Crucial Lessons on Putting Kids First

On-the-job training helps limit exclusionary discipline and absenteeism.

Topics: School Culture and Climate

It’s a funny thing when you get your first job as a school administrator. You have a degree and a license, but do you really know what you need to know in order to be the most effective leader for your school? The answer is simple: No, you do not.

On-the-job training is essential to meeting the demands of your new role. From learning about “toxic positivity” to connecting with families by showing my true self, these lessons made me a far more effective leader than I was on my first day.

Here are two crucial lessons I learned on the job that relate directly to the success of the most important people in your school—the kids.

Lesson No. 1: You Are an Unfinished Canvas

If you haven’t yet been called to a classroom to support a student in crisis after they’ve torn decorations off the wall or turned over a desk or two, you will someday. In my third year as principal, a teacher needed help regulating a student who had graduated from climbing on tables to flipping them over.

After I ignored undesirable behaviors to avoid reinforcing them, the student upped the ante by taking a Sharpie and scribbling all over my shirt. Although many educators might jump to punish a student for such actions, we must instead ask, “What does this student need right now?” Exclusionary practices such as hallway time or suspension don’t teach students to behave; that work falls to educators like us.

We teach students appropriate school behavior by meeting them at their level and addressing their needs, just as we would if they didn’t understand long division. Moreover, it’s vital that we keep in mind the implications exclusionary practices have on a child’s education, especially among disadvantaged and minority students.

“Research clearly shows that zero-tolerance policies are a major reason for the significant increase overall in exclusions and the increase in the disparities between racial groups often described as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ ” writes Andy Jacks in Discipline Win: Strategies to Improve Behavior, Increase Ownership, and Give Every Student a Chance.

Rather than seeing my student’s artistic prowess on an unorthodox canvas as reason to make him sit in the office doing a writing assignment, I worked with the student, met him where he was, and offered strategies to better meet his needs (attention, food, time, etc.) in an appropriate way. Did he miss recess to right-side the tables? Yes. Did we do it together while talking about what he could do differently next time? You bet.

Lesson 2: You’re Also a Chauffeur and Cheerleader

We’ve all had one of those mornings—the alarm doesn’t go off, the car won’t start, traffic is terrible, nothing is going right. You are Alexander in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Now think about what that’s like when you’re 7 years old. There’s no food in the refrigerator. Your parent worked a double shift and won’t get out of bed to help you get to the bus stop. You can’t find your school supplies.

This is how many of our students start their days, which is why when one of mine misses the bus, I hop in the car with a staff member and pick them up. I’ve gone to students’ homes to get a student out of bed by playing a recorder instrument from the music room. Most importantly, no matter what time any child late for school walks through the doors, my secretary, Janet, and I celebrate as if Beyoncé herself just arrived.

We do everything we can to make sure each student knows how important it is to us that they are in school that day, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged households. “Due to issues of transportation, high tardy rates and absenteeism are common problems among poor students,” Eric Jensen writes in Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. “Unfortunately, absenteeism is the factor most closely correlated with dropout rates.”

I encourage you to examine your practices and those of your school staff. Do you roll your eyes at the young man who had to overcome countless obstacles to get to your school that morning and now has to learn reading, writing, and math thinking that his principal is as disappointed in him as he is? Or are you celebrating the fact that he got there with him?

Being a school leader is a never-​ending series of choices, and each of those choices has an impact. The lessons we learn on the job empower us to make the right ones for our students.

Ed Paris is principal of Avery Elementary School in Dedham, Massachusetts.