Lifelong Learning and Leading
As she begins her 25th year in education, alumna Eileen Bunton reflects on what's she's learned about building a school community based on trust, mutual support, and authentic relationships.
June 8, 2021
Originally from Nashville, Eileen Bunton joined the South Louisiana corps in 1997 and taught in LaPlace, Louisiana for four years before moving to New Orleans. Today, she is the Middle School Principal at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans, where she has worked since 2006.
The 2021 school year will be Eileen's 25th year in education. As a dedicated veteran educator, she has worked in both traditional public schools and public charter schools and has continued to teach and lead through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the current pandemic. She has had a unique window into how the education system in Louisiana has transformed during that time, using her valuable learnings and insights to support her students and families through their challenges, traumas, and joys. In the following interview, we asked Eileen to share her reflections on what's she's learned from 25 years of service in education.
What were your corps experience and your early years of teaching like? How did you end up at your current school?
I joined the corps in 1997 and taught at The Glade on Highway 51 in St. John Parish. During the first couple of weeks of school, I remember looking out the window and seeing a semi-truck wrangling an alligator with a rope and putting it on the semi. The principal, Grady Hall, said, “Never thought you’d see this, did you?”
I taught in St. John Parish for four years. It was an intense experience, but everyone in St. John and the River Parishes was incredibly supportive. Those relationships helped solidify my connection to the community. When I left St. John in 2001, it was hard to leave – the kids were incredible and the staff and community were amazing.
In 2001, I applied to be a special education teacher at New Orleans Charter Middle School, which was the first charter school in the city. It was run by Middle School Advocates, a group that eventually became FirstLine Schools. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the building that housed New Orleans Charter Middle School took in eight feet of water and was destroyed. Middle School Advocates had taken on another school – Samuel J. Green School – right before Katrina, so we transitioned a lot of our staff there after the storm. I’ve been working at Green ever since that time.
Your school emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as trauma-informed teaching. How has that impacted your students?
We intentionally focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), trauma-informed practices, and inclusion work that is in alignment with the direction that education is going in our country. Charter schools have always focused on academic rigor and high standards, but you can’t do that in isolation – you must focus on the whole child and support them through their challenges, whether that’s a hurricane or COVID or trauma in their communities.
“You must focus on the whole child and support them through their challenges, whether that’s a hurricane or COVID or trauma in their communities.”
Our staff was trained in trauma-informed practices six years ago, which led to the creation of an SEL working group that has helped us move forward in this work. We spend our first half hour of school on social-emotional learning every day, including goal setting, circle work, and celebrations. Orienting our work in the service of children and staff – and getting to know students both as a whole and individually – has helped Green become a better school.
Recovering from the trauma of Hurricane Katrina has been challenging for our community. Four or five years ago, I remember seeing a fifth grader bringing a teddy bear to the water fountain. It made us stop and think, “we’re finally starting to get there; kids are finally starting to get to be kids again.” Moments like this helped us see that we were meeting the needs of our students and providing them with the best resources and supports to make sure that our kids were cared for. The focus on whole-child learning has been integral in helping us get to where we need to be as a school and community.
How has your investment in SEL helped your students during this uniquely challenging school year?
During a year of uncertainty, our middle school students at Green continued to show up and learn! Since the start of the school year, they have achieved 90% attendance during most months. Our students also achieved over 10% growth on the assessment for reading fluency for middle school. We saw this growth in only three months as students were testing in the fall and then again in December. We’re so proud that we’ve been able to create a stable and supportive learning environment for our students so that they were able continue their academic growth during such an unstable time in their lives.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over your career in education?
Relationships matter. With kids, parents, and adults in a school, building and nurturing those relationships matter as much as anything in the work. Ever since I entered my first classroom, I've put a lot of effort into getting to know who the kids are as learners and individuals and this has stayed with me throughout my experience. When I came to work with FirstLine, our leaders, Jay Altman and Tony Recasner, really solidified the importance of relationships in an authentic way. I believe it to be a truth: Every kid needs to be known in a significant way as a whole child. That’s something that FirstLine has always believed and I’ve seen that shift across our school system. It’s apparent in our SEL work, which feeds our relationships with our students and families.
As you look back on nearly 25 years in classroom and school leadership, what are you most proud of?
I’m proudest of my relationships with the students, community, and staff – we have a strong community and a fairly high retention rate among students and teachers. Three of our teachers have been at Green since before Katrina. I’m also proud of the academic progress that our students have made; they leave Green equipped with the tools to be successful in high school. We’ve created a supportive staff culture and our students support each other as well. We’ve seen that play out during COVID – our teachers and students can have real and open discussions about what’s happening in the world regarding social change and inequitable systems, alongside the devastation that COVID has caused. Our kids feel that they can talk about and process current events and learn from their teachers about challenges in our society. We've built a culture of trust and mutual support and that's something to be proud of.