Group of colleagues high-fiving and showing recognition and appreciation to each other.

What does reward and recognition look like in practice? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher for an insightful conversation with Dr. Jennifer Lowery from the Tea Area School District where we dig into this core principle of Reward and Recognition from Dr. Pilcher’s new book, “Hardwiring Excellence in Education.” Hear how Dr. Lowery has integrated this principle into her organization’s culture by using employee feedback to identify and define organizational values and consistently celebrate what “right” looks like. Gain valuable insights as she describes her innovative strategies to recognize students who embody the district’s standards of excellence. Listen as Dr. Lowery shares her unique onboarding approach that aligns new hires with the district’s values and provides guidance for building an elevated culture based around rewarding and recognizing at all levels.

This episode addresses questions such as:
  • How can organizations actively involve their employees in shaping and rewarding a culture that fosters excellence?
  • What strategies can be employed to effectively communicate the standards of excellence to new employees and ensure their alignment with the organization’s values?
  • How can organizations ensure that they reward and recognize employees and students effectively at every level?

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Episode Transcript



[Intro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into to our show today. This podcast is all about leadership, and I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership action so that we can all be leaders in our organizations.

And the focus of leadership is connected to the Nine Principles Framework highlighted in my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.

Let’s dive into today’s episode. We continue our focus on telling the story behind the story and hardwiring excellence in education. Today, we focus on Principal 9, Recognize and Reward Success.

To help us understand the story of her leadership in the Tea Area District South Dakota, I’m excited to welcome back onto our podcast Dr. Jen Lowry.

She is the Superintendent of Tea Area School District. She has been serving as the district Superintendent since June 2012. She received her Doctor of Education in School District Administration from the University of South Dakota.

Prior to her role as Superintendent, Jen served as the Principal and K12 Director of Curriculum. Before moving into administration, she served as a high school mathematics teacher. Dr. Lowery was named South Dakota’s 2023 Outstanding Superintendent. In 2022 she was named South Dakota’s Innovator of The Year.

Tea Area School District has grown at least 5% in the last 9 out of 10 years, and the school district’s community has built 78 elementary classrooms. It’s currently doubling the size of the high school, approving over $60 million in general obligation bonds over the past ten years, the last bond for $39 million with over 80% approval.

As I mentioned, this isn’t Dr. Lawry’s first time with us on the show. She also joined us in episode 77, episode 180, and most recently in episode 271, where she shared about the growth of her school district over the last eight years and the results, she has seen from applying improvement work.

We’ll include a link to those episodes in the show so that you’ll have those resources. But today we want to focus on recognition. And providing gratitude in the workplace and recognizing good work.

It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Jen Lowery to our show today it’s so great to have you back with us.




Jennifer Lowery: Thank you so much. I enjoy listening to this podcast and taking little tips from it all of the time. So, it’s an honor to be here today.

Janet Pilcher: Thank you. And I learned so much from all of you. So again, thank you for your time today. And we’re gonna focus on, as I mentioned in our introduction, we’re gonna focus on Principle 9, the story behind the story.

And you focus on all the principals, Jen, but I just wanna double down a little bit today on Principle 9, which I think is one of our most important principles.

See, it’s hard to hard to talk about any of the other principles without building the reward and recognition into most everything that we do.

So, and it really focuses on the culture piece. And in terms of culture and the aspect of culture versus strategy. You’ve- you’ve hardwired reward and recognition as a key part of Tea Area School District. So can you describe the program you’ve created to recognize employees each month and how you live out the values and standards in your organization.

Jennifer Lowery: When we started working with Studer Group, our coaches, Dr. Gayle, and we talked about what are our values. And as superintendent I knew what my values were, but I can’t impede my will on an entire organization without being crystal clear of what our values are.

And so that was so important that these are not Jennifer Lowery, Superintendent values. There was a whole process that the Tea Area School District’s people gave feedback on what our values are. So, we knew what to reward and recognize.

So, we knew what we wanted repeated. And so, we explicitly said, this is what right looks like. And I think that’s just a really important part, to say what do you reward and recognize? And how do you identify what that is?

So that it’s not just random, but it’s identified and put into words. So, our- our specific pieces at Tea Area created by our people and then approved by our board are accountability, teamwork, communication and innovation.

And there’s targets within those that define this is what we value and want to continue to motivate each other to strive for. We don’t have to be perfect in them. But this is what right looks like. And that was the foundation of what our program started as.

Janet Pilcher: Wow gotcha, you know it’s so interesting. When I was writing the book, Jen, you know, I was having to kind of determine what fit where Right? And look at the tactics, and it kind of forced me really to build that alignment.

And what I learned from writing the book is that I started front and center with putting this, the standards, the process that you talked about up in principle 1 because it became so much a part of the other principals that you know you could do reward like you’re talking about.

You could do reward and recognition. But if you don’t know what you’re recognizing people for, and that hasn’t been defined. And it’s been that grassroots effort as a process. It’s really difficult to understand what to do, and for people to buy into that.

And so, I just found those standards really thread- threaded through most all of the principles, and they became so significant. I knew they were important. But I just realized how important that they, that they were.

That’s a great example of that in terms of really connecting, connecting the recognition back to what we, what we value and how we how we show up to work every day.

So, let’s talk a little bit. Talk a little bit about, you know, some of the specifics that you do. You have the lunch with Lowry program, and it’s your way to. I love this. To recognize students who are performing well and living the same values that you probably talked about.

So, can you? Can you talk about that story a little bit?

Jennifer Lowery: Yes, I’m gonna connect it to, we do Tuesdays, standards of excellence Tuesdays, Titan Tuesdays, and those are an opportunity that throughout our organization there is an anonymous platform that recognizes for our specific standards of excellence.

And we shout out and share with the community. So, we can connect to parents and community members that- to specifically say, this is really what’s happening in your school, this person goes above and beyond from their kids to give them that microscopic look into our schools.

Then our specifically our elementaries and also our middle school said, hey, if we can do that with our adults and define what right looks like, we want to create our own standards.

We have Gold Titans, we have Superhero Titans that are defined in our elementary, and then our middle school, where they created their values. So, they connect to what- what does right look like there? And they have a Pbs- PBIS model.

But once a month I get to go and eat lunch with at each of the elementary schools, and then I’m connecting with the middle school kids as well with those students. And I asked them, what did you do that got you here to be the identified Gold Titan.  So, we can connect their purposeful actions with reward and recognition.

Kids wanna belong. They want to be seen. Adults want to belong and be seen. And how can we connect those 2 together? So, our elementary and middle school both took off on that standards of excellence.

And Titan Tuesdays and integrate it through their positive behavior intervention programs to say, this is what we want to look like. And one of I get to go out, connect with kids, and listen to them and touch base and learn about their dogs and all of those really fun things as we grow together.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. That’s you know. I love the example how you’ve, I mean, it’s the interconnection, not just with building the workplace, but taking it to your students, taking it to their families.

So, you can really see the intersections of those standards, and what you’re recognizing and rewarding. You know that that run through that with- with the people that you touch that are most important to you students.

And I love that with the connection out to the families as well.

For your students to be able to receive that recognition, but also to be able to talk, just talk to you. I’m sure they appreciate you doing that with them.

Jennifer Lowery: You know, connecting with the community we had a great story with lunch with Lowry. I mean you. Can you hear quite a few quite funny things when you’re having lunch with elementary students.

But this past year at graduation our gym was under construction, so we had an outdoor graduation, and actually the weather was beautiful. It all went out. I was greeting people as they left, taking pictures, and I had a mum come up to me and say I don’t know if you realize how much it means to me that my daughter, who was a kindergartener, knows who you are.

She says she thinks you’re the lunch lady as you were- as you were shaking hands of the graduates going across the stage, she said, Mom, that’s Dr. Lowry. She’s the lunch lady at our school. And so that has just been a- it meant the world to that, Mom and I.

It didn’t even occur to me that the perceptions of who we are in being able to connect across generations to make people comfortable, sending their kids because we’re all just people.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. What a- what a fantastic story! That’s the beauty of being in our profession is hearing those types of stories. You know, as we- as you think about you built the culture and use the standards as a way to do that. And then you also hire new people and you on board new people.

So, you know, how do you? How do you? How do you do that in terms of ensuring that you’re hiring people to connect to the values. And what does that look like? And how does- how does that impact the organization or the district as a whole?

Jennifer Lowery: Something that you’ve talked about in previous episodes is rounding. And so, we really integrate those into our rounding. When we on board a new employee even before they become our employee. If they’re going to be in a certified position.

I get the opportunity to meet with them on human resources and culture expectations. So, before they’re even employed, I go over what our standards of excellence are connected through our people and ask them to reflect on whether that’s a good fit for them or not before they start.

If I’m not able to meet with those interview candidates, our human resource director does meet with them. And that’s one of the staple elements that we show individuals and say our evaluation, our rewards, and recognitions.

Who we are is right here, so as we measure our connection, please measure your connection as well, and your fit to try to get it right from the very beginning.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Gosh that’s great.

Jennifer Lowery: We are. We also do our classroom goals and plan do study acts which is relatively unique in classrooms. So, we show people. I have it on my wall. What my goal and my plan do study, act is right- right now.

I said, if you want to go in your classroom, just close your door and do what you do with your kids. There are districts who do that. And that’s okay. But you need to know. In this district we’re going to do plan do study acts which means our mission and vision is to educate and empower.

And how we empower is using PDSA cycles. Which just means, what’s your plan? What are you going to do about it? How did that go for you? And now let’s act or adjust.

Because we can always fail. But we have to fail forward. And we need to specifically teach kids and adults and people, how do you act and adjust? How do you act and adjust, and you have to do that purposefully. And so that’s a non-negotiable.

So, if they come to the district and are hired, they’ve already been told by the superintendent, the director of human resources and the interview team. This is how we’re going to interact in our classrooms. And there is kind.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And so those expectations are clear up front. That’s what they agree to when they when they work with you. And the other thing, Jen, that’s really hitting me in this conversation is, you know, there’s such clarity and alignment and consistency, right?

I mean, you have really, we’ve- we’ve connected for quite some time. But what I really hear this time more than any other time, and not that I hadn’t been there. But it’s just the growth I think over time is, you know it’s clear. It’s the picture, is there. It’s clear in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish, and you all are clear about those expectations, and it, and it cuts across every aspect of the people that you touch.

So, as you think about that culture change. And you look at the board and you look at the leaders, administrators, the teachers, the students, and the parents, how has that culture? How has your culture shifted? You know what has built that consistency and definition in your culture?

Jennifer Lowery: I think you stated it, it’s clarity. There’s a lot of really really good people who work here who work across schools across this country.

But when you specifically identify what right looks like. it creates boundaries that are common boundaries that everybody is okay with. It’s kind of like a speed limit. If we’re all driving 30 miles an hour down this road.

We all know there’s a little bit of buffer, but we can’t go 30 and 50, even if that’s your comfort level, and where you’re at in values and speed in all of those. I kind of think of it as these are the common guardrails that we can specifically talk to our community about and give them comfort.

And you really know they have comfort when they call you on your standards of excellence. Well, that’s not very whatever of you or okay.

That- that’s when it’s starting to be just part of the culture is when people call you out on it as well.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And when you deviate from that, it’s it becomes pretty clear, right? You know. I think that’s what I’ve learned as we’ve as we’ve applied these same principles, you know, in our organizations I have as a leader it.

What I’ve learned over the years is, you know, when- when somebody deviates, or their the bound get out of line or the boundaries, you don’t even have to tell people when that’s occurring because people like you’re talking about it’s recognized because it’s been set within the culture and the expectations have been set.

And I’m sure you find, too. You know you- you have people who wanna work in an organization like what you’re- what you build with the culture that you build. Right? That’s what I mean, people want those boundaries. They want that clarity because it helps them to become successful.

And most all of us want to be good at what we do.

Jennifer Lowery: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: So, you know. And so, part of that is the recognition making sure, as people are performing and aligning their behaviors to those values in ways that help the organization. You built the recognition into that process.

So, you know, kind of how do you- What’s next? Or what’s the 2.0 version of reward and recognition at Tea Area?

Jennifer Lowery: Our employee engagement survey gives us feedback on how we can get better at reward and recognition. What we’re doing right now is giving disk assessments, which is behavioral views.

And- and looking at what does this person need from their team? And how do we interact best with that? And how do we maximize strengths? And how do we reflect on how we personally are reacting and interacting with each other based on our disk profiles?

We’re gonna connect that with. We do thank you notes. We are specific. Also, looking at, how do we give some payback in a positive manner to employees that are going above and beyond, and creating a Titan Store and Titan Pride, and having specific items that they can connect to and belong and brand themselves with?

And that’s- that’s rolling out here pretty quickly. As we- It’s not about stuff but having deep pride in branding and wearing your Titan gear and looking the same. And we want people when they’re in the mall, or when they’re across the country to be proud.

I’m wearing my Titan shirt, and I am a Titan staff member and providing opportunities to connect in a broader range of reward and recognition, like many for profit companies are able to.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good, you know, that’s when you, that is, kinda when you know that you’re arriving in a different place is when people really are promoting, you know that personally, with their personal brand and what they- how they connect to the organization, the district as a whole.

And really, you know, they’re your promotion, right? They’re promoting what you do by just the way that they exist in the world.

So, and I love the- I love the personal connection to with really looking at personal assessments.

So, part of what we do is in terms of thinking, leadership, development, we develop leaders. And then we also have personal aspirations of what we want and how we balance that with who we are right. And that’s the- that’s kind of the deeper level of understanding we do, kinda. We do
Jen, we work off with strength finders that kind of the, I mean you just, you choose a tool, and you just kinda focus on it.

But you know, we’ve just kind of looked at people’s strengths and look at, you know, how we kind of maximize people’s strengths in order to help us- help us grow so. I think that’d be a great advancement for you all as you continue, continue your development.

So, let’s close today, you know, just always like to close with some recommendations from our superintendents and just the great work that you’ve done. So, as you think about what you’d recommend to school districts or any other organizations cause we can transfer this to most any organization, and you’ve done unbelievable work on continuous improvement. And, as I mentioned, across all principles.

You know, but as you’re elevating reward and recognition and building that cultural piece so that you can carry out your strategy and achieve your results. You know, what are your, what are your recommendations based on what you’ve learned.

Jennifer Lowery: My recommendation is that the people who are your culture have them work together with you to define it. Give them an opportunity to reward and recognize each other and make sure that it’s just not one population. It’s not just about teachers.

We end our school year by, we have the teacher of the year, but we have the standards of excellence employee of the year.

The very last thing we do before leaving for the summer is, people have nominated individuals who are not administrators and not teachers, and there is a committee who selects, based on those nominations which are aligned to our standards of excellence. Who the 2024 this year standards of excellence, employee of the year is.

No one knows who’s been nominated, so we have every single person who is nominated by their peers stand up in the High School Commons, which has about 350 employees in it, and then we have their family hiding and announce who the standards of excellence employee of the year is, and bring their family out to engage with them, because people who are your standards of excellence give more time to you than they often give your family, and we bring them together.

And there’s a standing ovation to the end of the year. And it just- it just brings tears to my eyes at the heart that everybody has for each other.

And it’s not about you. It’s about your people. and I would highly recommend ending your year, not on how tough it was or what happened, or however you can take it down.

But end it with reward and recognition specifically connected to your standards of excellence or whatever your values are.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. As I again as I- we can talk over the years and as I as we’re talking today. You know, just the growth. And Tea area school district. You know, probably your growth. You know. I always talk about my growth. You know. I’m- I don’t think I’ll ever grow up, you know, to be the leader that I think I can because there’s always something to learn, you know, Jen, and there’s always ways that we can get better.

But I tell you the advancement that you’ve made, and that your district is made is just a model. It really is. It’s a model out there, and you’ve been recognized, you know, personally for it by getting the Superintendent of The Year award and being recognized.

Personally, I know that you build that connection back to the people and the work that they do and the type the parents and students in the community that you have the- the privilege to serve.

But you are truly a leader that helps us understand what right looks like. So, thank you so much for what you do.

Jennifer Lowery: Thank you and thank you for the opportunity to be on this, but to listen to all of the experts that I’m like, oh, I could grab that. Oh, I could change that. And I think that’s the magic about Studer Education and coaching is that you can take tidbits and implement tomorrow.

It’s about the little things because you’re already a good- your people are already good.

Janet Pilcher: Thank you so much.



[Outro music plays in the background.]


Janet Pilcher: Thanks so much. I appreciate Jen’s commitment to Principle 9. There is nothing more important in our organizations than to recognize those who are doing the great work that help us make an impact on those that we serve each and every day.

And Jen has focused her attention to ensure that the people in her organization who are working really hard to get excellent results are recognized and appreciated for the work that they do and the success that they achieve. Very appreciative to her leadership and the team at Tea Area School District.

To hear more about Principal 9 and other principals, our virtual book club is still underway and I’d love to invite you to join. We’ve been diving chapter by chapter into my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.

No matter what your position is in an organization. If you want to grow as a leader and lead at the next level, this club is for you. We’d love to see you at our next meeting. It’s free, and our next meeting is Monday at 2:00. The topic is the principal we looked closely at today, Rewarding and Recognizing Others.

Join us next week as we learn together and engage in discussions around this principle. For details on how to register, head to studereducation.com/hardwiringexcellence.

As always, I thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best.

Have a great week.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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