When she dances – which is as often as possible – Sue Goldman dances like no one is watching. But that’s not why she dances.
She dances because she knows exactly who is watching.
That would be the entire staff and student body of Gale Ranch Middle School in San Ramon, CA. Plus the parade of parents at morning dropoff.
Every weekday morning, Sue wheels her portable PA system onto the sidewalk in front of the main entrance, scrolls through her carefully curated Spotify playlist and makes her musical selection du jour. Then, pulling a page from the Martha and the Vandellas playbook, the school principal gets the party started.
Or, as they call it at Gale Ranch, a typical school day.
“It’s so simple, and we forget to do the simple things: Be kind to one another. Be positive,” she said.
Last March, Sue cranked the tunes for the first time. The initial reaction was unsurprising.
“They thought I was crazy.”
But insanity was not the catalyst. Selfishness was.
“Oh, it was totally selfish. I got to play music and dance.”
What better way to start the day, Sue figured. And so the middle school’s morning routine got a musical makeover. Students began arriving to find their principal dancing and singing, strutting into the crosswalk to manage traffic with her customized stop sign that reads “Stop” on one side (for cars) and “Dance” on the other (for everyone else). Most of the time, Sue is joined by pockets of students getting their pre-first period groove on and by teachers looking to start their own days on the right note. But on those rare mornings where she has to dance alone, so be it.
It’s a ritual now, something fun that Sue takes seriously. What began as a novelty has become a game-changer.
“This has created a positive vibe on campus and throughout the community that I could not foresee,” said Sue.
She hears regularly from parents who appreciate the tone she’s setting at such a turbulent time (morning and middle school). Some thank her for reinforcing the power of positivity, some for modeling the values of individuality and originality (no conforming to some Middle School Principal stereotype going on here). Some just like to hear a little ABBA in the morning.
The students are tuned in, too. A few weeks ago, Sue was doing her daily rounds at lunch time, circulating among groups of kids and asking them all her typical questions – What are you doing today to be kind to one another? How are you being beautiful human beings to one another? She spotted a girl, sitting alone on a bench, crying.
Sue recognized her as a girl new to the school, and she started to make a beeline toward the bench. Before she got within 50 yards, though, Sue stopped. Another 8th grade girl had come to the bench, put her arm around the new girl, and sat with her, talking and listening, for most of the rest of the lunch period. It was an act of kindness that all teachers and administrators and parents want to believe they are preparing their kids to make. They just don’t often get to witness it happening organically, especially not in the cauldron of anxiety that is middle school lunch period.
“For learning to be able to happen, kids need to feel safe,” Sue said. “We’re creating an energy on our campus where it’s not okay to be mean to someone, it’s not okay to exclude anyone.”
Where it’s okay to be yourself. To dance to your own beat, as it were.
Sue’s infectious influence is starting to extend well beyond the range of her boom box and the boundaries of the Gale Ranch campus. The local media across the Bay Area has picked up on the positive vibe and helped share Sue’s story (maybe you’ve seen them pop up on your social media feeds: here or here).
Or on NBC Nightly News in early December.
That, to her, is the most amazing part. She’s never been much of an activist. Sure, she competed in Ironman Arizona four times, raising money for charity in a couple of those events. But until she dragged her speaker to the sidewalk, she hadn’t really mounted a movement of any kind.
And throughout her career as an administrator, Sue always has been committed to improving the school experience for her students. At Gale Ranch, she’s established an innovative academic intervention program, which provides support and structure for all of her students to learn the essential skills in whatever subject they happen to be struggling with. Other districts have sent their staff to visit and observe what they’re doing at Gale Ranch, but there’s been no real buzz about it.
To date, her most notable feat has been her most notable feet.
“I’ve always told my teachers, ‘Never forget that a kid is more likely to remember how you make them feel than anything you teach them academically,’ ” she said.
Ultimately, that is the takeaway Sue hopes will come from all of the coverage of her morning dance routine. It is the kind of feel-good story we all crave these days, yes, but it’s a story about the importance of making kids feel good. About who they are. About belonging. About starting the school day on a positive note.
And the best part?
“Anybody can do it. Anywhere,” she said. “I want people to steal this idea.”
In other words, to follow her lead.
Sue supports Newtown Kindness, an organization founded after the Sandy Hook school shootings to “promote kindness as a guiding principle of humanity.” Visit Sue’s Flipgive fundraising page below to donate directly or Shop & Support Newtown Kindness.