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Hamish Brewer: “You are not a ‘just’”

Veteran principal Hamish Brewer reminds educators that they matter, they are enough and their work saves lives every day in his keynote address at ASCD 2024.

7 min read


Hamish Brewer (Credit: Kanoe Namahoe)

“No one gets to do what we do. No one gets to turn up and have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s most prized possession. They give us their very best, their child. We get to serve that person; we get to be the opportunity, the hope,” said former principal Hamish Brewer during his keynote address Sunday at ASCD 2024.

The tattooed, skateboarding educator from New Zealand encouraged and challenged attendees during a high-energy presentation that included lights, music, and dancing (even the haka!) Here are highlights from his address. 

Turn up, every day. Brewer used a photo of a vintage lunchbox as a metaphor for hard work. “This lunchbox is the story of someone that turned up,” he said. “No matter the circumstance, no matter how hard, no matter the challenges or hurdles, they turned up. That same man turned up with the peanut butter sandwich every single day and went to work… representing every community in America…the mill, the factory, the building. Someone turned up every single day.”

That’s what educators do, Brewer said. Despite low resources, students’ behavioral issues and poor parent support, educators continue to do the hard work. 

“You turn up every single day to take care of the most amazing resource we have, which is our children,” Brewer said. “You turn up. I ain’t forgettin’.”

Stop comparing yourself. In today’s high-pressure world, it’s easy to get lost wondering if you are doing enough, said Brewer. He exhorted attendees not to get caught in this trap.

“You are good enough. You don’t have to compare yourself to a person down the road, down the hallway or in the classroom next to you,” he said. “You just be you. Be the best version of you. Because that’s enough. We don’t need this comparison. You are perfect. Educators today need to hear how perfect you are.” 

Manage what’s in front of you. Change and opportunity happen one step at a time, according to Brewer. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Instead, put your focus on the task or situation at hand.

“I’ve come to realize that striking the norm and changing the status quo is about controlling what’s in front of us. I can control what’s right in front of me,” Brewer said.

Keep it simple. Education has become cluttered, with endless policies, challenges and mandates to manage. We need to strive for simplicity and stop overcomplicating the work, Brewer said. 

“Remember when you used to drink water out of the hose? Life was so simple,” said Brewer. “I believe education should be as beautiful and as simple as drinking water out of a hose. What we’ve got to do is remove all the barriers that get in the way of our amazing teachers teaching. Get out of the way. And we’ve got to stop reinventing the wheel.”

Do something special. Time and opportunity are fragile and tomorrow is not certain, Brewer said. He urged attendees to consider their legacies and make their efforts count. 

“When was the last time you asked yourself what you want your legacy to be?” he asked. “Life is not guaranteed. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed, yesterday’s finished. You all know how hard you work. If we’re going to work this hard, let’s make it about something. Let’s do something great. Let’s do something special.”

Mirrors don’t lie. When you come to work each day, are you bringing your best self? Do your staff and students see you and smile — or cower? 

“Principals, when a teacher sees you coming, are they like, ‘Oh sh*t’?” Brewer asked. “Teachers, when a child sees you coming, are they, ‘That’s the teacher that’s on my back, that’s the teacher that loves me. Is that the teacher that I can go to? Is that the teacher who nurtured me? Is that the teacher that lifted me up?’”

Brewer challenged educators to take stock of themselves and what they are bringing to their schools every day.

“When you look in the mirror, can you say you’re better for kids today? Because that’s the ultimate legacy,” Brewer said. “The mirror doesn’t lie. [I]t knows the truth. It knows what you brought to the table. That’s legacy.”

Be the 3 a.m. friend. Are you a 3 p.m. friend — or a 3 a.m. friend, Brewer asked attendees. The 3 p.m. friend is there for you when it’s convenient for them. The 3 a.m. friend is the one who willingly supports you, without judgment or delay. Educators need to be 3 a.m. people for their students, he explained. 

“I don’t want to know who you are when it’s convenient, when it’s easy,” Brewer said. “I want to know who you are when it’s time to get up at 3 a.m. and turn up for someone who needs you. And when it’s time to lift that kid up 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times — as many times as it takes to be great.”

Brewer underscored his statement by condemning school suspension as ineffective. 

“I’m going to share a secret: School suspension does not work. They’re coming back,” he said. “So let’s do something. Let’s do something great to serve and help them right. My kids not going to be a pipeline to prison.”

Dismantle the silos. Students cannot change and schools cannot move forward as long as people are working in silos, said Brewer. He charged school leaders and teachers to work together, even when it’s tense and challenging. 

“In education one of the biggest problems we have is operating in siloes,” he said. “We operate as individuals, not as a team. Even when we need to argue and fight for what’s right in education, we’ve got to come together. And to come together we’ve got to break down the silos.”

Poverty is not a learning disability. Many students are living messy lives. Poverty, trauma and instability are their norm and they will act out. Brewer said this behavior is a cry for help. He encouraged attendees to see these students as opportunities and not obligations. 

“Poverty is not a learning disability. You can’t discipline trauma,” he said. “If you’re here out of obligation, you have to go. Break the shackles. You can’t serve someone you think you’re better than.”

Don’t wait for permission. Aiming for great — thinking outside the box, running with your passion project — takes risk and courage. Don’t sit on your ideas; implement them, advised Brewer. 

“In education, we wait on permission to be great. We wait on permission to live your most passionate purpose,” he said. “Don’t wait on permission to be great! Don’t slow down for someone else. Don’t put your power, don’t put your permission in someone else’s hand.”

The past few years have been tough on education, Brewer said. Teachers and school leaders have come under fire. They have seen their work diminished and criticized by society. 

Don’t let this poison you, Brewer told attendees. He reminded the audience members that they do important work and change lives every day.

“Let’s not fool ourselves with ‘just.’ We are not a ‘just. We’re not a ‘just’ to anybody. We are somebody,” Brewer said. “You’re an educator. You make a difference each and every day.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director of SmartBrief Education & Business Services. Reach her at [email protected].