Of course we don’t want to belabor this point, but 21-22 was a REALLY tough year for many reasons. One of the lingering effects of the pandemic was the loss of our school community as we knew it. When I arrived at Longs Peak Middle School in August of 2019, the community among staff and students was the strongest I’d seen, and that sense of community acted in many ways as a safety net for students to take risks, explore their passions, and find a sense of purpose and belonging at school.
In the absence of full-time, in-person learning, many of our students turned elsewhere for that sense of safety and belonging. When they returned to in-person learning for the 21-22 school year, we began to see signs that many of our students did not view school as the source of fun, excitement, and community they once had. We spent the school year attempting to draw our students back in, cope with new and more intense behavioral needs, while at the same time putting ourselves back together as educators and as humans.
By May of 2022, we knew what we would need for a successful start to the next school year. Our leadership team asked administration to find time for staff to come together and reconnect. Staff surveys reflected a need to set and maintain high expectations and tight structures for students. We needed to heal ourselves from the past year, so that we could be whole for our kids and rebuild our vibrant school community. If we were to rebuild, then we had to start with the foundation of our most basic needs.
So we designed a back-to-basics approach: An all day staff retreat where we focused on rebuilding trust, visualizing the school year we wanted for ourselves and for our students, and making a plan to bring that visualization to life.
All teachers participated in Kagan Cooperative Learning Day 1 training the day before kids returned to the building. Thinking about engagement, teambuilding, academic conversations, and involving every child was the perfect way to kick off the week. On the first day of school, our admin team walked through every classroom, and I have never seen as much movement, conversation, and joy on the first day as I did this year.
Each grade level committed to a weekly or bi-weekly all-grade team building activity during our advisory class, RamReady.
Using student input, teachers worked with their classes to create a list of what characterizes a safe community. In what type of class do I feel safe? Unsafe? What am I willing to do to contribute to a safe school community?
Anyone reading this knows we did nothing flashy or new. In fact, it is in attending to and acknowledging our most basic needs as humans that we have found our path to healing. It’s been the commitment to a fundamental idea that is helping to bring us back: We are a community. We look out for one another. This community is dedicated to giving you every opportunity to succeed. You want to be part of it. And, as part of this community, you have responsibilities.
Start with the assumption that all of our kids want to belong, because they do. Remember that our students will rise when asked to be part of something meaningful and exciting. Building on that foundation will create the conditions for a nurturing, collaborative, and robust learning community where we can all thrive.
By Sandy Heiser, Principal of Longs Peak Middle School in Longmont, Colorado.