Change is hard. Schools have to be innovative and willing to take risks, to move away from how things have always been done in order to embrace the challenges that lie ahead in preparing ALL students for success in a globally competitive society. To impact meaningful change, school leaders need to empower the entire school community to take ownership and responsibility. A positive and healthy climate and culture is the foundation of a high-quality learning environment conducive to building capacity and shared leadership. I have been an educator for almost 30 years and have seen initiatives come and go. The few that led to true, transformative change were always those that were achieved by empowering teachers and students to lead the change.
Beginning With Trust
Building a strong foundation of trust is necessary to set the stage for empowering teachers and students, while nurturing a positive, healthy climate and culture. I believe this begins with kindness, honesty, transparency, and an unwavering commitment to persevere through any challenge. Combining these with love, empathy, and support establishes a sense of community.
Trust is not something that happens overnight. To develop trust, leaders must listen carefully to concerns; value the input of staff, students, and families; and address needs as they arise. Employing transparency through open communication, honesty, and always revealing “the why” provides meaning and purpose. I believe in the power of leading by example. I am visible in school, at events and games, and in the community. I get to know the staff and students as individuals. I celebrate good things happening with them and frequently check in on those who may be struggling with personal issues.
Each morning, I greet students and staff outside while playing uplifting music. Dancing and singing along with the music, I often coax students and staff to sing along or do a little dance with me. I find that the small acts make the biggest difference: passing out homemade cookies to our student fan base at games, giving hugs, texting a student who needs an extra push to get to school, offering kind words of encouragement, sending a random email to recognize the great things that are happening in school, or cooking a meal for a family in need. A school leader who is trusted and leads with positivity and enthusiasm can inspire and motivate others.
Being trusted is just as important as recognizing that trust goes both ways. To empower students and adults as leaders, principals need to have faith and trust in them. To empower is to give the community voice, opportunity, and support. One of the first opportunities I had to empower our school community was early in my principalship. When I first arrived, I often heard phrases like, “Morale is at an all-time low” and “School spirit and pride, what is that?” In order to improve the climate and culture, it was important for me to not only listen but to also truly hear what was being said, and then to support and take action to create change. As a community, we formed a Purple Pride committee that came up with activities, fundraisers, and games to boost morale across the school. Long-lost traditions were brought back, like having a bonfire on the town beach during spirit week. And new traditions were sparked, like Purple Pride’s March Madness.
As we continued to build a positive and healthy climate and culture, a schoolwide study showed that we needed to reinvent our core values and beliefs about learning. We created what is now at the heart of everything we stand for: Strengthen your CORE and get RRHIIP’ed! Our CORE Values—Respect, Responsibility, Honesty, Integrity, Intellectual Curiosity, and Perseverance—are embedded in the fabric of our community. Students created videos, teachers facilitated advisory activities, and “Get RRHIIP’ed” is printed on Husky (our mascot) gear, posters, and banners that are hung throughout the school.
Most recently, in the wake of the pandemic, several teachers met to plan professional development activities for the staff at the start of the school year. They developed clear and explicit expectations aligned to our core values in anticipation of students returning to school after 18 months of a lack of structure. The teachers developed rubrics on what it means to be “Good to the Core,” and they consistently reinforce the expectations.
Selling Student Voice
Student voices are both powerful and inspirational. Students never cease to amaze me with their insight, courage, and innovative ideas. I often go to the students for help in solving a problem, which empowers them as leaders of change. When we experienced a significant increase in vaping, many students were frustrated at people congregating in the bathrooms, vaping in hallways, and the overall behavior they were seeing. In collaboration with the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and our student assistance counselor, students designed and implemented a full-scale anti-vaping campaign that involved assemblies, community presentations, student-created videos, public service announcements, posters, and much more. The campaign resulted in a significant decrease in vaping prior to the pandemic. Since students have returned this school year, we have seen a resurgence in vaping. Our students are already generating solutions. When given the opportunity to stand up for what they believe in, they rise to the occasion.
A few years ago, our student council advocated for senior privileges. They conducted research, created a proposal, and made a presentation to district administrators and me. Seniors can now arrive late or leave early if they have a study hall in their schedule, be in the halls without a hall pass, and eat in the courtyard. We have an amazing Husky fan base called the Dog Pound, initiated by our students to strengthen school spirit and pride. Every student is welcome to join, and they emanate true Husky spirit and embrace inclusivity.
Another group of students formed a student union with the sole purpose of identifying and addressing inequities in our school and community. Last year, they advocated to reinstate Virtual Support Monday (VSM), which was eliminated when students returned to in-person learning. They presented research and data that there were students who were not receiving equitable support because they remained fully virtual and did not have access to meet one-on-one with their teacher. This resulted in district administration adding a number of VSMs back into the schedule.
SEL Community Support
Another opportunity for shared leadership arose this past year as the need to focus on the social-emotional health of our community became apparent. A committee consisting of administration, teachers, support staff, students, and parents developed and implemented a program called #Bethechange. With a focus on educator and student wellness, as well as a safe and healthy climate, we identified monthly themes, and the committee facilitated schoolwide and communitywide campaigns and activities, many of which involved helping those less fortunate and have resulted in a positive impact on our community.
Other students are activists in helping the community and preserving our environment. This past year, students and parents sewed masks, fundraised for our local food pantry, planted trees, honored first responders, and so much more. Our students care deeply about the world around them, and we strive to provide them with the skills, knowledge, opportunities, and support to be change makers. I am always on the lookout for potential leaders, focusing on their strengths and nurturing their passions.
Deborah DiBiase, EdD, is the principal of Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, RI. She is also the 2021 Rhode Island Principal of the Year.