When teachers take the lead

This October, we’re celebrating Chicago’s school leaders and all they do for their students, teachers, staff and school communities. We’re sharing stories from teachers about their principals on our blog all month long. 

It’s no surprise: Research indicates that a strong school climate and culture leads to increased student achievement and sense of belonging. At Budlong Elementary, where I am a middle school diverse learning teacher, we actively celebrate the differences of our students and provide an inclusive environment in which all of our students feel safe, feel welcomed and thrive. This could not be possible without the leadership of Principal Naomi Nakayama. 

Principal Nakayama’s greatest strengths are helping teachers think creatively when problem-solving and encouraging teachers to take the lead with our ideas. This has helped us build trust and work more collaboratively within our building. When our staff culture is healthy, our entire school community benefits. 

For example, I remember sitting in Principal Nakayama’s office during her first year at Budlong and talking about how my diverse learning students felt isolated from their fellow classmates because they had classes in the resource room. My students said that they felt “weird” and “different” from their peers, as if it were  a bad thing to be different. They didn’t feel included in our school’s community. 

Principal Nakayama listened to my concerns, and we brainstormed ways to push for a more inclusive environment. She supported me as I integrated my students into more extracurriculars, clubs and general education classroom settings. Working with other teachers to incorporate inclusion helped me build stronger relationships with my colleagues; not only were students feeling less isolated, teachers were as well. This was a huge step in my professional — and personal — growth toward leading in my school community.

Over the years, Principal Nakayama has continued to push our entire staff. I have had the opportunity to help write grants (including the application to The Fund’s Summer Design Program), lead staff professional development sessions, hold an after-school club, and collaborate with my general education co-teacher to incorporate more culturally relevant stories into our curriculum. I have developed new strengths and confidence with each new opportunity. 

In 2017, I led my first schoolwide initiative. I approached Principal Nakayama about an idea I had to celebrate the differences of our students. This was around the time of the bigotry and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our staff sought a more deliberate way to counteract stereotypes and develop our students as global citizens. We came up with a slogan centered around the ideals of developing relationships and celebrating diversity: Be Budlong Beautiful. 

While we cannot always control what happens outside the walls of our school, we can incorporate ways to remind students every day that being different is unique and beautiful. Principal Nakayama walked me through the necessary steps for implementing Be Budlong Beautiful and coached me on presenting to my colleagues. She trusted me to take the lead and because of that, our students continue to feel safe, feel welcomed and thrive.

Artemis Kolovos is a middle school Diverse Learning teacher at Lyman A. Budlong Elementary School in Chicago and an E4E-Chicago member.