Here, in a Q&A series we call “How I Lead,” we feature school and district leaders who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.
What started as a way to give parents a break and excite students about reading has now attracted authors from around the world to send books for Principal Archie Moss to read on Facebook Live.
Moss has read bedtime stories every Tuesday night since February when he announced the push for more reading while at Bruce Elementary School’s Black History Month event.
“A lot of the stories we select are ones our students can see themselves in,” Moss said. “Some students don’t like reading because they haven’t found a book where they see themselves represented.”
Moss’ weekly bedtime stories attracted global media attention as Shelby County Schools leaders search for ways to incorporate literacy into more aspects of student life. Superintendent Joris Ray recently encouraged local leaders and celebrities with ties to Memphis to get online and follow Moss’ example.
The challenge is steep, but Moss has led the school to improved test scores since 2016. Bruce Elementary School in Memphis sits just outside the city’s poorest zip code and has earned the state’s highest student growth score for annual tests in three of the past four years. But reading scores still lag the district average. During the 2017-18 school year, about 15% of students were reading on grade level compared with 33% for the rest of the state.
In the midst of all that, Moss is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Memphis and leading a mentor program aimed at recruiting and keeping black male teachers in the classroom.
Here’s what Moss had to say about how a jar full of student names on his desk assists him in getting to know students, why he started an elementary basketball league, and what motivated him to get into teaching.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I attended a high school in which some teachers did not have a vested interest in their students’ success. My ninth-grade geometry teacher informed the class that we would not succeed in life, and that we would be forced to work minimum wage jobs to survive. The experience influenced me to want to succeed and prove her and other doubters wrong.
My first education job was an internship at Breakthrough Collaborative in Cambridge, MA. I was given the task of teaching the lowest level students in seventh-grade math. Witnessing my students’ struggle disheartened me. I wanted to do everything in my power to directly and positively impact and influence another individual. This led me to join Teach For America in Charlotte as a sixth-grade math teacher.
Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day isn’t complete if I did not do the morning and afternoon announcements to spread the positivity and ensure that each day starts and ends on a great note, and if I did not get caught by the pre-K, kindergarten, or first grade hug train. Being able to give them a hug, fist bump, or handshake brightens my day and helps to build a community of care.
How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
One of my priorities as a school leader is to ensure that all of my scholars feel deeply known. I facilitate and organize numerous initiatives to ensure that I get to know all of my scholars. I serve as one of the basketball coaches and also run my mentorship program where I get to mentor 40 boys of color. I am also the boy’s step team advisor. Aside from all of these activities I spend time during arrival, breakfast, and lunch building relationships with my scholars. I am also very intentional with making sure that I know all my scholar’s names and their stories. At the beginning of each school year, I place the name of all my scholars within the building in a jar on my desk. At the beginning of each week, I draw 5 names. If I do not know much about that student or do not know their story, then it is my job to get to know them.
Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected.
I recall observing a teacher, and the students were really struggling to grasp the concept. The teacher tried numerous approaches, but the scholars did not experience success. I could sense the teacher’s frustration, so I cut the observation short, and asked the teacher to meet with me. We discussed strategies to assist the students with the difficult concept. I informed the teacher that I would be back the next day to teach the lesson with the strategies we discussed, and then follow up with a re-do observation. Observations should never be viewed as a punitive tool, but rather a growth and learning opportunity, and I think I was able to do just that with this teacher.
What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
There are two initiatives that I am most proud of: The Shelby County Schools basketball league for elementary schools and our bedtime stories series. The basketball league was started to provide positive outlets for our students. The league started with four schools and has grown to over 25 schools across the county. The league strengthens the school’s educational environment because scholars are working hard to make sure they stay out of trouble. “Bedtime Stories with Principal Moss” was born from an idea shared by our school librarian Monique Howard. All school year we were working to build a culture of reading and to find unconventional ways to reach our students. We came up with the idea to read bedtime stories on Facebook live. The idea has grown over time, and now we have community members serving as guest readers.
How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
We have a conversation about the incident and about making good choices. Inside of my office I have a choices chart that I often refer to during my restorative conversations. The conversation goes something like this: “We all make mistakes in life. But when we make mistakes, we have a choice on how we can respond. We can respond by lying, denying, blaming others, and failing to take responsibility. Or we can work to make the situation right by being honest, apologizing, and taking ownership for our actions.” Typically, I add a personal story to show the kids that even Mr. Moss makes mistakes. From here we brainstorm ways in which the students will make the situation right, how they will show up even better, and what they will do differently. It is important that the students feel seen and heard.
What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is handling the emotions of people — staff, students, parents, community members. You never know what someone is going through and often times their burdens become your burdens. My students and their families, as well as my staff are experiencing trauma daily, and I feel that I have to have answers to all their concerns, which is not always the case.
Tell us about a memorable time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.
We serve a significant population of students who are homeless or temporarily displaced. Often times we are not privy to this information. We were experiencing numerous outbursts from a particular student, and we had a difficult time understanding why. We reached out to the parents, but were unable to schedule a meeting. Eventually I was able to get in contact with the mother, who disclosed their housing situation and the reasoning behind her distance from the school. From the meeting I was able to learn all about the challenges this family was facing and was able to use our partnership with the Salvation Army to get the family some help.
What education policy is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Funding has a huge impact on our school. I experience more and more students each school year who are not on grade level and cannot read. Schools need interventionists, reading tutors, behavioral specialists, strong phonics programs, and additional counselors. We need to ensure that schools have the necessary resources for student’s success. Reading is freedom, and I want all students to feel like they can be free every time they read.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
I was recently told not to let anyone dim my light simply because it is shining in their eyes. This work we do each day is hard work, but also heart work. We devote a lot of time, effort, and energy into ensuring that we create the best opportunities for all the kids we serve. Sometimes you will never please everyone, and that is okay. Just be sure that what you do each and every day is in the best interest if kids. This is a thankless profession sometimes, and we won’t always see the fruits of our labor. Just know that what you are doing is profound and if someone can’t handle how bright your light is, then simply offer them some sunglasses.