I have been troubled by the recent negative news stories involving our schools. It is sad that these sensationalized reports — which not only seek to exploit notions that go against our core values as an organization, but are factually inaccurate, unsupported, or anomalous — detract from the incredible endeavor that our more than 11,000 students and families, and our 1,000-plus staff, participate in daily.
When reflecting on these events as a principal, I go back to three questions that guide me at all times: Is every decision I make in the best interest of children? Are my scholars safe? If schooling weren’t mandatory, would my scholars still come every day?
Who We Are: As principals, we make thousands of decisions every week, from obvious choices about when and how to coach a struggling teacher to more obscure tasks like finding someone to fix a door that shuts too quickly, so children’s fingers won’t get smashed when the door closes. We also confront complex and delicate decisions, like how to support a grieving child and her family after the sudden loss of her mother. No matter how mundane or complex the decision is, it has to be done with the best interests of children in mind. Sometimes that means that we, as adults, have to work harder, but if, in the end, it improves children’s learning, safety, or joy—it is necessary.
Who We Are Not: We are not a group of leaders who put the needs of adults ahead of children. It is our job as educators to instruct and nurture all students who walk through our doors. Some students have tremendous struggles in school. It would be easy for the teachers if we “counseled out” or relegated these students to rooms to play all day, but that goes against our core belief that all children deserve a world-class education. Our challenge as adults is to work tirelessly to find solutions that support those scholars who need help the most. That may mean that we, as a team, create a plan one day that needs to be scratched the next, but we will continue to try strategies and create plans until we find something that connects and works for the child.
Who We Are: We are leaders who prioritize scholar safety above all else; not only physical safety in school buildings, on field trips, or at recess at the park, but the safety that allows children the freedom to express their true selves. Having the freedom and safety to take risks in the classroom empowers scholars to stretch their thinking and imagination, whether it be on an art project, in a book club, or during a science discussion about force and motion.
Who We Are Not: We are not defenders of the status quo. As an organization, we strive each day to be better than we were the day before. We believe that limiting children’s abilities hinders them from achieving things beyond what we can imagine. We believe that not challenging our brightest scholars is as big an educational crime as not supporting those who struggle. We also believe that most children thrive with structure and routine. It makes them feel safe and valued. A teacher who doesn’t address the scholar who is rolling around on the rug, distracting her 29 classmates, impedes the learning of the rest of the class. None of our scholars’ parents would find that acceptable. Neither do we.
Who We Are: Educators have to compete with the latest video games, iPads, movies, and television. Therefore, we have to make our schools and lessons incredibly joyful and engaging. Just as importantly, we have to make the lessons rigorous. Children, like adults, find satisfaction in accomplishment. If we do not press our scholars in their daily learning, set high goals for them, and follow through on their progress, they will become bored. It is because we work so hard at being engaging that we can push rigor. By bringing joy and fun into the classroom, we make learning more appealing to our kids. No iPad can compete with that.
Who We Are Not: We are not believers in compliance for compliance’s sake. We deeply believe in everything we do, every decision we make, every part of our school design, and we express the reasoning behind it at every opportunity. We insist that our children keep their shirts tucked in and looking tidy so that as adults, they will know how to present themselves well professionally. We want our scholars to hold one another accountable for speaking loudly because we believe that our kids are our greatest teachers. They are responsible for sharing and teaching their peers throughout the day, and they cannot learn from one another if they mumble or whisper. We believe in rewarding scholars for going above and beyond our expectations for conduct and civility. We also believe that when scholars make bad choices, appropriate consequences should be given and explained so they learn from their mistakes and make better choices next time.
Above all, we are dreamers of all things possible for the kids of New York City. We love all the students who cross our threshold and do everything we can to improve education for those who don’t find a place in our schools. We are not perfect. Few things are; but we are resolved to be better than we were yesterday for all our kids and families.