As we begin the new year, I want to share how I have worked hard throughout my career to promote kindness in school. It started about 15 years ago, when I first became principal of Colony Middle School in Palmer, AK. At the time, it was pretty apparent that we needed to work on our school culture. One thing we focused on was our staff beliefs; we wanted to make sure they were aligned with how we work with students and our belief in what they were capable of achieving.
We got really good at leading by example by being kind and respectful toward our students. On surveys we did each year, the students would say that one of the things they liked best about our school was that the teachers were kind. That was nice to hear, but we also learned that even though the students reported that they felt safe with, and respected by, their teachers, they didn’t feel the same way about their peers. It wasn’t across the board, but it was a big gap that we needed to pay attention to.
We decided to figure out how we could get our students to really take care of each other. Take bullying, for example. The adults can want it to stop, but until students really step up and do the right thing, especially when no one is looking, we can’t expect things to get consistently better. We must teach students how to be kind and respectful, and how to step in and be an upstander, not a bystander. They need guidance on how they can intervene with another student in a safe way and stand up against things that are hurtful.
Working at bullying is an ongoing, yearly process because of the nature of adolescents being in the same space together and bringing different values, beliefs, and expectations into the school each day. Every person who sets foot on our campus needs to act positively so we don’t perpetuate patterns of hurt.
Making Our School the Best
One thing we started with staff and continued with students was commitment statements. We asked both groups to write what they are doing to make our school the best school possible, based on their own gifts and who they are as a person. Everyone has something to offer our school community.
When we first got started on these, we spent a lot of time working with the students on their statements, which they shared in class in front of their peers. This helped hold them accountable for what they said they were going to do. We also mailed the statements home for parents to post somewhere visible as a reminder—so they could partner with us in holding students to what they said they were committed to doing to make our school a better place for everyone. If a student was referred for a discipline issue, we would go back to their statement to remind them of their commitment.
We also read a couple of statements on the daily announcements, without identifying the students who wrote them, as a continuous reminder that it takes all of us to make our school the best it can possibly be. It is our belief that everyone can be a leader, and that leaders act with integrity today.
Technology, and especially social media, is a huge issue for middle school students and a big source of bullying and other hurtful behavior. One way we addressed this was through a required course on digital citizenship. The teacher for the course was hired to focus on teaching students how to be safe online because we noticed that many of our students were falling for a wide array of unsafe and hurtful online experiences. The more access they have to technology, the more we need to ensure that our students are being responsible, respectful, and thoughtful citizens.
THINK Before You Post
If students aren’t using their digital footprints for positive things, we should encourage them to pause and reflect on what they’re doing. At our school, we told students to THINK before they post. It’s an acronym to remind them that what they post should be True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.
After 15 years at Colony Middle School, I took a new position at the beginning of this school year as principal of Colony High School, which is the school my former middle schoolers go on to attend. It was a great opportunity, and I feel good about my successor at the middle school, who was the assistant principal. We are very aligned in our beliefs and core values, so we are hopeful that it’s a positive change for the entire community. It’s also been rewarding for me to transition with my eighth graders from last year because the start of high school can be a tough transition.
For preventing bullying and promoting kindness, there is no better time to reinforce this than middle school. Students’ brains and bodies are growing so rapidly at this point. Because they’re very impressionable, it’s important for us to teach and lead them well. Even though students want more freedom, they need more guidance. They tend to think and act like they are older than they really are.
This is also a crucial time for every student to have a caring adult in school who they can trust to guide them. We paired each student with a teacher-adviser for all three years of middle school, when possible. It’s someone who can support them through the changes and challenges they face in life and in school.
One other thing we always tried to do is to enlist our students in efforts to prevent bullying. For example, we hosted celebrations to honor and recognize students for making a positive difference. We should be celebrating the kind of behavior we want to see more of, which can help students feel confident in who they are.
In the end, we must also remember to look at our own behavior as adults, even though that can be difficult to do. We have the responsibility to lead our staff and hold one another accountable. Our students need to see that we are who we expect them to be. Our future is bright if we have the courage to light and lead the way.
Mary Fulp is the principal of Colony High School in Palmer, AK, and the 2022 Alaska Principal of the Year. This article previously appeared as a post on NASSP’s School of Thought Blog.