Jason Smith has been the principal at Stonybrook Intermediate and Middle School in Indianapolis for two years. During that time, he’s tried to establish a culture in which discipline is not approached through the lens of, “What did this kid do?” but rather, “What does this kid need?”

That approach of trauma-informed teaching is not only something that Smith feels empowered to embrace thanks to the support of his district’s superintendent, but it’s also the topic of Smith’s dissertation as a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Administration at Ball State University’s Teachers College.

And it’s an approach that paid dividends in a recent interaction with a student that went viral for all the right reasons.

When the student was sent to the principal’s office last week for refusing to remove his hat in class, Smith’s first reaction wasn’t to call the boy’s parents and send him home for the day. Instead, Smith talked to the student and figured out why he was insisting on wearing the hat.

The student’s answer: he didn’t like the result of a recent haircut.

Smith had a solution.

“I said, ‘Well, look: how about I line you up? I’ll fix your hairline. Would you go back to class?’” Smith recalled of the interaction. “And at first the student was like, ‘You’re not cutting my hair.’ So I showed him pictures of me cutting hair in the past, showed him several pictures of my son’s hair that I’ve cut. And he was a little skeptical, but he’s like, ‘OK.’”

Smith drove to his house, picked up his clippers, and headed back to his office, where he proceeded to deliver on his promise. After making a few quick adjustments to the student’s hairline, he was sent back to class, where he had no issues the rest of the day.

Lewis Speaks Sr., a police officer at Stonybrook, snapped a couple photos of Smith trimming the student’s hair, and, with their permission, shared them on Facebook, explaining the situation.

“A GREAT LEADER ALWAYS recognizes that sometimes it’s necessary to step outside of your comfort zone and daily routine to set others up for success,” Speaks Sr. wrote.

The post, which was shared on Feb. 18, garnered a tremendous of attention since with more than 50,000 likes, 25,000 shares and 6,000 comments. The story has also been featured on two Indianapolis TV stations — WTHR and WRTV.

Trauma-informed teaching

Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Campbell University in North Carolina before making the transition into teaching in the early 2000s. He earned his teaching credentials and his Master’s degree from Marian University in Indianapolis, and has served as a teacher, charter school curriculum specialist, and assistant principal before being named the principal at Stonybrook Intermediate and Middle School in May 2019.

When two of his closest friends tried to convince Smith to join them in pursuing their doctorates in education, Smith wasn’t sure at first. But he said he had an “epiphany” of sorts that eventually led to him applying to pursue his EdD and EdS from Ball State’s Teachers College.

“I’ve been telling my kids my whole life, ‘Leave everything on the court, leave everything on the field, maximize your influence, give it your all,’” Smith said of that decision. “And I was just like, ‘You know, just go ahead and do this, because you were given a God-given ability and intelligence to do it, and you will show and model perseverance.’”

Smith’s dissertation at Ball State is focused on trauma-informed teaching, which, according to Educational Leadership magazine, happens when teachers and administrators “are proactive and responsive to the needs of students suffering from traumatic stress and make small changes in the classroom that foster a feeling of safety.”

Smith, himself the product of the Indianapolis Public Schools system, said last week’s haircut scenario is a perfect example of that “trauma-informed teaching” approach.

“I feel like the future of inner-city schools being successful, and dealing with the fallout of years of institutional racism and policies, means we’re going to have to lead with our heart and be proactive and put proactive systems in place so kids know what’s going on,” he said. “The students have agendas, you give them warnings before you transition, you give them choice, and consistently build relationships with them. That’s how you get kids to sit down and listen and to begin to learn.”

Smith has aspirations of earning a position in the administration building, and perhaps even one day being named superintendent. For now, however, he’s perfectly content in his current role helping directly shape and influence young lives as the principal at Stonybrook Intermediate and Middle School.“Honestly, after falling in love with these kids and this staff, I’d really like to be here for another seven or eight years doing this work,” Smith said.

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