Creating safe and supportive learning environments
Kristy Pierce is an educator and academic advisor to the basketball team at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul. In this interview with Outreach Director Ryan Mulso, Kristy shares about empowering students and parents and creating safe and supportive learning environments where students can thrive.
Ryan Mulso (RM): What is your role as the academic advisor to the basketball team?
Kristy Pierce (KP): My role is captured in the nickname “team mom,” and I’m always saying things like, “Did you get your homework done?” The biggest part of my role is helping students understand how important it is to do all of the little things to achieve the goals they set. For example, if students want to be recruited by Division I schools, there are many small things they will have to do diligently to lead up to that. I talk it through with team members, explaining attention to detail is critical, such as having a specific routine for free throws— bouncing the ball five times, bouncing twice, aiming, and believing you can make it. I also help team members make this connection to schoolwork. The details matter and all the small things, such as doing your homework, checking it over, and bringing pens to class, impact your grades. It’s extremely rewarding to see team members grasp the concept of “I really can accomplish this, but it will take work. If I want it, I can’t just wish, I have to work to make it happen.”
An example of seeing a student really take control over their learning environment happened halfway through the basketball season this past year. We take away the basketball team members’ phones during game day because they are such a distraction. One day, a student came up to me and gave me his phone even though it wasn’t a game day. At the end of the day, he came to retrieve his phone and shared, “I got so much more work done, I knew that would help.” Seeing students realize that there are obstacles over which they have control is powerful. It’s amazing when we help them realize how much power they actually have. Seeing students learn to be concerned about their GPA and know they have control over it as they search for colleges gives me energy.
RM: In a piece written by Malique, one of your students, he describes the high expectations you have for him and his teammates, can you share more about that?
KP: All the students are capable of earning an A, so I help them understand they can achieve those. The only expectation I have is that they work their hardest to be the best person they can be and leave something behind. Seeing a student who didn’t care about grades at all, doing his homework and checking it over by the end of the year is something that I’ve seen. I help students understand that they shouldvalue who they are and understand their worth. I help them meet these expectations because I believe in them. When you believe in them, they can do anything. When you invest in kids, there is no greater return. It’s amazing to see that light bulb go on that says, “I’m worth it,” - and they are, but no one is going to give it to them. Their greatness lies within them to be unlocked.
RM: Malique also described your leadership in creating a positive school climate. What do you believe is the most important part of this work?
KP: There is no secret sauce. We intentionally create a sense of family, but family is messy. It includes embracing sadness and conflict, but knowing that at the end of the day, we all trust that we have each others’ backs. I also work very hard to create consistency and structure. I also listen to the things not being said. I read body language, or notice if a student’s outfit isn’t as sharp or on point as as it normally is. I build relationships with families so they can feel comfortable sharing what is happening in their lives. I had a mom share that the family was packing their stuff and would be homeless in four days with nowhere to go. This was important for me to know so I could support this student, while still helping to ensure he was still learning and keeping his grades up. We talked about how that was one way he could help his mom, if she knew he was still doing well in school. We also talked about how the last period of the day, may be difficult because of the uncertainty. I shared with his 7th period teacher that for the next few weeks, the student may be having a difficult time toward the end and if he needed to take a break and come to my room, it might help if she allowed that. We can’t just tell students we love them, we have to show them. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I notice you, I see you.” I think educators can ask themselves, “Are you the educator you needed in your life?” or, “Are you the educator that really was there for you?”
RM: You worked with another individual to help him realize his dream of running a nonprofit, can you share more about that work?
KP: I worked with Donnell Gibson to start the Gibson Foundation. The work started because of an incident in April of 2015. Smoke filled the air coming from a house as Donell, a student of mine at the time, walked by. He ran into the house, not once, not twice, but five times to carry people out. He saved five lives. He came to school the next day and told me, “Ms. Pierce, I saved five people from a burning house,” and sure enough, it was on the news and he was honored by the fire chief and mayor. I told him, “Clearly, there is a plan for you that’s big. What do you want to do in life?” His goals were to own his own company, create a foundation, write books, and be a speaker. I asked him to pick one, and he picked the foundation. I told him I had some foundation and corporate experience and that I would help him as much as I could. A year later, the foundation was legally formed. We started designing programs to make life better and create opportunities for a target population of young African American males in East Side St. Paul. He has been successful. People have embraced him and the work he was already doing with young people. I see the passion and compassion he has. We started formally designing programs this past year, including the Hope Heals summer basketball league. We had 80 kids ranging from eight to 19 years-old. We intentionally wanted the older boys and younger boys to play basketball together so the older boys could create a safe place for the younger boys on and off the court. We created a variety of mentorship opportunities between the older and younger boys. We also had a lot of great speakers, such as the president of Minneapolis NAACP, to expose the boys to speakers and people they may not otherwise encounter. When summer ended and fall basketball started, we launched the Gibson Basketball Club. On Saturdays, the basketball coach cooks a big breakfast and we talk about academics. We added two tutors and make it clear that men cared about them. “Hope Heals” really means, “When I have hope that someone cares about me, there aren’t limits to what my life can be.” It’s amazing to see — men laughing, joking, and accepting the boys for who they are. It means a lot for our boys when they are accepted unconditionally.
It isn’t my foundation, but I take pride in having some tangibles that I could give back and it’s amazing to see the progress being made.
RM: You’re an amazing educator, what advice would you give new teachers?
KP: A favorite quote of mine is, “Look beyond what you see and maybe you’ll see what’s really there.” When I work with teachers, I help them look to see what is behind their students’ behavior, not as an excuse, but to get to a root cause. No kid wants to hurt someone else or be hurt. Using restorative justice techniques when an incident happens is really important. Understanding that when something happens we all play a part and it’s important to be reflective. Ask questions, not to make excuses for the student’s behavior, but to seek understanding and our role. We must humble ourselves and understand we can both hurt and heal people. Reflecting on how we show up each day, what we bring with us, and how our students are showing up is incredibly important.