Principals to watch: How to strengthen relationships to strengthen school climate

These principals celebrate staff and students as they encourage deeper collaboration.

Principal Thomas W. Glanton Jr. says he can’t sleep the night before the first day of school. Even after 30 years in education, the Atlanta-area educator says he’s still excited about every aspect of K-12 education, from cafeteria duty to proms to football games. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to adapt during three decades as a building leader.

Most recently, the Southwest DeKalb High School principal has had to make sure that he’s connected and accessible around the clock—via social media and his smartphone, among other channels. “It’s a 24/7 job. Aspiring leaders should understand that,” Glanton says.  “I’m always the principal. Even when I pull up to McDonald’s and give my order, they recognize me on the speaker box.”

Glanton’s efforts are an example of how District Administration‘s latest principals to watch are strengthening relationships to strengthen the climate at their schools.

How a principal provides options

One thing that hasn’t changed—Glanton hopes—is the stability and predictability students can find at school. “The only thing that remains steadfast is the schoolhouse,” says Glanton, DeKalb County schools’ Principal of the Year. “I tell our staff, now is our chance to give students a shot at reaching their dreams.”

To provide students with as many options as possible, Glanton and his team rely on a strong alumni network of business owners and others to serve as guest speakers. “Sometimes all students know is what they see in their community,” says Glanton, whose parents were both school principals. “Many students have [never been] outside the perimeter of Atlanta but they’re inspired by people who look like them and who went to the same school.”

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The district is now going full-steam ahead on academic recovery programs, including after-school and on weekends, to help students bounce back and graduate on time after the disruptions of the pandemic. Glanton and his leadership team are also working to support teachers as the nation’s school system grapples with the pressures of the so-called “Great Resignation.”

Glanton has filled in as a substitute and often leads professional development sessions. He also regularly uses social media to celebrate the achievement of his school’s educators. Other priorities for the coming school year include continuing to steer more students into the school’s advanced-placement classes and further strengthening its ninth-grade transition program. “COVID taught us a lot about how to engage students with technology,” Glanton says. “No computer screen beats a quality teacher in the classroom so we have to do a blended model.”

Uniting students and staff

Chantal Ligtenberg
Chantal Ligtenberg

Students and staff were caught in “grade-level bubbles” at Sturgis Elementary School in South Dakota’s Meade School District. Student activities were being scheduled within their classes or grade bands, and, although teachers were collaborating, they were doing so within those confines, Principal Chantal Ligtenberg says.

To increase interaction, she implemented a “house system,” an idea she borrowed from the Ron Clark Academy, a nonprofit middle school in Atlanta. Students remain in the same house with the same staff while they are progressing through elementary school. Each house has an emblem, a chant and a representative character trait. Each house meets monthly to participate in team-building activities and soft-skill development.

Students can earn “house points” for demonstrating one of the 15 Sturgis Elementary Essentials, which include making eye contact and asking questions during conversations, performing random acts of kindness, and accepting and moving on from one’s own mistakes, says Ligtenberg, a 2022 South Dakota National Distinguished Principal honoree.

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The report also urges state and district-level leaders to:

  • Develop standards for state licensing and principal PD programs.
  • Invest in a statewide infrastructure that gives principals access to coordinated, high-quality and sustained professional learning.
  • Prioritize equity by increasing access to high-quality professional development in underserved schools and districts.
  • Reform state and local policy to build comprehensive, aligned pipelines of qualified school principals and a coherent system of development.

She has also created “What I Need” time during which third- and fourth-graders are grouped together for more personalized instruction based on ELA performance. It’s designed as a supplement to what students are learning in class. “This hasn’t only been a successful instructional intervention for all students, but it has also been another way for students to build relationships with staff other than their classroom teacher,” Ligtenberg says.

Ligtenberg has also been leading book studies to bring teachers and staff closer together. They have read books about building staff relationships and transforming classrooms to make learning more memorable and fun. One teacher, for instance, solicited donations so students could dress up like surgeons as they broke down a sentence into parts of speech. Another teacher created a pirate-themed game to liven up math review.

“I frequently see teachers thinking out of the box,” Ligtenberg says. “And with all the additional stress with the COVID pandemic, I believe we were able to be more united than divided as we went through that difficult time.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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