This guest blog is part of a series, “A Network of Innovation: Ideas, Questions, and Wisdom from our LA Partner Schools.” Probably the most important and consistent focus of our collaboration with our partner schools, developing and maintaining a strong school culture and community has been tricky under the conditions of the pandemic. In this honest reflection, New LA Middle School principal Gabrielle Brayton wrestles with how easily educators take for granted that students see community as an inherent value. She asks, in this moment where many have contracted their Universe of Obligation, how can educators make the case that students should care and look out for each other?
In August 2021, in Mid City, Los Angeles, I opened the big black gates to a line of 320 masked middle schoolers. I had hoped to evoke a feeling of warmth, care, fun and connectedness as we returned to campus, but was unclear what staff, students and families needed to feel safe. I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as a set of lessons in Advisory, or team-building activities during summer PD. I knew that it would take more than just a virtual coffee for parents to feel trust in our school as an extension of their tight-knit home community they created and kept over the last 18 months.
As a teacher, the strongest tools in my belt were the ones that built relationships and held my students accountable to their classmates. As an administrator, I relied on those relationships to set the tone for the whole school. The strong connections I built with kids created buy-in and purpose; they began to see themselves as part of something that they cared about. But so many things that I had relied on, such as the subtleties of communication (smiles, facial expressions, silent redirections), were lost in masked translation. We all were coming back to school missing an entire skill set; one that we would have to learn, and quickly.
One of the pillars of our school’s mission is Engagement in the Community. What did that look like now? What did we expect from our middle schoolers and who was I going to rely on to set the tone? We knew what our school felt like before the pandemic: the culture of warm and firm expectations, an emphasis on relationships and engaging learning opportunities. But what now? I planned to rely heavily on my 8th grade class. Students I had last seen in person as 6th graders, but students that I knew. I was convinced that they would come back as leaders, that they would be the ones to set the tone for their younger peers about what we do at New LA.
But students (and teachers) were out of practice doing school; they were unaccustomed to being with one another or to being asked to produce work, communicate and collaborate. Staying off their cellular device for more than two minutes at a time seemed the most unbearable of all. They struggled to make eye contact, they were more irritable than I remembered, they used way worse language. I felt like I had lost any sense of control of the environment and the collective energy felt unsafe.
We began to see more behavioral concerns, things we wouldn’t normally see until later in the year: fights, substances, bullying. And with much more frequency. We leaned in heavily to our restorative circles, meeting with each 8th grade class to check in weekly. I was shocked at how many students felt ambivalent about their classmates' actions. They would say, “It didn’t happen to me, so it didn’t concern me,” or “I don't really care what she/he/they does.” But as an adult, my first reaction was “I want you to care! This affects you!” I realized I had to make the case for students about why they should care about members of their community - and I never felt like I had to before.
Students were quick to see the benefits of protecting their families or close friends but it was more difficult to convince them they needed to care for others outside of their immediate circles. I wondered if we had lost the trust needed for learning and growth, or if our circles unearthed some hard truths I needed to consider.
I began to see this as an opportunity to examine how our school welcomes students from many different backgrounds and communities, considering race, socioeconomic status, cultural and physical histories and how we as a school define community. How are our perceptions/projections of what a community looks like shaped by our own identities and experiences? Isolation had created new pathways for students and it would be on us, as educators, to show students why community matters and create communities where all students belong.
I am not sure what it will take to convince my middle schoolers that we need each other, that we cannot exist solely in a community of one, but we keep showing up each day trying to rebuild.
Gabrielle Brayton grew up barefoot in northern California. She studied Creative Writing at SF State, earned her MA and single subject credential at Alliant University and graduated in 2020 from the Principal Leadership Institute Cohort 20 at UCLA. Gabrielle is a mother, writer, wife, daughter, dreamer and educator living in Los Angeles, CA. She believes in you.