School is all I know. As a student, a teacher, a parent and a principal—school is all I know. I know it from the theoretical side and the practical. I know it from the research and best practice side. And I know it from the cultural and emotional side.

I know what it feels like to perform amazingly as a student for one teacher and accomplish nothing for another teacher; simply due to the way they make me feel. I know what it feels like to feel heartache from a school or a teacher or a student body that seems to reject you. And I know what it feels like to want to run through a school screaming and yelling—not as a student, but as a mother—based on how that school makes me or my child feel.  Yes.


Simply based on the way it makes me FEEL.


Feeling is an abstract reality that cannot be easily unpacked. But it is the art behind the science of all human professions. Education, medicine, law enforcement. These professions may have a science to their success but it is the art of human interaction that makes the best of these professionals so valuable to a community.


Maya Angelou is famous for saying it is not what you say or do that people will remember; it is the way you make them feel. It is this mentality that drives my belief in classroom and school culture. Especially for children of color.


When children walk into a school, they should immediately feel a sense of belonging and worth. They should operate under adults who have high expectations, set high standards, and establish multiple supports for all students to meet and exceed those expectations and standards.


There should be a sense of family where cohesion and love are the foundations. A bond should be evident amongst all members of the school community and that bond should reflect a sense of pride in membership.

There should be a seriousness of the task before us. A sense of gravity, almost, that drives the work. A sense that time is of the essence, that the children must grow and flourish. If the children are not growing and flourishing, it reflects failure on our part. No one else’s.


A school should acknowledge the societal ills around us.


There should be an honesty and transparency around inequity, inequality and downright genocidal tendencies of our American roots. There should be a confrontation of our past and how each of us, as adults, succeeded in the aftershocks of that past. But with that confrontation should be an equal determination of overcoming. In spite of the odds.


And there should be a passion. A passion to love, to care, to demand, to thrive and to win. That passion should fuel commitment, determination, work ethic and collaboration.


When all of these things are mixed together in a school, you make something beautiful that you can feel when you walk in the door. And within that beautiful something, our children can grow and flourish. Tupac Shakur once wrote about roses in concrete. He said:


Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

In healthy schools, with cultures that possess the ingredients listed above, roses can grow out of concrete. Regardless of the “laws of nature” that would prove it wrong.


Now, keep in mind, schools like this go against the grain. Especially, again, for our most underserved and misunderstood populations. It takes a great amount of fight within each of us as individuals—staff and parents—to SUSTAIN this type of school culture. It is counter-cultural.


For example, Native and African Americans have a history of their educational practices being demolished in favor of a white, individualistic school culture built on assimilation and degradation. Whether it was how we, as a country, responded to Native Americans through boarding schools or Brown versus Board of Education (through the abolishment of black schools, black teachers and the forced and unwelcome integration of black children into white schools), we have a long contentious history of how we do school for children of color. And that reality can most easily be translated into how we make those children and their families “feel.”


When creating and sustaining schools that are healthy and contain ingredients like those listed above, there must be a fire and a grit in the hearts and minds of the leaders, the staff and the parents. The greater American culture will fight against it. The concrete will close in on you. The sun will go from nourishing to scorching and the rain will turn from refreshing to drowning.


But with fire in your heart and grit in your bones, you and your school can keep the conditions alive for your roses to grow, bloom and thrive.

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Mauri Friestleben
Mauri Chantel Melander Friestleben began kindergarten at Jenny Lind in 1979, and attended Minneapolis Public Schools until graduating from Washburn High School in 1992. Mauri earned a BA at the University of St. Thomas and began embracing the world of teaching in 1997. She taught elementary and middle school in MPS, along with gaining experience in the charter school world and district administration. Mauri currently leads Lucy Craft Laney Community School where she just started her tenth school year. She’s the proud parent of three grown daughters plus one still in school, and and her husband coaches at North High School.