Located in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, Strawberry Mansion High School once was regarded as one of the most dangerous high schools in America. Violence and drug use were rampant, test scores were abysmal and the school was a fixture on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list.

In 2002, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, an educator who had grown up in a similar neighborhood in the same city, took over as the school’s principal. Over the years, through a combination of tough love and a willingness to lead with courage, she and her team have transformed the school. Test scores have improved year after year, and the school is off the most dangerous schools list. Cliatt-Wayman’s 2015 TED talk on how to fix a broken school has been viewed nearly 1.3 million times.

During a recent visit to campus, Cliatt-Wayman spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about the role leaders can play in transforming schools in rough neighborhoods and helping students escape from poverty. She refuels her energy, she notes, through the realization that doing her job right could save her students’ lives.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below:

Knowledge at Wharton: Principal Wayman, what inspired you to become a teacher? Was it a person or a situation?

Linda Cliatt-Wayman: It was a situation. I went to a high school here in Philadelphia that was not very good. When I was there, I would always run home to my mother and say, “Mom, I’m not learning anything. They’re not teaching me anything.” And she said, “Well, I don’t understand that. You had always gone to great schools up to grade eight, and you decided to go to the school in your neighborhood. Why is this school so terrible?” I said, “Mom, you have to come and see it. We’re not learning anything.”

So I went to college thinking that first I was going to go into criminal justice. When I was in college, I realized that I was unprepared for it. It was so hard for me there. A lot of my friends who were also from Philadelphia actually failed out of school. That’s when I decided I wanted to go back to be a teacher because I never wanted anyone else to go to college the way I did. So I became a teacher.

Knowledge at Wharton: How did you end up at Strawberry Mansion?

Cliatt-Wayman: I was assistant superintendent for high schools, and it was my job to find the principal who would take over Strawberry Mansion after the merger of three schools. Strawberry Mansion sits in a very dangerous neighborhood. After two national searches I could not find a principal, so I looked at all 52 of my other principals and said, “Well, I’ll just move someone out of their school to Strawberry Mansion.” That yielded one candidate. I brought her into the office and said, “I have to move you to Strawberry Mansion.” She lifted up her shirt and displayed a small device. I asked, “What is that?” She said, “It’s a heart monitor.” She said, “I will go, but it may kill me.” So I was back where I started.

“I think I just cared enough…. And I was a person that probably was prepared for it the most of anybody I could find.”

One day I was walking into the school district building, and I was depressed because I could not find a principal. I was very scared; I was frightened for the kids and for the community. Then I heard a voice. It said, “You go.” And I stopped, and I asked, “Me go?” I said it out loud because the voice was that clear. I went back to the office and thought about it. I said, “Oh my goodness, this is why I can’t find a principal; I am the principal.” The next day I resigned. That’s how I got to Strawberry Mansion.

Knowledge at Wharton: So it sounded like you were actually quite terrified of how rough some of these neighborhoods had become. What gave you the courage, the resolve to make a positive difference?

Cliatt-Wayman: I think I just cared enough. Everyone did think I was crazy. They’d say, “Why would you go in there? There’s nothing you can do with that. Why would you leave your job to go there?” And I realized that I had been through some of these experiences before. It was not my first time being a principal. I realized I knew the community. I realized I always did have courage to address difficult situations. And I was a person that probably was prepared for it the most of anybody I could find.

So I just took a deep breath and went in there. When I got there, what I saw was so unbelievably terrible that it would take someone — I’m not saying I was special — but it least someone who cared enough to try and fix it. I did not go there thinking I could do it. I went there thinking I had to do it. I just had to do it.

Knowledge at Wharton: You described it as a difficult situation. What was the situation and how did you deal with it?

Cliatt-Wayman: That’s a big question. It was so many things. Like from the beginning just the school, right on down to the school’s schedule, wasn’t correct. The classes they were rostering the kids to was not correct. The students refused to go in the classroom at all. They just wouldn’t go into the room at all.

I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t go in the room. It was because the teachers didn’t want them in the room. The only reason I would say that is because they told me the story. I said, “You have to go to class to get your work done. You cannot walk the halls.” And they said, “Well, there’s no need to do that.” And I said, “Well, why?” They said, “Well, they gave me my packet.” And I said, “What packet?” They said, “Miss Wayman, you go on Monday and you pick up your packet of work and you bring it back on Friday and then you get your grade. So there’s no need to go [to class].” I couldn’t believe it.

The students had low expectations. The staff had low expectations. And when I finally figured out what it was — it was that everybody in the building had no hope. Everybody expected it to be that way. Nobody expected anything different. So the students just went along with what they expected.

The biggest [problem] was the level of violence in the school. The fights, threats against the teachers, threats against the support staff, the drug issues, bringing drugs into the building … there were just a lot [of problems]. Everything you could imagine was happening at one time. But it was because they did not expect anything else. No one did, so the kids just went along with their expectations.

Knowledge at Wharton: You walked into an environment of hostility and, unfortunately, resigned hope. How did you go about trying to spark hope within the teachers and the students? And did you start to see patterns of influence — positive influence — start to emerge?

Cliatt-Wayman: Absolutely. I went in with a very open mind. The first thing I talked about with the staff was my expectations about what was going to happen here, and about how we were going to create an environment for the students no matter what or how they felt about the students’ abilities. We were going to create the best environment possible.

I talked to the staff about that and I said to them, “well, listen, I understand you have a lot of challenges. I understand all of the problems. I’ve heard them all. I’ve researched them all. You’ve told me about them all. But so what? Now what? So what? Now what? We have to do something. If you don’t think this is the place for you, then you have to go somewhere else.” That’s how I started the conversation.

After that they would tell me things they did not think they were supposed to do because of their contract: “We’re not doing that.” So I researched the contract and found ways to say, “oh, the contract doesn’t say you can’t do that. This is what the contract says.” I had to teach them about their own contract. It was about getting my own knowledge to try to figure out how to go around the system.

“You can leave. You don’t have to stay. But you’re going to have to follow the rules that we set here. That’s where it started, with rules and consequences.”

Then I talked to the students about what I expected. It was just so out of control. One time, the students came into the auditorium. I had never seen anybody enter an auditorium that way, jumping over the seats, running around. I’d never seen anything like that. And so I had to tell them the story about, “This is my house; this is not your house. One day I want it to be our house, but today it’s mine. I don’t tell you what to do at your house, and you don’t tell me what to do at mine. You follow the rules in your house and you’re going to follow the rules in my house.”

I had to have that conversation with them. And then they sort of looked at me crazy and like, “oh, I can relate to this because some of the things my mother’s not going to allow in her house either.” And I said, “I’m not going to allow them in here either.” It was like having that heart-to-heart conversation with everyone. “You can leave. You don’t have to stay. But you’re going to have to follow the rules that we set here.” That’s where it started, with rules and consequences.

Knowledge at Wharton: To bring about change in such a difficult situation you obviously need leadership skills. What skills did you find you needed the most? How did you develop them in yourself?

Cliatt-Wayman: If someone were to ask me about the number one skill I had to have, it was courage. I consider it a skill. It was courage … because there’s no way that I could make any change there if I was afraid to talk to anyone about anything. And that was pretty much the problem. No one had ever told adults in the building what they could and could not do. So courage was one.

[ted id=2276]

Knowledge at Wharton: If courage is a skill, it’s something that improves with practice. Can you explain how you developed that within yourself?

Cliatt-Wayman: What I do is I focus on learning about a lot of different things. And I study. And I research a lot of things before I even start. I’m not going to approach anybody with something I don’t know for sure … and so I research it. And I study it. And I teach myself about all kinds of things so that when I’m speaking to people about things that I’m well-versed enough in the matter that it takes my fear away.

Because sometimes when you’re fearful, it’s because you just don’t know enough. I took the same approach when I went to give my TED talk. I was totally afraid of it. But I studied and I learned and I practiced. That’s usually what I do to get rid of my fear and to develop my courage.

Knowledge at Wharton: It takes a lot of courage just to dream. And it sounds like you were the first among your teachers to paint the vision of success. This is what that dream looks like. They saw it. They had the reactions that you had done your research to debunk or to help them navigate the change. Did you at any point start to feel any overwhelming sense that this may be above the cut, this may be too much to handle, this may be more than one person can accomplish alone? And when you had that moment, how did you move through it and just get stuff done?

Cliatt-Wayman: I had that moment before the school even opened. As I was reading about Strawberry Mansion, all of the crime and the violence, then, before the school doors opened in September I had that moment. So I contacted people to help me that I felt could help me. I knew I needed help. There’s no way I could have done it. I knew I needed unconventional help.

“If someone were to ask me about the number one skill I had to have, it was courage. I consider it a skill.”

So I contacted the attorney general’s office. And I said to them “I’m going to need help.” I didn’t know why I contacted them. I figured it we had so much violence in that area, that I was going to need some people that were going to be different and maybe they had some sort of program. I had no idea what they were going to do.

One of the executive directors came to speak to me about what we could do to make Strawberry Mansion safe. They were already in the area doing some surveillance work. He brought in a program for me. Again, I realized I was over my head when we had an assembly program that he had brought in on non-violence. The program was about the Columbine shooting, believe it or not. It was about the Columbine shooting and how that was inappropriate. I didn’t know where they were going with this program on non-violence, but one thing that really made me cry was when it was some sort of simulation of the shooting in Columbine. They were actually in this video shooting people. And all of my students erupted into laughter.

I was in shock. I stood there in tears and said to myself, “Oh my God, if they find this funny then what am I going to do?” And so I called a group of students, and I said, “I need to know why you find that funny.” And they said to me, “We see that every day. You thought that was something, Miss Wayman? That’s nothing compared to what we see every day and every night.”

That’s when I said, “Oh my God, this is going to be a challenge because these students, they are just scarred. I’m going to have to get some healing done.” And the only way I can figure that out was to provide some hope. And to do that I had to provide them other experiences to counteract what they’ve always seen. And that’s what I started out doing.

Knowledge at Wharton: What other experiences helped them heal?

Cliatt-Wayman: Oh, just taking them out of the community. I had to get them out of the community and see something different, especially when you have 11th and 12th graders who live down the street from the Philadelphia zoo and have never been to the zoo. They’ve never been to the zoo, and they’re right down the street. So we took trips everywhere, to every college campus you could imagine. We’ve taken them to every place the kids wanted to go, we raised money and took them, even when they didn’t want to go.

We brought in a bunch of mentors. We got trauma training from certain people. Anybody who wanted to come in and volunteer we allowed them to. There were special programs that would help even just one child. So we had to teach them that people were interested in them and they were invested in them and they were not in this world alone — because they didn’t know that. So through the experiences and different people working with them, they began to see themselves. Then they could see that they could do something different?

Knowledge at Wharton: Was that a journey of self-acceptance for them? And do you feel that that would have been possible without the unconditional love that you speak of that invited them to try these new experiences?

Cliatt-Wayman: I think it was a lesson for them in realizing that they would have to embrace perseverance, that all of the things that had happened to them were never going to go away, that they were just there and they had to learn to live with it and move past it. The only way for them to do that was to constantly keep telling them that I loved them. “If nobody ever told you, I love you, remember that I do and I always will.” I told them that they could do it. Yes, all these horrible things had happened to them and no one could take them away, but I told the students the same thing that I told my staff, “So what? Now what? What can we do together to get past this?”

Helping the students realize this is just like self-acceptance. They had to learn that this was their experience and their journey. They cannot change their journey, but they can use it to push themselves forward. And I think that’s what we have instilled in the children, that you don’t have to wallow in your despair, you can use it to push you forward.

“I had to get them out of the community and see something different…. So we took trips everywhere, to every college campus you could imagine. We’ve taken them to every place the kids wanted to go….”

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the biggest challenges your students face today and how are you helping them overcome them?

Cliatt-Wayman: Wow. There are still so many. The stories you hear are just awful. So again, the one thing we try to instill in them, as I said, are core values. I tell them, “Listen, you are going to need someone to help you. There’s nothing wrong with a hand-out. There’s nothing wrong with asking for assistance.” It involves understanding perseverance. Understanding you’ve got to stay focused. Understanding there are a lot of things that are going to stand in your way.

And so what we constantly do, to be honest with you, is just keep talking to them. It’s really the only thing you can do is show them experiences and talk to them and let them see and hear a different way. I hope I answered your question, but that’s probably much of what we do on a daily basis. And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting trying to explain that the way you’re looking at it is not really healthy for you. And it’s difficult.

I have to talk to my young men about a lot of things, about the law, about staying on task, about minding their business, staying focused. But it’s just talking. And experience is our biggest thing at Strawberry Mansion. What can we show them differently? I hope I answered your question.

Knowledge at Wharton: As our communities can easily define our own perceptions of ourselves, when you bring them into these new experiences that allow them to question, “Is that really me? Is that my identity?” Has that changed the dynamic between the community within the school and beyond the school? And is the positive impact of that starting to show throughout the wider community?

Cliatt-Wayman: Good question. The school environment, you just wouldn’t know it, is just so different. And so before I even got here I received an e-mail from one of my teachers [about the school’s town halls]…. We have time for the kids to sit and talk and ask questions. And she said, “You know, Miss Wayman, it was just so beautiful to see them today. There has been so much growth in them and how they even interact with each other in the auditorium. How they’re able to run their own performances now. We don’t have to do it anymore. And they were so well behaved.” And she was saying, “I wish that more schools in Philadelphia would realize the importance of these programs.”

And so I know it has spread within the school and outside the community also. When we left — the other day we had election day and we were all leaving, my staff and I, and all the people from the polls were outside. And one gentleman stood up and said, “Listen guys, we have to give this staff a round of applause. We have to thank these people. Because of them we don’t have that confusion that we used to have on the way home from school. You can keep your business open. We have to thank these people.” So I know it’s starting to spread. But it’s a long journey. But that felt good to realize that people from the community noticed how hard we’re working.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think other leaders in the education world can learn from your experience?

Cliatt-Wayman: The one thing they can learn from my experience is they have to lead. There are a lot of school leaders who do not realize that it is their job to lead. They wait for someone else to come in and do it for them. You get all these stories about what Central Office is supposed to do and I’m going to sit here and I’m going to wait. No, no, no, no. What happens in your school depends on your leadership. You are in control of what happens in that building. It’s all within your control.

A lot of school leaders that I’ve come across don’t understand that it’s their role. They think they play second fiddle to this big organization called Central Office, that it’s going to come run the school for them. And I have to teach them that Central Office is support; they’re the leadership. They’re in control of what happens.

Knowledge at Wharton: Building on that, given that you give so much of yourself to lead, how do you refuel yourself so that you can give the generosity and welcome the recognition of that generosity and continue to live it even harder with stronger heart?

Cliatt-Wayman: Wow. The way I re-energize myself and get renewed in this business is that I tell myself that because I’m working this hard and because I believe in what I’m doing that I get the opportunity to save somebody’s life.

And so what matters is saving their lives, knowing how important this work is, and that if I didn’t do it, it could turn out badly for someone. I take great pride in telling myself, “Linda, you’re helping to save someone’s life.” I do exercise. I try to eat well. But just knowing that I may be helping one more person escape poverty — especially when you come from poverty yourself, you feel real good. You feel real good.