Character Champions: Teacher Leadership to Address Social and Emotional Needs

Over the past couple of years, our school has been challenged by the social and emotional needs of our students. The impact of increased behavioral incidents has put a strain on our previously steady school climate, and while we are learning a lot, we have also found that we are not very well prepared to handle some of these needs. In an attempt to foster real teacher leadership in addressing these challenges, I had to step aside and allow the energies and passions of our staff to take shape.

Social and emotional learning programs can be challenging in a middle level school when considering the level of maturity and engagement. It also can be difficult to find the right balance between the appropriate materials and the level of students we are trying to engage. We have chosen Character Strong, a program which we believe will allow intentional entry points to assist students to feel a part of a community. Activity is at the heart of each lesson, getting students to feel comfortable giving us a chance to connect. Throw in a “character dare”— activities in which students are challenged to put strong character into action in their own lives—and our kids are taking positive steps to connect with each other and their community. Through the amazing work of our committed staff, we have bought into Character Strong’s philosophy of promoting character while at the same time providing social-emotional learning.

And it is teachers who are leading the efforts to implement the program. A group known as our Character Strong Champions have taken on character and social-emotional learning as their passion project. As a leader, handing over the reins has empowered this group to try new things and learn from one another. This has been well received by our staff in part because it is timely and well organized, but most importantly because it is from their colleagues’ efforts.

The Character Strong Champions meet on their own as a team and try to include all who are willing. Identifying training, advocating for resources, and planning all-staff professional development have been keys to their early success in leading our building through change.

As part of our efforts to create opportunities for teacher leadership, we’ve asked our staff to share their learning with each other in our building but also with the greater educational family around the world. Our schedule affords us the flexibility to run an extended advisory once per week. During this time, our entire building is working with students on developing relationships through hands-on activities, unique collaborative exercises, and character dares. My virtual tour event will give our teachers an opportunity to help others experience for a short period of time our extended advisory at LaCreole Middle School.  Our work will be highlighted by activities, but also by an opportunity to talk with staff and students about our early implementation efforts.

Our campaign on kindness, character development, and social and emotional learning has just begun. Work on training and implementation will be ongoing, but we have had enough exposure to know that the concepts will bring to light a unified focus for our entire building.  Our staff has so much to offer. Because they live the successes and struggles on a daily basis, our champions have a good pulse on what is working with our students.  In a sense, we have our own test lab which helps us adjust as needed.

I have become a believer in the proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, I have had to learn this the hard way throughout my career. Impatience has been my burden, and change in education seems to take its sweet time. I have grown in this area, though, and as a result, I have been able to see amazing things happen at our little school.

It takes courage to lead, and it takes time and mental and emotional energy to take risks and put new ideas out there for the scrutiny of others. Given the right amount of encouragement and opportunity, leaders do emerge, creating a strong culture that furthers the important work we do at school.

This blog is part of NASSP’s Virtual Tour Series. Be sure to tune in to Facebook on October 10 at 11:45 a.m. (ET) to participate in the live tour. Jamie Richardson will also be leading the #PrinLeaderChat on Twitter on October 13 at 9:00 p.m. (ET).

Jamie Richardson is the principal of LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, OR. He is one of the NASSP 2017 Digital Principals of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @JamieR42.

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