Remembering a Bold School Leader

It feels like a death in the family. A charismatic middle school principal in Washington, DC, was murdered in his home last week, and we are mourning his loss. Brian Betts was one of a kind, an educator who gave up a comfortable job in a suburban district to ‘answer the call’ when Michelle Rhee became Chancellor in Washington. He wanted a challenge, and Rhee, recognizing his skills and devotion, assigned him to one of her tougher schools, a middle school with a history of low performance that was also merging with another low performing school.Brian Betts

Brian jumped in with both feet. He eagerly turned the page on the past and created a new identity for the school. With extra money from Rhee, he hired coaches for his teachers, coaches who taught the teachers to start their planning by writing the final exam and then working backward from there. With carte blanche on hiring, he brought in virtually an entirely new staff, and he made it clear to them that he expected results–or they would not be around long.

Kids loved him. That was apparent to anyone who spent time in the building or outside it before the first bell. He would greet children by name and with a hug, dozens and dozens of them. For someone like me–I sometimes struggle to remember my own name–this was an awesome display.

I can’t say that I liked all his innovations, such as getting rid of recess, but it was impossible to avoid being swept along by his enthusiasm and his commitment. He was a risk-taker–even promising in public that he would get another tattoo if his students did well on the city test.

And he easily passed my own personal test of leadership: he was never in his office. I remember joking with him that, if I were a misbehaving kid in his school and had to hide out somewhere where no one would find me, I would just hide in his office. He laughingly agreed.

Back in November 2008 we decided to focus one of our NewsHour reports on one DC school. To get the best story, we filmed extensively in two schools, Brian’s and Ronald Brown Middle School. In the end, we focused on Ron Brown, and the video from Brian’s school went on the shelf.

Until now.

Today we are posting a wonderful interview with Brian that captures the essence of the man. I think other educators can learn a lot about leadership from this interview, while parents and others will get a pretty good idea of what to look for in an instructional leader.

On one level, it may be difficult to watch, knowing that Brian is gone. On another deeper level, however, this interview keeps his spirit alive.

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EDIT (05/03/10): Three 18-year-old men and the mother of one of them have been arrested in the case. For full details, go to and search under “Brian Betts.”

7 thoughts on “Remembering a Bold School Leader

  1. “I really feel I am changing the world,” concluded Brian Betts. So do many of us who have given our professional lives to the mission of helping young people bring positive change into their lives. Brian Betts has literally given his life to this task willingly and whole-heartedly. Not only is this a moving tribute to Brian, John has also helped us all focus our professional life through interviews such as this one. As a veteran classroom teacher, I can say that all of us who take our work with kids seriously would rejoice to have the support and the presence of administrators like Brian in our classrooms. “Princeps,” the principal etymologically is afterall the “head teacher,” the principal teacher. Brian’s work personifies this ideal; though his own 5-year plan has been cut short, may it live on in the work each of us performs each day. Thank you for your tribute, John.


  2. I am very sorry to read that Brian Betts met a violent and untimely end and I send my sympathy to all who knew and cared for him.

    But about this video: I thought Mr. Betts himself seemed like a machine — maybe a giant air-conditioned enclosed harvester moving relentlessly across a flat landscape, doing efficiently what such machines do.

    There was not one moment in this video in which Betts expressed joy or dissatisfaction or pleasure or doubt about any aspect of his work beyond the description of planning a year’s program based on the final exam which precedes all else. There was not a single prolonged interchange filmed of him with a teacher, a student or a parent. We have one “report” of a student’s view of things from Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

    This is not a picture of life in a school: this is pure propaganda for the new business model of “accountability” in public education for which Ms. Rhee has become famous. I am sure Betts was dedicated and skilled, but I thought his relentless droid-like optimism and focus were scary. This film did not portray him in all the messy glory of what it means to be a great teacher/leader.


  3. What a powerful, wonderful tribute! Brian said that he follows his compass pointed at what’s best for kids. May we all follow him in his dedication and respectfor kids’ inherent good and potential, as an honor to his memory.


  4. In response to Mr. Zimmerman. I understand your post, however, knowing Mr Betts personally, watching him in action, and understanding the impact he had on every student he was in contact with….he was far from robotic, or “machine” like. He was one of the most personable people I have ever seen. To everyone, parents, teachers, students, even family and community members. It was not all about numbers with him, it was more about personal connections and making people, especially his students, feel wanted, safe, and important. R.I.P. Mr Betts, you are missed dearly by all who knew you.


  5. It is so important to hold up examples of true educators. As I begin research on my next book, one observation is already obvious, schools only make a difference when an individual educator makes a connection with an individual student. Connecting. That is our business.


  6. On May 5, 2010 the Washington Post and many other papers published the results of the Montgomery County police investigation of Brian Betts’s death. The article revealed that Brian Betts was killed by three D.C. teenagers who he met on a telephone sex chat line and invited to his home.

    The police were clear that there was no sign of forced entry, indicating that Mr. Betts knew or voluntary allowed at least one or two of these three teenagers into his home.

    Does anyone see any disconnect between the image that is being sold here and that of a sexual predator who contacts teenagers for sex in his home. Should this man really be trusted to be in a position of power over teenagers in his professional life?

    The citizens of the District of Columbia entrusted this man with their youth to educate, guide and protect not to prey on for the fulfillment of his personal sexual desires.

    People who act on their sexual desires towards children are known as pedophiles. They are not examples of true educators. In fact, such people are prohibited from living in the vicinity of a school farless being the principal of one.

    Brian Betts was recruited, hired and is still being promoted by self proclaimed reformer, Michelle Rhee as her ‘rock star’ principal.

    What is wrong with this picture?


  7. What a powerfull video. I hung on his every word of what he wanted to and I guess he did to help students learn.

    Student learning is job one for a principal and he certainly understood that point.


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