My stomach was all aflutter as I, the new girl, nervously looked for an empty seat in the circle of wooden stools that were placed in the library for the first faculty meeting of the school year. My new principal had rosy cheeks and down turned eyes that communicate friendliness without saying a word. She started by addressing the teachers in the circle. “Each and every one of you is great, I am so proud to work with you. I know we are going to have a super year because of all of you. I am really super excited to hear all your great ideas for this year.” We then went around the circle to share happy memories of the summer and ideas for the upcoming academic year. I found myself surprisingly unnerved by the relaxed even joyful atmosphere. But what struck me the most was the trust and shared stage between the staff and the principal. This was not the first day meeting that I had been expecting. I left the meeting wondering “What’s the hitch?”
I had heard that meetings were filled with long lists of things teachers had to do and programs that teachers were expected to follow in order to pass the state test. I had subconsciously been bracing myself for a meeting that devolved into a gripe session for teachers to express unwillingness to follow the latest mandates passed down from the state. Staff meetings were not typically something that teachers looked forward to and in some cases even dreaded. This meeting felt different. It felt like this principal valued and trusted her staff’s ideas. It felt like the staff had the freedom use their skills and knowledge to be innovative in their classrooms. The staff meeting was a time for sharing and celebration. However, I remained a bit skeptical that there must be some hidden agenda I was missing.
I had just returned to teaching after taking time off to raise my two young daughters. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident. I was starting small as a part-time reading-improvement teacher. Was teaching like riding a bike, sort of a muscle memory, once you learn it you will never forget? Or would I need to relearn and reteach myself how to be an effective educator? I returned to the teaching profession and the school community with equal parts excitement and apprehension.
The first couple weeks had some successes and some flops, but the school leader made that seem perfectly welcome. Teaching metaphor poems to second graders did elicit some tears from the little ones, and I had to be flexible and scale back and meet the students where they were. During a lesson in the first couple weeks of school my principal popped into the classroom unannounced. I did not have the standards stated clearly on the board. I did not my have the lesson plan handily written. Wondering if I had been “caught” by the principal, I felt a wave of anxiety wash over my body. I swallowed my fear and powered on with my lesson. After several minutes passed and a natural pause emerged, I held my breath, as my principal turned and addressed the students, “Aren’t we all so lucky to have Mrs. Peroff at our school? She is such a terrific teacher.” The students smiled and nodded in agreement. I had to consciously close my gaping jaw to respond to such undeserved (in my mind) flattery. I expressed my gratitude for having such fantastic students and a wonderful principal. What? This truly was some sort of twilight zone where principals stop by just to pay a compliment? Was this more evidence to support the outlandish idea that a principal can trust and value her staff to teach the students without checking the boxes of some mandatory evaluation?
As the days and weeks passed I developed a rapport with my students and staff. Like anything in life, some days I left work feeling great while other days I felt like a sham sure that someone was going to expose me as sleep-deprived new mommy masquerading as a teacher. As I was navigating my way back into the teaching profession, I was continuously nurtured and supported by my principal. On several occasions she stopped by the classroom. She did not scrutinize my lessons, demand documentation, or even offer feedback. She just stopped by to touch base and share a kind word. I felt supported and respected. I felt that she trusted my instincts and valued me as a teacher with the ability and training to know what is right for my students. Her confidence in me was contagious. With each time she expressed her gratitude for my work, it began to become internalized in me. If she thought I was great then I must be great, right? I began to notice it wasn’t just limited to her either. Other staff members were equally positive and supportive. It was common to hear staff members paying compliments to each other in the hallways, lunchroom, or while making copies.
Shockingly, staff meetings were a particularly pleasant experience. Even the physical structure of meetings fostered community. We sat in a circle allowing every staff member to see the faces of their colleagues. The principal always made a point of beginning meetings by celebrating the successes of the school, staff, and students. I noticed that staff members shared a sense of pride in our school that was not linked to test scores or data although that was cause to celebrate too. It was more authentic than that. Because our leader was proud of us, we too were proud of ourselves and our students. This pride swelled and built confidence in me that pushed me to do more and be more. Because someone thought I was great, I strived to be even greater.
I think this should be a lesson for all school leadership or anyone in a leadership position for that matter. Never underestimate the power of positivity and trust. In my school it is an epidemic. My principal first caught the bug. She used her words and actions to help great teachers want to be even greater. This culture of positivity was highly infectious. It first spread from the principal to the teachers. Teachers then shared this with their students. It is not confined to the school campus either. It is so contagious it even followed the kids home and into their houses and to their parents. In the community, family members are proud to share that they are part of our school ohana. Staff, students, and community members alike proudly sport fashionable school trucker hats and other school swag.
Back to the itching question, what’s the hitch with this positive joyful school environment? Well, there is one. The hitch is that as a staff member in this school you have to believe in yourself and be as great as your leadership knows you are. Teachers can be a highly critical bunch, especially of ourselves. A kind word and authentic support can work to dispel the false notion that we are not good enough, smart enough, or even qualified enough to do what we know is right for our students. Positivity is a powerful tool in cultivating happy staff, students, and community members. I will carry this lesson with me always, along with my school trucker hat.