#40 – Tal Thompson – Building Character and Academics

Tal Thompson

This episode features Tal Thompson. Tal is a teacher from Columbia, South Carolina. Over his 17 years of teaching he has developed a style and reputation for both high achievement and character development. In 2015, he was a top 4 finalist for the “America’s Top Teacher” award on Live with Kelly and Michael. He followed that up by winning the South Carolina Citizen Education Elementary Teacher of the Year award in 2016.
Tal attributes this success to: his ability to connect, push and cultivate confidence within his students; how he translates lessons in a way that will inspire positive and productive change; and his focus on real world skills like collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and communication. These skills are not given, but earned.

You can connect with Tal on his website http://talltal.com/ or on most social media, where he has the same handle @TallTalTeaches.

Listen on iTunes

Listen on the Web

Subscribe to the podcast

Subscribe to the newsletter

Show Notes

App Recommendations:

Instagram – Follow Tal

Book Recommendations:

Move Your Bus by Ron Clark

The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark

Kids Deserve It by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

Health Habits:

Morning workout, usually a spin class.

Start the class with a song. Watch this in action.

Reflection through journalling. 2 highlights, 1 improvement.

Be Well and Healthy – For Teachers

be well and healthy

I received some good feedback from the last post about being kind to yourself. One aspect that people focused on was the physical health part. I ask every guest I have about things that they do to keep the well and healthy and I have noticed some trends.

Physical Health

I have noticed that many people I have spoken with struggle with finding time and motivation to be physically active. Some strategies they use are having a dog that needs to get out and getting a group together to engage in physical activity together.

Another way people engage in physical activity is by using technology. George Couros recommended the app Aaptiv that he uses. Dr. Suzanne Squires uses the app 7 Minute Workout by Wahoo. Although he didn’t mention it in the interview, Dr. Dean Krielaars spoke about his use of Garmin watches (specifically the Fenix 5X) to track physical movement. When I spoke with Andrew Milne from #slowchathealth we pretty much stayed on this topic and how it relates to students and teachers then entire conversation.

Personally, I am find using apps and programs effective in keeping me motivated and expanding my bank of workouts. Some of the physical activity apps I use are:

Mental Health

Anther aspect the people often talk about is their mental health. Again there have been many different strategies shared with me by my guests. A few ensure that they have time with their family everyday with technology. Other meditate or practice mindfulness. Still others make sure they have a social visit or gathering each week.

I am very conscious of family time without tech and feel like this has a strong impact on the relationships I have with family. I also use the app Headspace. It is one of the few apps that I subscribe to yearly. I feel like when I go a while without using it, I am easily distracted and excitable.

Take Care of Yourself

I think taking care of ourselves as educators is really important. Our students depend on us and if we are not there, the relations isn’t either. It is also important to remember that we treat other as we treat ourselves, so take care of yourself. You are worth it.

Want to listen to some of the interviews I have done with others about education and teaching? Visit the Intersection Education website for all episodes. You can also subscribe on the device of your choice here.

Be Kind to Yourself

be kind to yourself

We treat others as we treat ourselves.

I have seen this over and over again as a truth.

You are beating yourself up about something you did? Others feel it.

You are down today? Others will know.

They know because it changes how you treat them.

This becomes particularly important when you work with kids as they don’t necessarily understand why you are treating them less well.

What do we do? Well, don’t beat yourself up more… Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Do one small thing that makes you feel good about yourself.

This might mean buying yourself something nice, but I have found that this is not always the best approach. Instead, make a decision or do something that make you proud to be you. Make a positive choice that reflects the person you want to be or person you aspire to be.

What might this look like?

  • Getting in some fitness.
  • Practicing mindfulness.
  • Putting down your phone and taking time to talk to an important person in your life.
  • Not buying something that don’t need.
  • Creating something to share with others.

Be kind to yourself, because we treat others as we treat ourselves.

The Importance of Technology

the importance of technology is not the thing, but what it helps us do. (1)

If you are like me, you can sometimes get caught up in a debate with others around what is the “best” tech tool. Depending on the person and the setting, these conversations can go on for a long time. I was engaged in a similar conversation the other day and stopped myself. What I has suddenly remembered is that the tool really doesn’t matter, what is important is what the tool helps us or students do.

At times in education, we forget the the things we do support the development of our students. Whether is be technology, strategies, relationships, extra-curricular involvement, or food programs these things exist in school for the purpose of the betterment of the student so that they can be come well-rounded adults who have knowledge and skills. How we get there can matter, but usually the small differences don’t… Like whether you are writing an essay on a PC or a Mac.

Let’s take that example to show you what I mean. Whether you are writing an essay on a PC, a Mac, or a Chromebook is unimportant. Why? Because chances are these pieces of technology will be obsolete in the next few years. The programs will look radically different to that point that the particular knowledge of that system is useless. On the other hand, the act of writing and the being able to clearly communicate our thoughts in the written form, that will endure. This is why the tech is less important than what is can help us experience.

If we take this a step further, what might be powerful for developing the skill of writing is leveraging a system that allows for more meaningful feedback, that allows a student to track their progress in a piece of writing over time and to share this writing with others so that they can contribute to a larger debate. These are all system neutral, meaning we can do them on almost all platforms.

In short, I think we need to focus more on what a piece of technology contributes to the overall skill development and the student/teacher experience, and less on the brand name on the side.

Sharing Learning for Better Schools

sharing learning for better schools

I am convinced that if we share more of the good things that are happening in our schools and the learning that we believe will make our schools better, that others can learn from us. When the people I follow have made themselves vulnerable by sharing the professional development that they have been engaging in, when they share the “ah-ha” moment that they think will make their school a better place for learning, when they share the article that has made them think, I am grateful and I learn too.

This is why I have ventured down the path of sharing my learning and seeking out new learning with others through a podcast over the past 6 months. I have been fortunate and privileged to speak with some amazing educators and non-educators who have shared insights into how we might make teaching and learning better for all.

I call this project Intersection Education and will get into why I called it this in another post. For now, please check it out. Listen, visit the website I have created for the episodes and let me know what you think by sending me a message on Twitter.

The more we share, the better we will all get at meeting the complex needs of our students.

Listen on iTunes

Listen on the Web


Start Slow to Go Fast

Start Slow,

It took our school over a year to implement Learning Sprints. Yes, over a year.

It was not because we did not allocate enough resources. It was not because we had teacher resistance. It was because we implemented slow on purpose.

We decided to follow the advice of others and start slow, to go fast.

I think we have all experienced an idea that was implemented too fast. The learning is rushed. It usually does not work for the site as there are specific aspects that have not been taken into account. Also, it feels imposed, as opposed to something that came from the people who will do the work. We have all seen these plans try, and fail.

We decided to start Learning Sprints slowly by exploring the process before even speaking to staff. This was in the form of a 4 day Learning Sprints session. The ideas were understood and we started to think about what it might look like in our building.

Next, we recruited a small group of teachers to experiment with putting in place this structure at our school. We tried out the plans and the tools. We made mistakes. Here is the thing, these mistakes were not fatal because we were only working with a small group who were comfortable with not getting it right the first time. This experimentation lasted for almost 5 months.

Next, we expanded our a few more people who were interested in the Learning Sprints process because they had heard about it from some of the teachers who were talking about it in the staff room. These new people were able to add more refinements to our process and have more insight into how it would work best for us.

We slowly expanded for the entire year, 10 months of school. It was not until 12 months after starting with a small group that we expanded to the entire school staff.

How did it go? Think about it… Half the staff were already engaged in the process. The process had already been tailored to fit our school, staff and community. People were invested in the process and had experienced success.

It was the easiest implementation I have ever had.

There is still work to do. We are working to embed this as part of what we do. We are also continuing to adapt and improve. But it has been an overall success.

I think it it because we started slow, to go fast.

Small Steps

I’m going to tell you something that you already know. Teaching is hard.

Why is it hard? Do you have a few hours… There is so much going on all the time!


In addition to all the curriculum and activities, it seems like the school is the place where all the other people involved in children’s lives need to meet them as well. This is why I called my podcast Intersection Education. At times it seems as though the school is the intersection of children’s lives. It is the place where the people and influences meet.

Not only do teachers need to be knowledgeable about the topics we traditionally associate with education, like reading, writing, numeracy, and assessment. We are now expected to be experts on a bunch of topics we had no idea that we were going to need to know about when we signed up to be a teacher.

Mental health, inclusion, physical literacy, bullying are examples. We need to have children play on technology and in nature, as much as possible at the same time as we need to increase their stamina in desks to be able to move into the next grade.

I recently attended a conference where one of the keynotes may a great case for including interior design principles in our classroom. A great message, but it seemed like just another thing to add to the list.

In addition, teachers cannot just focus on the things they need to teach. They need to know what social influences are acting on their students as well.

We recently had a group of students who were inexplicably absent for a few days. We were trying to think of all the things that we had done in our class that might have made them not want to come to school. When we finally heard from the parents, they told us that the video game Fortnite had come out and that they had allowed the kids to go on a 4 day bender.

It seems like everything is accelerating and we are along for the ride at times. By the way, I don’t think that this feeling is particular to education. Most other professions seem to think the same thing.

All of this leads to many teachers feeling overwhelmed.


I see the main problem is that teachers believe they need to be experts on everything… right now. Not only do they think they are behind but they don’t know how to become experts.

The question they should be asking is: “What do my students most need me to learn?” and “What is the first step to becoming better in this area?” We need to focus on one area at a time and concentrate our attention on the areas that we think will have the most impact.

This idea of taking of taking one step at a time is not new. Applications like the fitness program “Couch to 5km” have revolutionized the small steps approach to improvement.

This the reason that I believe that Learning Sprints has the power to revolutionize how we get better at education. This way of approaching professional learning concentrates on small improvements over a period of time. It gets us to focus on the areas where we feel we will have the most impact and it cues us to put in place assessment tools that will let us know if we are “changing for the better” or “changing to be different”. It also leans on research to focus our efforts on the strategies that have the highest chance of having impact.


No one needs a change for something to do. This is why knowing whether a change we make is truly better is important.

In the end, I think this gives us the sense of hope. The opposite of feeling overwhelmed. We can be what our students need us to be, but in small manageable steps, over a period of time.

We don’t need to be a master tomorrow, but eventually. We can get better everyday.

Take the first step.


For more information visit the #learningsprints community at LearningSprints.org