Putting Students First: Simple, but Not Easy

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Student at Tulsa Honor Academy

Every morning at 7:20 AM, my staff circles up to meet. Dedicated to our development, we ground ourselves in a weekly focus area, check-in for quick peer collaboration, and then share daily announcements. However, before we jump in, we ALWAYS start with Scholar Shout Outs. We start every day literally celebrating our individual students’ successes. It’s a simple ritual, but foundational to our culture because in EVERY decision, just like literally every morning, at Tulsa Honor Academy, we put students first.

I think most schools and districts like to think they put students first. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Putting students first. It conjures up images of joyful children, perfect classrooms, ample resources, passionate teachers and a cornucopia of much needed social services. An education Shangri-La. This is what our kids need and deserve especially when those students are minority students and/or come from low-income communities.

Putting students first is simple. Put. Students. First.

Students at Tulsa Honor Academy

When educators complain about their frustrating experiences, they often site societal declines in student behavior, resources, parent involvement, and instructional support as evidence of a system that doesn’t serve kids well. Valid. However, from my experience in hiring, I’ve found that the exceptional educators are the ones who are truly putting scholars first, and in reality, this is a greater sacrifice than most people understand or are willing to make.

The best way to explain this is to compare it to the diet and weight loss industry. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to literally and figuratively providing people a magic pill that will solve all of their problems. In many cases, the solution is simple: eat healthy and move more. Simple, but not easy. Education is no different. Weight loss for many people means confronting damaging mindsets, correcting unhealthy habits, and more often than not, SACRIFICE. Again, education is no different.

“Nothing will work, unless you do.” –John Wooden

Putting scholars first means you sacrifice a lot. It means, as a leader, you have to be willing to make those unpopular decisions that often impact adults (and make everyone’s job a little harder). For every single decision, we ask ourselves, “Is this what is best for our scholars?” “How will it impact their learning?” and “How will it impact our student culture?”

Many times, the answer means you’re not going to get to take the easy way out. It means it’s probably going to be hard—and you might not get to do that fun thing you wanted to.

It means your teachers and staff will work long hours and likely miss out on personal or family time. It means that you’re going to have to be tough about what gets put in front of scholars. It means you’re going to have a lot of tough conversations. You’ll probably need access to a tissue box at all times. Real talk. It means you’ll have to reflect and reflect and reflect and be better for your students.

Three students at Tulsa Honor Academy

Tulsa Honor Academy puts scholars first. Always. We hire people who are ready for the difficulty and discomfort inevitable when putting our scholars first. Without hesitation our teachers do whatever it takes to help our scholars even if that means everyone’s job is harder as a consequence.  

The hierarchy is simple. 

  1. Kids’ needs
  2. Teachers’ needs 
  3. Families’ needs
  4. Everything else

Simple, but not easy.

Principals, make decisions in that order and hire staff members that work hard and are on board with this hierarchy. You’ll be able to figure out the rest.


Kate Freudenheim, middle school principal at Tulsa Honor Academy


May 16, 2019 - 12:27pm
Derek Edwards

You and Mark will be missed so much. Good luck in your future career. Whatever students you end up guiding are very lucky and so was Sadie. She's going to miss both of you terribly.