Hawley, who is retiring after 34 years, has been selected as the Rachel’s Challenge Principal of the Year. She will be recognized at the Rachel’s Challenge Educational Summit at the Gaylord Texan Resort June 27 to 29.
After moving from nearby Liberty Elementary School, Hawley said she recognized the environment at her new middle school needed to change.
“The kids were very cold and stand-offish when I got here six years ago,” Hawley said. “I was constantly looking for the first year for something (to help).”
The following summer after her first year, Hawley attended a summit where Rachel’s Challenge founder Darrell Scott spoke about his daughter, who was killed in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and the messages left in her diary about making the world a better, kinder place.
“We were all sitting there with tears in our eyes,” Hawley said of Scott’s speech.
Since then, Freedom’s Parent Teacher Association has raised money for Rachel’s Challenge speakers to come to the school each year to teach students and staff about how to combat bullying in order to create a safer school environment.
“Our world has gotten so crass and all-about-me, and that’s our goal to at least be nice to each other,” Hawley said. “And these kids have done an incredible job over the years.”
Just in the first year, Rachel’s Challenge strategies helped curb bullying cases by over half, Hawley said.
Some of the school’s efforts toward building a better school community were featured in a chapter of “Sticks and Stones,” a just-released New York Times-best-selling book written by Emily Bazelon.
One of the approaches mentioned was Freedom’s focus on making the school a comfortable environment for students to report bullying and negative behavior, including that of students who may be hurting themselves.
“That’s what I want (the students) to get to, where they will help each other instead of hurting each other,” she said.
One of the driving forces behind wanting to help middle school-aged children for Hawley was her son, who also struggled with being bullied and depression. At 25, he is now working toward a psychology degree to become a counselor and hopes to help others facing similar challenges.
“It was a mission to me—all of this,” she said. “It was a personal mission that I didn’t want to see other kids go through what my own son has gone through.”
Despite her history with the program, Hawley said she was shocked when she got the call about the honor a few weeks ago.
“If I can help one kid or I can inspire one teacher to do more for these kids, it’s been worth it,” she said. “I don’t need recognition for it but I’m honored and it’s a nice thing to end on for my public school career.”
At 55, Hawley said she’s planning to continue her passion for education in other avenues. She plans to spend her summer working on her dissertation on best practices in middle school education to complete her doctorate. From there, she hopes either go on to be a professor or work for a company that helps children in some way.
But what her young students will likely remember most are the posters of Rachel’s Code of Ethics throughout the school, encouraging students to start a chain reaction of kindness.
“That’s the big goal of Rachel’s Challenge is to get kids and adults just to be kind,” Hawley said. “As a young kid, (Rachel) was always trying to help people.”