What could be more important than welcoming 1,300 high school students during the morning into your building as a principal? I mean, seriously. I do it. These students walk past my 5’2” petite frame (hence, I often wear heels making me a resounding 5’3” tall powerhouse) on their way to the cafeteria and subsequent classes. I have difficulty comprehending the lack of a principal’s presence at this crucial moment of the day. Yet I’m not alone in greeting students; the school’s security team is with me. We are the faces that 1,300 high schoolers see daily and have become the first line of defense.
This is wrong and short-sighted! Principals, set aside your well-meaning, rhetorical “school action plans” and step in front of your students. Being invisible during the start of the day is cruel. It deafens principal’s ears to hearing their school communities’ needs first-hand. It silences the voices of the most vulnerable populations. It blinds them to the realities of their students’ mishaps, trials, and tribulations. Principals, set the tone for your school’s day!
A 10 minute snapshot: What New York school principals are missing at the onset of the day
7:30 a.m. Student Arrivals Begin: Before they enter the only entrance available for arrival, I witness students stepping off yellow school buses (cheese buses, as my middle-schoolers would say). Some are crossing the street with coffee cups in hand and plastic bags from the 7-eleven store.
7:35 a.m. The Second Wave of Arrivals: Others exit cars chauffeured by parents, siblings, and neighbors, while a few rely on local taxis. And yet, a student parking lot exists filled with those that drive themselves to school. Typically, these students embody a focus synonymous with tunnel vision. They are the least to initially engage in a good morning reply. Their body language speaks: a nod, gentle smile, or fist bump (the recipient being the respected security team member).
7:40 a.m. The Last Wave of Arrivals: A distinct group. They seem to be the most energetic approaching the school building. I learned their names quickly. I usually listen to a humorous anecdote or overhear the endings of their morning routines. It’s like belonging to a sorority with this last group of students. They walk closely to each other; sometimes with arms locked.
Behavior can support or deter from students’ success. Between 7:30 a.m. – 7:40 a.m., my interactions with students tell me that some are prepared for the day’s expectations. I learn that some students are motivated by the social network, and others need reassurance. Why is this important? Students will seek out ways to have their needs met, whether real or perceived, in healthy or unhealthy ways. If school administrators gather this information ahead, they can implement strategies to create a culture of respect and excellence.
In Education World’s, “The Omnipresent Principal,” Paul Young underscores the significance of maintaining visibility: representative of positive leadership.
Greet students and their parents in the morning as they arrive and get out of cars. Greet bus students as they step off the bus. Chat with the parents and bus drivers. Ask good questions, then listen and learn from the responses. Ask about needs, potential problems, or brewing issues. While showing visibility, the multitasking principal at the same time demonstrates concern for others’ welfare. That time invested in collecting information can prevent concerns from escalating and trouble from developing. A principal should be visible during lunch and dismissal times too. The principals visibility at special school functions and programs is essential.
Throughout 2005-2008, during my second through fourth year of teaching in East Harlem, the Principal greeted his students outside. I must admit, on days that I was running late for school, he was the last person I wanted to encounter. That’s because his presence sent a message to the school community: I see you; I welcome you; I have an expectation for you to strive towards, obtain, adhere to, and I encourage others to do the same.
The Principal wasn’t just standing at the door’s entrance; he was establishing a culture. I admired his purposeful tenacity too. He made eye contact with each person entering the building. Students later felt respected. They often said, “the Principal asked to see the second draft of my history report.” Or, “the Principal wanted to see my presentation in class today and I had the chance to remind him at what time that occurred.” I can recall the Principal explaining to the Superintendent the significance of him opening up his school prior to attending a district meeting. It didn’t always land him on the Superintendent’s list of favorites, but he demonstrated his integrity. He was ahead of his time in 2005. Was the security team present too? I’m sure they were. Each became positioned throughout the building, helping to reinforce the Principal’s tone.
Acknowledging students fosters mutual respect and builds healthy school environments. If it doesn’t begin in the morning, it’s highly unlikely it will organically occur throughout the day. The necessity for school principals to implement greeting into their school day only yields positive, productive results. Model for your school community your presence. It’s leadership personified!