5 School Leadership Actions to Prioritize Joy and Student Learning This Year

Learn how one New Leaders alum and his team are building a learning environment filled with joy and a school culture where the adults and students want to be there.
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Rictor Craig

“This is going to be our best year yet,” offers Rictor Craig, New Leaders alum and Founding Director of Instruction at Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys. “There will still be a billion things that go wrong, and there are going to be so many things that go right.” The source of his optimism and conviction: “Our boys know that we want them to be here. And our adults do too.” 

Located in Washington, D.C., Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys serves 325 students, all male, in grades 4-8. It was founded on the principle that urban male students of color need two things to thrive: high expectations and academic rigor combined with trusting and meaningful relationships. That, plus a focus on joy. The combination is working. Launched in 2018, Statesmen has had 99% student attendance, even during the height of the pandemic and remote learning. Teacher retention is similarly high.

As another school year begins, equally unpredictable as the last two, education leaders are facing teacher shortages, complex political climates, and rising concerns for teacher and student well-being. “We can’t let Covid-19, or anything else, be the reason our boys don’t get the best education possible,” explains Craig. “We hold the bar very (very) high for our adults, and what we’ve learned is that the support we provide our adults is equally important.”

Craig and his team are intentional about prioritizing students and adults and building a learning environment in which staff, students, and families feel safe and experience affirmation and joy. Here are five key leadership actions that Craig and his team use daily to ensure the Statesmen school community is thriving. They can do the same in your school too. 

Practice the science of building trusting relationships

“As leaders, what we give our time and attention to is what we are saying is most important,” Craig explains. “At Statesmen, we say relationships are important, so we dedicate half of our professional development time to teaching the science of relationships.” Topics include how to build relationships with students and families, how to navigate difficult conversations, how to listen and hold empathy. Professional development for staff also includes practice scenarios and fishbowls where teachers role play and get immediate feedback from peers. “We practice, practice, practice, and then we do it,” Craig adds. “That way, a hard conversation doesn’t feel so hard.” 

Seek feedback and adjust accordingly 

At first, Craig and his team thought the staff just didn’t want to start the school day as early as 7:30 a.m. But the more they listened, the more they uncovered the real issue. “It wasn't that they didn't want to be here; it was how we were engaging them. We used the morning time to give feedback from the day before, and it wasn’t the most positive way to start. We realized that we weren’t setting them up to go do their best joy work with our boys in the morning.” A quick switch fixed the issue. Now, the morning meeting focuses on “nothing but joy and positivity.” The afternoon team meeting is reserved for daily feedback and problem-solving, followed by more shout-outs to ensure everyone heads home feeling renewed for the next day. 

Put student learning and joy at the center of every decision  

“We often say to our adults: If learning and love are the only things that matter, how would you act?” That question infuses perspective into any conversation and changes mindsets over time. As Craig explains, “As Black and Brown boys, our population of scholars has been given up on the most. They need unrestricted love, the hugs, the high fives, all the cultural components that our school has to offer. Because that is what drives the learning here: love and relationships.” 

In D.C., gaps in literacy learning are widening, especially the disparity between the percentage of students who are reading proficiently among students of color and their white peers. But at Statesmen, the outcomes are different, particularly among students with disabilities. They represent close to one-third of the student population. They not only outperform their peers at Statesmen, their 98% re-enrollment rate far exceeds the citywide average. Prioritizing the safety and well-being of students and adults has only strengthened the instruction.  

Commit to weekly contact with families 

In this spirit of building relationships, the whole school community is committed to being in contact with every family at least once a week and sometimes daily. According to Craig, families that come to Statesmen are looking for something different for their sons. They want to feel a sense of belonging, possibility, and joy. “Our families love this weekly connection. And it makes it so much easier for us to talk to them about what their son is doing that gets in the way of learning because our families know that we are also telling them all of the great things their son is doing every week. So the feedback doesn’t hurt so much.” Add to that the lasting impact and benefit of celebrating with staff all the macro and micro-moments of joy that families share. 

Provide daily opportunities to grow personally and professionally 

Through a community partnership, Statesmen has therapists on staff who provide individual and group therapy to both students and adults. This kind of access to mental health professionals gives teachers the space they need to pause, reflect, and become healthier versions of themselves and, in turn, wiser teachers. It also helps prevent the burnout and demoralization teachers are experiencing across the nation, which has led to an exodus of educators, especially teachers of color. The opposite is true at Statesmen. “Our adults are getting healed just as much as our families and our students,” Craig shares. “They are growing exponentially in their own lives, daily, myself included. Which makes it a really hard decision to leave because you are being grown every day.” 

The same is true for students. This summer, new students joined the annual Statesmen summer camp. The week was one of the hottest on record in D.C., and Craig had been warned by one of the new families that their son’s reputation preceded him. “We never want to label our boys, so we just loved on him. One minute, he liked camp. The next minute, he hated it.” Out in the woods, the students and staff learn the rituals and cultural practices of the school. They bond. 

On the last day of camp, during a whole school celebration, an older student surprised this new student by giving him the biggest hug which, according to Craig, produced the biggest smile. He just had to catch it on camera. “I snapped the picture right at that moment because I want to be able to remind him how proud he was of himself.” 

“So many things in our culture,” he adds, “tell our Black and Brown boys that they can’t love. They can’t be happy. They can’t show any emotion other than anger. We want to teach our boys that you have a right to be mad about some things. And you have a right to be happy, to be joyous. You have the right to be Black, to be Brown. To be a boy. To learn, to play, to be free.” 

That same new student broke down crying once he got on the bus at the end of summer camp. He didn’t want to leave. 

Craig’s advice to education leaders right now:

First, don't quit. Stay the course. Take care of yourself. 

And then create an environment where people enjoy coming to work, kids enjoy coming to school. School should be fun. Mistakes will be made. We do our best learning through our failures so invite failure in. And still be joyous. Love will get the job done. 

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Rictor Craig

Rictor Craig

Rictor Craig is the Co-Founder and Founding Director of Instruction at Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys. He began his career as a high school English teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools in 2003. A New Leaders alum, Craig has two master's degrees and is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership.

Rictor Craig

Rictor Craig

Rictor Craig

Rictor Craig

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