How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Kevin Kimberly became a principal, he kept teaching a theology class. And it wasn’t because the school was short on staff  – he wanted to keep teaching.

“When I was asked to be a principal, I swore to myself I would never forget what it was like to be on the front line in a classroom each day,” said Kimberly, who led Memphis Catholic Middle and High School for more than 3 years. “It was not due to scheduling or a hole that needed to be filled; I wanted to still teach both because I knew I would miss it and I wanted to remain in that teacher mindset.”  

Kimberly is now a development coach at Perea Elementary School, a Memphis charter school in its first year, and also works with ForwardEd, an education consulting firm. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

He left Memphis Catholic in October 2017, just a few months before the Catholic Diocese of Memphis announced in January that it would cease to operate nine schools in the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Six of the schools, including the middle and high school, were recently saved from closure after the Shelby County Schools board approved their conversion to public charter schools.  

Read what he has to say about the future of the schools, the best advice he’s received, and how teaching influenced him as a principal.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How do you get to know your students?

It’s hard to point to any particular thing that I do to get to know students, but what comes to mind is that I do not act.  I know that’s a common thought – that great teachers are great actors – and I can understand that to a point, but I think what allows me to get to know students is that I allow them to get to know me. There is no “teacher Mr. K” and “non-teacher Mr. K,” there is Mr. K.  As a student, you’ll know by the end of our first class that I can’t stand when people say Fourth of July instead of Independence Day, am obsessed with Carrie Underwood and Notre Dame, am crazily passionate about education, and can’t wait to know what you are obsessed with and crazily passionate about.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Empty promises.  And way too many of them. From politicians to community members and those within schools to those outside of them, we offer too many empty promises to our students, which teaches them that our word means nothing – and theirs then doesn’t either – and that they mean nothing.  I’d like to see us return to a time where you were as good as your word, and instead of promising everything under the sun, we focused on the quality of our promises and the work that needs to be done to fulfill them.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Warning: This happened during my first year of teaching, so a lot of likely bad things preceded this moment.  Nonetheless, I had a student, and yes, I probably would have defined him as difficult, but gosh, he knew how to make me smile too.  His mom and I stayed in pretty good contact because of this difficulty, and one time I was looking back at my parent communication log and realized there was so much negativity.  I clearly only made the effort to call home to get things fixed. So right then and there, I called Antonio’s mom, and she answered: “You don’t even need to say anything! I’m already in the car and I will be there in five!”  Phone click. If you could imagine an “OMG” look, it was on my face. I had no idea what to do, but I ran downstairs to be sure I was there as she entered. When she arrived, that OMG look turned to a smile. “This isn’t funny.  Where is he?” she asked. “He’s in class having a wonderful day, and I just had to let you know. I couldn’t be prouder.” She didn’t seem impressed and asked again, “Where is he? Bring him down here.” I went and got Antonio, and we shared a silent worry about what was next as we walked back downstairs.  When Antonio got to his mom, not a word was shared, but they gave each other the biggest hug I’ve quite possibly ever seen. Right there in that moment, the power of a story – even a small one – became crystal clear.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of our job is that too many people making the decisions about what our job should look like, feel like, sound like, taste like, and smell like have never actually done the job (or at least not done it well). That is a problem.  I wouldn’t dare define the details of a doctor or a lawyer’s job; educators deserve the same treatment and respect.

How did your background as a teacher influence you as a principal?  And vice versa?

My time spent as a teacher didn’t just influence my work as a principal; it drove my work as a principal.  When I was asked to be a principal, I swore to myself I would never forget what it was like to be on the front line in a classroom each day, and while I’m sure there were days when the administrator in me took over and I did forget, I would hope my teachers would say that on the whole, I stayed cognizant of this.  This is part of the reason I made the intentional decision to remain teaching as a principal. It was not due to scheduling or a hole that needed to be filled; I wanted to still teach both because I knew I would miss it and I wanted to remain in that teacher mindset.

To me, a good principal drives their teachers forward by empowering their craft, not just their paperwork.  The most important job I had as a principal was to be a coach and build my team’s capacity to build the capacity of their students.  Far too often, the education world views the principal as the leader of the building; in my eyes, the principal is the instructional leader of the people.  Yes, they have other things to take care of, just as a teacher does, but when it comes down to it, relationships and people are what it’s all about. You learn that first in the classroom, and it must carry over to the front office.

Memphis Catholic Middle and High School will become a charter school next year, as part of an effort to keep the school open after the Catholic Diocese of Memphis announced that it would cease to run the schools after 2019. What do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for the school in this new model of becoming a public charter school?

This is a golden opportunity for these schools to continue serving such deserving kids and show the tenacity of the work and personnel who have driven education forward the past 18 years.  It’s an opportunity to make a bold statement about the importance of value-based education. Even without the religious component, which will likely be an initial challenge to adjust to, schools can and should teach students what it means and looks like to be good people and citizens; these schools are geared to do that.  I anticipate the major challenge being the adjustment from the private sector, and all it affords and prevents, to the public sector, and all it affords and presents. It will be a new world for the schools, and I, for one, am cheering for their success.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

In a typical class period, if you talk more than your students, something is wrong and students are not learning. This was difficult to hear and still is difficult to follow, but it is certainly true.