Being a strong school leader isn’t just about managing budgets, hiring staff, and coordinating curriculum.
It’s also about infusing joy into students’ and teachers’ days, empowering students, and cultivating a culture of resilience and support, according to Salome Thomas-EL, an author, speaker, and elementary school principal in Wilmington, Delaware.
Thomas-EL spoke at Education Week’s 2023 Leadership Symposium on May 12 about how school leaders can cultivate a community of resilience, joy, and learning. The three-day symposium in Washington, D.C., brought together teachers and school leaders from across the country to talk about innovative ways to address pressing issues in education.
One of the best ways to stay fresh as an administrator is to routinely connect with other school and district leaders to share ideas, collaborate, and even just commiserate a bit, Thomas-EL said.
Ultimately, an administrator’s job is to ensure the focus remains on the students, he said. School and district leaders have to find a way to filter out the “noise” and buffer teachers from “outside distractions” so they can focus on their lessons and foster a curiosity for learning.
“Your entire career, the adults will be important. The parents will be important. The community will be major. But the focus must always be on the children,” he said.
Maybe most important for the students, he said, is to establish predictable routines and be consistent.
“A lot of our students don’t have that in other areas of their lives,” Thomas-EL said. “And when you live in uncertainty, that itself is traumatic to you. So one thing that we can absolutely give students is predictability and routine that they know they can rely on, and that can be an anchor they can trust in.”
Students also need to feel seen and understood to fully engage with learning, Thomas-EL said.
For example, in his community, many students are artistic and musical and enjoy having opportunities to incorporate those interests into their school work.
Thomas-EL said the students in his school love it when he raps to them. Even if they groan initially, they always ask for another rap before he leaves, Thomas-EL said.
“We’ve talked about creating joy, you know, and people think, ‘Oh, we need more balls and more games,’” he said. “No. Engagement can be fun and joyful for children. It just needs to be relevant. It needs to be authentic, and they just need to feel like they are represented.”
Leaders should also prioritize proactively getting to know their students, staff, and community, he said.
Showing curiosity and caring about what their lives are like outside of school can go a long way, and can help principals and district leaders know more about what might help relieve some of the stress in students’ lives. Some families, for example, may be struggling with food insecurity, Thomas-EL said, which could prompt the school to partner with a community group to set up a food bank.
Those efforts build trust, and if families trust you, they’re more determined to engage, he said.
“We have to try to do what we can to support those families,” he said, “because many of them are struggling, but those children find a way to get to school.”
On May 10-12, 2023, Education Week brought educators and experts together for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration.
Below is a selection of sessions from the symposium that are available on-demand. Access the entire event here.
Featured Speaker: A Leader’s Agenda: Cultivating Joy, Resilience, and Learning at School
Featured Speaker: ChatGPT, A.I., and How Schools Should Be Thinking About Digital Learning
Panel Discussion: Successful Responses to the Student Mental Health Crisis
Panel Discussion: Getting New Teachers Off to a Strong Start
Leadership Interview: Best Practices for Supporting Students in Gifted and Special Education
Leadership Interview: How to Build a Bench of Diverse Educator Talent