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    Dear Beautiful:: A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women (Volume 1)
    by Gail L. Thompson Ph.D.
  • Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color
    Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color
    by Gail L. Thompson, Rufus Thompson
  • The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students
    The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students
    Corwin Press
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    Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life
    by Gail L. Thompson
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an online newsletter published by Inspirations by Gail LLC

Editor-in-Chief: Dr. Gail L. Thompson


Friday
May312019

Vol 1 (2) Spring/Summer 2019

 

Overview

Equity Talk is an online professional development newsletter that provides Education Leaders (district-level leaders, school-site level leaders, and teachers) with practical strategies to improve the schooling experiences of students who have historically been underserved in schools.

The current issue features an interview that I conducted with Dr. Niki Elliott, who is an expert on Social-Emotional Learning.  Dr. Elliott explains how educators can work more effectively with brilliant Black students, and other misunderstood students. The article ends with professional development exercises that can be used by individuals and groups.

Foundational Principles

Quote: “Equity has nothing to do with your race or skin color, but it has everything to do with the condition of your heart, and your mindset about children and vulnerable populations. Your heart and mindset will determine how you treat them.” (Dr. Gail L. Thompson)

 

  1. All students should have equal access to an outstanding education regardless of their race/ethnicity, socio-economic status,  primary language, home life, gender, sexual orientation, who their parents/guardians are, or the community in which they live.

  2. All students deserve to be treated fairly.

3. Every Education Leader has a moral and professional obligation to provide all  students with equal access to an outstanding education.

“They Loved Dumping the Black Kids That Nobody Else Wanted to Teach on Me!” A Professor’s Quest to Help Educators Work More Effectively With Brilliant Black Students

 

Dr. Niki Elliott

 

Introduction

Many experts have reported that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are increasing in the U.S. For example, a study conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield revealed that “since 2013, major depression rates have risen dramatically . . . . This rate is rising even faster among millennials, and adolescents.”1 A report from Mental Health America stated that “. . . as many as one in five teens suffers from clinical depression.”2 Furthermore, many children experience adversity and trauma that can cause chronic stress, as well as behavioral and academic problems.3

These problems have forced school leaders to pay more attention to the overall wellbeing of students through Social-Emotional Learning strategies. I recently was privileged to interview Dr. Niki Elliott, who is a Clinical Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Neurodiversity, Learning, and Wellness at the University of LaVerne, founder of “The Innerlight Method,”  author, and expert on Social-Emotional Learning. In this article, you’ll learn about Dr. Elliott’s background, the experiences that shaped her current work, and the mindfulness practices and other strategies that she uses to help adults work more effectively with Black students and other students who continue to be misunderstood and underserved in schools.

 

Dr. Elliott’s Experiences as a Brilliant Catholic School Student

Dr. Elliott grew up in a two-parent home in Los Angeles. Because her parents believed “that a religious education was the best thing that you could do for your child,” she attended K-12 Catholic Schools. Her experiences attending “all Black” Catholic Schools laid the foundation for her current work. Because Dr. Elliott was an outspoken, light-skinned, high achiever who skipped fifth grade, she was bullied by jealous students. “Generally, with the children, I stood out as the smartest girl in the class, so I was a target,” she said. “Kids use to try to beat me up for being the ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ or because I had straight A’s, and learning was just way too easy for me.”

But Dr. Elliott’s brilliance--particularly her natural inclination to ask questions about the inconsistencies that she saw also caused problems between the nuns and her. Here’s how she explained it:

From elementary school all the way through high school, the nuns told my parents that I caused my peers to question the faith. At the time, that was considered a derogatory thing. But as I matured in my field, I guess a lot of what I’m called to do on the planet is to cause people to question what they unconsciously believe, particularly as it relates to education, wellbeing, socio-economic status, and the capacity of children of color.

I was raised in an environment where I was constantly confronted with things that I couldn’t make myself believe and follow, but I still learned how to work within that system. I got straight A’s, and scholarships to college. I found a way to work around and through the system to get what I needed from it, and to keep my own sense of values, and my own understanding of God and human beings intact. That kind of crafted who I am as a Social Justice Advocate in education.


Here’s how Dr. Elliott summed up what she learned from attending all-Black Catholic Schools:

So, my concern has always been how do we create more diversity for Black students, so that there’s not a shaming of brilliant Black students to have to dumb themselves down for being Black, and for being a female [hearing these types of messages]: “The boys aren’t going to like you if you’re too smart, and the other Black students aren’t going to like you if you’re too smart. And if you’re light skinned, they’re really not going to like you”?

It’s all these layers of what can interfere with a Black student’s achievement. For me, it was on so many levels. It was the gender level. “Girls need to be better behaved. Girls need to be quiet; girls should not be talking back,” and asking these kinds of questions. Then, especially in the Catholic environment, obviously, women are not allowed in the priesthood; so the general thing was that women are to be quiet, compliant, and kind. That part of me was constantly being suppressed. I was told, “Don’t have so many opinions. Even if you have the answers, you don’t have to say it all the time. Let other people shine.”

There’s always this underlying thing for high-achieving Black students: Don’t stand out too much. And after I got to college, the messages I heard were, “You sound White. You’re not really down. You think you’re better,” and then, if a woman is super intelligent, “You’re intimidating to the men, or the boys don’t want to date someone who’s smarter than them.”

 

The Teacher and Social Justice Advocate

After graduating high school, Dr. Elliott earned a Bachelor’s Degree in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Next, she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and a Teaching Credential from Columbia University’s Teachers College. For the next three years, she taught fourth and fifth grade in the suburbs of Teaneck, New Jersey. She quickly noticed huge inequities, especially regarding the treatment of Black students. Many of these students were viewed as behavioral problems, but through mindfulness practices and other Social-Emotional Learning strategies, Dr. Elliott had great success with them.  According to Dr. Elliott:

In New Jersey, they loved dumping the Black kids that nobody else wanted to teach on me. They thought they were dumping African American students who had behavior problems that the veteran teachers didn’t want to deal with, but I was really getting Gifted students.

One of the most life-changing experiences that Dr. Elliott had, occurred during her first year of teaching, and it involved Gregory, a Black fourth grader whom “nobody wanted to teach.” Dr. Elliott said:

My first year of teaching, this little Black boy pushed me into a sharp table that cut my thigh. Nobody wanted to teach him, but I just was not giving up on him. Today, he would’ve been diagnosed with some kind of emotional disturbance or defiant behavior disorder. He didn’t have a formal diagnosis back then, but today, he would have definitely been medicated.

He had very violent, impulsive behavior. He would fight; he would scream; he would have outbursts; he threw over tables and chairs in class, but I could see that he was very bright, especially regarding science. I just made it my point to understand what was needed to help him regulate his behavior, so that people could see how brilliant he was. Then, he could be considered for the Gifted programs or some of the other higher-level opportunities that he was being denied because of his behavior.

In addition to teaching Gregory self-regulatory strategies, Dr. Elliott also worked closely with his parents.  She explained:

I just stayed with him, and loved him, and would go to his home, and sit with his family, and just try to understand what was going on. I didn’t even realize that I was ministering to the family, and over the year, his behavior just improved and improved. The parents would tell me, “You’re the first person who saw our child as something more than a behavior problem.”

A key factor in Dr. Elliott’s success with Gregory was that she was able to empathize with him by remembering how she felt when she was a child. She said:

 

I knew what it was like for me as a student being bored out of my mind with a curriculum that wasn’t meeting my needs, and there was no alternative. If I finished my work before the rest of the class, they didn’t say, “Here’s more complex work to do Nicole.” Instead they said, “Read a book until everybody else is done.”  So, people don’t understand how stressful it is to a Gifted person’s mind to be under-stimulated.

Regardless of what’s happening in your home, there are significant stressors to being in an environment where the instruction is slow, where there is no challenge, where you’re not being presented with things that stimulate or excite you, where you can figure out things easily and effortlessly, and there is a depression that sinks in for these advanced children, especially for Black kids. Plus, every time they misbehave, it’s used as evidence to prove “That Black kid can’t be smart.” In reality, that child may be under-stimulated in that environment and needs something different.

Because of Dr. Elliott’s work with Gregory, he not only graduated high school, but went into the military afterwards, and became “a productive parent.” Today, Dr. Elliott remains in contact with Gregory and his parents, who are grateful for the positive impact that she had on Gregory. But this wasn’t an isolated case.  During her teaching years in New Jersey, her reputation quickly spread, and she began to have a similar effect on other under-served and misdiagnosed Black students and their parents. According to Dr. Elliott:

The parents started trusting me and opening up, and the kids trusted me. It was nothing academic, because these were all very intelligent kids. They were brighter than average. A couple of them were highly Gifted. When the behavior masks the Giftedness, people don’t see a Black boy bored in class and call him “Gifted.”  They think he’s ADHD or a troublemaker. But if they see a bored White boy, then, they’ll think, “Oh, he’s Gifted, and he’s just not being challenged.”

So, I just made a point to get into the Social-Emotional aspects of these kids’ lives, and I’m still friends with some of the families today. One of the students called me today. I took her on as a mentor in high school. She called me this morning, and said, “We still think about you,” and she’s almost 40 years old now.

 

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning and Mindfulness Practices

After teaching in New Jersey for several years, Dr. Elliott returned to California and earned a doctorate from UCLA. She also became a mother, worked with Charter School development and school reform projects, became the Founding Board President of a charter school, “training teachers to work with highly-intelligent children who have mood and behavior challenges that mask their Giftedness,” and developed a “Wellness” program. According to Dr. Elliott:

Over the last 15 years, I’ve developed a program called “The Innerlight Method” that includes mindfulness practices, yogic breathwork, and energy work that help people increase their self-regulation, balance mood, and increase self-awareness. We call it a “Holistic, Mindfulness-Based Wellness Program.” I target helping professionals, like teachers, psychologists, ministers, social workers, and particularly adults who are child-serving professionals.

In terms of how this work directly affects children, Dr. Elliott explained:

My work has always been around the highly-sensitive child. My work has looked at students with mood, learning, and behavior challenges who tend to be what we call “highly-sensitive children.”  I have found that mindfulness practices have been especially effective at helping these students learn self-regulation skills.

I practice Energy Work, and have helped a lot of students with yoga, mindfulness methods, meditation, and with energy practices to learn how to regulate their own behaviors. It’s the Social-Emotional things that I am committed to helping improve the self-regulation, self- efficacy, helping people look at toxic stress, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and how all those things impede learning.

 

Empowering Educators to Work More Effectively With Children

Because of her expertise in Mindfulness Practices and Social-Emotional Learning, Dr. Elliott was invited to serve as the Co-Director of the Center for Neurodiversity, Learning and Wellness, and Clinical Professor at the University of LaVerne, where she has worked for the last two years. In addition to conducting research about the effectiveness of this work, especially in disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Dr. Elliott provides extensive professional development services to school districts, and leads Mindfulness Retreats that are influenced by the work of mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here’s how she described her work at the Center for Neurodiversity, and the classes that she teaches for Special Education teachers who are earning Master’s Degrees:

The current practices we use include breath work, various types of meditation, various types of teaching children body scanning: how to become aware of their body, aware of what they’re needing, teaching them energy techniques of where to tap on their body to release energy, and teaching them tools for regulating their nervous system. So, it’s a range of practices that help students, teachers, and parents become aware and increase their self-compassion and empathy. This works helps them become more fully able to speak what their needs are, and to slow their automatic responses down that would lead them either into explosive behaviors or into implosive self-injurious behaviors.

What I love about this work at the Center for Neurodiversity is that I get to teach parents, teachers, social workers, and psychologists, how the brain functions for learning, how mindfulness helps repair the physiology of the human nervous system, to repair the damage of toxic stress and trauma, and how mindfulness is emerging, pretty much for me, as the social justice tool for our generation.

 

Dr. Elliott also explained additional important benefits of her work:

Research is showing that mindfulness helps eliminate unconscious bias, which our children need, especially as more and more people of color leave the teaching profession or don’t go into the teaching profession, and more of our children are being taught by Caucasian teachers. I teach teachers what’s happening when children are in the face of fear, when they feel unsafe.

Mindfulness and Social-Emotional Learning on the part of our students helps them be more resilient when they are in environments where they aren’t being treated with love and care. Neurological Diversity includes all the spectrum: kids  who are Gifted, whose brains work in ways we can never understand, students with autism, students with ADHD, students with dyslexia, students with anxiety disorders, students with emotional disturbance, and students with mental illness. There’s this whole range of different ways that brains function in the classroom. We have to create more space for all of those kinds of brains to be recognized, to be honored, to be seen, and to be able to thrive. Not only does that mean including and diversifying our learning spaces and our instructional strategies, but it also includes strengthening our Social-Emotional components.

 

Advice to School Leaders and Teachers

Effective Classroom Management starts with the teacher’s emotional state.

“A lot of our dogmatic discipline styles, a lot of our authoritarian cultural ways are crushing to Black kids. I think teachers need to understand how the condition of their own nervous system, and the teacher’s own response to perceived threat impacts their class management styles. It impacts their relating style, and adopting mindfulness practices enables them to shift and heal their own nervous system state, and allows them to engage with students in a completely different way.”

“Many of the behaviors that they now find threatening or challenging would become a non-issue. If their nervous systems were healed, it wouldn’t bother them. So, when teachers want to know how they can control kids’ behavior, I say, ‘Learn to regulate your own nervous system,’ and that will allow students to co-regulate to you in a way that lets them borrow your regulated state to achieve their own self-regulation. Discipline as we’ve known it, would become a non-issue in schools, and we could find another way to relate to students without needing to dominate and be so authoritarian over them. Then, we’ll get a chance to see their real light and their real gifts when our focus is not on controlling them.”

Children need to feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe at school and in the classroom.

“We have to get explicit and unpack everything that’s a part of the dynamic of what makes a teacher give a child a sense of safety that allows them to calm down and self-regulate. Many administrators are worried about locking their schools down and keeping certain students out. So, they’re worried about physical safety, but they’re forgetting that psychological safety is more of a day-to-day threat to the wellbeing of students than the idea of a shooter.”

“Administrators have to analyze their learning environment from top to bottom to see where all the places are that students are made to feel psychologically unsafe in their learning spaces. They need to give it as much attention as making sure that every door is locked, and every gate is patched up to prevent armed shooters from getting on their campus. They ought to be just that vigilant about weeding out psychological threats to their children’s and teachers’ safety, because if administration is threatening the teachers, then the teachers are passing that threat down to the kids. Neuroscience shows us that the brain doesn’t learn in the presence of a real or perceived threat. It goes into survival mode. It does not go into learning mode.”

 

References

“Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health.” Blue Cross Blue Shield

Link: : https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/major-depression-the-impact-overall-health.

 

“Depression in Teens.” Mental Health America

Link: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens.

 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Link: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma.

 

Practical Application: Guiding Questions for Professional Development

What are the main “Takeaways” that you learned from this article?

How will you use the information that you learned from this article to help African American, Latino, low-income, and other students, parents, teachers, and school leaders?

 

About Inspirations by Gail LLC

Mission for Districts and Schools

As a former Endowed Professor of Education, junior high school and high school teacher, Executive Director of Equity, and critically acclaimed author, my goal is to help district, school, and classroom leaders improve schools on  behalf of
African American, Latino, and low-income students by providing the following Selected Services:

Selected Services for District, School, and Classroom Leaders

Keynote addresses & motivational presentations

 

  • Interactive workshops
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Face-to-face and online short-term and long-term PD courses
  • Equity-Driven Leadership Development
  • Customized Multi-Year Equity in Action Plans
  • Culturally Responsive Lesson Plan Development
  • Positive Behavior Strategies
  • Facilitating “Real Talk Forums” to address racial problems,
  • cultural insensitivity, unconscious biases, microaggressions\, etc.
  • Schoolwide and Classroom-Level “Cultural Awareness Project” Development
  • Schoolwide and Classroom Level “Improving Race Relations Project” (IRAK) Development
  • Customized Equity-related regional seminars, symposia, and conferences
  • Workshops for Parents/Guardians
  • Grooming Your Child for Greatness Parts 1-4
  • Workshops for Middle, Junior High, and High School Students
  • How You Can Have a Great Future Parts 1-4

 

About Dr. Gail L. Thompson

 Dr. Gail L. Thompson, Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC, is a critically acclaimed author of many articles and books; former secondary school teacher; and former Executive Director for a business corporation. During her years as the Wells Fargo Endowed Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University, she created and served as Director of the Black Men Teaching (BMT) Program, and supervised doctoral students. Dr. Thompson also created “The Literacy Club,” an after-school reading incentive program for struggling readers, and implemented it at several schools.

 Dr. Thompson has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including PBS Television’s “Tony Brown Journal.” Her books include the critically acclaimed The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students; Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color (co-authored with Rufus Thompson); Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know but are Afraid to Ask About African American Students; What African American Parents Want Educators to Know; African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences; and Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life. Her latest book, Dear Beautiful! A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women, was published in January 2018, and her weekly podcast can be heard via her YouTube Channel: Inspirations by Gail.

 Contact Information:

 Gail L. Thompson, Ph.D.: Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC

 Website: www.drgailthompson.com

YouTube Channel/podcast: Inspirations by Gail

 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs91Cj1EwZsnTJA3isAS5PQ

Email:  gaillt@drgailthompson.com

 

Sunday
Jan272019

Vol 1 (1) Winter 2019

Overview

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Equity TalkThis quarterly online newsletter is a Professional Development resource that provides Education Leaders (district-level leaders, school-site level leaders, and teachers) with practical strategies to improve the schooling experiences of students, especially those who have historically been underserved in schools.

The current issue features an interview that I conducted with Pete Watson, who explained the secrets to his success as an outstanding school- and district-level leader. The article ends with professional development exercises that can be used by individuals and groups.

Foundational Principles

Quote: “Equity has nothing to do with your race or skin color, but it has everything to do with the condition of your heart, and your mindset about children and vulnerable populations. Your heart and mindset will determine how you treat them.” (Dr. Gail L. Thompson)

 

  1. All students should have equal access to an outstanding education regardless of their race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status,  primary language, home life, gender, sexual orientation, who their parents/guardians are, or the community in which they live.
  2. All students deserve to be treated fairly.
  3. Every Education Leader has a moral and professional obligation to provide all  students with equal access to an outstanding education.


“Would I make the same decision if that was my kid?”

An Interview With Pete Watson: A Distinguished Education Leader

A recent EdWeek article revealed how difficult it is to be a school principal these days, especially given the safety issues that have surfaced as a result of numerous school shootings. During my visits to schools to provide professional development services, I find that school leaders face many additional challenges. One common challenge is “How to improve the schooling experiences of students from historically underserved groups, especially African American, Latino, and low-income students?”

The great news is that some experts, like Pete Watson, a Distinguished Education Leader, have found effective ways to address this challenge. In this article, in addition to learning about his background, you’ll learn the strategies that Pete used as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, Director of Curriculum Instruction and Assessment, Chief Financial Officer, and outstanding school superintendent. 

Pete’s Background and Early Years

Along with his parents and two sisters, Pete grew up in a close-knit community in Ontario, California. According to Pete, his father, a plumber, and mother, a beautician instilled “great family values” in their children. They “did everything possible to make my life better by encouraging me to do well in school,” he said. It worked, for although he played sports and worked as a Box Boy and Grocery Checker throughout high school, Pete was a high-achieving student.

After high school, Pete enrolled in the University of California, Santa Barbara. Because of his love for mathematics and science, his goal was to become a pharmacist. However, after a year of attending college and working at night, Pete became bored. The Vietnam War was going on, so along with several friends, he joined the Marines. Regarding his four years in the Marine Corps, Pete said, “That’s the place where I really learned a lot. The military was probably good for me, because it helped me with my leadership beliefs, how to interact with different people, how to get to common goals, and understanding people.”

When he left the Marine Corps, Pete married his high school sweetheart and returned to college, where he planned to earn a Mechanical Engineering Degree. After his wife invited him to attend one of her Sociology classes, he changed his major, and he and his wife eventually became teachers.

The Birth of a Teacher Leader

During his two years as an elementary school teacher in Upland, California, Pete’s teaching and leadership skills were strengthened. He explained: 

At that time, I was very fortunate. There was a gal out of the UCLA Elementary School Program (UES), named Madeline Hunter, and she was considered a leader.

She used my classroom as the model for her “Seven Step Lesson Plan.” It was terrific. She would come and bring her students from UES to my classroom, and they would observe the lessons and the classroom management, motivation theory, reinforcement theory, different instructional techniques, concept attainment, direct instruction, all those different kinds of things. So, early on in my career, I  got heavily reinforced about doing a good job. She gave me a great knowledge base.

The Middle-School Teacher

After two years as an elementary school teacher, the principal of the school invited Pete to help him open a new middle school in Diamond Bar, California. During the next several years, Pete was extremely busy. In addition to serving as “Sixth Grade Team Leader,” at the new middle school, he co-taught an after-school Adult Education course with Madeline Hunter. One of the main leadership lessons that he learned from the school principal was: “Whenever there’s an obstacle, if you let the obstacle define the solution, then, you’re in trouble.  You’ll never get to where you want to be.” 

The Assistant Principal

Within a short period of time, Pete became the assistant principal at the same middle school. But unlike his previous teaching jobs, he hated this one. Pete explained:

 

I hated the job because it was mainly discipline. Discipline at junior high school isn’t a great place to be, because instead of really being able to be more positive, it reminded me of how it would be to be a police officer.

                Then, Pete found a solution that changed everything: He created an ASB Leadership Class that was designed to help students and help him. According to Pete:

I needed some positive reinforcement from kids that I was getting in the classroom, but I wasn’t getting as an administrator. In reality, my needs were the same as every kid in the school. They needed that positive reinforcement from each other and from adults. So, what I tried to do was to make sure that we had a representative sample of the different groups: not different ethnicities, not different languages, not different economics necessarily, but clusters of kids that hung out with each other. So, I wanted to get somebody from each one of these groups of kids. They would be representative of the thinking of groups of kids, so that when we did have activities, parties, dances--all those things--they would be able to bring a perspective from that group.

That Leadership Class was one of those classes that everybody wanted to be in after a time. When I left, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to be just a popularity contest.  I felt that the core value of that group and that activity was that it really did represent a pretty good part of the student population, not just isolated parts. I had a great time with that.  It helped me keep my sanity, and it helped a lot of kids. I loved that, and the job really became pretty cool. I can’t tell you how many of those kids and I are still friends. 

The Elementary School Principal

                After five years of serving as an assistant principal, Pete was recruited to become the principal of a high-performing, K-6 elementary school in Alta Loma, California. During this period, he learned some important lessons about how to change a school culture at which the majority of teachers were satisfied with the status quo. Here’s how he explained it: 

I decided to have everyone take a Personality Profile Test, and all 35 teachers were the same. They were what was called a High S: stability, stable, secure, and I was a High I, High D. I was interactive, dynamic. I wanted things to change all the time; they didn’t want any change.

I still remember vividly that this guy stood up and said, “Here’s the results of this instrument.” And I said, “How come you guys don’t want to change anything? You’re wanting to do the same thing all the time every day, day after day. And you’re looking at me going, ‘You’re nuts! You want to change things every moment.’” And I thought I was going really slow; they thought I was going superfast. So, we had a tremendous discussion about that piece.  I had a terrific time, and I learned so much as a new principal about respecting the people, but also about giving them good guidance, and not trying to change things through a big swing from here to there, because that’s what Education does so many times. Making small adjustments along the way worked for me.

The Junior High School Principal

                After four years of serving as an elementary school principal, Pete became the principal of a new junior high school in the same district. Although there was strong competition for this position, Pete’s leadership philosophy, candor during the selection process, and beliefs about how middle schools and junior high schools should operate, impressed teachers and the School Board. According to Pete:

When you think about leadership, you kind of know where your standards are and where your beliefs are. Once you know those and you are firm in those, and you’ve seen success for kids and families, then, I think you have the confidence to say, “This is who we are. This is what we’re going to do. This is why I’m going to do it, and how I’m going to do it.”  

My philosophy was “The media make it seem like middle school kids are little kids in adult bodies.” I said, “We’re not going to have proms, we’re not going to have limos, we’re not going to have a graduation. We’re going to have a promotion. If anybody wants to be a cheerleader, they have to have a C average, and good behavior, and I don’t care whether they can jump and cheer or anything.” So, we ended up having 100 cheerleaders.

Pete also made it clear to teachers and leaders that he didn’t want anyone at his school who didn’t want  to work with the low-income kids from a neighboring community. At a staff meeting, in addition to explaining his beliefs about how  middle schools and junior high schools should operate, he told teachers:

If you don’t think that you want to be around those kids from the HUD housing project in your school, then, get out of here right now! You know how I feel about that, so let’s talk about what we are going to do. 

Middle school is like a Sampler Platter when you go into a restaurant. You’ve got to test a lot of things. We’re going to have Interdisciplinary Core Teams: teachers working with 120 kids. They’re going to be able to determine the schedule; we’re going to have an Exploratory Wheel that is going to be ungraded, so that kids get to sample keyboarding skills. They’re going to be able to sample these things, so they know when they go onto high school, what inspires them, and what they’re interested in. If we put them in one thing and they don’t like it, they won’t know whether they like something else or not. They just know they don’t want that.

                Pete also made it clear that he wanted his staff to offset problems by being proactive. Here’s what he told them:

We’re going to model how we want to be treated and how we want our school to look.  Every class period, you’re going to be, not at your desk, or not at the overhead, or the computer; you’re going to be at the front door. You’re going to be shaking every kid’s hand.

The reason we’re going to do this is that you know your kids better than I do, and  I want to be very proactive. If a kid comes to school during first period, and you’re shaking their hand, and you tell me that they had a horrible morning, whether they had a fight with their parents or they didn’t have food or something, I want you to call me up right then. I’m going to come down, and we’re going to get that kid and make their day better. They may miss your class period, but the rest of the day is going to be better for them. Otherwise, they’re going to screw up in your class. You’re going to be mad; they’re going to be mad.

You’re the one that can be that counselor and we’re the ones that can support you in that. What would you rather spend your time doing? Calling me up and saying, “Hey come help this kid,” or would you rather be sending a kid down to the office because of some discipline problem in your classrooms?

                In addition to implementing a highly successful “country line dancing”  program at lunch time that drew students out of their shells and cliques, another of his great successes at that time, was creating “Parent Nights.” These events were designed to provide parents and guardians with expert advice about adolescent development and effective parenting strategies.  Pete’s leadership style, philosophy, and strategies paid off. Within three years, his school became a “National Blue Ribbon School,” and students were transferring to it from other cities.

The Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment 

                After five years of serving as a principal, the superintendent of Upland Unified School District recruited Pete to become the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. In the beginning Pete disliked this job, but by the end of his three years in the position, he had put programs in place that caused him to enjoy the job. He explained:

It was the worst job ever. I recognized that it had nothing to do with kids; it was all about compliance, checking boxes, filling out reports, developing big plans, but over time I got better at it.

We did a lot of textbook and curriculum adoptions, professional development training for teachers on instructional pedagogy and classroom management, how to analyze data, all the stuff that I learned in my early years. I really brought some systems to the district on how you look at data and analyze data. I did all of the formative assessment pieces. I really kind of liked it at the end but in the beginning I didn’t like it at all because there really wasn’t enough interaction with kids and staff. I had spent a lot of time in the schools. I really wanted to do that.

The Chief Financial Officer

After the superintendent recruited Pete to become the district’s Chief Financial Officer, for the next three years, Pete was “in charge of all categorical budgets for district maintenance, transportation, and operations.” According to Pete:

I’m kind of a Systems guy; I took a look at what was working, what wasn’t, who needed support, and how could we best manage the money. I really liked that job. Then, I could also know where the money was going to the schools, how it was getting to schools, and that it was  supporting the schools’ plans.

The Superintendent

                When the Superintendent of Upland Unified School District decided to retire, the superintendent, school board, and many others told Pete that they wanted him as the new superintendent. For the next six years as superintendent, Pete used his exemplary leadership skills to improve the district, in which there were five Title 1 elementary schools, five non-Title 1 elementary schools, one Title 1 junior high school, and one non-Title 1 junior high school. These junior high schools fed into Upland High School.

Although the district was “highly regarded,” when Pete examined the data closely, he noticed glaring disparities among subgroups. Addressing these disparities, which he believed stemmed from low expectations and negative beliefs that some staff members held, became one of his top priorities. Here’s what Pete said:

I was convinced that my staff believed that the changing demographics students couldn’t learn. So, I had to find a way to be able to use data to show them. But I also know that you can’t start at the high school level to make change. You really have to start at the beginning level, and move up. One of the things I decided was to show at the beginning level that students could learn. I told staff that they had to change their behaviors as humans and their beliefs as adults. They had to change before the kids could change.

To address this situation, Pete had the school-level leaders implement Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that were designed to help leaders and teachers change their beliefs about students, and use more effective instructional practices. When he disaggregated the state data the following year, the data revealed that the students of a Second Grade Team at “one of the lowest-performing elementary schools had the highest math scores in the district.”

Pete shared this information at the Opening Ceremony, and had the shocked audience give that Second Grade Team a round of applause. He also said that he would be willing to hire substitute teachers, so that other teachers could learn the effective strategies that team used, including pre-teaching skills, and helping students to become “Offensive Learners,” rather than “Defensive Learners.”  According to Pete: 

So, that momentum starting building and over the next four years, we closed achievement gaps. At some of the schools, the scores were crazy.  That’s where our success came from: When the adults started believing, then, the kids started believing.

                Pete also used data to figure out how to increase student participation in the after-school intervention programs. Consequently, he found innovative ways to address this problem, especially by resolving transportation issues. For example, moving the programs to apartment buildings in which students lived, made sense. These are some of the reasons why Pete was such a successful superintendent during the seven years that he served in that role.

Pete’s Advice to Teachers and School Leaders

All kids deserve to receive an outstanding education.

“In every position, I wanted to create an environment where every kid would have opportunities to be successful.” 

“Good quality instruction has to be part of that work. You can’t have all those other things, and not have a good teacher teaching the appropriate content skill sets, and having that knowledge base behind the content. Because everybody can be nice to each other, everybody can be civil towards each other, and everybody can be all those other social pieces, but unless you have a good instructional content, and have the data to support the learning, I think it makes it much more difficult.” 

Your words matter.

“The words that adults use are so critically important that we need to make sure that we clearly understand how the words can impact kids’ lives.”

Degrading students doesn’t work.

“You can’t motivate people by degrading them.” 

Relationships matter.

“Building teams--that dependency--is really a healthy thing. Dependency is really a healthy thing, because depending on somebody else makes you more successful. So, I try to spend my time making sure that the people around me are successful. Then, my life will be successful.”

One size doesn’t fit all.

“I think that what doesn’t work is to put kids and adults into boxes and so many narrow definition pieces. If we look at it in a holistic way, then it doesn’t always have to be this or that, and one isn’t mutually exclusive to the other. So, I think that what doesn’t work is when things are too siloed.” 

“Another thing that doesn’t work is the same solution for the same kid in the same school in the same district. [What’s needed is] the autonomy, and creativity, and professionalism to be able to create a plan, modify the plan, work with the plan, and stick with the plan. We jump around in Education to the next shiny object too many times. We don’t give the first program that we have in place the time to mature. That doesn’t work, because everybody’s pulling you towards different things, and it’s the next thing, and the next thing. Just stay focused.”

 

 

Practical Application:

Guiding Questions for Professional Development

1.     What are the main “Takeaways” that you learned from this article?

2.     What are similarities and differences between your leadership philosophy  and Pete’s?

3.     What are similarities and differences between your leadership style and Pete’s?

4.     How will you use the information that you learned from this article to help African American, Latino, low-income, and other students, and also parents, teachers, and school leaders? 

 

About Inspirations by Gail LLC

 

Mission for Districts and Schools

As a former Endowed Professor of Education, junior high school and high school teacher, Executive Director of Equity, and critically acclaimed author, my goal is to help district, school, and classroom leaders improve schools on  behalf of
African American, Latino, and low-income students 
by providing the following Selected Services:

Selected Services for District, School, and Classroom Leaders

  • Keynote addresses & motivational presentations
  • Interactive workshops
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Face-to-face and online short-term and long-term PD courses
  • Equity-Driven Leadership Development
  • Customized Multi-Year Equity in Action Plans
  • Culturally Responsive Lesson Plan Development
  • SEL Strategies
  • Positive Behavior Strategies
  • Facilitating “Real Talk Forums” to address racial problems, cultural insensitivity, unconscious biases, microaggressions\, etc.
  • Schoolwide and Classroom-Level “Cultural Awareness Project” Development
  • Schoolwide and Classroom Level “Improving Race Relations Project” (IRAK) Development
  • Customized Equity-related regional seminars, symposia, and conferences

Workshops for Parents/Guardians

  • Grooming Your Child for Greatness Parts 1-4

Workshops for Middle, Junior High, and High School Students

  • How You Can Have a Great Future Parts 1-4

About Dr. Gail L. Thompson

Dr. Gail L. Thompson, Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC, is a critically acclaimed author of many articles and books; former secondary school teacher; and former Executive Director for a business corporation. During her years as the Wells Fargo Endowed Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University, she created and served as Director of the Black Men Teaching (BMT) Program, and supervised doctoral students. Dr. Thompson also created “The Literacy Club,” an after-school reading incentive program for struggling readers, and implemented it at several schools.

Dr. Thompson has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including PBS Television’s “Tony Brown Journal.” Her books include the critically acclaimed The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American StudentsYes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color (co-authored with Rufus Thompson); Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know but are Afraid to Ask About African American Students; What African American Parents Want Educators to Know; African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences; and Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life. Her latest book, Dear Beautiful! A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women, was published in January 2018, and her weekly podcast can be heard via her YouTube Channel: Inspirations by Gail.

 

Contact:

Gail L. Thompson, Ph.D.: Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC

Website: www.drgailthompson.com

YouTube Channel/podcast: Inspirations by Gail

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs91Cj1EwZsnTJA3isAS5PQ

Email:  gaillt@drgailthompson.com