Superintendent's Notebook: The power of a caring adult

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The staff of the Portland Public Schools inspired me on their first day back at work after the summer break. I want to share that inspiration with you.

I had first-day-of-school jitters before an opening-day gathering of staff in the Portland Expo. Everyone was invited – bus drivers, food service workers, custodial and maintenance staff, secretaries and support staff, teachers, ed techs and administrators. This was my first chance to meet many of them and to address the entire staff as Portland’s superintendent.

That morning, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to touch up my speech. I wondered whether my message would resonate with the more than 1,100 employees. I worried that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

During my remarks, I shared with the staff the work of one of my mentors, Dr. William Daggett. He talks about the three R’s (rigor, relevance and relationships) as they relate to best teaching practices. His work nationwide shows that schools with high expectations that bring meaning to their content and build off positive relationships have high-performing students.

Each of the three R’s is important. But I believe that students will work the hardest when they believe staff members care about them. Thus, building powerful relationships with students is critical.

I asked the staff what they could do to begin building relationships with students during the first two days of schools. Here are some of their answers:

• Spend a few minutes at the beginning of the year visiting at students’ homes. A Riverton teacher who did so said students remembered for years afterward.

•  “Call as many parents as possible (on the first day) to let them know that we welcome their kids … (that) they have a place where they can feel comfortable and safe.”

• “Make sure all 7,000 Portland Public School students get greeted by a caring adult.”

• “Just smile and greet the kids. Get to know their names.”

• Be sure that children introduce themselves to each other.

• “Emphasize that respect is the most important thing … teachers to children, teachers to their family members and also children to children.”

• Check in with students each morning. If students are in the halls, invite them into your classroom.

• Make a special effort to look out for students who might be having a hard time.

• “Convey to all students and their parents that we have high expectations for all children, without being hard on kids.”

• Set up all students with a mentor.

• Institute all-school meetings to develop a sense of community.

• Ask students about their after-school activities. When possible, attend some of those activities.

• “Those students who don’t show up the first day – either immediately give a call to the home or make a home visit … just to make that connection and to show them that we’re committed to them even if their commitment at the beginning might be a little lacking.”

• “One thing very important for teachers to do is maintain a balance in their life and share that with students. Let our students know that we’re not just teachers, that we’re people outside of school. That we have interests and we have successes and we have failures. And share those with our students and model those for our students.”

Why did I focus the staff’s attention on the first two days of school? Because I wanted the exercise to be meaningful and I was hoping that staff, inspired by their peers, would carry the exercise to the opening student day.

My hope is that bus drivers greeted your children warmly, that custodians helped them find their classes, that food service workers served food with a smile, that educators learned each child’s name quickly and that administrators stood proudly by the school’s entrance saying, “Welcome back.” Building meaningful relationships will result in large academic gains because your children know that the Portland Public Schools staff cares about them and wants them to succeed.

Sidebar Elements

jamesmorse.JPGJames C. Morse Sr. became superintendent of schools in Portland on July 1. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on