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LEARNING LEADERS

Leaders can build community, even in a divided school

By Baruti Kafele
February 2022

When I was a principal, I regularly referred to my school community as a family. When I delivered my morning message, I would say, “Good morning to my Newark Tech family.” I used the words “family” and “community” intentionally because I wanted my students to see the school as more than the facility where they were being educated. I wanted them to feel a sense of belonging, respect, and appreciation. I wanted them to feel safe to be themselves so they could take academic risks without fear of ridicule.

A school family does not occur organically, particularly in a diverse school like the one I led, or in a divided community. Building a school family takes intentionality from leaders and staff — intentionality on day one and every day after.

''Building a school family takes intentionality from leaders and staff — intentionality on day one and every day after.'' @PrincipalKafele #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

On my first day as principal, I saw my Black students sitting on one side of the cafeteria and my Latino students sitting on the opposite side. Although I understood why the students gravitated toward familiar people, I wanted them to see themselves as one school community.

To build that community, I knew I had to establish credibility right away. In my opening day message, I shared who I am as a person and a leader, and where we were headed collectively as a school. I told them that, although we were currently a low-performing school, we’d be a national force to be reckoned with academically within the next three to four years. I could tell they heard me loud and clear.

With that credibility, I entered the cafeteria and requested that everyone stand, face the other side of the cafeteria, go introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and then dare to sit with the new acquaintance and have a conversation. I stayed consistent with this approach until the culture of the cafeteria shifted and the two groups of students became one community.

Building community among students is actually the easy part because children are still impressionable and flexible. The heavy lifting in building community is with adults.

Building community among students is actually the easy part because children are still impressionable & flexible. The heavy lifting in building community is w/ adults. #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

A school staff can be comprised of a wide array of people with different political beliefs as well as perspectives on students’ needs and potential and beliefs about what the school should be striving to achieve and for whom. I learned early in my career that those divides can be hard to bridge.

When I was a 5th-grade teacher in a classroom of Black students, I wanted my students to be conversant in the history of Black people in America and familiar with African culture. I was intentional about building pride in being Black along with the responsibilities that must accompany their pride and responsibilities to fight injustice.

The students became highly focused, and their academic results became exemplary. But several colleagues opposed what and how I taught. Throughout the school year, the faculty engaged in intense debates over how to educate Black children. The division was typically along racial lines, predicated upon our different experiences and the different “bubbles” we grew up in. Because we, the adults, were not as open and adaptable as children are, we never resolved our differences.

As the reflective practitioner that I pride myself to be, I look back on that experience frequently to this day. If I had to do it over again, with the skills I possess now, I’d focus more on building community. I’d be less combative with colleagues who saw the world differently from me, recognizing that they were shaped by their own life experiences, beliefs, and values. I would use a conversational, teaching-focused approach because all of the disagreements and debates were actually teachable moments.

It takes skill to deal with people who see the world differently. When I was a young teacher, those skills were just beginning to form — they were raw and undeveloped. But over time, I learned that there will be individuals on my staff who are just as passionate about their beliefs and values as I am about mine. I learned how to disagree without being disagreeable. I became more strategic about the way I approach my staff on issues of race.

Those skills are imperative to be a leader who builds a school family. A school can’t be a functioning community if its people are not mindful of how others see the world. The leadership lays the foundation for listening and looking through other lenses.

''A school can’t be a functioning community if its people are not mindful of how others see the world.'' @PrincipalKafele #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

Leaders set the tone and inspire the courage for difficult, uncomfortable conversations. They set an expectation and establish a space for staff to think deeply and critically about their own beliefs and values relative to others’. With intentionality, leaders can build community, even in a divided school. They can bring people together as one school — one that serves every child.

Download pdf here.



Baruti K. Kafele (principalkafele@gmail.com) is an education consultant, author, and retired principal.


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