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How to start the school year on a happy note

The author of "10 ways we made our school happier" is back to describe how she creates a climate where educators are free to be creative and students are inspired to achieve

I have a hot pink sign that’s right beside my computer that says, “If you want people to embrace your vision, you must continue your pursuit of them.” As a school leader, my job is to pursue every teacher in this building, to help connect them to their peers and their students, and to help them find their passions.

You might call it “giving them ownership of their work,” but I call it “loving on my teachers.” I firmly believe that if you connect with their hearts, their minds will follow. Part of loving on your teachers is coming up with little routines or catchphrases that bind us together. Our school motto is “Go be awesome,” so we end every faculty meeting with a group chant: “One, two, three—go be awesome!” Is it a little bit silly? Sure. Does it help us connect and teach better? I believe it does.

How to be happy with purpose
One of the ways we give teachers ownership of what we do as a school is through our different types of leadership teams. We intentionally connect them to Curriculum Leadership, Grade-Level Leadership, and Positive Learning Environment (PLE) Leadership teams. This triad is much like a three-legged stool: Together they stand strong and will lead their grade levels or areas through a successful year. Our PLE Leadership team began the year by using the 7 Mindsets portal to help us choose what aspects of social-emotional learning (SEL) we’re going to focus on each month. The grade-level leaders are then in charge of taking those lessons back to their grade-level teams and growing leaders through the same mindset conversations.

Members of each team are selected on how passionate they are about either curriculum, leadership, or culture, but in a couple of grade levels I asked teachers to join the team because I knew that they needed a leadership opportunity. For example, we have a music teacher who does amazing productions but wasn’t on any committees. I think she felt a little bit lost, but now she’s leading her grade level, she’s connecting with other grade levels, and she’s helping other teachers to see that the first thing that makes a school work is relationships.

Taking ‘happy place’ literally
We work 10 to 12 hours a day, and when you have people who give that much of themselves to their job, we as leaders owe it to them to provide a place that makes them feel appreciated. This year, we created a Zen Den. We built it for our kids, but in order for kids to use it, teachers have to use it. We have scheduled times that teachers can do a 30-minute yoga routine that helps them stay focused and rejuvenated.

We also renovated our teacher’s lounge. We got rid of the stale boardroom setting—now it’s lounge chairs and couches and high-top tables. People can get comfortable: There are blankets in there, and we have oil mist machines, snacks, coffee, and soft drinks. The lounge says to teachers, “We’re going to talk about deep stuff and have hard conversations about instruction in here, but we want you to be comfortable, and we’re going to love on you a little bit while we do it.”

Teachers are creating their own spaces, too: One of our special area teachers proposed a different type of learning opportunity she was super passionate about that would connect kids to science and creativity. She now works with students on goal-setting and has set her own goal of building a Fab Lab makerspace.

Connecting with parents
This summer we produced some fun “welcome back” videos for our parents. We sent out postcards with a QR code, and when parents scanned their QR code, a video popped up where we talked about the car line and their kids’ itslearning pages and some informational pieces, but also showed our staff laughing and having fun.

Before school started, we had a kindergarten roundup, where we invited kindergarteners and their families to ride the bus together. They rode to school and then the kindergarten teachers and I hopped on to welcome them. I told them that we were going to keep their kids safe, that they were going to have a ton of fun, and that they were going to learn a lot. Parents need to see the faces of the people who are running the school to know that we care about their kids just as much as they do.

SEL gets results
How much does caring matter? A couple years ago I took our school data and compared us with the other 23 schools in the state of Georgia that had the same free and reduced lunch rate, and we scored an overall six to eight points higher than those schools.

Why? We talk with kids about grit and growth. We help them set goals, praise them if they achieve them, but also say, “Okay, you didn’t reach your goal, but here’s what you did, and now you can go back and rework it.” We teach students that failure is an essential part of learning, which is one of the 7 Mindsets.

We help students own their own learning just like we help teachers own a little piece of the school. When leaders empower teachers, it comes out in the test scores. We rarely talk about test scores, though—you don’t have to when you’re focusing on the right things.

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