Nurturing a Feeling of Belonging

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What is the most important ingredient to a student’s success? Their teacher, of course. As most administrators will tell you, finding the most talented teachers is difficult, but keeping the most talented teachers is even harder. What keeps our teachers doing what they are doing? Finding a professional home where they feel supported and valued. We want our teachers to feel the same sense of belonging, significance, and joy that we want for our students. Translating that into everyday practice, though, can be difficult.

A mentor once told me to ask myself a question when faced with a problem: “What do I know about Responsive Classroom that will help me with this?” I asked that question when I thought about how we can keep our most talented teachers. First, I know that our student community is only as strong as our adult community. How do we make that happen? We build strong communities with shared and inclusive leadership, bringing teachers into the decision-making process. They are treated as professionals and their voices are heard. I was talking with one of our fourth-grade teachers recently and asked her what keeps her coming back to our school. Her answer was very simple: administrators listen to staff members, people genuinely care about each other, and everyone gets a chance to lead, whether they want to or not.

Inclusive leadership is important in our school. Administrators do not make top-down decisions and we do not just pass along initiatives without having thoughtful conversations with members of the community about its impact. Consider the recent return to in-person learning at our school. The school board voted to shift from strictly virtual learning to options of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning. Each district office put together a plan on what was to happen. A re-entry task force was created with volunteers, most of whom have been at the school at least as long as I have been and who have tremendous credibility with staff and parents. We brainstormed what we would need to accomplish before students walked in through the doors. Everyone contributed a piece of the puzzle and we soon had a full picture of how we would re-enter school on March 15—almost a year to the day of school closures across the country. It was a great feeling of satisfaction to know this was a group effort. Everyone had a voice, and everyone was safe and knew what to expect.

After reflecting on the successful return of students, I noticed that this charge was led by experienced teachers and student services staff members. Having such experience in this situation put everyone at ease. Parents trusted us with their children. Students knew they were in good hands. Those students who remained virtual were not left out. A new procedure had students returning once a week to their original teacher and class for a virtual Morning Meeting so all students were included—an idea that originated from a hallway conversation (socially distanced, of course) among a group of experienced teachers.

Every teacher has a bounty of gifts to offer a school community. I try to keep a balance of new and experienced teachers on staff, and we make sure we use our experience to support our new teachers. Several years ago, I hired a teacher for first grade who had had a flawless interview. But not long after the school year started, it was clear that she was struggling, in part due to personal issues. Yet there was something about her. We provided support, she persevered, and she became one of our most talented teachers. Using her impeccable teacher language, she led her team in planning for learning, and she formed meaningful relationships with students and families. She has since moved on to another state, and I will never forget how she said she wanted to create lessons that were “delicious” for her students. If we had not supported her during her rough start and offered her the benefit of our experience, the education world would have lost an amazing teacher who has grown to be a mentor and guide to others.

My job is to support and grow staff. My assistant principal often gives me good-spirited grief about “developing people out the door.” It will include him one day as well, but until then, it is my job to support staff members and help them meet their professional goals. Our Spanish teacher wanted to teach a “regular” grade-level class. I struggled with that decision. He was a good teacher, but he did not have the content knowledge in literacy and math. I gave him his own class, and he turned out to be one of the best practitioners in our school. His command of Responsive Classroom practices and content knowledge made his classroom a model for others to see, and he was willing to take on anything, including co-teaching with an ESL teacher. With two experienced professionals, the second-language learners in that class showed amazing growth. Both teachers had the knowledge, the grit, and the professionalism to see their students through to high academic growth because that is what it is all about: seeing our students grow, even if they are not quite proficient. This is what experience brings.

New teachers bring energy, fresh ideas, and a sense of wonder to the classroom. Like a garden, over time they blossom into strong members of the school staff who then, in turn, bring along the new crop of teachers and help them bloom as well. It is fascinating to watch this process over time. Equally fascinating is to watch an experienced teacher be rejuvenated by the task of leadership. Over the past six years, I have watched one teacher grow immensely from using Responsive Classroom practices in her classroom. She is now the team leader and works diligently to make sure her team is cared for and nurtured as we navigate this pandemic. Each meeting starts with a share to help us check-in and learn more about one another. Her organizational skills and experience help the novice teacher, the mid-career teacher, and the fellow veteran. I, too, feel refreshed after their team meetings because I know the time taken for sharing and checking in is genuine and that every voice on that team is heard. What a joy to see an experienced teacher take on something new and make it her own.

Finding and keeping talented teachers is difficult. But it is the feeling of belonging that keeps them coming back. Experienced teachers are at the heart of our school family.