Seizing the Moment to Create the School You’d Want for Your Kids
Principal, Excellence Boys Charter Middle School (EBCM), Uncommon Schools, Brooklyn, NY
“When they leave our building, what are they going to say about us?”— TS Hoard
The Pointed Problem: Revisiting Mission When Everything’s in Flux
As the country wrestled with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, the leaders at Uncommon Schools found themselves deeply engaged in self examination. Principal TS Hoard was one of those leaders. As a Black male leading a school whose students are all young Black and brown men, he asked himself how the school could do even better at truly empowering and caring for all of its students.
Amid so much turbulence, he looked past the challenges and saw an opportunity in planning for the 2020–21 school year to re-imagine how both he and his team connected with, honored, and intellectually engaged their students.
The Innovation: Redefining What Matters Most
Guided by the commitment to lead the kind of school he’d want for his own son, Hoard set out to reinvigorate his school’s culture. Building on important shifts taking place throughout Uncommon schools, he committed to:
- Elevate relationships and trust over compliance and discipline.
- Make high-level discourse central to all instruction.
- Show greater appreciation for students’ identities, and for the belief that they can — and must — write their own futures.
The thinking: Uncommon leaders could seize on the moment to create an environment in which students and staff are more deeply invested in their learning and growth.
Hoard knew this shift in practice would dramatically change how he spends his time as a leader, and how he develops the skills of his team (See “Making the Time to Lead a Schoolwide Transformation” and “Transforming Teaching and Learning through Modeling and Practice.”). But first, he had to redefine what matters most for his school and his students and clarify why it would be important for his team to join him in setting and executing a new vision.
The Story: Starting with the Why
Making it Personal
Like so many Americans, Hoard found himself soul-searching last summer, as the movement for racial justice was stirring the nation’s conscience to new levels. With leaders in all sectors re-examining their practices through an anti-racist lens, Hoard and his team asked themselves how they could be more culturally responsive and better support the empowerment, growth, and future success of the young men of color in their charge.
As part of that inquiry, staff read “Between the World and Me,” the Ta-Nehisi Coates book in the form of a letter to his son, about living as a Black male in a country unwilling and unable to confront its deep rooted racism. In it, Coates recounts his own time in school as dominated by arbitrary rules and learning that seemed disconnected from his life and any clear purpose.
Hoard says of the book’s brutally honest account: “I took it personal. I have a two-year-old son, and I thought if my son were in my school, would I agree with how he was learning, and how teachers were interacting with him? And then I realized we needed to make a shift.… When our students leave our building, what are they going to say about us? Are they going to say ‘I felt empowered’ and ‘I felt that they prepared me to be a leader who would be able to shape the social, political, and economic structures of the world.’? Or are they going to say ‘they set me up to do what I’m told.’?”
Additional inspiration for the changes they’d make came from another Coates piece — an essay on advice for Black students — in which he specifically calls learning to write a “moral duty.” As Coates explains, learning how to process and clearly communicate complex information is how today’s students — especially those from historically marginalized communities — can take ownership of their own education and futures.
For Hoard and his team, the idea clinched it. Hoard Says: “We made a conscious decision that we’re not here to have students be compliant. We’re here to focus on building their intellectual capacity, ensuring that they are our future leaders and have the character skills to be able to navigate our world.”
That decision crystalized in a schoolwide planning meeting as staff prepared for the start of school. As in similar meetings across Uncommon, they discussed the life of the late John Lewis and watched a TED Talk by Stacey Abrams as examples of leaders who assertively challenged an unacceptable status quo. Staff were prompted to consider why they became educators and why they chose to be at a school committed to expanding opportunity for young men of color.
As a collective affirmation of the school’s new direction, Hoard’s staff further took a cue from Ta-Nehisi Coates, and wrote letters to their students, as though looking back on the year about to begin. One such note told students, “Through the ways we address our texts, I wanted to show you this subject can teach us how to carry ourselves.” Another said, “I want you to know that ‘I hear you and I see you’,” and yet another: “You are STRONG, SIGNIFICANT, POWERFUL and in FULL CONTROL of your destiny.”
As Hoard and his team then planned how to meet their promises to serve students differently, they committed to going the extra mile in making a handful of shifts in practice taking place across Uncommon schools. Among them:
- Eliminate a point system that they had become over-reliant on for rewarding positive behavior, in favor of a new emphasis on getting to know students as individuals and building authentic relationships.
- Spend time engaging in community conversations centered around students’ interests and experiences; and
- Focus on honing and sharing students’ own complex, content rich ideas.
A Focus on Expert Thinking
Some of the biggest changes would come as a result of the pledge to double down on strategies to radically accelerate their students’ intellectual development. Inspired by Coates’ statements on the importance of learning to write with clarity and power, Uncommon adopted “Writing Our Future” as its rallying cry for the year. They agreed to make guided discourse of complex texts central to their teaching, in an effort to support students to become experts at investigating content and expressing their own increasingly complex understandings.
Hoard says that while the pandemic disrupted many operational aspects of school, it never caused him to question if the time was right to pursue these changes. Instead, he would work with his team to find the “third way” to overcome challenges posed by the shift to remote learning: they launched daily, online “community huddles” to build trust and relationships. He’d use virtual staff development to model warmth and encouragement in online instruction. And they’d leverage shared documents and real time commenting to push students’ thinking in their group and independent work.
Hoard’s advice to other leaders at this time: “Think about how your pain points could be a blessing in disguise.” He explains: “I wanted to accelerate my teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. But because of the pandemic I said, ‘this is my opportunity to really shift our focus towards developing our teachers and our content, and developing myself and our students.’ ”
Below: Excerpt from a Schoolwide Community Huddle with Students. (Full slide deck here.)
For more on how Hoard led the transformation in his school over the course of the year, see “Making the Time to Lead a Schoolwide Transformation,” and “Transforming Teaching and Learning through Modeling and Practice.”
Taking it Back to Your School
- What is your “why?” How does this show up in your work?
- How can you and your team show greater appreciation for students’ identities, and for the belief that they can — and must — write their own futures.
- What steps have you taken to raise the level of classroom discourse across your school? What has been the impact? What are your next steps?
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