Leading with Courage, Conviction & Community - Taylor Reese Harper

In December 2016, school leaders from across the Big Picture Learning network gathered to discuss what it means to lead with Courage, Conviction, and Community. We've collected these narratives and are releasing them as part of our Big Picture Learning Leadership Stories podcast. Catch the whole series here, and listen to our latest episode -- featuring Taylor Harper - below. 


My first teaching gig was at a brand new elementary school that was considered “at-risk”. If you’d asked me about equity back then, I probably wouldn’t have had much to say. I was ready to change the world! I was also white, privileged, and naïve.   

It was during that first year that I received the punch-in-the-gut reality check that inequity and marginalization were happening all around me. That I was part of a system that was allowing it to happen.  I witnessed my students being racially and culturally targeted by other teachers and administrators, being disciplined and publicly humiliated as they were placed on the stage in the lunchroom while they watched their peers eat or on the “red” bench on the playground where they watched their peers play.  I saw children who were bilingual being pushed through into eligibility for special education, or retained because they weren’t performing high enough compared to their same-age peers. I heard my colleagues say horrible things about families and blame them for their children not being successful in school. Some were children as young as THREE years old! I began to take each of these examples very personally. I LOVED these children. And their families. Soon it didn’t take long before I began to develop a burning passion to help change the very culture that was hurting them.

My principals throughout the years really just wanted me to go away, because I questioned EVERY inequity that I witnessed, and the answers that I got were never about what’s right for the child. Questioning and getting hollow answers wasn’t enough. I decided to get my Masters in Educational Leadership.  At the beginning of my tenth year of teaching, the deputy superintendent walked into my classroom and gave me a challenge: a leadership role tasked with changing the culture of the district’s disciplinary placement school. That was eight years ago.

Since then, my leadership journey has revolved mainly around challenging archaic, inequitable systems and beliefs in Washoe County School District and my community at large around: Disciplinary Practices, Adjudicated Youth and Gang Intervention, Student-Driven Learning, Placement vs. Choice in Alternative Education, and School Culture.

I remember walking around the track at the Met with Dennis Littky at my first Big Bang and expressing my frustration that every day seemed to be a constant fight to just do what’s right for our kids.  He asked me one question: “Are you willing to get fired for what you believe in?”.  As scary as that question may have been for some, it made my fire burn even brighter, and if you ask me the same question today, my answer is still “YES”. I believe that Leaders who are true change agents know that we’ll always have people that aren’t happy with us. For me, that’s my litmus test.  At the end of the day, are the CHILDREN thriving?  If the answer is no, I’ll meet you back in the ring tomorrow.  

Taylor Reese Harper is the Lead Learner (Principal) at Innovations High School in Reno, NV.