Thirty years into my public education career, I am still in awe every day of the power of what we do. In 1848, Horace Mann claimed, “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” At a personal level, education can be a game changer, and principals are leading that charge. We level playing fields, remove barriers, and create hope.
I have the privilege to lead in the state of Washington, where our state constitution declares, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” I have witnessed the power of formalized schooling firsthand. I know how schools can take a child out of poverty and move him into new heights. I know how positive and encouraging educators can build self-esteem, share new opportunities, and instill a love of learning in a young mind that will create endless opportunities. I know how a young boy, shown the light through helpful teachers, administrators, coaches, and other caring adults can leave behind anger, a quick fuse, and loads of poor choices to grow up to be just like those who made a positive difference in his life.
Education Was My Great Equalizer
To me, formal education is mostly about hope. I believe this because I am the boy mentioned above. I did not come from a family with the resources that others had. I did not have the bloodline that encouraged dinner conversations about changing the world or going to college. My dyslexic father dropped out of high school. My adverse childhood experiences were many. I now find strength, inspiration, and direction in coming from a place that provided many challenges. I was just like the 30 million students who now get free or reduced-price lunch due to a lower household income. I understand the trials of students who do not have typical resources, role models, or often have “life” on their mind when they arrive at school.
As an adult who worked his way out of such circumstances, I am proud of the grit and determination that my formative years built within me. However, I know that growth and stability came to be because of many caring adults who chose to see me as a child with potential. None more so than Mr. Warren, my eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Baker Junior High in Tacoma, WA.
Eighth grade, in a 7–9 middle level system, can be an interesting time for many kids, but Mr. Warren chose to take a raw and challenging boy and spend the needed time to get me on the right path. He spent quality time with me after class, greeted me in the hallways, popped into a conversation with friends just to say hello, asked me how I was doing, called me by name, pre-taught, re-taught, built up my confidence through well-timed questions, called home, held me accountable, and even came to my sporting events. For educators, such actions take some time and effort—but not much, really—and I am a witness to the fact that those efforts can change lives.
Our Calling and Duty
We know America’s early settlers had visions of building the greatest country ever using public education as part of the plan. It was the Puritans who established the first public school in 1635, over two hundred years before Horace Mann’s famous equalizer decree. If done right and done well, schools should give every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, language spoken, socioeconomic status, etc., the tools to shape and fulfill their dreams.
I get the opportunity, multiple times a day, to be someone’s Mr. Warren. I get to do it on a personal level, but I also am in the unique position as a principal to create systems that has everyone on my staff empowered, motivated, and focused to do just the same.
Create management systems that allow you to spend time with your students so that you can get to know them better while also allowing them to get to know you. Regularly encourage, guide, and praise students for good choices and make relationship building a priority. For those who need it, talk about life beyond high school and share options and resources.
Dr. Guy Kovacs is currently serving as the principal of Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, WA. He is in his 30th year as an administrator and is Washington State’s Mid-Level Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@KovacsGuy).