Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Building Your Brand with LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an underutilized platform for many school districts. Dr. Donald Killingbeck has used it to advance Hemlock Public School District’s brand and his own. The result? A stronger digital presence that tells the district story and attracts teachers and garners community support.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: April 18, 2023


LinkedIn is an underutilized platform for many school districts. Dr. Donald Killingbeck has used it to advance Hemlock Public School District’s brand and his own. The result? A stronger digital presence that tells the district story and attracts teachers and garners community support. Join this conversation about using LinkedIn, choosing effective hashtags, and how you can be “less lame” as an educator.


Dr. Don Killingbeck, aka "The Gladiator," is an educational leader with a wealth of experience from classroom teacher to the superintendency. He boasts advanced degrees in educational tech and leadership from Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, and Central Michigan University. In addition to educational research, Don has co-authored a children's book about teamwork and resilience called Warriors of Widgeon Way and has co-authored 43 Ways to Be Less Lame as an Educator, and has another book in the pipeline about school finance.

When he is not leading his school district (Hemlock Public School District) or making people laugh, in his spare time, he enjoys being a professional beard judge and a world-class jump roper. Dr. Killingbeck mentions 43 Ways to Be Less Lame at the end of the episode. You can find the book and other “Less lame” content at: https://www.lesslame.org/


Intro Quote: Dr. Donald Killingbeck (Guest): You know, recently, I'm with leaders from all around the nation, and I say, hey, raise your hand if you have teacher vacancies. The room goes up, my hand goes down. Raise your hand if you're having trouble filling substitute teacher roles. The hands of the room go up, my hand stays down. Raise your hand if you are in need of bus drivers right now. Hands go up, my hand goes down. Now. Tyler, that's not because we pay the most. It's not because we have the best of everything. It's because there's something that most organizations I think, miss is that people don't work for a paycheck. People work for meaning, for purpose.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Hello and welcome. I'm Tyler Vawser, and this is a new episode of SchoolCEO Conversations, a podcast that helps level the playing field for superintendents and other school leaders. You can learn more and stay up to date at schoolceo.com.

In the private sector, LinkedIn is king. Companies spend an enormous amount of resources investing in the platform to post jobs, build out their company page, and to enable recruiters to find and message top talent and candidates directly.

And LinkedIn is where employees go to network and find their next opportunity. Too often, school CEOs are absent or too quiet on the platform, leaving a missed opportunity.

Today's guest is Dr. Donald Killingbeck, who has been using LinkedIn for over a decade and in recent years has used it to tell the story of Hemlock Public Schools in Michigan. As superintendent, Killingbeck does more than post open jobs. Instead, he uses the platform to tell the stories that promote the culture, values, and the reason behind working at Hemlock.

Today's conversation is an opportunity for you to consider what personal stories you can share to better attract talent and to support your school community. Let's join the conversation.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck, really excited to have you here on SchoolCEO conversations. Thanks for joining me.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck (Guest): Well, thank you for having me, Tyler. Awesome.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, don. I want to start with LinkedIn. You're very prolific on LinkedIn, and I wanted to start by how you got onto LinkedIn and why you've chosen that as one of your main communication channels as superintendent at Hemlock Public Schools in Michigan.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Well, I think that that's kind of a loaded question. I've been on LinkedIn for 15-20 years. I'm finally glad that you noticed me, that I'm there. But I've been there for a long time, and I think the journey to sharing more on there is more recent, and it has to do with our current environment. And so for me, ten years ago, when I became a superintendent, the problem was the budget. We had major, major financial issues as a school district. Well, so you take care of the budget issues, you eliminate the structural deficits, you get us on a trajectory where we're being from one of the worst financially managed systems to now recognized as one of the best managed fiscally managed systems, and then you forecast out. What is the next problem? What is the next problem? What is the next problem? Because we got in a financial problem because somebody wasn't forecasting out the problems.

And so as I sit back and think about five years ago, HR started to become a problem for schools before the pandemic. And so we could see that this is going to be a problem. And for me, the recent like, hey, I'm going to put this out there is because we know that LinkedIn is a place that people who are looking for jobs go.

And so I think it's important to as a superintendent, for me, knowing that HR is going to be an issue. It is an issue. It's going to be an issue. And how do we get ahead of that curve? How do we stay one step ahead of our competition in hiring the best people? Because as an organization, whether it be Apptegy or Hemlock Public School District, you have two options to improve your organization. Either improve the people you have or hire better people. And so for us, this is an opportunity to hire better people. Right. And not that the people we have are bad. We're constantly working with them to get better. And then when we hire, we have that opportunity. We want to hire the best.

And so for me, sharing some of the things I have on LinkedIn is really about creating that awareness of what we're doing as a school district, creating that excitement and then drawing people to work here.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

And one thing, I'd be kind of curious for you to talk about the posts that you've been putting out on LinkedIn. So I'm familiar with those, but if you can give the audience a taste of what you're sharing out there, I think that'd be helpful. And the reason I say that is your posts on LinkedIn are not saying we have X job available or look at Y opportunity. It's much more storytelling than just open jobs. Right. Do you want to talk about what you're sharing and how you decide what you're going to.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: So as a kid, I got to go back all the way. I mean, I feel like I'm taking you to my childhood as a young man in college. I was a shoe salesman, and I was in Al Bundy, and I sold more shoes than anybody around. Do you think I did that, Tyler, by selling?

Tyler Vawser: No.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: No. And the issue for me now, there is a level of salesmanship, but at the same time, it's about something that I'm passionate about, I believe in. So I sold the most shoes because I wore the best shoes that we had, and I wore those shoes, and they were comfortable. And so when somebody came in and they said, what shoes should I get? I'd say, you know, they're not for everybody. Maybe you can't afford these, but this is what I'm wearing. I'm on my feet 8 hours a day. The president of the corporation that makes these ran a marathon in them.

And so I was selling an experience. So when I look back at my post on LinkedIn, I don't cognitively think about that, but really what I am is saying, like, hey, this is who we are as a school district. This is who I am as a leader. This is what you can expect of me. And then sharing that piece of who I am and being vulnerable, I think that, for me, the one thing I've realized, I spent a lot of my career trying to guard myself and be perfect.

And then when I made the transition, actually, to the superintendency, I said, you know what? I'm kind of miserable because I've been trying to guard myself so much and project perfection. And, Tyler, one of the things I recognized is that even when I'm as perfect as I can be, I'm not perfect.

And so for me, just being raw, being authentic, being who I am, all of a sudden, I found that people were more gravitated to that, they were more likely to follow, they were more likely to listen to what I had to say when I messed up, and I was authentic about it and said, you know what? I screwed up. And so for me, I look at the LinkedIn post I share, and I feel like they are kind of raw. I talk about… I'm pulling it up right now and looking at my LinkedIn. So I'm like, what is he seeing? And so I talked recently about teaching a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. And I have a picture with me with a walleye, Detroit River walleye and talk about how, as educators, we're in the business of growing people.

And for me, there's nothing more frustrating than to sit around a table with a group of either educational leaders or teachers or anyone and say, we don't have a product. We're not selling widgets. And for me, I get offended at that because, you know, what I tell people is every day I'm growing people. I'm in the business of farming better human beings. And so because industry needs it, our communities need it, our nation needs our kids to be better than we are.

And as an educational institution, we're in the business of growing people. So when I show that picture and talk about how we're here to grow people, that's what we're about. I think that my goal is to connect at a human level and really inspire other leaders.

Then I shared, like, a preview. We're working on a podcast called, 43 Ways to Be Less Lame, and I've shared a couple previews of that. And really, Tyler, for me, we're laughing at we're just one of the previews I shared is two minutes of just laughter, and we need to find joy in the work we're doing.

I know as an educator, Tyler, I could make more money doing something else. I could wear nicer clothes doing something else. I could drive nicer cars. I chose this life knowing that, hey, I'm probably not going to go on extravagant vacations. Or, when I do get to visit really cool places, I'm usually staying. Like last time I was in Italy, I was staying at the Best. So, you know, not necessarily a known hotel in you know, I still got to go there. I just didn't get to necessarily stay in the most beautiful hotel.

So I think that for me, sharing those laughs is like, hey, we're in this for a reason. And if you don't find the joy in what you're doing, then maybe you should find something else. And being less lame for me is a journey and there's been plenty of times I've been lame.

And then I shared the Zeal Educational Award. So I have a buddy named Jeff and he runs Zeal Education Group and he wants to honor an educational leader. And so we have an award that, through that group that I shared, and consider nominating somebody. So Tyler, if you know a great superintendent, click on that, nominate them. I'm the committee chair, so you can't nominate me.

And so then I shared a thing about, true or false, the world belongs to the nimble mind. One of the things that I think when I was more lame, I was more fixed. My mind couldn't flex as much as it does now. So the world is moving forward with all the technology and all the differences that you see, it's going to belong to the people who are nimble. If you can flex and move fast, the world will be yours. That would be the modern day proverb, right?

And then I shared a vintage photo of my grandparents and my mother. Often I don't know what it is about my look. I am a chameleon, so no matter where I'm at, people assume that I belong to them. And so if I growing up, I was a boxer and boxed in the primarily Hispanic community. It was with Jack Shintaka from Local 185 out of Saginaw, Michigan. And that was Carlton, Michigan. So the community there was very Hispanic for the most part, and people would think I'm Hispanic. And then when I'm with my Italians, actually that is my heritage. People realize that I'm Italian and when you know Caucasians, they think I'm Caucasian and able to flex. And so I shared that picture to share who I am and that we're a nation of immigrants and this next generation is going to look different than the last generation. And I think I shared that piece of who I am and kind of being vulnerable and saying we had to work, my grandparents had to work, my great grandparents had to work. We came to this country with nothing and we're living a better life now.

So what are we doing to influence that for the next generation? And if you haven't figured it out, Tyler, the next generation looks less and less like us. How are we inspiring that next generation to forge their path to a better United States of America?

And then, Tyler, I got to give my girls a shout out. I shared also that my girls won State at basketball. I shared pompoms. I shared that we're working on a couple of projects right now. Often schools fall into the trap of thinking that that capital only comes through the state funding or through a bond election or maybe a sinking fund or something creative as much as, like, an energy type of project where you're reworking your budget. For us, we're leaning in. I'm trying to raise $2.1 million to expand a Stem center and build a field house. And so I shared those out there because I know that I've got a lot of people on LinkedIn. Somebody might know somebody. We are in the midst of building out our LinkedIn presence as a school district. And I think if I was posting something under the school district, it would look different, right? I mean, it wouldn't be a picture of me on the Detroit River with a fish, but I can personally tell that story about what we're about as Hemlock Public School District. We're pulling the sled. We're teaching kids how to fish. And I think with my voice, it comes across as easy to connect with. If I'm sharing that as Hemlock Public School District, it comes across a little bit colder. I don't know if you would agree with that.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think that's a real challenge for districts and companies is when you're sharing official communication, stories can feel a little bit more forced, whereas if it comes from a person telling their story, it's much more relatable. It's more human. You actually see that in the analytics. Right. When you look at a post on LinkedIn or even Twitter, there's a very big difference between a company sponsored post and a personal story. Right. We connect to stories very differently, and knowing who's behind that story is a huge piece of that virality or just level of interest. When you're reading it, you're kind of putting yourself in their shoes versus kind of seeing a company or a district putting out an official story in some way.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Yeah, I think that's it and you ask, how do I know what to post? And it's funny. I know for right now, I got two in the pipeline, and both of them are very… one is a little bit more personable, more me, and then the other one actually is very personable, but it's more of the school.

We had a partner today drop off a lot of power tools to our industrial arts department, and they were here, and they were visiting our kids and we were watching them work. And so it's kind of twofold. It's a personal post about something that was very much a district event. And then I have a post that I'll probably share about being part of a professional development opportunity this past weekend with the National Superintendent Forum. And so it was part of a group of leaders that came together across the nation. And so I think those two are interesting. I want to hear what you have to say about them when I share.

Tyler Vawser: You know, one thing I want to point out is a lot of times superintendents and districts are focused so much on Twitter and Facebook and more and more Instagram, but I think LinkedIn is kind of that forgotten platform for schools. And so what you just mentioned about the company dropping off the tools, I think that's actually a really good example of something to post on LinkedIn. Companies are on LinkedIn. They're trying to build their brand there. And so for them to see how they can support a local school district, I think is really important. And then the other side of it, of course, is recruiting. And we'll touch on that a little bit later. But that is one of the reasons I think LinkedIn is so powerful, right? You have companies that want to get involved, they want to think about how they're being perceived, and schools can really be a great place for them to build their brand, but the advantage also goes to the school district when they participate.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: So another, you know, kind of a plus for LinkedIn. And by the way, I don't know about Tyler, but I'm not getting sponsorship from LinkedIn to share this. People might be like, oh, they're all about LinkedIn, they must be on the payroll. For me, one of the kind of interesting pieces that I've found with LinkedIn and Twitter, now that I'm more prolific in sharing things. That's your word, prolific, but sharing them. When you Google my name, the first thing that comes up is my LinkedIn and Twitter, and people can go to it and see what I'm posting and sharing. And so I think it's almost like my own personal Widget on my own personal Google search. So, Tyler, if people are around the country, the nation Googling me, that's the first thing they're going to see is my LinkedIn. And so I think that's a powerful tool for people to know and to be able to utilize.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, and there's quite a few superintendents that don't have LinkedIn and there's many more that have it, but don't keep it up to date. Right? And I think it is a place where when someone's looking for you on LinkedIn, they want to know what you're about, they want to know your history. But a resume, so to speak, can only tell you so much. Whereas you're telling the everyday stories, you're looking back at your history a little bit, but in a really personal way, and then also keeping everyone up to date on what's happening within the district, within your role. And I think if someone's looking for you, that's what you want them to see. Not just where you were working back in the year 1998. You want them to see what you're focused on now, what you're thinking about, what you want for Hemlock or for someone else, what you want your district to be thinking about.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Yeah, and I think that, for me, I was probably at some professional development. And actually, I was at a professional development. I don't know if this will make it into the podcast, Tyler. This other superintendent, he was at my table, my wife was there, and we're having dinner, and he spouts off about how he's a boxer so we really lean in. Both of us must be competitive. We were. I thought there might be a boxing match that night. And so I was offering to let him wear the twelve ounce gloves. I would put the 16 ounce gloves on and we would go at it. We decided, like, I was like, hey, you know what? I'm twice your size. Let's solve it with a jump rope contest. And so he literally goes in right then. He was like, talking so much smack, I was like, almost hurt my feelings, which is hard to do. So my wife, who knows I'm a world class jump roper, goes out. She leaves the resort, the conference area, whatever, buys a jump rope. So the next night, we're out in front of the hotel and he gets off the bus, and I'm like, let's go. And I challenge him right there to a jump rope contest. The next thing you know, I have people in the hotel jumping rope in the lobby. I have them down at the reception area jumping rope. We jump rope from one end of the hotel to the next. And then somebody came up to me and said, you know, your LinkedIn account should say, like, superintendent, beer judge, jump-roper. And so that's like what I did. And usually when people see that, they start laughing.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. No, I love it. I think it's one of those things that if someone from the outside is looking at you, they're just seeing you as a superintendent. They forget that you have family and a personal life and all these other parts of who you are, these different facets. And so I think that's an easy way to say, I am a superintendent. I'm also a world class jump roper, which not many of us can say. But yeah, I think that's a great way just to, right from the start, right; it's right in your title. It's such a smart way of just saying, you know what? I'm a multifaceted person. I'm more than just my job. And like you said, a very good talking point. I don't think you can read that and not say, hey, what's this jump roping thing about? Can you tell me more? Like, are you being serious?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Well, I think that you immediately get my goal in having that there is this. So when I run into my old classmates, if we're out shopping and I run into a classmate and haven't connected, and I'll tell them like, yeah, I'm out in Hemlock. And they're like, what do you do? And I'm like, well, I work at the school. And then my wife is usually upset with like, like, why aren't you just telling them that you're the superintendent? I'm like, because you know what? I'm more than a superintendent. I'm a human being. And I don't need them to think that that's some prestigious role or whatever. It's a lot of hard work. So I think by having those other parts, it de-escalates right away. Like, hey, this guy is going to be human and he's hopefully going to be funny. That's kind of the goal.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I do think it shows that you're not taking yourself too seriously and there's some levity to it that's really good.

We're talking about building your personal brand as a superintendent and helping your school district. And so I think a good place to start would be about your personal values. Like, what are those core values that are true to you and what are those and then how are you sharing those through the stories?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: So I think that for me, my core value is man, I'm glad that you asked this question. It's hard for me to answer because I'm going to be really authentic and really vulnerable here. And for me, the work of being a school superintendent is not a job. It is a vocation. I literally, Tyler, feel called to do this work. And I know that might turn people off. They might know separation of church and state. You can't be called to be an educational leader. And you know what? If that's your opinion, that's your opinion. For me, this is work that I feel called to do and have a mission and a vision that is bigger than me. And it's about serving and it is ministry. And so for me, it's way bigger than who I am. And our tiny little community, it's about how can we work together to pull that sled and how can we as a school district inspire not only our community of learners, but really help inspire others?

You know, if the only place I'm impacting is here, that's amazing. But Tyler, I'm going to tell you that I don't know how, but the influence of our school districts is way bigger than our footprint and so our square miles versus the amount of people that we're influencing. And it's all about how do we serve kids better, how do we serve our families better, how do we provide a world class experience? And so for me, it's about being called to do the work. And so I'm so passionate about that, that this is truly a calling. And it goes back to probably my undergrad. I was debating, I was like, do I want to be a lawyer? Do I want to be a teacher or do I want to be a minister? And I was like, well, I put a bin diagram together and I was like, okay, I'm going to be a teacher because I can always go get my Master's of Divinity and be a pastor. I can always go get my juris doctorate and be a lawyer, but if I'm a teacher, I can do both of those things. And so at the next level.

And so I decided on social science. I was an economics teacher. That was where I started. And when I got my first interview, I was like, yeah, I'm going to be in this for five years. I literally did not think that I would make a career of this at that point. And I remember the superintendent interviewing me and he said, what do you want to do in five years? And I tell him know, like, I don't know exactly what I want. I could see myself going into business. That's kind of my background. But immediately, underneath the surface, Tyler, I was looking at him and I was like, I want to be you. And about six, seven years in education, I went and bought the exact same suit jacket he was wearing when he interviewed me. It's a black and white houndstooth jacket. It's kind of one of those jackets you can't forget. And I bought that jacket because I was like, I'm going to be you, and I'm going to make that difference. And so for me, I feel like I rambled on a lot, but it's about that calling and about, you know, this is what you're supposed to be doing. You're in the epicenter of where life and mission and vision and purpose come together.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a great answer. That's a lot more than core values, but I think it sets the vision and the mission for you. Does that superintendent that interviewed you, does he know that you're a superintendent today?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Oh, yeah, he does. And I've reached out to him. I said, thank him. So for me, it is about making sure that we love kids, that we are here to love on kids and to champion kids. And we're here to grow human beings. We're here to grow their mental capacity. We're here to grow them physically, mentally, socially, in every way possible.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Fantastic.

So, Don, superintendent is already a public role. We all know it's open to criticism. There's unfiltered commentary thrown at you. Do you worry or think about how someone in the community might respond to what you're posting on LinkedIn or on Twitter?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Wow, Tyler, you kind of had me scared. That really didn't cross my mind, but it might be because of my background growing up as a know, one of the things when you step in that ring, you expect somebody whose goal on the other side is to punch you in the face. Their goal is to knock you out. And so as a boxer, when I've been knocked down, I got back up, and when I got punched in the face, I stood strong.

And so I think that my background in the ring has allowed me to understand that when somebody is throwing things at you, it's not the end. The one difference between life and the boxing ring is there is no timer. And so I always tell people if they wanted to get in a fight with me as a kid and we were classmates or whatever, it's like, hey, pack your lunch. In fact, Tyler, in high school, I had the fortunate or unfortunate situation where I wrestled against this young man, and he was such a competitor. He had a heart of a lion. And we started off, we were a few pounds apart, and he dropped 30 pounds because he knew he wasn't going to wrestle in my weight class and he was dropping weight. One time we went on the mat for literally 90 minutes straight because he wanted to beat me that bad. Now, that wouldn't be a good story, right? But then fast forward five years later, and I'm a senior in college, and all of a sudden I'm watching ESPN and they go, Brian Piccolo from Michigan State University, and he is a top ten wrestler in the nation. And we were first year wrestlers as juniors in high school. This guy had the heart of a lion. And so for me, I think that understanding that physicalness translates to real world, that, hey, I might get punched in the face, somebody might try to suplex me. When you've been through that and you've been body slammed, you know you're going to get back up.

So it's that emotional and mental toughness that you bring to it. And you know what? Quite frankly, I look at my post and I go, if you want to criticize that, there's probably something wrong with you, and I don't have to worry about that. Literally, if you're going to criticize that, I'm saying, hey, we're here to teach people how to fish. Maybe there's something broken with you. If you're going to criticize me for championing our girls for winning State, then maybe there's something broken somewhere else. If you're going to be frustrated because I said, hey, the future belongs to the nimble mind, well, maybe you need to buy a clue. Maybe withdraw everything out of the bank and go buy one. Because those are things that if you're going to be frustrated about or make a negative comment, I'm just going to keep moving on.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, those are some good punches back. I like that. Good.

Well, in your LinkedIn posts, you often use hashtags, and so for some listening, you're like, I've heard about hashtags, no big deal. But you use them so consistently, and I think they're interesting hashtags and they're hashtags that you kind of lean into, and if you're on the outside, you go, what is that about? So some of the ones you use the most are #pullthesled, #huskytastic, #since1863. So I'd love to kind of hear about the background of those hashtags and how you're using them and just give the audience a little bit of an idea of the reason behind using those hashtags consistently.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: So one of the things I got to kind of go back to Apptegy, we did a good job when I started ten years ago of working on press releases and communication, but we didn't have great tools. So I think it was 2016/17, we got an email from Abigail and hopefully Tyler, we got some time to tell this story because it's so.

Tyler Vawser : Yeah, go for it.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: So I get this video, and I had recently talked to our tech person. I said, Listen, our website stinks. I said, this is what I want. I want the Camaro coming in because I love Camaros turning sideways, just burning rubber, very eye-catching, and then the hood pops up and all the stuff that you need is there. So I said, I want a visually appealing website that then you can operate with, right? It's got four wheels, it's got a steering wheel, it's got an engine, a transmission.

And so I had set that in motion a couple of months before. I get an email from somebody at Apptegy, and I'm actually at a stop light. And as a superintendent, I get so much email and so much communication. I'm at a stoplight. I'm like, I'm going to use this. I pull up my phone and I start archiving and going through stuff. And I see this email and I click on it. And at that point, video and email wasn't a routine thing. So I click on the video and there's this young lady just talking. She's wearing a sweatshirt, gray wall. Nothing like that would draw you in necessarily, except she uses my name. She says, Don, I see there's a lot of great things going on in Hemlock at Hemlock Public School District, and we at Apptegy would like to talk about how we can help you tell your story better. Tyler, what do you think? The next thing I did, you probably.

Tyler Vawser: Emailed her back and asked, how do you make these videos? I'm not sure.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Well, I was in traffic, so that was not what I did. The next thing I did is I looked down at the email, saw that the tech director was included because I didn't know what the product was. I called the tech director, and this is what I said to him. I said, I don't care what they're selling, we are buying. And I said, we need to find out right now what it is, because they connected with us at a level that I want to aspire to connect with our kids, with our families, with our community. And so for me, that culture that is Apptegy partners very well with us. And it's one of those things where, you know what? I tell people all the time, you don't have to do business with the people I do business with, but if you don't have a communication platform, then you're in the Flintstone era.

You need a communication platform. And so for me, the hashtags come from that. So at that point, you guys were like, what's your color? What is your logo? So you came up with, like, a brand guide, a brand folder, if you will. Actually gave us a folder on Google Drive, I think it was, and said here.

And so we started our brand when we started with you guys, when we started with Apptegy and SchoolCEO, that's where we started working on our brand. And now we're two brand guides deep. After that, we've updated. We said, brand is so important. So our hashtags come out of that, right? So the first one we did was #huskytastic, because you know what? It's a word where it says fantastic and husky together. And we actually had shirts printed that said #huskytastic. And then it defined it. It said like the dictionary defines this is the general mood of a Hemlock Husky. It's a fantastic type of thing. And so we had some shirts. I don't know if I have any more because I'd send you oh, I love that.

Tyler Vawser: I love the T-shirts. I think it's really neat when you take something that's digital, like a hashtag and bring it into real life and have those two meet.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: You know, we put that out there, and then we've just consistently used it. This is Huskytastic. This is, you know, it is amazing to be part of the Husky pack. And so that was probably our first. So then from there, we did some book studies, and we realized that one of the ways that companies market to us is by saying, like, hey, we have experience. We know what we're doing. And then I was like, well, we've been at this since 1863. We're one of the oldest school districts around. And so most of the school districts around here probably started in the… we've got 100 year gain on them. And so we started hashtagging since 1863. So what we're trying to say there is, you know what, we've been at this in a long time. We got a rich history. We got a lot of traditions, and we do this job of educating kids better than anybody else. And so that's the goal, is, like, we've been at this a long time to make sure that people understand we're just not a startup. We've been around, and I think that Tyler for me, #pullthesled means so many things. It connects at so many levels. So whether it be as an educational leader that I'm “pulling the s”led to make good things happen for our kids in our community, we're working on the Stem Center expansion. We're working on the fieldhouse. We're pulling that sled. Or if it's my classroom teacher that's pulling that sled to make sure that kids learn their fractions, or if it's the custodian pulling that sled to make sure that our facilities are clean and welcoming to everyone who comes in. Whether it be our parents that are pulling that sled and helping with fundraising and doing different things, supporting their kids by reading them at night. All of the Husky pack is pulling the sled. And so I think that those are powerful hashtags that we use. We use some other ones. But you're right. These three are ones that we use often.

Tyler Vawser: It's a really good example of not just doing what's trendy, but doing something with meaning. There's a lot of advice. You need hashtags. You need that consistency. And I agree with that. But it's much better if it's something that's meaningful. And if someone asks you like, I just did what's behind that hashtag? It's not just, oh, well, the other ones were taken, but let me tell you about our history, or let me tell you about how we're working together, or let me define Huskytastic for you and what a model student or teacher or leader looks like in our district, right? It's another opportunity to talk about your brand, another opportunity to talk about your culture and your values as a district.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: I think the other part too, with these hashtags. So we have a neighbor, actually a friend, a great school system. And theirs is, “once a blank, always a blank.” That's their hashtag. Do you know how hard that is to hashtag? That's pretty long. Yeah, it's pretty long. I've run into their principals and they're like, yeah, it's impossible to hashtag. And we're told that we have to hashtag everything we do with this. And I'm like, so if you think about our hashtags, they're pretty easy to get done.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really, like, pull the sled. I think that's a really great example of connecting your brand with also a bigger concept.

Well, we've been talking about LinkedIn a lot, and I want to shift gears out of hashtags and talk more about what LinkedIn is probably best known for, which is really recruiting. It's a place where people put their profiles up with the hope of elevating their status and their professional pedigree or being found or being recruited. And so I love to talk about teacher recruitment. SchoolCEO has done a lot of research into this. We've done research as far back as 2019 where we focused on millennials teachers and then recently, just a couple of months ago, published our follow up study to that, which focused on teachers of all ages across the nation, and we published that. And it's a topic that's really close to us. I used to head up recruiting, and so it's a topic I'm passionate about. But I'd love to hear you talk a bit about how Hemlock is recruiting school leaders, how you're recruiting teachers and also classified staff as.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Know. I think that that is great know.

Recently, I'm with leaders from all around the nation, and I say, hey, raise your hand if you have teacher vacancies. The room goes up, my hand goes down. Raise your hand if you're having trouble filling substitute teacher roles. The hands in the room go up, my hand stays down. Raise your hand if you are in need of bus drivers right now. Hands go up, my hand goes down. Now, Tyler, that's not because we pay the most. It's not because we have the best of everything. It's because there's something that most organizations I think miss is that people don't work for a paycheck. People work for meaning, for purpose.

And so I remember as a young educator, and we'd have special needs students and the teachers, the special educators would tell us that, you know what, it's so important that we find a niche for these kids to work because that gives them purpose and meaning. I realized people are people that transfers to every single person. And so for me, I think that whether you see some of the stuff I'm sharing on LinkedIn or Twitter or our social media, our website, our YouTube videos, you see that we're a place that it's not about collecting a paycheck. Because if you're here to collect a paycheck, I will tell you this, Tyler, it will not take long. And you will be very frustrated with me, the other leaders, your colleagues, everybody around, because guess what? There's not a single person that's here long term that's here to collect a paycheck. We're here to make a difference. We're here to change the world one child at a time. We're here to tackle the biggest issues that our societies are facing. Our society is facing right now at a community level, at a school level, at a one home at a time level. And so when you have that kind of meaning and purpose behind what you're doing, people want to work there.

And so I think that for me, one of the things I have noticed is we don't have troubles right now filling positions. We do believe we will because just the trend shows that there's less and less people to do more and more work. One of the things I've noticed is like, if I post a leadership type position and my neighbor posts that same position, that we will have better and more candidates. And I think that that goes back to working with Apptegy and establishing a clear brand. But then, guess what? Now all my neighbors are with Apptegy, but we tell them all the time, you can do exactly what we're doing, in fact, copy us. And I love telling them to do that because then they're six to 18 months behind me. They're not getting ahead of me. But I think that that is because we have so much fun with what we do. We laugh, we cry. There's a genuine respect and honoring of people here.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Neel Doshi is someone that we've really relied on both internally here to kind of think about how do we shape our culture? And he's spoken at SchoolCEO Conference each time, and he talks about exactly what you're saying, but with the research behind it, which is paychecks are a motivator, but they're just a minor part of the overall motivation.

Instead, what people want is that purpose, their potential, that sense of their work matters, and that they are in control. Right. They have agency, and that if they try something this way, that it has this kind of impact. If they try it a different way, it has a different kind of impact.

And so just to reiterate, what you're saying is you've seen it, you know the anecdotes, you've experienced it and lived it in your work, but also there's research for those that are listening that really points to this. Of course, paychecks matter, right? Of course people are motivated that way, but it really is very minor compared to the other motivators out there, like culture and belonging. Well, good. Yeah.

Any other thoughts on recruitment that you think would be helpful?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: I think that the biggest thing you can do is be authentic, be real. If you're asking me what would I tell other leaders is champion the good ideas within your school district. Harvest those from teachers, from custodians, from your principals, from parents, from kids. I actually do focus groups, and one of my favorite things I was meeting with a group of kids, middle schoolers, this young man. I said, hey, what do we need to do? He goes, you need to go buy us a new bus. So you realize buses are kind of a big purchase. So two months later, the bus arrives, we have a new bus. The bus was in the works for months. Right. It wasn't because John told me that I needed to go get a new bus for kids. We knew that we needed a new bus, and so we had already ordered one. But when that bus arrived, I called up the transportation director and said, can you make sure the new bus, at least at the beginning, is on this route? So they said, yep. Then I went and called the middle school principal up, and I said, can you go down and tell John that we got the new bus and he'll be the one of the first kids to ride it? And I didn't tell John that we already pre-ordered it. I didn't feel like that was important. I think what was important was for him to know that I heard him, and that hearing caused me to make sure he was one of the first kids to ride it.

And so I think that listening to your people and I know for us, one of the big things, we do these classroom makeovers, and then we share it on our Facebook, our Twitter, our website. I might put it on LinkedIn. And then teachers go, wow, that school district listened to their teachers and then delivered what the teacher felt they needed. And I think that that is a big thing and a big reason why people want to work here.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Wow, that's a great story. Fantastic. That sense of experimenting and taking feedback, implementing it, following up, I think that really shows value and something that when you're deep into the work, like you were talking about earlier, it's your mission, it's your calling, you're going to try new things, and you're not worried about failing because you're in it for the long haul. You're not just trying to kind of meet this month or this quarter's goals. You're trying to think about long term, what is it that I can do to create the most success?

Well, Don, I want to get your thoughts on something that you and your team have been working on, which is called 43 Ways to Be Less Lame. And I wonder if you can give us an idea of what that is and the story behind it.

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Yeah, so the idea really is about being less lame. Like, you know, you think about how Hollywood has portrayed education and how it's portrayed learning and how it's portrayed teachers and principals, and it has a negative light. It casts a negative light. I think as a former economics teacher, and you think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and it's like, that's such a lame teacher, right? And we've all had that teacher, and then you have somebody like, for me, it was Mrs. Grohl or it was Lou Fenton or, you know, Jim Rumler, or actually, my economics teacher in high school is amazing, Randy Collier. And so it was about connecting.

And so for us, about being less lame is really about as educators, is how do we really make the work we do fun. So I've recently taken a stand up comedy class, and I'm a voracious learner. And so my team and I, we were the innovative district of the Year for 2022 for our state, great state of Michigan. And we were like, we want to share some of the stuff we're doing at a national level. We reached out to FETC, the Future of Educational Technology Conference, and felt that that was the appropriate venue. And I submitted 43 Ways to be Less Lame as an Educator, as a proposal. Came to work the next day, the other two gentlemen, Joshua Chase and Alex Holtham, were like, hey, dude, what are those 43 ways? And I was like, heck if I know. I mean, I think that's what we're paying you guys for. And, Tyler, what's so kind of funny about it is we spent two months identifying 49 Ways to be Less Lame. I mean, it was more than 43. We had 49. And we had this amazingly tight presentation, and it was stiff. It was lame. And one of the gentlemen, Alex Holtham, our director of Innovation, comes in, and he goes, hey, three days ago, ChatGPT became public. I asked it, what are 43 ways to be less lame? Here's a list. I looked at the list, and I was like, Alex, that's a table of contents. That's awesome. Put it in this Google Doc. And on the weekend, I went in and I asked ChatGPT each one of those things, hey, how would I build relationships as a teacher to be less lame? Because that was number two, right? Number one is 100% us.

It's about joining that journey. But number two, the first thing that AI says to be less lame is be more human, be more relational. And so we went through and asked it, and it was mostly on Saturday, a little bit on Sunday, but then we ended the weekend with 120 page book. And so from there, we refined it. We added that human element. We actually took out page breaks. And so now we're down to about 93. We believe it to be a devotional for teachers. It is a secular devotional. We don't expect somebody to read it from cover to cover. Because when you focus on number one and number two and it says relationships, then we believe you should have some breathing room and focus on relationships.

And think about, like, as a teacher, as a principal, as a superintendent, what are you doing to build those rich relationships with kids, with families, with other employees that are working together on this together? So we kind of think that you should read it, like, bit by bit by bit, and it could be by day by week by month and kind of just focus in on what that area is.

My favorite, Tyler, is Jazz Hands. I mean, Jazz Hands is way 19. And what it's about is excitement for me as an educator. I remember getting an assignment in early August to teach geography. So I'm an economics, civics minded individual, and I got the call. Hey, your schedule just changed, and you're teaching geography. And I was not happy. Came to class the first day, and I was like, hey, kids, I hope I don't make you less intelligent through the course of the semester. This is not an area of expertise. I confessed that I didn't know the subject here, and I had been working on it for two, three weeks to try to get ahead of what I was going to have to teach. And that semester went okay, I think, because I'm okay with relationships or good with relationships. It just went, okay. The next semester, kids came in and I put my jazz hands on and I took my shoe off and I said, hey, kids, I want everybody in here to take their right shoe off, and I want you to have it in your hand. And I'm going to tell you right now that this is the most important class you'll have this semester. I know everybody's in English, and that seems like it's important. I know everybody's in Math, and that seems like it's important. I know everybody's in Science and Social Studies, is this class, but out of all your classes, this is the most important. And I said, I want you to look. Where is your shoe made? And so they would tell me, and I would put it on the, um so mine's made in China. So I'd go over to China and put a little X on the map.

And by the time we got done, I said to the kids, geography is more than just places. It's more than just the people that live there. It's about how we're connected to the world around us. And now, how many people before they came in knew their shoes came from around the world? And they were all kind of, like, dumbfounded, like, wow, we didn't realize that we are actually consumers of products from all around the world. So they were on the lookout. They were excited. They had their geography. Jazz hands up.

Now, to be honest with you, 25 years later, I'm like, man, geography should be taught as an embedded part of the curriculum. It should be part of economics. It should be part of literature. It shouldn't be a standalone course, but you got to get your jazz hands up. And so for me, we wrote this book, 43 Ways to Be Less Lame, launched at FETC. I've shared it a number of times. I shared it at McCall, the Michigan area computer users for learning in Michigan, shared it at the National Superintendents Forum. And we're looking forward to continuing to share with people about how to be less lame. I know that, like, 16 is about innovation. I know that we got parts in there about emotional well being. There's just so many ways. Tyler if you named a way, it's probably it. But that's the story about the book. We've got a lot of opportunities on the horizon and looking forward to sharing with people about how to be less lame. And again, that's all about people.

Tyler Vawser: Don, what kind of feedback have you gotten from the presentation as you've been putting this out there? What are educators telling you when they hear about these different ways to be, quote unquote, less lame?

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: I think the feedback has been very refreshing. One of the things, we try to take everything with a light hearted sense of approach, a sense of humor. And so people are laughing. They're learning, they're listening. They're leaning in one of the pieces. It talks about data.

So I say one of the things to do to be less lame is to use data, except for when data doesn't work. And I talked about our lunch program here at school and about how the data was fine, but the lunch stunk. We said, guess what? Doesn't matter if the data goes backwards, we're not going to have a bad lunch experience for our kids. And we turned that around and made the lunch to the point where the kids were taking pictures and sending it to their friends and saying, my lunch is better than yours, to kids in other schools. So I think that the field is really embracing the idea about being less lame.

At the end of the day, you can have all the technology tools, you can have all those things, but it comes down to relationships. Relationships, relationships. And how do you connect best with people.

Tyler Vawser: Excellent. I think that's a great place to end it. Thank you so much..

Dr. Donald Killingbeck: Anytime. Thank you. Thanks to SchoolCEO. It's been a great time talking with you.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K12 Leadership Administration or in Communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to schoolceo.com, click subscribe now, and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine. SchoolCEO Conversations is produced by the SchoolCEO magazine team and is powered by Apptegy. I'd love to get your advice to make sure this is the most actionable and insightful podcast you listen to. Email me at tyler@schoolceo.com with thoughts and advice. And can you do me a small favor? Go online and share this episode with one friend or a colleague that you think would enjoy it. Thanks for joining the conversation and take care until the next one.

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Learn more about Hemlock Public School District at https://www.hemlock.k12.mi.us/ or on Twitter at @hemlockps

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