Yesterday, @c_hendrick and @heymisssmith both tweeted about a high school Principal in Philadelphia, named Linda Cliatt-Wayman. (You can read Miss Smith’s blog here).
This lady took on Strawberry Mansion High, which for the previous 6 years had been on Pennsylvania’s ‘persistently dangerous school’s’ list, and in one year, had it removed from that list. She knows what it is to turn a failing school with no resources, no staff and possibly no future, around. These videos of her story and her TED talk are inspirational.
The two things that Linda Wayman mention the most, that made the biggest difference to her school and her students, are love and hope.
And it got me thinking, what if, instead of relentless testing and unconditional love for data, we had relentless hope and unconditional love for children at the foundation of our education system?
To critics, it can all end up sounding a bit ‘lefty,’ a bit ‘fluffy,’ and a bit ‘progressive.’ But if you’ve ever had to do it, you know the amount of grit, resilience and determination it takes to keep unconditionally loving students who have threatened you; kicked and punched you; screamed at you to fuck off as they slam the door on their way out of your room. You know how much hard work it is to keep hoping that tomorrow will be different; that their behaviour can change, that they can learn, despite everything else going on in their lives, that they will eventually respond to the tough love you’re offering. It is this kind of love and hope that keeps you trying to understand the child; find out what is going to spark their curiosity; and talk, and talk, and talk to them until you can figure out what it is that will awaken their intrinsic motivation to learn. If you can do this as a teacher then your children will learn way more about hard work, stickability, patience and sheer bloody-minded determination from you, than they will from any one-off visit by a rugby player.
The other thing that stood out to me was the reason Wayman took on Strawberry Mansion High. She became the Principal because she was the School District’s Superintendent, and couldn’t recruit anyone else to do the job. She got stuck in, got her hands dirty, lead by example and showed it was possible to love the kids enough to want better for them. I wonder how many of our regional commissioners or academy directors or HMIs would be prepared to do the same thing?
Things are not perfect at Strawberry Mansion High. As Wayman points out, there is still a long way to go. But they are celebrating how far they’ve come in a year, making the school a safer place where real learning can happen, because there is a foundation of love and hope. Children are not just numbers on a page, or empty buckets to be filled with knowledge deemed valuable by the powerful. They are people, with contexts, family backgrounds, dreams, hopes, needs, talents, likes and dislikes. When they are treated as such, real transformation can happen and real education can take place. It’s not easy, and there are no quick fixes, but it is possible, as Wayman so eloquently shows us.