Robeson principal said the students are the secret to his success

Richard Gordon, principal of Paul Robeson High School, in hallway with lockers

Richard Gordon poses in front of lockers at Paul Robeson High School For Human Services. (Courtesy of Richard Gordon)

This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

Paul Robeson High School for Human Services’ Principal Richard M. Gordon was recently named the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2021 National Principal of the Year. He was also selected as Pennsylvania’s top principal by the Pennsylvania Principals Association in July. With all of the educational accolades, one would think the principal has had a lifelong love of learning. He said it’s quite the opposite.

“I liked school as a kid but I wouldn’t say I loved it. I liked the idea of just doing well enough to where I didn’t get in trouble,” Gordon said.

The father of two said his educational philosophy was heavily influenced by experiences as a child.

“I understand these kids. I’m really big on connections with students. Relationships are a key driver of success, including the relationships kids have with wanting to go to school,” Gordon said.

He said getting kids to come to the West Philadelphia school is great, but getting them to want to come is even harder.

“We are in the business of educating and that’s our number one thing. We’ll never forget that, but if we don’t start looking at the idea of facilitating how our kids love school we’re missing out. I feel like if we can facilitate the process of kids loving school, then school becomes one of the higher priority things in their lives,” the Sharon Hill native said.

The Pennsauken High School alumnus found that love for education through his teacher Richard J. Sia during his senior year.

“One day, I’m sitting in 12th-grade social studies, and my teacher was doing his usual thing. The class was engaged, it was amazing. We were having a good time and in the middle of him teaching I just stopped. The whole room went quiet, and I was in my own head. I looked at him and I said, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Gordon shared.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t know if Mr. Sia ever found out just how much he inspired the award-winning principal.

“When I watched him teach that inspired me to want to be a teacher. I’ve never had the opportunity to tell him that and to say thank you for inspiring me to get into education,” he shared.

Gordon said he couldn’t imagine doing anything other than being an educator but said that if you asked his family, they could see him winning elections rather than awards.

“If you ask my friends and my family, I would probably be working for city government or in politics. I like to believe that I’ve always been someone who’s always believed that there was a racial equity issue. Here in the city of Philadelphia, I have been trying to advocate for that equity even when I had entities that weren’t willing to listen,” he said.

That tenacity is something that has served him well in life, especially as an educator.

“By garnering all these resources, partnerships and relationships, it has allowed me an opportunity to bring experiences to the school for our students to get involved with, both in and out of the classroom. Then we can start figuring out what their passions are and how do we direct them towards their passion so they can know what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives,” Gordon said.

The educator said he’s so passionate because he sees his younger self in his students.

“I grew up a poor kid in Camden, New Jersey. I tell my students all the time, I am just like you. I should have been a statistic, but I had the opportunity to have individuals make connections with me to keep me from being a statistic, you know, obviously, led by my mother,” he said.

Gordon is grateful for his mother and the sacrifices his mother made to make sure he didn’t become a casualty of the streets. That experience also helps him identify with his students.

After his family moved to Philadelphia, “my mom would actually get up every morning at 5 a.m. and drive me across the bridge, every morning, so that I could keep going to school in New Jersey. She would come back and forth across the bridge, plus she would have to get ready for work by 9 o’clock. Two hours every day for six years. She made tremendous sacrifices to make sure that we got a really solid education, as illegal as it was to do that. She was willing to do that for us. I have the utmost appreciation for my mom, even now,” he said.

The School District rising star said he doesn’t know what he did to garner such fortune but he’s truly appreciative of it.

“I feel really blessed and fortunate that I’m supported by friends, family, colleagues, teachers, my students and their families,” Gordon said.

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