A CONVERSATION WITH MNPS’S LEADER, DR. ADRIENNE BATTLE

If you survey the district leaders of the nation’s schools, you will find the vast majority have two things in common: they are white, and they are male. MNPS’s newest leader is neither. She’s also someone who has spent nearly her whole career in the same district that she has been tapped to lead.

At the end of April, the MNPS school board capped off a contentious year by agreeing to part ways with then-Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph. To oversee operations on an interim basis, and possibly permanently, the board looked inward and named Southeast Community Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle to lead. Battle is a product of MNPS and has served successfully as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. She graciously agreed to sit down with us and talk about the path that led to her current role.

DAD GONE WILD: Good morning, Dr. Battle. Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. Yours is a compelling story, and I wanted to take a little bit of time to explore it. When Dr. Joseph was hired, much was made of the importance of having a director who looks like the majority of children they serve. But now, not only do we have a director who looks like those students, but also one who has sat in the very seats they occupy. That’s pretty incredible and has to feel a bit surreal at times.

DR. ADRIENNE BATTLE: It’s an amazing and humbling opportunity for me because as you’ve mentioned, just being a student here in MNPS, I’ve experienced many of the same things that our students are experiencing. I’ve sat in the same seat. Along the way, it’s a positive opportunity to reflect back upon. I really do attribute a lot of my opportunities and my success to the experiences I had right here in MNPS. I had loving, caring, talented teachers around me every single day. As a matter of fact, I knew very early on I wanted to be an educator because of those teachers. They were my heroes. I witnessed every day what they were doing to pour knowledge into me and other students. It was just a powerful thing that instilled in me a desire to do that for others as well. So this is very surreal and also a great opportunity, one that I don’t take lightly. I am just overjoyed by being able to serve and give back to the same system, community, the city that –

DGW: Brought you up?

AB: Yes, brought me up.

DGW: I moved here in 1989, and I quickly learned that there is an unofficial litmus test for native Nashvillians, a number that seems to dwindle every year. It is in that spirit that I ask, and I know that it seems a trivial thing to ask, but… in which hospital were you born?

AB: I was born at Baptist Hospital, which is now St. Thomas.

DGW: That’s the answer that always produces the knowing nods among the old-timers. Now I know you are an Overton HS grad, but which other district schools did you attend?

AB: I started out at Cole Elementary. From there, I went to Carter-Lawrence. At the time, we had our 5th and 6th grade separate from 7th and 8th grade. So I went Cole, to Carter-Lawrence, and then to J.T. Moore for 7th and 8th grade. And then after that, I went on to Overton High School.

DGW: The zoning lines were a little different at that time than they are today. When I interviewed fellow native Nashvillian educator Ron Woodard, he told me that he was on the zoning line for Overton and Hillsboro. The only reason he went to Hillsboro was that the bus stop for Overton was on the other side of the street, and he didn’t want to cross the street.

AB: I actually was in the Hillsboro cluster. I had a special transfer to go to Overton because I was interested in the child care program that was there. I knew I wanted to be in education. They had the opportunity at Overton. I was zoned for Hillsboro, but got a special transfer to Overton simply because I knew what I aspired to do once I got to college and then into my career.

DGW: How old were you when that realization hit you?

AB: I can remember knowing as early as third grade. When you get those questions, what do you want to do when you grow up?, I remember as early as third grade saying I want to be a teacher, I want to do what my teachers do. As early as then, I can remember that. I started my senior year at 16, and I still knew that’s what I wanted to do once I graduated from high school.

DGW: That’s pretty amazing. Were there any specific teachers who left a lasting impression on you?

AB: All of them. One of my fifth grade teachers, who’s currently a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School – yep, still here – he was probably in his first year as my teacher at Carter-Lawrence, and he really made an impact. I remember vividly my third and fourth grade experiences. My experiences at J.T. Moore were also wonderful, and I had great high school teachers.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to run into my volleyball coach and PE teacher, Dorothy Kurzrock from J.T. Moore Middle, at the retirement reception. She reminded me, “You were on my first volleyball team at J.T. Moore.” At Overton, I have also kept in touch with many of my amazing teachers and coaches along the way.

DGW: Back when you were a student, was there anything that really struck you? Something that made you say, you know what, when I’m in charge this is going to change.

AB: There was. I actually wrote about one a few years ago when I was named the Tennessee Secondary Principal of the Year through the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and their foundation. It was an experience I had with the Executive Principal at Overton High School.

I was in my junior year, and I remember all the announcements soliciting kids to run for Student Council. It never really dawned on me to consider running. To be honest, I was pretty active in clubs and in athletics, but leadership was something different. My high school principal called me into his office – I was not a student who got into much trouble so I had no idea why he was calling me in – but I didn’t have the afraid-of-my-principal feeling because he was always personable and always spoke to me.

I remember him calling me in, sitting me down, and asking, “Have you considered running for Student Council?”

I thought, “Well, no. Not really. I’m just a regular student.”

And he said, “Do you not know that others see you as a leader?”

At the time I went, “No, I just think they see me as a friend and another peer in the school.”

My mind just started to expand. I eventually did run for and won the seat that I applied for. That experience with my principal really molded me in thinking about all the students we have who have this untapped talent, expertise, or opportunities that they might not necessarily see in themselves. And it’s up to us to pull it out of them. That experience helped me to really see myself as a leader and possessing the skill set to positively influence others around me. I think without his pushing me, and I might have eventually gotten there myself, but I think he made me think about it before I left high school.

DGW: And tap into it.

AB: Absolutely. That’s something I aspire to do not only with my students, but also with my colleagues I work with every single day. It’s a lasting experience that I had with him that inspired me around how I want to lead and serve others.

DGW: You talk about service and you can tell the way that you carry yourself that it’s not just words with you. I started managing when I was 16 years old, and I’ve believed in managing, through support and transparency, in a manner that if I disappeared off the face of the earth, the work would continue unabated. Because I’ve communicated the mission, provided the resources, the training, and truly created a team. The work is dependent on that team, not an individual.

AB: That’s right.

DGW: That seems to fit your leadership philosophy.

AB: Absolutely. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s what we can do collectively to keep things moving in the right direction.

DGW: It’s refreshing to hear you talk about a service kind of leadership. So many people think they’re managers or leaders because somebody gave them the title, and it’s important that service to others and the task is an important ingredient.

One of the things that I’ve had to learn about Nashville is that it’s really good at presenting one image and then underneath there’s something else happening. As a prime example, I knew Dr. Alison McMahon, the principal at Tusculum Elementary, school board member Will Pinkston, and Council Member Davette Blalock and had good relationships with them individually. Then I found out they’d all gone to high school togethe, which changes things in terms of how they know each other and interact with each other.

The same holds true with you. Quite a few present and past MNPS leaders attended MNPS schools at the same time you did. Tim Drinkwine, the High brothers – I’m trying to think of who else. Some of them are older, some of them are younger. Who in MNPS, presently or in the recent past, did you go to high school with? Do you remember?

AB: Timothy Drinkwine and I were in the same class together. Craig Hammond and I went to school together, but he was a year behind me. As a matter of fact, when I gave the experience of my principal at Overton, his dad was my executive principal at the time. The High brothers were around. One older, one younger, I believe?

DGW: Lance Foreman?

AB: Yes, Lance Foreman. We were in the same class as well. We all had a class reunion a few years ago and just to see everyone was a great time. Kevin Armstrong was a few years ahead of me at Overton as well. The crazy thing is we never ever thought we would come back around in this space where we were classmates and then as leaders in education.

DGW: It is a very unique situation.

AB: We all went in different directions after high school. But because of our love and commitment to MNPS and the experiences that we had, we all ended up right back here at home.

DGW: It’s incredible to me because having that relationship with people you serve a common good with lends itself to deeper relationships. You all have had very similar experiences to tap into when addressing the needs of Nashville students.

It’s also a great counterargument to the stories about the failures of MNPS. Y’all are evidence that MNPS is an organization that produces leaders capable of assuming leadership roles in the very school district they attended. I think that’s something that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops. Come to our schools, you could end up working here and running them. I don’t think that gets publicized as much as it needs to be.

AB: We all have very diverse backgrounds. We came from different parts of town. We had different experiences along the way and yet, we all – and I think all would agree – consider each other friends as well. But we’ve all found our own path and our own space to continue to live and serve in various capacities.

DGW: What are some of the differences between the Nashville of then and now? We’ve spent nearly three years engaged in a dialogue about race, so has much changed since your time as a student?

AB: It has changed drastically. I think about my experiences at Overton and the demographics and the opportunities that were there. We have grown leaps and bounds since then. Today, Overton is very diverse.

DGW: Yeah, it wasn’t always. Tusculum Elementary and McMurray Middle looked very different as well.

AB: Absolutely. With those changes came opportunities for us to think more deeply about how we’re providing the space and avenues by which students can develop based upon where they are. I think that it is a beautiful thing that the Overton of today doesn’t look like the Overton when I went there in the 90s.

There are differences for sure in demographics and opportunities, and access. I tell my students all the time that what I had in the 90s was one thing, and I have been able to overcome challenges and meet my aspirations as an educator. Some of the things we’re able to do now with our students is to take them far beyond where you see previous MNPS students and products of the district.

DGW: So you went out of state for college, correct?

AB: Yes, I attended Missouri State University on a track and field scholarship.

DGW: Did you always know you were coming back, or were you one of those can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-town-and-I-ain’t-never-coming-back types?

AB: That’s a great question. At the time, I did not anticipate going that far away from home. It doesn’t seem like it was that far, but it was an 8- or 9-hour drive to Springfield.

DGW: That’s a haul.

AB: Yeah, I did not anticipate that, but what I did know was that I was coming back home. I had an opportunity in the senior year of my undergraduate degree to come back to MNPS to do my student teaching. That was at my request. I went to my advisors and I said, I know I’m going back to Nashville, so would it not be more beneficial for me to do my student teaching in the district that I know I want to go back and serve? And so, they allowed me to set up a cooperative agreement with Tennessee State University for me to come home and take my last class, which Tennessee State required, and do my student teaching right here in MNPS.

DGW: Where did you do your student teaching when you came back?

AB: I did my student teaching at Cumberland Elementary and Dalewood Middle School, which no longer exists. I think it transitioned in 2006 or 2007. I was there doing my student teaching and was later hired as a first-year teacher at Dalewood Middle School. I was hired as a 6th grade teacher, where I remained for 4 years. I did do some 7th grade teaching as well.

DGW: So you were a middle school teacher.

AB: I was.

DGW: Middle school teachers are a special breed, you know.

AB: Yes. [Laughter] Absolutely. I remember every moment of it.

DGW: My wife is a middle school teacher and briefly flirted with elementary school, but she missed the middle school students. And she’s back in middle school now.

AB: My bachelor’s degree was in elementary education. I thought 4th grade was kind of my target initially, but then when I did my student teaching, I did middle school and liked it. Middle school just kind of said, argh, we can’t let her go, she’s here. And so I remained, and I loved every moment of it.

DGW: Middle school is often considered the most difficult years. If you look at MNPS over the years, our elementary schools, for the large part, are very good. Our high schools have become very good despite what state testing may indicate. I’d feel comfortable sending my kids to just about any one of our high schools. Middle school, though, has always been that hard nut to crack. Any ideas? Anything that you would think to help crack that nut based on your experiences?

AB: Yes. Well, we’ve been in lots of discussions around that subject. It’s a hard transition time for our students and families, especially going from fourth to fifth grade in our middle schools. We see similar transitional challenges between middle school and high school.

We have been really thinking about studying what’s happening there. One of the common sense things I think we want to address is the joy of learning. When you start school, there’s all this joy and happiness and fun around it. I think there’s an importance to keep that going throughout a student’s career. We’ve got to be very thoughtful about what that looks like – how we transition our students from elementary to middle school – because there’s a lot of success there that we can replicate in middle school. I think a sense of belonging also matters. All of our students need to find a place within the doors of our school.

So my first focus is around the joy of learning. It’s not simply about test scores, not simply about the number of students we have enrolled. It’s about ensuring that as our students are learning, they’re enjoying it, they find it fascinating. We’re able to push on the right buttons and targets to keep them asking more questions and wanting to know more and learning how-to along the way. That’s one area I know we want to tap into. It’s a challenge that we see nationally, as well as across the district, but we don’t want that to be an excuse. As a previous middle school teacher and as an adult learner today, I can speak to the intrinsic value in the joy of learning. We want to keep that.

We preach it all the time. We preach being a learner and to always continue to learn. But how do we model it? How do we set the conditions by which our students are not overstressed and filled with anxiety, but are challenged and exposed to the rigor they need? How do we hit that balance? Because it is through wins and through failures that we all develop and mold into the adults that we want to become.

DGW: It’s refreshing to hear you say that. I’ve got one who is getting ready to start middle school. There’s so much we tend to ignore in regard to what’s chemically going on internally with them and that they now have their own agenda. Instead we say: “I know you are going through changes, go figure that out. While you are doing that, we need you to excel here and here. We need you to read at two grades above your grade. You need to do your math better. You need to follow what we say and you can sort that other stuff out later.”

I think you can’t get away from puberty being part of the equation. I think you have to recognize kids are going through things that are in some ways bigger than what they are learning in school right now. At the same time, you have to make sure they remain on a path to success. It’s a difficult balance.

Careerwise, you moved from teaching to being a principal to district administration.  What from the classroom did you take with you? What did you see in the classroom that you carry with you as a leader now?

AB: I think it goes back to the personalization. The individualization that has to happen.  The one thing I think I’ve taken from my experience first with the students, then as a teacher, and then into administration is that everyone has something that would be considered a talent, an expertise potential. Everyone has that.

First, you have to be able to see that, tap into it, and use the right strategies to pull that out of the students. Also, as an administrator, keeping that at the core, you have to translate that over to adult learners as well. That’s something at my core, any selection of any team member who becomes a part of the work we do every single day is my responsibility. It’s my team’s responsibility to figure out what it is that we bring to the table and how we can collectively pull together to get us to the desired outcomes. There is no perfect person out there. Nobody knows everything. Just like getting students in a safe space to know we can learn from one another – we can build on each other’s strengths and backgrounds – the same thing needs to happen in the adult learning world as well.

While we might think that the approaches are so widely different, there are a lot of commonalities around how we approach student learning and adult learning. That is, treating people as people, really tapping into what they bring to the table, what they aspire to be, and figuring out how we’d put the pieces of the puzzle together. Once students and once adults see the value that they bring, the outcomes can be enormous.

As a previous principal, and as a principal supervisor, I’ve always tried to take the time to tap into people’s strengths we can leverage. Sure, we’re going to work on the gaps. We’re going to work on the challenges because we all have them. They exist. We’ve got to be able to own them and call them out, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have all of these strengths that we’re really playing with and working from in order to push us towards those outcomes.

DGW: I like that you drew parallels between student learning and teacher learning. We focus so much on SEL and the importance of trust within teacher and student relationships, but we seldom bring the same intensity of focus on the relationship between the adults. I think one of the refreshing things I’ve heard of late is the way you carry yourself and the tone you set. It’s a start to facilitating the ground being tilled that’s never been fully tilled in the past.

Lack of trust has long been an Achilles’ heel for the district. Do you have a specific strategy for solving that? Because without getting trust, you never fully get what the real issues are. People will just gloss over things.

AB: I think I just want to be me, all right? [Laughter] I just want to treat people the way I want to be treated. I think when you allow people to see your core, you create that trust. It’s important for me, for my team, and anybody I support to know my core.

I think if we take the time to share that, articulate that, and allow avenues by which you can talk about it, the more people will get to know where you are coming from, what your passions are, and the more they’ll buy in. They’re seeking to understand you, right? It doesn’t mean you’re going to be perfect. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything right, but they at least start with, “Hmm… if I know she is trying to get at X, then this kind of makes sense in the grand scheme of things.”

I just try to focus on being me, treat people the way I want to be treated, allow people to know and hear my core and then model my core as well, because words can mean one thing, but you also have to exhibit them in what you do every day. That’s kind of what I want to move forward on. I have strong values and beliefs around doing what’s best for students. I am one who will typically not stop until I know we’ve exhausted everything. I am quick to reflect within before looking out. So, what can we own, what can I own, what can I do differently or better that might improve the outcomes?

This is part of who I am, my core. Working with students, working with adults, it’s been beneficial to approach this large-scale work in that manner because it’s very complex.  It’s very challenging. It’s very demanding on all of us to ensure we’re wrapping our arms around all of our school students and teachers to get the best outcomes that we all desire.

DGW: I like it. I look forward to seeing how this all plays out going forth. I appreciate your candor and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

With that Dr. Battle gets up and heads to the next meeting on a jam packed schedule. In talking with Dr. Battle it is impossible not to note the sense of grace and dignity she brings to the job. She comes across as being open while still holding her cards close to her chest. Time will tell if she is succesful as superintendent or not, but today she has brought a sense of renewed optimism to the table and that’s a great foundation on which to build.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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