Leading a Model School: How Reflection Helped Us Create a Positive School Climate in the Wake of a Disruption

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As educators, reflection is at the heart of our practice. During the infancy of our careers, such as when we were student teachers or first year teachers, our reflective practice was more formal in that we had to create a reflection journal for a grade or as part of a mentoring program. This honed our skills to reflect with purpose and meaning; however, our formal reflection process was limited to the assignment because we were learning how to become teachers.

For many, regardless of years of experience, reflection happens on an ongoing basis: in the morning, at lunch, during the drive home, or during a few quick minutes of down time. Regardless of when or how it happens, reflection is still at the heart of our practice.

Our school community had a trying week a couple of weeks ago, to say the least. We experienced an act of hateful vandalism that had a negative impact on us all. It required us, each and every one of us, to dig deep down within ourselves to overcome such a disgusting act. Emotions were high, tension was in the air, and many students took to social media to vent, demand answers, and seek understanding. It was becoming quite a divisive factor in our school, mainly because it was so unexpected and it happened at the start of one of the best weeks of the school year, Peace Week.

I, too, experienced a range of emotions: anger, hurt, disappointment, and melancholy; but I remembered the simple phrase that I first heard in an early education class many years ago, “Reflection is at the heart of our practice.” When school climate is impacted by such a disruptive event, there are six things administrators can do to respond in a positive manner.

  1. Communicate Openly. The first thing we did was to gather in my office with our Superintendent and Director of Communications to draft a clear, concise, and honest message. This provided as much detail as possible in the quickest manner possible. The message was sent to all stakeholders: staff, students, parents, and community members in an attempt to get ahead of the incident.
  2. Verbally Communicate to Students. Sending an email is for giving information; however, students need to hear from the principal. Making an announcement over the PA system was required to ease tension and remind students that they are valued and their safety is priority number one.
  3. Ask Reflective Questions. By day two, tension was still high, so my administrative team gathered in my office and reflected on what happened and how we could respond in order to bring the school together. We informally asked ourselves a number of questions in order to help process our own thinking. It was more of a flow of ideas, thoughts, and a common desire to help our students feel safe:
    • What can we do as a show of solidarity?
    • How can we create a venue for students to process what happened and what they are feeling?
    • What would have the biggest positive impact on students right now?
    • What can we do in the long run to create opportunities for students to discuss issues related to school culture before a negative event happens?
    • What can we do to ensure students and staff that they are safe, besides another email?
    • What are some actionable items we can share with staff to help reduce students’ fear, anger, and anxiety?
    • What questions are we not asking?
  4. Be Decisive. As we grappled with these questions, we had to remind ourselves to be solution-focused. As we processed and discussed several of the questions listed above, a quick action plan was birthed: call students to our Quad (courtyard) as a show of solidarity and stand arms locked, in silence. Then, I would use a bullhorn to share a message of hope, help, and strength. The message was heartfelt and powerful, yet it would not have happened without the collaborative approach we took as a team. This is exactly what our students and staff needed. This simple, yet effective strategy quickly reminded us of the great school community we have and that an individual or small group of individuals aren’t stronger than all of us standing in unison.
  5. Be Present. Since the unity rally happened in the last 10 minutes of school, we saw the next day as an opportunity to remind all staff to be present in the hallways between classes, greet students at the doors as they entered class each period, interact with students as often as possible, and take advantage of the opportunities when students wanted to discuss the event.
  6. Provide Clear Talking Points to Staff and Faculty. Teachers have the most interaction with students, so it is important that all staff members communicate the same message and respond appropriately. The points were shared were simple, easy to follow, and focused on creating a greater sense of security. All secretaries were equipped to respond to any parent or community phone calls, which also created a greater sense of security and calm.

We chose to rise above it, and we will continue to do so as we work collaboratively with students, staff, and parents to create a positive school climate and culture in spite of the disruptions we may face.

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Dwight Carter, Principal of New Albany High School, will be presenting at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 25–28.

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