In the Spotlight: Donnell Cannon, Principal, North Edgecombe High School

by | August 3, 2018

By Public Impact, August 3, 2018

At North Edgecombe High School in Tarboro, North Carolina, Principal Donnell Cannon can hardly sit still when talking about Opportunity Culture at his school. One of the leading-edge schools in Edgecombe County to implement Opportunity Culture in 2017–18, North Edgecombe is a high-poverty, rural school with big plans for its students.

In a June interview with Public Impact’s Sharon Kebschull Barrett, Cannon focused on a few of his school’s key elements for seeing success with those plans:

  • creating a culture of love and support for students—many of whom have suffered trauma—and teachers;
  • raising students’ sights and engaging them in their passions; and
  • investing time to hire multi-classroom leaders able to provide that support and the rigorous education all students deserve.

Cannon repeatedly emphasized bringing support and joy to his students, and helping them find their passion.

Along with poverty and the related issues it brings, students in Edgecombe County were deeply affected by the severe flooding of the Tar River following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“We know that one thing that could somehow mitigate trauma was to ensure that all of my kids had secure attachments, so we wanted to ensure that we had time in our school day where kids could connect with adults in this building in a meaningful way,” Cannon said. The school has emphasized parent involvement and support for struggling families, such as hosting a grant-funded food pantry.

“One of the things that matters to us is that if kids are going to be the architects of their own lives, and they’re going to write their futures, and they’re going to be able to find the things that they’re really passionate about and build that passion and use that passion to create something different, then we are the ones that are responsible for joining hands with them and moving those oppressive strongholds out of their way, so they can realize their life purpose, and realize and do the things that really matter to them, and help create a space where the kids can dream big about possibilities.

“And that’s the hard part—many babies in our communities don’t really have the space to dream because they’re in survival mode and because day to day is so hard, and that’s the importance of bringing in remarkable educators.”

Cannon relies heavily on the behavioral event interview process for hiring, and he includes students—both formally, in interviews, and informally, such as asking students who accompany interviewees to the interview room for their feedback on how the candidate treated them during the walk.

“The one thing that matters to us most was that we wanted people who believe another world exists, and we’ll create that world, and it starts right here,” Cannon said. “We engaged in the BEI process, and by doing that it allowed us to ensure that we had remarkable people in front of kids and in front of our teachers every day. It takes an enormous amount of time; however, it ensures that we’re getting talented people in this building who believe what we believe, which matters to us.

“We don’t want just teachers in our building, we want people who drive in a four-lane highway without dividers, who understand that this work is not just about teaching a lesson for 90 minutes—there’s so much more that goes into school transformation and showing up in kids’ lives in a really big way. The work that we’re doing here is far more broad, and every person in this building understands that.”

Citing the research on the value of having even just one black teacher for black students in elementary school, he also works to recruit teachers and community professionals of color.

Cannon also got animated when asked how he takes care of himself and sets the example for his teachers in caring for students who lead such challenging lives.

“I no longer see self-care as separate from my vision for the work—those things are inextricably connected. Yes, I want to be on fire for children, and I want to be on fire in this building, but I also have to take care of myself too, whether it’s working out or reading a good book or experiencing joy in my own life with my family—that matters to me,” he said. “I had guilt before, where I thought that if I’m not doing really good work or if as a principal I’m not always doing the work, then I wasn’t being a good principal, and that’s the story that I told. But stepping out of that, it was just a story that I was telling, and exhaustion didn’t mean impact, right? So I needed to change that story… and I knew that if I were going to do this work long enough then, again, I had to take care of myself and that was a non-negotiable…because if we’re all showing up, we’re all happy doing this work, and we have the energy to keep doing it; we could actually see some really outstanding, amazing things for children. That’s something my team talks about quite a bit.

“We know that kids experience trauma at an increased rate each day, and we know how hard that is, and we know the biochemical impact that that has on the body and the neurological impact that has on the body and teachers being first responders to that…someone else’s trauma, it’s still secondary trauma, and if we’re not taking care of that then we carry that with us, and there’s no way that we can continue to do the work that we’ve committed to do if we aren’t raising that as a priority.”

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