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Ray Helmuth, Van Buren Elementary School Plainfield, IN

Ray HelmuthHaving high academic expectations and rigor can be vital elements to a school’s success, but Principal Ray Helmuth recognized that something was missing. He realized that without a positive philosophical approach to guide the way, students’ engagement in learning and teachers’ passion for teaching could get lost.

Van Buren Elementary School was already considered a high achieving school when Principal Helmuth assumed leadership in 2010. But by 2015, he noticed a shift in how teachers and students were handling the pressure of more rigor and higher state assessment expectations. He noticed that teacher morale was slipping, and there was enormous pressure to move through content at an unrealistic pace. Knowing this was not good for teachers or students, he completely shifted gears. With encouragement from his superintendent, he instructed teachers to focus on student engagement, prioritize building strong relationships with students, and bringing back joy in learning.

Mr. Helmuth introduced the Bucket Filler philosophy to help create a schoolwide culture of kindness, caring, and high expectations. He challenged himself and everyone to think beyond just implementing programs or strategies, but to creating a schoolwide culture. The culture would focus on students’ dreams and options in life and teachers’ passion for teaching and education thriving. He believed, above all else, that for a school to be great and for kids to succeed, investments must be made in great teachers who are passionate about teaching and education.

Principal Helmuth was determined to shift the culture of the school. The best place to start was by pouring energy into and supporting the teaching staff. He believed that for students to be successful academically and emotionally, they had to have teachers who felt empowered and supported. He guided teachers to innovative solutions to problems and gave them the resources and time to be creative with student-centered instruction. He set up a school leadership structure that was collaborative and team-oriented, focused on data-based decision-making. The teams were geared toward meaningful professional development and grounded in the school’s mission to bring joy to learning. The broad-based leadership team ensured buy-in to the school’s vision, support by students and parents for new programming, and a mission that is lived each day.

The staff, student, and parent community use the word “creative” to describe Principal Helmuth. His leadership brought joy to learning by supporting teachers to be creative and innovate to solve problems. He encouraged a learning culture for students to take risks. He instilled in teachers and students that making mistakes is part of the learning process when you engage in challenging work. He also knew that he had to be creative to ensure that all students were engaged in learning. He used humor to engage the school community through an alter-ego called “Bob Pasta.” He developed engaging videos to keep communication lines open. Recognizing that some students needed extra support, he helped create a two-day a week after school club, referred to as Tuesdays and Thursdays, or TnT Club. The Club provided additional support, such as mentoring, snacks to bring home, homework help, and hands-on activities which fostered a connection between students, school staff, and community volunteers.

While it seemed like a simple approach, this key belief has resulted in improved student achievement and student behavior. Bringing “Joy to Learning” was recently adopted as the school’s official mission statement to better reflect the positive philosophical approach to education.