Written By: Lauren Ambeau
On August 27, 2017, in the dark hours of the morning, I turned on the TV and the images shown there will never leave me. I saw a neighborhood I knew well, a neighborhood which over a third of our students lived, with houses engulfed in water up to the top of their bottom story windows. I saw three students I knew personally, their younger siblings, parents, and pets, in rescue boats with no shoes, their eyes filled with fear and loss. Hurricane Harvey and the flood waters it brought offered no mercy to our hard-working families. As my mind began to run through the list of students whom I knew resided there, I thought of the 600 other students who lived just miles from this area, staff who lived amongst our students, and then of our building, less than 2 miles from the scenes playing on repeat on TV, and now forever in my head.
Three days later when the water subsided enough for me to enter the building, my fearful suspicions were met with confirmation. The building still held at least a foot of water throughout. Bookshelves in classrooms and the library were upturned and swelled with water, cozy couches where students once curled up to learn and collaborate were soaked. The smell of mold already settling in, the wood of classroom doors, desks, chairs, and tables were damp and bulged. Both gym floors, just replaced the summer before, curved like a skate park.
My head swam with worry and my heart was overwhelmed with sadness. The building which once served as a refuge for so many of our students was now destroyed. The very students who had just lost their homes would now realize they lost their warm classrooms as well. Staff who poured years upon years of thought, time, energy, and money into making their classrooms inspiring, engaging and safe homes for our students were gone. As I exited the building and walked to my car that afternoon, I prayed for the strength to know what the next steps were and for the right words of comfort and hope to share when the time came. While the world I knew was afloat, I would find myself relying on the foundation we had spent the last two years building more than I could have ever imagined.
I became principal at Brookside Intermediate in August of 2015 after having served as an elementary principal for 4 years prior. Upon entering the halls of Brookside for the first time, I was overcome with work ahead of me to create a place where students and staff WANT to be, a place where students and staff CHOOSE to be, and a place where the voices of EACH member of our school family matter. The foundation was rocky, crumbling, and in dire need of repair from the inside out, from the hearts to the heads. Over the next two years, the work to repair and rebuild what we stood for and stood on was grueling, emotional, and exhausting. It was also exhilarating, rewarding, and life changing. Without this work to move to more solid ground, collectively we would have drowned as a result of Harvey. We would never have survived the rebuild of our homes and hearts while still providing our students a place to belong and learn without the firm foundation we had so intentionally labored over.
Laying a foundation in which real learning and real relationships can form is the very foundation needed to overcome adversity as a team. Little did I know at the time that our foundation would be tested to such measures.
Here are three things I have learned about building a strong foundation:
1. Move from a culture of compliance to a culture of caring.
When students are forced to come to a school created for and designed for what makes the adults in the building comfortable, students quickly become disillusioned, resentful, and apathetic because school is happening to them as opposed to with them. When students become resentful, disillusioned, and apathetic this manifests as behavior. When behavior strikes and the adults in the building are not afforded proper supports, curriculum, and deeper understandings as to the root of the behavior, we begin to overemphasize compliance over learning. Our actions show students we care more about the following of the rules WE made than we do about their well-being, learning, and happiness. When we as leaders fail to create a place where educators can receive the emotional support they need to learn and grow to best support students, we end up with toxic cultures focused heavily on compliance and not enough on caring. Had we not spent so much time analyzing the root of our students’ behavior, we would have been grossly ill-prepared and equipped to support our students as they grieved the loss of their worlds post-Harvey.
2. Create space for social-emotional learning (SEL).
After Hurricane Harvey, our Brookside teachers took on the role of first responders to our students’ social and emotional needs daily. Many of these very teachers had been flooded themselves. They became really good at tucking away their own stress, fear, and anxiety so they could be present for their students. A year before Hurricane Harvey hit, through analysis of office and counseling referrals as well as student, staff, and family climate surveys, our Brookside staff unanimously agreed we needed time and space to better connect with our kids outside of content, as well as a safe place for students to express themselves. We added a daily 25-minute “class meeting” time to our schedule fully committed to use this time with intention and keep it sacred. Our staff needed the same for themselves and for each other. One of the greatest lessons in my leadership journey came at this time, in year 2 at a new school. I had to ask myself the honest question,
“How am I intentionally nurturing the social & emotional needs of our staff?” I made a commitment to be thoughtful and strategic about creating safe places and time for adults to learn and grow. “After all, people will only value what you have allowed them to experience.” Adults deserve and need this opportunity too! Looking back now, I know for certain without “class meeting” time as students and staff returned from Harvey, we would have left many adults and children without the emotional resources they needed to recover.
3. Define and know your purpose.
When we as leaders fail to set a compelling and agreed upon mission which we reference frequently, we begin to see cracks in the foundation of our organizations. Through these cracks, complacency, mediocrity, and confusion seep into daily practices and become a part of our organizational DNA. It sounds obvious that as schools our purpose would include learning. The tough part for our team which required the most trust and honesty was HOW we believe we bring about the highest levels of learning for ALL students daily. Repairing the cracks in our foundation meant honest self-evaluations about our roles as it relates to student learning and how prepared we felt we were to do this work. When I talk about purpose, I am stressing the importance that EVERY member of the organization is deeply committed to their role in the school’s mission. We link arms and agree that we don’t settle when new behaviors emerge that challenge our thinking. We grow and change together in response to our changing student demographic. We post our mission and purposes visibly so we are reminded daily to measure our actions and thoughts to ensure alignment. We share our purposes often and reflect on new learning required to achieve this purpose daily. Through the flood waters of Harvey, our clearly defined purpose was the anchor reminding us all why we are here.
Research shows that 12-18 months after a tragedy, such as Hurricane Harvey, can prove to be even tougher than the initial aftermath. In our case, we would say this is true for so many of our families whose “normal” has yet to return and whose houses still lack the feeling of home. Relying on the steady foundation we spent quality time building is helping us weather this “second” storm.
Character Dares to try as you lead your campus or classroom:
Give your students a voice in the creation of campus/classroom rules and procedures. Challenge yourself when teaching procedures to explain the “WHY” behind them so that students can clearly see the place of concern and care the procedure supports as opposed to the overemphasis on compliance for reasons they may not understand.
Make time to connect with students on a social and emotional level and watch what it does for your campus/classroom culture. It may appear you are taking valuable instructional minutes, but in the end you will get this time back as students are more ready and prepared to enter into new learning with you and for you.
Publish your personal mission for the work you do daily and share it with kids. Post it in a place for all to see. Then empower your students with time to write and share their personal mission statements. When we know are “WHY” our “WHAT” becomes more powerful.
About the Author:
Lauren Ambeau is the principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD, former elementary school principal, strong advocate for increasing SEL in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership. She was the Clear Creek ISD Secondary Principal of the year in 2016-2017 and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled Vulnerable Leadership.