It’s Time to Rock Reward and Recognition


“Great job!”

When it comes to motivating team members, the simple act of offering praise and recognition for a job well done goes a long way.


Positive feedback triggers the release of dopamine, which serves as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Chemicals released in the brain stimulate feelings of happiness, innovative thinking, and creative problem solving. Beyond making people feel good, the pride, pleasure, and increased self-esteem resulting from a compliment boosts individual performance.

When praise and recognition occur regularly in the workplace, positive emotions follow and engaged cultures develop. Brad Black, President and CEO of HUMANeX Ventures and a Gallup Hall of Fame recipient for his work on designing and building a world-class leadership and human resources model agrees, “You need to recognize reality–in every profession there is a range of performance. This range is not affected by skill or knowledge–it is always talent.” When that performance is acknowledged, cultural engagement skyrockets.

The Gallup® organization agrees. Its studies encompass more than four million employees in 10,000 business units across more than 30 industries, and find that, when management regularly acknowledges strong performance, productivity increases, engagement among colleagues spikes, employees are less likely to quit, customers loyalty and satisfaction surges, and accidents in the workplace decrease dramatically.

Abraxas Worldwide, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, uses tools from HUMANeX Ventures to strategically select, position, and develop people in the right roles to maximize the potential of its team.

Melanie Gilbert, Administrative Services Associate Director at Abraxas, explains one such tactic the company uses to give feedback: the company hands out diamond-shaped pads of paper to all employees, called “diamond drops.”

Gilbert says, “We encourage employees to write diamond drops (of appreciation) for their coworkers within their departments, and outside their departments, if they see somebody doing a really great job. During our monthly company-wide meetings, we encourage employees to read (out loud what they wrote on) diamond drops that they are giving to a coworker. Employees are humbled by it. They really appreciate it. You can see in the recipient’s face. It’s always how we close the meetings. It’s not only coming from management to employees, but employees giving appreciation to each other.”

“From the first employee survey we rolled out in December of 2013 to where we are now, we see much higher employee satisfaction at Abraxas. Employees feel much more valued. They’re happy to work at here.”

Oftentimes, most workplaces, including schools, don’t stop to celebrate. They are too busy taking care of business, and in the educational field, that means students. In a recent Gallup poll, more than 25 million employees around the world, including over 100,000 educators, were asked what engages them at work. The lowest item rated by K-12 teachers was “in the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.” When Gallup asked teachers to rate their principals on measures such as management style, philosophy, and school climate, the principals receiving the highest ratings were recognized for valuing “recognition as a frequent and ongoing activity that builds a strong, positive school culture” and building “an environment in which recognition is contagious and everyone plays an important role.”

Enter the Catalyst Education Awards.

Regional economic development organization, Southwest Michigan First, founded the awards program in 2016 with the mission to make Southwest Michigan globally recognized for preparing people to thrive in education and employment. The programs hopes that by recognizing excellence practices currently taking place in local classrooms that other educators and schools will elevate their students’ performance by implementing best practices into their own classrooms and trying innovations of their own.

With a regional seasonally unadjusted jobless rate of 4.1 percent as of October 2016 across the counties of Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Van Buren counties, the region’s workforce is stretched to its limits. Southwest Michigan First sees the region’s K-12 educational systems as the greatest resource for talent to future supply workforce demand. According to its president and chief executive officer Ron Kitchens, “From classroom to community, we all can only grow stronger by encouraging teacher innovation and supporting leadership in our schools to produce talented students who will excel in our schools, and upon graduation from high school, community college or university, come to work at our great companies.

The 2017 Catalyst Education Awards honor one winning school, a principal and three teachers. “While students receive report cards to showcase their achievements, the Catalyst Education Awards believe that teachers, principals and schools should take time to celebrate big achievements and innovative practices, too. Many say that teaching is a calling. Because we couldn’t agree more, we proudly support the outstanding educators who have dedicated themselves to making a difference in our children’s lives,” Kitchens continues.

Children should be given the opportunity to succeed academically under any circumstance. Whether this means connecting with them on a personal level to ensure that they’re keeping a level head amidst the social and scholastic challenges in our modern educational environment, or immersing students in scenarios designed to strengthen skills that will be needed in their future work, character and promote perseverance, this year’s Catalyst Education Award winners have done everything in their power create a habitat for student success. And while all of them have managed to win the hearts of their staff and students, each has taken a different approach in doing so.



Danielle Niewoonder

Grade One
Schoolcraft Elementary
Schoolcraft, MI

A firm believer in “wiggle time”, Danielle Niewoonder, a first grade teacher at Schoolcraft Elementary, dictates that: “A child’s attention span is directly related to their age, each year representing a minute of their undivided attention.” With such logic applied, Niewoonder has a full six minutes before her class starts to lose interest.

In order to accommodate their needs, Niewoonder created a wiggle-safe environment for her kids. Furnished with pull-apart desks, three different options of chairs to bounce around on, and a community cache of school supplies at the center of each desk cluster, her classroom exudes auras of comfort and acceptance. The inviting vibes are further amplified by purple walls, a reading corner with bookcases and benches built by her grandfather, and of course, a big, colorful rug at the front of the room to gather round.

The effort Niewooder put into setting up the ambiance in her classroom is astonishing, and yet it pales in comparison to the work she put into forming her curriculum. With students at a variety of levels across a wide range of subjects, her cardinal concern is making sure each child is getting the help they need to succeed. In order to give her kids the best equipment around, Niewoonder has applied to pilot various educational products, and was recently approved for one-to-one computing (referred to as 1:1), which supplies each child with his or her own tablet. This tablet can then be used by Niewoonder and her students to track progress, making it much easier for both parties to understand which areas they excel in, and which could use a bit of work.

In terms of academic progression, Niewoonder believes that the most difficult aspect of first grade is conquering the nine reading levels required to reach second grade. To ensure each child is given the attention they need, Niewoonder and her two teammates, who also teach first grade at Schoolcraft Elementary, divide their kids into multiple reading groups based on their ability as readers. Once the divisions are made, each group addresses the problems presented at their level, overcomes them, and moves on to the next level at a pace that suits the whole group.

While Niewoonder knows the importance of her class’s intellectual prowess, and has done everything in her power to help them succeed, she knows that her job extends far beyond scholasticism. First grade is the grade in which a child begins to learn academically, as opposed to being taught how to interact with one another. Unfortunately, there are many cases in which kids struggle in first grade because their teachers never took the time to establish a connection with them. Luckily for her kids, Niewoonder has vowed never to join the ranks of such educators. She holds both love and trust in high regard, hoping that every student she has will leave first grade knowing that their teacher sincerely cared about every aspect of their young lives.



Dawn Kahler

Grade Eight
Milwood Magnet School
Kalamazoo, MI

Dawn Kahler may not have purple paint on the walls of her eighth grade science classroom at the Milwood Magnet School, but she’s still on par with Niewoonder when it comes to caring about her kids. She steps into her classroom no later than 6:00 a.m. every weekday, and spends the weekends at school preparing for the units ahead.

Strongly supportive of an educational mode that is tailored to fit the needs of each student rather than a single teacher, Kahler has become fond of Milwood’s recently adopted “Growth Mindset.” This attitude, which allows her to promote the progression of confidence and character as much as knowledge of natural hazards, also aided her in connecting with her students.

“It’s hard to understand someone when you aren’t willing to understand the community around them,” said Kahler as she expressed the importance she places on her relationship with the students in her class.

Fortunately, Milwood’s Growth Mindset and its critical thought-based model of learning have helped Kahler bridge the gap between teacher and student. By requiring her students to keep a journal, Kahler receives a unique glimpse into the life of each student, which helps her understand where they’re coming from.

Some teachers pay the opinions held by their students no mind, but Kahler is not among them. In fact, alongside the many distractions that they face, Kahler believes the biggest challenge for many kids is overcoming the heartache that comes along with being a young adult at this day in age. “It seems we’ve entered an era where people are afraid to be themselves, and instead they try to be whatever it is that people approve of, but they can’t be, because that isn’t who they are,” Kahler responded when asked what she meant by “overcoming heartache.”

The journals are a good starting point, but Kahler knows helping her kids best their personal struggles requires more than a pen and paper. She is a huge fan of one-on-one interactions, as she is able to use them to empower her students throughout their educational process. Instead of simply assigning a target for her students to reach at the end of each unit, Kahler conducts an in-depth discussion with each student. At the end of each conversation Kahler gives her students the opportunity to set their own goals, which they spend the rest of the year trying to achieve.

By allowing her kids a certain amount of control over their academic destiny, Kahler has provided them with the internal motivation that fulfills Milwood’s growth mindset. In addition, giving her kids space has resulted in them picking topics they are interested in, thus improving the academic atmosphere via the passion that surfaces once they present their finished products.

“I want all of my students to leave my classroom knowing that they matter, and that their opinions matter. More than anything, I want them to have enough confidence in themselves to stand up for the things they believe in,” Kahler. Her subject may be science, but Kahler would like to think that her students learn far more about themselves than they do natural hazards.



Joshua Doe

Band Director
Niles High School
Niles, MI

Over the course of his tenure as the maestro of music at Niles High School, Joshua Doe has doubled the number of kids in the school’s band program. Packed to the brim with young adults ranging from sixth grade to twelfth, all of whom reside at different spots across the spectrum of musical talent, a lesser teacher might be intimidated by the sight of his classroom. On the contrary, this performer-turned-teacher embraces the many obstacles that come with his gargantuan ensemble, believing that cooperation on behalf of all its members is the only way to overcome them.

“It’s messy, noisy, and there’s constant movement”, said Doe when asked to describe an average practice session. A strong believer in the notion that kids learn more when they are forced to challenge themselves and make mistakes, he is more than happy to deal with the ear-piercing off-notes that inevitably shriek through the air during rehearsal, knowing that such mistakes will correct themselves with enough practice. And while he is always pleased to hear his band play in perfect unison, Doe’s mission as a teacher goes far deeper than simply teaching his kids how to play their instruments.

“There is no proven Mozart effect.” Doe admitted when asked about the relationship between music and academia. That said, he holds fast to the belief that picking up an instrument can, and very often does, dramatically improve a child’s life. That improvement comes with a student making the choice choosing to be a part of something bigger than them, thus having to adapt to the needs of their fellow bandmates.

Doe made a point of mentioning how accommodating his administrative staff has been to him and his students, bringing up a particular instance in which the band couldn’t find busses to take them to the state festival.

“At the drop of a hat our administration spent $1,500 on charter busses to get us there.” Doe reflected.

The administration has helped him out in a number of other ways, supplying his students with their instruments being chief among them. In return, Doe and his group of merry minstrels have taken a previously lackluster program and polished it into the school’s crown jewel.



Jim French

Portage Northern High School
Portage, MI

Collaboration is key for Jim French and his close-knit staff at Portage Northern High School. A lifelong Southwest Michigan local, now principal at Portage Northern, French adamantly disagrees with the self-described “beatings will continue until moral improves,” model of education that he grew up in. Instead, French wants his students to feel appreciated, accepted, and hopes to teach them the values of good character and perseverance.

French receives an incredible amount of support from his staff, taking the word “Pride” to a whole new level. Sure, every school has pride, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that uses the word synonymously with their school’s mission statement. The staff at Portage Northern has broken down “Pride” into a five-pronged matrix that urges staff and students alike to be positive and respectful, show initiative as well as determination, and be engaged in the learning process.

The staff has definitely kept their part of the bargain. By utilizing modern technologies, such as the cameras on our phones and various social media outlets, teachers at Portage Northern have turned traditional classroom distractions into useful tools that promote participation in the classroom. The staff’s decision to accommodate students has a reciprocal effect in that students are more likely to appreciate their teachers’ efforts, thus creating a base to establish strong student-teacher relationships.

Establishing such relationships is a necessary step in teaching kids how to persevere, which in French’s opinion may be the most important aspect of modern education. Worried that our nation’s attitude is one of “don’t make mistakes because failing can be painful,” French hopes that his kids realize that learning how to dissect problems based on lessons learned from past mistakes is exponentially more rewarding than living a life in which failure is unacceptable. He has but one message for parents when it comes to mistakes, “Let your children make them.”



Comstock STEM Academy

Comstock, MI

In similar fashion to French and his staff, the Comstock STEM Academy, which provides a unique take on K-8 education, was founded upon the idea that students should learn how to adapt to, and persevere through our world’s many challenges. Presided over by Director Chris Chopp, the academy’s curriculum is rooted in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. And though these four areas of study are often thought of as analytic rather than creative, the team at Comstock has made a point of being an exception to such opinions.

By introducing students to their LEGO® room, in which kids are asked to build scenes that were read to them out of a storybook, the staff at Comstock has successfully blurred the line between creativity and basic engineering. Likewise, the recent addition of a 3-D printer to the school’s already impressive arsenal of technologies allows students to connect the dots between art and math by imagining, coding, and printing miniature 3-D versions of landmasses and skyscrapers.

With so many awe-inspiring mechanisms on the premises, Comstock STEM has seemingly adopted the mantra of Uncle Ben of the Marvel Universe’s Spider-Man stores: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While it is a public school, Comstock STEM Academy does ask its students to apply before being admitted.

“We want to be sure that each child has a drive to learn.” Chopp said when asked about the admissions process.

After submitting their test scores, filling out the Comstock STEM application, and sitting down for an interview with Director Chopp, students who apply are considered for admission. Those who exhibit a genuine interest in an accelerated academic atmosphere, as well as a desire to be challenged by it, are given the opportunity to attend Comstock STEM.

In truth, Comstock STEM’s advanced curriculum is but a fraction of what makes this establishment worthy of its Catalyst Education Award. Like its four companion honorees, Comstock STEM puts major emphasis on each student’s personal progression, which extends past the walls of each institution and the subjects taught at them, and encompasses the greater makeup of their character. By investing every fiber of their beings into the students that roam their halls, this year’s award winners have taken it upon themselves to begin a major shift in the mood of educators by promoting the belief that students must be taught to value and explore any areas of study that interest them, while being supported at home by parents and guardians who let them be comfortable with who they are.

You can learn more about how to enter yourself, your school or a fellow educator for consideration for a 2018 Catalyst Education Award at The deadline for entry for is August 31, 2017.

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