We interviewed Howard Wilson on his experience as principal at a highly diverse elementary school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The school began its No Bully School Partnership in 2017.
Howard Wilson: I will never be a mirror to my students. The majority are children of color. 40% are multi-language learners. 80% are living in poverty. Our children carry with them from an early age the burdens that society puts on them. They often don’t believe that us adults want to help. Some doubt the effectiveness of those with authority and believe that they will get better results themselves by engaging in physical or verbal retaliation.
I am very aware of the challenge that I face as a white male, carrying the authority that comes from my position as principal and the authority that society has given to me because of my identity. Every day I have to transcend myself and exercise compassion to recognize our students’ cultural identity and how important that is to their success in school. As multi-language learners they are smart kids. Many are able to speak to two or even three cultures. The challenge is to recognize the strengths and the good that they bring to school and to work hard to dispel the stereotypes that are present everywhere.
The political landscape, and the way that the news has reported upon it, does affect them. This past Spring a number of our Hispanic and East African students were speaking defensively and expressing fears. Several of our Somali families experienced hostile conversation at the checkouts in local stores such as “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” and “We don’t serve any stinky Somalis here”. A third-grade student asked me “Do you know when the purge is coming?” His mother tried to distract him from the conversation. We work hard to help our students find resolution to their conflicts but a number are not always in a listening mode. They are caught in defensiveness born of fear.
There is pressure on us adults to truly be there and consistent, to speak and act in ways that build confidence in the children and trust. Building trust takes a long time, especially with the 20% student mobility we face each year. New students arrive having experienced multiple perspectives of need and concern. The challenge of being the administrator is to encourage a staff that is predominantly white to provide a culturally responsive environment for the students.
My work is to support the adults in building a shared vision of a welcoming and loving school where our children’s cultural identity is respected and supported. Our partnership with No Bully is part of this. I am deeply grateful to Betty Durso, our No Bully trainer, for her ability to hear and listen and provide the support that our staff actually need. The No Bully themes are thematic to our regular morning assemblies on Fridays. Betty helped us craft our new social vision: at Eastern Heights we are respectful, responsible and safe. This has provided us with many opportunities for dialogue as adult to adult and adult to child. This dialogue is so important for building a common vision and shared language for interrupting bullying.
Howard Wilson is Principal at Eastern Heights Elementary School in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The school is an elementary school serving 375 students pre-K through fifth. This No Bully school partnership was made possible through the generosity of ESPN and the Shred Hate Campaign.