“Lives of great ones all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (excerpt “A Psalm of Life”)
An educational pioneer, a trailblazer, the first through the wall. Dr, Sarah Gibson leaves her footprints on the educational arena in Detroit, Michigan.
During the 1970’s, American education journeyed from the school structure of the junior high school, grades 7, 8, 9 to the school structure of the middle school, grades 6, 7, 8, and of magnet schools, drawing students from across the district. In 1971, Dr. Sarah Gibson became the first principal of the Whitney Young Magnet Middle School here in Detroit, Michigan.
Meeting Dr. Gibson
I had been teaching language arts at a junior high when I met with a district level administrator about transferring to another location. He informed me there was an opening at Whitney Young Magnet Middle School; however, the principal had brokered an understanding with the district that she could interview her staff first, something unheard of at that time. Today, it is common practice.
Dr. Gibson interviewed potential staff because she wanted to make certain that they fit with her vision of a school as a learning organization. She championed onsite, ongoing professional development where staff focused on personal mastery, building a shared vision, and team learning, while other schools engaged in one time, off site approaches. In 1990, Peter Senge from Massachusetts Institute of Technology would write The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, long after Dr. Gibson had retired from Detroit Public Schools and had moved on to Oakland University.
Unique Approach to Discipline
Dr. Gibson’s approach to discipline was unique. If a student was remanded to the office or decided to go on his/her own, she didn’t start with the standard, “What did you do wrong, or why did your teacher send you to the office?” Generally, her first question was, “What are you learning in math, science, etc?” Unemotionally and with a poker face, she would listen as the student attempted to explain what s/he was learning. Her guiding question was, “How much of the problem is faulty delivery of instruction which can cause off task behavior ?” Together, they would examine the student’s notebook, folders, and textbook. Later she would meet individually with the teacher to provide additional strategies for delivering a lesson.
I remember one incident where Dr. Gibson challenged my instruction. I failed a student on her book report because she had copied it from her sibling I had taught the previous year. The student immediately made tracks to Dr. Gibson’s office with big tears in her eyes. Naturally, she asked the student to explain the assignment, which I would discover later she could not to Dr. Gibson’s satisfaction do. Later when Dr. Gibson met with me, she shared that the student really didn’t understand the assignment, didn’t understand what I expected, so she resorted to cheating. She further explained that sometimes children cheat because of the way we teach or the way we fail to teach. With hurt and anger in my heart, I EXPLAINED to Dr. Gibson that I always TELL the class what I expect and I had told them what I expected with their book reports. Dr. Gibson’s nonchalant reply was, “Lorraine, if TELLING were teaching, everyone would be smart.” OUCH!
That day, I sat afterschool in my classroom with tears in MY eyes. How could I convince my boss I was in my room doing my best, giving it my all. Suddenly, it dawned on me that half of the students “got it” when I TOLD them what I expected. But it was the half that didn’t that made me look bad. So that day, afterschool, I rearranged students’ desks from single rows facing the teacher, standard industrial classroomoperating procedure at the time – silence, obedience, stillness- to a collaborative seating approach. From now on students would sit face-to-face and side-by-side and support one another.
With Dr. Gibson’s guidance we began rethinking seating arrangements in the classrooms at Whitney Young. Classes became busy and active with students talking and discussing the lesson in collaborative groups. Students gained experience in leading and in following. Thus, before the research of Johnson and Johnson, or any of the other collaborative/cooperative learning experts/researchers published their work, “collaboration, communication, and cooperation” became part of an invisible, covert curriculum at Whitney Young Magnet Middle.
It didn’t take Dr. Gibson long to discover that first hour students didn’t always benefit from the same quality of instruction as second or third hour students. It was as if teachers practiced the lesson on the first class and the other classes throughout the day were beneficiaries of that practice. She also discovered that in the PM teachers sent the SAME students to the office. Brainstorm! Create a rotating schedule. On Monday, teachers would teach first hour students first; however, on Tuesdays, teachers would start the day with their 2nd hour students first, next teaching third hour students etc,. On Wednesdays, teachers would start the day with 3rd hour students first and then teach the 4th hour next and so on.
Dr. Gibson had a open door policy that I availed myself of frequently. I remember our confrontation after this big rotating schedule idea Dr. Gibson shared with her staff. “Dr. Gibson, you are giving these students carte blanche to attend class late or not at all,” I admonished. “Their built in excuse, I got the days or periods mixed up.” Calmly, she explained that it would work. Just give it a chance. Again, she was right. I did interact more positively in the morning with students I had previously sent to the office in the afternoon. They saw a different side of me and I saw a different side of them. And the students were on time, on task, and on target. And my delivery of instruction became more balanced. A few years ago when I visited Renaissance High School, I found that they had adopted the rotation schedule we initiated at Whitney Young.
During Dr. Gibson’s reign/time, the hysteria and hoopla surrounding test scores, had not yet reached the fever pitch at the school or district level that it has today. Accountability had not yet become a watch word. However, Dr. Gibson’s inner compass knew that the scores were important to gauging student achievement. Using a handheld calculator, pen, and paper, she would disaggregate the data herself. Dr. Gibson would analyze the test items to determine where the school’s instruction was weak.
Holding a whole school staff meeting, she would share with us her findings. And she would meet privately with some of us to give us pointers on how to adjust our instruction for the next year. Now a whole test data industry has sprung up around testing. Companies and consultants use software to do what Dr. Gibson did with her calculator and her brain.
The First Through the Wall
Dr. Sarah Gibson was a pioneer, the first one through the wall. We know that the first one through the wall is often bloodied. She was bloodied but unbowed. Articulately, she defended her philosophy, her beliefs with passion and vigor. She spoke truth to power, challenging the educational status quo and working diligently to maintain Whitney Young as a progressive learning center and a problem solving, problem seeking organization until her retirement from Detroit Public Schools in 1984. .If EVERY urban school had a Dr. Gibson, there would be no “So Called” achievement gap.
I acknowledge Dr. Gibson in my workbook: A Coaches Guide to Asset-Mapping Teacher Quality http://www.amazon.com/dp/0557670950/ref=rdr_ext_tmb (Available on Amazan and Barnes and Noble)
Dr. Gibson, I will miss you greatly.