Robert Beato, the principal of Eastland Middle School in Roseville, MI, has focused on building a family atmosphere.

After 24 years of working in high schools—as a teacher, an assistant principal, and a principal—I took over the principal job last school year at Eastland Middle School in Roseville, MI. It was a big change, but I’ve been very happy with the move.

Coming out of the pandemic and a year and a half of students and teachers sitting in front of computers—and principals muddling their way through—I realized that something was missing. Students sometimes forgot how to be students, teachers sometimes forgot how to teach, and principals sometimes forgot how to lead. Basically, at times we forgot about the importance of relationships.

We wanted students to get back to their desks, grab their pencils, and just listen to us so they could catch up on the math and the reading they missed. Yes, they did miss out on a lot, but I think we tried to fast forward everything, and that just wasn’t going to work.

Building a Family Atmosphere

Last year was also when I would hear more teachers—not just my teachers, but teachers from all over the place—talk about “these kids.” And it started to drive me crazy. When I began the year at my new school, I made a pact with my teachers that we weren’t going to refer to our students as “these kids” anymore. We were going to call them “our kids.”

The language choice helps build a family atmosphere. These are our kids. Changing the words doesn’t mean the kids don’t have issues, because they certainly do. But they are the kids we have. They go to school here, and they are now our kids. So, that’s the direction in which I wanted to move the school.

Beato spends time with students and sets up games for them to play during the school day.

Whenever I would write an email to a teacher or speak to the staff, I would remind them to refer to the students as our kids. I would also tell them to feel free to correct each other if someone says “these kids.” It does take practice, though. But sometimes all that is needed is a look, and they remember, “Oh yeah, I know, ‘our kids.’ ”

It’s a slow process to change the atmosphere of a school in the wake of the pandemic, but it’s not until students feel connected to teachers, teachers feel connected to principals, and principals feel connected to students that we’ll see some positive differences. Making those connections takes time.

Small Changes to Make a Difference

The terminology change is probably the biggest thing we’re doing differently, but we’ve also tried some small things to connect the school community. We brought some games into the cafeteria, for example, like bean bag toss, cornhole, and Jenga, and I try to get some of the teachers to come down and play games with the students, too.

We also tried organizing our open house for families a little differently. Instead of parents going through the school following a schedule, we had them walk into every teacher’s classroom. The teachers had decorated their rooms with something about themselves or something that inspires them. Then the parents could vote for what they considered the best-decorated classroom. Parents also had an opportunity to write an encouraging message on a hallway board for the students to see.

Something else we started? Shoutouts. Each week, students and staff write shoutouts to anyone they wish. I read them over the public address system every Friday. Students can shout out a teacher who helped them with homework or their friends for helping them. Staff can give other staff members praise or highlight a student who has shown improvement or made a good choice. I look forward to announcing these each week. 

I’ve also started leading some games over the public address system. One thing I have done is play a song, then the teachers have to text or call me if they know the song title. The winning teacher gets a free prep period, and the students get to spend that time with me. I take them to the gym, and we play games and have fun. Again, it’s another small thing that helps promote more of a family atmosphere.

Pushing for Mental Health

This year, Eastland will be introducing the be nice. program, which aims to give students direction on what to do if friends (or the students themselves) are going through a hard time. It opens the door to conversations that can be difficult to have—especially when it comes to feelings and mental health. It also teaches people to be nice to others and reminds all of us that we never know what someone else is going through. Every single one of us (students, teachers, leaders, and parents) can do a better job of treating others with kindness, friendship, and understanding.

We’ve also made a commitment to understanding ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). Teachers recently watched videos, read articles, took their own ACEs test, and discussed how it just takes one caring adult to help our students. I also had the staff take an online survey; every staff member gave a check to each student’s name to show if they felt they had a connection with that student. We then identified the students who received no or very few check marks and concentrated on building relationships with them. The goal was to have every student have at least one strong connection with an adult. We know it’s hard for academic achievement to improve until we understand what our students are going through.

We are also in the process of beautifying our courtyards with perennials to create a Zen-like atmosphere where classes can go out, relax, and get some fresh air. Our woodshop teacher is helping students build picnic tables, and students are taking ownership and putting in the work to make this a nice environment for everyone. 

Ensuring All Our Kids Feel Welcomed

As far as our parents, they might not sense a big difference yet, but at some point, they will understand that at Eastland Middle School we have a family atmosphere, and the teachers care about their students. Our teachers give their hearts and souls to the profession to the point where they are drained and exhausted by the end of the week. But then they come back and do it all over again, every single day.

In our vision for the school, all our kids feel welcomed. We want them to want to be here, and when they want to be here, they’re going to listen more to their teachers and see that their teachers care about them. I do know we had fewer major discipline issues last year compared to the previous year, when schools were suspending students left and right. That approach just doesn’t work.

Being intentional about language to help us focus on relationships seems to be working in our school, but I think any principal looking to rebuild relationships in their own school needs to go with whatever works in their specific setting. That means listening to your teachers, especially if you’re new in that building. Find out what they believe are the problems. Do a lot of observing and ask a lot of questions.

I didn’t come to my new school wanting to change a lot of things, because I felt that unless there was a mandate from my superintendent, my role was to be open and engage in a lot of discussions. My superintendent made sure I had a lot of support and continued to check in to see if I needed anything from him or other central office employees. This way I could get to know my teachers and students, and then together we could begin to make slow but steady progress. You might not achieve everything you want, but the goal for every school should be continuous progress.

Robert Beato is the principal of Eastland Middle School in Roseville, MI.