It takes a village to run a school

Sekou Robertson is the principal of LEARN Excel. He is the INCS 2022 Principal of the Year. This article originally appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times. 

I don’t seek the spotlight. I think many school leaders can relate to that sentiment. We don’t go into education for the fame and glory; we choose this path for the kids. Plain and simple. And we all go into this career with the knowledge that it takes a village to raise one child, let alone a whole school of students.

Despite my discomfort with the spotlight, I received a recent honor: I am the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) Principal of the Year.

What do I plan to do with this recognition? I plan to share the rules I have followed to navigate this role. Spoiler alert: The rules are for a team sport. A principal’s job is not a solo one. Together, our vision is to ensure students thrive academically while also providing memorable experiences beyond the classroom. As the school leader, I simply stand at the helm, and work with an exceptional staff to see students live up to our name and excel.

Here’s how we do it.

Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.The campus culture needs to, first and foremost, be respectful. With respect comes communication, productivity, and organization. Expectations are known, and resources are allotted to meet goals. We tell each other what we need, and this is why my staff stays: Our teacher retention rate is above 89%. It’s why our campus was ranked the #3 charter elementary school in Illinois in the 2021-22 rankings by U.S. News & World Report. I respect my staff’s needs, and they do the same for me. This culture of mutual respect extends to our families, and makes our campus feel like a community where voices are heard and action is taken.

Listen to the moral of “The Tortoise and The Hare.”I believe that a slow and steady approach does win the race. I’ve been a principal for 13 years, a unique accomplishment. It shouldn’t be. This tenure should be the norm, but this role is often a revolving door. Leadership is about providing structure and consistency, while ensuring expectations are high and the environment is nurturing. Leadership isn’t about me. Leadership is about building trust and understanding we are in this together. It’s about setting up others for success, whether that’s the first-year teacher, the veteran receptionist, or the eighth-grader who herself dreams of being a school principal one day. It’s not an overnight job. It takes time and patience. It takes virtues of the tortoise.

Remind yourself that the future of kids should not be dictated by their ZIP code. All kids deserve the chance to have an excellent education. Period. I choose to be at LEARN because we invest in areas others have given up on. Our network educates over 4,000 students, 89% of whom are African American or Hispanic and 76% of whom are low-income. Our kids — all kids — deserve high-quality and supportive educational experiences. Growing up, I saw the inequities in education and society, and I wanted to make things better. Education was a good starting point. I had adults around me who made sure I succeeded, did not fall prey to the pitfalls kids have to navigate in today’s society, and allowed me to pursue this career of public service. I was fortunate. If I can be that person for our students — the person who helps students achieve their dreams and contribute to the betterment of society — then this job is what I was put on this earth to do.

Being a principal is a team sport. Maybe I’ve technically scored the goals, but I wouldn’t have been able to without the assists from the all-stars.

Our network has given me guidance and growth opportunities. Our board has given my school the financial means for student success. Our talent team ensures I have dedicated and driven teachers. Our student recruitment team grows our community of kids and families. My assistant principals and leadership team provide wraparound support to our students and staff.

Without these essential workers (literally), I would not be in the shape I am to be in this role to make sure all kids, regardless of circumstances, are given the best chance at an excellent education. Together, we give students from communities that have been marginalized for over 400 years the foundation and ambition to earn a college degree.

Sekou Robertson is the principal of LEARN Excel. He is the INCS 2022 Principal of the Year. 

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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