Caring connects kids to their school, their teachers, their learning, their families, their communities, to one another and to themselves. Therefore, creating and maintaining a culture of caring in our schools and communities is paramount to effecting real change.
As with any impactful change, creating a culture of caring requires a delicate combination of programs, processes and people. It is simply not good enough to create or purchase a program and implement it. Over the years, packaged programs have proliferated while bullying and mental illness have increased. Schools have developed processes to create safer environments, yet more students are being hurt physically, socially and emotionally. Little attention has been paid to empowering the people in our schools and communities to make a difference.
As principal of a large, inner-city school, we implemented a very effective balance of programs, processes and empowerment of people that resulted in a very effective school culture in which our students thrived. Bullying was almost non-existent, kids who needed help got it and test scores went up. All of this occurred in a budget model which allowed us to spend funds where needed. We were empowered.
In order to move you to action, here is a selection of our most effective strategies that allowed us to create an award-winning school in which everyone was proud to work and to learn.
- Early intervention program: Intermediate students self-selected to be part of a weekly mental health support group that addressed at-risk behaviors and was operated in partnership with a local mental health hospital.
- Yoga: Students self-selected to be part of a weekly lunchtime yoga group. One at-risk girl commented that it saved her life.
- Mental karate: The entire school was involved in Mental Karate, a program that took them through setting goals and taking action in the areas of initiative, discipline, contribution, courage and awareness.
- United mentors for peace. Intermediate students planned activities to create a peaceful school, reaching out to the community and beyond. They created annual peace assemblies, managed charitable fundraising activities, and took responsibility for supporting a safe and caring culture in the school.
- Peacekeepers: Junior students were trained in conflict resolution strategies and helped resolve disputes in the primary and junior yards.
- Fun bunch: Junior students were trained to teach and supervise schoolyard games for primary students.
- Social-skills group: Identified students were directly taught social/emotional skills in partnership with a local community center support program.
- Leadership development: Students of all ages were engaged as lunch monitors, peer tutors, teacher helpers, reading buddies, coaches and referees. They were also engaged in a multitude of service learning projects.
- Option program: Intermediate students had one period a week in which they could choose an activity of interest from such things as cooking, chess, hip-hop dance, drama, visual arts, guitar, board games, etc.
- Safe and caring teaching and leading: All classrooms were safe and caring, free of ridicule, harassment and sarcasm. Teachers understood the importance of creating an atmosphere in which the brain is at the optimal level of arousal.
- Bi-weekly professional development staff meetings: Staff were trained to differentiate teaching strategies through honoring multiple intelligences, learning styles and current brain research.
- Shared leadership: Division leaders were empowered to implement programs and process to support their students academically, socially and emotionally.
- Parent council was guided to develop a mission and goals that supported the school’s mission.
- Parental responsibility was embedded in the school’s mission statement: “To maximize student learning through students, staff, parents and community working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared responsibility.”
- Parent education workshops were provided.
In addition to the previous empowerment examples, we maximized the adult-to-child ratio of support; ensured that each student had a significant connection with a teacher; focused on connections and relationships; worked within a shared, vision, values and beliefs; maintained stability on our staff and leadership team; became a recognized leader as a professional learning community and ensured that being at our school was fun and rewarding.
Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change.” She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.