Principal Scott Wisniewski adopted a new evening routine last year. After dinner and helping his kids tackle homework, he does what most of his students probably do every evening: scroll through Instagram.
He collects all the pictures he’s taken of students and teachers—in classrooms, at football practice, or award ceremonies—and posts them. As a first-time principal of Pompton Lakes High School in Passaic County, N.J., Wisniewski has been running his Instagram handle since August last year, tallying up an impressive running number of posts.
“When I’m taking the pictures, students come up to me and ask, ‘Hey! Is this Day 77 or 78?’ They’re invested in this effort,” said Wisniewski. “People feel good when they are appreciated. So, I have to make time in my schedule to post on social media.”
It’s all part of a coordinated effort to remind students about all the great things at school, and why they need to be there to join in. The pictures highlight student participation, from on the football field to raising their hands in math class.
An extra hour of sleep. Unfinished math homework. Or an ongoing tiff with a fellow student. There are multiple reasons that complicate students’ return following a break like winter holidays or even the 3-day weekends that populate calendars in January and February.
Principals like Wisniewski know that even these tiny breaks in routine can snowball into nagging attendance issues.
Data on student absenteeism collected in 2021 indicated that student absenteeism had tripled since the start of the pandemic, and it has remained high ever since. While the strong headwinds around absenteeism may have settled down, principals are still grappling with the tail-end of the problem—a persistent sense of apathy toward school, which returns after a break in routines.
“The apathy sets in over Christmas break. It’s a time for students to decompress. But they are also disconnected from learning,” said Mike Randolph, the principal of Leesburg High School in Lake County, Fla. Randolph said his team has put in extra effort in the first week back from winter break by reinforcing what the school’s goals are.
“We were a school where no one wanted to come when I took over. Now our graduation rate has gone up from 67 percent to 85 percent. That’s the purpose we make clear to students when they come back,” he said.
The core question behind the attendance issue, the leaders said, is one of choice.
“How do I make this school a place where teachers and students choose to come? That’s my purpose,” said Randolph.
Keep cellphones in check
One key element some leaders are targeting: cellphones. Without their constant distractions, leaders like Randolph believe students will engage more with lessons.
He’s made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that cellphone use must be curbed, especially in the first week back. Leesburg High strengthened its cellphone policy over break: Students aren’t allowed to have a cell phone visible during class. The idea is to give teachers as much instructional time as possible in the first few weeks after a long break. Without the distraction of cellphones, Randolph is hopeful that students will engage more in class.
Randolph’s been strict about collecting cellphones when he sees them out in class, taking away almost 80 on the first Monday back from the break. He’s also planning to measure the impact of this policy in the first instructional review of the year, by comparing student engagement in this semester with the previous one.
To put this policy into action in a school with over 1,700 students, Randolph and his team had to be on their feet—quite literally. “We have walked to every class on the first day within the first 90 minutes. We go back later in the day, too, and students know we’re out to take their phones,” he said. To give teachers as much instructional time as possible, Randolph said his whole team had to communicate the cellphone policy well, and then follow through.
Back-to-school week can’t be all punitive though. Teachers were instructed to spend a few minutes in every period to pose a “restorative” question to their students.
“We asked questions like, ‘What are you passionate about, and what have you done over the last 48 hours to support that passion?’ Another one was framed around ‘What is your purpose for attending school?’ Not the school’s purpose; the focus was on what they wanted,” Randolph said.
If a student spoke about wanting to change their family trajectory of not attending college, the teacher could prompt a discussion about the path to college.
Schools need a full staff roster, though, to support this engagement. Randolph has a dedicated discipline team, a dean of students, an athletic director, and others, who help him in identifying students who face challenges in school.
Fights between students are one of those one-time attendance lapses that could grow into an absenteeism problem. Randolph recently took the help of a mental health liaison to settle an argument between two students, one of whom had avoided school for two consecutive days. The problem, added Randolph, was nipped in the bud.
Insta-appreciation and the art of “seeing” students
Wisniewski’s school is also battling student apathy.
“They’re going to fail a class, or their attendance is bad. We’re doing a food drive and it’s hard to get them to participate. We’re hosting a ceremony to highlight the achievements of one student, and no one else shows up,” Wisniewski said, noting the range of examples. “None of this impacts students. They just don’t want to do it. It’s just really difficult to motivate them.”
To break through, Wisniewski is drawing on his master’s degree dissertation, on how school leaders use social media to promote their own schools when there are competing school choice options. He posts every day on a dedicated Instagram account, and ensures the posts aren’t all about one club or one activity, with the objective of using the account to show that all students belong in Pompton Lakes community.
“I want to be intentional about highlighting kids who are doing things, and who may not get a lot of recognition,” he said. “It’s been a blast, honestly.”
The appreciation doesn’t stop with students. He highlights teachers, too. Recently, he posted about all the teachers who rushed to help a student who suddenly felt dizzy.
Revving teachers up is just as important
Students need to feel connected to the school campus, and a large part hinges on teachers who are willing to go the extra step to engage them.
But who keeps teachers engaged after a break? Principals step up the small gestures to welcome them back. Randolph’s school revamped the teachers lounge during the break and stocked it with coffee and cookies on the first day back. The school has also instituted a weekly appreciation award for educators who “go above and beyond their role.”
Beyond small gestures, Randolph said, principals have to have teachers’ backs. In implementing the cellphone policy, for instance, teachers can see Randolph and his team outside their classrooms, ready to follow through if they see a student using a cellphone.
Wisniewski said he made it a point to meet each of his 50 teachers in the first month after joining the school.
“I didn’t want our first interaction to be a negative one, during an incident,” he said.
Every two months, he also does a walk-through with each staff member—from English teachers to football coaches. The walk-throughs highlight every staff member’s importance, and they also serve as the source for most of Wisniewski’s Instagram posts.
What it all comes down to, the two principals said, is that measures to engage students take planning, time, and need to be consistent throughout the year. All that hard work pays dividends when it’s crunch time—after breaks when everyone’s struggling to get back.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as How These Principals Nip Apathy in the Bud After Winter Break And Long Weekends