Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fist-Bumps and Smiles

Mornings are great when you are greeted with fist-bumps and smilesEvery morning my Vice Principal and myself greet students at the school entrance with these friendly gestures, waves to parents, and often hugs. How can you not love what you do when that is how your work day begins?!?

Too often I think leaders in education set up a stoic stance in an attempt to maintain law and order. I remember seeing school administration when I was in school and they seemed unapproachable.  This just does not fit with my personality or leadership style. Is that how I would want to be greeted if I were a 6, 8, or 10 year old student? What if the best part of my day was the structure and support I received from the adults at school because my home-life was anything but stable?

When our elementary students are grown, I want them to have memories that they were greeted warmly and welcomed into the school each day. Despite what may have happened the weekend or night before, or even that morning, they know that someone was genuinely happy to see them. That someone cared. That they were loved and valued.

Leading from the Heart

Leadership is more than just managing. It is more than setting up schedules, doing evaluations and ordering supplies. Leadership is found in relationships.  It is in modeling. It is in having a servant's heart toward others. It is about empowering others to grow and lead on their own. It is about demonstrating grace, toward students, families, and staff.

Currently in my 10th year of administration, and my 4th year at my current site, I have learned so much about improving school culture through relationships.

Relationships with staff takes time. Trust needs to be built. Camaraderie established. Listening to concerns and ideas. Consistency in decision-making. Building strong teams. All great ideas but they won't work until you have relationships with individuals. You have to learn your staff.

I recently read the "5 Love Languages at Work" by Gary Chapman and Paul White. Everyone has a different way they feel valued, respected, and appreciated. I feel called to get to know my staff members and be able to connect with them. I want to help them with struggles or concerns, and celebrate their successes. In every organization, there are those who appreciate public praise, and those who shy away from it. Introverts, extroverts and every combination. Each person has a different way they express and receive appreciation. But it is my job to get to know them well enough to provide support for them to do the best job they can. That takes time and an attitude of wanting to continuously to learn about my staff. That is my servant's heart.

Relationships with families takes effort. Making connections with parents and caregivers takes time. Calling parents for "positive referrals" as opposed to only calling a parent for a problem behavior, means making time in the day to make those calls.  Sharing the good things happening at our school and with their children is important. We have to share our school's message. If not us, then who?



I always want parents to know I am available to them. I hope that parents are surprised when then come to meet with me in my office and find that the "Principal's Office" is not that scary, or confrontational. I am not angry when we talk. My goal is to listen and seek to understand. With a box of tissue and a bowl of candy nearby we sit next to each other at a table. Rare are the days when I meet with a parent at my desk. That is not the message I want to convey or the relationship I wish to build. We may not agree, but I will always work towards a solution. The raising of a child is tough, and our school plays a small role in that. The stronger the home-school connection team, the better the chances are for student support and success.


Relationships with students takes energy. Building time in the day to be in classrooms, on the playground, in the cafeteria. Connecting with students. Asking about their day and listening. Providing gentle correction, positive feedback and praise. Celebrating their successes, big and small. We are a PBIS school (Positive Behavior Intervention System). All of our behavior norms for students fall into 3 categories: Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible. As we have grown our program every year, we now have a common language for not only school rules, but how people should treat each other. Our students have changed and grown. Our staff has changed and grown. This philosophy spills into the home as I talk with parents. We celebrate students' success through these tenets. Our goal is to help raise thoughtful and caring students. We have to find ways to connect with our student interests, to show we are invested in them as people. Our relationships help us with this.


One student recently told me about the family dog having puppies. This student, often thought of as aggressive and disruptive, talking about the new puppies with excitement, joy and pride. (My heart melted a little in that moment.) Previously, I had a difficult time connecting with this student as we were working on addressing problem behaviors. But on that day, we talked about new puppies. That was it-that was the open door! As a dog-lover, I found it easy to connect with the student that day. The conversation helped the student open up, unlike in year's past, and this student now seeks me out to talk in the hallways, cafeteria, playground.  We start with talk of puppies and then on to other topics. I always try end our conversation with something like, "Show your teacher how amazing you are and work hard today." I want this student to know I see and I care. That is connection. That is relationship-building. That is leadership.

Leadership is not an easy path. There are daily struggles, dramas and situations to handle. Issues have to be managed and problems addressed.  But each day as those smiling faces walk to school or tumble out of their family cars in the morning, I am reminded why I am here.

To build relationships.
To connect.
To make a difference.
And it begins with a fist-bump and a smile

@SusanDenton27


You can follow me on Twitter @SusanDenton27 and my school @StandardElem