Helping High Schoolers Take The Lead: Q & A with Noreen Likins, Principal of Gunn High School
Editor’s note: For the past six years, the students and staff at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif. have been organizing workshops and activities against intolerance under the banner of Not In Our School week. Teachers, students and administrators came together Monday to kick off another week of discussions about safety, inclusion and diversity. Not In Our School week is something that Principal Noreen Likins has been part of from the start, so NIOT.org asked her why this annual tradition is an important part of campus life at Gunn High.
NIOT.org: What are the challenges in getting high school students to talk about intolerance?
Principal Likins: It is an uncomfortable topic for students (as well as for adults). People tend to become defensive very quickly and when that happens it is hard for them to hear other people and listen to different perspectives with an open mind.
NIOT.org: What is a principal's role in helping students and teachers have these kinds of conversations?
Principal Likins: Students need to have multiple opportunities to have these kinds of conversations. It is important that all teachers support the belief that intolerance and acceptance of others are not just topics for assemblies and Living Skills class and that they feel they have the tools to intervene when they see or hear students do or say inappropriate things. Issues such as these should be addressed in every classroom and anywhere and everywhere on campus they arise. We have to be the role models and mentors for our students and really work to build a climate that is caring and accepting. As a principal, this translates to providing training and ensuring that all teachers new to the school, as well as key support staff too, attend our District's Equity = Excellence workshop. It means supporting programs like Camp Everytown (a youth retreat to reduce stereotypes, bias, and prejudice) even when funds are low. It means providing support and encouragement to staff and students who are working on such things as Not In Our School Week, to the GSA and other diversity-celebrating student groups on campus.
NIOT.org: How has the Not In Our School program changed and grown at Gunn over the years?
Principal Likins: NIOS is now "institutionalized" at Gunn. It has gone from a few lunch time activities to a week-long event that involves every department.
NIOT.org: Are there any strategies that you use at Gunn that you think are particularly successful with high school students?
Principal Likins: Having students involved in planning, organizing and running events. Asking students what they would like to see happen. Being willing to have honest conversations with students about their feelings and perceptions.
NIOT.org: Do you have ideas or advice for other high schools trying to start a similar program?
Principal Likins: Get the students involved from the beginning. Let them run with their ideas and recruit a few caring, passionate staff to keep things in check and help the kids get things started. Other teachers warm to ideas and activities when the kids present them (they tend to resist when admin suggests that this or that should happen).
NIOT.org: I understand that you are retiring this June. Do you see your work with Not In Our Schools as part of your legacy at Gunn?
Principal Likins: Absolutely. I am proud to have been part of getting NIOS week started at Gunn and optimistic that the values NIOS week promotes are being firmly embedded in our culture.