Each fall, Mariah Reeves receives the school photos of all 500 or so students at Wahlert Catholic High School and looks over them closely.
Reeves, the Iowa school’s principal, takes pride in putting a name to each of the faces and learning their stories. If there’s a face she happens to not know yet, she memorizes the name and makes it a priority to soon interact with them in person.
Reeves doesn’t quiz herself on the names to impress anybody or to simply “check a box” that she knows them. She does so because she sincerely values each individual student and wants them to leave Wahlert Catholic as a more well-rounded and successful person than when they arrived.
“I tell my students all the time, ‘Your voice matters,’” Reeves said. “‘You’re the reason we’re here. This is your school, and I’m going to be here walking shoulder-to-shoulder with you every step of the way.’”
Reeves said adding that personal touch to education has a positive domino effect on all aspects of a student’s journey. She’s seen first-hand how building a safe and welcoming learning environment leads to stronger results in academic and non-academic areas.
“As the leader in the building, I feel really strongly that if we aren’t caring for the whole student and we’re not meeting their needs emotionally, then we can’t have a fruitful experience with them academically,” Reeves said. “I don’t know how anybody can have one without the other. The two go hand-in-hand.”
A whole-student approach to education, characterized by a definition of student success that goes beyond academics, ensures students are fulfilled and prepared for life outside of and beyond school. In a Gradient Learning Poll, 88% of teachers said they support schools adopting this expanded definition of student success.
Reeves pushes back on the notion that schools must make a choice about whether to focus on building relationships or teaching rigorous curriculum. Reeves said that increasing self-confidence helps encourage students to challenge themselves academically.
“Because our kids feel safe in our environment and they know that they’re seen, they take risks academically,” Reeves said. “We don’t have kids shying away from advanced classes here. That’s because they can say, ‘I know my teacher cares about me and I want that healthy struggle. And if I don’t get it right away, I know my teacher won’t make me feel small and will be right there with me to help.’”
‘A hallway culture’
Reeves offers a phrase to her teachers that resonates throughout the building: “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
That care is shown from the moment the students arrive each morning and are greeted by name at the door by Reeves and her staff. It’s continued throughout the day, including in the minutes between classes as students walk from one classroom to the next.
Reeves blocks out her calendar for those moments because she wants to be there to help establish what she calls “a hallway culture” that symbolizes her tight-knit Wahlert Catholic community.
“The hallway is like its own ecosystem within the school because it’s more unstructured and is that free-flowing passing time between the more structured times of the day,” Reeves said. “It’s amazing to stand there and watch our kids in their own element. That’s when you get to see them interact as they’re passing each other and really see how they are genuinely kind.”
“If we aren’t caring for the whole student and we’re not meeting their needs emotionally, then we can’t have a fruitful experience with them academically.”
Those interactions validate the ongoing work she does with her teachers to ensure each classroom provides a welcoming space for students. She wants all adults in the building to model that kindness and friendliness throughout the day, which in turn helps lead to more engaged and authentic learning.
“We really value honesty and that helps students take more ownership in the classroom,” Reeves said. “If they make a mistake, they say so, and that allows us to help take them to the next level academically. But it all starts with getting to know each student as individuals first.”
An intentional process
Wahlert Catholic received a Rise Award from Gradient Learning this year to honor its commitment to constantly improve the quality of teaching and learning at its school. The national honor furthered Reeves’ passion to continue to find more strategies to incorporate whole student-focused education into each classroom.
Reeves doesn’t shy away from discussing the social and emotional aspects of learning because she knows it is the key to giving students a stronger sense of self and a greater ability to learn.
“We need to help kids introspect and articulate how they’re feeling and what they need, whether it is on an emotional level or an academic level,” Reeves said. “This has to be an intentional process for educators. It really is such a gift to be able to come into school and meet students where they are and walk alongside them.
“What I love to see every day is that each one of our kids feels seen, heard, and valued.”