Almost 5 years ago, I packed my life and my daughter in my car and moved to Memphis to work for the Achievement School District (ASD). I knew nothing of Memphis or ASD before I came, but I believed in the mission of the organization I bought into the words, enthusiasm and passion that exuded those who represented the organization – without having proof or a track record. I sat in the cafeteria of one of ASD’s direct-run schools in the summer of 2013 and I heard the call, I heard the message, I understood the urgency. Not being from Memphis, I listened intently to the “facts” that were provided to the teachers and staff of the schools, the dismal pieces of information that created the larger picture of what we faced in my mind.
See, as I sat in that cafeteria that day – I asked myself, what if we don’t reach the top 25% in 5 years? What happens next? That questions laid heavy on me, so I asked anyone I thought had the answer, even the Executive Director. No one thought of that as an option. And for the first time in my life – I was in a place where I didn’t see not reach the goal as an option either. Why? Because the families of Frayser couldn’t afford for us not to.
As the years have gone by, I have seen many come and go. I have taught in ASD schools that I wouldn’t send my own daughter to. I have given days, nights and weekends to my students, understanding the urgency that exists. My students and the students that are being served by ASD, whether direct run or authorized, never had time for us to get it together. Not then and especially not now.
So, I write this to you and urge you to be different – or as they say, be the change.
Because the question I posed 5 years ago is not a probability – it is a reality.
I was blessed to be a graduate of a school that was created to set the bar of excellence, in its town and nationwide. It began, just like the ASD, as a dream and vision in a conference room many years ago, but its present reality sits on the opposite side of the spectrum of excellence as ASD.
Therefore, I present these suggetsions to you…
· Understand that the families and students you serve don’t need your pity – they need excellence. Excellent leaders produce excellent teachers who require excellence from their students.
· Furthermore, those who operate in excellence, care about being an asset. Surround yourself with leaders and thinkers who care more about the long-term effects of their existence on the community and others, not a resume booster.
· Be cognizant of the cultural competency of your staff. Create action plans that address the unintentional biases that may occur when someone sheds “light” on the demographics of the students they serve. Be committed to having cultural representation in the classroom and in the curriculum. Be careful of making generalizations and blanket statements – they don’t apply to the majority of the people. Be incredibly careful of making decisions for the majority based on generalizations – as you can see, they don’t work.
· Understand what the community needs. In order to do that, just ask. I promise, we will tell you. And please don’t just listen for the sake of listening- Hear then DO. Requests that are not addressed in a timely fashion with ACTION, looks a lot like passive avoidance. No one likes to be disregarded, especially parents.
· Understand what you’re walking to. Your past experience will be beneficial to your current work – only if you know how to apply it. Think of it like remarrying after divorce with both parties having children. Allow your previous “marriages” to provide exceptional insight to the changes you have to make to make this time work, while committing completely to the children. Because ultimately, they deserve different and better.
· Say what you mean and mean what you say. It seems cliché but it’s a mantra that is necessary. If anything presents itself as not conducive to the betterment of the community and the students you serve, eliminate it, even if it hurts to do so. No one said the work would be easy.
· Have a vision of how your leadership will change the trajectory of the community and students 20 years from now. Know how your work exponentially contributes to drastically changing the educational landscape that currently exists. We need your best – every moment. If you’re not sure, gracefully bow out now. Everything ain’t for everybody.
· Be present, aware and purposeful in all your decisions and actions. Our babies can’t afford more losses. We are apprehensive, fragile and angry. Our time has been taken for granted, our passion for our children seen as pushback or refusal. We want what’s best. Period.
While I am not a parent of a child who attends a school you will serve, I WANT to be. Thus, I speak as an educator in those communities, standing in the gap for the parents I serve. I see my own mother in the eyes of my parents, wanting more for their children than they have for themselves. I hear the anguish in the voices of the fathers and think of my own father, who challenged teachers on my behalf.
I extend my voice as the representation of what the possible looks like. I speak for those who want a glimpse of what excellent teaching and education looks like 20 years from now.
And ultimately, I want to believe so much in the work that you will do, that I would send my daughter to any school in your district. What better compliment? What better way to demonstrate my trust in your abilities?
Make us trust you again. Do the work. Produce results and see how different things can be. I promise, when parents see great things happening for their children, we are the most loyal and consistent word-of-mouth campaigners ever. When we don’t….well, you already know that too.