Revitalizing School Community
Lessons from the Principal’s Office
by Dr. Anabel Jensen
“I realized if you can change a classroom, you can change a community, and if you can change enough communities you can change the world.” –Erin Gruwell
One of my very earliest memories is of playing ‘musical chairs’ at a friend’s birthday party. We all paraded around the cluster of chairs until the adult in charge lifted the needle on the record player (yes, it was that long ago) and we all scrambled for a seat. It’s a game played all over the world, and on reflection, I’ve come to think that it’s really quite awful.
The children begin the game happily, but are soon divided into a diminishing cohort of ‘winners’ (those who have a seat) and a growing group of ‘losers’ (who do not).
I remember slinking away from the chairs to join the other losers, feeling sad and rejected simply because someone else was closer to the vacant seat when the music stopped. The winners, meanwhile, were jubilant, and not only for succeeding at the challenge of finding a seat, but as having beaten so many of their friends.
Of the fifty most popular schoolyard games for children aged four to six, forty-eight involve some form of competition. From the earliest age, we’re preparing our children to take their place in a world comprised of two groups: winners and losers.
It can be argued that competitive activities inculcate binary thinking (yes/no, black/white) at a time when considering the gray areas of policy and society has never been more important.
It also encourages our children to believe that success must come at the expense of others – there can be no winning without someone else losing.
Proponents of competitive games for children remind us that team sports, for example, provide physical exercise and skills growth, as well as encouraging camaraderie and cooperation.
Excellence is seen as impossible without competition; absent any reason to try their hardest, children will become mediocre under-achievers with neither ambition nor drive.
There is, we are told, a natural, Darwinian imperative which inevitably plays itself out on the sports field, in music competitions, or at spelling bees.
I could not agree less.
Not only is competition stressful and divisive, it defines other people as obstacles, rather than potential allies. And, it makes it difficult to build communities within schools—when the background of adults in the building has such a focus on the prize or the reward. Then everything becomes a race.
The urge to come first, and to brush aside others on our way to moments of triumph, follows us into adulthood. We retain the childish need to label one team as successful and the other as a failure.
Someone raised to believe that winning is everything is going to find the cooperative classroom a major adjustment. Risk-taking has been suppressed by a concern that coloring outside of the lines will compromise their success; instead, teachers play it safe, which can bring repetitive and bland results.
Without their accustomed, simple, binary roadmap, a teacher needs guidance to enter into a different kind of relationship with their colleagues.
Teachers who would once have been automatic adversaries must learn to offer alliance and collaboration, sharing and encouraging, openness and empathy. It can no longer be ‘Me’ and ‘Them’, it must become us.
Teachers who are taught to collaborate and cooperate often exhibit interesting, and perhaps unexpected traits. The safe and bland approach is ditched in favor of more unique and creative approaches to teaching that result in innovative solutions to complex problems. The result is a joyful environment where everyone flourishes.
So, as a new principal with no previous experience embarking on revitalizing a school that had fallen into the doldrums, I had my work cut out for me.
My first observation was that the teachers already felt they were number one—even though parents and children had been leaving in droves. I decided my first task would be to begin to build an environment that intentionally counteracts these previously embedded tenets of independence and isolation.
I decided I needed a formula (I had a minor in statistics) that would help me be always mindful of the ingredients that I wanted to develop. The formula became:
C3 + F2 + SL= engaged community.
The three Cs were: collaboration, connection, and celebration. The two Fs were fun and feedback. And, SL (shared leadership) was to remind me that I needed to share the innate power of my positon.
However, before the implementation of the formula, I knew that I had to begin to develop trust. Without trust the teachers would not confide in me, would not ask for my opinion, and advice. Without trust they would not partner with me.
Trust is about integrity. I began by keeping score on myself, asking:
Do your actions reflect your stated beliefs?
Do you listen without interrupting?
Do you focus on them specifically without being distracted by ringing phones, etc.?
Do you attempt to diagnose the problem and offer a solution before they have identified all of the factors?
Are you treating them the same way you would want to be treated in return?
Collaboration contributes to the breakdown of the individual silos. It prevents teachers from going into their classrooms, closing the door, and disappearing. Because parents would often compare teachers and complain that in this room the child would have this opportunity and in that room they would not, one early decision made as a faculty was to work together within clusters.
Collaboration provides an opportunity for a grade level team (of three or four people) to accentuate their strengths and finds ways to compensate for their weaknesses. Collaboration forces the individual to be honest about their abilities, talents, and perhaps even to be brazen about helping others—and even more important to be bold about asking for help.
More effective brainstorming occurs when multiple heads are working together.
Jerry Hirsch (Nissan) coined the term “creative abrasion.” This energy produced by disagreeing and then looking for a way to combine ideas rather than to eliminate them stimulates innovation.
Research indicates that the number one ingredient that points to powerful teaching is the strength of the bond established between the individuals. Above all, we want to send the message, “you are important to me”, to the learner.
I wanted my teachers to connect with me, to connect with each other, as well as to connect with the student. Conflict is inevitable in a school setting, but a previously established bridge of connection can reduce the tension and the misunderstandings. Vygotsky has asserted that learning is relational and language/conversation are essential to the learning climate.
I decided to help Vygotsky along one year with a cross-fertilization activity. In the fall I gave potted plants to the entire faculty and staff. I announced we would have a contest to see whose plant would still be alive at the end of the school year. And, then I added this kicker. I paired the staff together with someone they normally would not automatically see on a daily basis—and proclaimed that only the partner could water/fertilize the plant.
You should have heard the moans and the chuckles. I made the pairs as diverse as possible. For example, I paired a kindergarten teacher with the head of the middle school. The end result was that the kindergarteners became the fairies in the middle schools’ annual Shakespearian play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The parents loved it. I paired myself with the custodian. We discovered we both had an addiction for homemade fudge. Our end product was a special Valentine gift box, which contained multiple varieties of homemade fudge, for every staff member. Yum! The staff/faculty voted to continue this process and we switched partners for the following year. This initially forced connection strengthened communication and creativity blossomed in multiple ways.
I think the power of celebration is often undervalued. Many people consider it a waste of time and money. I disagree. Instead, celebration reminds the group of the goals that were set, the process that was put in place, and the accomplishments that were finished. Celebration allows the development, growth, and release of gratitude for all who participated.
Celebration nourishes psychological and emotional needs by allowing us to be congratulatory to each other. Jill Bolte reminds us that “We are not thinking beings that feel, biologically we are feeling beings that think.” We are told by society not to “toot our own horns” but a celebration allows us to cheer both ourselves and others in the best of ways. A celebration allows us to take a moment to identify, recognize, and magnify our persistence, our talents, and our goal completion. Celebration intensifies intrinsic motivation and contributes to continued success. When we savor the good, we build buffers against the negative.
One celebration I shall always remember was spending a gift given by a parent to me, who asked me to do something “nice” for the total staff with this donation. So, we went for balloon rides. It was exhilarating. When all the balloons had descended (about six of them), we met at a restaurant to celebrate our celebration. No one who participated has ever forgotten that amazing day.
Humor activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, which in turn stimulates goal-oriented behavior and long-term memory. In other words, the funny bone is connected to achievement. Before, I knew this I did recognize that laughter intensifies our joy and improves our mood. Early into my tenure as a principal, I was going through some personal trauma, so I decided to make laughter the theme for the year.
I challenged everybody to start a conversation with me by first telling a joke. This instruction was issued to parents, staff/faculty, and students. Those tiny hors d’oeuvres humor sprinkled throughout my day provided me with the encouragement and support I needed.
Research suggests children should be laughing at least twice an hour, so I think the same should be true for the adults in the building. Some here are some of the things I initiated as an administrator: a bulletin board next to my office door that was pasted with jokes—new ones every day. I shared mine from The New Yorker. As the internet was a new addition to the communication system in the building, I would send funny stories, videos, etc. All faculty meetings began with two/three jokes, good news, and a sharing of their conscious acts of kindness for the week. For more ideas, I suggest Berk’s (2003) book, Professors are from Mars, Students are from Snickers. For more ideas check out this link.
I have an interesting orientation towards feedback. I only believe in giving positive feedback. I believe the individual is very good at giving herself/himself negative data and I do not need to contribute to that burgeoning mass of data.
Instead, I focused on the positive and what was going right. Just as an exhausted child needs encouragement, so do teachers. So, my goal was a positive tidbit every time I saw them—in the hallway, in the library, etc. Also, I created an evaluation form (for those formal observations) that generated one positive statement for each minute I was in the classroom. And, then instead of offering criticisms, I asked questions. Rather than implying a teacher was negligent and had not reprimanded two misbehaving girls, I would ask, “What was your purpose in not correcting Jill and Joan?” The reply would often begin a discussion about some reoccurring issue and we could brainstorm together. This way I did not solve the problem; we solved the problem together. Feedback should be opportunity for growth by stepping forward not backward.
Shared leadership creates shared ownership. Everyone, not just the official leader, is responsible for a school’s reputation, a school’s accomplishment, and a school’s climate. All decisions should be driven not by what is easy, fast, or convenient, but what will assure both academic and emotional growth for the child. My mantra was: make a decision that will allow the child to learn the skills they are lacking.
Shared leaderships necessitate transparency by not only the leader, but everyone is the community. Such transparency offers the opportunity for multiple perspectives to be viewed and a plethora of talents and skills to be utilized to solve the ongoing and complex issues that exist in schools.
Shared responsibilities increases employee bonds as leaderships roles (chairing the faculty meeting, selecting the theme for the year, choosing resources, analyzing the data from standardized tests, etc.) are rotated. This rotating of roles intensifies accountability, increases the proliferation of ideas, and provides more accurate information for everyone in the building. Shared knowledge is, I think, the cornerstone of efficiency and productivity. Each member is valued for the data and skill they bring. It becomes a WE. Success is measured by student progress, student creativity, as well as personal growth for the teacher.
Sharing responsibilities and leadership can produce something extraordinary—almost magical. Teachers do the hiring, teachers run professional development, and teachers set the goals/objectives. Moreover, these skills of cooperation are transferred to the students. Students decide what is worth learning. Students decide on field trips, and what materials are needed for a particular project.
From the time I was a little girl, I have been fascinated with the matryshka dolls. This is a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size nesting inside of one another.
The first Russian nesting doll was made in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin. The largest set ever created by composed of 51 different dolls completed in 2003. I like to think of the dolls as my faculty and staff with the final doll representing the student. As I care for my faculty and staff, I want then to care for the children.
In addition, as the dolls are opened to a continuous revealing of another new doll, I think of them as representing kindness, gratitude, integrity, compassion, etc.—and that is how we spread those ingredients as well. One good deed creates another act of kindness until kindness floods the building.
Community is not something that happens by accident. Positive climate at school is not fickle like the weather or automatic like stoplights. As principal or leader of any organization, we have the opportunity to create community based on relationships that we must nurture (just like that office plant). I started to revitalize my school’s community one day, one joke at a time. But as with most things, hard work and optimism can grow into something surprisingly wonderful. I hope sharing my experiences will encourage you to deepen your community as well.