Over the past three years, I have had an amazing opportunity to view my school in a different way as the principal to my daughter, Sidney. As you might expect, I think that she is a pretty amazing young lady, and I eagerly anticipated her sixth-grade year at Messalonskee Middle School (MMS). Before she started, Chuck Pullen, the tech education teacher at our school, told me that I would never look at MMS in the same way after she attended. How right he was! I have had hundreds of conversations about school with Sidney, and through those discussions, I have come to see MMS through her lens.

As I saw her last day at MMS approaching this past June, I started to reflect on how much I have appreciated her perspective. I did not always agree with what she had to say, and I know that her views were not representative of the entire student population, but it was unfiltered feedback. That got me thinking: How can my teachers and I get this kind of honest feedback on a regular basis from our students?

I asked Sidney about this, and her first reaction was, “I don’t think that you can.” As we spoke over a couple of months, Sidney eventually told me that in order to get unfiltered, honest feedback, students need to feel comfortable and know that their ideas will be heard. We would need to ensure that students would not face any negative consequences due to their feedback. Having been on the receiving end of some of her critiques, I could see how it could be hard to hear and that the correct mindset would need to be employed by staff.

The main reason that Sidney could speak to me about any issue is because she knew that, no matter what she had to say, I would listen and never stop being her dad and loving her. When there is no risk of losing the relationship, our children can be more open. Why should it be different for the children in our schools?  Our students need to know that we care about them and that even their poor behavior, differing views, and constructive feedback will not change that.

During the summer I reflected on the past three years, read a lot about relationship building in NASSP’s Building Ranks™: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders, and began to make a plan. I came up with a few items that I will implement this year at our school to open up the lines of communication between students, staff, and families.

Having a Family Advocate

We are starting an advisory program this year. Although there are a number of activities and lessons we have planned that work on different social and life skills, one of our biggest areas of focus is to develop family advocates. We not only want to build a relationship with the students, but also with their families so that each advisor is connected and parents feel that they have an advocate in our school.

Celebrating Success

We already do a lot to recognize our students. We have Student of the Month breakfasts to recognize students who exemplify particular habits of mind like having a growth mindset or managing impulsivity. We recognize students with perfect attendance each month. We celebrate students meeting honor roll each quarter, and we celebrate involvement in clubs and sports throughout the year. The addition this year is to institute the Principal’s 200 Club model, which we will call the Eagle 200. This process allows all staff in the building to recognize students for a variety of positive behaviors such as being kind, helping others, or persevering in class. Staff give a ticket to students, and they come to the office to put their ticket on the board. I will call home to share their recognition with their families.

Mark Hatch with his daughter Sidney and his wife Denice on the first day of school.

Mining for Feedback

Some students will not offer their true thoughts and feelings to any adult at school. To provide an alternative, we are going to use anonymous surveys. Teachers will be asked to send out a quarterly survey to gather feedback from students. They will answer questions about their level of engagement, comfort in the class, what they like, and what they would like to change. There will be some questions about our school climate as well. The data will go directly to the teacher, and they will be encouraged to share how they will use the information with their students.

What will you do to open the lines of communication and build relationships between students, staff, and families?

Mark Hatch lives in Sidney, ME, with his wife and daughter and has been the principal at Messalonskee Middle School for 16 years. He is the 2018 Maine Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @PrincipalHatch or check out the Messalonskee Middle School Facebook Page.

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