Key lessons from the nation’s top principal

School leaders should understand their "purpose" and be willing to push back, says Richard Gordon, the 2021 National Principal of the Year.

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When Richard Gordon took over Paul Robeson in 2013, the Philadelphia high school was on the brink of closure for low performance. The turnaround since then has been nothing short of miraculous: Today, graduation rates hover at 95 percent, suspension rates have fallen to 5 percent, and the school has 30 new community partnerships that support its mostly Black, low-income student population. For his extraordinary leadership, Gordon was named the 2021 NASSP National Principal of the Year 

We recently talked with Richard Gordon on Zoom about his approach and what keeps him going.

How did you target the concerning conditions at Robeson?  

When I was assigned to Robeson, my first step was to meet with staff members, our students, and our families. I immediately fell in love with the spirit of each group I met with; it was just a matter of figuring out how to bring everyone together toward our collective mission.  

One thing I learned early on from my principal colleagues is that you have to have a set of non-negotiables. So, I spoke with my staff quite openly and honestly about my non-negotiables:  

1. Kids come first. Everything we do has to be focused on how we’re going to support kids to be successful.  

2. I deal with kid issues, not adult issues. It’s not that I don’t care about what’s happening with our teachers: I know that sometimes as adults we get so caught up in how things are affecting us, that we forget to think about what’s best for our students. Sometimes, our concerns can wait.  

3. We foster a safe, nurturing environment. Our students experience a lot of trauma and challenges outside of our building. We have to understand that because of those traumas, school might be fourth, fifth, or sixth on their list of priorities. While we’re focusing on algebraic equations, they’re thinking, Oh my god, when I go home, I’m going to be hungry because there’s nothing in the refrigerator. Kids need to know from the principal down to the cafeteria workers to the cleaning staff that they are loved and cared for. I mean, I have cleaning staff who sit and have lunch with our students as a reward. Everybody pitches in. 

4. We collaborate together as a team, in all aspects, from teachers to families to administration. We consider ourselves colleagues and are all part of the decision-making process.  

I’ve been very fortunate to have buy-in. I have some of the best staff members I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. 

The turnover rate among urban high school principals is especially problematic. What keeps you going? 

Where there is high need, there is also great opportunity. I’ve worked in Baltimore City, in Washington, D.C., and now here in Philadelphia because opportunities presented themselves to me, particularly as a minority administrator, to create something new, to set a foundation. It is my hope going forward that urban school districts encourage principals to take on these challenges—to build something from the ground up—so they don’t run off to the suburbs as soon as they become experienced and successful.  

How do you avoid burnout? 

I spend a lot of time with my family and friends. I really try to take time to enjoy myself. And there are times when I have to force myself to take a day off—or my staff has to force me. But honestly, the excitement of watching our students develop, change, and improve is what keeps me going. It’s almost addictive to watch our kids transform and be able to look at their school on the same plane as some of the best schools in the city. 

As someone who grew up in poverty, how do you give your students—all of whom are facing a similar situation—hope? 

I may be too much of an open book. I tell my students all the time, I’ve lived your experiences. I’ve lived the experience of not having my father in my life for several of my formative years. I’ve lived in a house that had no electricity and no heat. I remember getting food from a neighbor and heating it up by candle because we couldn’t afford to eat. I was 12 and my brother was 9, and I was caring for him because my dad was in jail and couldn’t make bail.  

I try to have these very frank conversations with students to help them understand that we have to be strong, hold on, and embrace those who truly want the best for us. I ask them to examine their life and look at that one rock who’s going to be in their corner and hold on to that individual. And then identify how the two of them can collaborate around that student’s dreams. When I was able to reunite with my mother, she was my rock, my one guiding light, my north star.  

Every student in your school has your cellphone number. Tell me about the calls and texts you receive.  

They run the gamut (laughing). This morning I got several calls from students whose computers broke down, so I made arrangements for them to go exchange their devices for a new one. I also had a parent call me, confirming that I was attending an upcoming conference with her child’s teacher.  

I don’t necessarily encourage other principals to do this. But I feel very blessed that our families, our students, our former students, and our former families feel confident in knowing that they can always pick up the phone and call me.  

There are so many phone calls that I get that are everyday reminders of the importance of our impact—from students who are feeling sad because they lost a friend to gun violence to students calling to invite me to their baby shower or grandma’s 67th birthday party. They know they can get advice, love, and support [when they need it most].  

After a year of virtual learning (and counting), what has been your biggest challenge as a principal? 

You establish your school culture on the basis of relationships. Unfortunately, that interaction, that nurturing, that family atmosphere is not as effective through virtual learning. So that’s probably been our biggest challenge [as a staff], trying to keep our kids engaged and to offer hope.  

It’s important for kids to see that I’m not a figment of their imagination, particularly our 9th graders whom I’ve never met in person. So, I do home visits when I can just to say hi. I also invite small groups of two or three students—who might be struggling—to the school to hang out for the day and do their Zoom work from my office [with pizza provided]. They get so excited; they show the background to their classmates, like, “Look! I’m in the office with Mr. Gordon!”  

What advice would you give to principals who don’t feel empowered in their district? 

Empowerment is understanding your job and what your purpose and focus are. Sometimes our purpose is not necessarily bending over backwards and serving our headquarters. We have to ensure that how we handle things at the school level isn’t compromised—even if it competes with the district’s agenda. Because if it becomes compromised, then you’re going to deteriorate the buy-in that you’re developing with your students, staff, parents, and community partners. That has to be preserved at all costs because that’s how you’re going to get results.  

I push back a lot: I push back with historical data, with trending data, and with equity evidence. We have to force our school districts to look at all of us the same way—to allow all of us to be innovative, not just that one magnet school that’s achieved success. We have to put ourselves in the middle of the firing squad to force a conversation [about equity] that people don’t always want to have. 

What is one quote you live by? 

“I don’t expect perfection, I expect improvement.” I say it to kids all the time.  

What book are you reading right now? 

I’m reading The Black Presidency by Michael Eric Dyson. What I find to be so interesting about the book is [its message] that Barack Obama represented the importance of access, opportunity, and greatness. There’s greatness and potential in all of us, particularly in communities of color. The reality is that life is not going to give us anything. And unfortunately [some of us are already at a disadvantage] based on our personal characteristics—whether it’s our color, our gender, the zip code we grew up in, or what our parents do for a living. We have to develop greatness within ourselves. That’s part of our conversation at Robeson High School on a daily basis. 

Editor’s note: This interview, adapted from the the April 2021 issue of Educational Leadership magazine, has been edited for space.