Around December of last year, Ussery was noticing a pattern of behavior with this particular group of girls that was taking their focus away from learning and cultivating a positive school environment. “I used to run a girls group when I was a teacher, and I realized I had to go back to what I knew,” recalled Ussery. Additionally, Ussery’s mother was an educator. “I saw my mom pour into her students like this as well. With my mother, there was never a creative moment that we couldn’t explore.”
So when January came around, Ussery began convening the group on a biweekly basis during lunch or after school. “We’ve been working on character development--how do you have values? How do you establish your worth at a time when it’s hard to do so?”
“I was shocked when Ms. Ussery invited me into this group,” said said Tiernay Watson, an eighth grader at Kirby. “I never thought a principal would make time for something like that.”
In February, Ussery had the girls write positive notes to each other in honor of Valentine’s Day. The girls then had to hang up the notes they received somewhere in their home as a reminder of their positive characteristics. In their follow-up meeting, they discussed the power of words and why they matter.
A Tea Party With the Principal
The following month, Ussery hosted a Tea Party for the girls. “I came to love tea because of having it with my grandmother regularly,” said Ussery. In the days leading up to the tea party, participants were asking their teachers what a tea party was. “They had to know there’s more than sweet tea!” said Ussery. She asked the girls to dress up, and used the experience to talk about how different spaces call for different attire, and how to dress for each appropriately.
When the girls arrived, the table was set, and they were strategically seated next to other girls who they might not have chosen on their own. They had tea cups and a three-course meal, including finger sandwiches with the crust cut off. Each part of the tea party was a learning experience, and a chance to learn basic etiquette. “How do you behave? How do you hold a teacup? How do you pass sugar at a table appropriately? How do respond to others politely?” recalled Ussery.
“The tea party was new to us, and we learned a lot,” said Watson. “We learned how to be young ladies, that you don’t eat with your elbows on the table, not talk with food in your mouth, and to pick up grapes with your fork.”
By the end of the tea party, the girls enjoyed it so much, that they pleaded to know when the next one would be. They settled on hosting a tea party of their own, with Ussery’s help, where they’ll have the opportunity to serve an older female figure in their life.
Furthermore, the tea party was a marker of new relationships for the girls. In order to not throw off their biweekly cadence, they asked to come into school during their Spring Break to spend time with each other and with Principal Ussery. So one day over their break, they learned how to make fragrant bath bombs.
The Ripple Effect
Ussery has noticed a clear difference in the girls’ behavior from December to now. “Some of these students had been fighting with each other throughout the year,” said Ussery. “And now incidents of verbal altercations have really diminished. They’re willing to share more with me about their personal lives, and they have a positive text message group with each other.”
Watson echoed the effects Ussery noticed: “I’ve opened up to my principal a lot more. It can be nerve-wracking sometimes, but I know it’s good for me. And there’s one girl who I can see has been trying to stay out of trouble a lot more. We were friends before this and we used to talk, but now we talk much more openly and connect more.”
At Green Dot, we know that growing students requires a multifaceted approach, which includes supporting the social and emotional needs of students that, if left unaddressed, obstructs their ability to learn. Great school leaders like Ussery are constantly working with their team to address these needs: “I know how important experiences like the tea party are for our students. They need to see their own value and worth, and to know that they don’t need other things or people to validate them.”