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 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.
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 http://www.washingtonpost.com and search under “Brian Betts.”