Leaders: Are you listening?
Nearly 28 years ago, I was a naive, nervous 14-year-old entering Lower Richland High School in South Carolina’s Richland County School District One. Fast forward past graduation and another eight years, and I was back—this time as a teacher and senior class advisor. Another 13 years and I was serving my alma mater as assistant principal. Following a stint as principal of the district’s Heyward Gibbes Middle School, I returned to Lower Richland High as principal in 2018. And again, I was nervous. I was starting the job midyear.
I was skeptical about how the students would receive me and a little afraid that I would not live up to their expectations. And there were also 135 adults whom I would be supervising, and just like with the students, I had to build a rapport with them and address their concerns.
Students’ connectedness to school influences overall learning. Without it, failure or school dropout can result.
My transition was better than expected. The faculty, staff and students immediately welcomed me and accepted me for the leader I am. Here are the lessons I learned to establish successful connections.
From all of my leadership experiences and professional reading, I knew that I needed to spend time observing, asking questions and building relationships with everyone. I only had five months to get to know my first graduating class. It was vital to learn about them and all the students, and to let them know my expectations and that I cared.
I knew the importance of immediately building relationships. Students’ connectedness to school influences overall learning. Without it, failure or school dropout can result.
I made connections by instituting “Coffee & Conversations” and “Morning Minute Meetings” and having individual conversations. All helped me to quickly learn a lot about and from members of the Diamond-Hornet family.
I took advantage of breakfast and lunchtime to converse with students. I got to know them—whether it was rushing them out of the cafeteria each morning to make it to class on time or having lunchtime conversations over iced coffee, when they constantly asked, “What snacks do you have?” or told me, “I don’t eat school lunch; I’m hungry.” And I shared afternoon chats with some, catching up on their days. The most popular question was: “Can I please decorate my graduation cap? I paid for it.”
It was also important to let students and staff know that I appreciated them. From holding a “No Tardy Party” to “Junior Jams” in the courtyard to including a “Dessert Café,” the students quickly understood that they would be incentivized for good behavior and learn from inappropriate behavior—all while strengthening their self-efficacy, or perceptions of themselves and their abilities to achieve. A student’s perception of their ability to be successful at school may contribute to their decision to drop out.
The faculty and staff received seeds of support, including sweet treats and time, for their service. These expressions of gratitude helped me to lay the foundation for the work that we had to undertake to continue to transform Lower Richland into a true institution of excellence.
I felt extreme joy and a real sense of pride to be able to graduate that first set of students from a school where I was once a student. I grew to love, admire and respect each of the students.
My message to my first graduating class: “I am living proof that despite obstacles, life’s circumstances and naysayers, you can achieve anything your heart desires. You are Diamonds. Diamonds are resilient, and Diamonds are strong.”
Ericka R. Hursey, an educator for over 24 years, is principal of Lower Richland High School in South Carolina. She enjoys working with youths who are labeled “at risk.” Hursey completed her doctorate at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.