Zach Verriden is the Head of School at the Academy Hill School in Springfield, MA. In his first year at The Academy Hill School, Verriden improved annual student retention from 70% to 97% and increased new enrollment by nearly 20%. Prior to serving as the Head of School at Academy Hill, Verriden was the Executive Director for a private network of schools in Milwaukee, WI, growing enrollment from 1,500 to 3,000 students in four years. Zach has served as a classroom teacher, principal, and superintendent in schools across the country while modeling his passion for learning through studies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Rice University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Zach and his wife Anya are very active in the local community with their four wonderful children, Henry, Tommy, Katy, and Sammy.
I love food and I love my friends. And when you put them together over lunch? Boom. I thoroughly enjoy getting lunch with friends and have recently come to understand the power of lunch during my day job, as well. I currently serve as the Head of School at The Academy Hill School in Springfield, MA, and lunch has become kind of a “thing” around here recently, and it has had a pretty powerful impact.
I had a parent reach out recently for a meeting as they had concerns about their child’s experience to begin the school year. I had a productive meeting with the parents and offered to sit down at lunchtime with their student to learn more about some of his concerns and to get to know him a bit better.
I was a bit caught off-guard that the parents dismissed this idea out-of-pocket. They immediately felt that this approach might be too overwhelming. This type of meeting with the Head of School would be intimidating for their child. The parents had no interest whatsoever in my offer to get to know their students a bit better over lunch. But why?
The Stigma of the Principal’s Office
The rebuff made me a bit flustered before I realized that the parent’s reaction likely had little to do with me and everything to do with societal norms. I believe we can all relate to the negative stigma associated with “being sent to the principal’s office.” A quick Google search that begins with the phrase “getting sent to the…” will auto-populate with, “…principal’s office.” And in what should come as a shock to no one, my Google search produced results that reinforced that being sent to the principal’s office is not a good thing. That same Google search brought me to a website that outlines the steps one should take in order to “Survive a Trip to the Principal’s Office,” which includes, “remaining calm, breathing slowly and deeply, getting your facts in order, and don’t focus on the punishment.”
One of the most intimidating barriers in a school is that of the Head of School’s office door. Before a principal or Head of School even steps foot into their office, there is a negative association with physically being in that space. At the same time, principals are charged with creating a safe school and setting an inclusive culture that fosters a sense of belongingness. With such an “othering” social construct often inherently assigned to the principal’s office, Principals are dealt a challenging hand from which to build a community of belongingness.
The Principal’s office has been tainted by popular culture and by popular practice. Despite this reality, Heads of Schools are charged with building a school culture that supports and affirms a sense of belongingness from that same office.
Building a school culture that fosters belongingness is a daunting task. Heads of Schools and Principals the world over are charged with leading for belongingness and this responsibility rightly rests in the Principal or Head of School. And while that may seem to make perfect sense, the reality is that the deck is stacked against Principals in this regard. If Heads of School hope to foster a sense of belonging in their school, they will need to work overtime to tackle the socially normed negative association with the very desk that they sit at.
The Power of Networking
Like me, many of you likely already subscribe to the power of networking in building relationships, collegiality, and trust. Networking is an important component of career advancement, and research has shown that getting lunch or dinner with a colleague improves relationships and boosts productivity. Networking, after all, helps us to feel more connected. Networking fosters relationships. Networking builds belongingness.
Countless career and consulting resources extol the virtues of team lunches and many of us likely agree. The Harvard Business Review recently cited a “mountain of research shows that professional networks lead to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority,” highlighting that, “building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”
Let’s face it: breaking bread together breaks down barriers. If getting together for a meal is accepted as the best career practice, why wouldn’t the same hold true as the best educational practice? It has been for me this school year.
Let’s Do Lunch
After the meeting with my concerned parents had wrapped up and my initial offer to chat with their child was rebuffed, we brainstormed that perhaps a conversation during the lunch period with him and some friends may make more sense. I agreed to reach out to the teacher to set this up and I shared with the teacher that I would be joining a small group from the teacher’s class for lunch that day.
Our lunch together in the Head of School’s office that day was a blast. The students laughed and told jokes and I sat back and generally offered a comment or quip when it made sense but otherwise simply enjoyed the company. On the way out to recess at the end of the lunch period, the students asked if they could come back again next week. I assured them that they could come back for lunch any time and soon students in other classes began to take notice of this group of girls laughing over lunch in my office and asked if they could join me for lunch, as well. As other groups of students began to join me for lunch, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them, regardless of age or grade level, remarked, “I have never been to the principal’s office before” with some tint of disbelief in their voice or some silly and light-hearted variation of, “I can’t wait to tell my parents I was in the principal’s office today!”
As those comments have fallen away, I have been overjoyed with how much our students look forward to our quick little twenty-minute lunch sessions together in the principal’s office. It has been an incredibly easy commitment and a time I look forward to every day. This small investment of time has led to huge gains in personal relationships with students and increased authenticity and credibility with parents. I have invested the time in networking with my students over a meal, and guess what? Breaking bread together builds belongingness.
At this stage of the school year, whether it is the entire first grade, just some of the girls from fourth, or perhaps all of the boys from third, I haven’t spent lunch alone in months, and my lunch period is booking out with students two weeks in advance. If you are interested in learning more about breaking bread for belongingness, let’s do lunch!