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June 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 9

Turn and Talk / Q&A with Gerry Brooks

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    Gerry Brooks, principal of Liberty Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky, has more than 850,000 followers on social media. His videos on the day-to-day reality of schools are funny, y'all, and educators can't get enough of them. Here, he talks burnout, testing, and unicorns.

    School Culture
      Gerry Brooks, principal of Liberty Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky, has more than 850,000 followers on social media. His videos on the day-to-day reality of schools are funny, y'all, and educators can't get enough of them. Here, he talks burnout, testing, and unicorns.

      Why do you think your videos resonate with so many educators?

      It's because we're going through the exact same things. What I'm going through in Kentucky is exactly what's happening in Arkansas and Arizona and Colorado. And so when I have a crazy parent and we laugh about what my crazy parent did, that same parent is in a different school. I always paraphrase this C.S. Lewis quote at my events: That the mark of true friendship is when you look at someone and say, "What! You too? I thought I was the only one."

      How can teachers embrace funny or uplifting moments with kids to rediscover the joy in their work?

      That is what brings us joy: When you have the innocence of a student talking about their grandmother having six toes on one foot or wanting to talk to you about unicorns or being excited about the tooth fairy or any of those things. And then in the upper grades, it's the serious relationship-building conversations that you have with them. When they are stressed about a boyfriend breaking up with them who they thought they were going to marry, it seems so silly to us, but when you're 14, that's your life.

      Can you share a time when you were on the brink of burnout, but a kid did something funny to bring you back?

      That happens on a weekly basis. You just get to this point where you are done—you're done with being harassed by parents and you're done with people making decisions who aren't classroom teachers and don't necessarily have the knowledge that you do. When we are stressed, our eyes are open to those little moments. I get a smile and a hug every day from students, but it's when I'm ready to be out of here that a kid comes in and smiles and says, "I like your shoes" or "Do you like my new hair bow?"—that's when I'm going, Oh my gosh, this is the best job ever.

      What's wearing your teachers down and what can you do about it as a leader?

      The biggest thing is the amount of assessments we're being held accountable for. We have nonstop assessments all year round at all grade levels, and it absolutely wears teachers down because they are professionals and they know where their students are. We are spending probably a month's worth of instruction on assessments.
      I think that all administrators should say, yes, data is useful and we need accountability, but it's not the end-all be-all. If you're in the classroom on a daily basis and seeing high-quality instruction, but assessment data is not showing that success, then as an administrator you need to step in and help out. Because it is up to us to be able to go into a classroom, help with behavior management, help a struggling teacher, and help with academics to align coverage.

      Besides providing comic relief through your videos, how do you lighten the mood during testing?

      We have a rally that focuses on character. We tell the kids it's important that you do your best, but what's most important is the way you treat other people. This year, we had a paraplegic athlete come in. We've had the quarterback of the University of Kentucky football team come in. And we ask the students, do you remember what you got on these state tests? "No." Do you look at state testing when you're dating someone and ask them how they scored? "No." We literally ask that because we want students to know their scores are not what we're looking at. Are they trying their best? Are they respectful? Do they say please and thank you? What is important is character and how they treat others.

      What's your best burnout survival tip?

      For me personally, it is seeing the growth of struggling students—seeing the way the teachers interact with students who are struggling at home, students who are struggling financially, students with disabilities. It's knowing that we are setting them up for success.
      For teachers, it's an open conversation. It's relationships with colleagues. They have to communicate with their colleagues about what's going on and have compassion for each other. And they have to be able to help people work through these challenges. Unfortunately, I think burnout has a lot to do with the school you're in—either with a stressful administration or stressful students. Sometimes we have to say, This is what I'm dealing with and I'm going to try my best. I tell teachers all the time that I have to lay my head down at night and say to myself, I did what I thought was best for every student and that's the best I can do.

      You were front and center in the Kentucky teacher walkouts. With protests over low pay and working conditions happening in more states, how do educators stay motivated?

      One of the exciting things was knowing that we were all in this together and supporting each other. It's been tremendous for me and my followers to see that it's just not Kentucky—to get comments from teachers in West Virginia and Arizona, teachers who are going through the same things we are. It's been very uplifting to see us all banding together.
      Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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