Leading with Compassion

Three school leaders share advice for fostering a culture of love—and high expectations.

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*This is part four of a series on “navigating the leadership learning curve.” Read posts three, two, and one.

By Racheal George, Kourtney Ferrua, and Kate Barker

Love. It is a scary word for some. It rolls off the tongue for others. It is a private word for many, and a powerful mechanism for elevating a positive culture for all. There are many ways to show your love within your school community and each of us may have our own unique ways. However, no matter how you show your love, a caring culture starts with feeling like you belong and are valued. In fact, infusing a positive and vibrant culture into your work environment is critical to effective leadership.

We believe creating bonds and intentionally fostering relationships with your community is the foundation for academic achievement. As three educational leaders, we strive to show genuine love for those in our community. That deep care is likely one of the reasons why our students have been successful, with each of our schools blasting through average scores on state assessments.

So, how do we show our love?

We’ve all been in situations as leaders where we didn’t feel like we belonged. Undoubtedly, we felt uncomfortable, anxious, and isolated. These feelings are no different for our staff and students when they don’t feel connected to their community. However, if people feel that they do belong, they will generally enjoy being in their environment and behave appropriately. They are more likely to engage and take risks and return the care that is shown to them.

Remember, love and belonging are contagious! Therefore, it is important to think strategically about how to fit belonging into your systems.

We have systems in our schools for reading, math, and even behavior. Why not have a system for connections, love, and belonging? Like any system, implementation begins with developing and sharing your why around the importance of having a culture of connection. Then it moves to what goals and success criteria will be established and finally how you, as a leader, will model care and connection.

Below are a few suggestions on how you can show love to your community. But before putting the kibosh on this mushy stuff, keep reading. You might be surprised by some of our suggestions:

Love Outwardly

Some of us are comfortable giving hugs and high fives (pre-pandemic) and publicly reminding people over the intercom to show love and kindness to one another every day. Others write positive affirmations on notecards, leave treats in mailboxes, and shout “I love you” to students as they get on the bus. This may be your style . . . or not. Your love needs to shine authentically so don’t do something that does not feel comfortable to you. Remember, love can come in other forms too.

Love Rigorously

Love can be expressed as rigor. Show that you care by setting high expectations around your why and holding your community accountable. We cannot emphasize this enough: believing that all students can reach high expectations is the start to successful outcomes. Sometimes, people and kids will grumble and may challenge you, but more staff and students will be praising you for pushing them to persevere and grow. Our students can rise! You can have the same expectations for all students, but what may be different is how you get them there.

Love by Inspecting What You Expect

Love your staff enough to develop and communicate high expectations for instruction, classroom management, and collaboration. However, this doesn’t stop with naming an expectation. You must inspect what you expect.

You can have the most detailed goals and protocols, but if no one is giving feedback on how to grow or notices and appreciates the effort, then the expectations aren’t worth the paper they are typed on. Get out there and be visible so your community knows you are following up with an expectation. We suggest always carrying a notepad where you can write “I noticed. . .” messages to give immediate feedback to your staff and students.

Love by Differentiating Your Appreciation

Love your staff enough to learn how to differentiate your appreciation. We learned the hard way that not all people like to be recognized at a full school assembly or relish being embraced in a bear hug (gulp). Many staff cherish those notes that you write after an observation, but others may need 10 minutes of your undivided attention. Some just need you to brag about a lesson they completed in front of a visiting school board member. The point is: know your people well enough that you understand how they will best receive appreciation.

Kate’s elementary principal shared with her a brilliant quote: “They don’t know you care if you don’t care to know.” So get out there. Be visible and get to know your staff, students, and families.

Love by Having Self-Compassion 

Self-compassion begins with letting go of perfection. We know there are many high achievers in this audience and understand that it is only natural to want things to go well. However, we also know that we all make mistakes and when we do, it is critically important to acknowledge them and grow from them. We also think it is important for our communities to see us model taking risks and failing and then recovering with transparency and grace. This is called resiliency. If you lead with an openness to failure, you will welcome risk-taking, forgiveness, vulnerability, and strength.

Looking Ahead

As you navigate the leadership learning curve, thoughtfully consider how you are establishing, nurturing, and sustaining a culture of love, belonging, and care in your community. Share your love authentically in a way that is comfortable for you but also leads to the widespread expectation that staff and students are purposefully connecting with one another.   


Rachael George is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve and a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Kourtney Ferrua is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. In 2019, she was recognized as Oregon Elementary Principal of the Year and as a Nationally Distinguished Principal. Kate Barker is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. She is a principal in Portland, Oregon, and active in her state association, COSA. Connect with them on Twitter @DrRachaelGeorge@kourtneyferrua, and @Kate_S_Barker.