When we talk about creating a positive school culture in which all students feel safe and valued by the adults around them, most of us remember to nod to the staff members who feed, transport, clean up after and otherwise assist students. After all, among school support staff members are the first and last people children see every school day, the people who comfort them when they are sick or forget their important projects at home, those who provide at least one nutritious meal every day, and those who help our most vulnerable children read, compute and navigate their schools.
We talk the talk. But how well do we walk the walk? How clearly are expectations set for how bus drivers, secretaries, cooks and paraprofessionals should interact with children? How much training is provided for support staff to meet those expectations?
Kenton City Schools Superintendent Jennifer Penczarski put action behind her words more than a year ago when she commissioned a professional development series for school support staff that goes beyond the typical (or mandated) safety and software trainings.
In Kenton, the district has undertaken a comprehensive re-envisioning of students’ learning experience, tackling everything from technology infrastructure to grading practices. The superintendent acted on the established values of her district and community by seeking professional learning opportunities designed to help school support staff better contribute to positive learning environments and higher academic achievement. It’s the type of information that isn’t covered during CDL licensure or on Civil Service exams.
I’ve involved his family, the school administration and even older students on the bus. I have tried everything. Now what?
In one of those sessions last week, bus drivers, cooks, secretaries and paraprofessionals debated some challenges any educator would recognize as tough issues with no simple answers:
- How do I get students to complete their assignments when they flat-out refuse to participate? I know it would help if they knew me. But I have limited time with them and some have really hard shells. How can I make enough time to develop relationships and trust when I am expected to keep them on task?
- A student on my bus has ADHD and his medicine doesn’t last all day. If he’s doing well during the morning route, I know it will be a rough ride in the afternoon (and vice versa). For his safety, I need him to comply with the bus rules. I’ve involved his family, the school administration and even older students on the bus. I have tried everything. Now what?
- Sometimes I think students are getting in trouble on purpose because it gets them out of class and they want attention. How do we respond and reward better choices without unintentionally incentivizing poor behavior?
For our part, the EnvisionEdPlus team shared the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets and led brainstorming about how to improve external assets, the environmental conditions that solid research tells us are associated with student success. We discussed good practices and pointed to additional resources for those challenging situations. But, clearly, the most valuable part of the day was the mentorship that participants provided one another through stories, sympathy and encouragement.
Even the most dubious about sitting through three hours of professional development – “I was told I could clean my bus instead, but my bus is already clean.” – shared deeply personal stories about students he’s known, and in turn, about his own experiences. He brought to the table practices, like visiting new students’ homes to meet their parents, that many district leaders would envy.
Talking to the staff in Kenton gave us at EnvisionEdPlus a heightened sense of urgency about a project we’ve started in recent months. We are identifying some of the best cooks, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and paraprofessionals around and capturing their thoughts on video. We would like to see them in action and talk to them about what makes them great at their jobs. Then we plan to share their best strategies with their peers across the country.
We certainly know of good candidates in Kenton. Whom in your schools do you wish you could replicate? Whom in your schools deserves to be recognized for the important work they do to support students’ learning?