how to incorporate it into a daily mediation that would be completed in the morning. She also recommended that I purchase The Magic by Rhonda Byrne. I highly recommend to get this book! I read it and applied each of the suggestions in the book for a month and it did wonders for my life and my school!

Everyday (well I have missed a day or two here and there) since October 4, 2016 I wake up and complete a very basic Gratitude List. I focus on 5 things I was grateful for from the previous day. As I stated before, this was very difficult in the beginning because I was focusing on the wrong things. This journal has helped me overcome the stress, anxiety of being a father, and a principal.

Practical Applications for Schools

Those in the field of education can empathize with the stress, and demands of our profession.  Whether it is federal, state or local initiatives, fights, bullying, curriculum, poverty, etc we are always facing some type of challenge. For instance, prior to doing the gratitude list I would be extremely disappointed when we had a fight in our school. It would be as if the entire day was ruined. Since doing the gratitude list I can put things in a better perspective. Now, although I am disappointed, I realize that there were 1,100 other students who came to school and did not fight. I realize that there were thousands upon thousands of interactions with students that did not result in a fight.

So as you can see the Gratitude List can make small, important changes in your perspective. As an educator you will be transformed through gratitude and pretty soon you may even have your students and teachers writing gratitude lists!