• By Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2022 •
School principals balance many skills, demands and stakeholders. Powerful school leadership involves structure, modeling and deliberate action to create a school environment that is valuing (each student feels special and perceived through their assets), safe (students feel protected) and healing (hurts and painful experiences are dealt with over time).
The valuing principal is rooted in a deep understanding of the many assets each student has and the gifts that come from students’ families. These leaders reject social prejudices and myths attached to families, their neighborhood or class and replace them with celebration and inclusion of everything a student is, represents and brings from home.
Last summer, IDRA convened a panel of principals who served diverse student populations (IDRA, 2021). Dr. Timothy Vaughn from Edgewood ISD, Rawan Hammoudeh from San Antonio ISD and Jorge Cruz of Southwest ISD, and IDRA’s Dr. Nilka Avilés attested to the power of modeling high expectations for all students and considering each individual student as having high potential both academically and socially.
“My vision for my students is that regardless of their socio-economic status, their race or ethnicity, they have access to a high-quality and equitable educational experience so that they are well prepared for a successful future,” said Rawan Hammoudeh, principal of Agnes Cotton Academy in San Antonio ISD.
Instructional lessons should engage students in a rigorous understanding of cultures, histories and contributions. Students are more likely to feel welcome and to engage when educators recognize the merit of diversity of cultures, languages and histories. Classrooms should be celebrations of all these things.
IDRA senior education associate, Dr. Nilka Avilés previously served as a middle school principal and oversaw a successful early college high school for students who had not been considered capable of doing college level work. She described the importance of just greeting students each day: “I would stand at the door every morning and greet each student and ask them to say the phrase, ‘I am the best.’” And her teachers would greet each student at the classroom door by name with positive, individual greetings.
IDRA’s close to 40-year experience with our Valued Youth Partnership program has connected us with hundreds of principals who have brought to their school a program that inherently sees assets in all students. In the Valued Youth Partnership, school leaders select students who are not excelling and appoints them as tutors of younger children. The tutors are supported and even compensated for their contribution. The term “valuing” is no longer just a feel-good, abstract concept. Students actually experience being valued and valuing others, and the adults in the school recognize the students’ leadership. (Bojorquez, 2021)
A safeguarding principal is directly involved with teachers and students, helping to identify struggling students and getting resources they may urgently need. Such principals assist teachers to gain insights into students’ behavior, become aware of and address rumors or speculation that may be spreading, and address issues before they become more difficult or even dangerous to resolve.
We must protect vulnerable students. Gender, sexuality and racial-ethnic sensitivities require campus administrators to act in defense and support of any student who feels threatened or attacked. Taking action to interrupt harmful behavior models for everyone the peaceful standards of a school (Brion-Meisels, et al., 2022).
Being present in the classroom also enables principals to observe teachers, become aware of the resources or additional training they may need, and support them with coaching. All of this, too, can be a factor in improving school safety: When principals are present in the classroom, teachers and principals can work together to promptly address a student’s emotional and social well-being.
Dr. Avilés said, “I would make sure to visit each classroom, interact with the students, notice what they were doing and praise the good work but also give a nudge to those not engaged.”
Having more time in the classroom enables a principal to reinforce a climate of trust among students and teachers, even while deepening their own authority and strengthening their positions of leadership.
There are some key tools to help safeguarding principals invoke and facilitate campus-wide acceptance. Restorative practices can be aligned with schoolwide positive behavior intervention support (Johnson, 2021). The Second Step program is a research-based social-emotional learning curriculum used in elementary settings. The Responsive Classroom model is an evidenced-based, classroom-level, social/emotional learning intervention (Rimm-Kaufman, 2006).
The healing principal is aware of the effects of bullying, harassment and other ways students are harmed at school. Schoolwide systems and approaches create an environment where effective and practical attention mends wounds – physical, mental or emotional – and keeps the learning environment positive and continuous. Educators must address toxic behaviors and attitudes while reducing interruptions to learning and growth.
Dr. Avilés said: “I would immediately talk to the student and find out what happened. I would listen to all involved.”
While modeling these qualities, the healing principal reinforces the systemic benefits of the tools in place: restorative practices, positive behavior intervention, and social-emotional learning approaches and interventions. Some community building activities that have roots in old cultural practices also enable participants to bring up old hurts and give some closure to past injuries. It is not so much the personal charisma as the intelligent application of effective evidence-based practices that supports the healing.
The listening, woven into all effective actions and programs, gives life and strength to a school to support academic excellence for all students with the necessary safety and healing.
Dr. Avilés, Dr. Vaughn, Ms. Rawan Hammoudeh and Mr. Cruz attest to the power of listening to everyone in a school: the student who has been hurt and the one who caused it; the teacher who is overwhelmed with adolescent behavior and the one who doesn’t see the assets in each child; and the parents who want to make sure their child is on a college path.
Deep and persistent listening helps the principal acknowledge the assets in each student, the path to positive engagement for each one, and the direction for solutions to challenges and problems. An effective school is one that values all students, and they have ample evidence every day that each is special. Principals hold the power to ensure the school environment is one where healing happens and learning blossoms.
Brion-Meisels, G., O’Neil, E., & Bishop, S. (2022). School-Level Strategies: Interrupting Bullying & Harassment in Schools – Toolkit. IDRA.
Bojorquez, H. (2021). Ready – Renew – Reconnect! Proven Strategies for Re-engaging Students Who Need You the Most. IDRA.
IDRA. (February 25, 2021). Principals Leading in a Pandemic, webinar.
Johnson, P. (September 2021). Schoolwide Restorative Justice Practices – A Guided Tour. IDRA Newsletter.
Rimm-Kaufman, S.E. (October 2006). Social and Academic Learning Study on the Contribution of the Responsive Classroom Approach. University of Virginia.
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is IDRA’s family engagement coordinator and directs IDRA Education CAFE work. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2022 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]