By guest blogger Lydia Thompson
The hallways of Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge, Va., were not always as lively and colorful as they are today. When Principal Hamish Brewer came to the school in 2017, the walls were bare. Many students and staff didn’t particularly like coming to the school. It had lost its accreditation, and was considered one of the most challenged schools in the Prince William County district. But through a series of changes, both physical and philosophical, Brewer and his team have helped turn the school around and get its accreditation back. Here is a look at 5 key changes Brewer and his team have made to refocus on students:
1. Moving the principal’s office to a high-traffic part of the building
When Brewer first came to Fred M. Lynn Middle School, the principal’s office was in a back corner, separated from the rest of the school. Now, it’s the first door students pass as they walk through the front hallway. “It’s done to facilitate a space where students feel comfortable coming and going. Their business is my business. So, I’m fully engaged and interacting with their outcomes every minute of the day,” Brewer said. He also encourages both students and teachers to come to his office and hang out if they’re having a bad day. “They know that if they need help, if at any time they need help, they can come see me at any point in the day. I’m here and available,” Brewer said.
2. Painting inspirational murals on the walls
Though some may think of murals as merely a cosmetic upgrade to a building, Brewer insists that they’re more than that. “Your building becomes the expectation you set for it,” Brewer said, “The murals put some of the greatest leaders in front of them, game changing people that have changed the world, that look like[our students], sound like them, and inspire them to want to change the world and be someone of relevance.” Among those leaders depicted on the walls are Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Frida Kahlo, and Chance the Rapper.
3. Making athletic events free
Brewer believes connecting to the community and students outside of the classroom is just as important as engaging them inside the classroom. By making all athletic events free—in a community where many families are low-income—he has encouraged parents, students and community members to come together and participate in events outside of regular school hours. “They’re engaged and excited and the energy...translates over into the classroom,” Brewer said.
4. Creating lessons that excite and motivate students
Brewer said before he came to the school some teachers were not engaging students in the material. “People were giving worksheets and reading out of the book, and that was pretty much all you saw,” said Jonathan Alsheimer, a 7th grade teacher. “I think most people were just trying to keep their head above water with student behavior and issues in the classroom and disruptions.” But Brewer is encouraging teachers to leave the stand-and-deliver method of teaching behind. In one of Alsheimer’s recent classes, students recreated the stock market crash of 1929, working in teams to buy and sell fake stocks, and losing it all during a simulated crash. Alsheimer emphasizes that student-centered learning is about “getting kids up, moving around the room, excited about learning, living it.”
5. Encouraging teachers and showing gratitude
“When we talk about our teachers here, we talk about every single teacher being all in for kids,” said Brewer, who constantly challenges himself and his staff to ask themselves: “When you look in the mirror today, did every decision you make, were you better for kids?” Brewer also shows appreciation for his teachers by telling them thank you, taking them on field trips, and trusting them to explore their own style of teaching. “No matter how engaging a teacher is, you always need that push of motivation,” Alsheimer said, “And [Brewer has] been that push for everybody.”
Related Reading on Student-Centered Schools
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.