Partner School Stories

Filling In The Blank

By Jody Thomas

As part of my routine as a Special Education Teacher and The Positivity Project Leader, I browse Twitter as a professional development resource. Accessing a wide range of national and international educators and leaders is not only a useful source of innovative thinking and best practices, but it is highly motivating and inspiring as well. Alas, I came to a tweet from the Teacher2Teacher team with a graphic that read:

“A positive school culture starts with ______________.” 

My mind snapped into action completing the sentence; it was easy — it starts with relationships. Well, relationships, a shared vision, a sense of community, and perhaps most importantly, a positive school culture begins with compassionate leadership.

Memorial Park School (MPS), a rural K-6 elementary school in Waterville, NY, became a Positivity Project (P2) Partner School in 2019.  A group of colleagues and I were inspired by what we were hearing and seeing about The Positivity Project and decided to attend a training with Brett Woodcock, the principal of P2’s first partner school. We then organized to lead the mission at MPS ourselves. In addition to each classroom devoting time to the P2 lessons, differentiated by grade level, I also made monthly visits to each classroom to teach a lesson about one of the character strengths.  Additionally, to celebrate what really matters to us, we began a monthly school-wide series called “Matter Meetings.”

Once Memorial Park School committed to The Positivity Project being part of our identity, it didn’t take long for us to put the Other People Mindset into practice.


  • For example, the second grade decided to fundraise for We Rise Above The Streets, an organization whose mission is to support Syracuse’s homeless and working poor. We invited the founder in to speak to our school and educate us on the issue. It was a day that our school community wouldn’t soon forget. During the tragic wildfires in Australia, some of our kids asked if we could please put collection buckets out to help raise money. The school responded with enthusiasm and care. We virtually adopted a rescued koala and donated the funds raised to the Australian Rescue Collective.
  • It wasn’t uncommon to see sticky notes on teachers’ doors with notes of gratitude from kids. Students would take it upon themselves to post uplifting messages or quotes in the hallways.
  • A group of students and a few teacher advisors who named themselves “The Legends” met bi-weekly to plan activities to serve the school and community.
  • Adults in the building can nominate students or classes for actively going above and beyond in demonstrating their character strengths.
  • Our School Resource Officers award students their Positive Referrals and connect with them, thanking students for showing their character strengths.

Naturally and beautifully, every person in our school took it upon themselves to find a meaningful way to make a difference. These are a limited snapshot of the many ways, big and small; our culture was built by the actions of individuals who believed they had something to contribute to our school community.  Circle back to filling in the blank: “A positive school culture starts with _________.” It starts with ME! Every person in our MPS community decided that our positive school culture started with them. Everyone could fill in the blank with the same word. The custodian, the art teacher, the kindergarten teaching assistant, the parents, the Board of Education members, the students, the teachers, every person had the notion that they could promote a positive school culture. Each classroom dedicates time to the P2 lessons on character strengths and the Other People Mindset.  By using the consistent language built in the P2 lessons, we have raised self-awareness and social-emotional growth.  But the resources have also EMPOWERED each of us to believe that we (ME) can make a difference in our positive school culture. Thankfully, our school is forever changed.

Jody Thomas

I have been fortunate to be a Special Education Teacher at Waterville Central School District for more than 27 years. I earned my Master of Science in Health Education degree in 1998 and in 2019 received my Certification in Positive Education. A group of colleagues and I were inspired by what we were seeing and hearing about the Positivity Project and decided to lead the mission at MPS ourselves. I am passionate about all dimensions of my students' well-being; especially their social-emotional health.  I live in Manlius, NY, and enjoy nature, traveling, learning new stuff, and my kids.