Building a Healthy School Culture

Building a Healthy School Culture

In 2015, I became the principal of a small alternative school for expelled and truant youth. I had  been involved with the school as both a teacher and an administrator for many years. I had long dreamed of creating a school which had the best possible chance of reaching these hard to reach youth. Many, if not all of these students had not only given up on school, but on themselves. While we had a good foundation with some talented and committed staff, I could see that we needed to do better at creating a culture that would allow these disengaged youth to lower their guards and begin to believe in themselves. We needed lessons and activities that spoke to the needs and interests of the students. We needed an atmosphere of trust and nurturing that would instill in them a sense of self respect and a desire to want more for themselves. We needed a sense of community and joy. 

I knew from experience that when I consistently gave a student unconditional respect and love, the student felt safe enough to show a willingness to try, to risk; a desire to do well, and to get along with others. I wanted this willingness to give every student unconditional respect and love to be the mantra of our school community. It would not be enough to have pockets of success, and we would need tools, systems, if we were to create an entire school in which every staff member expertly attended to the whole child.

Enter Linda Inlay and Ho’āla – now known as Awakening Wisdom. Linda, the sole trainer at the time, worked with us for two years. She met with staff both individually and in groups to identify issues and dynamics. She worked closely with me and coached me to successfully address those issues and those staff members who showed resistance. She helped us reach shared agreements, goals and build roadmaps. She provided processes and systems. Linda worked intensively with the fractured support staff empowering them to work as a team and to move from allocating blame to taking responsibility. (It was a pleasure when my meetings with the support team went from a list of grievances for me to solve to conversations about issues with potential solutions.)  

The Awakening Wisdom method allows the staff to have a voice in and take responsibility for the school’s success. Staff learn to hold themselves and each other accountable to the shared goals and values. It is instilled that we model the behavior we want to see in our students. As Awakening Wisdom points out, “we teach who we are.”

This transitional process was not without pain. There were members of the staff who were not comfortable with the self examination required to be fully committed to our agreements and values. But because I had the support of a group of colleagues who shared my vision and Linda as my coach, I was fortified to have the hard conversations. 

The results were everything we wanted. Our school went from disconnected classrooms where engaging and nurturing the students was haphazard to an entire school where students felt seen, safe, valued, and at home. Attendance and graduation rates went up, problem behaviors went down, and in annual surveys, students and parents consistently reported feeling grateful to have finally found a school which met their children’s needs. We went from the school where “the bad kids go” to “a cool little school” – the tagline that stuck after one student coined the phrase.

What started with a small team of passionate educators grew into a schoolwide ongoing effort to provide the very best conditions for the children we serve. I feel so fortunate that I connected with Linda and Awakening Wisdom when I was beginning my role as a school leader. I don’t know that we would have gotten to our “cool little school” status without the invaluable coaching and assistance provided by Awakening Wisdom.