As a school principal it can be difficult to quickly grasp how to handle a difficult situation. However, principal Karen Shaw had no doubts that she needed to do something for a student whose own mother referred to him as a “little sh**.”
Chalkbeat recently spoke with Shaw as part of a series on school administrators who have been recognized for their work. She was awarded the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. In the interview she reflects on her handling of this student, her leadership style, and her goals as a principal.
When asked about how interactions with student families can affect her approach to the job, Shaw described this situation, where a mother called her son as a “little sh**” in conversation with school staff. “Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him,” Shaw said.
She sought out ways to connect the boy with caring adults throughout the school, and this included a job working in the library. The job built up the boy’s sense of dignity, but it also provided Shaw and the school’s librarian an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with him.
Shaw said that this year, “I have him ’employed’ as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.”
Her devotion to the well-being of all those within the school community extends beyond just this single case. Shaw is committed to helping everyone in her building grow and learn, including staff. Each day she makes it a priority to visit every classroom and holds weekly data meetings to discuss student progress with teachers.
Shaw’s attitude of caring, and concern for whole-child development, even impacts her budget priorities. “We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing,” Shaw said.
Unfortunately, the tough home life that Shaw encountered with her one particular student is the norm for many children in America.
It is the work of principals like her, and a myriad of teachers, coaches, counselors, and social workers to build networks around all students, so that the children may see themselves as part of a caring community.
James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, has highlighted the need for “networks of adult authority [that] are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues.” He added in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America that, “adults [should] maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.”
Shaw sees part of her role as principal to include building a school culture that consistently emphasizes that all community members are worthy of love and respect.
Parents or teachers looking for ways to pass along some of the lessons from Principal Shaw’s story might look to the book, Mr. Lincoln’s Way. It’s a tear-jerker for adults and eye-opening for students.
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