1. Introducing Mister V, School Culture Consultant
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Interview transcription below:
Steve Lucin 0:03
Hello everybody, my name is Steve Lucin and I am helping SchoolCultureSolutions.com launch their brand. So today we have the founder of School Culture Solutions. He goes by the name of Mister V. And I would like him to introduce himself. So Mister V, what is School Culture Solutions and tell us all about it?
Mister V 0:26
Yeah, I’m Hemanth Venkataraman, also known as Mister V. Spent the vast majority of my career as a classroom instructor, as a school administrator and founder here in Brooklyn, and recently launched School Culture Solutions, which you know, as the name suggests, is about helping school leaders, teachers, faculty members, develop really powerful, positive, empowering school cultures. Specifically with an emphasis on restorative justice, restorative practices, being trauma informed settings, and really just helping students in a comprehensive kind of holistic way.
Steve Lucin 1:05
Wow. So what I got out of that is restorative practices, restorative justice. This is definitely a term that I've heard. But for those who don't know what that is, what is restorative practices?
Mister V 1:18
Restorative practices in a nutshell is, it really comes from a science, there's extensive research, but kind of came in from the criminal justice system. And the key elements were imported into the educational system, right. And it's really about building community, so the two key ingredients are sort of practices around building really strong communities, where people want to be their best for each other, support each other and help the entire community be its best. And then teaching folks that conflict is inevitable, but there are healthy ways to repair harm, right? And we're going to kind of focus on restoring relationships and repairing harm when it's done. And when anything harms the principles that our community abides by, and this is proven something that's obviously helpful in our criminal justice system, but really essential to helping schools thrive, and a lot of schools are doing great things with it these days.
Steve Lucin 2:15
Nice. So, so why is it that you find this type of work important or? Or why is it that you decided to create this company? This organization?
Mister V 2:29
Yeah, I mean, so, so many reasons, I think I, you know, started my career as a math teacher in New York City Teaching Fellows nearly two decades ago, and, you know, worked in some of the so called toughest schools, you know, in New York City: high suspension rates, metal detectors, you know, violence, security everywhere, you know, and so the term school culture when I think about those settings, it didn't feel particularly positive. And that's not to say there weren't great moments of positivity and amazing educators, doing, you know, wonderful things with amazing children. But, you know, I think back to my experience throughout my educational career, and I realized that #1, only recently, in the last several years that I started to see that rather than focusing on “as long as our punishments are strict enough, and we have enough clear, transparent rules, and we threaten students and warn them and show them that, you know, the hammer will come down swiftly, that's when things will work well.” If we actually focus on building community, and showing children with diverse needs, “hey, this is a place where you belong, where people care about you” It's so much more successful that way, right? That students want to be their best and contribute and it's and you're less likely to bring harm to a community when you really feel like it accepts you and it is your own. So I think back to earlier parts of my Career and then more recently when I saw just the true power of building community, making an entire school and just the whole disciplinary policy, the baseline, the foundation, being about relationships, everything in that school is about relationships among adults, among students, between students and adults. And then teaching folks I've had some really amazing, powerful experiences with helping people repair relationships and restore harm. So seeing how really successful that was in empowering an entire community and allowing students to be their best academically and otherwise, got me really passionate about about restorative practices and supporting schools and building better and more positive school cultures.
Steve Lucin 4:44
Oh, wow. So Did I get that right? You said you founded or you were part of a charter school and tell us a little bit more about that.
Mister V 4:52
Yeah, so in 2013, I co founded with a with a former colleague, Unity Prep Charter School, which currently has a middle school campus in Bed Stuy, and a high school campus in Williamsburg, both in Brooklyn. And yeah, the school is in its seventh year now. Although I made a tough decision to kind of, you know, step away and really focus on bringing restorative practices to the mainstream. You know, I'm still very close to the school and excited that the first ever little, miniature sixth graders that ever joined the school are going to be graduating high school this spring, you know, a large percentage of them had already been accepted to college a month ago. So it's a really exciting time for that school.
Steve Lucin 5:37
That's amazing. So then you said you made a hard decision to go ahead and leave it and and I'm assuming School Culture Solutions is your next big thing. So, with School Culture Solutions what do you offer and what are the services? How does that look?
Mister V 5:58
Yeah, so and you know, it's kind of shaping up as I go along and have conversations with educators and other community organizations and leaders, right. So my first thought was at this charter school that we co founded, I was able to, you know, charter schools are meant to be breeding grounds for innovation, right, that's what that whole movement was about. And so we were able to innovate and find a balance, like what's our identity? What's our disciplinary policy? There are all these different acronyms out there. PBIS Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and RTI and all these different things. And so, who are we going to be? And we found a balance, I believe, and we had a restorative school culture, one that really was about building community. And so 80% of our restorative practices really being about proactive measures to build relationships and make people feel like they had somebody that they were close to that had their back that was listening to them, right, students, teachers and everybody. And then the 20% responsive, what are we going to do when things do go wrong or when there are misbehaviors or harms done. And so having seen the, the power of that my first thought with School Culture Solutions was I have kind of a model now that works on a lot of kind of unique things that I've developed, along with my training from the IIRP, you know, the International Institute for Restorative Practices and have some unique approaches. I have some on the ground experience that not that many people have now, you know, for years on end incorporating in New York City Schools. So I want to create something that I can just really teach and deploy in schools and say, Hey, I can hand this to you and give you some ongoing support. And now schools you can, over a period of a few years really transform into a restorative setting, and you're going to see how incredible the impact is right? And then more recently, I've started to be approached by community organizations as well. Nonprofits, after School Programs, you know, yoga programs, I mean different different kinds of activities that are saying, hey, maybe you can just do an introductory workshop and just teach our staff members how to run circles, you know, which is a community building process, with our students. And so even though we're not a school, we would love for our students to feel like they have a voice. We want our staff and students to have closer relationships. We want everyone here to feel like they can be open, that they trust each other, that they're more confident. So can you do a circles workshop to achieve that? And of course, most certainly. So that's another direction that School Culture Solutions is going in. And frankly, you know, I'm dreaming big, I mean, long term. One of the reasons I left a school I loved and helped begin in order to launch School Culture Solutions was that I still wasn't that satisfied with just the overall landscape of the politics and the decision makers, policymakers and what they're focusing on these days, right. It's still very standardized test centric. You know, again, we had a lot of great support we received from Albany and from the NY state authorizers when we launched a charter school. But honestly, when it came time to decide, are we going to extend your charter? Because you only get five years at a time and they say, are you up to snuff? Are you a great option for students in your district? And they basically only looked at our standardized test scores, right? And yeah, of course, those are important. You've got to look at academic achievement. But you know, down the hall, there were some incredible restorative practices, community conferences going on and some amazing instances of healing from some pretty serious things, and traumatic events that had affected both students and families and teachers. And we were doing some rather groundbreaking things, you know, in our building, and the policymakers actually expressed no interest in that. And that was kind of disheartening for me because I know that those things are at least as impactful. Personally, I think they're even more impactful than the standardized test prep overall on our students’ life success and contentment. So that started to get me thinking, you know, I want to impact policy in the long term, right? folks who are looking, whether here in New York, or around the country nationally, at what makes a school successful, what makes a child successful and just happy and fulfilled in the long term? If they're not looking at these other soft skills, if they're not looking at a school's ability to foster relationships, if they're not asking students, do you feel supported here, and they're just looking at the hard numbers - I think they're missing something and I want to move that needle in the long run. So that's really where I want School Culture Solutions to go. But I think right in the short term, yeah, the main service that I have to offer is, hey, Principal, AP, teacher, you know, you're experiencing perhaps not the most positive school culture here. You are disheartened by the number of incidents or violent incidents or just the number of suspensions or expulsions that your school has to use and you're looking for something that's, better. Yes, I can help you with that and guide you and do some trainings for your full staff, and then key leadership and guide you, you know, as long as you want. You want me to do a one off thing I can. My preference is to really work with you over a period of one, two, or even up to five years and really give you that guidance.
Steve Lucin 11:22
Wow, fantastic, man. I mean, I remember when you first told me about this whole idea, I was really attracted to the fact that you are really trying to bring the community back together, especially in these locations where it just seems very crumbled, very in the ruins. So that's, that's definitely one of the reasons why I connect with your brand is because you put community first. Community is definitely one of the values that I have and the people that I work with and the things that I've put out there. So I'm gonna throw a little curveball at you. Right now we're in the middle of COVID-19 right? And education just got put on a pause on a freeze. Would School Culture Solutions have some sort of voice in all this and would you help, you know, educators get through this? Is that the right match for it or am I just completely wrong?
Mister V 12:22
Yeah, well, you know, there's two big ideas on my mind right now. So #1 support during this you know, first of its kind crisis and then #2 support when we all return to buildings, which is looking pretty likely that is not going to be till you know, the fall semester starts again in August, September, right and here we are in April. I've already begun some outreach with not just educators but with friends and family. You know, let's make sure we're taking every effort possible to maintain our mental health and well being. There are tons of resources out there. And I know families are feeling overwhelmed. In fact, the nonprofit that you and I are both involved in is aiming to support parents who are feeling overwhelmed with like, I don't know how to homeschool my kids, but there are a lot of resources there. So I'm glad those are in place and folks like you and me are going to help get them into the hands of families who need them. But a lot of people are feeling that anxiety. And sometimes people don't realize that restorative practices overlaps with helping with stress, traumatic stress, anxiety - mindfulness is a very popular word nowadays. But we use the analogy a lot like flight attendants always tell you if, if by chance our plane’s going down, make sure you grab the mask and support yourself first before your kids and your family members. If you don't take care of yourself, if your well being isn't maintained, we can't be there for children and for the people who need us most right. And I mean, unfortunately, but kind of comically for us educators, the world is starting to see how stressful our jobs are just trying to guide their kids all day. And so we need to offer tools to educators and everyone else of, here are some things you can do. Here are some practices you can do to uplift your mood and spirits, whether it's expressing gratitude, working on your social connection, here are meditations you can do, there are even breathing practices that physically are dismissing molecules of stress and stress hormones like cortisol from your body. Here's encouragement and places you can look for support. So that is one of the things that I specialize in, in schools and even during this period, and I'm looking to support educators with that. But when we all get back, what do we do, right? I mean, and this is something I work with schools on sometimes. Look, I'll speak from personal experience. You know, something traumatic, that might kind of send shockwaves throughout a whole community might happen. You know, students at my school went on a field trip to Washington, DC, and were verbally assaulted, accosted and racially harassed in a way that really traumatized them. So now they come back from this out of state trip. You can't just go back to class on Monday, like nothing happened, right? So this has sent ripples through your community, and people are experiencing pain, and many other feelings that they need to get out. So you've got to bring the community together and heal and respond before we can get back into an optimal learning setting. Well, the same thing is going to be true now. Right? If schools are about community and relationships, those have been severed now and kudos to every teacher that's doing video chats, that's calling kids, that’s doing these one on ones, I mean, everything in their power. I've seen schools, all the teachers held up messages like they made signs, they're doing things for kids’ birthdays, so teachers know the importance of relationships, they're doing their best, but we're not with the kids, right? There's a kid who just needs to come in and needs a pat on the back or a hug. We know the stuff that our kids go through. So schools are going to need to build community in ways that they've never before. That one day orientation, get to know you icebreaker is not going to cut it in the fall of 2020. So I hope to strategize with as many schools as possible, dozens of schools if at all possible, and set them up, you know, maybe over the summer, if we can get back up and running with their staffs to hit the ground running and say, here's how you're going to do this via circles and other mechanisms. Here's how you're going to welcome kids back in a way you may never have before in your career, and show them hey, this is your home. Never forget that this school is your home. And, you know, we've got some ground to make up. But you know, this is a place where relationships matter more than anything. And we're going to make sure that's clear. Even if it takes us a week or two before we get into fractions and the Civil War and all that other good stuff.
Steve Lucin 17:01
Wow, man, it sounds like the service that you can provide with School Culture Solutions is completely a match with what's going on right now. It seems like you can offer a lot of help to a lot of educators. Yeah, that's amazing, man. Wow, I didn't realize it was that powerful. So, would you be willing to jump on a maybe like a webinar, you know, into a group circle or introduce this to some educators, kind of get them going and then actually do it in person once we're in, in the you know, in the summer fall?
Mister V 17:50
That would be fun. I mean, you know, it could be a little choppy, right. Let's see how it goes. I've never done a virtual circle before because so much of my own training is about even just physical presence and the space we create is one of unity and equality and you know all those things. There are no physical obstructions. Like I don't even allow someone to put a table in between, you know what I mean? But it's needed right now. So yeah, I think it's a cool idea. Maybe we've got a bunch of educators on a video conference like this, and model how you might facilitate a circle with kids, but also for ourselves, right? Hey, how are you feeling right now? As a teacher who can't see your students? I mean, you do this because you love it, right? And so that would be really cool. Yeah, I'd be down to do that.
Steve Lucin 18:31
Nice, man. Nice. So Wow. So you have an amazing vision for School Culture Solutions. You know, the services that you offer for educators, for assistant principals, principals are pretty much shifting the way the culture of the school is right now. Right? It's like not being so hard on the numbers but more on the soft skills or like the other stuff, but you know, just not the hard numbers. Right. And I think that's incredibly important.
Mister V 19:04
I say to teachers, because you know, sometimes there's pushback, right? “I heard restorative practices means like, give kids a slap on the wrist and don't really have consequences and our place is going to be overrun by misbehavior and be unruly.” And that's not what we're saying. What we're saying is, everybody can probably think back to their favorite teacher, right? Like, Steve. K-12, or even college does something come to mind - a teacher, Professor, who's your favorite, your favorite teacher that you had?
Steve Lucin 19:33
Oh, man, definitely Mr. Drogan. He was my art teacher back in sixth or seventh grade, something like that middle school.
Mister V 19:42
And how did you feel in Mr. Drogan's class?
Steve Lucin 19:45
Well, he's the one to kind of put me onto art you know, and me I'm a designer. I'm a creative you know. It was very warm, welcoming. It was fun. Um, he was comical at times, you know, and but still stern but comical, I don't know what it was, but he had such a great vibe, you know, whenever you came into that classroom and you know, it wasn't also super hard and serious, but you get to get your creative juices flowing. And he facilitated that.
Mister V 20:14
Yeah, that made you feel good, made you feel welcome. It sounds like I mean, you're a professional, a creative and an artist today. So perhaps that started your inspiration in that direction. It's interesting that you said stern. Because that's something I teach in our workshops. Restorative practices doesn't mean loosey goosey. In fact, your students may walk away saying, wow, that was the most stern or strict teacher I ever had. But what that means is they were about business and getting things done, but super loving, welcoming, heard all voices, made this place a place where we could take risks, explore and all of that, right. And so I have those conversations with educators and then it's like, hey, shouldn't everyone in your room feel the way you felt in that space? That was your favorite learning experience ever right? And imagine how much more they're going to learn in that way than they will if it's just like, well, we don't have time for that. I just have to get to the syllabus and finish today's aim and tomorrow's. And teachers usually understand that. When you remind a teacher of their most incredible learning experience, it could have been a coach on a running team, a violin teacher, anything, but they're like, yeah, you're right. I want to make everyone in my space feel the way I felt there. And honestly, restorative practices is the key to that.
Steve Lucin 21:30
Beautiful. I don't see why any one educator would not want to do something with School Culture Solutions. That's fantastic. I truly believe that if one is in education, they truly believe in the betterment of their community, their students, their kids, families.
Mister V 21:51
You know, one thing Steve that even just to actually frankly answer your point is, there is some fatigue in our industry. It almost feels like every year, some organization, company or the DOE says, “Hey, here's the latest thing. We paid a lot of money for this. So your school needs to use XYZ this year. It's the new XYZ system of culture” and principals think okay, so you're going to hand me this thing, send some trainers, and then next year, you're gonna hand me another thing, right? So I'm actually glad you brought that up, just because if anyone were to listen to this conversation, you know, what I mention to school leaders is, this isn't the next out of the box thing. Actually, what we're doing is tapping into how human beings have built relationships and resolved conflict for thousands of years. We're going back to the old school, actually. It's not the newest fad. It's saying that people feel most comfortable and they’re most productive when these relationships exist, you know, when they feel that love and support and when they also know that they're being held to standards that there are expectations for them.. And so that's what we're going to offer to your school.
Steve Lucin 22:57
Fantastic man. I love it. I love it. I love it. So where can people find you and how do they get more information? Give us the lowdown on that.
Mister V 23:05
Yeah, well, www.schoolculturesolutions.com is the website and my contact info is there. Folks can book a 30-minute intro call. My contact info is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you know, one thing I encourage schools in particular to take advantage of is I do offer a free school walkthrough and needs assessment. And so that's not relevant until we get back into school buildings, but I want to show school leaders and faculty members that this is something authentic. I'm not just going to have a phone conversation with you and say, yeah, sure, pay me and I'll come do this workshop. I'd love to come experience a few hours in your building. What does it look like as students are arriving? What are teachers, students, adults, everyone doing? I pop into a few classes, talk to folks involved in mental health: the social workers, the school counselors. Folks involved in school discipline, the deans. I hear what folks are perceiving and think are the needs, see what's happening in common spaces like hallways, cafeteria, and then come together with key personnel and say, here's what I observed. Also, here's what I heard from your own constituents, students and otherwise, about what they perceived the needs to be. And so now I can be more meaningful and say, you know, I do have various workshops and things on my website, but I believe I can customize something for your school and help meet your needs. It might be an Introduction to Circles workshop, but it might just be that your discipline team needs more support in using behavioral data in a much more precise and exact way. And support with the technology there to analyze what's happening and then support students. So I do encourage educators to reach out to me for a walk through so we can connect and have a much more meaningful starting point.
Steve Lucin 24:59
Amazing I love it I love it I love it. So I think that's it um that's it that's a good introduction to school culture solutions. Mr. V everybody as I mentioned before school culture solutions calm Mr. V at school culture solutions comm for email but you can always just go on the website and I guess we will see you guys very soon hopefully on your blog, right Mr. v?
Mister V 25:24
Yes, sir. Yes, launching soon.
Steve Lucin 25:26
Excellent alright guys. Take care everybody. Bye bye.