There is a truism about choosing one of two roads in life, but I don’t think this is true. I believe there are many roads we can take, and there are often people on the path who point us in one direction or another. My path to education was one that was not planned, but the experience has been life changing.
In honor of National Principal’s Month, I want to introduce you to a man who was there on my road, pointing me down a path. Fred Givens was my high school principal at Bronx Prep Charter School, and he inspired me to pursue a career in education.
Mr. Givens saw my potential before I could see it in myself. He continuously pushed for excellence, academically and personally. Having him as a principal, he struck a balance between loving and stern, something that eludes most educators but a balance I strive for in my own teaching. He was our schools’ superhero, supporting students in and outside the classroom. He formed long-lasting relationships with his students and compelled us to take ownership over our own education.
He taught me many things, but what I really learned was how powerfully life-changing it is when a person you admire really believes in you. I think of those lessons every day in my classroom, the ones I learned from Mr. Givens and my other great teachers, and I try to inspire that same belief in my students.
My time with Mr. Givens at Bronx Prep was just one step during his long and successful education career, nearly all of it in New York City. He started his career with Teach for America, teaching eighth graders language arts in the South Bronx. He spent five years as a founding teacher at a new high school in the Bronx and another five years as a teacher and interim director at a Brooklyn high school. He spent eight years at Bronx Prep, led a new school in Newark and is now principal at another charter high school in Harlem.
As a black man growing up in Newark with family in New York and New Jersey, Mr. Givens said he wanted to serve students and communities that are a lot like his family. His students are what keep him motivated, and he considers it a privilege to work with them.
Here are my questions and how he responded:
I think about all the long days and nights that go into building a school that will best serve the students in the community. How do you do this? How do you stay true to your goals?
“To create a great school as a principal you must be aligned with the mission so your actions do not conflict with your words. Secondly, you must show great love and respect for the community you serve so you are willing to work extremely hard to achieve the mission. Make sure you consider your budget, mission and physical facilities equally as you make decisions that are grounded in achieving the mission.”
You’ve spent a lot of your career in charter schools. There seems to be so much controversy about what’s best for our communities of color–charters versus district schools. What do you think about the ongoing debate over school choice?
“Charter schools are public schools. Anyone advocating falsely against them I oppose and anyone trying to make charters more private I oppose. I am an advocate for great schools. I could care less about what type of school it is. Personally, I have found more mission alignment and committed staff while working in charters than I have when I worked in district schools. However, there are some charters that I vehemently disagree with their philosophy and approach to teaching and learning.”
Do you have any advice for principals of color in this field?
“We are needed. We are in a position to counterbalance the black male narrative that is often filled with stories of poverty, crime and violence. When the narrative is positive, it is often associated with entertainment and sports. As principal, you reflect possibilities that are sometimes beyond our students’ and families’ vision. Respect this role and accept the responsibilities that come with being a role model. Your success is extremely important to so many beyond just yourself. Be conscious of this as you make decisions about how you communicate, where you hang out, and what you say on social media.”
To Mr. Givens and all the amazing principals out there, Happy Principals Month and keep inspiring our young people.
Feature photo is of the author (second from the right) next to his former principal, Mr. Givens, and other former students from Bronx Prep.