Finding ways to inject fun into learning is crucial even in the best of time, but in a year where educators have confronted numerous crises, doing so goes that much further in lifting spirits and boosting school culture and engagement.
For Principal Quentin Lee of Childersburg High School in Talladega County, Alabama, efforts to open doors and build relationships with students and faculty have often found the former band director making humorous music videos. When his COVID-19-themed parody of MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" went viral and garnered attention from CNN, Good Morning America and Inside Edition, the world got a glimpse of the style of leadership his school community has grown to love.
"Just because we're adults doesn't mean we have to stop being creative," Lee recently told K-12 Dive, adding that he ultimately wants to amplify educators' voices as they confront the many challenges facing schools. "This one piece of creativity has been able to open the world to things I have to offer in my viewpoint and my goal. My prayer is that I'm able to help inspire other educators to do all that and more for their kids."
Over the course of our conversation, Lee detailed the importance of finding ways to connect to students, the critical role of authenticity in leadership and more.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What has your thought process been like for building and maintaining school culture, especially over this past year when it seems like everything is just constantly in a state of crisis?
QUENTIN LEE: It all goes back to family. I just remember my experiences when I was in school and how I felt. Junior high and middle school was a very bad experience for me. I didn't feel connected to any of the teachers. It was a terrible experience.
I always said if I became a teacher, I would never let any student feel the way I felt inside of my classroom. And as a principal, I definitely don't want that to happen. So I’m working really hard to build those positive student relationships and also building relationships with teachers.
Oftentimes, we say our school “family” instead of our school “faculty,” because that's how we operate. We love on each other. We support each other. As family, sometimes you have disagreements, but you still love each other. And you move beyond that. I’m empowering our teachers to establish those relationships with our students.
We wouldn't have been able to be as successful as we were with COVID-19 without having those positive relationships already built and put in place. Our students were doing work because of the expectation they knew from being on campus. I think that's been key — just really establishing a culture of expectation, of success and love and acceptance, so everyone feels supported, and everyone knows they definitely are team players and they have a role in the bigger picture of everything.
And just being transparent. We have teams to make all of our decisions, and we look for what's going to be in the best interest of our students and make sure we're including their safety and our mission and our values. That's how we make decisions. I think that approach has definitely allowed the teachers to buy in, because they know they're not just teachers but actually leaders here on campus.
You’ve gained a lot of attention for videos like your “U Can't Touch This” COVID-19 parody. How important is it to inject a little fun and humor into the day to help keep students and staff engaged, and also just to humanize you and the other educators?
LEE: I laugh probably 10,000 times a day. Laughter is definitely medicine for the soul, and my students know that when I come around, I'm all business, but they know they're going to get a good laugh. We're going to talk about whatever we need to talk about, but I'm going to crack a joke or we're going to find humor and just be able to share that experience.
I can't tell you how many times, before COVID, kids would give up part of their lunch time to come and sit in my office and talk or have a conversation. That's just part of it.
I love it !!! ???????????? Salute Dr.Lee pic.twitter.com/2ohVRypuAe— MC HAMMER (@MCHammer) August 4, 2020
That video is one of the many videos we normally do. I like to just do fun videos, to poke fun at ourselves and to make the kids cringe a little bit, but also just to get awareness out. With everyone going back to school, we wanted to do something where we could go over the CDC guidelines but put a fun spin on it.
The other thing was we wanted to provide an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about what it was like when they were growing up. MC Hammer is an icon to many, and that was definitely a talking point because some of our kids knew the name, but they didn't know the legend behind Hammer. And a lot of people were able to relive his music and the parents were able to share their experiences with their kids.
What's the reaction from parents like when you put out these videos?
LEE: The parents pretty much expect it. “That's just Dr. Lee.” They laugh about it because they know I'm going to do something weird and crazy. Homecoming, especially here on our campus, is a fun time. I love to dress up. I'm bald-headed, but normally during homecoming, I will have glue-on hair just to kind of get a kick out of the kids.
They know I'm always doing something fun to connect with the kids, and that's kind of the expectation and they love it. They're very supportive. They're very proud.
What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind, or maybe the most challenging thing, about walking the line between having fun with things like that but also still being seen as a serious leader? Is it a matter of authenticity?
LEE: It's a fine line. The main thing is that I lead with my heart, and I let people know with the relationships I've formed that I'm a servant leader. So I'm not going to ask any of my teachers to do anything I'm not willing to do. I clean up, I pressure wash — I do all of that because that's my heart, and that’s my role.
With the relationships I’ve built with my students, they understand I can cut up with them one second and cut on them pretty hard the next. I just share my expectations with them. Right now, even during COVID-19, our attendance rate is 98% for our school. That's very good during the middle of a pandemic to have an attendance rate so high, but the expectation is students will come to school.
We're on a blended (hybrid) model, so they come half the time, but they know they're going to come to an environment where they're supported and challenged, and they enjoy it. They want to make their teachers proud. They want to make their parents proud. It just goes back to the relationship piece.
I think what draws the line is people can see it's not about a show. It’s about who I really am. Authenticity is valuable. We all can tell when someone's just doing something for show, and that's not the case here.
I do this because it's my life work. It's my mission. I don't have time to be fake. If there's something we need to address, we'll have those conversations and we'll move on. But just doing whatever we can to meet the needs of the kids, that's the most important thing.