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Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization, and author of It’s Being Done and HOW It’s Being Done and co-author of Getting It Done, all published by Harvard Education Press.  Her columns originally appear on The Huffington Post.

Leadership and the Power of School Relationships

March 15, 2016

In the last few weeks I've visited five schools in four states. Each of them educates large numbers of students from low-income homes and students of color, and each is either high-performing or on an impressive improvement trajectory.

The schools are different in lots of ways, but one thing characterizes them all: Teachers, principals, and other administrators work hard at building trusting relationships that help create a sense of agency and purpose.

Here are three examples of what I mean:

At Malverne High School on New York's Long Island, I saw the principal and two assistant principals plant themselves where all the students had to pass so that they could say hello at the opening of school. "This is our spot," Principal Vincent Romano told me. They would ask entering students about an exam or say encouraging words about an athletic, artistic, or academic accomplishment. Students would grin sheepishly, share some good news, or walk past silently, eyes down. Those silent students would trigger a mental note on the part of the administrators to check what was going on with that student.

Romano first started at the school as assistant principal years ago, and remembers the hallways back then as chaotic, with students continually roaming the halls and getting into trouble, often ending in suspension. Today the hallways are as calm as high school students can allow.

I asked: How did the school get from there to here? A lot of high school principals, after all, would love to know the secret of a calm school without a lot of significant discipline issues.

"We built relationships," Romano said. "It's all about relationships."

I saw the effect of a little of his work later that day, when a young woman in her 20s came to talk with a group of ninth-graders who the school considers "at risk." She said she had been one of those hallway roamers — and fighters — in her freshman year. Her family then moved several times, and she never did graduate from high school, but she has recently enrolled in classes at Nassau Community College and is determined to become a teacher. "All those years I had a little voice in my head telling me I could do it and I should get an education."

That voice? "Dr. Romano's," she said.

"I spent a lot of time with her that year," Romano said, laughing. "She was a real problem."

But the idea that he had built such a strong relationship with someone who was a disciplinary headache was a powerful testament to the idea that, as educators have heard forever, "nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."

In Dr. Robert Gilliard Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, I similarly saw the principal and assistant principal greeting students as they entered and headed to class.

As a long line of students passed by, one tall student stopped in front of Principal Debbie Bolden. She handed him her walkie-talkie so that she could open and rummage through his backpack. She gave him a hug, told him how great he was doing, and told him to have a good day. As he went off to class she said, "I have to search his backpack every day because he threatened to kill his teacher."

As it turned out, he was a new student and had arrived pretty out of control. "It takes us about three weeks," she said. "But he's straightening out." She said that he was starting to understand that the adults in his school care about him and want him to succeed. By the way, that doesn't mean the educators are blind to serious mental illness — the school's need qualified it for Mobile Mental Health to provide a therapist three days a week. In addition a psychiatrist is on campus once a week.

They are all there to help the students succeed.

Finally, I heard about a student in Pass Christian, Mississippi, who had stopped coming to school in his senior year. Meridith Bang, who was until recently the principal of the high school and is now director of curriculum for the district, told me that the student had become convinced that he had no chance of graduating. "He thought it was impossible," Bang said.

Bang and the current principal, Robyn Killebrew, went to the student's house on a weekend, and Killebrew laid out exactly what he needed to do to graduate. "We told him it wouldn't be easy, but we'd all help," Bang said.

Then Bang asked the student which teacher had had the most effect on him. The student named his fifth-grade teacher.

The reason the student remembered the teacher, Bang said, was because the teacher had told him that he could succeed. "I told him he still could succeed," Bang said. Then Bang asked the fifth-grade teacher if she could write a letter to the student reminding him of her earlier optimism. The student is back in class, planning to walk the stage at graduation.

In each of those cases it would be easy for the school to write off such students and try to get them off their books. But that's not how the educators in these schools operate.

They believe in the capacity of all students to learn and grow and overcome obstacles, and they take the time to build the relationships necessary for the students to trust them enough to believe.
Educators in high-performing high-poverty schools have often told me that "there are no short cuts." And one of the things they mean is that there is no way to convince kids that you believe in them — unless you really do.

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox