By Trudy, retired school principal and guest blogger.

Even before I was formally trained in the Nurtured Heart, some of their beliefs already resonated with me. I just didn’t have a name for them. I was a kindergarten teacher for most of my career, and as a next step, applied for a position an administrator with an early childhood center. The interview process was very in-depth – two group interviews and a public interview during which the stakeholders and the entire community could ask me anything they wanted.

After a few days, I received a call. They offered me a position, but not the one I had been seeking – instead, they offered me a position with much more responsibility as director of an alternative middle school/high school. When I asked them why, they told me, “We see something in you.” This job was quite extensive. I became director of curriculum, counselor, dean, and student services coordinator – all at the same time. I was literally doing it all.

I had an extremely successful first seven years. It wasn’t an easy first year, but it was successful because I unknowingly incorporated one of the core principles of the NHA. For me, everything is about relationships. I refused to see a student as a “problem,” but rather as a person.

After two years in this environment, I realized that I needed to go back to elementary school, because one of my personal goals was that fewer students end up in the alternative school system. I wanted to catch them before they became “a problem” to the system and were placed into that track.

At this point, I took formal training in the NHA, obtained a position as an elementary school principal, and began to incorporate the NHA throughout the school: community, teachers, classified staff, and, of course, with the children. I kept going back to my core values; that relationships made the difference. I strongly believed and acted on the principle that my job as a school leader was to restore relationships between teachers, families, and kids. As principal, I had to model this attitude to both students and staff.

Once we began to implement the Nurtured Heart approach in our school, our language towards the students changed and what we believed about them changed as well. Initially, staff bemoaned the lack of family support for what we were trying to do at the school (our school district had gone from less than 20% low income to 44-46% low income over a period of years). My approach to this “problem” was different. I told my staff, “We have access to these kids six hours a day. That’s more time than some of their parents see them. What can we accomplish in six hours a day that can change lives forever?” Our words have power – to ourselves, to each other, too families, and most of all, to students.

As a staff, we set ambitious goals that were also in line with our mission and vision for the school. We wanted kids to be as happy and excited on the last day of school as on the first. We wanted to build classrooms to breed student success, even in “difficult” subjects, like math. In doing this, we set three major ground rules as a school.

  • We never gave up on anyone and always worked together to find a solution. Were we sometimes frustrated and exhausted? Yes. But we never gave up.
  • We regularly asked ourselves, “What is the snapshot of the perfect classroom as we see it?” If we envision it, it can happen!
  • All activity in the classroom should be meaningful. If a student finishes a project early, another meaningful activity should be offered rather than worksheets or coloring.

However, our most important ground rule was this: What we expect from children should be what we expect from each other.

So, what were the tangible results of this program?

  • Our attendance increased. In fact, we had the highest attendance in the district four out of the seven years I was principal. If children are in school, they are learning. If parents value school, they’ll make attendance a priority.
  • We had 88% fewer discipline referrals during my first year as principal, and that number stayed consistent for my tenure there.
  • Our test scores were outstanding, and we were named an “Illinois School of Excellence” in 2011. All our children scored at 89.99% and above.

We took on a self-contained ED (emotionally disturbed) room voluntarily, and applied the NHA with love and enthusiasm. The ED team was able to exit students to the regular classroom after only one to two years, and was eventually able move many of the students back to their home schools.

I retired this year after a rewarding career implementing the NHA with children, peers, and parents. I can truly say I am a believer, and I have the results to prove it.