The Principal Will Save Your School Now

How one principal wants to change the way in which the U.S. educates its kids.

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At Bailey's Elementary School in Virginia, students play dramatic games to learn English.

Lorenzo Alexander Chambers has 15 years of experience as an educator, from classroom teacher to the last six years as an elementary school principal in Brooklyn, N.Y. He currently heads a school with more than 500 students and families and 100 staff and faculty members, with a budget of $5.5 million.

In August of 2013, Chambers published, "The Principal: School Leadership in Real Time," a peek into the mind of the everyday workings of a New York City elementary school principal. He addresses any stakeholder who has an interest or investment in public education, from parents, teachers, politicians and policy makers to private foundations and institutions that train educators.

I interviewed Chambers last week.

 In what ways do you apply your past experiences in your role as an educator?

My experiences in philanthropy are most applicable. While working at the American Lung Association, the United Negro College Fund or at Dartmouth as a major gifts officer, I came to understand that philanthropy is not so much about being charitable or giving money as it is about engaging in endeavors that advance the well-being of humanity. This idea focused me on education as the endeavor I would engage to play my part in advancing the well-being of humanity. The mission, vision and values of my school focus on thought processes that include the idea of taking action to advance the well-being of the students themselves on behalf of the well-being of their families and communities, and ultimately mankind.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

What are your challenges as a principal?

Barriers to success include outdated bureaucratic regulations and the time it takes the system to evolve to meet the needs of students. For example, there is currently a hiring freeze in New York City on hiring general education teachers. That means that if I have a vacancy, I can only hire from a pool of candidates who already work within the Department of Education. I cannot hire the best candidate for the job because of this restriction, yet I am held responsible for student outcomes.

Tell me about "pulling the curtain back."

"Pulling the curtain back," is about being transparent. Transparency means being able to share setbacks and mistakes as well as successes. As a leader, it's important to be reflective and say, "Knowing what I know now, here's what I would do differently." Leaders must lead by example. When I see and hear children in denial of their wrongdoings, I automatically think that it is a learned behavior learned from watching and hearing adults. As a principal, I think it's important for my teachers, students and parents to hear me say, "This is what I do well, here are my challenges, and here is what I learned and what I am willing to do about it."

What should the country ask itself with regards to the direction of public education?

We need to re-open the debate about the purpose of public education. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the primary purpose is connected to the economy. Is it? President Obama's educational thrust is Race to the Top. Question: To the top of what? Also, inherent in a race to anywhere is the idea that someone has to lose. Is there a scenario where all children can win?

Has society let down its children?

Yes. Adults send mixed messages to children. We say to be honest and fair, yet, children see people do bad things and not suffer comparable consequences. Society is sending a message that if you are good in science, math, reading and writing, there may be a place for you in the future through a college and career ready path.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

What if I'm good with my hands mixing concrete, laying brick? Is there a place for me that is valued? Even if children become college ready, we haven't made it affordable. For many students who take on the debt through loans to afford college, too many are strapped with paying back loans well into their 30s.

When we say career ready, what careers are we talking about? We have to find a better way to honor all of the gifts that individuals have to offer. People who don't make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year must be valued.

What are the greatest challenges in education today? 

There is an inextricable link that binds education, poverty and ethnic discrimination. There will always be seemingly insurmountable challenges in education as long as we continue to devalue the lives of segments of our population in America. This segment is first, poor people and then people of color, typically black and Latino. Education is the social justice/equity issue of this generation. We cannot continue to spend a disproportionate amount of our national budget on weaponry and turn around and say education is important.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is There a Need for Parent Trigger Laws?]

What role do parents play in education?

Children of involved parents perform better in school than students whose parents are not involved. Parents demonstrate what is important to them by how they spend their time. It takes sacrifice. I give parents of students in my school two recommendations: 1. Spend an hour a night with your child. Read with them, have them read to. 2. No television or limited meaningful television time Monday-Thursday.

Those two ideas can be beginning actions of improving student learning. Many overachievers are outliers to the norm and thank God for them. Many of them either have a polestar figure in their lives that motivates and inspires them and/or they are self-motivated by an intrinsic belief that they can achieve. Often this is driven by a strong will and desire to overcome their life circumstance.

Share your thoughts on STEM education v. liberal arts curricula.

Many propositions put before the country are often either/or proposals. I submit that many of the answers lie in both scenarios. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum is for those who are inclined to excel in those areas. Every student should be exposed to STEM curriculum for general knowledge purposes as any well-rounded liberal arts curricula is positioned to offer. However, children should not be made to feel less than if they are not inclined to excel in a STEM curricula. There is a place for liberal arts in developing skills and strategies that are transferable to many career choices. Additionally, we become knowledgeable citizens of the world through liberal arts education.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Please tell me about the best lessons you have learned from your students.

The best lesson that I learned is to be vulnerable because as human beings we are all vulnerable. 1. Just because we're adults doesn't mean we know everything. We need to be able to say I don't know to children because they know when we don't know. Students will respect you when you say "I don't know" followed by, let's find out. You have to be able to facilitate the discovery process to answers. 2. It's okay to show emotion. I remember reading a book to a fourth grader, "Tales of Despereaux." At one point tears began to stream down my face. Something sad happened to the main character, a mouse. My students were shocked and awed. "Why are you crying?" they asked. "Why aren't you crying?" I responded. Students need to know that it's okay to express feelings when moved by a piece of literature, or art or any life experience.

At its best, what does public education look like?

At its best, all children would learn to be self-motivated to pursue their life's purpose. The natural curiosity that children have will be nurtured as educators honor students' questions through an inquiry process that leads to the discovery of their (the students') own answers. It looks like children learning the skills and strategies necessary to solve problems and conflict peacefully and to make decisions that advance the well-being of humanity. Students should have basic math, reading and writing skills that can be applied to future endeavors they choose including art, music, science, and health. In elementary school, it looks like students learning to work collaboratively in rigorous academic environments. The five-pound American Heritage Dictionary in my office says that rigor is an experience that is difficult in trying circumstances which requires accuracy and precision. I think that is an appropriate description of the work to be done in education. In grades 6-8, students are exploring their talents to match their ambitions with their talents. Students entering high school should begin to focus on career paths that lead to their perceived purpose in life. If a student was to become a carpenter, they can engage in work that supports this ambition alongside college preparatory courses. Those who go on to college can fine tune their options at the highest levels of education. Ultimately, there should be some joy along the spectrum.

Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and The New School

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