Guest post by Jay R. Dostal

I am wrapping up what has been the most difficult year of my professional life. It was filled with a myriad of emotions, events, and circumstances that most people never get to experience in a lifetime, let alone in a single year. Between opening a new high school, having a staff member pass away as the school year started, and losing multiple students to suicide and other unfortunate accidents, I can honestly say that this year has been like no other. As principal, it is difficult to lead in circumstances like these because it ravages your school culture. Walking the halls and seeing students and staff struggling is painful. You want to put your arm around everyone and tell them that it is going to be OK, but at the same time, you are struggling too and questioning if things can return to normal. You are left wondering if your school culture can ever rebound.

I’ve written before about building capital as a leader, but the focus of that piece was on the individual. The premise works the same, however, when it comes to your building’s culture. You have to ability to make deposits and withdrawals, and whenever you do, your culture is impacted. The difficulty with this concept is understanding that deposits and withdrawals are not always equal. As a leader, you can do many little things to improve your school culture and make deposits in the bank. Unfortunately, one major event can take a withdrawal from this cultural bank and put your school at a deficit. In the case of this year, it seemed that the excitement of opening a new building would reap huge benefits to our school culture. Unfortunately, those deposits were less than the withdrawals that were taken, and we were quickly running on a cultural deficit.

What can leaders do to get schools out of the red and into the black? No instant lottery ticket can correct a cultural deficit. It takes a strong commitment of an entire school community to rebuild capital. Here are some of the key lessons I have learned to help schools become culturally solvent:

A school community is a three-legged stool that consists of school, home, and community. When all three work together, students are on solid ground. If any leg is absent or misaligned, the stool falls over and the student on the stool ends up on the floor. We live in an increasingly polarized society where finger pointing is easier than examining our own role in an issue. We draw lines in the sand and fight every battle, wanting to be right rather than solving problems. When this happens, students lose. We all have fallen in to this trap at some point. How we overcome it, however, is realizing it isn’t about us. Our role is to keep the stool standing firm.

The old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is useless when it comes to schools and its culture. Our kids need us all day, every day. We cannot compartmentalize our role in developing a child and keep telling ourselves that we only serve a specific role. The reality is that we all serve multiple roles for our kids and sometimes lines get blurred. Our students live in complicated times and look to us to guide and teach them. We may not have all the answers, but we certainly have the ability to walk side-by-side with them and help navigate their course.

Do not underestimate the power of love when it comes to educating our kids. Showing that you will be there for kids no matter how much they fail or disappoint you is just as important as when they are doing everything right. Showing children love doesn’t always mean that you will come to their defense. My parents said many times that they were giving consequences because they love me, which made me angry. I didn’t understand how someone could love you and give consequences. I realized later that they loved me enough to tell me I was wrong and needed to make changes. In the same way, our students need our loving attention to their world. They need to know we are on their team, working together to help them become adults.

The call to action is clear. We need to make more cultural deposits in our schools if we want them to get better. We need to do so because we never know when a huge withdrawal is going to be made. We cannot continue to operate in “deficit spending,” and each of us has a role in building up the savings plan. The question is whether or not you want to contribute to the cause.

Jay R. Dostal, EdD, is the principal of Kearney High School in Kearney, NE. He has been in education for 15 years, 10 of which have been in an administrative role. He is the father of two amazing kids, Brenna and Mason. His wife, Melanie, is a special education teacher. Jay is the 2016 Nebraska Principal of the Year.

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