Back in the late 1990s, when I was starting a school in Boston, I had heard about the work of a young educator named John King and the education his students were getting at a school in a low-income neighborhood. I went to Roxbury Prep, to learn from them and discuss ideas, but whenever I was there, I had a hard time finding John.
That’s because he spent nearly every minute of the school day in classrooms supporting teachers or collaborating with them to work on lesson plans to help them be the teachers they had dreamed they could be.
That he spent that much time in classrooms —fiercely protecting his time with teachers, the most valuable resource a principal has — illustrates the way he was dedicated even then to educators, so they, in turn, could have the maximum impact on students.
No one knows the power of a great teacher as much as John does. Having lost both of his educator parents before the age of 12 and being moved among family members in Brooklyn, John credits public school teachers with saving his life.
John taught us that in order to change kids’ lives, schools needed to be designed so teachers had the time, tools, and resources to effectively teach. John knew that great teaching was made, not born.
By the time John and several of us helped co-found Uncommon Schools, he had honed systems that allowed teachers to focus on their instruction and their students, that ensured that principals were focused on coaching teachers to greatness, and that removed barriers and bureaucracies that didn’t help anyone. As a result, teachers were able to feel and be effective in the classroom, and truly see the difference they were making.
What I saw in John on a daily basis was a relentless commitment to supporting the growth of teachers and their craft. On the eve before he left Uncommon to become the deputy commissioner of education for New York State – after 10 years leading our schools – John discovered a key material was missing for our teacher professional development session the next day. Our three weeks of August professional development is a hallmark of Uncommon Schools, providing teachers with the training that lets them hit the ground running when our students arrive. It is a vital part of the teaching experience at Uncommon, allowing teachers to collaborate and share with each other the best techniques that help make kids successful. John had an uncompromising view that August professional development needed to be productive and honor teacher time. So off he went that late August evening to buy supplies before the store closed, so that teachers had what they needed for the next day – because that’s what he felt they deserved.
As John goes about the work of improving the lives of children across America, he will do that with the deep understanding that raising student achievement is only possible when teachers feel successful. John knows that teachers are the key in any school — and the more they feel supported, secure, and inspired, the more our students will learn.
John taught us one more thing that sticks with me — though this we learned after he left. As he admirably led New York State into an era of higher standards and statewide adoption of the Common Core – a bold and necessary set of standards that forces all of us to face the truth about college readiness – he withstood backlash from a small but vocal group of critics. The town hall meetings he held across the state – John was determined to let communities speak up about the Common Core – were often tough, with critics shouting him down, and he patiently listened and politely shared his own beliefs. He has always known and acted on the principle that raising standards for our kids, not lowering them, is what they need – and deserve.
John is a lifelong teacher. He taught high school history. He was a principal who taught teachers. He was a superintendent who taught principals. Our country’s educators should know that no one respects them more than John King, and that no one will lead and advocate more on behalf of our nation’s students than John King.
Brett Peiser is the chief executive officer of Uncommon Schools.