“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  — Maya Angelou

2016 National Distinguished Principal Marcia Sidney-Reed signs all her emails the same way, quoting Maya Angelou on living a compassionate life. And what she says, she also follows through in action, having been awarded the prestigious national honor by the National Association of Elementary Principals. As principal of 186th Street Elementary in Los Angeles, she oversees a student body where most of the students are from low-income families, a third are not fluent in English and 8 percent are homeless. What others may see as limitations, she sees as potential to excel, as proven by the various educational honors and awards the school and students have received. Her recipe for success: restorative justice, which is a reward-based system rather than punishment. She came to the Ventura County Office of Education to speak of the success of restorative justice. For those who missed her presentation, she took some time to speak with the VCReporter about her passion for peace.


student art from 186th Street Elementary.

What compelled you to push the path of empathy for your students?

My parents taught me at an early age to treat everyone the way you want to be treated in order to be a positive citizen, and it worked for me as a child and an adult. My parents also modeled the Golden Rule in doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  

I firmly believe that every child has a right to come to school and feel loved, respected and safe. In order to create a peaceful school climate where children can thrive and be the best that they can possibly be, we must model and teach children how to be kind to one another. Kindness can be contagious so we try our best to create opportunities for our students to show kindness to others. I have also shared Maya Angelou’s saying over and over again, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”   

How can we instill compassion and empathy in others who don’t necessarily seem to understand it?

We can instill compassion and empathy in others by modeling being compassionate and treating them with love and respect, even if they do not respect you. I always tell my students that two wrongs do not make a right. If someone does something wrong to you, we encourage our students to be the bigger person and model respect for them. In our elementary classrooms, we use our Peace First Program (www.peacefirst.org) and the Second Step Program where there are lessons to teach children how to be compassionate toward others; we read stories about being loving and caring; we have students role-play situations that require empathy and understanding; we teach the six pillars of character; and we lead by example. At our school, we have a Peace Ambassador program where we teach our third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders how to be peer mediators. Also, a big part of teaching social emotional learning is to have students understand their own feelings before they can understand how others feel. Our restorative justice practices have been centered around teaching our students how to become peacemakers. They have internalized the language, especially the little ones. I was observing a teacher in a kindergarten class and she was teaching about the Three Billy Goats Gruff and one of the students raised his hand and told the teacher that the Troll was not being a peacemaker.

Tell us where some of your students from elementary school have gone to college.

Our students have internalized that they are going to be good citizens in our world. We promote a college-going culture. This past June, both valedictorians for our local high schools (Gardena High School and Narbonne High School) were our past students. Kelly Campbell is a freshman at CSU, Long Beach, and Janeth Ochoa is a freshman at UC, Berkeley. We have several of our past students working as teacher assistants while they are excelling in college. Two years ago, one of my past students was accepted to Yale, and I recently learned that one of my past students has been accepted to MIT. We proudly proclaim that our students are soaring academically, artistically and peacefully.

What do we need to remember in these rather daunting times of division?

We must remember, we are more alike than we are different. We need each other to survive.  We must all work together to bring peace to our world. The song “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin With Me” is quite appropriate for us at this time. We must also remember that the children are watching us and taking our lead. The way we teach them now is the way our country will look later. The values we teach our children now are the values they will internalize for later. We have an awesome responsibility to help our children feel loved, respected and safe. We can also teach children that they can take a stand to help make a difference in our world.  At our school, we have our children participate in community service learning projects where they learn how to give to help others. We also provide numerous opportunities where our children can learn an appreciation for diversity (i.e., songs, books, poems, chants, assemblies, speakers, etc.).

student art from 186th Street Elementary.

What do you suggest parents do now to help children who may be feeling disoriented and disenfranchised after this heated election?

We must love the children! Parents should keep open lines of communication with their children, and show them they are loved, they are valued, and they are special. All schools have resources to help students who are feeling disoriented and disenfranchised. Parents and students can talk to their school administrators, school counselors, their teachers and their pastors in the community. It’s all hands on deck! We must all put our arms around our children and let them know we will do whatever it takes to protect them from hurt, harm and danger. We must work relentlessly to help minimize the stress of children feeling afraid. Our school allowed our children to write letters and draw pictures on how they are feeling about the election. One child wrote, “Dear President Trump, If you don’t have nothing nice to say don’t say it at all.” Another child wrote, “Please don’t build your wall. That would break up my family.” We are going to mail the students’ letters and pictures to the White House.

How do we keep progress moving forward?

We must take one day at time, build peace one friend at a time, and show love one moment at a time. We may have some difficult days ahead, but we cannot get discouraged. We must stay the course and believe that love will win in the end. 

What have been some of your biggest challenges?    

Back in 2005, students were constantly out of the classroom due to behavior problems. My office was the DOT, the Department of Transportation. I had some frequent fliers. I was suspending children for some really poor decisions, but I knew we could not survive that way.  Children could not learn if they were not in the classroom. After putting restorative justice practices in place, teaching our children how to resolve their conflicts using words, and helping children create their own peaceful villages, we moved to no suspensions and our children staying in the classroom to learn.

I also had to deal with a lot of racial tension between our African American and Hispanic families. We had two racially motivated fatal shootings in our students’ neighborhood, and our children did not feel safe coming to school. One thing for sure, our students could not learn if they did not feel safe.

One Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, Cheryl Green, one of our past students, was shot and killed in broad daylight, by one of our past students as well. Our students were so afraid.  So we mobilized and started meeting with city officials and Congresswoman Janice Hahn to find ways to help our children feel safe in their neighborhood. The task force concluded that we needed to put more of a police presence in the neighborhood. Then at one of the meetings, with the councilmembers, the District Attorney, the Chief of Police, they asked one of my students, “Robert, now that we have more of a police presence in your neighborhood, do you feel safe?” Robert said, “No. I do not like having to run when I get out of my car in fear of the gang members shooting me. I do not like having to get out of my bed and get on the floor when the helicopters are flying over my house at night. No, I do not feel safe.” I sat there and cried because I did not realize the magnitude of fear my students were experiencing while I was able to sleep carefree in my warm bed. After that meeting, I knew my calling was to help make my school a safe haven for my students to thrive and grow socially and emotionally so they could learn.