“I want to transform attitudes because if I can change the attitude, then the achievement will follow.”
“The attitude gap is the gap between those students who have the will to achieve excellence and those who do not.”
“Leadership has to have the courage, the backbone, the spine, the audacity, to engage staff in that tough conversation.”
“When the vision can be shared, now there’s a higher probability that we can turn this thing into our reality. So, our vision was shared, the students embraced the vision of what we can become, and now we were able to go to work and make it happen.”
“I’m here for you to look within yourself because as you feel that pain, so to speak, that will be the motivation or the impetus for you to bring about change to your practice.”
Q: Could you give us an overview of your journey that brought you to where you are today as an educator, writer and speaker?
A: Yeah, the short version is that I was teacher in 1988 in Brooklyn, New York City. I loved it and decided to do it full time, so I came back home to Jersey and continued it. I became an award-winning teacher in a very short period of time as teacher of the year at the school district, county and finalist for New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. I went on and became a principal, which I did for 14 years. But while I was doing that work, even as a teacher, I was writing. So, I was writing my first books and here we are up to number 11. I left my principalship in 2011 because I wanted to do this. I wanted a larger platform to do it. I had been doing it for 30 some odd years, but it was simultaneous with my principalship, so that meant weekends and summers and that type of thing. And I really wanted to live it. So, I left in 2011 and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Q: So, we hear about different types of gaps – achievement gap, opportunity gap. Could you explain the attitude gap?
A: Yeah, I’ve had a focus on attitude since my undergraduate days in the early 80s. I thought that the whole idea of a positive attitude was a powerful thing. So, as I evolved as a practitioner, as an educator, I started thinking about attitude, attitude, attitude. Then with the achievement gap language, No Child Left Behind language and the pressures to close this achievement gap – at that time, they said 100% of the students by 2014. I started attaching the word “gap” to attitude. It’s the attitude gap that I want to close. I’m not concerned about the achievement gap because I want to transform attitudes because if I can change the attitude, then the achievement will follow, was my thinking. So, that’s where I was as a teacher, that’s where I was as a principal.
So, I gave it a definition. The attitude gap is the gap between those students who have the will to achieve excellence and those who do not. So, the focus was on the will. How do we tap into the will of the student? How do we get the youngster excited about self, about learning and about the prospects for his or her future? How do we tap into that?
Then I looked at the educator and I said, “That attitude has to be positive as well.” So, then I gave it this definition – the gap between those educators who have the will to be amazing at their craft and those who do not. So, teacher, principal, counselor, whomever, have you arrived today with the will to take your practice, your game, to a level previously unimagined, right? So, having that willingness to continue to step up, step up, step up. Next thing we knew, we’re on that path to students being where we want them to be and, ultimately, we got there. Again, that’s through a focus of attitude. The youngster has to want this. I can purchase as many programs and models for writing, reading and mathematics, but at the end of the day, if youngster is not willing to receive it, to embrace it, because they don’t see the significance of it or the relevance of it to their life, then I don’t care how many millions of dollars are spent for the program. That youngster is still not going to embrace it.
So, I said we need to go here and here, and as we go there, then there’s a higher probability the youngster will in fact embrace what it is that we’re selling, so to speak.
Q: Following the killing of George Floyd, there has been a loud call for social change, rightfully so, across the country. What guidance would you give to schools and school leaders about how to approach these types of conversations about racism and social injustice?
A: I have created a definition of social justice education, but it’s lengthy, so I don’t have it memorized just yet. Here’s the thing, I was a social justice practitioner from the day I set foot in the classroom in 1988. I say that because I didn’t know better, right? It just made sense to me, but I learned very quickly once I was in that classroom, that I had to, figuratively speaking, peep outside of my classroom door to make sure the coast was clear before I could engage students in that conversation. Then as principal, I had to tip toe. Continuing that practice with my staff and ultimately students, but somewhere along the way, the world kept shifting, kept changing and now I could be my authentic self.
So, relative to your question, leadership has to have the courage, the backbone, the spine, the audacity, to engage staff in that tough conversation, but not necessarily bam in your face from the outset. That takes time because you have a staff that you need. So, therefore you’ve got to win that staff over. You’ve got to use your people skills to the utmost to look at people who are in various different places politically and various different places in terms of perspective, how they see life. You’ve got to massage it that way, so that, ultimately, we can have the tough conversation, regardless of what side of the aisle you sit or just the way you see the world. We can still have that constructive, productive conversation as staff because it relates to the children and leave the meeting as allies, as partners, as friends, as opposed to now we’ve got more friction on staff than we already had. So, it’s a tough conversation, but it’s a doable conversation. The leadership has to know how to engage staff in the conversation to get it started.
Q: Under your leadership, Newark Tech transformed from a low performing school to being recognized by the U.S. News and World Report Magazine as one of America’s best high schools three times. What was the catalyst for this change?
A: I would say first and foremost, the leadership, without patting myself on the back, but I understood that leadership was important. I say to anybody, and in fact, I say to leaders every day, including today in Rhode Island, that leadership is everything. So, when I got there, the only variable to change was me. Everybody else was who was there the years before. So, the school was a low performing school, but the leadership came in with a different kind of a focus, different kind of an attitude, a vision of excellence, and was able to pitch that and sell that. So as a result, I had a staff that believed in the vision and was able to embrace the vision as their own, and that’s key. You know, as long as it’s my vision, it’s not going to happen anyway. But when the vision can be shared, now there’s a higher probability that we can turn this thing into our reality. So, our vision was shared, the students embraced the vision of what we can become, and now we were able to go to work and make it happen.
Q: You have been coined as America’s discomfort speaker. I understand it’s because of how you force audiences, or cause them, to reflect upon themselves. Can you explain why this type of self-reflection is so important?
A: Yeah. I mean, it’s crucial. Every book that I’ve written, every article I’ve written, every blog post, every presentation I’ve created, they’re all in the first person. They’re all self-reflective, they’re designed for the receiver, the reader, whatever it is to look within oneself. So, to contrast that with the old title of years ago, the motivator, the motivational speaker. Typically, a motivational speaker can come into a room, because I’ve been this guy, and ignite an audience. They’re standing on their feet, giving you a standing ovation and they’re yelling your name and all that kind of stuff. Then, they get to the parking lot to their car and they’re not thinking about you anymore because life has resumed. So, now they’re going on with their lives. I needed content, a message, presentations, articles, books, whatever it is, that once they’re read or once I’m heard, you’re still thinking about me. You’re thinking about me because I said something that made you say, “Ouch.”
I said something that stung, that hurt, right? That pierced you. Now, it’s like, I left the keynote, I left the workshop, but this guy’s in my head. Right? My intent was to create discomfort, I wanted you to feel uncomfortable with being comfortable and comfortable with being uncomfortable. So now that becomes my goal, my objective, with any work I do in education. Therefore, I don’t have a problem with someone leaving the venue upset with Principal Kafele because if you’re upset with me because of perspective, that’s different. If you’re upset with me because I made you look within, like I’ve had people say to me, principals in particular, “Principal Kafele, man, you punched me in the stomach without taking a swing. It was a gut punch.”
And I say, “Good. That was why I was here today. Right?” Or they say, “Principal Kafele, you’ve rocked my foundation. I really thought I had a handle on this, and now I’m questioning myself.” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’m here. Right? I’m not here for you to praise me. I’m here for you to look within yourself because as you feel that pain, so to speak, that will be the motivation or the impetus for you to bring about change to your practice.” That’s what that’s all about – America’s discomfort speaker, I’m running around America, making people feel uncomfortable.
Q: Where can listeners and viewers can find out more about your work and this information that you are conveying?
A: Yeah, absolutely. PrincipalKafele.com has everything. As I tell everybody, it’s not just a website, it’s an institute of professional learning. So, I’ve just got a wealth of information on there that you don’t have to pay for, you just use. You may know that I do a virtual assistant principal leadership academy every Saturday morning. It was meant to be just for the summer, it’s sort of a COVID thing. I’m home. I’m not traveling, doing anything. So, let me spend an hour every Saturday morning talking to assistant principals and aspiring assistant principals and even their bosses, principals, assistant supes, and superintendents, but it became so popular that I decided I’d do it year long.
So we’re going to do 52 weeks of this, 30 minutes each, starting in September all the way through May 1, 2021. So, that’s another thing I do. Somebody listening may say, “Oh my God, how can I get on, how can I join? How can I register?” Nothing to register, just go to my Facebook page at Principal Kafele, my Twitter page @PrincipalKafele, my Virtual Assistant Principal Leadership Academy page on Facebook or my YouTube channel, School Leadership Thoughts, and join me at 11 EST every Saturday morning and I will be sitting there waiting for you.
Principal Baruti Kafele
A highly regarded urban educator in New Jersey for more than 20 years, Principal Baruti Kafele distinguished himself as a master teacher and a transformational school leader. As an elementary school teacher in East Orange, NJ, he was selected as the East Orange School District and Essex County Public Schools Teacher of the Year, he was a New Jersey State Teacher of the Year finalist, and a recipient of the New Jersey Education Association Award of Excellence.
As a middle and high school principal, Kafele led the turnaround of four different New Jersey urban schools, including “The Mighty” Newark Tech, which went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to national recognition.
One of the most sought-after school leadership experts and education speakers in America, Kafele has delivered more than 2,000 presentations over his 34 years of public speaking. An expert in the area of “attitude transformation,” Kafele is the leading authority for providing effective classroom and school leadership strategies toward closing what he coined, the “Attitude Gap.”
A prolific writer, Kafele has written extensively on professional development strategies for creating a positive school climate and culture, transforming the attitudes of at-risk students, motivating Black males to excel in the classroom and school leadership practices for inspiring schoolwide excellence. He has authored 10 books, including his six Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development best-sellers: The ASPIRING Principal 50, Is My School a Better School BECAUSE I Lead It?, The Principal 50, The Teacher 50, Closing the Attitude Gap, and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life. His next book, The ASSISTANT Principal 50, will be released in summer 2020.
Kafele earned his bachelor’s degree in management science/marketing from Kean University and his master’s degree in educational administration from New Jersey City University. He is the recipient of more than 150 educational, professional and community awards, including the Milken National Educator Award; the National Alliance of Black School Educators Hall of Fame Award; induction into the East Orange, NJ, Hall of Fame; and the city of Dickinson, TX, proclaiming February 8, 1998, as Baruti Kafele Day.