As the school year comes to a close (I can’t believe it’s June already), I am beginning to reflect on the year. Here in my office with the students and teachers still knocking on my door … at 6 p.m., I’m remembering the ups and downs of the year. The first week of school, we lost one of our young teachers (27 years old) in a tragic accident at home. This loss devastated the students, staff and our entire community. The young man was like my son. He was my former student in middle school, lived with my family for periods of time due to issues students in struggling families face, and was a member of my 1997 National Champion Chess Team. This tragedy tested my strength, faith and passion for the work that we do. This was not the first time I have lost a student or former student, but it still hurt very much to lose a young person. As I wonder about how we made it through the tough times, to now celebrate the end of the year in June, I must thank my leadership team and the teachers who are leaders in our building.
Teachers, students and parents draw strength from passionate school leaders, especially in times of crisis. Educators and students around the nation feel safer, more confident and stronger because of our courage and conviction. The most recent tragic events in our country are a perfect example of how we recover and respond as a nation of resilient people, who band together to overcome the most tragic circumstances. I firmly believe we can build resilience in our children and teachers. Passionate and committed leaders help to identify the tools our students need today to respond to the challenges of adolescence and young adulthood, and to navigate successfully through high-risk neighborhoods and communities.
So how do we develop the kind of culture in our schools that supports the change needed to develop high expectations for all kids who become resilient and successful?
It begins with school leaders who believe and understand that they facilitate the culture in their schools. We must understand that culture influences all aspects of our schools, including staff dress, the appearance of our classrooms and buildings, conversations in the teachers’ lounges, effective implementation of curriculum and teacher collaboration. If we want to see real change in our buildings, the culture must change. Teachers and students must feel supported, and the general feel of the school should be one where students believe that they have meaningful participation and teachers share in the leadership and decision-making.
As school leaders, we must also learn to listen to our teachers and students. We must develop an environment where they feel trusted and comfortable with being honest. We must model the honesty and transparency that we desire in others. The outside influences must be limited as we make the most important things, important in our buildings. There have been too many failed reforms.
We must begin to recognize that the talent and expertise needed to improve our schools can be found right in our buildings. Let’s encourage our teachers and staff to develop their professional learning networks (PLN) on Twitter, attend EdCamps, and utilize other valuable tools for effective collaboration. Take a few mins to check out some awesome chats on twitter (#Edchat, #Satchat, #Arkedchat, #Wischat, #Iaedchat, #HipHopEd, #Aledchat, and many others). You can find a list of chats and hashtags at: http://cybraryman.com/chats.html.
We took a huge step toward changing our culture when we became a Franklin Covey “Leader in Me” school two years ago. The “Leader in Me” program has taught our students and staff the importance of leadership and teamwork. It is a whole-school transformational model that improves everything else in the building. It wraps around the leadership and character building we are teaching and preaching each day in our school. In addition, making chess and problem solving a mandatory course for grades three through five , and the continued implementation of our First Move chess program in second and third grades has helped our students to become critical thinkers and to learn to embrace their successes and failures. Chess teaches students that they can choose the behavior but not the consequences.
We all have to come together in a collective effort to support our children, teachers and schools. With our love, support and leadership, children can learn to be resilient, persistent and successful — because every child truly deserves at least one person to be crazy about them. Have a great summer!
Salome Thomas-EL (Principal EL) is the head of school at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Del. Thomas Edison is a high-poverty K-8 school that regularly sends students to some of Delaware’s top public, charter and private high schools. Principal EL is the author of two books, “I Choose to Stay” and “The Immortality of Influence.” He was a regular contributor on “The Dr. Oz Show” and frequently appeared on C-SPAN, NPR and Oprah Radio. You can find him on Twitter at @Principal_EL and on his website www.PrincipalEL.com and view some of his videos on YouTube.