Lessons I Learned Along the Way

Berendo Junior High School is located on a six-acre campus in the heart of mid-city Los Angeles, and has an enrollment of 3,300 students. During my time there as principal, I learned several key lessons that apply equally well to education and mental health professionals across a wide variety of organizations. Here are five of them.

Lesson 1: Let those you work with know you care about them. The best boss I ever had was in the office very early so he could greet everyone upon arrival. Sometimes people come to work with heavy hearts, worried about a situation at home. Students, too, carry personal stress and need a word of confidence. Actions and words together present the bigger picture to the people around us. Leading by example goes a very long way toward creating a strong community. (If that boss had asked the team to show up at 5 a.m. to pull weeds, we all would have shown up! We would have done anything for him because he showed us he really cared.)

Lesson 2: Provide ongoing opportunities for others to seek help. Every day during breaks and after school, a math/science teacher and an English/social studies teacher were available to assist students in the school library. Because it was just part of the daily routine, there was no stigma attached to asking for help, and students were more inclined to ask for it when needed. Building this approachable dynamic into everyday life sends the message that it’s okay not to know everything, and provides a wonderful opportunity
for lifelong learning.

Lesson 3: Things go better on a full stomach. Everyday at lunchtime a member of the administrative staff—we called him Uncle Fred—was on duty in the lunch area. Students knew that if they had no lunch money, if they’d forgotten their lunch, or if there was no food at home, they could get a free lunch ticket from Uncle Fred, no questions asked. Schools are not required to provide this service, of course. But it’s not difficult to do, and the student receives a much-needed meal and the focus necessary to learn, while maintaining a sense of pride and self-respect. Going above and beyond to meet basic needs makes all the difference in the world—and to the world.

Lesson 4: Good bulletin boards ask questions or present puzzles. Bad bulletin boards are used to showcase student achievement. However, often they display the work of high-achieving students only—a situation which makes it harder for the high-achievers to be accepted socially. The only time bulletin boards should display students’ work is when parents visit the classroom. By focusing on the engagement of all, rather than the recognition of a few, we’re able to make a bigger, more thorough impact on our organizations, on our communities, and on the world.

Lesson 5: Good schools help students fit into the real world. At Berendo, a special schedule provided an extra hour each week for mini-courses. Mini-course classes met one hour a week for four weeks. We developed over 40 different courses including manners and etiquette, self-defense, careers, law and youth, teen problems, astronomy, energy conservation, study skills, drama, math games, and great stories, among others. Over the course of the school year, students were able to complete eight mini-courses. By being willing to restructure our days, we were able to give our students skills and information that will allow them to navigate through society confidently, and will continue to guide them, long after they’ve graduated. The benefits of flexibility simply cannot be overstated!

In closing, I want to encourage GSEP students and alumni to take these lessons to heart—and I want to congratulate you as well. You have chosen to pursue careers that involve interacting with people on a daily basis. You will find no two days to be alike, and every day will have at least one surprise! These students will be helping others learn not only subject matter, but also how to get along with people and how important it is that we all work to make this world a better place. It’s a big responsibility, but with the preparation you’ve gained at Pepperdine you are well equipped to help future generations shine bright. I like to say, “Pepperdine has heart!”

Heyman was honored by GSEP with an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2008. Her career in education was long and distinguished, and included positions as a counselor, department chair, budget consultant, English teacher, assistant principal, principal, and business education teacher. She retired from her position with the Los Angeles Unified School District as assistant superintendent of secondary education in 1990. She resides in Woodland Hills, California.

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