Success, excellence, transformation, and stellar are some of the words we like to use when we talk about students. But the reality is that for many of our students none of these words manifest without a lot of work, sweat, failed attempts, prayers, and tears, and patience.
In the midst of the daily struggle of moving students forward academically, socially, and emotionally, an 11th grade student, Brittany Gayot, has re-taught me the lesson of never giving up on a student and the importance of upholding the vision in spite of the things that students do that are totally at odds with the vision. At Eastern University Academy Charter School, we desire for students to be immersed in a college going culture while simultaneously discovering their sense of passion and purpose for life. Equally important, we are concerned about what happens to our young people once leave us after 12th grade. We desire for our young people to have the thinking skills, habits, disciplines, and networks with adults that will enable them to lead lives in which they are happy and productive and filled with options. Many of our staff members not only place a premium on academic success for students, but on also pushing students to lead successful careers, marriages, and families. We are interested in providing this vision to our students.
And my work with Brittany Gayot has reinforced the need to continue to reach for students even when they seem like they are at a point of being unreachable. Admittedly, this is one of the challenges of being a school leader: holding onto the vision you have for a student even when the student consistently does things that are in opposition to what you see for them. At times, you can question whether the student is worth the fight, worth going the extra mile.
Brittany Gayot characterized this student.
As a school leader, there are hosts of pressing things that must be addressed in the course of a day. Though necessary these tasks, can leave you absolutely drained. But I always like to share the aspects of the work that make it worth it all – those times where you simply have to say to yourself, “I love this work.”
11th grade student Brittany Gayot has definitely made me say, “I love this work.” Approximately three weeks ago, Brittany was being asked to leave by the police because she simply would not leave a classroom as instructed by the Dean of Students. In addition, Brittany was arriving to school consistently at 10:30 and 11:00 am. And forget about the uniform compliance. Brittany was set on doing whatever she wanted, and as you know, violations in one area lead to violations in others. So let’s just say that the respect for the adults in the school was very low. We would hear the occasional, “What the f…k are you looking at?” Or, “Do you have a problem with me?”
Despite our meetings, threats, and breaks from the community, nothing seemed to work to change Brittany’s posture. Tired of fruitless meetings with her mother, dean of students, and social workers, I decided to take a different approach and it made a world of difference for Brittany and me. After a reinstatement meeting that was filled with disrespect on Brittany’s part, I said to myself, “This entire ordeal is making me tired and it is clearly not working.” This was the classic “lose-lose” scenario. Opposed to telling her mother to take her home (and that’s what Brittany wanted and expected), I asked her mother to leave and told her that I would take care of Brittany. I asked my executive assistant Mrs. Mitchell to come into my office and we tried something new. This sounds very simplistic, but we started to have a conversation with her. Looking at her hair, nails, and eyelashes, “We joked with her and said, “Is anything real? Is everything fake?”
Slowly, Brittany started to laugh, and when you are in a situation where there was once irreverence and disrespect, the slightest bit of laughter is a major breakthrough. So I knew that we had her. In other words, we were headed in the right direction. My assistant asked Brittany did she do hair and she said, “Yes.” Then she pulled out her phone and she started to share some of the hairstyles she had posted on her Instagram page.
We found it. We discovered something that Brittany cared about – something that she was passionate about. She loved doing hair. She even told us that she charges $100.00 per head and that she has made some significant income. Because I so wanted to have a breakthrough with Brittany, I was intently listening and taking mental notes of everything that she said to us in my office.
And then I thought, Brittany is like so many other students who hit a wall. Sometimes students can’t move beyond the pain of a traumatic experience, depression, sadness, poor relationships at home and school, and some even feel that they can never recover from either failing or missing significant time from school. A number of these walls were barriers for Brittany.
But we made an agreement that changed everything. I am writing this because I want to encourage parents, teachers, and friends to make an effort to go after students that hit these walls.
One might ask, “What did you do once you knew you had her?” Once Brittany gave me the witness that she wanted to be reached, I knew that I had to do something dramatic. I had to make a big deal about her transformation. Here are some of the steps that I took:
SPEAK WITH LOVE
Once we were settled, I spoke to Brittany respectfully, and like a loving father would speak to his daughter, I said, “Brittany, we have to work together on this.” I then let her know that she had my full support and that I would advocate for her if she made the change of getting to school in time. I told Brittany, “I care about you and want to see you change.” We cannot be afraid to let students know that we care. When Brittany left my office, it seemed as if the animosity that she had towards the adults subsided. I prayed that Brittany would uphold her bargain of the agreement.
DO SOMETHING TO AFFIRM THE DESIRED BEHAVIOR
Living by faith, the next day I sent my Dean a text, “Has Brittany arrived to school?” In the affirmative, he said, “Yes, and she was here on time.” Later in the day, I called her to my office and Brittany said, “What did I do?” I asked her to come in my office. My assistant and I presented her with a cake and a card. Immediately, Brittany broke down into tears. She hugged my assistant and me out of appreciation. Knowing that I needed to call her mother for something good, I called Brittany’s mother around 5pm. Her mother said, Brittany already told me that she had a wonderful day at school. No fool to the power of technology, I pulled out my phone and asked Brittany to take a picture with me as she held the cake and card. I wanted to do everything I could to let her know that she was important to us. Surprisingly, Brittany’s mother was so elated about the change in her daughter that sent me these pictures of Brittany’s experience as a US Naval Cadet. One might ask, “Why would a mother send me those pictures?” In short, Brittany’s mother wanted us to capture the vision that she had of her daughter so we would know that what we were experiencing with her child was not always the case.
PURCHASE SOMETHING CONNECTED TO THE STUDENT’S PASSION
Well aware of how disconnected Brittany was from the school and the adults, I knew that I had to move quickly to make sure that I maintained the momentum that I had with her. In addition to sending her a text on Friday with the pictures, I took a trip to Barnes and Noble bookstore on Saturday and purchased a book about her passion entitled The Hair Story. As I shared earlier, I took a mental note that Brittany was passionate about hair and I knew that I could find the perfect book for her. So on Monday morning, I sent a text to my Dean again and asked, “Is Brittany in school?” He said, “You will not believe it Sir, she is here. What did you do?” Shortly thereafter, I went to Brittany’s class and told her to come to my office; I showed her the book and worked through a plan with her for her Passion Project. I also provided her with all of the key documents that she had missed for this process. Again, I wanted to do everything that I could to make sure that Brittany felt she had needed to be successful. And this blew her mind. I then let Brittany know that part of her project would be the hosting of a Hair Care Workshop for young ladies and that she would invite the author of the book to the school since she was a professor at Temple University. Perfect – I was on a roll – and I knew that I had won Brittany over because she kept saying, “Thank you. I really appreciate this Mr. Barlow.”
Part of me had a sense that it was not often that someone had made a big deal over Brittany for just arriving to school. Prior to the conclusion of our meeting, I told Brittany that I wanted her to use post notes to take notes on important things that she read.
Aware of the importance of this victory with Brittany, I checked on her every morning, and from each check-in a different young lady emerged. I saw a smile, a sense of care, and a great respect for our relationship.
FIND A WAY TO COMMUNICATE – SEND A TEXT MESSAGE
One of the major things that I taught Brittany is that you have to communicate. I told her, “You have to talk to me. If you are having challenges, you have to talk to me. You cannot go silent on me. “
And I remember one particular day when she was running late to school, she sent me a text message stating, “I am coming to school Mr. Barlow; the bus was running late. I will be there.” Yes, this is a small thing but it is major for someone who was constantly late and had virtually destroyed all of her adult relationships at the school.
Quite honestly, many students have not had mutually respectful relationships with adults at schools. This is one thing that makes our school very different. Our staff works at developing mutually respectful relationships with students.
In order to build these relationships, I often given students my cell number, especially my students who need an extra push to live up the vision we have for them. So I sent Brittany a text message at the end of the week letting her know that I was extremely proud of the effort that she made this week. I then shifted gears on her. I told her that I needed her to begin the process of submitting first-rate work. And anytime that I begin to work students, I let them know that they need to be in “Beast Mode.” And Brittany’s response let me know that she was ready, “Yes, Mr. Barlow, I am on chapter four of the book and ‘Beast Mode’ is turned on.”
Brittany is a big deal to us, and we are experiencing the results for reaching for her. We expect her to fulfill her passion, graduate from college, maintain mental and emotional stability, engage in an on-going relationship with us, and maintain healthy relationships with her peers and adults, but in order to accomplish all of this, Brittany simply needed someone to reach for her. We all thought that she was a lost cause, but she taught us something…that she was worth saving.
DON’T STOP SOWING INTO STUDENTS
Two weeks after writing this piece on Brittany, I have paid close attention to her. Among the many sons and daughters at the Academy, I look for Brittany every day. Because I let her know that she was worth the effort and she knows that I care, she has made an extra effort to let me know that she got a job at the airport, that she is doing her work, and that she has heeded my advice on relationships. Of course, there have been days in which Brittany did not show up for school or do what I asked her, but I have learned that being patient with mistakes is a major part of life. In fact, there were days in which I was simply mad and disgusted at Brittany but I consistently supported her and encouraged her to make the best decision. Since our agreement, I have seen Brittany more days than she has been absent and my heart leaps with joy to hear her say to me as we passed one another in the hallway, ‘Mr. B, I told my best friend about the advice that you gave me on relationships. She needed that.”
In the end, we will ultimately reap what we sow…and the hard part is that we must remember that we must continue to sow. And at some point, we will reap – and everyone wins!!!! Trust me – Brittany was worth saving.
Thank you Brittany.
I Love This Work,
think big blog
We Would Love to Have You Visit Soon!
M-F: 7am - 4pm