The Positive Impact of Hope on School Culture and Student Success

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I embarked on a new opportunity and challenge for this school year: I joined a new district and took on the role of principal for the first time. My new home is Forrest Elementary School, a Title I school in Hampton City Schools.

On the first day I drove up to my school and saw “Welcome to Forrest, Dr. Cedo” on the marquee. An overwhelming sense of joy and hope came over me at the sight, and this feeling has stayed with me for every action I have taken as the new principal of this amazing elementary school. I want this feeling to be the feeling that fills the hallways at Forrest.

I have always wondered what impact hope has on student success and recently more and more research is supporting the importance of hope. You can read another piece of research here.

What is hope and how do you make hope come alive in a school building?

In the article, “How to Help Students Develop Hope,” the author discusses how students with high hopes are more likely to be successful, have stronger friendships, and be creative problem solvers. The article describes the types of actions and words you hear from a student with high hopes such as “I can do this!” and “I won’t give up.” It also states that when students with hope are given critical feedback, they use it to make adjustments rather than taking it personally. The article defines how to cultivate hope by goal setting, problem solving, being flexible, telling stories of success, and being positive.

So where did I begin? I began as many new principals start: digging into the demographic information and data that was available. As I peeled back layers, I kept coming across many areas to celebrate. This data was wonderful because in my welcome letter to the staff I was able to share with them that I saw that they were on a great path and they had many things to celebrate. Success breeds success. Now I also realize that success fosters hope. Yes, there were growth areas in the data, but I did not want to start off only focused on these areas. You need to find the strengths even if your data only shows glimpses. The best work grows out of areas that have been successful. I had been digging deeper into what works, not what didn’t work. At least at first, this is a lens of hope.

Schools that have been in sanction for years do not need to hear people say more about what they are doing wrong. They need to hear more about what they are doing right so that they use this to grow in the other areas. If you start with the strengths, your staff will:

  • know that you are viewing their work through a positive lens;
  • believe that your intentions for the work is positive;
  • be more open to conversations and to change; and
  • feel a sense of hope.

How do you set the stage for hope?

Your welcome letter is important because it is your staff’s first glimpse of you as a leader. Before writing and sending out your welcome letter, take the time to really think about what data you need to review and who you might want to talk to get the best perspective of the school climate and history.

Another important consideration is to meet and greet the staff you are going to be working along side. In the past I used my welcome letter to invite staff to come see me anytime or to schedule a time to meet with me. Within a week I realized this was not going to work for this staff. Only a few people stopped in and maybe one person emailed. I went to plan B, which was based on input from a former principal that I worked with. This principal once shared with me that he got more participation when he invited staff in as a grade level. The added benefit to this approach is that it provides an opportunity to learn about the team dynamic. It was a success, and goes to show that if your plans don’t work the first time, try another way.

I was able to learn so much about the staff during the meetings: what they felt were strengths, concerns they had, and what they were wondering about me. They were very open and I truly believe it is because I started with their strengths. During this time we were in the midst of hiring three teachers, one special education teacher, support staff, and creating more space to meet the needs of all of the students. I know this sounds familiar; you could also create a list of items to address safety, cleanliness, space, and hiring. However, by taking time away from these important areas to bring the staff together to talk about their successes, we created hope. Their willingness-and frankly, their openness-right away showed me how committed they were to growing this year.

All of these experiences and learnings prompted me to reread Todd Whitaker’s book about culture that asks readers to reflect on the following questions: What type of culture was established prior to you joining the team? How do you start to lay the foundation for the culture that you want to build? Doing this process again for the second summer in a row just solidified how important first impressions are to leadership. It reiterated the importance of taking time before sending out your first letter. You want to do it within the first week of being in your position but it does not have to be your first-or second-day. Use those days to get to know your school; look at the data and find success areas you can highlight right away. Meet with the staff to hear their voices whether you meet with individuals or in a group. If you first meet in groups, know that the individuals will come later if you show them you are listening.

In my next blog I will discuss how hope filled our pre-service week. Please share practices that you have in place that inspire hope for staff and students. I look forward to learning from you!

If you’re interested in learning more about hope and its impact on our schools and students, I invite you to check out the resources below!