Pinewood Derby: Continual Growth and Success

Raymond PortenBlog, Lead Better, Reflect Better


  • Watching my son learn and grow over the years in the derby car races is a lot like watching your school grow.
  • Over time, we reflect, make adjustments, and improve.
  • We can celebrate the growth and successes along the way.

Last weekend, we raced our Pinewood Derby Cars in our pack Pinewood Derby event.  I say “we” raced because in our pack we have a division for adults to make and race their own car.  So I got to create a car and race it too.  Over the last 3 weeks, the boys and I have worked on our cars to get ready for the big day.  The boys designed, sanded, placed their weights, painted, and installed their wheels and axels right alongside of me.  As we competed I couldn’t help but reflect on the past 5 years of racing.

I remembered the first year when I was hopeful Owen’s car would do well.   Owen didn’t place in the top 3 for his den.  I can’t forget the look of devastation on his face.  The feeling that I let him down because his car wasn’t successful.  I remember the car ride home as we discussed how this was his first time and a learning experience.  We talked about how now that he competed, he could create a plan for how to change it next year.  We brainstormed how he would change it the following year.

The following 2 years he researched, designed, adjusted, and built his cars.  He went to each derby with high hopes of a better result.  Unfortunately, each year he ended in 4th place, just out of reach of a trophy.  It didn’t help that his brother’s cars always placed in his age division and he got a trophy.  I tried to show him how his cars kept getting faster each year and the gap between him and the 1st-3rd place cars was shortening.  We discussed the growth he was making.  Every year I was more and more nervous because I knew his chances were running out.  I wanted him to see his work pay off.  Then last year, he placed and won his trophy.  Last year was his last chance, the years of learning and growing finely showed him some results.

We may not always win the trophy, but as long as we are always growing, we give ourselves and our schools a chance. Click To Tweet

Since he crossed over into Boy Scouts this year, he wasn’t able to participate against the Cub Scouts.  That meant he was able to compete in the Outlaw division.  He was able to participate against me and the other adults who wanted to make cars.  The only catch was that there was only one winner.  Not a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place out of 12 scouts.  We only give out one 1st place trophy and there were 26 entries.  His odds were very slim to win.

I tried to prepare him that it is hard to win but it would be cool to have him complete against me and the other adults.  We discussed how he may not win, and that would be ok.  But I know Owen.  I know he wants to be successful, and he sets high goals for himself.  He would be disappointed if he didn’t win.  But we were going to have fun and compete and either win or learn and grow.

Owen took the 5 years of experience, knowledge, trials, and failures and applied everything to building his new car.  He designed his car, created it, and competed against me and the other adults.  As I watch our cars race down the track, I wanted to see our cars do well.  I watched as he reacted every time his car finished a heat.  I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated where his car was placed between all the other cars.  Watching him get more and more excited as his car beat mine down the track was great.  Seeing the excitement in his eyes as he held the “Metal Monstrosity” trophy after winning the whole thing was perfect!  More importantly, watching his years of work, learning, and growth payoff was priceless.

Continual Growth and Success

Every year, Owen took something away from his derby car that he wanted to try differently the next year.  He never changed his goal, just how he would approach it.  He didn’t give up.  Nor did he ever scrap everything.  He kept finding little adjustments he could make to reach his goal.  His car designs were consistent, he never tried some crazy different fad designs.  As a leader, he set an example I can learn from.

There are so many takeaways I can learn from and apply to leading my building.  As building leaders, we are always looking to improve our buildings and our results.  We have to be able to take each experience, result, or year and reflect upon it, research how to improve it, and try something new so we can grow during the next opportunity we get.  We may not see results as fast as we want.  Sometimes it will take multiple tries before we have success.  The key is not giving up and to keep trying to grow.

We also need to find small victories and celebrate them.  Sometimes we are able to see the growth that our staff doesn’t see because they are working so hard to reach a goal.  We need to point out those successes and celebrate them.  Identify what was done to have the success, celebrate it, and then grow it.  It is important we help our schools and staff find a path and stay constant in our attempts to reach goals.  Not jumping on every fad or new idea just to get a quick result.

Whether it is the pinewood derby or our school improvement plans, we need to continually grow, stay the course, and always look to improve.  The only thing we cannot do is give up.  We may not always win the trophy, but as long as we are always growing, we give ourselves and our schools a chance.

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It’s Not About Me

One of the biggest takeaways I found from the event was none of it was about me.  Yes, I had worked with him for 5 years preparing him to be able to do what he did.  Yes, I worried about how he was going to compete.  But during the event, it was all about him.  It was his success!  Just as a building leader, it isn’t about me.  I didn’t need anyone to say, “Nice job preparing him” or “You got him to that point.”  He had to do it, so it was all about him.  I was just so proud of him.  The work he did.  The struggles he overcame.

As building leaders, we often help put our school or people in situations to be successful.  We give them the training they need to grow and when they succeed, we have to step back and give them the praise and success.  That is when we step to the back and remember it isn’t about us.  It’s about them and their successes.

About Raymond Porten

Raymond Porten is a husband to an AMAZING wife, 2 wonderful boys, a principal of an elementary school in northern Illinois, and a Golden Apple Scholar. He spends his free time traveling with his family, cooking with his boys, and he finds the time to co-host 2 podcasts. He’s been in education for 20 years and has worked as a 5th grade teacher, middle school dean, 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher, middle school assistant principal and now as a principal. He believes in the importance of building relationships and of taking every opportunity to lead and make a difference in the world.