Young Professionals

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“I’d like you to consider _____ Junior High School,” the superintendent says.

“I’ll take it.” I’ve been watching the postings for principals and it’s the only school that has interested me.

“Things are not good there. Over 200 suspensions last year and test results are abysmal,” the super says.

Two hundred? The school only has three hundred and eighty kids.

“You’ll have to work your magic.”

Magic! What magic?

When the posting is made public I visit the school. Venetian blinds hanging at all angles, slats missing, classroom doors begging for paint, a science lab and art room overflowing with junk, a gym floor that hasn’t been refinished in over 20 years, and battered army-green lockers falling off the wall. The physical plant matches the student reputation. The teachers and support staff, when I meet them are wonderful. Just what the school needs. I suspect they can work miracles given the chance.

I give us two years to turn things around. We start with assemblies on the first day. The grade sevens are shy and fearful. The grade eights a bit rowdy, but nothing unusual. I tell the grade nines that I intend to reduce the number of suspensions from 200 to zero. They scoff and hoot and holler. I tell them not to laugh. It will happen.

For the physical plant, we start with new lockers, that little bit of personal space being so important to kids, move on to painting, clearing out junk, new vertical blinds, refinishing the gym floor….

For the discipline, I have a sign painted on the wall by the front entrance that reads:

At _____ we:

  • Look good,
  • Work hard,
  • Get smart,
  • Are professional.

I go to each classroom and talk about the new motto. I explain that school is their job and they have an obligation to themselves to do their best. I tell them that school is no different than learning to ride a bike or a skateboard. It takes practice, practice, practice. The more you practice the smarter you will be.

I tell the kids that we will have one rule only. They must be professional at all times. This turns out to be a bit of a magic wand.

And the last bullet? Professional?

To the young girl with her midriff showing, I say. “If you were a lawyer would you go to the office dressed like that?”

To the young boy with obscene words on his t-shirt, I say, “If you were a mechanic or a doctor would you go to work dressed like that?”

Students grumble and complain that our one rule sucks, but behavior improves. Then one day a teacher comes into the staff room chuckling. “You have to hear this. The bus from _____ just pulled up with the volleyball team. The kids got off the bus and pushed each other around. My class was watching out the window and several of them said, “That’s not very professional.”

“Never mind,” says another teacher. “I overheard one student tell another that what she had just done was not professional.”

Later that year one of our students and her younger brother are killed in a car accident. A group of grade nines organize a memorial service for them. I stop to talk to one of the girls working on the computer in the staff room. I tell her how proud I am, that they are being so professional. She says, “Mrs. Jones, for the rest of my life, when I hear that word, I will think of you.”

Did we turn the school around? Yes, in less than a year. Did we do it on our motto alone? Of course not. Many other factors played into the transformation. And our suspensions that year? Twenty-one.

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14 comments on “Young Professionals

  1. Bravo! I think it takes a brave heart or disciplined mind to start something different, something positive. And “That’s not very professional” gave me a chuckle. You’re inspirational.

  2. I love this story. I was a high school English teacher for 17 years, so you took me back. How proud you and your staff should be. You set the standard high – instead of letting the kids set it low. It is possible to do.

    • I had the most amazing staff at that school and wonderful kids. I once told the superintendent that if he sent me to a school in a ritzy area, I’d know he was displeased with me. He left me where I was.

  3. Such an amazing, uplifting unfolding to read when teaching self-respect and respect for others is key to successful learning and helps to shape how we treat our many worlds around us. Congrats for all the hard work and belief in your Middle School student body and staff. Thank you for sharing your strengths shown in this turn around.

    • Thank you, Roxanne. I certainly couldn’t have done it without the marvelous teachers and support staff. Our custodian played basketball with the kids in the early mornings, our receptionist fed muffins to late comers … the list goes on. The motto and the word “professional” worked much better than I could have hoped. I’ll always be so proud of the staff and students at that school.

  4. I followed Uzoma’s link to your blog here and I’m glad I did. It’s wonderful what you did with those kids. I too love your ‘professional’ approach. I can see how the kids and the staff responded to you and how things looked up. I look forward to reading more here.
    Btw, your editing of Uzoma’s story is excellent. As a work-weary editor, I clearly see the editor’s red ink – wielded with precision, and love.

    • Thank you so much for your kind comments. I’m not a professional editor, but will do the best I can for Uzo. He’s a talented writer. My friend is a professional copywriter so I can always go to her for help too.

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