Telling Kids They're Brilliant
Friday, July 10, 2009 | Longtime educator Wendell Bass has probably seen it all — but his belly laugh is still intact as he retires from three decades overseeing some of the most challenged schools in San Diego Unified.
Bass served as principal of both Keiller Middle School and the storied Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego before it was demolished and rebuilt, oversaw a center for kids caught skipping school and ended his career at the helm of a school for students who are expelled from other schools. He also preaches at a local church. And as you can imagine, he has no shortage of stories.
We joined Bass the day after he retired — he was still at school — to dish about suspensions, the toughest kid he ever taught and why he wants us to stop talking about “the achievement gap.”
During your time here you’ve seen Lincoln demolished and rebuilt and now reopened — what do you think has worked so far, from a distance, and what work still needs to be done to make Lincoln successful?
Lincoln has kind of ebbed and flowed. Everybody had a program. When I went there as a vice principal it was called the Lincoln Prep for the Humanities, Foreign Languages and Medical Sciences — it had this long name and it was a magnet. The principal then did a wonderful job with turning the school around. That sort of slipped when she left … We had to create a vision around everything, rebuilding the school from scratch. We put a greater emphasis on professional development for teachers. It was a very adult-centered school even though they swore up and down that it was student-centered — they were in their heart, but in terms of how money was spent, a lot of teachers had time off to coordinate things and I’m like, “Come on now.”
To coordinate things like clubs?
Who knows what they were coordinating. Some guy had a lab that was there since I was a vice principal. It was antiquated. Now I said, “We don’t need anybody doing that.” There was only $1,600 out of a $748,000 magnet budget that was directed towards technology. That blew me away! … I went over to see the business lab and they’re using electric typewriters. I’m like, “I’ve got kids that don’t even know what this stuff looks like. What is that?”
We built a culture that was about love and expectations and so when you hear people talk about the old Lincoln, one thing that will always come across — it was such a family feeling. … My head counselor said this to me once, “Wendell, it’s easier to set the boundaries by talking to kids. Because if you don’t talk to them, they’ll set the boundaries, and the boundaries will be where you don’t want them. Then all you’re going to do is run around trying to get them back in the pen.”
That ties into a really interesting issue. We talk a lot now about classroom management, which is kind of like a nice word for, ‘How do you deal with problem kids’? How do you think classroom management has changed in the time that you’ve been an administrator?
It really hasn’t changed. There are very specific things I think that work well — and it doesn’t matter the era. I started in 1972. It was still about coming in on the first day, establishing who you were, here are the rules we’re going to operate by, including the kids as a part of that to help build that culture — what we now call a social contract — within the classroom. It’s setting your expectations. It’s having a syllabus so that kids know what they’re expected to learn. It’s about how we’re going to respect one another. Providing a variety of things for kids to do in any given period. We’ve got 10-minute kids — meaning that they’re on for 10 minutes and then they get a two minute commercial break. That’s what TV does! So if you think you can just stand here every day and just talk — you’re going to lose them.
I had a teacher here, Cherilyn Avedian. What a wonderful teacher. And as far as I know, she did not write a behavioral referral all year long. What she did was the minute that you walked in the door, the stuff was already laid out for the kids to do. When the transitions needed to occur, she did it seamlessly. When you walked in you spoke the King’s English. It wasn’t all this sitting around for five minutes, 10 minutes, not doing much — that’s when things get out of hand. She always kept things moving.
And when I first saw her — she looked like you, kind of sweet and innocent — and I looked at her and said “Lord have mercy, they’re going to run over her.” I said, “I know where I’m going to have to spend a lot of my time. Heck!” But to see this young lady — She’s little! She’s not a big lady! — and these kids, big old boys walking in there — they loved her. Because she told them from the beginning, “You’re brilliant.”
Do you remember the most difficult student you’ve ever worked with — and do you know where they are now?
The most difficult? (chuckles) Oh Lord. That’s going back a long ways. Golly. If I went back to Kansas City, when I taught there in Shawnee Mission (an affluent, mostly white area) — I remember a young man named David. They gave me what was called then — I don’t know, they just called it a class you put all the behavior problems in. It was like, “Well, Wendell, whatever you can do with them—”
I found these books — history books that were done like comic books. … And they were like, “Man, Mr. Bass, we like these books!” The next thing you know the kids come in and start recommending books to me, these kids with Ds and Fs and behavior problems. A couple of them would get up on this shelf along the windows and lean against the partition there — all they were doing was reading. Well, the VP would say, “These kids need to be sitting in rows!” and I’m like, “Is our purpose to get them to learn or is our purpose to teach them how to sit in straight rows?” I said, “You know what? I’m doing what I’m doing.”
So they sent me this young man by the name of David. I think of all the kids in 30 years I’ve ever worked for, this kid was off the charts. School for him was a boring experience. And I’m like, “How am I going to work with this kid?” His mama came in, she’s questioning my credentials and do I have this and that and finally I said, “You know what? Let me tell you something. I might look a little different than you do, but I have a master’s plus — you’re not going to sit here and question does this black man have the skills necessary to teach your child. I will teach your child if you allow me to. Now, if you don’t want me to teach him, fine. Take him someplace else.” That woman sang my praises after about a month.
I decided that I’d get the other kids busy and then I had David sitting next to me and I said, “Guess what, me and you, we’re going to have some adult conversations, we’re going to sit and look at issues going on in our country today.” We’d get Newsweek and the Times. … Probably about 15 years later or so David had to go to the emergency room there in Kansas City. My brother is a physician and when he was treating David, he said, “Your name is Bass, isn’t it? I had a teacher when I went to school in Shawnee Mission and his name was Wendell Bass. And my brother started laughing and said, “Oh, he was? Well that’s my brother.” And the kid goes — this is unreal — “Dr. Bass, I was going nowhere with my life. I literally was just screwing up. And your brother saved my life. He got my attention. He understood me and worked with me.”
If teachers could only just understand that — that if you would look at every child that walks in your room as brilliant and gifted and if this were my child and they were failing, what would I do? Would I allow them to continue to fail? No. I was blessed that at Lincoln I had many teachers that felt the same way. … Vic Player was a greater teacher than he was a coach and he was a phenomenal coach, so you can imagine what it was like in his classroom.
One day I had to cover Vic’s class because he had a meeting to go to. I was a VP. So about 15 minutes into the period this young lady comes down the hallway and said, “Coach Player isn’t here.” And I said, “Oh my God, I forgot to get coverage for his class. Honey, you go down there, I’ll run over to the telephone and get somebody.” So I made a call and then before the person got there I walked over to the room. You know what they were doing? There was a young lady in front of the class with a textbook and the kids had their books open and she’s leading a discussion over this historical event and kids are raising their hands. I told Vic, “You know what? You never have to worry about me having any doubt about whether you can teach. They taught themselves because you did such a wonderful job.”
If you had the keys to the kingdom for San Diego Unified, if you could change one thing in the system that would get us closer to closing the achievement gap, or to changing the way we look at discipline, what would it be? What would be the thing that you would change before anything else?
It’d be the hardest thing to do because you have to get people to believe it. We would change the terminology of closing the achievement gap. We’re always comparing white and Asian kids to black and brown kids. It’s like, “Y’all down here need to get up here where these folks are.” That comes with a whole lot of implications: “Black kids aren’t as smart as —” “Mexican kids aren’t as smart as—” You start dealing with that kind of thing. What are you trying to accomplish?
We need to talk about the excellence gap. Because when you talk about excellence, then what you talk about is everyone’s ability to become excellent. Your goal then is to make them excellent — not to make them like Asian and white kids. Because why is there resistance? There’s resistance sometimes because, “You want me to be white. You want me to be Asian.” It’s bigger than just changing terminology — it really is about defining excellence and being clear about it and then building your curriculum, building teaching and learning and classroom management — then you’ll begin to see children move.