Raising the B.A.R. for Students

Earlier this month, Alison Harris Welcher, one of our Harvard Residents and a former teacher and principal, gave remarks at the opening Convocation for Amelia County (VA) Public Schools. Her remarks, edited for length, are presented below.

I feel like I am home, because this literally is where my story began, before I was even born. My mother and father are alumni of Amelia County High School. My grandmother was a bus driver, teacher assistant and teacher here in Amelia County. And my great-grandmother, whom we laid to rest at 101 almost a week ago, grew up and raised her family in this community. So when I tell y’all, “I’m home,” I’m really home. So thank you for having me.

Before we look into the future, I think it’s important to take a moment to celebrate the past. Let me commend each of you for the hard work and dedication which led to all three of Amelia County schools being accredited for the past two school years. As you know, accreditation is based on the performance of students on state assessments across core subject areas and is only one measurement of success for our students. Nonetheless, this achievement for two consecutive years shows a strong commitment to holding high academic expectations for your students.

Now, I know this year you will be focusing on student achievement, engagement and other strategic goals that the board and district leaders have laid out for the school year. But I’m not here today to provide professional development or share instructional strategies. I am here today to share some ideas that will set the foundation for each of you to have the best year yet.

Today, I want to talk with you about “raising the B.A.R.” By that, I mean three principles for your year: Believe, All-In Effort and Resilience.

Believe. Early in my first year as a principal, a teacher asked me, “What do you believe?” I was initially taken aback, because I hadn’t been asked that question before. After thinking for a moment, I came up with my answer. I believe that all children deserve the right to an excellent education. I believe adults create the culture in school for children to learn. I believe that if we do right by all children, our schools, our communities and our world will be a better place.

Your beliefs are a starting point for what you will do every day in the classroom. So, before that first child enters your room at 7:55 am on the first day, decide what you believe. Write it down and remind yourself of it as often as you need to, especially on tough days. Our children desperately need you to believe in them. Believe in their futures. Believe in the infinite possibilities ahead of them.

All-In Effort. Now, it’s not enough to believe—at some point, those beliefs have to turn into action. And in our day-to-day work in a school, we can sometimes forget how many people are involved in making this thing we call “school” happen. Without bus drivers, many children couldn’t make it to school. Without food services staff, many would not have the healthy meals they need. Without building and maintenance staff, students and staff would not have an environment conducive for teaching and learning. And of course, without teachers and teacher assistants, our children would not learn what they need to be successful in school and life.

What you do matters. Be clear about what you bring to the team and know that the system doesn’t work unless you do. Each of you play a critical role. If all of you are all-in, all of the time, the burden of the journey can be shared.

Resilience. Your journey won’t be easy. I know this firsthand—my first year as a principal was filled with challenges. When I started in July, 28 out of 70 teaching positions were vacant. Students pulled the fire alarms so frequently that we never had to plan a monthly fire drill. And at the end of that year, student achievement was far below what we wanted it to be.

It was not until I reflected deeply that I saw how I could view the challenges as opportunities to improve. I could plan for success if I could understand the causes of our failures.

This resilience pushed me to re-engineer school culture and our talent development strategy, ultimately leading our school to launch the nation’s first ever “Opportunity Culture” initiative. By the end of my tenure, we achieved student achievement growth in the top quartile of all middle schools in North Carolina.

If you bring this resilience to your work, you can avoid getting stuck in your challenges and move forward.

On Monday morning, around 7:55 am, you will welcome close to 1800 children for a new year of learning, filled with hopes and aspirations.  If you commit to “raising the B.A.R.” you can push your students towards success.

Amelia County Schools, are you ready to raise the B.A.R.?

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