|by Harry & Rosemary Wong
Special to the Gazette
One Voice, One Common Language
Each morning at Alain L. Locke Elementary School, a whistle blows on the playground. Right away, students know to take their backpacks and line up in rows on the blacktop. The entire student body is lined up neatly, by grade and by class, in a matter of minutes.
Assistant Principal Jackie Colon holds up two fingers. Within seconds, the students are silent and attentive, and are holding two fingers in the air. They are ready to start the day. More than that, they are excited to start the day.
How is it the teachers and administrators at Locke Elementary make this miracle happen every morning?
It’s no miracle. It is simply an example of well-executed procedures. These procedures have been practiced over and over, every day until they have become a routine—a habit in the students’ school day.
While there are many schools that have procedures in place, what sets Locke Elementary School apart is their procedures and routines are consistent school-wide. The administrators and the teachers at Locke Elementary have created a Culture of Consistency. The students always know what to do, how to do it, and when to do it no matter where they are on the campus. Procedures and routines are followed easily. Students are successful because they are taught and rehearsed in the routines—they know the expectation.
So at Locke Elementary, procedures and routines are the same from classroom to classroom, even on the playground. These procedures make school safe and predictable, dependable and consistent. This is especially important to children who may come from a home or neighborhood environment that does not offer consistency to them.
One of the consistent procedures used at Locke Elementary is the four finger signals. Each finger held in the air indicates a request. Posters of the signals and their meanings are posted in classrooms and hallways and used by every teacher and even the administrators.
The Dynamic Duo
When you walk onto the campus of Locke Elementary School, it is immediately apparent that this is a very special place. Students are smiling and excited. They are eager to learn, and actually want to come to school!
More than that, the teachers and staff at Locke Elementary want to come to school, too. The teachers take pride in their profession and enjoy taking a part in their students’ lives. There is a genuine atmosphere of care, excitement, and security.
We can say this about the school because we have been there. We have walked the hallways, been on the playground, in the auditorium, and in the classrooms. We have interacted with the students and the teachers. Locke Elementary School is a phenomenal environment for learning.
All of this is because of two very talented and dedicated individuals, the school’s principal, Susan Green, and the assistant principal, Jackie Colon. They work as a team to make sure Locke Elementary School hums with learning and lives up to its motto of “Greatness and Nothing Less.”
Susan and Jackie know every student’s name. As they walk the halls, they stop to greet students by name and ask them how their day is going.
Jackie says, “Susan and I never remove ourselves. We are of the ‘roll up our sleeves and let’s do this together’ mentality.” For everything from training new teachers to a bumped head on the playground, Susan and Jackie are there in it, working to make things better.
When a child is really troubled, Susan is even known to make home visits. “This is the type of principal we have. She’s all about the kids,” says Mr. Sosa, a first year teacher.
Mr. Sosa started at Locke as a slightly uninspired, single-subject teacher who didn’t really want to be there. After just one year, he has become one of the most passionate, well-rounded, successful teachers at the school. He attributes it all to Susan and Jackie. “They support me all the time,” he says. “They’re helping me so I can help the kids.”
An investment in the teachers is an investment in the students.
(More about Mr. Sosa’s transformation, and other effective teachers at the school and what they do, will be in next month’s column.)
Validation of Our Visit
We were so excited after our visit to Locke Elementary School we shared our experience with Chelonnda Seroyer, the teacher featured on the DVD in the back of our book and who often shares the day with us at professional meetings.
On her next visit to New York, we arranged a visit to Locke for her. The first word she spoke to us after her visit was, “WOW!” In a subsequent email she said,
Susan and Jackie genuinely care about everyone at their school. When you talk to them about Locke, their eyes light up. They won’t hesitate to go on and on about this student and that. They relish every success as if each student were their own son or daughter. They are like kids in a candy store when they tell you about all the fun things they planned for the students and faculty. And they will rave for hours about how wonderful the teachers are who work there.
They love what they do. It is that simple. They can’t wait to get involved, and their enthusiasm is infectious. They are truly passionate about their work, and it shines through every crack of the Alain L. Locke Elementary School.
Starting the Day
Susan and Jackie make it a point to start every single day face to face with the students. In the morning, students line up on the playground to greet their teachers and hear the daily announcements. But this is not your typical morning assembly.
Susan walks onto the blacktop area full of energy and with a huge smile on her face. She shouts, “Good morning!” and the students reply in unison “Good morning, Ms. Green!”
Susan is constantly using positive reinforcement. As she walks out, she praises certain classes for how well they are lined up. She thanks a student for paying attention so well. She gives another class a “Great job!” for all quietly holding up the two finger signal.
Susan starts the meeting. She is part principal, part motivational-speaker, and part cheerleader. All of a sudden, it feels much more like a pep rally than a morning assembly. Susan’s talks are filled with call and response, jokes, laughter, cheering, and an energizing spirit.
On the day we visited the school, it was the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Susan says, “Let’s give a big cheer for our teachers!” The students went crazy! It is a true testament to just how much these students love their teachers.
But Susan isn’t satisfied. “Oh, I know you can cheer louder than that!” she yells. “I see this side over here is cheering really loudly today. Let’s see who can cheer louder! Let me hear this side! Okay, let me here this side!” Suddenly, a cheering war has started on the blacktop. Students, smiling and loud, compete over who loves their teachers more. What a way to start the morning!
Even the teachers get involved. For this special day, the faculty is allowed to break dress code and wear jeans. Susan and Jackie have given each teacher a very special T-shirt. And every single teacher is wearing it.
Susan asks the teachers what their shirts say. Proudly, they all shout back, “I teach Greatness and nothing less!”
Then Susan asks the students, “What do we stand for? Greatness!” they respond, “And nothing less!” She starts call and response: “Greatness?” “And nothing less!” “Greatness!” “And nothing less!”
When it is time for the daily announcements, Susan reinforces each one with the students. Susan announces that graduation rehearsal has been moved to 11:00, and the third grade event has been canceled tomorrow. She then asks, “So what time will you go to graduation rehearsal?” and the students respond “11:00!” “And should you come for the event tomorrow?” she questions, and they all say, “No!”
Finally, she tells everyone about the man who lives four blocks away on the top floor of his apartment building and how all of the students wake him up with their mantra. She says, “So let’s wake up all the lazy people in the neighborhood who are still asleep. Let’s say our mantra AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE!”
“Where do you come from?” she asks. And with amazing pride, energy, and heart, every student shouts back the Locke Elementary School mantra.
Then they file class by class into the school. They are smiling already, full of energy, and ready to learn.
A School with a PurposeWe asked Susan about the Alain L. Locke PS 208 Mantra. She said it was her way of giving students accountability. It was her way of explaining right and wrong to the students. For example, when you do wrong, how is that not greatness? What does it mean to strive for greatness and nothing less?
In holding students accountable for how they treat others, Susan and Jackie have also created a culture of respect. During our visit, students in the hallway would stop and say, “Hello, Mr. Wong! Hello, Mrs. Wong.” and “How are you today, Mr. Wong?” We would respond and smile and shake their hands.
When dealing with disagreements, children know they will be treated with respect. They will be given a fair chance to tell their side of the story. Consequences and rewards are handed out justly. Everyone is approached with respect at all times, even if they disagree.
The culture of respect and accountability pertains to the faculty as well. Susan and Jackie expect open and honest communication between the teachers and administration. They treat their teachers with respect, and expect to be treated the same way in return. In this way, administration can set clear expectations, and everyone can work together to reach the same goals.
In later correspondence with Jackie she said,
Accountability is a large part of the culture at Locke Elementary School. Even with something as simple as the dress code. For example, teachers are not to wear jeans to school. Susan says it is important for the students to view teachers as role models. They should take that role seriously and dress accordingly. But unlike many other schools, where similar rules are set down but never enforced, every single teacher at Locke Elementary adheres to the no jeans policy.“They do it because they realize everything we do is for and about the children,” Susan says. “It is not about them. It’s about the kids, and these kids need to know we are prepared to give them the best of what we have EVERY DAY.”
Accountability, Respect, and Pride
These three words make Locke Elementary School the special place that it is. Four walls do not create a school. People create a school—a safe and nurturing haven for children in the neighborhood.
Children are not just under the watchful eye of the classroom teacher, everyone at the school cares for one another. Anyone, any age, on campus feels compelled to become part of the helpful environment at the school.
Children are valued the moment they enter the school environment. They want to be there because they know there will be no put downs, no bullying, no defending their turf. They are wanted there and are missed when not at school.
Teachers are role models in attitude, fortitude, and dedication for their students. They strive for Greatness every day, so that their students will strive for Greatness every day. And ultimately, their success as a teacher will result in their students’ success in life.
The art teacher, Mr. Bailey, puts it best.
“I’m not just a teacher. I’m raising a community.”
A Wake Up for the Profession
The call to Greatness everyone at Locke school recites every, single day is one every child, every teacher, every administrator, every education professional needs to chant each day.
Greatness does not come with dollars and cents. Greatness comes with leadership, dedication, and an unwavering perseverance to putting children first–giving them the structure and tools they need for Greatness.
Close your eyes as you start each day this school year and listen to the voices of the children at this Harlem school invite you to settle for nothing less than Greatness. Click here and join them as you commit to being the most effective teacher you can be–and nothing less.
I was born from Greatness
Today I will do more,
For a printable version of this article click here.
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