Schools of Fish!


By Philip Strand

By John Christensen

By Andy Halper

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It’s two minutes to 8:00. Time to put on your tights and cape. As an educator, every time that bell rings, you face dozens of challenges. Students with overwhelming personal and academic needs. Creativity-stifling mandates. Administrivia. Cynicism. Apathy. The things that keep you from being the educator you want to be. The FISH! Philosophy–four simple principles: Be There, Play, Make Their Day, and Choose Your Attitude–has helped educators around the world build more effective, fulfilling relationships that lead to better learning. It is also backed by tons (OK, about a hundred pounds) of research on classroom management. Schools of FISH! is full of inspiring and instructive stories about people just like you–with hopes and challenges just like yours. It’s about real-life heroes who give the best in themselves to help their students find the best in themselves.

Schools of FISH! offers practical ideas on classroom management. It addresses the issues you deal with every day–improving learning, respect and personal accountability, self-discipline and internal motivation, and finding ways to make learning more fun. Because you’re not just teaching students to learn . . . you’re inspiring them to want to learn.


Welcome Back to the Reason You Became an Educator

Who was the best teacher you ever had?

For me, it was Bruce Golob. His teaching style was the greatest standup routine of intelligent optimism ever. We weren’t his audience, we were right in there with him, taking on the world and all of life’s crazy ironies. He nudged us not just to find meaning in our lives, but also to actually create our lives. Like acoustic learning gone electric, I remember feeling positively phosphorescent being around his teaching! WOW, that felt good!

He pushed us hard, played with us even harder/smarter. And even when we pushed back, two things were clear: He was real…He cared deeply.

Every school day (weekends and summers too) educators are asked to change the world, like Bruce changed mine. It’s exhilarating, scary, seemingly impossible—an undeniably idealistic quest. Because we’re not just teaching students to learn. We’re inspiring them to want to learn. The teachers I know—and I’ve talked with thousands of them—charge into the fray with passion and purpose. They care, and it hurts when things get in the way. So much seems outside their control: Administrivia, government mandates, unruly students, sometimes even more unruly parents.

At times like these, as we search frantically for a phone booth where we can put on our tights and cape, it helps to remember that each of us already possesses a strength more powerful than a steaming locomotive. We control how we show up for our students and colleagues.

This book is about educators, everyday heroes who choose to show up in a certain way. And they all have something in common: The FISH! Philosophy.

What in the heck is The FISH! Philosophy?

Few people show up quite like the fishmongers of Pike Place Fish in Seattle. Their work is cold and exhausting, yet they bring so much energy, creativity, and poetic surprise to the job that people come from around the world just to watch. Kind of like observing a classroom…team-taught by Billy Crystal, Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, and Maya Angelou.

After filming at Pike Place Fish several years ago, ChartHouse Learning analyzed hours and hours of footage to put its collective finger on what made that workplace so engaging. ChartHouse zeroed in on four essential ideas.

Despite continual distractions, the fishmongers were consistently present for customers and for each other.

They constantly looked for ways to be creative and have fun while working—and found that they accomplished even more.

They connected with customers, and people just passing by, for no other reason than to brighten their day.

No matter what the situation, each fishmonger took responsibility for consciously, actively choosing his attitude.

These behaviors were not written in the fish market’s strategic plan, but ChartHouse Learning recognized them as something every one of us can do to be more alive at work, at home, in the world. Mindful that an idea, like a child, needs its own identity to grow and flourish, ChartHouse named the four practices: Be There, Play, Make Their Day, and Choose Your Attitude. And The FISH! Philosophy was born.

The FISH! Philosophy has been introduced to millions of people around the world through a video called FISH! and a book of the same name. It’s a positive, common language that gives individuals and organizations a foundation for building vibrant relationships.

FISH! For Schools

As educators brought FISH! to school, they told us, “Hey, this sounds a lot like the research on what works with kids. Except more fun!” They were right: We found tons (well, actually several pounds) of studies on classroom management that validated The FISH! Philosophy. From this research, guided by real-life teachers, we created FISH! For Schools, a combination of curriculum, staff development, and workshops, to help educators build more invigorating, effective classrooms and schools.

As we developed FISH! For Schools, educators told us The FISH! Philosophy gave them a way to connect with students like they’d never connected before. As one boy informed his teacher, “FISH! helps you hear me.” They said they were rediscovering the passion that had been buried under demands, cynicism, and distractions. Learning was fun again. This book, Schools of FISH!, is their story.

As you read, you’ll find ideas that confirm your best instincts, challenge your thinking, and deepen your understanding of The FISH! Philosophy. But most of all, you’ll find stories of people just like you, with students, hopes, dreams, and yes, problems like yours. It’s about educators who use The FISH! Philosophy to help them BE the best parts of themselves, to ignite the spark that illuminates minds and hearts for life…to be that teacher, the one your students remember as the best they ever had.

Welcome back to the reason you became an educator.

—Andy Halper,
Professor of Boredom Prevention, ChartHouse Learning


Stinky Fish

Teaching always came naturally to Chris Streiff.

“We all try different jobs in life. Some are hard. It’s not that you can’t do them, but they’re kind of a struggle. Other jobs just come naturally. That’s what teaching always was for me.

“Like when I was a student teacher, I would always get down on one knee to talk to children. My supervisor would ask why I was doing that. ‘Well, because they’re short!’” Chris laughs. “Of course she would explain the psychology of how it put kids more at ease—and I learned all that. I just did it because it felt right…and it worked.”

Things worked so well for Chris that for her first seven years of teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, she never used a behavior plan. “Basically, my approach was: You respect me and I respect you. I never had a problem building a classroom community.”

But then, she encountered a first grade class at Gage Elementary School that just didn’t click. “I don’t know if it was the mix of abilities, backgrounds, or personalities, but they were a handful,” Chris says. “Some of it was that Rochester was changing. We had more children who came to school with a lot of needs.

“One little girl’s family had recently emigrated here. Her mother was trying to raise five kids by herself, learn English, and go to school so she could get a job. Another student moved back and forth between Rochester and Chicago every few weeks. She would tell us stories like, ‘The police came to our house last night because there was a big fight,’ as if this was no big deal. These kids had so much to deal with, and they brought it with them to school.”

The needs didn’t stop there. One student with autism regularly threw himself on the floor, kicking and swinging his arms. “He’d hit chairs, kids, whatever was in reach. He was a big boy, and it was terrifying for some kids. We taught everyone about autism and tried to not make a big deal out of it. One of the other teachers said, ‘How do you do it, Chris? There’s yelling coming from your room all the time.’ I said, ‘Really?’ His meltdowns were so frequent that we kind of got used to it.

“Another student was so impulsive that, when I’d call his name, he’d come to me directly over the table, chairs, or whatever person might be in his way. He’d scream in kids’ faces if he was upset. He’d run down the hall, push the older kids, and not give it a thought.

“I understand impulsiveness,” Chris says. “The kids are little, they’re learning, and it’s my job to help them learn the right behavior. What bothered me most, though, was disrespect. Kids were rude and mean to each other. Some would laugh when a classmate gave the wrong answer. They argued over crayons and markers, scribbled on other people’s work. They hit. They fought. Some stole food from lockers—sometimes because they were hungry. Every transition took half an hour. We talked about it all the time, but we hadn’t been able to develop the sense of community that’s necessary in any class.”

As a result, the entire class missed out on learning. “One little boy came to kindergarten already reading chapter books,” Chris says. “I needed to keep him challenged. But when you spend all your time focused on getting the dramatic behaviors under control, the kids who are ready to roll suffer. Some of them were shutting down. I couldn’t let that happen. In first grade, when you’re learning to read and kids laugh at you for whatever reason, that can make or break who you become as a reader.”

Gradually, Chris’s classroom personality began to harden. “I feel I’m a warm person and I always loved to see the kids have fun learning, but I was furious that these kids thought they were running the show, taking away from other kids’ valuable learning time. I told Ann Clark, the principal, and Kevin Ewing, the assistant principal, to expect an influx of students from my class because I wasn’t messing around anymore. I started sending kids to the office left and right. I had never done that before.”

Desperate, she talked to everyone on staff who might have a solution. For the first time, she tried a behavior plan that involved flipping colored cards with each infraction. “That lasted a week. I felt I was saying, ‘Strike one, strike two, strike three,’ all day.

“I was becoming way too intense to be a first grade teacher. I was so tired trying to control these children all the time. I trudged through the days. The joy was gone. I went home wiped out, and I didn’t enjoy my family life. I felt…defeated. You know what was the most frustrating? I thought, ‘I’m good at teaching! I was meant to do this!’ But it wasn’t working. If I couldn’t do what I was meant to do, what was I there for?”

One day, the pressure proved too much and she had a meltdown in Kevin Ewing’s office. “I can’t keep doing this if I’m not going to be successful,” she told him between sobs. At home she began to look through the classified ads. It was only November.

Changing our classroom

At about that time, Chris learned about The FISH! Philosophy. “I was the staff development facilitator at Gage and was thinking of ways to apply FISH! to the staff. But my mind kept going back to the classroom. I realized The FISH! Philosophy was a model for behaviors I was looking for with students. There was nothing there that wouldn’t work in the classroom.”

Chris also recognized that she couldn’t do it alone. “I realized it wasn’t just my classroom. It was our classroom. I had to find a way for my students to want to make it a better place.”

Stinky Fish

Chris started the process by drawing a large fish skeleton on chart paper. “I said, ‘Boys and girls, I feel like I’m crabby all the time. I need your help. There are some things in class that are bugging me. Are there any things that are bugging you?’”

Almost all the children, even the ones causing the most problems, were bothered by something going on in the class. Chris and her students identified the things that were interfering with fun and learning and wrote them on the lines of the fish bones: pushing, shoving, blurting out, stealing, budging in line, not sharing. They quickly filled up three large fish bones.

When the class was done, Chris asked, “How do you think a dead fish smells?” To which the kids replied, “Stinky! Smelly!”

“Do we want a Stinky Fish in our classroom?” Chris urged.

“No!” the kids yelled.

“Do we want these behaviors in our classroom?!”


Suddenly Chris ripped the sheet off the easel, crumpled it, and threw it in the trash. “I’m not overly dramatic, so the children were a little shocked that I would do that to my hard work—and to theirs,” she says. “But I wanted them to see the symbolism of throwing these behaviors away.”

Chris didn’t really throw the Stinky Fish away. “I put it in a special Stinky Fish Trash Bin, so if the behaviors came out in the future, we could take out the paper and look at it again. Occasionally, we’d grab it to remind students that we had thrown those behaviors out.”

Practicing values and beliefs

Having identified behaviors they didn’t want, Chris used The FISH! Philosophy to start a discussion about what the class did want. “We looked up the word ‘philosophy’ in the dictionary and learned that it is a set of values and beliefs that we all live by.

“I didn’t tell them, ‘These are my classroom rules and here’s how it’s going to be.’ I talked about how ‘this is something I’m learning about and I think it can help us, but I’m not sure. Let me share it with you and let’s explore it together.’ That captivated them, I think. They thought, ‘Hey, she thinks we can help.’ It was an invitation.”

Next, Chris showed the FISH! video to her class. “I told them adults use this, and the kids thought that was cool. They felt grown-up.” She smiles. The kids watched one section at a time, and then talked about how each principle might work in our classroom. “When we looked at Play—where the guys are throwing fish in the market—one child asked, ‘Can we throw books in class?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘But what can we do that’s fun without throwing? Singing, dancing, chants…’ We tackled one concept a day so the children had a good overview.”

Once they knew what FISH! was about, Chris says, “We all had a framework for what we wanted. We were all speaking the same language. If a student did something that wasn’t helpful, I could say, ‘Do you think that would Make Their Day?’ They understood right away. It got them to thinking about how their actions might affect others instead of just thinking, ‘I got caught.’”

The final step was to practice FISH! behaviors. “Kids learn by doing. That’s the only way to internalize it. So at various times during the day, during transitions, we’d brainstorm ways we could choose our attitudes or Be There. We didn’t just put it on flip chart paper. We figured out how to put it in action.

“I knew FISH! was good for kids when they started bringing up, on their own, concepts that we had discussed. Kids would say, ‘Can I make my own Stinky Fish?’ So I made a bunch of sheets with Stinky Fish bones and put them out for the class. If something was bothering a student, they’d take one, write it out, and put it on my chair. Then we’d talk about it as a class. It gave kids a way to air their concerns without seeming like they were tattling. It was important for them to know they had some ownership over what was happening.”

Coloring attitudes

When Chris asked the first graders what an attitude is, they weren’t always able to verbalize it. “So they’d show me a face—mad or happy or sad. From there we’d talk about things like, ‘If we come to class in a bad mood, what can we do to turn it around?’ I told them I like to journal so I can get my feelings out. Once I’m aware of how I’m feeling, I can think about how to change it. From there we came up with an idea of a daily attitude survey.”

At the top of the survey sheet were the words This morning, I feel…Next to that were three faces: happy, neutral, and sad. When students came to class each morning, they’d circle the face that matched their mood at the time. “It helped them think about how they were feeling,” Chris notes. “Because they might not have realized they were in a bad mood.”

Also on the survey were the words, I will work toward having this attitude today…and a second set of three faces. “They’d color in the attitude they wanted to choose,” Chris says. “We learned that we all have unhappy stuff that happens in our lives and it’s okay to be upset, but we can’t come to school and hurt people with words or hands because we had a bad morning at home.”

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t always that seamless. To help students who brought bad “stuff” with them to class, Chris created a Chat Chair. “Kids sat in it when they wanted to talk privately. Once I got the other students started on their work, anyone could talk to me and get out what was on their mind,” she explains. “It was so important to take the time to deal with these kinds of concerns. As all teachers know, if you try to ignore them, they surely come out in some other behavior.”

From internal to external

Next, to expand the idea of attitudes, the classroom implemented a Make Their Day plan. Every morning, students selected a Popsicle stick, bearing the name of a classmate, from a can. Students then wrote how they were going to make that person’s day. “I pointed out that they could make lots of people’s days, but I wanted them to have a specific plan.”

At the end of the day, students looked at their planner and saw how they did. “The main idea was to consciously make the effort,” Chris says. “Maybe my plan was to play with Katie, but instead I sat with her at lunch or helped her with math or worked together on a project. We did this activity for about three weeks, and after that it just came naturally.”

Chris’s students were amazed at how making someone’s day made them feel. “I saw the boy who had trouble with his impulses tying an autistic boy’s shoes in the lunch room. He was thinking about someone other than himself.”

Taking care of each other

Chris’s class also often talked about what it meant to Be There for others. “A lot of times we don’t take time to teach children what we’re looking for,” she says. “We discussed how being there means eye contact, not talking while someone else is speaking, turning your body toward me, being with me when I give directions. Once they understood that, a simple, ‘Are you with me?’ was all I had to say when they got off track.”

Be There also means respect for others. “If your friend is saying she doesn’t want you to do that, or he doesn’t want to play that way, you need to tune into that. The children started listening to what one another really saying. Many of their little spats and issues with sharing went away.”

Eventually, students started coming to Chris with books they were reading. “They’d tell me, ‘This one has something about Be There or Make Their Day,’” she says. “We started a basket of books whose messages reinforced FISH!, so if we had problems I’d grab a book and I had a discussion tool right there.”

Being there was especially important outside the classroom. Chris explains, “A lot of our behavior problems happened on the playground or in the halls when students weren’t as closely supervised. My kids were the little ones on the playground. To know that they would look out for each other, to support each other, to include each other, was big. Because of that trust, when they came back into the classroom, they felt more comfortable taking risks in their learning and exploring.”

One rainy day during indoor recess, when Chris returned to her classroom, the aide told her two of the kids had bonked heads. “Neither was seriously hurt, but when I got there the class was in two groups, each group comforting one of the kids who had collided; just taking care of each other. That summed up the year for me.”

As the kids evolved, others got inspired. Kevin Ewing, Gage’s assistant principal, started stopping by to join the students in a goofy dance. “Since I’m the one dealing with discipline issues a lot,” he says, “it helped the kids to see me as a friend, not just the person they go to when they’re in trouble.”

Chris adds, “It was important for children to see teachers and administrators having fun. Showing kids that school can be fun—even though it’s a struggle at times—that’s part of the process. Once kids recognized this, they were willing to embrace challenges even more.”

Going with the flow

The more fun her kids had with learning and growing, the more Chris relaxed. “I was able to go with the flow of the kids more, to enjoy their personalities.” It was apparent in and outside the classroom. Gage’s teachers noticed that the old Chris—happy, relaxed, passionate—had returned. Her colleagues wanted to know: What was happening with her? She hadn’t gotten a new class. Why was she so centered? What was she doing?

When she shared her FISH! story, many were interested but not yet ready to try the philosophy themselves. “I had great, fabulous teachers tell me, ‘It’s one more thing. I cannot think about doing one more thing.’ But for me, it wasn’t about that. As my kids became a community and worked together, it allowed me to become more of a facilitator instead of having to spend all my time watching them. The kids were able to explore learning on their own and I wasn’t always fighting this negative air in the classroom. They were doing their job, which gave me time to do my job. It allowed me to get back to who I was and why I got into teaching.”

Changing our classroom

Though some of Chris’s students couldn’t pronounce “philosophy”—“They said philopopy,” she says—they all understood it was a model for behavior in the classroom. “They were proud of the culture they created and they talked a lot about how things had changed,” Chris says. “It was important for them to see they had the power to take a situation that wasn’t good and make it better. And they accomplished that.”

By the end of the first quarter, nearly 200 behavior slips were given out in the six grade levels, and half were in first grade alone. “Except in my classroom,” Chris says. “Behavior slips dropped way off, like 90 percent. Kids were still challenging, but we got through lessons more quickly—everything just flowed. We had finally figured out we were all in this together.

“I think it’s this shared ownership that makes The FISH! Philosophy so effective. It isn’t something that you do to kids. It’s something you do with them, as partners.”



How does it feel when someone gives you his or her undivided attention? By contrast, what’s your reaction when those you are trying to communicate with constantly look over your shoulder, check their watches, or continue to work while you are talking? Often we’re so wrapped up in our own heads, we forget about other people—the very ones for whom we’re not being there. Kids, especially, know when we’re present. One teacher refers to this as “being in the game.” she says, “Kids can sense it if you’re not playing 100 percent—and they’ll take advantage of it. But if they know you’re in the game, it changes the relationship.” It may also change how they react to their own mistakes. If your relationship with a student is poor, often the reaction is, “I know you don’t care about me, so why should I care?” Conversely, if your relationship with a student is healthy—when you’re consistently there for them—they may simply say, “I’m sorry. I messed up. Can you help me?” That duality also transfers to adult relationships. As daily pressures compete for our attention, it’s amazing how people can seem rude or, equally, how simple gestures stand out. For example, a certain principal never answers his phone when talking with a visitor. “It will ring and the other person will say, ‘It’s OK if you get that,’” he explains. “I tell them, ‘No, you’re more important to me right now.’. They’re always surprised.” Why? Possibly because it’s such a powerful statement of respect and commitment.

Oh no…not that student! Be There also centers around how we think about others. For example, it can be difficult to look past the reputation that some students carry with them from year to year, and easy to get locked into negative comments, made offhandedly or not, by colleagues who have taught them before. Instead of getting to know these students as they are today—or who they might become—we may treat them as they were in the past. The student often responds by thinking, “You’ve already made up your mind about me, so why should I be different?” The relationship remains stuck in a continuous cycle until someone decides to give today (and the possibilities of tomorrow) a chance.

Awareness, commitment, practice Be There starts with the decision to be physically and mentally present. When you get distracted—as we all do—you simply catch yourself and bring yourself back to now. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. All it takes is awareness, commitment, and practice.


On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
224 pages
Hachette Books

Philip Strand

About the Author

Philip Strand is a senior writer at Charthouse Learning, where he helps create books, learning curriculums, and mischief.

John Christensen is a filmmaker and CEO of Charthouse Learning, the leading producers of corporate learning programs.

Learn more about this author