It’s always good to listen to an out of towner’s ideas about education. I am pleased to have a colleague, Andrew Marotta, principal of Port Jervis High School in New York give us his perspective about education.
Andrew raised the graduation rate from the low 60% percent to the upper 80%. He did it by changing the mindset among staff and students. Andrew also served as a NCAA Division I college basketball official. He is the author of "The Principal, Surviving and Thriving." Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to answer some questions. You can learn more about Andrew and his books by searching for "Andrew Marotta."
Who were the early positive influences on your life?
Obviously my mother and father. My dad ran the local pharmacy in our hometown of Staten Island, N.Y., and I learned a ton about responsibility, the importance of community, and building relationships with your stakeholders. People in that community knew they could go to my dad for a lot of things and I try to have the same mindset as principal. My mom and dad provided tremendous support for me and everything I did.
I am also a lifelong basketball athlete and my coaches from Missouri Leahs Elementary through college were strong influences on my life. Disciplined practices, teamwork, building a plan and all of that have helped me in my journey.
Was education an important part of your life early on?
Absolutely. Both my parents were graduates of St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. We had perfect attendance at school growing up and it was of the utmost importance. If we missed our homework or ever got in trouble at school everything was shut down at home. My parents instilled in us early the importance of getting a good education and getting good grades. It was nonnegotiable. Going to college was nonnegotiable as well. They were going to pay for it and remove every obstacle and our job was to put the work in and get good grades.
How would you describe your schooling experience?
I went to a Catholic K-12 school. We wore uniforms and had tremendous structure. It was a coed elementary and then I went to an all boys Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. I had tremendous teachers and great experiences socially and athletically.
My parents created excellent routines for my siblings in terms of budgeting our time and balancing co-curricular after school activities, family time and certainly our schooling time but if anything interfered with schooling it would be diminished or removed from the schedule. No ifs, ands or buts.
You had a successful career as a NCAA official. How did that experience help you become a better educator?
I loved my time as a Division I men’s basketball official and it absolutely helped me as an educational leader. The jobs are pretty similar: you are in the spotlight, have to make quick decisions, know how to effectively communicate with people in high-pressure situations, you have to know and enforce the rules, you have to take an active part, and you will receive intense feedback no matter what your decision is. . . all of these helped me in both my roles.
What are some of the challenges you face as a high school principal in New York that relate to helping youth find success?
So many challenges but like most things it starts with the home. When there is support, love, structure and expectations of responsibility the child does so much better. Parents are the children’s first teachers and really have a tremendous impact on their lives. When there is no home structure, the student’s performance suffers and we see a multitude of issues. This experience prompted me to write my second book coming out in the spring of 2021, which includes tips for parents to best help their children as well as partner with schools to create amazing experiences for kids.
Another challenge I would say is creating flexibility and areas of interest for kids in their schedules. There are so many classes and mandates that students have to take versus interests that they have. We have worked hard in my district to try to create opportunities for kids to take classes that they want to, not that they have to take.
Lastly I would state that creating environments where teachers feel inspired and motivated are very important. There are so many tremendous teachers that go above and beyond and are intrinsically motivated to do a good job. How do we bottle that and get others to try their best to be amazing also? We must continue to push to get away from the 45-minute lecture and recall type assessments and continue to think creatively outside the box.
You have a significant population of African American students attending Port Jervis High School. How do you make them feel welcome?
That’s a great question, John, and something that we work on each and every day. The past few years with what has happened nationally and globally has helped shine the light on this very important topic and we continue to work at it. We are trying to raise awareness and continue to learn about this dynamic of our minority students.
We currently are doing a book study on racial equity and learning the history of racism. We have tried to build diverse libraries in our schools as well as recruit and hire minority teachers and coaches. We have led professional development workshops on teaching with empathy and understanding towards a minority student and maybe what it is like to walk in their shoes. When a district has a low percentage of minority students, I think it’s Important to continue the conversation and continue the journey with a growth mindset and keep learning.
What advice do you give teachers on creating a warm and inviting climate for all students?
We have modeled everything from teachers standing in the doorway and greeting kids and what those first few minutes of the class means to creating a warm and friendly classroom environment. The importance of smiling and body language and how you respond when the kid displays poor behavior. How do you let them know that you still care for them even though you must discipline them to correct the behavior?
I would also advise teachers to treat every day as a new day. Maybe that child on one day did not have dinner the night before or maybe they had a terrible experience at home due to a traumatic situation. Teachers need to be mindful of those possibilities and teach and lead with empathy.
(Note from John: I want to express my deepest sympathy to the family of Janis Kelly who recently passed away. Janis served as a home-school liaison during my tenure as a principal at Red Lake. Jan exemplified the kind of parental traits Andrew Marotta spoke about. She will be missed by everyone who knew her.)
Andrew spoke about how important a positive mindset is regarding teaching, which relates to graduation. We all need to have a mindset that we can graduate 100% of our students.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.