By Angela Maiers

Everyone Matters: 5 School Principals Who Walk the Walk

9 Essential Lessons for Students Changing the World - Now

For 30 years, I have been sharing a singular message: Everyone needs to know they matter. Human beings need to know they are significant in the lives of others. They also need to be noticed, valued, and honored. This is not an ego-driven “want” - it is a biologically-fed “need.”

I launched Choose2Matter to help everyone embody these notions. Choose2Matter is a call action that challenges us to:

  • ACCEPT that we matter, and have a contribution to make to the world.
  • ACCELERATE the message that everyone matters.
  • ACT, by asking, “What matters most to me and why?; “What breaks my heart about that?” and “What am I going to do about it?”

So how do we Accelerate the message?

I’ve offered 12 Ways to Let People Know They Matter, which has been read by almost one million people. Now I want to share the stories of five school principals who live the message, every day, that every single person in the school community truly matters.

Walk in Their Shoes: Some of the ways to let people know they matter are to acknowledge, and truly, “see” them, to listen with interest, and to be present. Can you think of a better way to do this than to walk often in the shoes of your educators and students? Principal William S. Bernhard at P.J. Gelinas Junior High in Setauket, NY has served as a guest teacher in every single class in the school. He even switched roles with a student for a day, following the student’s schedule while the student became the Principal. Bernhard has taught only in high school and college. He told Newsday that the experience of teaching these middle school classes and sitting in them as a student “gave me a better perspective on traditional middle school development. For me, it was about seeing how younger kids learn...there are some methodologies that you need to adjust." Can you also imagine how it enhances his interaction with faculty, now that he knows what they go through every day?

Invest Time to See Them as Individuals: It can be a challenge to notice and listen to students when you mostly see them in large groups. Elizabeth MacWilliams of Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, NC visits the home of every student. She started as a classroom teacher, when she realized that many parents can't show up for conferences because they work evening hours. The idea came from her teacher mother, who visited homes for many years.

Elizabeth told The State, “When you establish a relationship with somebody at their homes, it deepens trust and respect. It deepens their motivations on wanting to do right by the community. As many home visits as I have done, I’ve never left a home visit disappointed…..It’s almost strange in a way that schools are seen as only academic institutions, because it’s so much more.”

Said one parent about these visits: “To know the principal cares enough to come to your house, it makes you feel welcomed.” Added her daughter, “The principal has never cared that much before.”

Show Encouragement: Other ways to let people know they matter are to encourage them and offer hope. Todd Nesloney, Principal of John C. Webb Elementary School in Navasota, TX, does this every morning as he reads the You Matter Manifesto over the PA. Clearly, the students are listening. At first, the message was warmly received, but then Todd noticed a fall-off in enthusiasm. A student told him that he found it hard to count on anyone for very long, because in previous years, so many teachers had left during the school year.

Todd knew it was time to step-up the mattering game. His team arranged to host a series of weekend afternoon cookouts in the neighborhoods in which his students live. There was no program, no agenda other than to serve and listen to the families. Todd explains the wonderful results in this post, and his core reflections are in the image below.

Todd’s post concludes, “I encourage you today to find ways to work with kids and touch lives that you've never tried before.” Watch Todd’s recent TEDx Talk to hear more about his philosophy.

Allow Your Commitment to Be Seen and Heard: At Carlton Comprehensive High School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, Principal Dawn Kilmer invited students to paint each line of the You Matter Manifesto on the main school staircase. Nearby, other sources of inspiration are delivered by enormous murals.

Dawn explains, “We want all of our students to know that they are our primary focus and number one concern. ‘You Matter’ reminds us to focus on the very thing that drove many of us to become teachers – people – our students and our colleagues. Sometimes we may get caught up in the day to day business of school and life. It’s not that we forget our students and colleagues matter to us, we just become so busy with important tasks that we forget to show or tell others how important they are to us.”

Set Your Expectations Intentionally High: In Brownsville, Brooklyn, life can be challenging. Nadia Lopez, the founding principal of Mott Bridges Academy, opened the school to create a place in which:

“We set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars’.... I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens... When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But the children here need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

For years, Nadia wondered whether her words of hope and possibility were having an impact on her scholars. Then, one day, she found out in a very public way that, indeed, they were.

Most principals will never learn this in such a public way, but when you tell, and show, your the people in your school community that they matter, they believe you. They are listening.

Principals, you matter. More than you may ever know.


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