Students can’t ever be sure what they’ll see on the morning announcements broadcast each day at Harry Hurst Middle School, with footage of LeBron James spliced in one day and perhaps Drake the next. Hashtags are sprinkled, words like “Hurst-tastic” invented and each period begins with an exercise in mindfulness.
It’s clear that while Hurst was recently ranked as Louisiana’s third best school by the website Niche.com, new school principal Dr. David Schexnaydre nor his faculty and staff are at all interested in maintaining the status quo, high as it might be.
The morning announcements are part of several measures already implemented this year to keep students and teachers alike engaged, energized and excited about what they’re doing each and every school day.
“We just felt instead of tippy-toeing around, let’s get out there and own it,” said Schexnaydre, who was assistant principal at his alma mater Destrehan High before being named Hurst principal. “Let’s be the best. Let’s unleash our people and see what we can accomplish.”
One thing that’s quickly apparent about the school is the value placed on morale by school leadership. To that end, the very first day teacher’s returned to Hurst from summer vacation was called “#TheBestFirstDayEver,” and the usual itinerary altered. Replacing hours-long meetings and receiving instructions on their upcoming expectations and protocols were a series of shorter, 30-minute meetings and a menu of options giving each teacher the freedom of how to best get ahead on their work.
Hurst provided breakfast from Café Du Monde and lunch from Chick-fil-A. There was a giveaway at day’s end including New Orleans Saints tickets, gift certificates and Beats headphones.
“(Teachers) are the backbone of all we do. You can talk about principals and administrators, but in the end, it comes down to the teachers being on board and carrying it out in the classroom.”
Schexnaydre said it’s evolved into a fun in-joke amongst the faculty — last Friday, for example, was referred to as “The Best 16th Day Ever.”
One of the most notable additions to the daily activities at Hurst has been the practice of teachers and students beginning each period with a short breathing exercise, a means of practicing mindfulness.
Schexnaydre said the idea was inspired by LSU basketball coach Will Wade and his mindfulness coach Greg Graber. Wade utilizes mindfulness exercises and implements mindfulness exercises with his team to maximize focus.
Schexnaydre reached out to Graber to ask if the latter had any ideas of how one might use mindfulness exercises for the betterment of a school. You might say he did: Graber noted he’s a middle school principal in Tennessee.
“I just thought, ‘oh man, this is perfect!’” Schexnaydre recalled. “And he was just so welcoming. We didn’t know each other and he was willing to call me to talk about it.”
Schexnaydre brought it up to his teachers to gauge their interest, and when he found them receptive, he invited Graber to visit the school on the teachers’ first day back this year for a demonstration.
“When you think about what teachers deal with on daily basis, with all the things they do … even if it were just a tool for them and their wellness and well-being, the healthier the faculty is only makes things better for the students,” Schexnaydre said.
“If you can get kids to self-regulate and know when they’re getting overwhelmed or frustrated, and you have the tools to do something with it, that’s really powerful.”
Hurst teacher Kathryn Shebeck is a backer of the practice as well.
“My students come into my classroom requesting to have a moment of mindfulness. They are able to recognize when they need to re-center themselves and refocus. The difference in their attitudes and attentiveness from just these first few weeks has been impressive,” she said.
Schexnaydre didn’t always plan to become an educator, but after beginning his college days as a business major, he switched gears, realizing this was the path he would find the most rewarding. He taught and coached at R.K. Smith Middle School, where he was approached about going into administration, and went on to become the assistant principal Destrehan High School.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Schexnaydre said.