Board Profile: Dwight Davis
Dwight Davis has just been appointed Principal at Browne Education Campus in Washington, D.C., after serving as Principal in Residence at Whittier Education Campus and Mary Jane Patterson Fellow during the 2016-17 school year. The fellowship, named after the first African American principal in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), is dedicated to fulfilling the need for dynamic instructional leaders in the district. Previously, Dwight was an assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus, a former Turnaround partner school and a much-admired classroom teacher. Dwight is a proud product of DCPS. He joined Turnaround for Children’s Board of Directors in 2015.
THE 180: Congratulations on being named Principal of Browne Education Campus! Tell us your hopes for your new school and for your leadership of the community there.
DWIGHT DAVIS: I hope that I am able to lead and inspire the Browne community to overcome all obstacles to uplift and achievement. That being said, to serve well, it is imperative that I take the time to listen to the distinct needs of my students, parents, teachers, community members and staff. I’m not here to implement Dwight’s plan, I am here to serve my community and we do this together.
THE 180: Are there specific things you have learned from Turnaround for Children that you might want to bring to bear in your new role?
DWIGHT DAVIS: Absolutely, I think the first thing that I would like to bring is a focus on cultivating trusting relationships within our building. Secondly, infusing the brain research and collaborative practices within our instruction and ways of being are critical. Lastly, I would find ways to celebrate the brilliance and genius of our students daily. When our students walk into our building I want them to feel loved, valued and extraordinary.
THE 180: What motivates you to do the work that you do?
DWIGHT DAVIS: There are two things that motivate me. The first, I characterize it as agape – the Greek word for love. We have different interpretations of love – philae which means brotherly love; eros, which is affectionate love shared between two people; and then there’s agape, which is the highest form of love. It’s seeking the greatest good for an individual, on the individual’s behalf, simply because they are a fellow human being. I realize that I have benefited from the unsolicited sharing of agape in ways that other people have not and I feel I have a responsibility to exert that same love toward other individuals. I believe the more you share, the more it comes back.
The second thing that motivates me is equity. The fact that children who live in poverty don’t have the same opportunities as individuals who don’t means that we have to do something. But it’s not just poverty, there is an opportunity chasm that must be bridged. Part of loving all human beings is working hard to make sure everyone has an opportunity to read a good book, access to quality teaching and learning, services that meet their needs, an opportunity to see the Capital building in Washington, D.C. – basic things that some children never have the opportunity to do and/or experience. I feel like that’s what I can do, so that’s why I do the work. And if I make sure the work happens, it’s not only going to benefit “those” children, it will benefit “our” (my children, your children) – my experiences have helped me understand just how connected we all are.
THE 180: You taught for 10 years before becoming an assistant principal. What do you miss most about being in the classroom?
DWIGHT DAVIS: What I miss most is learning from the students. Because inevitably I would plan a lesson, execute it and have in mind what I expected the students to learn. But then I would end up learning all this stuff from them.
One day I was talking to my fifth-graders about this book called Bang, where a young man’s little brother was killed because he was caught in the crossfire. So I’m asking the students questions about the main character in the book; my goal was to get them to understand flashbacks as a literary device that authors use and be able to talk about character change. So I ask them, “Why does the character keep on telling us about his brother?” And the kids are like, “Hey Mr. Davis! It’s like the movie Exorcist.” What? That doesn’t make sense. Then another student, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s like that old movie, Ghost! You know, when the guy is always there?” And somebody else says something about a scary movie, and I’m just like, you know what? Forget it. Let’s talk about the scary movies. So I’m really listening, right? And then it hits me – my students are trying to tell me that the character is being haunted by the memory of his brother, but they don’t understand the word haunted. They don’t have the vocabulary, so they’re trying to communicate through examples they know. These children just showed me that although half of them might not be reading at grade level, they are thinking about this book in such a profound way. I just have to listen.
THE 180: So then why did you leave the classroom? What pushed you to become an assistant principal and now principal?
DWIGHT DAVIS: Everybody else! I was content to be with the children, do home visits and grow as a teacher. But my principal at Wheatley Education Campus, Scott Cartland, and others saw something in me that I didn’t want to see., If everybody is saying the same thing then you’ve got to listen. So I listened, and here I am now.
THE 180: So now do you now see yourself on this path? If you went back in time would you change your decision?
DWIGHT DAVIS: I wouldn’t change it, because what I’m starting to realize is that the ultimate way to influence children is to influence the adults in front of the children. So if I can create an environment within the school where teachers love to be there, strive to improve, love their students and planning is fun – that would be the best school in the nation! Now my challenge is how to do that. It’s a huge responsibility, but if we get it right, it’s a game changer.
THE 180: Before you joined Turnaround’s Board of Directors, you worked with us as the assistant principal of Wheatley Education Campus. What are your biggest takeaways from being a direct partner of Turnaround, and how has that kind of influenced your thinking about education?
DWIGHT DAVIS: One of the things I immediately appreciated about Turnaround was the science. I saw behaviors within the classroom and had my own ideas about what it was – this boy’s mom is not being tough enough on him, she’s allowing him to do whatever he wants to do. Understanding the impact of trauma – how it affects the brain – was a game changer for me. It helped me see things differently. As a result, I was able to become a better teacher, administrator, and overall person.
THE 180: What made you want to join the board, and what do you see as your role?
DWIGHT DAVIS: That’s easy. Three letters. P-A-M (Pam Cantor). But Kate Felsen and Katherine Bradley too. Turnaround is doing some groundbreaking work. It’s an iterative process and just keeps on getting better. For lack of a better way of saying it, Turnaround is on to something. And there are also some wonderful, smart, caring people behind the work. As a school leader, I need to have a group of smart people that can help me think through challenges. It helps me make my teachers better.
THE 180: You had the honor of sitting down with President Obama a couple of years ago to discuss the state of education. What advice would you give to the current administration to tackle public education?
DWIGHT DAVIS: You look at things from the outside and say, oh all we need to do is—but then when you get in the job you start to realize, how much more complicated things are. I would just ask that our current administration listen. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. I would never walk into a school thinking that I had all the answers; there’s a lot that I have to learn before I can even think about what the plan is. It’s important to take a learning orientation – sit down, listen and learn. Engage people that you wouldn’t otherwise engage, to hear their perspectives and broaden your own. Because that brings people together.
So I would just say, please ask questions, listen, reach out and try to partner. Even though we might be on different sides of the aisle, I don’t think anyone wants to have a school system that’s not helping children. We all have that in common, and we have to work really hard together to figure it out.