Meet Elijah Hawkes

T. Elijah Hawkes, Vermont native, is the co-principal of the Randolph Union High and Middle School. Now in his sixth year at RUHS, Elijah came to Vermont (or more accurately) back to Vermont from New York City, where for six years he was principal and co-founder of the James Baldwin School, a small community-minded public high school .

“James Baldwin wasn’t a charter school,” Hawkes said, “but rather one of many small public schools that have sprung up throughout New York City to accommodate students who function better in a more personalized learning environment. The emphasis at James Baldwin – the approach to schooling – was based on building relationships and trust with students and families who might otherwise have little reason to trust the public school system.”

“And I think my experience in New York,” he continued, “is part of the reason why RUHS is such a good fit.  When we were ready to move back to Vermont, there were several principalships I was interested in.  But when I came to this school system, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.  RU felt like a very strong community to me when I visited.  The emphasis on extensive student and teacher involvement in the interview process was one very good sign.”

“Also, Principal Barnett and I really hit it off right from the start. I knew our philosophies, strengths, interests, and approach to education would mesh well, and I was excited about bringing some of my own insights to the table and integrating them into the social and academic setting that existed here.”

In terms of how Hawkes approaches his work with young people, he notes the importance of validating where people are coming from, including their past and present experience. “For example, when students come in to see me, whether on their own or because they were sent to me, I start by asking them what they’re feeling. There’s no sense ignoring that because in most cases, whatever it is they’re feeling at that moment is at the root of why they’re in my office. Are they angry? Depressed? Overwhelmed? Frightened? I try to acknowledge that first. Whatever other issue is on the table can usually wait. Let’s first validate this person’s experience and then work on a solution from there. If a student is feeling angry or depressed it’s going to affect his or her behavior and ability to learn. So let’s get to the root of that first.  Once a person’s past or present has been validated, humanized, then you can work on challenging or changing the behaviors or attitudes that may need to be changed or developed differently.”

“I’ve also learned that consistency, especially as far as students are concerned, creates a place of safety.  Once students know that you’re not dealing with or reacting to them on an emotional level but rather from a place of understanding, concern, and consistent expectations, they begin to feel safe around you.  And I think the end result is respect. When a student feels that he or she is being treated with respect, and is able to return that respect to a peer or teacher or administrator, what we’ve established is a basis for some very real learning, meaningful growth and collaboration.”

“I could probably talk for hours about this stuff,” he said, “but I know our space is limited and I want to mention one more thing about why RUHS is such a great place to work. The Superintendent and the board have set very high expectations for everyone who works in the system.  This is crucial.  People rise to meet high expectations.  Especially if you’re given the two other things that I don’t think you’ll find in many other systems: wide latitude in how we can meet the expectations , and a wide array of supports to help us meet them.  This allows us to be creative, to explore all possible avenues in giving students the focused and personalized attention they need to become successful.”

For those interested in reading more about Elijah’s thoughts on education and the issues facing today’s youth, a good place to start is here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/t-elijah-hawkes/

Another piece worth looking at can be found here: www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/24_01/24_01_exile.shtml‎