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The Secret to Happy Children

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Secret to Happy Children

Principal Eugene Pinkard, Marie Reed Elementary School

Principal Eugene Pinkard is sitting on a child-size chair in the middle of the open-space, wall-less heart of Marie Reed Elementary School in Adams Morgan. The open-classroom setting is a relic of a 1970s design concept.  The lack of walls means that if you listen closely, you can hear strains of Spanish (it’s a bilingual school) or the sound of children laughing. Once in a while, a student runs by and the principal gently scolds him, though it’s clear he admires the students’ energy and excitement. That same energy has translated into high student satisfaction—95 percent. What’s the secret sauce?

Here’s a conversation with Principal Pinkard, who is in his fourth year at Marie Reed.

What makes you proud of your school?

I’m proud that the students are really, really happy to be here.  When I see them running through the halls to get to class, I tell them to slow down because that’s what I’m supposed to do. But I don’t want to diminish their eagerness. Just the other day, I was learning how to do handshakes from the students. If you get here early, you can see the students greet each other and start the day with different handshakes—some of the handshakes are quite complicated! But they take such joy in starting the day.  

Why do the students enjoy school so much?

It’s not rocket science. We’re conscious about telling students that we love them. We teach them that we’re all friends. We have that conversation on a daily basis. That’s what creates a sense of security and fun for the students.

Why did you decide to become an educator?

It may be a genetic predisposition—my family has lots of educators! But seriously, in college I studied government and liberation theology. If you study how society works and reflect on the need for social change, it’s hard not to become an educator, or at least to understand the importance of education.  During and after college, I started volunteering with youth and eventually taught in South Africa. By then, I knew that education was going to be my career.

What does teaching elementary school children have to do with changing society?

First, diversity is a big part of it-- you learn how to understand and celebrate those who are different from you. I don’t know if people realize how special Reed is. This is the most diverse setting I’ve ever been in—and I’ve been an administrator at charter, private and public schools. We have a full range of students, from children who have literally not been in school and don’t even have a stable home situation, to children from families that work on the Hill or in companies and have all kinds of options.

And when you walk down the hall, you hear all sorts of languages (Marie Reed is 66 percent Latino, 20 percent African American, 9 percent Asian, 5 percent white, and 1 percent Native/Alaskan).

All of these stories the children’s stories, backgrounds and experiences are blended into every classroom. We don’t want to take it for granted-- it creates an opportunity. The children love each other and they love their teachers, but we also let them know that it’s not that way in the world all the time and that they need to take that respect with them.
How do you teach young children these concepts?

I’ll give you an example. For our Black History Month fact today over the announcements, I used the vocabulary word “reconcile.” I used Nelson Mandela as an example of what reconciliation looks like. And I said, “Here at school, we’ve never had something terrible like apartheid, but sometimes we disagree. But we stay a special community if we reconcile when we have differences.” I enjoy trying to share life lessons that I’ve learned over my 40-plus years and frame it in a way that a 5-year-old can understand and related to-- such as when she can’t figure out whether she wants to share her markers.

Ok, so you’re talking about the school environment. How about the learning environment?

We teach children to think critically and ask questions. We also give them a sense of pride and dignity. In turn, they will be able to advocate for themselves and their communities. I don’t need to tell them my values or what to think. Instead, I want them to be able to find the information they need and make decisions for themselves. We also try to build increasingly complex and authentic learning experiences that help them navigate the world on their own.

Can you give me an example of that kind of real-world learning experience?

The fourth and fifth graders happened to be learning geometry when we were trying to get our field renovated. They went out and measured the dimensions of the field and translated that into materials and cost. We then connected that to social science and asked them, who should they tell? What parts of government and which nonprofits? We want to connect what they’re learning with the world they’re trying to create.

We also held a Career Day last May—the brainchild of our school counselor. A police helicopter landed on the field; we had horses and the K-9 unit from the police department. We had doctors who brought models of the human body. We had the local pizzeria, Peace Corps, architects.

Let’s be honest—every kid wants to be a fireman, but they were still fascinated. The students had passports and they would go to different professions and get a stamp. To see them interview a tax attorney with the same fervor they had when interviewing a doctor or policeman—that was really exciting. The students were genuinely interested in what other people do.

You mentioned it was the counselor’s idea to start Career Day. Is it normal for faculty and staff to have ideas like that?

Most of our good ideas are not mine; they come from our faculty or staff. They are continually thinking of new ways to serve the students. Our dean basically created our summer school program. We also have Saturday school and a special math program for advanced math students—these are all faculty or staff ideas.

Our teachers and staff are very accomplished and hard working. We have a great number of highly effective teachers. For example, Alexandra Gordon, who is one of our kindergarten teachers. She’s a certified Tools of the Mind (early childhood curriculum) teacher, and I believe she’s often used as a model classroom for schools that are thinking of adopting the curriculum.

Have you received any parent feedback about teaching in general?

Parents tend to fall in love with their child’s teachers. Every year I have numerous requests that their child stay with their teacher. I have to keep convincing parents that our faculty is really strong from preschool to Grade 5. I say, ‘Even if you don’t see someone exactly like Ms. Ross, there is someone like her next year.’ So they reluctantly acquiesce and then later, they say they’re really, really happy with the next teacher! That happens every year.

 

What’s been a real challenge at Marie Reed?

When I got here, Reed was a good school. The students were compliant and academics were solid and the faculty did what they were supposed to do. But there was also a sense of complacency. But to really get students ready for college and for academic standards such as the Common Core, and to empower them, we needed to do more. That meant that we had grade-level team meetings where data was on the table. If you’re a teacher, you can’t be defensive if your data is down, or arrogant if your data is up. It’s about seeing how we can get better as academic professionals. And the real challenge is that not everyone may be a great match for that. So some teachers parted ways and there were times that really challenged folks’ sense of comfort. But now, I think we all understand the urgency and nature of our work and there’s a lot more buy-in and a sense of mission.

What would it look like if you achieved all your goals at Marie Reed?

I think it has more to do with the process, and it’s what it should be. When parents ask what our biggest challenge is—the truth is, we don’t have any unique ones. We have some students who don’t read well enough, or who need to do math better, or who need to make better decisions. Those are the things we signed up for. But we’re not breaking up fights or chasing angry parents; we’re not worried about safety. We’re in the business of teaching and learning. We aren’t doing anything fancy. The only thing that’s missing is the ultimate result.

Is the ultimate result for all your students to be advanced?

My goal is for every student to accelerate their learning at a high rate. I’ll never say that all our students will be advanced. The reality is that, in February, we have enrolled seven new students in the past two weeks, including a student who should be in third grade but has never attended school. I don’t know if that student will be able to access the fifth-grade curriculum here before they leave. But I can say that we’ll put that student on the path to get them to advanced.