Passionate, Hungry, and Driven: Earning Our PHD at New Hanover High School by Todd Finn

Back in 1997, I was working as a teacher assistant at a tiny high school just west of Boston, Massachusetts. I was finishing up my Bachelor Degree so that I could one day become a history teacher, getting my foot in the door as an assistant basketball coach at this particular high school, and somehow finding a way to get by.

Papers, Coffee, and Court Time

In order to coach that JV team after school, I chose to supplement my extremely low income by waking up at 4:00 a.m. each morning to deliver 150 Boston Globe Newspapers before their affluent recipients woke up in their suburban Boston homes. My beat up Geo Metro could never be seen in that Acton, Massachusetts neighborhood when the sun was up: (folks would’ve called the police). After that, it was back to my tiny apartment to change, off to the high school to work that TA job, and then back to the university to go to a class. After that class, it was right back over to the gymnasium for basketball practice. Somewhere along the way, I picked up Dunkin Donuts coffees for the coaches, and in turn they gave me some court time with the players while they sipped away from the coffee cups I could not really afford to buy.

I always got those coaches “larges” because it gave me more court time.

When practice ended, I would get my nose in the books, study a while, read a few chapters of my Rick Pitino coaching and motivational books, and then hit the hay. The days were long, nights of sleep were short, the pay was nominal, and it was all I ever wanted to do.

If I had to, I’d do it again.

Turning the Tables

Four years later, I was walking out of the brand new locker room at Babson University, following the collegiate men’s team of whom I was now the Head Coach: the Wildcats of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Granted, it was only a Division III gig, but it may as well have been the Boston Celtics for a guy who was delivering newspapers and fetching coffees for high school coaches just a short while back.

Especially when our winning box score was in that newspaper that I used to deliver.

I knew that the Big Guy upstairs had a sense of humor when those very same coaches were sending me their players’ recruiting tapes. I always smile when I think of that.

How I got from the hardwoods in Providence to the Principal’s Office at 1307 Market Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a story for another day. What can never be lost, however, is the PHD Mentality that Coach Pitino wrote about in those books which I still keep in my office.

“PHD” was not a degree to Coach Pitino. It stood for Passionate, Hungry, and Driven. I guess that’s what I still try to bring to the table in this position at New Hanover High School. Maybe I simply believe that the PHD mentality will make that next dream a reality at this level.

The Mindset

Before I get into some of the things we have been able to pull off at New Hanover High with our PHD mindset, let me preface everything by stating that it wasn’t necessarily broken when I got there in 2011.

But it wasn’t mine, either.

Like those basketball teams I loved to coach years ago, the fact of the matter is that NHHS was going to be reflective of the personality of this principal before too long. The reality of that statement is scary if you have ever spent any time with me. For an up-tempo coach who led the conference in technical fouls for three years in a row, that meant that the entire school was getting ready to go sky diving, HALO style.

If we were going to be a passionate, hungry, and driven school – and if we were going to win in this business of saving kids – we weren’t going to wait for the success fairy to come and sprinkle turnaround dust on us. We were going to wake up early, deliver those papers, work with our kids, learn about our craft, earn some court time in the classrooms, and try to get better every day. Of course, somewhere along the way we – would be incorporating coffee.

Lots and lots of coffee.

The Critical 200

We start each day off at Hanover with a good morning, stating the school vision, pledging our allegiance to the flag and republic, telling the kids that they will always come first, and our school motto: “Respect Self, Respect Others, and Respect Tradition.” Sometimes the order varies, but we make every effort to fit those fundamentals in to start the day.

You see, this very brief interaction is part of what we call the “Critical 200,” or the 200 minutes when they are not being taught the Common Core or Essential Standards in a classroom. In fact, on any average day, we supervise the students for about 560 minutes in a typical high school. 360 of them are in a classroom. The other 200 minutes? You guessed it. That is why they are so critical.

A good teacher will have a lesson planed, carry out that lesson in a manner that engages the students, while keeping them all safe and cared for in the classroom. Most principals would agree that a teacher who consistently does this work has a place in their school. The thing is that the PHD teacher does all of this and more. We emphasize the importance of being in the building at least 30 minutes prior to that pledge of allegiance. We stress the non-negotiable practice of stepping into the hallways between classes and greeting kids, encouraging students to move to their next class, and having a passion for being a presence in each sector of the building. Three class changes per day at six minutes each? That’s a total of 18 minutes of engagement each day.

Saying hello.

Giving a high five or a fist bump.

“Hey, great game last night.”

“Nice work on that painting in the display case.”

Encouraging that young man to pull up his pants, because Mr. Finn may be right around the corner.

Never allowing a group to form, a student to post up against a wall, or voices to be raised at above indoor levels.

Give me 18 minutes of that each day, and I will show you 104 teachers who get it. I will also guarantee that we had a collective, good day to put in the books before we all go home for the night.

Did I mention that in our school, we don’t even ring bells? We haven’t since the day I arrived. Teachers dismiss the students on their call, and the students then move quickly to the next class. If we do what we are supposed to do, it is impossible to be tardy for class. Imagine 1,623 students changing classes with no bell.

PHDs can pull that off.

We decided to take the two hours allotted for lunches and move from three, 40-minute lunches to five, 24-minute lunches. The result? Faster lunch lines for kids, more time with friends at an actual lunch table, a smaller crowd to supervise, and exponentially fewer incidents in the cafeteria. This takes five teams of five teachers, an administrator, and a team of SROs to ensure it actually works. But the PHD mentality is what makes it all happen. Does it work? Ask the child nutrition staff.

Smooth as silk and chocolate milk.

120 minutes of lunches, 18 in the hallways, 30 before school, 30 after school for supervision and tutoring, and maybe two minutes to pray that it all works out each day.

There you have it. The Critical 200, made possible by 104 PHDs with a common vision.

Not-So-Subtle Changes

I could probably go on to list a dozen other things we refocused on in order to evoke a cultural shift at New Hanover. We no longer have assigned parking for teachers or administrators. The “best spaces” go to those who get to school first. How many folks are in the building at 7:45 a.m. now? On any given day, mostly all of my PHDs are. Do you know who benefits from that? You guessed it: those early arrivals that now have a place to go.

As a lifelong learner who is always refreshing his PHD, I have come to believe that there is nothing more powerful than a teacher, (or a group of teachers), with a collective PHD mentality, a plan to help kids love school, and the will to make it happen. We empowered a group of 12 teachers and an energetic guidance counselor last spring to create a Freshman Academy for first-year, 9th grade students. They called it “The Odyssey Academy.” After just one semester, I challenge anyone from DPI to tell me that those kids are displaying behaviors or performance levels that are typical of freshman students. I have had more folks tell me that many of them act like juniors. They have only been in high school for five months.

Surrounded by motivational quotes (chosen by last year’s freshmen) hand-stenciled in hallway walls by teachers, our Odyssey students are engulfed by positive thoughts. These are emphasized in bright, orange banners with bold block letters depicting the Ron Clark Excellent Eleven words of power, and wrapped up in the collective arms of PHD teachers who love to teach freshman students.

How could anyone fail in that environment?

Not to mention that this phenomenal group of kids will move up from the 9th grade Odyssey Freshman Academy to the 10th grade Iliad Academy next fall. Twelve more teachers already have this project planned out. Truth be told? They’ve got this.

We are a safer school. We are a constantly improving school. We are a school where even if it isn’t broken, we break it and build it a better way for kids. We are a school where teachers who share the vision, to “form young leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion,” are empowered to make this vision a reality.

We are a destination school.

We are a school of PHDs.

Are we perfect? In no way, shape, or form will we ever be perfect. We are getting outcomes that are encouraging and results that prove we are on the right track. EOC scores are up. Graduation rates have increased across the board. Suspensions are down. Police are reporting fewer offenses. Enrollment is up. Dropouts are almost non-existent.

Yet we have so very far to go. Not everyone is convinced that the vision we seek to attain is the way to go. And do you know what? That’s OK, too. It gives me that extra something that I need to strive for, like delivering newspapers at 4:00 a.m. so that I can coach at 4:00 p.m. We are only seventeen months into what will be a 48-month trek, so to speak. I gave this team four years to realize our vision, so 31 months from now, we will have a much better idea as to how we really did. Maybe by then, we will know whether or not we created a better place for kids to go to school, and if the PHD mentality really worked at New Hanover High School.

So, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. But I don’t need to see a scoreboard to know that we are winning this battle. Anyone who walks in our halls can sense that we are up by two with the ball and the arrow.

Yet we are still shooting three’s and pressing.

Tomorrow, I am going to get up early and head down to Market Street. I am going to read over the notes I took on Friday when I got to meet one-on-one with 11 teachers to talk about their individual weeks. By the time 7:45 a.m. rolls around, my game plan for the week will be set, and I will come out of that locker room like I did on that October night at Babson University, ready to compete and expecting to win.

I am so fortunate to lead this team of passionate, hungry, and driven teachers who believe they are the hardest-working team in America.

Are they the hardest-working team of educators? Who knows?

But as long as we believe we are, and keep striving to prove it to ourselves and for our kids, that is all that matters in the end.

We are New Hanover:

Home of the PHD Educator.

We are making a difference.

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