As an educational leader, here are three truths I see daily in our schools:

  • Our people are our greatest resource.
  • We have to make tough decisions with limited budgets.
  • School is a community project.

Honoring the first statement makes schools work. Navigating the second statement is inherent to the stress of educational administration. Embodying the third statement—viewing school as a community project—can both leverage the value of our personnel and mitigate some of the stress of finite (and often insufficient) financial resources. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years as principal. As with most lessons in school leadership, my teachers and students showed me how this works.

The Gardener’s Profile

It started with a new assignment in our ninth-grade English class. The students were studying a novella on urban gardening. As an extension of the reading, teachers asked their classes to interview a gardener.

“We don’t know any gardeners!” they said.

Just then a student looked out the classroom window. A member of the support staff was tending to flower beds in the courtyard. Eureka! Soon all of our ninth-grade students were visiting with support staff about taking care of the school grounds.

Because of this assignment, students started building relationships, learning from and planting gardens with school staff they had never connected with before. By valuing people—our most important resource—differently, students were engaging in powerful new learning opportunities.

Schools Are Community Rich

Community has always been at the center of my work in education. I started teaching at an inner-city school. I was young, naive, and strikingly idealistic. I wouldn’t have survived that first year were it not for my students’ grandmothers and aunties who mentored me, the night custodian who visited with me when we were the only ones left in the building, the cafeteria worker who helped me send food home to hungry students, and the secretary who translated my notes from English to Spanish. The first few years working at that school taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about education and community.

Now that I work as a school administrator, I want to continue to affirm these lessons. The gardener’s profile assignment reminded me that affirming someone goes beyond simply being respectful. Most schools, including ours, expect students to be polite and respectful to all their peers, faculty, and staff. However, too often we stop at simply being nice. What if we also expected everyone—students and staff—to honor the wisdom and expertise of all members of our school community?

In a recent assembly, I gave students the following advice:

How can you change the world? Meet someone new, someone very different from you, and become their friend. Friendship can be a radical act; often radical acts are disguised in everyday moments like sharing a sandwich or learning to say “hello” in a new language. We can change the world: in our school hallways, in line at the grocery store, outside a coffee shop. We can shift the tectonic plates of our worldview by trading distance for proximity, risking comfort for connection, reaching out a hand to someone very different from us, and listening to them with such genuine simplicity that the world bends toward grace.

New Middle School Program

Honoring community wisdom, cultivating new relationships, and encouraging collaborative problem-solving were key aims of the new middle school leadership program we launched last year. In this program, our students practice active listening, culturally responsive communication, and expressing gratitude. The goal? We’re trying to show our students that teaching and learning are ubiquitous. Therefore, the program includes intentional opportunities to learn from people who aren’t always seen as teachers. Here are a few of the ways you can embrace the idea of school as a community project, as we have in this new program:

  • Interview operations staff on water use at school.
  • Work with the custodial team on campus cleanup.
  • Plant a community garden.
  • Invite parents and other community members to be guest speakers.
  • Partner with local agencies to organize food drives.
  • Write thank-you letters to the many different people who make a difference in the school (and local) community.
  • Help students craft emails to local companies to ask them about their sustainability practices.
  • Connect students with support staff to share personal histories.

These kinds of activities are changing the landscape of where and to whom our students go for wisdom.

Giving Legs to Character Education

That ninth-grade English assignment caused me to ask tough and important questions, including:

  • What opportunities for connection, learning, and relationship-building were our school teams missing?
  • What solutions, relationships, and lessons are just outside the proverbial classroom windows?
  • How can we give legs to character education?

Our new middle school program is showing me how students and community members can work together to make a profound difference on important issues. Our seventh-grade students are learning that they don’t have to wait until they are adults to start making a difference. And we’re all being reminded that you don’t need a doctorate to be an expert. There are mavens among us serving food in our cafeterias, answering phones in our front office, and driving the school bus each morning.

I believe the world is changed through forging new relationships. Because school is a community project, we have a wide array of potentially world-changing relationships right here in our schools. This was true when I first started my career in that sunny classroom in East Oakland, CA, and also when I worked in my first leadership position in a suburban school in the Midwest. It is still true in my current work as the principal of an international school.

If school is a community project, then the principal can (and should) play an important role in valuing and strengthening that community. We need to be genuine and generous listeners who are willing to step outside our comfort zones. Fortunately, we have countless opportunities to do so every day. How we affirm others, who we go to for wisdom, and how we choose to problem-solve speak volumes about our values and expectations. And those of us who have been in schools for a while know that our students are always watching.

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver is director of academic affairs and engagement for Mizzou K–12 and holds a faculty position in the College of Education at the University of Missouri in Columbia. 

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a blog post titled, “Since People Are Our Greatest Resource,” published in July 2017 on Leading Globally, Teaching Locally.