What I Have Learned: Connections, Culture, and Choice
I am grateful to Dr. Ziegler for asking me to participate in this blog series. I was surprised and tremendously humbled by his invitation. When Bill told me to write about something that I am passionate about, I thought of three topics: Connections, Culture, and Choice. I have tried to narrow them down into one topic, but they are so interrelated—yet completely distinct—in my philosophy of leadership that it is almost impossible. These three pieces are integral components of a successful school…and hopefully, a little bit contagious!
My dad was an elementary school principal. I was lucky to spend days with him at his schools during my pursuit to become a teacher. I watched him interact with students and staff using his people skills, kindness, and an open mind. I gained a unique perspective and many valuable lessons from watching my dad and talking to him about his experiences. Ten years ago, I became the principal of the building where I taught—just like my dad had done 20 years before me. As I transitioned to my new role, I focused on relationships with our staff, students, families, administrative team, and community. I spent a lot of time listening to people, making connections, sharing stories, and being human. Relationships build connections; connections build a foundation for your culture.
Culture is a crucial part of our job as administrators. It has to be at the core of all that we do while being fostered and cultivated. Culture does not happen by accident. It takes commitment, vision, and dedication to a common goal and belief system. Leaders have to model our expectations for our staff. Kindness, respect, compassion, humanity, positivity, risk-taking, grace…Our students and staff become a reflection of those fundamental values that shape our culture.
We strive to provide a student-centered culture that is safe and supportive where we celebrate success, risk-taking, and innovation. We have high expectations for student achievement and staff performance. We recognize the importance of a growth mindset to constantly improve our practice and think differently about how we “do school.” Most importantly, we keep our focus on our STUDENTS—in every decision.
Over the past few years, I have become a firm believer in student agency, but it is an incredible paradigm shift. If you have established a culture that values student success and encourages risk-taking and individual pursuit of skills, interests, and aptitudes, then choice is a next logical step. Whether you call it student agency, student voice, or student choice, the foundational concept is the same—taking advantage of student interests to make learning meaningful and relevant.
Think about how we, as leaders, engage in activities and projects differently when we are interested, motivated, and invested in topics that are personally significant and relevant! What if we give students the opportunity to learn in ways that are meaningful and make sense to them? What if we allow staff to select professional development topics that connect to their passions and their teaching assignments?
In our school, we have created a community service/outreach opportunity for all of our students and staff members called Falcons CARE (Cooperation And Respect for Everyone). Our groups are student-selected based on common interests, beliefs, passions, and sparks. It is a time of connection, community, teamwork, citizenship, and thoughtfulness about the “greater good” that exists outside of Cedar Crest Middle School. Our groups work with local nursing homes, animal shelters, our Mini-THON committee, and Domestic Violence Intervention (DVI) to name a few. Our students take on projects like landscaping our campus, quilting for DVI, canning for Mini-THON, and supporting our military. We educate our students about service animal organizations, healthy relationships, childhood cancer and its impact on families, and so much more! Our students learn tolerance, acceptance, compassion, and kindness. We teach our students how to make a difference in our world. They gain insight to the most important life lessons of valuing people as individuals and understanding humanity.
Success breeds success! Students and staff connecting over common interests, experiences, and passions improves your culture. A thriving, positive culture where students and staff are encouraged to grow and take risks inspires high achievement and student success. Connections to other people build an environment where people feel safe. When students and staff feel empowered to take risks, innovate, create, and explore new learning, academic success soars! When students are achieving at high levels in a student-centered environment where LEARNING is the priority, the culture blossoms into a place where students and staff want to learn, work, create, innovate, excel, and succeed together. Connections, culture, choice…They are interrelated in an intricate dance that evolves as the goals in each of the three areas are realized.
At the end of the day, I have learned that the most meaningful lessons we teach our students do not come from textbooks. The most important things students learn are those lessons we model—how to be kind to others, how to care for each other, how to be members of a community, how to respect others, how to be a good citizen. I hope students and families leave Cedar Crest Middle School confident that we helped them to be better people, better humans. Our students will change our world—we hope our influence makes their impact a positive one!
Professional Bio: Mariah is in her ninth year as the principal at Cedar Crest Middle School. She has worked at Cedar Crest Middle School as a teacher, assistant principal, and building principal since graduating from Lebanon Valley College. Mariah earned her Masters of Education in Teaching and Curriculum and Principal Certification from Penn State University. Currently a doctoral student in Drexel University’s Educational Management and Leadership program, Mariah loves learning and is very passionate about her work at Cedar Crest Middle School. Mariah’s professional interests include Leadership, Student Agency, Personalized Learning, Innovation, Creativity, and Motivation Theory.
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