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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

The House That Affirmation Builds

Honoring everyone's contribution to making a school great builds both community and morale.

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Building a positive community and school climate is a crucial but often overlooked step in school improvement. If we want teachers to devote themselves passionately to student learning—and students to achieve all they can—we must first ensure that both students and teachers want to be at our schools.
At Hunters Lane High School, a high-poverty urban school in Nashville, Tennessee, we've found that by communicating clearly, recognizing teachers' and students' contributions, and giving students and parents many ways to get involved, we can build a solid school community while improving our school's overall quality.
Hunters Lane is a community of 1,557 students and 140 teachers and staff members. Seventy-six percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, and the same percentage are minorities. In the past six years, we've implemented processes that strengthen this community. These processes are inexpensive—but priceless in terms of building morale. They have contributed to a 65 percent reduction in students being referred to the office, a 51 percent reduction in suspensions, and an 8 percent increase in student attendance at our school, compared with six years ago.

Communicate Early and Often

Effective communication breeds higher morale. Because knowledge is power, people will seek information until they get it. This tendency can result in the spread of myths and misinformation about school issues, which distracts everyone from the main goal: student learning. At Hunters Lane, we use effective communication systems to ensure that no one wastes time trying to "get to the bottom of" an issue.

How Are We Doing?

Our How Are We Doing? (HAWD) process ensures that we identify and work together to solve problems that our teachers experience. We hold meetings four times a year; although participation is optional, a high percentage of our staff participates.
In our first HAWD meeting, which takes place during the third week of school, groups of staff members meet with the executive principal during their planning period to discuss what's going well and what needs to be improved. Time and again, teachers identify problems that most people (wrongly) assumed administrators were aware of (like the copy machine in the library being out of order). If the same problem is mentioned two or more times, we know that action needs to be taken. Often a workable solution emerges as the group discusses the issue.
For instance, some teachers shared that too many students were coming late to class. Administrators began more strictly enforcing our "Restricted Lunch Volunteers" policy, under which students who come to class tardy eat lunch separately, instead of eating with the rest of the school or participating in lunchtime student activities or clubs. The number of tardies soon decreased.
In the second quarter, teachers meet with the principal individually or in small self-selected groups to share what's working in the school and what problems they see. Some teachers need that chance to talk one-on-one because they don't feel comfortable raising concerns with an audience present. After these first two HAWDs, administrators prepare and disseminate a summary sheet listing both the positive situations and the problems teachers identified. After each problem, we list the actions taken to solve it.
We connect our third HAWD of the year to the anonymous, state-developed survey on working conditions that all Tennessee teachers take annually. Maintaining the anonymity of the survey, we debrief our school's results together as a staff. A majority of Hunters Lane teachers complete this survey. We recently received 100 percent faculty agreement on answers to questions like "School leadership facilitates using data to improve student learning." The final end-of-year HAWD is used to plan the upcoming year.
We conduct the HAWD quarterly because administrators need to know what teachers think—and because what teachers think is working well or is not can change quickly. HAWD allows our staff to communicate openly about problems and collaborate to solve them. There's no retaliation for raising an issue because the point of the process is for us to solve our problems. No one need wonder whether the suggestion box is ever opened.

Communicating with Parents

Communicating with parents, particularly about bad news, is challenging. It's easy to deliver news about who won the spelling bee, but there's no easy way to share negative information, such as a weapon being found on campus—so principals often allow others to share it for them. This is a huge mistake. In the absence of clear communication, people are more likely to believe falsehoods or sensationalized reporting.
In times of crisis, such as a security issue or a group of students getting in trouble, parents want the principal to tell them clearly what occurred, what the facts are, and what the school is doing to prevent a recurrence. They become rightfully suspicious if the principal is nowhere to be found. We make it a point to deliver bad news to parents first—before the media does or before we send a press release—through e-mail and our automated phone call system. Parents receive the information before the incident becomes breaking news. The trust that develops from knowing they'll hear from the principal is reassuring to worried parents.
Hunters Lane addresses what matters to parents through our Parent Academic Achievement Team. Approximately 12 parent volunteers meet with our executive principal regularly to review schoolwide data and give school leaders feedback about their children's learning experiences in and out of school. These volunteers brainstorm ways to solve problems and enhance achievement. Parent suggestions are often compelling and easily implemented. For example, parents suggested having teachers publish assignments for each upcoming week in the open-access grade book. When parents check their child's grades for one week, they can see that big test coming up in the next.

Affirm Teachers

U.S. teachers are asked to give more to their job each year. As accountability movements cause leaders to scrutinize teachers' performance sharply, stakes continue to rise for job security. As the stress grows, it's important to take time to celebrate each teacher's individual contributions.
We're deliberate about celebration at Hunters Lane. At key times throughout the year, we find ways to recognize teachers in a light and positive way. In October, each teacher chooses one colleague to single out for some specific attribute by completing a form finishing the prompt, "We are oozing with good cheer for Ms. ___ because …" (examples such as "she takes time to do little things for students," or "he shows respect for others' opinions"). We make sure every teacher gets one of these "October Ooze" certificates from a peer—and we share some of the funny ones at faculty meetings.
In recognizing employees, leaders often make the mistake of always rewarding the same people, frequently the "favorites" of the principal or the students. With our system, we affirm everyone for his or her own talents and gifts. As part of teachers' holiday bonus, the principal crafts an individualized certificate of appreciation for each faculty member specifying what she appreciates about that teacher. On the last day at school for faculty in December, following our holiday meal, we publicly present the certificates, which say things like, "Awarded to Mr. Blake for approaching his first teaching year as a learner" or "Awarded to Mrs. Poll for creating a safe haven in her classroom." This is one of teachers' favorite parts of the year.
In a school with 100 certified teachers plus 40 staff members, composing a different statement for each recipient—not to mention keeping track to make sure that as the years progress, the same sentiment isn't repeated—can be labor intensive. Individualizing these awards is worth the effort, however. Many teachers prominently display these certificates—and even frame them—in their classrooms.
At the end of the school year, busy and complicated as it is, instead of sending teachers off with "have a good summer" and a high five, we host a luncheon to present silly superlatives and serious awards. Teachers receive "faculty superlatives" their peers have voted on (such as most likely to remember a student 10 years later, best smile, or most likely to be put in detention when she was a student). We also distribute service awards and honor our retirees.
Besides these events, we host an opportunity for fellowship and fun every month. We give special attention to February, a challenging month morale-wise: Winter's gotten old, everyone is tired, and spring break seems far away. We turn it into "Fabulous February" with traditions like our yearly door decorating contest. Teachers decorate their classroom doors in a Black History Month, Valentine's Day, or school spirit theme so the building is full of positive messages. And every Friday we make sure there are delicious treats to share at lunch.

Encourage Student Involvement

Encouraging students to be active in school life also enhances school culture. We try to set up activities so that the largest number of students possible can be involved. For example, each of our five small learning academies connected to career fields selects and trains student ambassadors—students who have strong communication skills. Student ambassadors serve with teachers and each academy's many community partners on the academy's advisory board. They lead tours, get involved in accreditation processes, and help recruit business partners, who enhance students' learning and increase opportunities for students outside of school.
Our One Lunch period gives all kids a chance to be included in activities and forges relationships among teachers, students, and administrators. All students go to lunch during the same 45-minute period. Students can eat in the cafeteria if they choose, but most take advantage of various clubs and activities that are available during this period as they eat (from traditional clubs like the National Honor Society to Hunters Lane originals, such as our Warrior Outdoor Club to raise urban students' interest in outdoor activities). If at least three students share an interest and have a teacher willing to sponsor them, they can start a club.
Everyone values One Lunch. Students love the freedom and all the options of things to do. Some kids just spend time with friends or talk with teachers during this break. Students have access to computer labs and art rooms.
Teachers appreciate built-in time during the day for makeup work and tutoring. (All teachers are on duty somewhere during One Lunch and get a second duty-free lunch period.) Administrators, who might meet with kids or circulate to different clubs or areas, love the chance to talk to many students in a relaxed environment.
It also strengthens climate to showcase students' accomplishments, especially to recognize a range of students of different ability levels. Hunters Lane uses project-based learning, and we showcase completed projects to our students, parents, teachers, and community members at our school's interdisciplinary fair and district's annual project expo. This is a public way of giving students recognition. We select projects on the basis of their quality and the student's academic history, but we don't choose work from only top performers in academically oriented classes. Two of the projects we submitted last year—which scored well—were quite different in nature: one showcased bilingual children's books, created by a team of freshmen involved in our International Baccalaureate program; the other was a plan for a charity boxing match created by some academically typical sophomores in their first year in our Academy of Hospitality.
Our annual spring showcase combines several events into one night. First, visitors view projects by our younger International Baccalaureate students, then we present our spring concert, which is accompanied by a student art show. We end the night by giving awards to about 200 of our 1,300 underclassmen. By the time the night ends, at least one-third of our students have been honored in some way.

Just Begin!

When students, teachers, and parents feel like a valuable part of the school, they will contribute to improving the school's academics. Acknowledging that everyone has a stake in making our school a good place to work, in and of itself, increases morale. The key is simply to begin the process.
End Notes

1 For information on the TELL Tennessee teachers survey, see http://news.tn.gov/node/7103.

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