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March 14, 2024
ASCD Blog

Q&A: Principal Hamish Brewer on Leaving a Legacy

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This educator’s legacy-driven leadership inspires school leaders to strive for excellence in serving their students and communities.
LeadershipSchool Culture
Q&A with Hamish Brewer
Affectionately known as “the relentless, tattooed, skateboarding principal,'' Hamish Brewer has garnered international acclaim for innovative leadership. With a track record of driving results and instigating change, he consults with organizations worldwide on leadership, culture, and organizational performance improvement. His accolades include being named the NAESP Nationally Distinguished Principal and Virginia Principal of the Year. Brewer is also a school turnaround and school improvement specialist, working with some of the most at-risk students and schools in the United States.
Brewer will share his insights and strategies for fostering positive, energetic change in schools at the upcoming 2024 ASCD Annual Conference on Sunday, March 24, 2024. We spoke with him about his unconventional approach to school leadership and culture.

Your book, Relentless: Changing Lives by Disrupting the Educational Norm, describes your personal experiences growing up in a challenging environment. How do those early life challenges influence your approach to education, and how do you use your own experiences to connect with students facing similar hardships?

My experiences growing up remind me to stay humble, hungry, and focused on what matters. They've shaped my approach to education, especially in working with unrealized communities and kids from diverse, amazing backgrounds. It's a constant reminder of the fight I'm in, fighting for every child's future. My upbringing serves as a great equalizer in understanding and empathizing with others. It's all about building bridges and connecting through shared experiences. As I always say, “You can't talk about something [with someone] whose shoes you haven't walked in.” I believe in meeting people where they are, without judgment, and understanding their struggles.

"Disrupt the norm" is a central theme in your book. What does this mean to you?

Disrupting the norm means not settling for the status quo just because “that's how it's always been done.” It's about constantly questioning and seeking better ways to serve our students. We need to ensure we're giving them a voice and a choice. Disrupting the norm is taking a look at what's around you and asking yourself, “Are we doing absolutely everything that we can to be 100 percent awesome for our kids and to ensure that they have the most amazing, electric experience that school can provide them?” Disrupting the norm isn't about overhauling everything; it's about focusing on what we can control and challenging ourselves to be great for our kids.

Your TEDx Talk highlights the transformation of one of the toughest middle schools in the state of Virginia under your leadership. In this context, how does the practice of asking students, staff, and yourself about legacy contribute to transforming a school culture?

The key here is that we all work incredibly hard, but sometimes we wonder why. I wanted to give purpose to our efforts by emphasizing legacy. It's about aiming for something greater and being the best we can be for each other. Legacy means giving every stakeholder a voice, choice, and opportunity while advocating for each other's greatness. It's about living in the moment—not being concerned with what happened behind us or trying to control what’s going to happen in front of us—and focusing on excellence for our kids every day.

As someone known as the “tattooed, skateboarding principal,” could you share how skateboarding fits into your life? Do you see any metaphors or lessons from the sport that can be applied to education?

I've loved skateboarding since I was a little boy, though I’m pretty average at it. Skateboarding is an equalizer with no boundaries because anybody can give it a go. It doesn't matter if you're Tony Hawk, Hamish Brewer, or just you. Sometimes skateboarders are labeled as the “punk” kids or the “naughty” kids, but that's unfair. Who knows? That person could be an Olympian one day. Skateboarding teaches us to trust the process and enjoy the journey of growth. It's a versatile sport that can take you anywhere in the world.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned as a principal?

I am a product of the amazing people and stakeholders around me. I'm talking about the parents, the students, the teachers, the cafeteria staff, the secretaries, the nurses. As an administrator, remember to advocate for your staff, provide them with a voice and opportunities, and amplify their contributions. One of the biggest lessons to learn as a leader is to listen to understand, not to just respond. This is essential for success in anything you do.

One of your book's messages is about becoming the educator you always dreamed of being. What’s your go-to advice for educators who aspire to make a significant impact in their schools and communities?

Just be you. You're enough. You don't have to compare yourself to the person down the hallway, the person on the other grade level, or the person upstairs or downstairs. Just focus on being the very best version of yourself each and every day. It's not going to be perfect, and that's okay. We get to come back tomorrow, and that's the beauty of our job. 
This is a journey, and you don't have to walk alone. There are people out there who will support you, lift you up, make you better, and care for you. Find your team and find your tribe. Then, hold on to them.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.

Emma Holdbrooks is an online associate editor with Educational Leadership magazine.

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