We all agree that a critical role of the principal is to meet the needs of all students. That is difficult at any time, but when tragedy occurs in a family, a community, or on a large scale -- such as 9-11 or the recent hurricane, Katrina -- the challenge is heightened as emotions reach peak levels in the advent of grievous danger and loss. In the case of such events, school principals are always a vital force in the process of restoring students' lives to some sense of normalcy.
Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck, more than 6,100 displaced children had enrolled in Texas public schools. And that was just the beginning -- for Texas, and for many other U.S. states. In newspaper and other media accounts of the aftermath of this terrible disaster, countless principals have modeled actions that have eased its impact for students and families. Those principals' actions definitely warrant the title of BRAVO (building relationships with actions that value others) principals. To carry the BRAVO acronym one step farther, those fine principals have modeled many critical actions. They have been nothing short of
Open to Opportunity
BRAVO Principals Are Brave. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, BRAVO principals have demonstrated their bravery by taking a strong, vocal stand that models a commitment to all students -- the old ones in their schools, and the new ones. They understand that some members of the school family may be concerned about additional numbers of students on campus or possible changes that may occur in the effort to accommodate everyone. It is their job to stand firm in the commitment to educate all children. A high school principal in Houston voiced his campus's brave commitment to supporting disaster victims when he reminded students and faculty that "these students are now ours and deserve nothing less than [our best] . . ."
As BRAVO principals, when faculty, parents, and students see that we are confidently in control of the situation, courage and bravery grow throughout the campus.
BRAVO Principals Are Realistic. BRAVO principals are not hopeless idealists. Instead, we are realistic. We understand that problems will occur in situations where there has been horrific upheaval. Things will not always go smoothly, and emotions will run high. Conflict might result. There will be issues to consider, such as grading, graduation requirements, testing, curriculum changes, and funding. When problems occur, we remind ourselves, and our school communities, that problems are not bad unless we fail to address them. When we address problems realistically, they invariably result in progress.
Realistic principals find resources so that teachers can teach additional students. We find ways to provide extra textbooks, desks, and creative ways to schedule the day so that teachers can collaboratively plan. We contact social service agencies to see that student needs are met. We head up clothing drives and food drives, and we work with businesses to provide food and shelter, because many of the hurricane survivors have lost everything. Several schools have even put out information packets about their schools and distributed them to shelters, hotels, and other places where families affected by the hurricane will have convenient access to them. In Beaumont, Texas, school officials put parents who were being temporarily housed at a shelter on a bus and drove them to local schools so their children could be enrolled the day after they arrived.
Realistic principals also provide training for faculty. One Houston-area school principal noted that her school was primarily white and middle class, yet the students coming into the school were mostly low-income and African-American. To prepare her teachers, she quickly arranged training about working with children of poverty and ethnic diversity.
BRAVO Principals Are Affirming. Another way that principals build strong valuing relationships that ease suffering is to create a welcoming climate on their campuses. At Barbers Hill Intermediate School, near Houston, student council members acted as the official "welcome wagon" for new students. They assigned mentors, showed new students around the buildings, helped them get organized, and assisted with class assignments.
At another school, a large "WELCOME" on the school sign greeted new students.
Affirming principals also understand that the campus environment must have consistent discipline, especially in times that are traumatic. In being consistent, principals must also be sensitive to the students' situations. For example, some Louisiana students used get to school by using school-provided vouchers for public transportation. On the first day that some of those students rode a school bus to their new school in Texas, they attempted to get on the bus while smoking. Principals were consistent in saying "No," but sensitive to the fact that students were being held to different rules and policies.
BRAVO Principals Are Visible. Visibility is always important for good principals, but during times of great stress being visible is a critical way in which we improve communication on our campuses. Our visible presence is a constant reminder to everyone on the campus that all is well. Just seeing the principal walking the halls or playground, visiting the gym, or looking into classrooms communicates a sense of well-being at school.
Visibility allows us to communicate, communicate, communicate. When we stop a moment to talk with disheveled, uncomfortable, frustrated parents sitting in the office, they see our concern. When we call a new student by name as he passes us in the hall, we are saying, "This is a place for you to belong." When we smile and appear calm (even if our insides are churning), we communicate a sense of stability to people with frayed nerves who feared that stability might never return.
BRAVO Principals Are Open to Opportunity. Principals who are open to opportunity must be flexible. And we must encourage teachers to keep their eyes open for spontaneous teaching moments. If there is ever a time to diverge from lesson plans, this is it.
Several principals have shared with me that teachers in their schools have been encouraging more writing time in hopes that kids would be able to get some of their fears "off their chests." Others noted that their schools were encouraging more art and music because those subjects provide emotional release.
A third grade Louisiana student newly enrolled in a Texas school benchmarked at being able to only read 7 words per minute (the average is 80). While that may be an accurate assessment of her reading ability, it may also be the result of stress, fear, and anxiety. BRAVO principals encourage teachers to look for potential and not be quick to judge these students who have been so severely traumatized.
No matter how tired we become, no matter how frustrated we feel, BRAVO principals keep the focus on kids and learning, despite tragedy.
We remember that children who experience great trauma as a result of disaster are not "refugees." They are children. When we demonstrate our care and concern with actions that are brave, realistic, affirming, visible, and open to opportunity, we ease their suffering.
When we remember the promise inherent within each of these children, we encourage teachers, parents, and students; but we also encourage ourselves.
BRAVO principals cannot calm nature's storms, but we can provide calm for the children who survive the storm.
Article by Sandra Harris
Copyright © 2006 Education World