Tucked away in the administrative offices of Newberg High School on Sept. 5, Principal Tami Erion and vice principals Mark Brown and Tim Burke were all smiles despite an undoubtedly hectic first few days of school. Students were back roaming the halls of the school and outside a group of freshmen were participating in team-building activities.
This time of year is always busy. It's stressful for parents and students, but the toll it can take on staff is often overlooked as the hard transition is made from summer to September. Through the challenges, Erion and her fellow administrators were focused on the task of revamping the culture at the high school – an effort dictated by Erion, led by Brown and embraced by Burke and others on staff.
"Tami has asked us to develop a culture of learning and care for our students," Brown said. "We won't be successful in academics if we don't take care of our staff and students."
He added that the school has implemented a culture change of sorts in the past few weeks as admins prepare teachers for the arrival of students. They have been focusing on building relationships among staff members and administrators while also encouraging staff to develop strong relationships with students.
"We are really trying to get teachers to think differently about how they engage with students at school," Erion said. "We want them to focus on students as human beings and find out what their interests are, and when they do that on the front end of the year it makes all the difference."
Erion and company encouraged teachers not to pass out a syllabus or discuss the curriculum much at all during the first week. The hope was to foster a connection between teachers and students early so they are more willing to learn.
"Last week, at the end of all of our preparation, the last message we sent to our staff was to build relationships," Brown said. "It's not about the syllabus or diving into the curriculum on day one – it's all about getting our students in the door and making sure they know they have adults here who care about them. Once students feel engaged and feel like they're cared about, the academics take off from there."
Burke, who is the athletic director at the school in addition to his administrative duties, said Erion and Brown's approach works perfectly in sports as well. If a coach focuses on maintaining relationships with their players, the result will likely be an attentive bunch of athletes who look forward to coming to practice. The same goes for students, who he said are more likely to listen to what an adult has to say if they make an effort to be more relatable.
"Kids are compliant if they know who the boss is," Burke said. "But to push each other and get better, in sports or in academics, you need trust built over time. It has to be a balance between maintaining authority and building a strong relationship with these kids."
Staff at the high school took that mindset above and beyond on Friday. At the school's pep rally welcoming back students, teachers and administrators broke out into a "flash mob" dance routine in order to capture the attention and imagination of students. While they admitted beforehand that they knew it would be embarrassing, the overarching point was to convey their humanity to students – rather than being stuffy, boring adults.
"Mark (Brown) is our culture guy and I've tasked him with that," Erion said. "He really challenges us to get outside our comfort zone …"
The credit for this and the lion's share of the other culture change initiatives went to Brown, who has become the de facto "culture guy" among NHS administrators. Brown and his colleagues, Erion said, have been working to foster a more welcoming and positive environment within the high school. They also hope to attend to students needs and be ready for a crisis should it arise.
Nowhere is that more true than the school's approach to mental health, which includes a "flight team" approach to serving students' needs and an entire wing of the school filled with mental health resources and professionals. It's all part of an overarching effort by Erion, Brown, Burke, Vice Principal Tony Buckner and others to make NHS a more welcoming place.
That includes developing strong relationships among staff members, Burke said.
"We forget about each other too often," Burke said. "Our staff needs to take care of each other and connect with one another. It's not just teacher to kid, but staff member to staff member."
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