I spent my spring break visiting The Brooklyn Latin School (TBLS), a recently founded specialized high school in New York City modeled on the famous Boston Latin School. My wonderful host, Principal Jason Griffiths ’97, was kind enough to provide me a wide range of experiences, from sitting in on his meetings with teachers to auditing classes. I want to thank him and TBLS for this special opportunity, I learned much more than I could have hoped to about teaching, education, but most importantly leadership.
I came into this Princeternship with a particular interest in TBLS’ distinct educational culture—students are required to take Latin for all four years, to wear a uniform, and to call their teachers “magistri.” Of course, as a Classics major, the nerd in me reveled in these aspects. As someone from New York City, with a clear idea of how potentially absurd it was that a school founded in 2006 could foster a culture so seemingly distant from this modern environment. Although these are the features that stood out for me before I arrived at TBLS, they were not the ones that I considered most important by the time I left. The culture, as part of the eight “essential features” of TBLS (including its International Baccalaureate program), only formed the backbone of the school’s success. With these features established, it was up to the school’s leadership and faculty to take them and run with them, as it were. The unrelenting dedication of every person working in that building is what truly made it a special place.
The week I visited was actually a rather strange week for TBLS as they were just about to administer their Interim Assessments (IA). So on my first day, I sat in on a variety of classes, as that was to be the last day of classes that week. In most classes I visited, the teachers and students were reviewing for these IA exams. These tests are made by the teachers themselves to diagnose how the students are performing. The students were all very attentive and clearly concerned with doing their best, asking questions and clarifications of the teacher’s expectations.
I also visited a number of Latin classes, a subject that seems to be the focal point of many students’ angst. Predictably, mandating everyone to take the language for four years is not a terribly popular prospect for many people. However, I was struck by the creativity especially of TBLS’ Latin department. They did not use textbooks (Ecce Romani, anyone?), but instead cultivated their own curriculum with new methods of discerning the ancient language. It was very refreshing to see such innovation in what often seems to be a stale process, especially when you are just memorizing declensions and conjugations.
This was something that I noticed in the classroom and then learned more about during my time spent with Principal Griffiths—the faculty at TBLS are young, driven, and competitively creative with their curriculum. The place is just bursting with new ideas of how to make the classroom a lively place, to install a sense of diligence, and also to motivate these students to perform at their best.
The other two days I spent with Principal Griffiths, shadowing him while he reconnected with students and faculty casually in the hallway as well as sitting in on meetings he had with his various staff. For instance, we met with his dean of discipline to go over the consequences of the various academic dishonesty incidents that had occurred during the IA examinations. We also met with the Parent Coordinator to discuss an open house that they were preparing for that evening for admitted students (an event that I attended and enjoyed very much!). I also got to sit with the Latin department and help grade their IA exams, which was interesting and surprisingly very fun.
Principal Griffiths also generously offered me time to just sit and speak with him in his office about TBLS’ unique mission, the NYC Department of Education’s increasingly frustrating bureaucracy, and how to cultivate such an amazing faculty. Witnessing his dealings with the people he worked with was very interesting not only from an education-specific perspective, but also just in terms of understanding how best to lead such an intricate institution with many different moving parts. He gave me a number of great pieces of advice, including how the principal (or any leader) needs to stay focused on the mission, or the big picture, and should leave the details of the day-to-day to the people hired to do those very things. This also entails ensuring that you have the best people around you, which Principal Griffiths has managed to accomplish through a rigorous teaching hiring process. This leadership style helps maintain the sense of ownership the faculty has over their teaching and curriculum, for example.
My time at TBLS was not only a great learning experience but also a directive one—I am now more motivated than ever to enter education in some way, whether that is as a secondary school teacher or as a policy maker. Nothing really beats the empowerment that a thoughtful (and thoughtfully administrated) education can provide.