My first task as a leader was to arm the building with staff who believed in our students. I spent the summer prior to my first school year as principal, hiring 60% of my teaching staff and I was very strategic about the kinds professionals I wanted for the students. I needed tough minded, gritty teachers who were crazy enough to invest in a vision that was bigger than test scores and state letter grades. We needed a whole child approach that would address the educational, relational, mental/behavioral and even spiritual needs of our students. When you have a history of failure, it becomes much more than what you do; you begin to believe it’s who you are! So we began by focusing on the climate and culture for both students and staff because real change happens from the inside-out. I remember watching a video of the late Rita Pierson about being a champion for kids. She talked about a mantra she began saying with her students about them being somebody and our school has adopted it as our “Tiger Declaration”. I knew that I had to attack the way kids thought about themselves before they would change their investment in their lives. So we began (and still do) each day with our declaration:
I am somebody
I was somebody when I came
I’ll be a better somebody when I leave
I am responsible for the education I get here
I have things to do, people to impress and places to go
I am powerful
And I am strong
Because I am somebody
Not only did this begin to seep into the psyche of our students, but it began to radically challenge the perceptions of the adults in their school community. Whenever a students behavior or academic performance didn’t match their declaration we began to remind them of what has become a kind of promise to themselves, that they are somebody who can do something to change their lives. I knew that I needed the students to have a vision of themselves and their future that reached beyond the life they are currently living. Our staff worked to develop a vision statement that more accurately reflected our radical approach to the work we engaged. “Every child, every day is the Tiger way!” became our rally cry, our calling card and our big dream for our students. I wanted our school community to know that every student mattered to us and not just the ones who were compliant in school. As often as I can, I expose various members of our community, from politicians to parents to the recitation of our student declaration and the usual response is “that’s amazing. This strategy is one of the ways that we are rebranding our school.
Prior to my principalship I read a book by Erwin McManus entitle The Barbarian Way. In the book the author included a picture of a tiger with people caring spears, swords and other weapons as a symbol of a rebellion against the status quo. This has become a rallying symbol for our staff. We celebrate innovation and individuality that supports our mission and vision. Our staff also developed a declaration that incorporated our newly developed vision statement which we recite each time we are together for staff meetings:
We are a dynamic group of educators, here by choice and not by chance.
We are not satisfied with the status quo, because our students deserve better.
We are innovative, creative and motivated change agents.
And we believe that our school is a great place to work and learn because,
Every child everyday is the Tiger Way!
Every newsletter, letter home, printed advertisement, weekly school wide phone message, email etc all have our vision statement incorporated. Mindset changes have lead to a 50% decrease in our discipline referrals as we commit to keeping students in class so that they can have access to a quality education. We have grown from one AIG student to 32, have decreased our teacher turnover rate to 14% and exceeded academic growth expectations!
I believe that our current trajectory has everything to do with the development of a culture that refuses to accept the circumstances of a child’s challenges as that child’s identity and consequently the identity of our school. We are far from out of the woods, but we are determined to keep finding ways to turn our school into a place that produces great learners that add value to their communities as they pursue their dreams. Amazing things happen when you trust educators to be great and give them an environment in which they can thrive. We are Tigers together.