Guest post by John C. Bartlett

When I woke up the morning after Election Day, my to-do list had a new priority: a visit to my English language learner classroom and a conversation with our 50 students who were getting their first taste of American democracy at work. What did these students want and need from me and their teachers? These students wanted to know that they matter, that someone cared about them, and that they were safe. Essentially, they wanted to know what every student needs to know when they walk through the front door of our schools every day.In a school of over 2,000 students, I am often asked about our school being too large and potentially impersonal. My replies are simple; any school can be large and impersonal, and any school can be quaint and personal depending on the focus, efforts, and culture established by the school leadership.

Here are some tips to make sure ALL students feel like they matter, based on my experience:

  1. Create intentional spaces of safety where students have ownership. The creation of safe spaces can include classrooms of refuge for particular student groups, such as students struggling with gender identity and ELL students. These safe places may be in classrooms where clubs are sponsored, areas of the library monitored by adults, or even within the halls. It is important that the students feel safe and protected while finding a “home” within the school.
  1. Create intentional structures where students are connected with an adult who knows them and values them as individuals. Many schools take this intentional structure and create a “homeroom” or “advisory” structure, while others require students to join clubs, student organizations, or various extracurricular activities where they are able to build relationships with a trusting adult.
  1. Support and enhance student leadership, giving them a voice within the school. I have found the first line of defense in making sure every student feels valued is to engage student leadership in creating ways to give every student group a voice in leadership. Roughly three times a semester, I eat lunch with our student leadership class. During this time, I seek feedback about how to make the school better and ways to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to be heard.
  1. Be available for students. Like many of you, I start my day standing in front of the school as students get dropped off. I eat lunch in the cafeteria, visit classrooms over and over throughout the day, and visit with students during class changes. It is important that every student feels like he or she has access to the administrative leadership. The easiest way to make sure they feel that way is to be available and present throughout their day.

One of my favorite leadership principles is that truly great leaders create culture, not policy. It is imperative that great school leaders create a culture where every student matters, starting by embodying the culture we want to create.

How does your school create a culture that shows every student matters?

John Bartlett, EdD, is currently the principal at Bearden High School in Knoxville, TN. A husband, father of two wonderful children, and father figure to many more, John is honored to be recognized as the 2016 Tennessee Principal of the Year.


 This was previously posted on January 12, 2017, and is being reposted as its content covers issues related to school safety. 

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