During a recent conversation, Murleen Coakley, principal of Greenfield Union in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, reminded me how much being a great principal is equal parts passion, intellect, and creativity. But more specifically, she reminded me of the role principals play as hope dealers. These hope dealers acknowledge the humanity of their families and students, while finding ways to embrace the universal struggle so many are facing.
Our communities have faced a great number of struggles over the last two years, and through it all so many principals have remained steadfast in their commitment to children and families. Even as principals have dealt with unprecedented challenges, the ways in which school leaders have responded has been amazing. The sense of hope I have found in talking to school leaders across the country over the last two years underscores the work they’re doing and role they play ensuring kids are able to thrive, grow and reach their full potential.
During my time as an educator, I always found that hope is one of the most rewarding experiences students can have. More specifically, it’s best when young people and their families experiencing hope in a way that’s humanizing, rather than hokey hope—as described by Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, PhD (2009). Duncan-Andrade situates hokey hope as this belief that hope happens over time without accounting for the inequities far too many students and families experience before ever entering the classroom.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning as a result of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has brought to the forefront two inequities that families and young people must grapple with before they enter schools, but also while being asked to participate in the education process. Certainly, one could argue that these moments associated with the pandemic and the racial reckoning aren’t new, yet the magnitude of the situation has grown, and disproportionately weighs on communities of color in the United States. So how does one serve as a principal amidst these conditions? How does one offer hope to young people and their families at this moment in our history?
This school year is one of the most challenging in recent memory, including struggles with staff shortages, burnout, and the task of keeping staff and kids safe in school as the pandemic continues. Additionally, amidst the economic struggles many families have faced, principals have also had to step up and work hand in hand with school nutrition staff to ensure kids and families get the food they need.
Despite these challenges, many principals have been consistent hope dealers in their schools and communities. Given what I have learned throughout my career as an educator, and from listening to principals like Murleen Coakley, hope dealers are providing unconditional love to students and families.
They are reminding themselves, and others, of the power of relationships in schools. This means checking in on students and families to ensure their basic human needs are met. Far too many in education were trapped by a cog in the machine mentality whereby we showed up, did the technical aspects of the work, and neglected to take on the task of being a hope dealer.
As we celebrate Principal Appreciation Month this school year, let’s recognize the hope dealers like Murleen Coakley in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and principals throughout the country working tirelessly for the good of their students.
Dr. Robert Simmons III is the Managing Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Share Our Strength.