The ILA General Session speaker on how a relentless attitude can change anything - By Colleen Patrice Clark
Hamish Brewer just doesn’t know when to quit. When it seemed like the world was against him growing up—a broken home, an environment impacted by drugs and alcohol, a shortage of teachers who believed in him—he ignored the naysayers. Despite being told repeatedly that he wasn’t smart enough or academic enough, he went on to be the first of his family to go to college—followed by a master’s degree and a soon-to-be doctorate.
In 2011, the New Zealand native took on the role of principal at Occoquan Elementary School—an underperforming Title I school in the state of Virginia. Within just four years, however, that changed, with the school going from underperforming to receiving the honor of National Title I Distinguished School—facts that helped lead to Brewer being named a Nationally Distinguished Principal in 2017. Much of it is thanks to Brewer and his staff being relentless. That word is the root of his philosophy. Relentless spirit. Relentless optimism. Relentless love.
That love is now the basis for his turnaround efforts at Fred Lynn Middle School, a school within the same district as Occoquan, which was also an underperforming school. Brewer was named principal at Fred Lynn in 2017, where he faced several challenges including disengaged students, low morale, and test scores so low that it had been a number of years since the school was accredited. The question now: Can he lead them to the same distinguished title? Clearly, he’s no stranger to challenges. (In fact, he once broke his back in a fire truck accident. The former volunteer firefighter has six pins in his back to prove it.) And he’s no stranger to overcoming them.
It’s not simply about getting students to perform better, he says. It’s getting them to believe in themselves and see the possibilities in their future. It’s about showing them love. It’s about showing them opportunity. And the same goes for the teachers: It’s about bringing their passion back to the surface and reigniting a culture of relentless optimism. And, critically, it’s about proving others wrong. Because he doesn’t know when to quit, and he doesn’t want you to either. “It’s not about struggles,” Brewer can’t stress enough. “It’s about providing hope.”
School turnaround looks different each time it occurs. At Occoquan, Brewer says it was about growing instructional practices, establishing a culture of risk-taking, being creative, and embracing what he calls “educational senses”—look, feel, touch. They went deskless. They introduced collaborative tables and authentic, hands-on experiences. They focused on basic acquisition of skills and a strong literacy program. At Fred Lynn, the turnaround can already be seen in the numbers. The school has overcome a number of challenges by improving schoolwide discipline, student, teacher, and parent engagement, and test scores. The school has grown from just over 1,000 students to a nearly 1,350-member student body in two years that includes over 40% English learners and more than 85% from economically disadvantaged families. The school also was not accredited when Brewer came on board. Just one year under Brewer, however, and they became fully accredited by reaching their benchmarks in English language arts, math, and science instruction. Now he’s got his eyes on the National Title I Distinguished School honor again, which he refers to with students and staff as “the national championship.” Language like that helps get buy-in and build excitement. The academic culture of the school is now something the students want to be part of. Brewer describes it as a “relentless, gang, all-in mentality.”
Everyone wants in on this impenetrable force that can’t be disrupted. “We support each other, lift each other up, and have each other’s back,” Brewer says. “With this idea, we are ready to answer the call. You take on one of us, you take on all of us.” That may sound brutish or crass, especially when you combine it with Brewer’s tattooed appearance—and did we mention he rides the hallways on a skateboard? You might even say it sounds like a gimmick. But he’s quick with the reminder that kids are skilled at seeing through fake façades. “There are no games behind this. You’re either going to put the work in or you’re not,” Brewer says. “You can’t pretend. You get found out real quick if you’re fake.” This relentless “all-in” spirit is one that students, staff, and families feel connected to and they become active stakeholders in the turnaround mission. “The No. 1 thing we talk about here is family,” Brewer says. “When you fight for family, there’s no greater fight.”
The first changes at Fred Lynn were all about visibility. They changed lightbulbs to reduce the yellow and introduce a more natural feel. They brightened up hallways with beautiful murals painted by Brewer and staff, complete with inspirational quotes and leaders to look up to: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malala Yousafzai, among others. And being visible himself is another key. Brewer moved the principal’s office from the typical location—an exterior space by the entrance/exit—and repurposed a meeting room in the middle of the school so students would have to walk past his office repeatedly every day. Not that he’s typically there. He’s more often seen rolling around the halls, if not on his skateboard then with his mobile desk. And his voice is heard every single day, starting with the morning announcements when he’s giving students his daily reminders. Chief among them: “If no one told you today that they love you, Mr. Brewer is telling you today that he loves you.” Introducing the character traits of love and kindness came first. Then came the academic shifts. There has been “a massive focus” on engagement, literacy, and ownership. And it’s not just ownership of their work, but of their whole school. “We talk about leaving our school better than when we found it,” Brewer says.
“We share that their successes can be life successes. This is bigger than just now. It’s setting them up for next year, for high school, and for life.” In addition, there is much less emphasis on exams than there used to be. “We don’t talk about exams,” Brewer says. “We talk about amazing instruction each and every day. When you focus on that, the exams take care of themselves.”
You have to believe 100% in students for them to succeed, Brewer stresses, and they have to see it. When you believe in students, everybody buys in and trusts each other. “We make it bigger than just school,” Brewer says. “We tell the kids, ‘Let’s prove the whole world wrong.’”
When Brewer made the move from Occoquan to Fred Lynn, students followed him because the school is in the same district and is a feeder school to Fred Lynn. Some teachers, however, made the move too because they wanted to follow his leadership and energy. Brewer says that, just as students can see through a phony, so too can teachers. “I created ownership with my teachers,” Brewer says. “You can’t lead from the back office. You have to trust your teachers to make decisions, to be the professionals they signed up to be.” He always tells them: When we look in the mirror, can we say we were better for our kids today? He also works to ensure teachers share his mentality: Teaching is not an obligation. It’s an opportunity. As a result, there’s a renewed confidence among teachers at Fred Lynn and there are no longer silos of instruction. Everyone shares a common mission and understands that they can only be better, together. “You’ve seen this movement from delivering content to teaching content,” Brewer says. “They’re evolving their practices. We went from whole-group teaching to small-group differentiated instruction in a two-year span with a focus on planning. My teachers are fired up to plan.” “Teachers are amazing,” Brewer adds. “They rise to the occasion.”
Among the murals painted along the hallways at Fred Lynn is a large boxing ring. It’s hard to walk past it and not feel more mentally prepared to tackle whatever is in front of you. Spray-painted above it are the words One More Round. “It’s this whole metaphor for not quitting,” Brewer says. “Life doesn’t give you a handout. There’s going to be obstacles in life, and what you do about those obstacles and how you respond to those obstacles and how you respond to adversity really defines your character and who you are.” The metaphor plays a big role in the culture at Fred Lynn. Brewer even recently brought in UFC mixed martial artist Paul Felder to give a fight demonstration and talk to the kids about grit, determination, and never giving up. That’s part of the legacy Brewer wants to leave behind—someone who won’t give up. “We won’t quit on ourselves, each other, or our school,” he says. “We’ll get back up again and again.” And that’s very much part of the message he’ll be bringing to ILA 2019. “Don’t ever quit on a kid,” Brewer says. “Give them the opportunity to read. Give them the opportunity to write. Give them the opportunity to change the world.” Fight for that, he says.
Be someone who just doesn’t know when to quit.
The more you know
During our interview, there was a teacher tournament happening in his office on an old Pac-Man/Galaga video arcade machine—yes, in his office. After our call, he was heading right into an interview with a job applicant. There’s one question he always asks potential educators: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever had to overcome? “I want to know what they’re willing to fight for,” Brewer says. He’s always loved skateboarding, but since becoming an educator, the skateboard has taken on new meaning. Kids are often told to avoid skateboarders. “Those kids aren’t ‘the right kids,’” Brewer recalls being told. “Well, every kid in the school deserves to be advocated for. Every child in the building matters.” To illustrate that, Brewer gives out skateboards as rewards for a variety of reasons such as academic achievement, behavior, citizenship, and advocacy.
To book Hamish Brewer for your event, visit his profile at https://premierespeakers.com/hamish-brewer.