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Linda Cliatt-Wayman: What Can We Do To Empower Students Living In Poverty?

Aug 11, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 2:35 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Rethinking School.

About Linda Cliatt-Wayman's TED Talk

As principal of a low-performing high school, Linda Cliatt-Wayman's students faced huge challenges. She describes how she transformed her school while providing unwavering love and support for her students.

About Linda Cliatt-Wayman

Linda Cliatt-Wayman spent 20 years as a special education teacher, and served as principal to three Philadelphia schools, including Strawberry Mansion High School. After her first year, the school was removed from the Persistently Dangerous List.

Cliatt-Wayman recently left Strawberry Mansion to start a non-profit that will support under-served Philadelphia students from high school through college. She is the author of Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard: Finding Your Purpose And Putting It To Work.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


So when it comes to rethinking education, sure, more inspired curricula could help and, of course, so could better technology. And, of course, flipping the classroom structure could be transformational. But what about when school is the only place where a kid gets a meal or warmth during the wintertime?

Because for a lot of kids, kids whose daily lives are surrounded by violence and poverty, just getting through the front door is already a victory. And so teachers and principals have to be more than just educators. And this is what Linda Cliatt-Wayman discovered when she became principal of an inner city Philadelphia high school.

LINDA CLIATT-WAYMAN: I would get on the PA system every morning and every afternoon before my students went home. I would end and I would begin every message the same way - if nobody didn't tell you they love you today, you remember I do, and I always will.

RAZ: Linda grew up in North Philadelphia, where she became a high school principal in 2003. And on her very first day at a particularly challenging high school, within the first few minutes of her arrival, she broke up a fight in the hallway and called for a school-wide meeting.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: So I brought everybody into the auditorium just to introduce myself. And it was mayhem in the auditorium. And I'm standing on stage. And I'm saying to the students, listen, listen, listen. Let me introduce myself. And the whole time I was doing that, this one young lady was trying to tell me something. And she kept screaming, Miss, Miss, why do you keep calling this a school? And I said to her, because it a school. And in a much softer nicer voice, she said, oh, Miss, oh, Miss, this is not a school.

And I just stood there on the stage. And I stared out into the audience. And I was watching the kids still not settled in the auditorium. And I kept saying to myself over and over again in my mind, this is not a school. This is not a school. And I said, oh, my God. How in the world could you expect students to come and really embrace learning when they didn't even see the school as a school? And so from that day on, I made a pledge to myself that as long as I was going to stay in education, and as long as I was going to serve kids in poverty, to always make the school seem like a school.

RAZ: Over the next several years, Linda built a reputation as the kind of leader that could turn around struggling schools. And then in 2012, she became principal of Strawberry Mansion high school, also in Philadelphia. And it was a school that was notorious for drugs, weapons and assaults. And her first day there, she couldn't help but remember those words from that young student.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: Shortly as I approached the door of my new school and attempted to enter, I found the door locked with chains.

RAZ: Linda picks up the story from the TED stage.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: The halls were dim and dark from poor lighting. And there were tons of piles of broken, old furniture and desks in the classrooms. The students were just scared, scared to sit in rows in fear that something would happen, scared from all the fighting and all the bullying. For far too many schools - for kids who live in poverty, their schools are really not schools at all. But this can change. Anybody who's ever worked with me will tell you I am known for my slogans.

So today, I am going to use three that have been paramount in our quest for change. My first slogan is if you're going to lead, lead. So I assembled a top-notch leadership team. And together, we tackled the small things like resetting every single locker combination by hand so that every student could have a secure locker. We decorated every bulletin board in that building with bright, colorful and positive messages. And, of course, we tackled the big stuff.

We rebuilt the entire school day schedule from scratch to add a variety of start and end times, remediation, honors courses and counseling - all during the school day. We created, then, a deployment plan that specified where every single support person and police officer would be every minute of the day. And our best invention ever - we devised a school-wide discipline program titled Non-negotiables. It was a behavior system designed to promote positive behavior at all times. The results? Strawberry Mansion was removed from the persistently dangerous list our first year after being...


CLIATT-WAYMAN: ...After being on the persistently dangerous list for five consecutive years. Leaders make the impossible possible.


RAZ: That's just incredible. I mean, how did the staff and the teachers react to all of these changes? I mean, were they like, finally someone is making a difference? Or were they kind of skeptical?

CLIATT-WAYMAN: Well, the teachers were very interesting. You could just tell that I was going to have an uphill battle trying to get the teachers to understand that this was a situation we had to take hold of because everyone talked about excuses. Everybody talked about the kids are bad. They don't want to learn. The parents don't care. The community don't care. So it was all an excuse. And that's when I said to them, so what? So what, now what?

RAZ: Yeah.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: So now what are we going to do? If you can't take on this extra responsibility of motivating and encouraging kids to come to school and do their best, then this is the wrong environment for you.

RAZ: So when you use that slogan - so what, now what? - I mean, I guess you were basically saying to them this is what has to happen - like, I expect everybody to do this.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: Yes. And I use that same slogan with my students - so what, now what? - when they come to me and tell me about all of their challenges. And they have a lot. Some of them are dealing with homelessness. Some of them have a problem with eating a full meal every night. Some of them live in houses where there are several families living together, where they have to take care of the adults in the house.

And when they come to me with all of those problems, I say the same thing to them. So what, now what? Now, listen. There are many times that I would sit and cry with them, hug them while they're crying, but I also realize I can't change all of their individual situations.

RAZ: Yeah.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: And I cannot allow their situations to steal their future. I would tell my students, you've been dealt a terrible hand. Yes, you have - a terrible hand. And I can't change that. I cannot change your childhood. But if you listen to me, I can change your adulthood.

RAZ: It's interesting because we often think that the power resides with teachers, or the school administrators, or the district, or the federal government. And you're essentially saying, yes, that may be true. But actually, I'm going to empower you, student, you, child, to take some ownership and agency in your own future. And maybe all these other things are broken, but you have actual power to control this thing.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: And that's what I tell them. The system is exactly broken, guys. But there are a lot of us who've made it even though the system is broken. And so I expect you to make it even though the system is broken. And the only person that is really in charge of you making it fully is yourself. And people ask me all the time, well, Ms. Wayman, can the kids actually make it without parental involvement? I say, of course, because they have to.

What kids need is a caring adult on any level. What they need is someone to say to them, I expect this from you. And when kids understand that that caring adult truly loves them and will hold them accountable for their actions, they will always rise to that expectation, whether it's from a parent or a caring adult.

RAZ: Which brings us back to that other slogan Linda tells her students all the time.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember I do, and I always will. If someone asks me my real secret for how I truly keep Strawberry Mansion moving forward, I would have to say that I love my students. And I believe in their possibilities unconditionally. When I look at them, I can only see what they can become. And that is because I am one of them.

I grew up poor in North Philadelphia, too. I know what it feels like to wonder if there's ever going to be any way out of poverty. But because of my amazing mother, I was - I got the ability to dream despite the poverty that's around me. So...


CLIATT-WAYMAN: ...If I'm going to push my students toward their dream and their purpose in life, I got to get to know who they are. So I managed the lunchroom every day.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: And while I'm there, I talked to them about deeply personal things. And when it's their birthday, I sing happy birthday even though I cannot sing at all.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: I often ask them, why do you want me to sing when I cannot sing at all?


CLIATT-WAYMAN: And they respond by saying, because we like feeling special. My reward for being non-negotiable in my rules and consequences is their earned respect. I insist on it. They are clear about my expectations for them. And I repeat those expectations every day over the PA system. I remind them every day how education can truly change their lives.

RAZ: You know, as we've been hearing, there are lots of ideas about how to transform education, right? But none of that can really happen without students feeling like they belong, without a feeling of security, without love.

CLIATT-WAYMAN: Exactly. Believe it or not, a majority of my students do not even live with a mother or father. A lot of these students just don't feel loved. And that is a reason why I found it to be very, very important for me to tell them every day, if nobody did not love you, I do. And I remember I got a letter from one of my students who went to prison and one who was giving me a college graduation invitation on the same day that ended the same way - Ms. Wayman, if nobody didn't tell you I love you today, you remember I do, and I always will.

So I know it's important. I know it's important how every child needs to be loved, and every child needs to hear from someone, I love you. I don't know any other way to get through to them, or to make it possible in their eyes to do better for themselves without me telling them that I love them and I believe in them. I've never found another way to do it.


CLIATT-WAYMAN: That's Linda Cliatt-Wayman. She recently left her post as principal of Strawberry Mansion High School. She's working on starting an organization that will support and coach under-served Philadelphia students from high school through college. You can see her entire talk at ted.com.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Now, a good friend of mine sat with me and he cried. He told me a story. I know he hadn't lied. He said he went for a job. And Mr. Man said, without an education, you might as well be dead.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on rethinking education this week. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin and Ramtin Arablouei. Our intern is Tony Liu. Our Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.