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Mizell Ready for the Challenges of Middle School

Herman Mizell, the new principal of Sterling Middle School, doesn’t have to think long when he is asked to name the best thing about his school.

 “It’s diverse. The diversity here is what makes it beautiful. When I was in elementary school, I heard America was often viewed as a melting pot. No longer. What we have in common makes us human, but how we differ makes us individuals. I would often tell the students at Meadowland that ‘Meadowland is like a salad. You know when you’re eating a tomato. You know when you’re eating a cucumber. You know when you’re eating a crouton or an olive.’ Diversity is beautiful…The beauty in this school is – if one person can’t meet a family need – then somebody else can. I love diversity. That’s America now. We have to get with the program.”

Mizell comes to Sterling after serving as Meadowland Elementary principal for three years. He said being an elementary principal was an invaluable experience.

“That’s the foundation – to see what the elementary teachers are doing. I told my teachers at Meadowland ‘It is so difficult to unteach something wrong that you’ve taught.’…It was very challenging for me as a middle and high school teacher to unteach (what) they learned at the elementary level…

“I recommend that many administrators try the elementary level, because you really learn instruction… If you cannot teach reading at that level, then you are of no service to the elementary school. Every teacher at that level really has to be a teacher of reading. It’s important. When kids leave elementary school and can’t read, they often become disciplinary problems at this level.”

Secondary education is nothing new to Mizell; he’s spent most of his career as a high school English and speech teacher and assistant principal. “I’ve learned what I need to learn at the elementary level…but my heart has always been at the secondary level.”

Mizell’s first order of business at Sterling Middle is very straightforward. “My goal at Sterling Middle School this year is to build morale among the staff and the students.”

When he first met Sterling’s staff members, he gave them an index card. On one side, he instructed them to write something they want to see disappear; on the other a positive. “It’s common that the positive is the community and the kids.”

Mizell has been part of the Sterling community since coming to Meadowland and believes in its potential. He wants his students to believe in their community and themselves. “Get the kids to believe in themselves and understand that life is coming. That’s what’s important. We’re teaching the children that life is coming. We’re preparing you for life. I really believe that when kids understand that, and if they know they can do better, they will.”

Mizell remembers something his grandmother said about promoting one’s own community: “It’s a poor frog that doesn’t praise its own pond.”

“This is our pond. Certainly, I can’t come in here and make things happen alone; make unilateral decisions. It’s a team effort. I need the staff. I need the parents. I need the kids.”

Mizell believes in the philosophy behind Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs) but doesn’t want that philosophy to stifle teacher autonomy.

“When I taught English, I taught English. I didn’t read a SOL and try to teach the SOL. I made sure kids had mastered skills and concepts and had the appropriate mental cognitive skills so that they could tackle that test…

“You often hear teachers say, ‘We can’t be creative.’ Not true. You can be creative.”

SOLs are important because they have put an accountability system in place, Mizell added. “There are certain skills and concepts kids should know. Otherwise teachers would ‘hobby teach,’ because we would focus on areas we enjoyed most. We have to balance things, so we make sure we’re preparing kids with the requisite skills, so they can survive in life.”

Speaking of his own life, Mizell had this to say: “One, I’m human. I’m not perfect. I’m professional. I try to always be high-energy. I’m pro-student. I became an administrator so that I can remove obstacles from students’ way, so they can learn and out of teachers’ way, so they can teach.”