Midyear Reflection: New School, New Role Amid a 5-Year Strategic Plan

It was the first day of a new school year, and I found myself frozen in place. I wondered if the rumor about “Seattle Ice” was really true. I had heard that it can be hard to be a newcomer to this city. I stood in the common area at University Prep (WA) watching students navigate where to sit, scanning the room for familiar faces. And when it was time for me—the new social emotional learning coordinator—to eat, I had no idea where to sit and saw few familiar faces. Being new to a school community can be lonely, exhilarating, affirming, and confusing—all in the same day. After having worked for seven years at Riverdale Country School (NY), and having been a student there for six years, I crossed the country and took on a new school and a new role. After my first semester in Washington state, I am pausing to reflect on my experience. In the frenetic pace of the school year, I wonder if I have accomplished anything. I need to remember to be gentle with myself in this transition, but to also hold myself accountable to my new community and its expectations.

A Newly Created Position

Taking on a newly created role opens up so many possibilities. There’s an opportunity to shape the role as your own. But there is also the pressure of knowing a group of people put their wildest dreams on paper and you are the embodiment of those ideas. Entering a school community as someone doubly new (new person and new role) has led to a dynamic of enthusiastic welcome and much anticipation.

In 2015, UPrep debuted the Strategic Plan 2020 to reground the relatively young school in its mission and to innovate for the next generation of learning. There are three pillars of UPrep’s strategic plan: Faculty (Promote Teacher Excellence in Support of Students), Facility (Optimize Place and Space to Enhance Learning and Our Community), and Future (Evolve Next Generation Learning to Prepare Students for a Changing World). Developing social and emotional learning (SEL) programming was an integral part of the plan. Kelly Herrington, director of college counseling and student services, worked with the school counselors to assess the needs that emerged for students, and he saw the skills students needed to graduate high school and to be successful in college. He developed my role: The person in this role will be expected to establish a shared vision for the SEL program aligned with UPrep’s mission as well as design and execute an effective SEL program under minimal supervision. Less than a year after I applied for the position, I’m referring back to the job description, and it has been an important part of my reflection and accountability.

Asking the Right Questions

As I navigate my new community, I’ve found asking and answering the following questions has helped to ground me in my work. (If you are in a new school and/or a new position, you might be able to apply this exercise to your own experience.)
  1. What is my vision for this role? How does it align with the job description and with the school’s mission? What are the expectations on paper, and how do they play out in reality? SEL can mean different things to different people; that is its beauty and danger. My vision for SEL is one that works alongside our school’s equity and inclusion work and that is community-minded. Many schools tout mindfulness and resilience, and I wanted to make sure that SEL was not being employed as a method of bodily control and self-reliance, but part of a more nuanced and critical lens. I made my mission clear in my job interviews, just as UPrep made clear its own commitment to social justice and social responsibility.
  2. Am I jumping in to move theory into practice, to refine practice, or to assess culture and context in a strategic process? Though my position is new, UPrep has already been incorporating SEL into the curriculum and co-curricular life through a robust advisory program, providing professional development for teachers, and emphasizing reflection schoolwide. Multiple colleagues facilitate initiatives that speak to SEL, from our Community Conversations program to our STEAM challenges. I get to connect all of the SEL dots in the community, and implementing and integrating SEL is truly a coordinated effort.
  3. What is the knowledge base of administrators who lead the school/who I report to? How do they view their own growth? How do they challenge and support me, without micromanaging? Within my first weeks of school, Matt Levinson, UPrep’s head of school, popped into my office to see how I was adjusting. He did not have an agenda or an official meeting; he just wanted me to know he was accessible and interested in sense of belonging in the community. He also shared openly about his first weeks of school, trusting me to weigh in on aspects of school culture with fresh eyes, particularly around processes and protocols and school culture. Not all heads of school would do that; his actions are indicative of the school’s value of each community member’s voice.
  4. Who are my allies, and how do I find them? Much of my work is relational; building relationships and trust with colleagues comes from inserting myself into meetings and listening. Having a relatively open schedule (I do not have any classes I teach this semester) has allowed me to schedule meetings with administrators, sit in on classes, and participate in school life. I’ve asked colleagues for their hopes and vision for their work and how our work might align. I’ve joined SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) and affinity groups to connect with colleagues who are invested in similar work. As I continue to build community, I can be a resource to my colleagues and also rely on them to be advocates for SEL work. Building partnerships has been mostly internal, particularly connecting with the school counselors and our school’s Diversity & Community Office. But it has been external, too; I have attended workshops and conferences and connected with educators and counselors at area schools. Visiting other schools and understanding their school cultures helps me expand my world view and inspires questions about strategic planning and program implementation. For example, I visited The Bush School (WA) to learn about its work with Peacemaking Circles. UPrep is not seeking to replicate them but to learn from the processes and priorities that informed the work.
  5. As an administrator, how can I get to know the students? Earning the trust of students, as a new community member without a particular class, has been a process of being present and listening. I jumped in to advise clubs when possible and often sit in the common area to connect with students. When the weight-training class needed a volunteer for a student-staff workout, I lunged at the opportunity to connect with students and colleagues in a different way. The work of socializing SEL in the school and socializing myself with the students has been slow and steady. I can’t expect to have the same connections with students that I did after seven years at Riverdale, but I can put in the work, especially with younger students who are new to the community, to build that trust.
Being new has helped me to ask questions about systems and processes that are perhaps unseen or unquestioned (i.e.: the paperwork process, professional development, implementation of a Diversity Strategic Plan). It has helped me clarify my own goals for how I want to do the work that I do. I am proud of the energy and curiosity I bring to both systems thinking and more micro human interactions. As I begin my second semester at my new school, I still have much to learn about the efforts and legacy of educators at UPrep and how to work within school culture while still pushing it to prioritize self-awareness, empathy, and social responsibility throughout all aspects of school life.
Emily Schorr Lesnick
Emily Schorr Lesnick

Emily Schorr Lesnick is the social emotional learning coordinator at University Prep in Seattle, Washington.


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