We pat students’ shoulders and whisper, “I believe in you.” We pull them aside, reassure them that we see them, that we know them. We do the small things that “fill the empty spaces with aloha,” with love, as Hawaii principal Derek Minakami, a hero of mine, says.
Teachers are magicians, conjuring kindness and empathy as we create spaces of togetherness that are safe for vulnerability and risk-taking.
When we open our classrooms at the end of each summer, we start building a positive culture right away. We find our students—Ali, Kai, Franz, Junnel—right where they are, and we accept them without wishing they were different. This welcome, we know, is the first step toward building trust and community, just one small moment among many.
As I do this work, I wonder: How could school be different if all administrators started the year the way teachers do when they open their classrooms? How could administrators work, consistently and purposefully, to make their teachers feel known and seen?
What would it look like if school leaders took the time to do this with their teachers? They could run faculty meetings by tapping us on the shoulder and telling us why they believe in us. They could trust us enough to toss out the conference model of professional development days and faculty meetings, and allow the needs and expertise in the room to drive the learning.
Too often, while teachers are reaching toward our students, inviting them in and making them feel valuable, administrators are planning meetings in air-conditioned offices by filling time slots and checking compliance boxes instead of thinking about who their teachers are, what we might need, what we bring to the table. These are opportunities missed.
Building a Community
In 14 years of teaching, I have had seven principals and a rotating cast of vice-principals, curriculum coordinators, and instructional coaches. Among them, few stopped to fill the empty spaces between us, to ask us what we need, what we believe, what we are passionate about, to learn with us.
By contrast, teachers are working to build community, culture, togetherness from the very first moments of the school year, in a roomful of strangers. We convince students to believe we are all in this together. But when we attend the back-to-school faculty meeting, that same belief is missing.
Teachers work their magic—which isn’t really magic, after all—through simple, purposeful, nearly invisible actions. We ask powerful questions, and we make space for students to answer honestly, maybe quietly, and we listen to be sure our students feel seen and heard.
Here are some examples from a culture-building activity in my class. I asked simple questions, and students wrote down their answers, with drawings to capture their feelings.
“What is important about you?” “I’m shy but I want to be called on.”
“What do I need to know about you?” “I have little self-esteem” and “I have resting sad face.”
“What are you proud of?” “That I made it to school today” and “That I speak three languages.”
“What are you good at?” “I’m good at helping my papa.”
“What do you worry about?” “Still being homeless …” “Making mistakes …” “Speaking up …” “Speaking the wrong language …”
Administrators could work their own magic with teachers. They could see a whole school through a classroom teacher’s eyes and hearts. Imagine a PD day where we learn from—and with—students and administrators, all of us as valued parts of the school.
The few administrators I’ve known who fill the empty spaces between us with aloha aren’t magicians. The things they do are not complicated; they are purposeful.
Small But Powerful Acts
They use small moments to see us, to include us. They leave a note during a class visit, or ask us to share a thought during a faculty meeting. They design PD around our needs and include themselves in the learning. They learn our skills and passions and call us in to the cooperative work of running the school.
Some even include students in the learning and growth of the adults, such as letting students design PD. These kinds of choices make us all integral parts of the school.
We know that teachers work hard, that they’re experts at many things, that they make careful, deliberate decisions to build the beloved community of their classes. But too often our work is treated like a parlor trick by people who are more interested in telling us what to do than in asking us who we are, why we teach, what gifts we have to share, and what we most hope to accomplish.
Tap us on the shoulder. Tell us you care about us. Ask us who we are, what we care about, and let’s build a school together—a community, not just a place to work.