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Giving teachers space to ‘relax and breathe’ lets them show up for their students, this IPS Principal of the Year says

Two women embrace. One is carrying an award and a bouquet of flowers.
Principal Tihesha Henderson, left, stands with IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.
Courtesy of Indianapolis Public Schools

Tihesha Henderson will never forget the day she visited a struggling student’s home where she saw concrete floors and smelled mildew. It was freezing inside.

The experience changed her perspective — of the child and herself.

“It made me more empathetic,” Henderson said. “It really made me understand the root of this child’s problem.”

Henderson leads Sankofa School of Success, which prioritizes student and staff social and mental health. She was recently named Indiana Public Schools’ 2022 Principal of the Year, cited for supporting students’ social and emotional needs. (Sankofa comes from a Ghanaian language and is a mythical bird representing, as the school’s website puts it, “looking back at your past and then taking that information to propel you forward.”)

The elementary school just completed its first year as an innovation school, which means it has some autonomy from Indianapolis Public Schools. Previously, the campus where Sankofa is situated was home to Arlington Woods School 99, which Henderson led for 10 years.

The pandemic lockdown and its economic fallout put resilience to the test this past school year. Chalkbeat spoke recently with Henderson about her challenges and wins.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you navigate the pressure of leading a new innovation school and coping with COVID last school year?

It was very challenging. I really had to take care of my mental health and balance the needs of staff, students, and families.

Families are counting on us to really be 100% ready, tuned in, and to provide a high-quality education. I listened to my staff constantly throughout the year. I listened to the needs of our families. We ensured that our families felt comfortable with bringing their kids in person to school, as well as with the education they were receiving in the virtual environment.

One way we were able to take care of our needs was our early release day on Thursdays.

We ensured that we have activities for staff to just relax and breathe. I put students first through meeting the needs of teachers and staff because if teachers and staff don’t have the tools that they need, then the needs of the students wouldn’t come first.

What was your first education job, and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first education job was subbing for Pike Township. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. My heart was in IPS because I’m a product of IPS. I graduated from Arlington High School.

What makes your school unique?

Morning arrival. We greet our students with a smile and a hello. It’s all about really identifying their social-emotional needs at that moment and making sure they have clear expectations for the day ahead.

Teachers will have a greeting chart on their doors or by their door, so kids can choose to greet them in different ways. So maybe I greet you with a fist bump. Maybe I’ll give you a hug. If you look like you’re angry, or look sad, or if you’re typically a kid that is outspoken, and you’re quiet, I know that there may be something there, and that’s my moment to really ask you a few questions to see what’s happening and how you’re feeling.

If I can identify that right out the gate, I can meet their needs at the beginning of the day, instead of allowing them to go through the whole day angry or upset.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Don’t expect you out of everyone else. It means that even though we’re coaching staff, and we’re giving them tools to add to their practice, even though I do something one way, or another way, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way or they have to approach the work like I approach it.

Tell me about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

Just going into a home where there were concrete floors, it was very cold, it had a mildew smell, there was no furniture. There were boarded-up windows. And the fact that this child was living in this place really changed my perspective and why I was there.

It made me more empathetic; it really made me understand the root of this child’s problem. He was going through some behavioral issues. It was just a lot going on. Not only was the environment physically not conducive for living, but there were a lot of other things that were happening in the home that played into his behavioral issues. There wasn’t a lot of food in the home. We understood why he came in and was taking people’s food in the cafeteria and eating their food.

What changed after you saw that?

We had to check in with him every day. We also gave him sacks on the weekend to take home so he would have food for the whole weekend. And if he was hungry throughout the day, our behavior coach would have him come to her room and just have a quick little snack. Once we met that need, we were able to do guided reading and do some small group work with him.

What is a challenge that you had to face, and how did you overcome it?

You pour your heart and your soul into your students, your families, your teachers, your staff. And every year you think, awesome, I have an awesome staff. Then at the end of the year, you have people that come to you and say, ‘I’m resigning’ or ‘I’m leaving.’

It kind of knocked me completely off my square. But over the years, I learned that as much as I develop people, their goal, maybe, is not to stay with me forever to do this work, but it’s about them using what I taught them to go out and then share that with others, and maybe in other schools, cities and states or districts, to use what I taught them to make a difference in the life of a child.

That is a blessing. But it’s also a curse because now I am faced with recruiting in COVID; you have very few people going into education. And so, as much as I am the IPS Principal of the Year, and I’m very humbled to receive that recognition, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have the same challenges as other school leaders. I am trying to fill vacancies so that we can have another great year.

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