I believe that my duty, as a principal and an educator, is to rigorously practice heart-centered, care-centered and belonging-centered engagement with students, staff and families.
I’m 100% clear that this is a tall order. In our daily work, we’re up against hundreds of years of inequity and systemic injustices – including in the education space. All of these have shaped the default relationships between our schools, our students and our wider communities – and contributed to outright disenfranchisement and marginalization. And now, of course, we’re leading through the third school year impacted by a global pandemic. These dynamics have created an immense need among our students, families and wider communities. And that’s something we can’t afford to lose sight of – even in the midst of other pressures.
As leaders, one way we can make sure that our students experience a compassionate environment is to show compassion to the teachers we lead.
I believe the only answer is to center care and love – which I call a “heartleader” approach. To me this means refusing to stop at value statements or private personal attitudes and to commit to consistent, caring action.
It means we pour into our educators and staff as much as we pour into our students and the broader community. Because otherwise, the transformation we’re working towards can’t be sustained.
So even as I’m modeling the care-centered and love-centered approach I want to see from educators and from staff, I prioritize honoring and affirming them as a core part of my practice. Here are 3 ways to turn this philosophy into action:
1. Look out for “Heroes” – and Write Notes of Recognition
One actionable way that I show care to teachers is through writing handwritten letters. I call them my “hero notes.” We have over 100 folks on our team. And so, in a month, I’ll take a large group and write about 50 of these hero notes. And then, the next month, I’ll write the other 50. And I’ll repeat that process throughout the entire school year. Hero notes are very personal and specific to each educator and staff member on our team. Each note is based on something they said or did to lead with love in their daily work for our school community. Sometimes, the note might be something along the lines of a shout-out. Like this:
2. Formalize Affirmation by Adding a Letter to Teachers’ Files
Teachers are accustomed to fearing an administrator’s “letter in their file,” and I want to transform that dynamic by letting teachers know that I see their achievements as something worthy of the official record. Every school year, I write a formal letter for about 20 to 30 exceptional educators to add to their confidential file – so that there’s a record of their going above and beyond, setting new standards or stepping up to new levels of responsibility.
3. Be Present in All the Messy, Daily Work
I think it’s important to have that tangible record of their positive impact on our students, on our families and on our team. These letters are more long-form, and I provide as much detail as I can through anecdotes and through any specific data we have available. It’s another concrete opportunity to pour into our team and to apply that rigorous care I’ve made it my mission to encourage.
The most important element of this work is the daily act of presence. As leaders, we have to show up when the work gets messy – every time. That means visiting classrooms, collaborating with educators and all-around getting my hands dirty in the everyday work of our school. If there’s a student in crisis, you’re going to find me right there working to be part of the solution. If there’s a situation down the street, I’m there talking with the parent, the crossing guard, the police officer or whoever it might be.
And as I’m actively working to find solutions, I’m also working to model a transformational orientation to care. Because if I’m asking everyone in our school community for a rigorous level of care, then I should be able to do it myself at any point in time. And in the instance when I inevitably fall short, I should ask for help in the moment and in building my own capacity moving forward.
Centering care is what organizes our priorities when there’s so much being demanded of us. It’s what orients us to action and creative problem-solving when our students and families are struggling. And it’s what holds us accountable in the necessary work of challenging structural oppression when it shows up in our schools – and to disrupt that oppressive influence in our own decision-making.
By centering care, we can claim the school as a place to be cared for, a place of belonging and a place of unified purpose for all contributors. And that purpose is to nurture and protect the humanity of our students, and to support them in living whole and fulfilling lives.
My invitation to you today is to look for those opportunities to center care, lead with love and lean hard into growing authentic relationships – indiscriminately.
Thank you for everything you do. And if you’d like to keep the conversation going, please reach out to me by email at email@example.com, on Twitter @MJBowerman, or via my website www.matthewjbowerman.com.