Disruptive Excellence


By Natalia Rietveld 

Hamish Brewer is not your typical principal and his unruly approach is yielding academic excellence from the most unlikely places. 

Born and raised in Auckland, Hamish moved to America in 2003 as part of a teaching cultural exchange programme, after backpacking and rock climbing through South East Asia. 

Hamish is commonly known as the ‘education disrupter’ - his teaching style became well-known after turning Occoquan Elementary school into one of the best schools in the state of Virginia. The turnaround earned him the 2017 National Distinguished Principal Award by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. 

He spoke to Principals Today about his unique style and what motivates him. 

Can you tell us a bit about your teaching career, so far, in America? 

I am currently the principal at Fred Lynn Middle School – 1,100 students, grades 6-8. I was at Occoquan Elementary as principal for five years where I earned the award as a Nationally Distinguished Principal and, as a school, we won the Nationally Distinguished Title 1 School Award. 

At Occoquan we became one of the best elementary schools in the country and state of Virginia. Our test scores, in all subject areas, were incredibly high and especially so for a Title One School (low socio-economic). It has become a model for other educators, receiving frequent visitors from all over the country. 

Can you describe that journey at Occoquan Elementary? 

Our journey to being one of the best schools in America was based on hard work, determination and grit – this became the vocabulary of our students and staff. We challenged our students and staff to define their legacy and describe how they wanted to be remembered. 

We had a laser focus on each individual student. We had a standards-based approach, focusing on standards-based planning and assessment; driven by authentic, relevant learning experiences. I have become known as the relentless, tattooed, skateboarding principal who’s bringing fun back to education. I am known for innovative practices that are changing the face of education. 

Can you describe your teaching style for those who are unfamiliar with your story? 

My style and word association is relentless – focusing on an aggressive, no excuses, leadership style and I will do anything to ensure students are successful. We provided our students with authentic and relevant learning experiences – endless field trips, deskless classrooms, black light parties, audio-enhanced classrooms, daylight bulbs, raps and ground-breaking, project-based assessments. 

We implemented what became a signature program titled Tribal System (based on a house-system). We have innovative after-school STEM programmes and a Saturday school that provides additional remediation and extension opportunities for students. 

Instead of sending news and announcements through newsletters, we engaged our stakeholders through social media – our school has become a leader in the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook. We found our parents all had smart phones, so we leveraged this for engagement. Student-lead conferences, where the students would facilitate parent conferences and performance updates. 

What has been one of the hardest things you have had to overcome in your teaching career? 

One of the hardest things that I have found over the years in education is archaic practices - education is all too often reactionary or too conservative – I believe that as educators we should be at the forefront of innovation and design. 

We should be leading the way and providing opportunities for our students that prepares them to be competitive, and have the ability to collaborate and communicate across cultures and continents. 

Did you struggle initially to be taken seriously? 

When you put people and family first, you build relationships and you start with love – people take you seriously. My community know that I am all in, I’m not opting out on my students, family and community. I want to be the difference! 

What has been your greatest achievement, if you could name just one? 

My greatest achievement is in seeing a child succeed because you believe in them; the opportunity to change the outcome for a student, school and a community – there is no greater feeling than laying it all out there for a child to be successful. You cannot serve someone you think you are better than! 

Do you think NZ schools would see similar results if they adopted this style? 

I think what makes my style so successful is my Kiwi attitude to it all. It’s the “No worries mate” and Kiwi can-do kind of attitude. 

Poverty is not a learning disability – all kids can learn when you believe in them. It worries me when I hear the New Zealand education system is moving more and more to testing – we have a national treasure in the education we provide to Kiwi kids, where students have the opportunity for authentic relevant and engaging learning experiences. Opportunities to explore, problem solve and to be critical thinkers. 

My advice for anyone reading this is to stay focused on that, do not get caught up in testing and believe in every child! 

You have made yourself quite well-known across America and back here in New Zealand – what is next for you? 

Right now, my focus is continuing to grow Fred Lynn Middle School, I want to make this the next Nationally Distinguished Title 1 School. In addition, I look forward to completing my Doctoral Studies at Virginia Tech and keynote speaking nationally and internationally. 

Hamish Brewer: The Relentless Principal - Disrupting the World of Education - TEDx Speaker

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