Back to School: Make the First Interaction Positive

I’ve never liked the phrase, “You wear many hats.” For some reason, I can only experience this image as literal, and it stresses me out. Instead, I’m going to propose, for the purposes of this blog, that I “wear many dresses.” This summer, I traded in my “school dresses” with tights and flowery Doc Martens for “fancy dresses” and real sandals (as opposed to flip flops) to be the director of a summer school. From my fancy-dress vantage point, I’ve been able to see some really interesting aspects of school life that I’m too micro-focused during the regular school year to notice. This position has allowed me to look more broadly at the operational aspects of school, and I’m really humbled to say that the lessons I’ve learned about culture-building will impact me when I trade in my fancy dresses this fall.

One of my first roles as summer school director was hiring everyone from the nurse to the teachers to the exam proctors. As I began this task in the spring, I remember being overwhelmed. Luckily, after posting open monitor positions, three gentlemen contacted me immediately. I’ll admit that my main goal at the time was to fill the positions as soon as possible, and I knew that these guys were more than qualified and were willing to get their steps in as they traversed the building for six hours a day, so I hired them right away.

Little did I know that hiring these monitors would be the best decision I would make as director, albeit it was more serendipitous than genius. I knew the job they had to do: monitor and escort students, direct traffic and assist the school resource officer if there were any physical altercations. But until this summer, I couldn’t have explained to you the role they filled: caring adults who encouraged students, reminded them about the rules, calmed them when they were being delivered to my office, and filled all sorts of voids. They talk sports, ask about siblings, commiserate about how hot it is and make the first moments of being at school pleasant. Anyone who works with teens knows that relationship building with our tougher students takes time and thick skin, something that is certainly harder to accomplish in the wee hours of the morning and in the heat of summer.

I can’t emphasize enough though that the successful climate of a school is built on the foundation of mutual respect and courtesy, and I’m thrilled my guys are the first faces students see in the morning. The tone is set by these gentlemen, and they are determined to make the first interaction of the day positive. Kevin is our traffic director extraordinaire, Dan keeps an eye on the students who arrive early, and Bill takes care of the kiddos who come for breakfast. I have witnessed firsthand the students’ transformation from surly teens (it is, after all, before 7 a.m.) to engaging kids who say good morning and give high-fives.

I’ve made it a point to greet students in the morning too, both to build relationships and to gauge the emotional feel of the day. Last week, I arrived at 6:30 to an empty parking lot, pouring rain and, to my surprise, about a half dozen students huddled beneath the overhang by the entrance. When they saw my car pull up, they opened the door and proceeded to the auditorium. It took me a minute to realize what I was seeing: These students had waited for me to arrive out of respect. This didn’t just happen by itself. Because the monitors have set a tone that is mutually respectful, as well as a very predictable routine, when students had to make a collective decision, they did the right thing! Of all the summer school successes, I am most impressed by this tiny moment because it speaks volumes about the culture the monitors have established with their intentional and supportive role.

The start of the school year is just around the corner, and I’m challenging myself to stand in the hall early, speak to as many students as possible and build a culture in my little piece of the world that helps students feel comfortable and safe. Though this isn’t something you’d find in my plan book, it is clearly one of my most important roles as teacher. This fall, I hope you’ll join me in a concentrated and intentional effort to make the first moments of school supportive, interactive and caring.

If you have additional ideas on how you and the staff at your school are building positive school climate, please comment below. And, if you are looking for additional resources for school support staff, check out Share My Lesson’s school related personnel collection.