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January 9, 2024
ASCD Blog

Make Classrooms, Not Hallways, the Heart of Belonging

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School leaders can navigate hallway disciplinary challenges by using the “inside out” approach.
Leadership
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Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
As I entered my new mentee's school, I felt it. That feeling that any experienced, battle-tested principal knows. As a school leader, you can sense when a school has flaws, but you absolutely know when a school is hemorrhaging bad outcomes. I knew there was work to be done in this building. Children were in the hallways when they should've been in class, and there was an overall feeling of malaise about the school day. Joy was not at the center of this visitation. As I looked at the face of my mentee, they knew it as well. I took a deep breath as we moved toward their office.
Principal to principal, I started to ask questions about their hopes for the school. I asked what their main priority was going to be for the school year. I was hoping for a response that spoke to social-emotional learning and academic integration of those tenets, since it’s important for students to have a sense of belonging, make responsible decisions for themselves, and care for themselves and their classmates. Finally, I hoped to hear about how this principal wanted to empower students to enrich their own and others' learning experiences during the school year. Instead, I listened as my mentee said what each battle-tested principal hates to hear: "I'm focused on discipline and the hallways."
I could sympathize with my mentee, of course. After all, I’ve been there. Six years ago, I became principal of a turnaround school that was in danger of being monitored by the state for its inability to meet the state’s accountability status metrics. The year I arrived, more than 85 percent of students were not performing at grade level in English language arts and math. There were so many items to focus on—and they all seemed important—so I decided that we needed to clean up and clear the hallways for the school to grow. The halls were where the students would seek out each other during instructional times. Fights, damaged property, socialization, “free” time; you name it, the hallways provided it.

The truth of the matter was the 'hallway' was part and parcel of a larger issue: instruction.

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"Clear the halls, win the battle.” Or so I thought. The truth of the matter was the "hallway" was part and parcel of a larger issue: instruction. It would’ve been wiser for me to ask myself, What is happeningor not happeningin the classrooms that allows students to feel their most seen or valued out there in the hallway? Why would students rather be in the hallways than their classrooms? What is the quality of classroom instruction, and how does it contribute to the subsequent behavior of students finding themselves in the hallways?
"Inside out" is a fundamental philosophy I developed in my experience as a principal that guides my practice and the advice I offer to emerging school principals. To successfully transform a school, a leader must begin with a deep examination of the instructional practices within the building. This examination should aim to determine if students experience a sense of belonging in the classrooms. Without a place and a voice in their daily classes, students may find the hallways to be a more attractive option for belonging. It's essential to recognize that students seek belonging and connection with their peers—this is the "inside" aspect of the philosophy. The "outside" aspect refers to the physical spaces such as hallways and the broader school environment.

Without a place and a voice in their daily classes, students may find the hallways to be a more attractive option for belonging.

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If instruction in the classroom does not provide opportunities for students to express themselves and engage in vigorous learning, school staff will inevitably find themselves dealing with the consequences. In the pursuit of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom, there are several things that the principal as the building leader has to commit to, and if done with aplomb, the hallways will eventually become less of a conversation space and more of a roadway toward classrooms where students are cared for instructionally and emotionally.

1. With your team, decide what belonging and intellectual safety look like in your classrooms.

Very often, principals have the desire to make improvements in a school, but these improvements are not always clearly defined for all members of the school community. The staff and students need to be clear about what quality instruction is and what it should yield. There is power in explicitly naming social, behavioral, and intellectual expectations and best practices and informing all stakeholders what they should be delivering and/or experiencing.

2. Create a clear checklist of those practices.

As your team seeks to see improvements, there needs to be a clear and concise list of instructional practices. Your team can begin by inventorying practices currently taking place in classrooms, then compare those against a clear "look for this practice" document to clarify what to aim for during instruction. This makes it easy for teachers and other stakeholders to know what is important to you, the leader, regarding emotional safety and belonging. For example, my leadership team and I spoke about what practices and items we should see in each classroom no matter the grade level or subject. Once we agreed on the six look-fors, such as student collaboration and high-order thinking questions, it was much easier to conduct classroom walkthroughs and note whether or not these practices were in place.

3. Work with specific teachers on improving instructional practices.

An analysis of the "who, when, and where"  is needed to create a data-based synopsis of which practices are flourishing and which still need work. Where is a need for improvement in classroom instruction that may be leading to students abandoning the class to be in the hallways? Who are the students frequently found in the hallways, and what are the underlying reasons for their presence there? Which teachers or subjects tend to have the most students in the hallways, and when? We must delve into the specific instructional practices taking place during classroom times. Are students receiving the care, attention, and sense of belonging they need within these classrooms? If not, you will need to prioritize spending time with these educators to help strengthen their instructional practice. This analysis is crucial because our primary focus should be on understanding the circumstances that lead to disruptive behavior in the hallways.

4. Create a plan with those educators.

As a school leader, you must help develop your staff's social-emotional practices. Professional development, job-embedded coaching, and a clear plan to assist in developing these practices will not go unnoticed by teachers who want to do a great job for their students. If you want to see it, you must commit to ensure it is done.  Regular feedback on specific expectations is necessary for staff to understand how well they are implementing the practices the school has committed to.

The hallways will eventually become less of a conversation space and more of a roadway toward classrooms where students are cared for instructionally and emotionally.

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5. Tie an impact point to these practices.

If students are cared for and in a space of belonging, there likely will be an increase in students' performance; what data metric will your team focus on to see the impact of these practices? It can be attendance, or a decrease in hallway traffic, or a reduction of referrals to the office. In my school, we placed a strong emphasis on creating space for student voice in the classroom, particularly in improving writing skills. This focus on written expression resulted in a substantial enhancement in students' writing proficiency. Additionally, hallway conversations, once a daily occurrence, diminished significantly. Students felt confident and valued through trust and communication with their teachers, motivating them to explore new challenges and persist in the classroom environment where they felt a new sense of belonging.

Building Belonging Through Instruction

The journey of turning your school from a dynamic where teachers “teach” and students “learn” into a fully functioning learning organization where students are valued may at first seem daunting. Schools not committed to ensuring their instructional practices are tied to belonging and social-emotional care will fight the hallway battle from the outside-in. Pushing students out of the hallway back into classrooms where intellectual care is not the focus is self-defeating. Students only want to be where they feel seen and cared for. Use your leadership to change the conditions of the student experience from the inside out.

Ronald James, Jr. is in his seventh year as a principal in the New York City Department of Education. Prior to being an administrator, he completed his master’s degree in leadership at Bank Street College in New York. He completed a dual journalism major in his undergraduate studies at Delaware State University. He is currently a doctoral candidate at St. John Fisher University.

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