Principal Impact

A Reflective Journey with Principal Hackett


All in with Relationships

Over the last year, our staff at Little Mountain Elementary has been trained in a Trauma Sensitive/Informed framework. We are continuing that journey this year with our students and this includes a common language that helps us all learn together. We’re emphasizing mindfulness, understanding our students’ backgrounds, and a different approach to instruction. Relationships have always been the “it” factor in education. Relationships will always be at the forefront of learning. The difference is now we’re saying that relationships need to come first; before, during, and after any academic lesson. And that some students, in reality, more and more each year, won’t learn without a positive connection with their teacher. In Rita Pierson’s famous Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, she says, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” This is 100% true and should never be forgotten. In addition, I think we can take it one step further by saying kids won’t learn until they’re ready. Some students will come to us each day ready to learn while others can’t physically or mentally prepare themselves to take in new material because they are suffering from so many ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) that they are incapable of learning. 

As a public elementary school, we are an academic institution. Our job is to teach kids the standards as put forth by the state of Minnesota. We continue to talk about differentiation and the variety of ways we need to meet the academic needs of all our students. We would argue, first and foremost, that differentiation needs to happen for the social and emotional needs of our students. It could be as simple as a smile and a hug when they walk through the door as they come in or a conversation at breakfast before they walk to class. On the other hand, it could be as complex as support from the special education classroom, scheduled sensory breaks to increase learning stamina, or several days a week with the dedicated social workers. Meeting the spectrum of current academic abilities within a classroom of 27 fourth graders is challenging. Asking teachers to ensure each student receives individual instruction and individual emotional support can be overwhelming at first. The key is to give yourself permission to slow down, stop, or redo lessons when relationships within the classroom need work.

Creating a classroom of learners is all about the relationships and every class has unique needs. Last year, one of our classroom teachers, Mrs. King, had a challenging class. Mrs. King worked as hard as she ever had in creating a positive learning environment by focusing on the relationships within the four walls of her classroom. At times, behaviors from students escalated to the point where the other students needed to be removed from the classroom, forcing instruction to take place in the cafeteria or another makeshift classroom. Mrs. King worried about her students’ academic success and their progression towards mastering the standards. She was concerned that her students weren’t keeping pace because she wasn’t getting through entire reading lessons; often times stopping instruction to repair relationships between students or staff. Mrs. King never wavered in her belief that relationships need to come before learning. When the state testing was approaching, she again worried that her students would struggle because her planned lesson did not always reach completion. But relationships won. We celebrated Mrs. King’s accomplishments at a staff meeting this fall by announcing that 80% of her students had met or exceeded the state assessment benchmarks in reading.

Our students won’t learn until they are ready. This looks different for every student and every class. The evidence is clear: we need to give ourselves permission to focus on connections and relationships, even if it means our lessons aren’t complete. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.


My Job

Last school year, I made a personal goal to start blogging and to make sure I had a new post every month. I realize the importance of reflection, and I love to write, but I fell way short of my goal. Last week, the Monticello School District was fortunate enough to have Adam Welcome, co-author of Kids Deserve It and author of Run Like a Pirate, as our keynote speaker. We started talking about writing and blogging. I again said my goal this year would be to publish a blog once a month. His reply: “Once a month, Bro? No chance. You need to be blogging at least once a week if not more.” So even though I fell short last school year, I’m making it my personal goal to hit publish at least once a week.

I’ve been thinking of writing about the positives of being a principal for a long time. But the idea didn’t come from a positive place. At the end of last year, I was hearing the comment, ‘I would never want your job’ or some variation of those words. I really started to reflect on why anyone would say that. Is it because teachers sometimes need help in resolving conflict with parents? Is it the daily meetings before or after school? The long hours during some weeks? Maybe it’s the way I interact with others when talking about what I do? Why do people concentrate on the negative aspects of this job when the positives far outweigh the tough days?

I recently read a blog post by Dr. Courtney Orzel who is a superintendent in Lemont, IL. Dr. Orzel wrote about accepting a superintendent position even though those around her and close to her told her not to. In her post, she writes eloquently about the perceived challenges versus the reality of the district and position she quickly grew to love. I’m not a superintendent and it is not a position I see myself in at this point in my career, but I can completely relate to the idea of ‘I would never want your job.’ The truth is the principalship is not always easy. There are days you feel isolated, days that you make wrong decisions that impact many staff members/families/students, days that are filled with long meetings, and days that you see the unbelieveable struggle in the lives of your students…

But none of that compares to the truly awesome aspects of what I get to do as the principal of Little Mountain Elementary. I get to have a direct impact on the academic, social, and emotional learning of 640 students in our care. I get to make daily positive phone calls home to parents of students and staff. *Note: if you’re a principal and not making a #GoodNewsCalloftheDay for your students, you need to. It’s the best part of my day.* I get to help students and families who are struggling. I get to work with the most amazing staff and learn from them on a daily basis. I get to read to classrooms full of students and introduce them to new books. I get to prepare our young learners for the next steps, and what could be more important.

So, as we start the school year, I’d like to begin to change this perception of what my job is. It starts with me and choosing my words carefully when I’m discussing meetings, during an encounter with an unhappy parent, or processing a difficult situation with a student. I believe it’s also a call to action to encourage leadership within the building for our teachers and staff. Increased leadership roles for everyone involved can only increase the depth of our abilities to have a positive influence in the lives of our families. All while helping those around me understand we all have leadership abilities that shouldn’t be passed up. Being a principal is proof of that!

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