January 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Learning days for principals help them impact students’ lives

By Natalie Hoefer

The world is changing, and so are the needs of the children living in it.

That’s part of the reason the archdiocese offers several professional days for principals of its schools. And it is entirely the reason a recent professional day addressed the topics of social-emotional learning and cultural inclusivity.

What are these topics, what do they mean for Catholic school students, and how do principals keep up with other topics essential to their jobs? The Criterion interviewed three principals at archdiocesan schools in central and southern Indiana to learn more.

‘Not in a day, but every day, all day’

“Almost all research now is pointing to social-emotional skills as being the key to learning,” says Kevin Gawrys, principal of St. Therese (Little Flower) School in Indianapolis. “If you don’t have those [components], you can’t process other information, you can’t do anything with it.”

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, social-emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

For perspective in terms of Catholic schools, Gawrys notes that “we see more and more every year how much more trauma and early child trauma kids have been through. Until you’re able to add social-emotional learning, significant, deep learning won’t take place.”

The source of trauma varies. But Janet Abdoulaye, principal of St. Susanna School in Plainfield, sees one pervasive trend.

“I think social media and technology have made [children] a little more isolated than before,” she says. “I think some of those skills they naturally learn in friendships, they don’t learn as easily these days.”

Cindy Johnson, principal of St. Michael School in Brookville, agrees.

“[Kids] know and hear so much more than what kids did 20 years ago,” she says. “We have to meet them where they are.”

Addressing students’ need for social-emotional learning “is not done in one week,” notes Gawrys. “It’s done every day, all day.”

He says one way to improve in this area is to “move away from, ‘You did something wrong so you get punished’ to ‘You did something wrong. Why? What made you do that?’ ”

Another example he offers is teaching children a particular value by incorporating lessons on that value in intentional ways.

For instance, he says, “Our kids in third grade build endurance with reading. So we would tell them, ‘Read for five minutes without talking.’

“But we never told the kids, ‘You’re learning how to be persistent.’ Now we’re saying, ‘Here’s the skill you’re learning,’ instead of hoping they know what skill they’re learning.”

Abdoulaye says with the “Leader in Me” method that her school started a few years ago, they began implementing social-emotional learning practices.

“The speaker showed a slide about how students need help with self-management,” she says. “That’s one of the first steps [of the “Leader in Me”]—‘You are responsible for yourself.’ ”

Johnson was so taken with the

social-emotional learning concept that she personally bought 20 copies of a book related to the method for her staff, even the cooks. She notes with a laugh that she has seen one classroom aide walking for exercise—while reading the book.

Understanding differences

The second topic, cultural inclusivity, “goes hand in hand with social-emotional learning,” says Gawrys. “Part of

social-emotional learning is learning how to deal with people who aren’t just like you, don’t think like you, come from a different background, don’t want the same things as you.”

Abdoulaye notes that cultural inclusivity “is more and more important because we are becoming more and more divided as a society. So understanding differences and different points of view and different perspectives is really important.”

At Little Flower, diversity is not just a catchphrase—it’s a reality.

Whereas the student body was predominantly Caucasian and Catholic when he started there 20 years ago, Gawrys says it is now one-third

non-Caucasian and 50 percent Catholic.

“We have kids with nannies in the summer, and kids whose parents have no job,” he says. “We run the gamut economically, racially, religiously, culturally. [Inclusivity] is the training of how we deal with other people, of how we go beyond tolerance to embracing the other person and realizing that differences make us stronger.”

‘We all have to be lifetime learners’

Abdoulaye, Gawrys and Johnson each expressed gratitude and enthusiasm for the ability to regularly meet with their principal peers.

“If I need help, I have colleagues I can call on—friends I can rely on,” Abdoulaye says.

Johnson agrees: “It’s priceless to talk with other principals. No one can help you the way other principals can. I look forward to those days. We all get to talk and brainstorm. It’s awesome.”

Bottom line, says Gawrys, “Kids want to do a good job. And we want to help them do that. The professional days are invaluable.” †

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