Customized Solutions for K-12 Educators
When he talks to students at Yakima’s Lewis and Clark Middle School, Principal Victor Nourani’s message is clear: Public education is a gift — and an opportunity. Your job is to make the most of it.
The school serves a high poverty area. Ninety percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Nourani’s words are more than casual rhetoric. “I call this a country club,” says Nourani who is in his second year as the school’s principal. “I tell them this is a privilege we have in this country, that they are lucky to be here, that kids their age in Pakistan or some other countries are making soccer balls. I tell them they are in a great place that values education and taxpayers make sacrifices to educate them. I want them to understand the sacrifices made each day for them and that they owe it to us to come to school each day and learn.
“Our challenge is to make education important to our students and their families.”
Call that quintessential Nourani, a man who believes that with opportunity comes responsibility and that potential is meant to be realized.
Energetic, innovative and vibrant, he is a leader with a keen sense of possibility and a knack for instilling it in others.
Flash back to 1974. Nourani, then 17, arrived in this country from his native Iran to go to school. He spoke almost no English but honed his skills listening car salesmen as he shopped for a car, went on to college and a career in architecture designing performing arts centers around the country.
In 1993, “I just retired and decided to enjoy life,” says Nourani who moved with his family to the Roslyn area in Central Washington. Teaching attracted him. He got his credentials and worked as a teacher but, then took a full-time job at the tiny Easton School District in the Cascade foothills. The principal was preparing to leave and Nourani was encouraged to get his credentials and apply.
A dozen other candidates, all more experienced, were interviewed along with him. Drawing on his architectural background, he’d spent two hours preparing a portfolio with pictures and information on all the students in the school.
“I told them I might not have much administrative experience but I know your kids because I’ve been here,” Nourani says. He got the job. Five years later he moved on to run the Yakima School District’s alternative high school program.
“Math is an abstract field,” he says. “You have to make it concrete. I came up with a different way of teaching math. It was still a vigorous program but it became more vocational. Kids flourished. Attendance went up. More students started passing the state test. The atmosphere changed.”
In the summer of 2008, Nourani became principal at Lewis and Clark, embracing a challenge some educators might find daunting. The school had been in Step 5 for a number of years.
“I knew I was coming to a place that would have really talented teachers. It has an outstanding faculty,” he says of the school. “My job was to get them to the next level.”
That summer, Nourani spent an hour with each of the school’s 79 employees — from cooks and custodians to teachers and assistant principals.
“I want to know you. Tell me your story,” he told each of them.
“For one hour I was absolutely silent as they talked about themselves. I took notes. I wrote down the names of their kids. Then I took five minutes and asked three questions: What works well here? What needs fine-tuning? Then I asked them to give me one dream — and one goal. I wanted to know their aspirations.”
The investment in time and attention paid off. “They got to know me,” he says. “It was their school. I was coming in to their territory. I didn’t come in to change things overnight. But I did see a great opportunity to make things better, elevate it to a higher level.”
At the first staff meeting, he wrote three words: Transparency. Trust. Teamwork.
“I don’t want to climb a mountain with someone I don’t trust,” he says. “I have to know that other person has no hidden agenda.”
Working with Leadership Innovations Team, Nourani set out to help his staff climb that mountain.
Last year the Nourani-led administrative team did Learning Walks with a Leadership Innovations Team coach, a process that eventually came to also include teachers. This year the Learning Walks continue.
Nourani himself has committed to another project: spending two hours each day in the classroom — one hour in one class, the second in another.
“It gives a different perspective than just a walk through,” he says. “It’s a luxury but I have made it my most important mission this year.”
Coaching, he says, has been and continues to be essential to his own growth.
Everyone in life, no matter how good, needs a coach. The most successful people have coaches. A coach works with you and lets you unfold. I believe everyone has a lot to unfold. Leadership Innovations Team helps me see things I might miss. They sharpen my skills through reflection. They are there to give me feedback.”
“The ultimate goal is to be able to have conversations that help everybody. Everybody should be a coach to others.”
He likens what is going on at Lewis and Clark to a racing scull gliding quickly across the water.
“Imagine that I am in a racing boat and everyone is working hard to get to the destination. What happens if one person is not synchronized? Are we going to throw that person out and lose the manpower? No. We are going to help that person be synchronized,” he says.
Nourani believes that the effort is already paying off. Last year’s eighth grade math scores went up 20 percent.
“Just because we were successful last year doesn’t mean we can be casual,” Nourani says. “I warned our staff. Are we at 100 percent? No. That’s our destination. We don’t measure ourselves against others. We only measure ourselves with us.
“I don’t care about other ships. I care about our ship.”
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