Healthy Relations Create Equity

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

equity
As a principal, highlights in my day were visiting classrooms, interacting with students, and witnessing learning and teaching. By far, my students across grade levels were fortunate to have some great teachers and if I ever had to select the most effective teacher I worked with, indisputably, I could not. Although different in their approach, but sharing the same beliefs about students, these teachers did whatever it took to ensure students received a quality education. They made sure that students were present and engaged. They never allowed their students to fail; this task was easier said than done.  Like most teachers, it was not unusual to find these teachers staying after school to provide extra help, spending their Saturday mornings conducting tutorials in the local library, and communicating with parents on a regular basis. In my previous school, these behaviors were demonstrated by a majority of teachers, at different degrees respectably. However, there were several teachers in particular that received the most accolades from students, parents, and community members. What made these specific teachers so effective and highly requested among students and parents? In my quest to supporting my hypothesis, I visited a kindergarten classroom taught by Mrs. Kaufman, perhaps one of my favorite kindergarten teachers.

Daily, she worked hard to ensure that her students received the best education. This dedication meant never giving up on her students or parents. Throughout the school year, she remained sincere in her teaching style, yet brutally honest in her academic diagnoses, but she would always end those conversations with “we will get them there.” Her classroom was full of energy and love, yet there was a noticeable distinction. Easily to discern to a naïve individual would be race; Mrs. Kaufman was White and her students were Black. While accurate and an essential factor in the equation, race was not the most notable distinction. It was the healthy relationships she had with the students.

The much-needed campaign to recruit teachers of color is germane to the advancement of all students, and vital to building a better narrative for students in education. Some research suggests that teachers of color are likely to be more effective in producing positive academic and behavioral outcomes for same-race students. However, it is not a requirement to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. Mrs. Kaufman’s success illustrates how building a relationship, setting expectations, and working to keep your students engaged are key to creating a conducive learning environment.

While there’s been an increase in the racial diversity in the public school teacher workforce, it is still dominated by white (82 percent), female teachers (76 percent). Local and state agencies struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers, especially teachers of color, for many reasons, and this problem will not be solved quickly. Yet, we are making great strides as programs, such as Call Me MISTER, work tirelessly to help increase the 2 percent of Black males teachers in American schools. More urgently, school districts should focus their efforts on trying to improve the quality of instruction for students of color now.

One necessary part of that work: schools must examine and reform their disciplinary policies and practices. Black students, boys especially, continue to be referred for discipline or suspended from school at alarmingly disproportionate rates. This means that these students become less engaged in their coursework or school as a whole. The instructional time they lose affects their academic progress. State and local educational agencies must work to reduce these referral disparities — and classroom teachers and school building administrators must be at the forefront of this work, increasing their efforts to build healthier relationships with students.

Although administrators are vital key players, teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. Joint efforts among principals, teachers, and students can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted on improving teachers and schools’ discipline practices — exploring their beliefs and raising expectations for students of color. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mrs. Kaufman did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process.

Being culturally responsive and sensitive are critical to these efforts, regardless of the race of the teacher or the student. Do not misinterpret me; a teacher’s race matters when teaching students of color, and so does a teacher’s ability to build relationships.

 

SURN Principal Academy Delivers Powerful Messages: Communicate, Value Relationships, and Create Your Tribe

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

By now the wave of school openings has ended and the school year is well underway. The challenges that accompany the start of the new year are now giving way to the day-to-day work of meeting the high standards we have set for ourselves, our faculties, and our students. Meeting deadlines, managing conflicting obligations, providing direction for teachers, and supporting students can be overwhelming and make it easy to lose sight of our optimism. To help mitigate this, I’d like to remind you of some things you already know but may forget in the daily shuffle.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate! 

Remember to communicate! Effective communication leads to an effective organization. Communication with all stakeholders is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a productive school year. As a principal, I tried to balance written communication with the powerful communication of my presence. It is no longer enough to just mail documents home. We must also embrace systems such as ConnectEd and School Messenger to stay connected with all members of our community. We also need to remember to post information and publicize school events and accomplishments on the school website and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Technology has increased the number of outlets for us to communicate and has made information more accessible to our stakeholders. As a result, we may sometimes worry that we run the risk of over communicating, but this is a preferable position to be in than not having communicated enough. Remember, effective communication builds trust. It puts people at ease (especially newcomers!) and keeps people from having to guess about our expectations.

Being present is a powerful form of communication and a characteristic of effective leadership. It is easy to get trapped in your office, but it’s essential to satisfy the high demand for your presence from both internal and external stakeholders. First and foremost we communicate the value of education by being present for our students. This includes being in the hallways, cafeteria, and extra-curricular activities. Every organization, department, grade level, central office person, and family that is associated with your school wants a piece of your time, and it is important to provide each of them with an opportunity for a face to face meeting. Try to schedule these meetings during your least busy time.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Relationship over Achievement

 Student achievement is a source of strength, both for the division and the individual schools. Achievement creates energy which, in turn, fuels further improvement, but too much focus on achievement can actually damage student performance.  For example, as the principal of an unaccredited school, I relentlessly focused on tasks and goals. In the beginning, I commanded and coerced, and as a result, my faculty became more concerned with meeting my expectations than with meeting the needs of students. I should have heeded the caution of Spreier, Fontaine, and Malloy (2018): “Too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity” (p. 45). In other words, I should have remembered to coach and collaborate, to take time to learn my faculty, staff, and students. Relationships take time and are made one open-house, one faculty meeting, one classroom visit, and one hello at a time. With relationships and trust fully established, we can get down to the business of improving student learning for every child in our building.

Mentor leaders encourage collaboration, pride, and networking as they develop their tribe.

Creating your TRIBE!

The principalship is a high-demanding, complex, and lonely job. Therefore, experiencing a supportive community of fellow principals is necessary. Principals rarely have opportunities to collaborate with their peers to share ideas, reflect on leading and learning, and discover how to improve their performances. At the beginning of my administrative career, I worked in isolation, but I quickly learned the power of having a community of leaders as a muse. In my latter years of being administrator, I was introduced to SURN. Being new to VA, the network in the Principal Academy helped develop my VA educational leader profile. To this day, I remain in contact with members of my cohort as well as my mentor. I encourage each of you to take advantage of your cohort members and our time together during the Principal Academy. By surrounding yourself with positive people who are in the similar roles, they are going to push you towards greatness.