Monomoy’s Bill Burkhead on Building a “Home Away From Home” For Students

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The mission of SEL4MA is to advance and support effective social-emotional learning practices in all schools and communities in the state of Massachusetts. In our work with teachers and administrators, we often hear about great examples of educators across the Commonwealth who are passionate about implementing and integrating SEL in their districts. Our goal is to help serve as a megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in SEL throughout the state.

The following post is the first in our new Massachusetts SEL Community Highlights interview series, in which the SEL4MA Communications Committee Chair Nick Woolf spoke with Bill Burkhead, Principal of Monomoy Regional High School and recipient of the 2018 Massachusetts Principal of the Year award. 

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Nick Woolf: To get us started, can you tell me about how you got started in education and, specifically, what prompted you to get into the role that you’re currently in as Principal of Monomoy Regional High School?

Bill Burkhead: I went to Springfield College. I played football there and I always loved coaching and teaching. I knew early on—in high school—that I wanted to be a teacher. I followed that passion to Springfield and got my degree in education, stayed there and was a graduate assistant while I pursued my master’s there. Then I went out into the workforce and became a teacher and coach.

I taught for a number of years, and then took a few other roles, as an adjustment counselor and elementary wellness teacher, so I kind of ran the gamut of K-12 education. I ultimately found a home at the high school level.

As I continued to move along in my career, I started to think if I could become an administer, I could reach even more kids—and I think that’s true. So, I became an assistant principal for a few years and then an opportunity in New Bedford came up and my first principal job was at Normandin Middle School, a rather large urban middle school. That was a great experience, and then this opportunity—my current role—came up to return to the high school level at Monomoy and to start something from scratch, with Chatham and Harwich coming together under one roof for the first time ever. The opportunity to lead that transition and start something new was too good to pass up. I threw my hat in the ring and I was fortunate enough to get the job. 

NW: In your role at Monomoy Regional High School, are you drawing from some of your experiences in athletics and coaching when shaping the school’s culture?

BB: School culture is the foundation of all great schools. I think if you look at any great school, however you define that—and I do not define it as only having the best test scores, quite the opposite—you would find that those schools feel like welcoming and nurturing environments. They are producing well-rounded individuals and developing the whole child. I think the culture of school is the foundation you start with; if you don’t have a strong culture you rarely have a great school.

In sports, championship teams don’t always have the best athletes and pure talent. Elite teams typically share a sense of cohesion and a very strong culture. I think that’s true at great schools as well, and – in my experience – if you treat every child like they are your own, you will make better decisions as an administrator. How would you want your own child—or brother, cousin, niece, etc.—to be treated? I posed that question to our staff right when I got the principal job at Monomoy, and I try to back it up with everything I do. We want to treat our students fairly, set high standards for them push and challenge them, while still supporting them. And we want their families to trust that we are treating their children like our own. If you have the trust of a family, and you’re holding students to high standards while caring for them, I think you’ve got a really strong recipe for a great school. I think we’ve got that at Monomoy.

“In sports, championship teams don’t always have the best athletes and pure talent. Elite teams typically share a sense of cohesion and a very strong culture. I think that’s true at great schools as well.”

NW: Can you give an overview of some of the work that the district has been doing with regards to social and emotional learning specifically?

BB: Our overarching philosophy is that our school is like a home away from home for students, where they are treated uniquely and with care. We believe that students must be emotionally stable and supported to feel safe at school. We have been trying to do that from the get-go at Monomoy.

One of the first initiatives we rolled out was a very small one: we created a wall that had a picture of each student pasted on it, with their name below it, and teachers wrote one positive thing about each student and added onto a big index card. The kids came into school and were completely surprised. Parents coming into the building would see it and get to see what the students’ teachers said about them. The students then organically started their own wall with pictures of all the adults in the building with positive comments. That small wall epitomizes our philosophy here and shows how enthusiasm is free and contagious.

Another interesting piece is working to measure social-emotional learning. We give our students a survey at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the year to assess various social and emotional competencies. We want to know: Are they feeling safe at school? Are they connected to adults in the building? It has very little to do with academics and all about their well-being. Our guidance counselors review it and we can see trends to inform if there are ways we can better support each student.

One of the most popular SEL-related programs we have is called: “Jawsome Hour.” We’ve essentially converted our lunch hour into an opportunity in which students can choose from a variety of enrichment opportunities. If you need extra help, you can go get extra help. If you need to see a counselor, you have time to go and see a counselor. If you want to use time to be with friends, you can do that. This is especially helpful for students who have issues with anxiety or who feel overwhelmed in a large lunchroom. On our survey, 98% of our students said that having that hour of flex time has reduced the stress and anxiety in their lives.

“Our overarching philosophy is that our school is like a home away from home for students, where they are treated uniquely and with care. We believe that students must be emotionally stable and supported to feel safe at school.”

One last example: We work with community groups as well and give kids the opportunity within the school day to experience community service learning. Children’s Cove is a group on Cape Cod that works on child abuse intervention. We actually have a student task force that works with them, meets during the Jawsome Hour with the Children’s Cove team, and then talks to their peers to educate classmates on relationship abuse issues.

NW: Five to ten years from now, where do you hope that your school and district will be in terms of innovating on SEL programming. Then, on a broader level, where do you hope that the state of Massachusetts will be?

BB: I would like our district to be at the forefront in terms of social-emotional learning, to continue to be an innovative, risk-taking district. We are constantly looking at our core philosophy and we are constantly listening to the community and our students voice. I think some schools don’t do that, and I’m proud that we are open to getting input and feedback from students.

At a broader level, I’m really concerned about online digital citizenship and how that impacts social-emotional learning. What I see in my job is that a lot of the anxiety and stress and discipline issues stem from social media. I think we must consider at younger ages how to educate our students and their families on the appropriate use of social media and how to act appropriately online.

I can also foresee schools expanding to offer much more than just education. I could see schools being open almost 24/7, with health services and daycare for staff and after-school opportunities to support parents. I think schools will become more year-round and integrate more community and parental supports.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nick Woolf is a graduate student at Tufts University specializing in social-emotional learning and educational technologies. A volunteer with SEL4MA since August of 2018, Nick is the Communications Committee Chair and a member of the SEL4MA Steering Committee. At Tufts, Nick serves as a research assistant for the Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning & Civic Engagement (SEL-CE) under fellow SEL4MA Steering Committee member Deborah Donahue-Keegan. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside SEL, one of the country’s leading education blogs covering SEL.

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