How do we begin to create a school culture that values social and emotional well-being while promoting academic success? I believe it starts with a shared vision. If the fundamental vision is that of caring for children, then their academic success follows. But academic skill and achievement cannot exist alone. It is a part of balance in which everyone -- students, parents, teachers, administrators, boards of education, and community stakeholders -- has a role.
This may not be the most popular or accepted vision, or the simplest and easiest to create and implement, but it is a vision all leaders and practitioners need. It is a meaningful, practical, and essential approach that can become the basis for the academic success of students and a profound force in nurturing and unifying all members of a school community.
So, how do we do it? First of all, it takes a relentless commitment on everyone's part. Let's start with parents. Each spring at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, we held a meeting with the parents of fifth graders (soon to be the parents of incoming sixth graders). Keep in mind that we were a grade 6-8 middle school. I would begin by asking parents a question: "As you look ahead to the next three years, what three things do you wish most for your children?"
Each year, I would "read their minds," and tell them what I thought they were thinking. It was nearly always the same. Almost without exception, they would wish them good health, happiness, and a life filled with love. They did not wish for high SAT scores, at least not at the expense of their social and emotional well-being. They did not emphasize a need to prepare for high school or to get straight A's. Clearly, the parents were concerned about what kind of person their child was going to become and how the school would serve as a partner in that mission. It seemed evident to me that if those were the wishes of the parents, why should the school's vision be different?
I remember spending time following those spring meetings listening to the gracious comments (and, some concerns, as well) and encouraging words from parents. They were pleased to hear that they were about to entrust their children to educators who cared about academic achievement and social/emotional well-being. They left the school auditorium with an understanding of the vision and mission of the school, the role they would play, and the exciting nature of the programs that awaited their children at Benjamin Franklin.
From that first meeting, the parents knew our vision: We are a school community that strives to provide a joyful, supportive, and academically challenging learning environment for their children.
That first impression, which is critical for a principal and a school, was that of a synergy between social/emotional well-being and academic success. The children would have a role in their education and have some ownership of their learning. We would provide opportunities for project-based and reality-based activities in which they would create meaning and enjoy learning. We invited the parents to become partners in the synergy, share our vision, and join us in a relentless effort to make Benjamin Franklin a joyful, nurturing, and challenging home for their children. It would be the beginning of shared commitment to create the culture of our school.