A New Hampshire Principal Creating Community for Staff, Students, and Families
By Carmen Florentin, CEI Intern
Educators all over the world are pioneering new ways of connecting to students in virtual or hybrid learning environments. As we approach a return to closer-to-normal life resembling the pre-pandemic world, schools everywhere faced the challenge of getting through to students simultaneously behind screens and in the classroom. The pandemic has influenced this generation of students likely for the rest of their lives—some have been traumatized. Now, we face the question of how to support and accommodate students as best as we can. Dr. Siza Mtimbiri is a Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellow and principal at Southwick School in Pittsfield, New Hampshire. He utilizes his knowledge of research-based methods and his sincere spirit to ensure his students feel seen and heard, while also prioritizing teachers’ needs.
Inspiration from Zimbabwe Brought into the American Classroom
Before Dr. Mtimbiri stepped into his role as principal, he earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. As a doctorate student, his research focused on the HIV epidemic in Zimbabwe, his country of origin. In particular, he was interested in the traumatic effects on children in schools who grew up amidst this ongoing health crisis. As of 2019, there were 1.1 million orphans whose parents died of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, and 115,000 kids under 14 who lived with it themselves (Avert, 2020).
Dr. Mtimbiri’s studies set him up to guide students who face traumatic events, due not just to COVID-19, but also to the opioid epidemic plaguing his community. Many communities across the country understand what it is to have students come to school but not truly be present due to personal problems at home. To address this, Dr. Mtimbiri asks himself, “How can we reach these kids? How can we help them become whole and then learn on top of that?” Reaching the students where they are at is crucial, because he says “without that, there’s no learning that’s taking place. At that point, we’re just babysitting them.”
Framing Education in a Positive, Comfortable Way for Students
Gathering inspiration from his knowledge of educational research, Dr. Mtimbiri makes it his mission to give each student a positive school experience. A critical point in his work is ensuring each child is mentally and emotionally in a safe space to learn. He does this through consistent contact and attention:
"Every morning, I stand outside to welcome my kids—every single morning. There is only one entrance. So that allows me to see every single child as they enter the school. And that’s allowed me to get to know them. And it’s nice to get to see the kids in the morning because, at the same time, it also allows me to say a quick word now and then to the parents. But I also stand outside when it’s time to go home to say goodbye to the kids. So I make sure I see them at least twice in a day."
At the start of the school day, he goes on the loudspeaker, says an inspiring word—inviting one or two students to accompany him as he does so, and finishes by playing a brief guitar melody. Three times a week, he goes to lunch and visits students, especially those struggling. On Wednesdays, he opens his office to eat with a student who has the option to bring their friend(s). During these one-on-one (or small group) lunches, Dr. Mtimbiri talks to them about how things are going and what they are learning. As part of a conflict resolution strategy, on Fridays, he brings students who are quarreling with each other to have lunch together. On Thursdays and Fridays, he also teaches a class using the curriculum from the Museum of Science. On top of getting to know the students in various ways and different settings, he says the classes give him something more to talk about with his students.
Connecting with Parents
In his school, Dr. Mtimbiri implemented a program called “Positive Office Referral” where teachers can submit a positive referral for students who are performing well. He then calls home and reports this excellent behavior to the student’s parents. He says, “In the past, when the principal picked up the phone, parents panicked, thinking something was wrong. I want to change that kind of thinking.” If Dr. Mtimbiri does have to call a parent due to disruptive behavior, the relationship has a positive foundation. The parent is aware of this authority figure as someone who recognizes and validates their child’s good deeds and sees them as a whole person. They can work together to move forward from whatever adverse event has occurred.
Showing up for Teachers so They Can be There for the Students
One of Dr. Mtimbiri’s unique approaches in his role is to provide as much support as he can to his teachers and staff. “I feel like, as they see me being a servant to them, in the system, they become servants to our kids. But if it doesn’t start with me, then it doesn’t go the other way.” During the 2020-2021 school year, teachers were loaded with extra responsibilities that ranged from enforcing mask-wearing to getting an absent child to log onto their virtual class. Every morning, he offered mindfulness practices to his teachers. In addition to leading a mindfulness activity, Dr. Mtimbiri practices meditation every day to be present for the kids and his teachers. By setting the example, he practices what he preaches; as a result, he says many teachers enjoy and even look forward to those 10 minutes of mindfulness.
Dr. Mtimbiri looks at a student beyond their strengths and weaknesses. Instead, each student is treated as a budding person who excels in certain subjects because of who they are and what they love. Dr. Mtimbiri creates an environment that makes you want to be one of his 192 elementary students in that Southwick School. “If the emotional wellbeing of a child is not taken care of, there’s a lot that’s lost in the gap. My vision is to have teachers who are trained in realizing that and truly believing in it.” A thoughtful, wise man who does not pass the information along unless he himself has tried it first, Dr. Siza Mtimbiri is a shining example of a transformational leader bringing trauma-skilled practices to his entire school community.
Avert. (2020, April 23). Children, HIV, and AIDS.