Years ago, I visited the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences School in the state of Pennsylvania. For the first time in my professional career, I was not visiting a school to speak to the staff, motivate students or engage the parents; I visited the school to see if what I was hearing about it was true. Rumor had it that this school was in the top 1% of all schools in the state, even though 100% of the students were below the poverty line and highly at-risk. I had to see for myself because to be quite honest, I thought it simply was a rumor. Not that I did not believe it was possible, but with so many at-risk youth, in an area that was riddled with crime and other challenges, it seemed somewhat like a fairy tale. What I experienced was one of the most amazing experiences in my professional lifetime.
The Principal of the school met me the moment I arrived. I immediately noticed a few things, she had a bright and warm smile, yet she had a firm and focused look—at the same time. You felt welcomed by this school leader, however, respected the power that was evident in her character and personality. She took me to her office, and for about ½ hour we discussed her goals, dreams expectations and standards for the school in which she led. She communicated the faith she had in her students and staff as well as the standards she had for the school as a whole. She had about 1000 students and had high expectations for all of them. Her model was unique in that she worked with students K1-12. I will explain some of the powerful statements she shared in our brief meeting later, however I must move forward to the tour of the school, for what I witnessed absolutely floored me.
We first visited a first grade class. When we walked in the door, the students addressed her by saying “Good Morning Ms. Joyner”–all at the same time. She smiled at them and pointed to one of the kids and asked , “could you please stand and share the mission of the school with Mr. Andrews.” The student stood up and quoted the school mission with a smile on his face, one that was not crafted, but sincere. He spoke in a powerful tone, one that I had not experienced in the past with a child of such a young age. She pointed to a 3 or more students, and they all got up and did the same thing. She then proceeded to ask students to get up and share their timetables. She started at 3 then 8 then 10, 11 and one student after another nailed it. My mouth was wide open. We then walked to a fifth grade class. Same response, same outcomes. The kids were dressed in school uniforms, articulate, respectful and full of pride of their school and school leader. In between class visits, a situation occurred. 3 girls in her school had a conflict. She noticed this heated communications and asked the girls “What is going on?” With much intensity, the girls shared their individual sides of the story. She proceeded to tell the girls, “Go into my office-work it out, and I will be back once I am done hosting our visitor.” The girls walked into her office and my heart started to pound! I asked her, “You are going to leave three quarreling girls in your office to work this out?” In my experience, in many of the schools I have visited, this would have turned out pretty ugly. She said to me “It is ok.” We proceeded to visit additional classes. In my mind, I thought-“this is going to be ugly.” Nevertheless, I continued with the tour, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about those girls. We finally visited a class of upper school kids, grades 10-12. Each of the students, just as the earlier students could quote and firmly believed in the mission of the school, and belief in its leader(s.) To my surprise, the Principal told me that they get around 7 million dollars or so annually in college scholarships. Amazing! One of the most important things I noticed was the focus on learning and motivation. This school mastered the art of combining both. They place copious time on effective delivery of curriculum, but also made time for systems of motivation in the lives of the students. I find that many school focus lots of energy on instructional time, which is important, yet spend very little on giving students a reason to be motivated to receive the instruction. She and her school staff realized that a motivated student becomes a motivated learner because they have a future outcome that is connected to what they are learning. It was my visit to this school where my nationally recognized statement, “Academic Relevance is Connected To Dream Relevance” was birthed. The upper class students were some of the smartest students I have ever seen. She would ask them tough questions that would stump the average student, however student after student nailed the questions coming from their school leader. They answered with passion and belief that what they were doing was part of a bigger picture. They answered as though what they were going to say had a bigger meaning than the answer alone. It became evident to me that purpose, school and personal, drove these students, and this purpose was the glue that kept everything together. It kept them from being disrespectful in the classroom. It caused just about 100% participation every day in the school. Student rarely missed class. It caused the school to have something I have never heard of before, a waiting list of about 5000 students, wanting to get into the school. It caused the teachers to have a fire for teaching which was evident in their lesson plan preparation and delivery of material, most importantly, the connectedness and personalization found in the relationships they had with the students. This purpose was instilled and initially conceptualized by the schools amazing leader, their Principal .
Now back to the girls. ½ hour after we left the girls, the school leader went back to her office and told the girls, “You can go back to class now..” I stood there in utter amazement. When we opened the door, the girls were crying, apologizing to each other and laughing. They eagerly walked back to class as though the altercation never happened. I looked at her and said, ok explain this one.J Again, in a firm yet pleasant tone, she said “All of our students are trained on conflict resolution. Often throughout the year. We teach them that if they do not learn how to resolve conflict now, they will not know how to resolve conflict later. If they get caught up in conflict later, they are well aware of the many negative outcomes of the lives of people in their community that never learned how to resolve conflict peaceably.” I was beginning to say to myself, “this cannot be real! I have never seen anything like this.” Part of me was saying “If this is staged, this has to be the best acting job on the planet.”
We then proceeded to lunch and this is where I began to say “Ah-ha!” The students were very loud, debating all kinds of things and challenging each other on a variety of subjects. I looked around and was thinking, so this is the real school. What I saw out there was good, but in here, I now had a reason to doubt or challenge her in at least one area. I noticed that she was calm and at peace with the noise in the cafeteria. We grabbed our lunch, sat down and she began to explain “My team and I allow this time for student to have fun, talk loud and expressive. In the class, we are so focused on learning, retaining of learning, purpose, college readiness, etc., that when the students get a break, we allow them to relax and release. It is our opportunity to let them know we are well aware that they are kids, kids who love interacting with other, playing with each other and laughing with each other. This is not class, this is meal and fellowship time. We want the kids to enjoy this time together just as they do in the learning environment, just without the talking and playful banter. “ I proceed to tell this amazing leader, “in my years of doing this work, I have never met a person like you nor attended a school like this. Most people think that accomplishing a goal like this is impossible. After lunch, can you please go a little deeper and provide me with some insights that I can share with other school leaders, teacher and even parents? It is evident that you know something many of us struggle with day after day. “
After lunch, we went back to her office. She invited me in asked me to have a seat and shared the following information:
- Students Need To Have A Purpose-If coming to school is just about fulfilling a requirement of their parents, a school district or a state, then school becomes mundane and uninteresting. We instill purpose in our kids, purpose that they can take this education experience and become Doctors, Lawyers, etc. They know why they are in that classroom and this understanding propels them to academic excellence.
- Schools Need A Mission That Is Embraced By All-If the mission statement is something on the wall, students nor staff will never embrace it. Our students are required to memorize the mission and we teach them the importance of it. They know why they are saying it, not simply repeating something we require them to repeat.
- Teachers Need To Connect Teaching To A Greater Purpose-Teachers are taught that kids are our top priority. Without the students, we have no classes, no school building and there would not be a need for any of us. Students are the driving force behind the success of the school and we need to, via love, kindness and compassion, encourage them to take their learning seriously. We need to show the bigger picture of what this all means to their future goals and dreams.
- Leaders Need To Be A Visible Example: I interact with my students everyday. I visit their classrooms, have lunch with them and have multiple conversations about their future dreams and goals. I let them know that I am living my dream, the dream of being a school leader, and that my passion for their future is being lived out everyday. My kids do not know me from a distance or as a person they will be sent to if they get in trouble. They see me as a role model.
- Drilling Is Necessary-Memorization is a by-product of repetition. So in math, we drill our students to make sure they get it. They are asked to repeat complex and non-complex math equations over and over again. It is evident in our test scores, it work!
- Teachers Are Leaders-I tell my teachers all of the time that in your classroom, you are the leader. Take ownership of your class and run it like you are trying to build a successful business. Class outcomes and student performance are the end products that you are displaying to the world.
- Show Love To Students Everyday-I understand that many of my students come from broken homes and challenged communities. When they walk in our doors, we need to give them something all people need, and that is love, unconditional love. We do this by sharing a kind word, listening to them and giving them an environment that is supportive and caring.
- Leaders Must Have High, Yet Realistic Expectation-Never lower your bar, but never set it so high that it is impossible to reach. Goals have to be strategically positioned so that we can achieve realistic success that can be measured in realistic outcomes. Sometimes schools can allow themselves to become unglued and lack realistic goals because they are simply trying to survive. Leaders need to be able to read through all of the chaos, and keep their schools focused on realistic goals and expectations. You end up juggling lots of balls, but when done effectively, you become a master juggler.
I thanked her for her time and walked away from this experience with a new found hope and faith that schools can work, but it takes focused, firm and compassionate leadership. I learned way too much to limit it to one statement but if I could I would share the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Don’t go where the path may lead, however, go where there is not path, and leave a trail.” This amazing school leader is a trailblazer. We ended the day, just as it started, She shook my hand with a smile on her face, firm yet compassionate and thanked me for visiting. She escorted me to the door, and proceeded to go back into the school. As evidence to what I experienced all day—giving an uplifting comment to a student as she made her way back to her office,
–Darrell “Coach D” Andrews is an internationally acclaimed educational consultant, trainer, motivational speaker and the author of several books including “Believing The HYPE-Seven Keys To Motivating Students of Color”, “The Purpose Living Teen-A Teen’s Guide To Living Your Dreams” and soon to be released, “The Parent As Coach-Developing A Family Dream Team.” He can be reached at (302) 834-1040 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.