Strong Communities Build Strong Schools
Ask Dr. Nicole Evans Jones the key to creating a positive climate for children and she’ll tell you it’s all about the people and their relationships.
Sure, the curriculum matters. Sure, funding for high quality professional development matters. Sure, technology matters. But at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the big changes happen.
“Change is hard work,” emphasizes Dr. Jones, “and to do this work, you need a strong group of dedicated individuals. They need to bring their best selves to the challenge and they need to be able to come together as a team.”
And this is exactly what’s happened over the past six years at Fred Armon Toomer Elementary School, a school of about 350 pre-K – 5th grade students in Northeast Atlanta.
Creating a positive school culture
It began with listening. When Dr. Jones first came to the school in the middle of the 2009-2010 school year, the school was in a period of change: Enrollment was at an all-time low, students were not fully engaged in their learning, and the need for greater communication and collaboration among staff was evident.
“I knew big changes were needed but I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So I decided to start by asking the school community—families, students, staff—what they wanted to see change,” recalls Dr. Jones. Two themes quickly emerged: More rigorous academics and a school-wide plan for teaching and reinforcing positive behavior.
The importance of creating a positive school culture resonated with Dr. Jones, both because of her background as a school counselor and because of her first few months on the job, when she spent the majority of the school day tending to the steady stream of second grade boys, mostly African-American she noted, who came day after day to her office for behavioral reasons.
“We were failing these children,” thought Dr. Jones at the time, “It was clear that we needed to dramatically change the learning environment so that these boys, and every other child in the school, could stay in their classrooms and learn.”
Removing barriers to learning
Dr. Jones sees her role as principal as removing the barriers to learning. “I knew when I came that we had talented teachers and students with strong foundational skills, but what I wanted was a more rigorous learning environment, a place where students felt safe and comfortable stretching, taking risks, asking questions, trying something new.”
Dr. Jones approach to this was multifaceted. While the first year was all about listening, subsequent years were all about action. Along with making changes to the academic curriculum, Dr. Jones began implementing positive approaches to student behavior. This included setting clear expectations for positive behavior throughout the school, modeling the expected behaviors, and providing clear, specific, and positive feedback on how students were doing in meeting the expectations.
Following Dr. Jones’ third full year as principal, teachers began receiving training in the Responsive Classroom approach. This research-based approach emphasizes the importance of building a strong, positive learning community as a foundation for strong academics—just what Dr. Jones wanted to do. (See sidebar for information on research regarding the Responsive Classroom approach.)
Initially, teachers at Toomer began by taking small steps and implementing Morning Meeting. They also focused on positive teacher language. (See box about the “three Rs” of teacher language below)
Even in the first year of implementing Responsive Classroom practices, the impact on the school was noticeable. In a note written after the first Responsive Classroom training, Dr. Jones wrote,
“Many thanks to Responsive Classroom for the most AMAZING first day of school that I have experienced as a principal. I truly believe the success that our kids and teachers experienced today was due to the paradigm shift that began with the Responsive Classroom training and continued throughout our pre-planning.”
Simultaneously, the school’s Parent-Teacher Association grew in both size and level of involvement. Dr. Jones notes that teachers went out of their way to engage parents, some of them handing out their cell phone numbers and staying late for parent conferences and tutoring for students who were struggling in class.
The resulting changes in culture were dramatic, recalls Dr. Jones, and parents and staff began to remark on the positive changes throughout the school. “Parents and staff began to notice a change in the tone of the school,” remarks Dr. Jones, “The environment was noticeably calmer, friendlier, kinder and more conducive to learning. It became a place that children and adults wanted to come to every day.”
Again, Dr. Jones emphasizes, no school leader can bring about these kinds of changes alone. “It takes the entire school community to make it happen, and just as in the classroom, you need the support of the entire adult community. Strong communities build strong schools.”
A new motto rings out: “Excellence is the expectation!”
Today this motto can be found throughout the school. It’s proudly proclaimed every morning over the PA system to set the tone for the day. It features prominently on the home page of the school’s website. It’s also in the handbook for families and the vision statement from the principal. It permeates every communication that Dr. Jones has with staff, students, and families.
But most importantly, walking through the school, you can see how this expectation lives in the respectful way that adults and students interact with one another, not only in the classroom but in common spaces and outside on the playground, and in the way that students approach their work, with a sense of focus, seriousness, and purpose.
The 3 Rs of Teacher Language
Teacher language is one of the most powerful tools available to educators. It permeates every aspect of teaching and learning and can have a significantly positive impact on students’ learning and behavior. In the Responsive Classroomapproach, teachers learn how to use the power of their language to create community and support students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. They do this by focusing on the 3 Rs:
- Reinforcing language: Specifically naming what students are doing well.
- Reminding language: Helping students to remember established expectations.
- Redirecting language: Giving clear, respectful instructions when behavior has gone off track.
Whether in the classroom, hallway, or library; in the lunchroom or on the playground; in whole groups or during one-on-one conversations, the language teachers use with children will have a lasting impact on how well children learn and grow as students and as individuals.