As a turnaround principal of a high school in Washington, D.C, I lost more students to violence than I ever would have imagined.
After losing five students in one year, I made a vow that I would tell all of my students, especially young men like the many I’d lost, that they were far more capable than they ever imagined. I promised that I would teach them how to persevere and seek greatness. I worked hard to see beyond misbehaviors and misguided attitudes to get to know these students on a deeply personal level. I tried to be a consistent and predictable presence and guide, because so many other aspects of their world were uncertain.
Unfortunately, my individual efforts were not enough. One year later, I sat with five more grieving mothers, weeping at the loss of five more boys that I would never see again. My greatest concern – more than test scores, more than initiatives – became saving lives.
I then committed in my heart to be a principal who would love her students in life-saving ways. I committed my intellect and understanding to learn as much as I could to make the difference. I started asking questions and observing.
Along with my school’s leadership team, I realized that there were common threads connecting the stories of the children we were most at-risk of losing. Whether they walked the halls or the streets, or sat silently in the back of the classroom, they were all disengaged. How were they different from the students that we were able to reach? How could we create an environment where all students are engaged, involved and pressing toward excellence?
We discovered that while we were working hard for some of the students, the children who needed to be reached the most were falling through the cracks. To this day, I coach principals and school staff on these realizations in my work at CT3, that every student’s success depends upon three things:
A positive, life-altering relationship
Every student needs and deserves to have at least one adult who is invested and committed enough to dig beneath the surface and get to know them individually. This adult makes no assumptions about these students or “other students like them,” instead seeking to learn about their strengths, beliefs, desires and dreams, and using those to help them advance academically, socially and emotionally.
This core belief goes deeper than typical relationship-building strategies that teachers traditionally have in their tool-belts, such as administering student surveys or attending sporting events. A life-altering relationship extends beyond the rapport a teacher has with a student; it’s catalytic. With the right relationship, the teacher can apply gentle pressure to get these students motivated and invested in the pursuit of their own success, while providing the support to achieve it.
With an unwavering belief in all students’ potential and abilities, regardless of their current efforts in the classroom, the educator sets the standard for what is possible, academically and beyond. They are forthright about what it will take and work with the student to create a plan and help attain the goal. They also hold the student accountable for what’s expected, such as completing homework, participating in class and meeting the school’s expectations. This relentless approach is contagious as it inspires the student to press toward greatness. Providing this type of transformational support can prepare a student to make sound decisions and have positive beliefs about the future.
Consistency and predictability
In a world where change is constant and so many things are unreliable, students need to know that there is a person or institution upon which they can depend. Defining consistent, specific expectations using precise direction, positive narration and consequences or incentives establishes trust between teachers and their students. In a well-managed, reliable classroom culture, students know exactly what to expect from their teacher, and peers give each other the comfort and safety to allow themselves to explore, develop, take risks and be vulnerable. Teachers who are effective No-Nonsense Nurturers create these environments, where true learning and personal change take place.
I wish that I had these life-saving approaches in my early career as principal. Looking back, I can see how these experiences were absent in the lives of the students we lost. However, in losing them we found truths that were implemented to reinvest in our students and improve our school’s culture. It became exceptionally clear to us that these steps – done well – lay the foundation to saving our students and putting them on the path to life-long success.
In my work at CT3, I have the privilege of sharing this information with principals around the country. When I begin my work at a school, one of the first conversations I have with a principal is that the work of an educator truly is about life and death. It is our job as educators to commit ourselves to transforming the culture of our schools, showing students how to navigate the pitfalls of the road ahead. Each of us has the opportunity to ensure our students’ success. It’s simply a matter of whether we care enough to save a life.
Karen Smith is a CT3 associate, based in the Washington, D.C. area. She has been a teacher, turnaround principal, national leadership consultant, and chief academic officer in turnaround schools.