63 parent meetings about classlists with anxiety ridden parents! Really?!?? No thank you! When I became principal in February, I knew I needed to shift the culture. I wanted the first day of school to be joyful and fun, to set the tone of learning for the year ahead...My vision was to have school = a place students want to learn and parents felt at ease. Buy HOW would I shift the culture? This question was in the back of my mind for months, I was reading, talking to other international school principals, talking to the staff, gathering ideas and I outlined a process clearly with dates and communication objectives.
The process started in March and continued through to August! It seemed early to start but it was actually right on time. Shifting culture takes planning and communication. Teachers and the school counselor told me that the biggest parent concerns about class list assignments in the past were:
The message of the parents lacking trust was loud and clear. To enact the vision, we developed a plan that was clear, timely and intentional to address the two concerns. We needed to build trust with the families through ensuring their child had at least one friend in the class and a loving knowledgeable teacher.
It all started in April, we communicated with families and students that we were going to ask the students to list four friends they wanted to learn with next school year. We guaranteed the child would be placed with at least one of the four friends they listed. We found a tool called Class Creator to help us enter all the friends and information about the students.
On May 1st, we got Class Creator rolling! Student-generated friends lists were entered into the system as well as information about each child individually. Teachers loved working with this tool! No more sticky notes and name cards being shuffled around. This tool serves as everyone's’ collective memory and let us see the dynamics of a class (academic areas high, low, behavior, and more!). Class Creator remembers it all and visually represents the information for teachers to manipulate to get just the right balance per class.
Even though school policy states that the school staff makes the classlists regardless of parent requests, as the principal I listened to parents that wanted to express concern or tell me more about their child. I documented each meeting. I had 27 meetings. This was DOWN from years past. Why? We think it was because of the friends list. We made a commitment to honor the friends list that the students generated. We were listening to students and that was the start of building parents’ trust.
Generally our parent community distrusts teachers they do not know. By in large, they would prefer their child in a teacher’s class that has proven themselves the year before. Our challenge as an international school is that we always have a couple of new teachers each year. I wondered how can we build trust early, before they even meet the teacher? We made a three part plan to address the second point of concern, mistrust of new teachers.
Part 1- We decided to have each and every teacher write a short biography about themselves. The homeroom teachers were a little longer than the others and included a “fun” photograph to show their personality. The biographies were published in English and Portuguese then beautifully laid out with a PASB pride theme. Finally, the day came to email the class lists with biographies home 1 ½ days before the start of school.
In the past, the school would post the list on paper at the school entrance at 4:00 pm the evening before school started. Parents would come to campus, anxiety ridden, to check the lists and Whatsapp them to all their friends thus spreading anxiety. Then the first day of school 63 parents would be lined up ready to complain as the staff tried to rush the students into the classrooms. NOT a great vibe….
So, emailing the class list with the photos and biographies a little earlier was the plan so parents did not have to Whatsapp eachother for the information. Imagine, getting a list of classmates and a PDF of ALL the people that plan to love and educate your child for the school year. Smiling faces, horseback riders, hikers, bungee jumpers, families with children and even a graphically enhanced photo with a teacher looking like Thor, were going to be the teachers….who wouldn’t want these friendly faces to teach their children?!?!
We sent the classlists and biographies out by email at 4:00 exactly using the Google add on Boomerang and …. Silence…
The next day I went to work braced for a list of emails requesting meetings...and...nothing. The secretary, school counselor and I were surprised, relieved and a little bit shocked. We were still holding our breath for the bomb to drop. A few parents did contact us, 8 to be exact, over the day and a half before the start of school. More on those parents a little later in the article.
Part 2- The second part of the building parent trust plan was to host a fun filled first moment of the school year, from the time the children and parents walk on campus, August 1st. We hired a marching band to play in the front of school and at the right moment walk the families and students to the “Kick Off the Year” Assembly. This was a first of its kind first day of school. The band was fun, everyone was talking, smiling and bouncing around, the school mascot made an appearance greeting the community.
We went to the gym for the assembly where year level teams, students support services and the specialist teachers presented themselves on the stage.
Disclosure: At first, some teachers were leerly of this idea...normally we put students on stage to present, why did they have to?!?
Yes, they did because my vision was to build trust, have the students and parents see the teachers, as a team, who were fun, funny and interesting! I wanted the community to see that the teachers really know and love kids. The teachers came up with a variety of performances: a Brazilian percussion performance, an animated video of themselves, a choreographed dance with rewritten lyrics to “Happy”, a game show, and three silly skits where teachers were lost, fell off an invisible bench and were searching for “it”. The performances had the students engaged and laughing. After the teacher performances were complete, the teachers, students and parents went to the homeroom classes together. After about 20 minutes or so, it was finally time for parents to leave campus and children to start building their relationships in their classrooms. At this point, only two students cried….WAY fewer than the years before. The first day of school was a party with fun people who loved children! Mission accomplished.
Part 3- We had to secure the deal, we had to finalize the parent trust-building plan. Open House was moved to after the third day of school, rather than third week. Parents were welcomed on campus again to meet and talk with the homeroom, Portuguese and specialist teachers. They also had a presentation from the administration. Our messages were all about communication, helpfulness and supporting students for success, “Our school professionals are here to support your child helping them be successful academically and socially.” During the question time, a parent took the microphone and congratulated the school for a great start! Again, mission accomplished.
On August 6, I sit here typing this post and still only 8 class list complaints have been heard. The school counselor and I listened and helped parents understand their child’s placement. Of the eight complaints only three families mentioned they wanted to change classes and received more counseling and support. Only one family went to the superintendent who again did more counseling and as of now, zero families have formally requested to change classes.
Part of me is still holding my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the other part of me is celebrating because our team did it! Many people, including parents and staff, have commented that this year feels different, it feels joyful. We changed the culture of the first day of school from an anxiety ridden, mistrusting long line of complaining families to a culture of joyful, fun-loving excited students with more settled, calm trusting parents! School culture can be hard to change. Our process was long, well planned out and executed with professionalism from the entire team. Now, learning and more trusting parent relationships can commence.
An amazing turn around happened in my school this year that no one ever writes about being possible. A struggling teacher didn't win the race in the first 100 yards, she won in at the end! After years struggling with classroom management, she got the class on board with respect and kindness in the final months of school! How did she do it? Read on...
A teacher was struggling with classroom management since she started teaching three years ago. She reached out for help, to no avail. Before I became principal we had already established a good professional relationship. She reached out and we videotaped lessons, modeled, observed, had meetings, the counselor visited the class often, etc. but nothing worked. I would visit her class and continue to see students arguing, roaming around the room, calling out, having side conversations off topic and the class was loud in the hallways.
I knew it wasn’t just a bad class. I refuse to ever believe that there are “bad classes”. Students will rise to the bar that is set for them, but the bar must be set clearly and with consistency. I also, I knew she was a great teacher with kindness, a love of learning, knowledge of teaching and a willingness to improve. She would try new ideas and see how they worked and had the creativity to explain concepts in many ways. However, she wasn't able to put her knowledge about management into practice which was hindering her class from learning. As the principal, it came to a point where the superintendent and I had a talk with her. We told her she had to do it, she must fix it, she needed to get her classroom management under control.
I asked what she needed and she said for me to observe and give feedback, a lot of feedback.
True to my word, for the next three weeks I observed a lot, several times in a day. I would leave notes with feedback, we met regularly, I commented on her reflection google doc she made for herself, and more. She observed other teachers and they observed her too.
There were baby steps in the right direction. Math became more structured and orderly with a predictable flow. Students were learning more during math lessons. Great! But it wasn't enough yet! It still wasn’t a well managed class, transitions and group work was still difficult. Students were still not responding to the attention signal the first time and were still roaming around the room.
Three weeks after the meeting we had with the teacher, the class’ parents called a meeting with the teacher, myself, and the counselor to talk about the problems they were hearing about at home and their concerns. We listened to their concerns but they wanted answers and change now. Together we presented a Discipline Menu for teachers to choose from based on the child behavior and a Discipline Reflection Sheet. The teacher was going to start using these tools. I knew the teacher could make the changes, she just needed time. I was seeing evidence of the baby steps. At that meeting we guaranteed an improvement. I was just hoping it would happen sooner rather than later!
A few days later during an observation, I walked in the room and what did I see??? A well managed classroom. Students were sitting in their seats, responding to the attention signal the first time, students were being respectful to each other and the teachers, they were all on task. What I really noticed was that the students all were doing what was asked of them. It seemed like it all clicked overnight. I knew she had it. I visited again the next day and I saw the same success. The classroom had a different feel. I could tell students felt safe and calm. I was not surprised. I was relieved...she had finally done it!
We met to reflect and celebrate. I had to know, what made the difference? How did she do this? What had worked this time that hadn’t worked before?
What I saw from the outside was a determined teacher trying, failing, reflecting, revising and trying again. I saw the inquiry cycle in process. She wanted to save her class and she figured out how to it. She stopped making excuses, took responsibility and set a system in place for holding students to expectations and consistently put it into action. Every fiber of her body was managing that class while she was teaching and kids were learning. She became consistent and communicative with parents.
Her answer about what happened was simple. In her head she had been blaming parents for not being supportive, blaming kids for being rude, blaming others for the problems that were happening in her class. When she realized that it all depended on her and how she responds to what happens in her class, that is when what became so liberating for her. She said she stopped making excuses and took responsibility over what she could control, She knew she had to it for the students and she did.
If you like to see the data, when she got the classroom management under control, you would be happy to know the students’ math scores improved. But so much more than that happened too. The students were happier, calmer, more inquisitive and respectful to others, used better teamwork...the class had a pleasant buzz of learning for the remainder of the school year.
The message of this story is that it is never too late to be better. It is not too late to gain control of a class in the last semester of school or learning something new. It isn’t too late for administrators to work together with teachers for the students benefit. When administrators support and believe in teachers, changes are possible at any stage of the race! Equally important it is the teacher’s hard work and in her words, “not making excuses”, that made it all possible.
**This didn't seem to fit in the story above, but I wanted to include these thoughts. I feel an immense amount of gratitude for the trust this teacher shared with me along her journey. I saw some really low lows and she continued to ask for help and try. She didn't hide and that takes courage. I am so honored and grateful to have been apart of this amazingly twisty windy journey that ended up as a huge win! The win was two fold, for the students' learning for the remainder of that school year and the teacher's future in the classroom has forever been changed.