Grounding Learning in Inquiry

Freeman Hrabowski III speaks about how teachers who are always leading and always learning can touch eternity through their students.

After several days of inspiring sessions and networking with school leaders, Freeman Hrabowski III, President Emeritus of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, was just the right ending to the 2023 NAESP Pre-K-8 Principals Conference. As an English major with a poetry concentration and a school leader who often uses poetry with my staff, I appreciated Hrabowski beginning with a Maya Angelou poem:

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

Women, children, men,

Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most

Private need. Sculpt it into

The image of your most public self.

Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances

For a new beginning.

For the rest of his keynote, he stepped away from the podium to drive home his message of the importance of connection. As leaders we need to remember that being connected is what helps keep people engaged. We need to be connecting with our staff, modeling this simple engagement strategy will in turn help our educators to connect with their students and keep them engaged. Hrabowski reminded us that right now, education is more important than ever. We are going through a period of healing as we come out on the other side of the pandemic. We all need support. We all need to know that we matter. We need to be sharing this message in our schools, and we need to keep sharing this message with each other.

Always Leading, Always Learning

So many of Hrabowski’s simple, yet powerful statements during his speech stuck with me after I left the conference. He stressed to all of the school leaders in the audience that “You can never not lead.” As the leaders, we are always being watched. Adults and kids are looking to see how we react. We are setting the tone for our schools. He also shared that “Children must be given a sense of self.” Our kids, all of our kids, need to know they are loved. We all need to feel a sense of love. Our kids need to know they all have strengths. We need to help them understand their strengths, and we need to use their strengths to connect and engage with them. Too often in education we take a deficit-based approach. We need to shift our mindset and strive for a strengths-based approach in our schools. 

Hrabowski had us repeat the following chant several times: thoughts, words, actions, character, destiny. I keep thinking about those words in my head now that the conference is over. How can we use that chant to motivate us this school year? Always the math teacher, he had us do some mental math of trying to solve a fractions problem. He reminded us that while we lead schools full of learners, we should all still be learning constantly. And that learning should be grounded in inquiry. Have you asked a good question today?  Have you encouraged your staff to ask questions? Have you helped students, from our youngest learners all the way up to our graduating seniors, ask good questions everyday? (As an early childhood leader, I couldn’t help but cheer when Hrabowski stated, “As a university president, I should be just as concerned about PreK as I am about PhD.”) How can we as leaders create a climate in our schools that encourages everyone to ask good questions? When we do that, we will see amazing learning happening.

Nurturing Relationships

Hrabowski ended his keynote with two very powerful stories. The first one was about how he went to jail when he was 12 years old. He had the chance to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. His parents didn’t want him to march, but they were told “what your children do will have an impact on children who aren’t even born.” That same message rings true today. Our students and our educators have the ability to influence lives, through what they do and what they say. This country can be better, but we must all make it better, together. Stop and think about the lives you have touched, the lives you still have the ability to influence. It’s a huge responsibility that we have as education leaders; we are the people that other people trust their most prized possessions with, we are helping to fulfill dreams.

His final thoughts certainly hit home because they were reflections on a conversation he had with his mother who has dementia. He asked her what was important to her. Even though she had forgotten who he was, she replied that it was her relationship with her son that was most important. Her relationship with all of her students; she “gave it all to them.” At the end of the day, and at the end of a life, it is the relationships that we cultivate and nurture that matter the most. As we all begin to prepare for another awesome school year full of inquiry and learning, remember the importance of connection and relationships. After all, as Hrabowski encouraged us with his closing message, “teachers (school leaders are all teachers), you touch eternity through your students.”

Notes by Liz Garden, principal of Henry P. Clough Elementary School in Mendon, Massachusetts.