By Mathew Portell
“You will be a principal one day and will be blogging about your journey.”
If I had heard these words early in my career I would have never believed it, but here I am! As the principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary, a small urban school in Nashville where 70 percent of students come from underprivileged homes and 80 percent are minorities, I get the privilege of high fiving and hugging nearly 320 students in pre-k to 4th grade, every single morning. I am fortunate to work with and learn from some of the most talented, collaborative, innovative, and passionate staff in education. Over the next several months I will be sharing my school’s story and our successes - and failures - as we strive to meet the needs of all our students.
In the last few months in my first year as principal, my school began to engage in professional learning around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) out of the understanding that what we were doing wasn’t working for kids or adults. We wanted to understand how our students’ experiences affected them academically, socially, and emotionally. Current science shows adverse experiences can impact students’ behavior, ability to build positive relationships, and academic success, among many other things. Two years later, my school strives daily to become a trauma-informed school that ensures that students’ social and emotional needs are met so their academics can blossom, as documented in a series of videos produced by the National Commission and Edutopia. And although our support is focused primarily on students, we realize we must also focus on adults.
We learned quickly that educators must consider themselves and their own care in order to prevent burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Working with high-needs populations can take a toll on you physically and emotionally. Creating a school culture of reciprocal adult support is imperative for success. Teachers must be operating in a healthy way, both physically and mentally, in order to consistently meet the needs of students. At Fall-Hamilton, we have five norms in place to make sure adults are supported:
- Pre-forgiveness: Teachers, like principals, operate under high stress. Mistakes will be made and support will need to be given. All educators need to know someone has their back during those times so everyone can move forward.
- Give the green light: I give my teachers the agency to do what they need to meet the social and emotional needs of their students. This could mean pausing during an academic lesson to support a particular student or bringing the class into a circle to address a group issue.
- Tap in/Tap out: We encourage teachers to ask for a minute when they feel “escalated” -- upset or unsafe. An escalated adult cannot properly support an escalated child. This great Edutopia video shows the process in action.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood: Listening before you respond is imperative to the culture and success of a school. By engaging in empathetic listening, teachers and students gain a productive voice and foster a more collaborative, solutions-based culture.
- Self-care: Whether engaging in productive dialogue in a staff circle about the emotional exhaustion of the job or creating an accountability partner system around self-care, all educators must have systems of support. This includes principals!
As the principal, when I allow myself to get to a place of physical and/or emotional exhaustion, it has a direct impact on teachers. This same dynamic exists between teachers and students. It is through our strong relationships and systems of support that we work through these situations, creating a community of support and pre-forgiveness.
In the words of Natalie Vadas, one of my exceptional education teachers: At Fall-Hamilton, “You are not alone. We are a ship and we run together and there is always someone who has your back.”
Mathew Portell is the principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, and the founder of Ride for Reading, a nonprofit that distributes books via bicycle to low-income communities.
Photo courtesy of Mathew Portell
The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.