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Transforming school culture through mutual respect

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Voice of the Educator

After nearly a decade as a classroom teacher in Oklahoma City Public Schools, I started feeling what all educators hope to avoid: burnout. It escalated to the point where I told my principal I would rather take a non-professional job at local fast food restaurant or retail story than continue teaching.

But from that low came an opportunity that would forever change my life on both a personal and professional level.

Understanding my frustration and realizing intervention was required to keep me in the profession I had once enjoyed so deeply, the principal at my school directed me to complete a summer professional training program designed to reignite educators’ passion for teaching. During that summer institute, I learned the power mutual respect has in transforming school culture.

A pivotal aspect of fostering mutual respect among teachers, students and staff is adhering to the following eight expectations, which I’ve witnessed fundamentally change the way schools function:

  1. We will value one another as unique and special individuals. We’re all unique, and our differences should be celebrated and embraced. This is an especially important idea to instill in young students, as their self-esteem and self-perception are in formative stages.
  2. We will not laugh at or make fun of a person’s mistakes nor use sarcasm or putdowns. In addition to feeling physically safe at school, students have a right to share their idea and opinions without fear of negativity. Emotional security is important to personal growth.
  3. We will use good manners, saying “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me,” and we will allow others to go first. This might seem like an insignificant emphasis on politeness, but good manners are foundational to selflessness and empathy. Leading by example with polite behavior and respect for others will help instill those qualities among students.
  4. We will cheer each other to success. This emphasis on community and an “all boats shall rise” mentality helps students support their peers and acknowledge the accomplishments of others. We all do better when we all do better.
  5. We will help one another whenever possible. Encouraging students to look out for their peers fills communities with conscientious, helpful and generous citizens. Teamwork is a life skill that serves students well far beyond the classroom.
  6. We will recognize every effort and applaud it. Everyone experiences failure — times when our best effort didn’t produce the desired outcome. While failure is disappointing, the effort of trying to accomplish the goal is always worth recognizing.
  7. We will encourage each other to do our best. To mitigate complacency and create a climate where excellence is rewarded, help students set high standards for themselves and others. Educators can model this behavior by maintaining high personal standards and supporting other teachers in their work.
  8. We will practice virtuous living. Recognize that how students treat each other as people is foundational to a healthy life at school, at home and in the community. By emphasizing empathy, good character and other important life principles, educators create well-rounded and thoughtful students.

These eight expectations, which I first discovered more than 10 years ago, have provided the cornerstone for instruction throughout my career. I’ve seen these basic tenets change hearts, instill hope and create learning environments filled with mutual respect.

Montie Koehn is a principal at Kennedy Elementary School in Norman, Okla. Koehn has been an educator for more than 20 years and methodology coach on behalf of Great Expectations. She was the 7B District Administrator of the Year (2009-10), National Distinguished Principal of the Year (2010-11) and Oklahoma Elementary Principal of the year (2010-11).