What We Learned from Going Back to Elementary School

Spending the day with the students, staff, and administration of The Shakespeare School was a profound experience, both personally and professionally.

On April 16, we had the distinct privilege of participating in Principal for a Day (PFAD), one of education advocacy group PENCIL’s landmark annual events. Launched in 1995 as a way of realizing PENCIL’s mission to “bring together business professionals, educators, and students to open eyes, open minds, and open doors,” PFAD has expanded to more than 150 New York City schools over the past 25 years, and counts the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Bloomberg, and Frances McDormand among its alumni.

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As part of the latest installment of PFAD, we visited P.S. 199X – The Shakespeare School in the Bronx. After spending the better part of the school day with P.S. 199X Principal Yasmin Quezada and a number of her staff and students, it became clear that while we both graduated college quite some time ago, there was still a lot for us to learn from going back to elementary school.

An Atmosphere of Unparalleled — and Unexpected — Positivity

Upon receiving our school assignment in advance of PFAD, we naturally did some background research — we are marketing professionals, after all.

What we found was consistent with what one might expect from a school located in one of the more economically disadvantaged areas of New York City: state test scores well below the citywide average, a 34 percent rate of chronic absenteeism (often an indicator that families in a school are contending with significant hardships), and a student body comprised of 30 percent English language learners and 22 percent learners with special needs.

And while there is no denying that The Shakespeare School has historically struggled with underperformance, every preconception we had about what that might look like on the ground was dispelled as soon as we set foot on campus. Every person we met during our brief tenure as “principals” exuded a relentless positivity that left no secret as to why, despite the school’s systemic challenges, 97 percent of families are satisfied with the education their student has received at The Shakespeare School.

Leading by Example

If our experience is any indication, this positivity begins with Principal Quezada. After arriving at The Shakespeare School bright and early, we tagged along with Principal Quezada as she strolled along the sidewalks that form the perimeter of her campus. What we witnessed was a masterclass in multitasking.

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As she navigated the throngs of students streaming into school, Principal Quezada managed to greet every person she encountered — every student, every parent, every staff member. After each salutation, she turned to us to provide an interesting fact or two about the individual who had just passed by. “This student recently surpassed a major benchmark.” “This family has a lot on its plate right now.” “This teacher’s class just completed a great project on the American Revolution.” The Shakespeare School is a cornerstone of the community, and Principal Quezada is its master mason.

Her deep, genuine engagement with the entire community — not only the students she is charged with educating — has clearly rubbed off on everyone in The Shakespeare School’s orbit. Engagement, openness, and personal investment were the defining themes of our visit, and we are not alone in picking up on this community-wide enthusiasm. In fact, 97 percent of families believe Principal Quezada works to create a sense of community in The Shakespeare School, and perhaps even more notably, 97 percent of teachers at the school say they trust their leader — compared to just 81 percent citywide.

In our eyes, there is an important lesson to be taken from Principal Quezada’s approach to leadership: engagement is a two-way street. Regardless of whether they work in education or healthcare marketing, leaders cannot expect to build a culture of engagement merely by paying lip service to vague notions of “buy-in” and “organizational pride.” If a leader wants to drive engagement, they themselves need to be engaged — and that can be hard work.

But if Principal Quezada was able to find the time and energy to learn the unique needs of each of her 700-odd students, surely leaders in the business world could do the same for their often far smaller teams. PFAD gave us a firsthand look at the power of the tight-knit community Principal Quezada and her staff have fostered around The Shakespeare School, and it is difficult to overstate the potential value of transposing this approach to engaged leadership to the private sector.

Empowering Students Early and Often

While watching Principal Quezada engage with her community was undoubtedly inspiring, perhaps the most impressive display of leadership we saw arrived later in the day. We knew a school tour was on the agenda going into PFAD, but our assumption was that Principal Quezada or one of her fellow administrators would lead the way. Much to our surprise, our tour guides were not adults at all, but a fourth- and fifth-grader.

These incredibly intelligent, incredibly mature students took charge of leading us around the campus, introducing us to teachers, showcasing the aforementioned project on the American Revolution, and giving us a tour of the school’s spectacular onsite health clinic. One can only imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been for two ten- or eleven-year-olds to lead around two strange businessmen, but they handled their responsibilities with remarkable poise.

By affording them the opportunity to show off the parts of their school that they were most proud of, Principal Quezada empowered these students to take ownership not only of their own education, but of the school’s image at large. Serving as representatives of their school surely came with a great deal of pressure, but it also brought out the best in these students.

Our tour guides’ rising to the occasion underscored another key lesson of PFAD, namely that people — whether elementary school students or seasoned corporate professionals — tend to perform best when they are given the chance to “own” their work. Broad-based engagement certainly helps encourage such ownership, but sufficient opportunity is a necessary condition, as well. Principal Quezada empowered her “team members” (i.e. our tour guides) to step into leadership roles, and business leaders would be well-served by following suit.

Striving for Collective Success

This collective ownership over The Shakespeare School’s success was immediately apparent. After spending but a few hours on campus, it became quite clear that stakeholders across the board have bought into a common mission defined by a set of common goals, and are more interested in gauging the success of the school as a comprehensive “organism” than in imposing strict benchmarks in a vacuum.

Principal Quezada and her staff recognize that overcoming the systemic challenges they face will take continuous investment (financial and otherwise) and a community-wide effort to strive for improvement on a daily basis. But instead of using these challenges as an excuse to double-down on testing or other short-term indicators of success, The Shakespeare School has broadcast a simple message to the community: “We are all in this together.”

Of course, individual students receive additional support when necessary, but on the whole, pushing for marginal increases in state test scores takes a back seat to creating a sustainable educational environment that will benefit both today’s students and tomorrow’s. The Shakespeare School has articulated an ambitious vision for what it wants to become, and it is decidedly skewed toward facilitating the long-term growth and success of the collective, not inflating short-term performance metrics.

This may have begun at the top — 98 percent of teachers at The Shakespeare School agree that their principal has communicated a well-defined vision, compared to just 89 percent of teachers citywide — but it has thoroughly permeated the school’s culture. If we infer that this commitment to collective growth and success undercuts any finger-pointing impulses, it is not difficult to understand why we found such relentless positivity where we least expected it.

Learning from the Students

From the importance of engaged leadership to the value of universal empowerment to the wisdom of defining success collectively, we learned many lessons during our all-too-brief time at The Shakespeare School. Shadowing Principal Quezada, meeting her incredible staff, and interacting with her school’s truly remarkable students was humbling and inspiring in equal measure, and we are eager to put what we learned into practice in our own work.

Especially in a city like New York, it is far too easy to go about one’s business without giving a second thought to what is happening just a few miles away — let alone what one could learn from those goings-on. But after participating in Principal for Day, we are confident we will never fall prey to such “social absent-mindedness” again.

We may only have been “principals” for a day, but it was an experience that will stick with us for a lifetime.

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