Dr. Toyin Atolagbe – Leading in Classical Education

Archway Classical Academy Lincoln October 27, 2022

Dr. Toyin AtolagbeDr. Toyin Atolagbe, Headmaster at Archway Classical Academy Lincoln, recently shared her story, from the classical education that she received in Nigeria to her journey as a leader at Great Hearts.

When I think of the kind of education I received in Nigeria, I remember the words of Plato, “You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.”

First, I want to acknowledge my parents for embracing western education; it has been genuinely liberating for me.  My dad always said, “I do not know where the tides of life will take you, but wherever you end up, I want you to be able to function at par with your peers.”  I grew up in the Southwestern part of Nigeria, where the people are known for their love of western education.

My parent’s hunger for a classical education for their children was palpable.  For them, it wasn’t just about intellectual virtue; raising morally upright children was equally important.  My mom was a teacher and always told my dad that the early school years were the most crucial part of a child’s life.  For her, cultivating the proper habits during the formative years would significantly impact the choices children make in life.  She talked a lot about forming the proper habits at a young age so that those habits become a reflex.  She was very particular about doing things well and doing them right.

My parents were constantly in touch with my teachers; my dad would leave work and show up at my school. He would walk around the hallways.  I knew the sound of his heels by their loud, consistent “kokoka kokoka” rhythm.  He wasn’t there to see the principal or the teacher for anything precisely.  Instead, he told all of us, his children, that the sound of his heels in the hallway should remind us that he was watching us, and we better be learning and doing the right thing all the time.  At the heart of my education were supportive parents and teachers who genuinely committed to nurturing my heart and mind in pursuit of virtue. These principles were instilled in me tenderly and haven’t departed from me.

In terms of schooling, I loved the principles of hard work, perseverance, courage, humility, and magnanimity.  My education was rich in history, literature, drama, writing, grammar, math, science, art, music, French, and Bible knowledge.  I still vividly remember reading Shakespeare and other indigenous classics and performing in the school’s play.  For many years, I led the cultural dance group for my elementary school; I participated in several sports, track and field, played the drums for my high school cultural dance group, and sang in the choir.  I loved the exposure I had during my entire schooling experience.  When I went to college, I studied English Language; I learned about world history and literature (Ibsen, Chaucer, and Shakespeare…).  In addition, I minored in French and Linguistics.

Everything about my education set me up for success as a teacher and Headmaster for Great Hearts, which took place in Nigeria, thousands of miles away from the western world.  I have drawn that classical education has stood the test of time and is not bound by ethnicity, religion, or geographical location. Because it is True, Good, and Beautiful, it is sustainable anywhere as long as it is taught with fidelity.

I lived in Belize for six years and worked at a Title I Christian School where I had kids coming to school without shoes. Children wore the same color of uniform as their teachers (yes, I wore school uniforms like my students).  Because the school could not afford a janitor, we, the faculty, cleaned our classrooms and bathrooms at the end of every day; we had older students help us sometimes. I developed humility and a genuine love of teaching during this experience. These children showed up daily with little or nothing, and the school ran efficiently with little or nothing, teachers taught under uncomfortable circumstances, and children still learned. During tough times, the tenacity of the students and teachers reminds me to remain unbending in the face of trials and tribulations.

Dr. Toyin AtolagbeWith an educational background, I knew the kind of education I wanted for my children.  I wanted my children to learn not only Math, Science, History, and English Language Arts but also Fine Arts. As one who loves music myself and performed in my school choir my entire schooling years, I wanted the same for my kids.  So, I applied to Great Hearts for my son, and I applied to be a teacher.  Now it has been 12 years and I am still with Great Hearts.

I taught 2nd grade at Archway Trivium for three years. Then I moved to Archway Arete, where I taught for two years and was Dean of Academics.  Next, I joined Archway Lincoln.  I started as a Headmaster in training and became the Headmaster in my second year.  I am completing my 7th year with Lincoln and am so grateful for the growth over the years.

One of the things I love most about my job is my school family and the joy factor.  Lincoln isn’t just where I work; I see it as my school family.  From the students to their parents to the faculty and the entire staff, I will say down to the central office; I have just been so blessed by a group of people who extend unquenchable goodwill towards me.  There is genuine love, optimism, and growth on this campus. As you know, any position one holds in education is never easy, but I have the privilege of working with the most courageous people I have ever met.

People are humble and gracious when things are going well, yet bold and unbending in the face of trials and tribulations.  Everyone exudes moral courage laced with not just the boldness to show up every day, but the endurance and tenacity to achieve the goals set for the school year.  If people with this mindset do not make you a better person, nothing else will.  The heart of virtue displayed by all team members is what has kept me thus far.  These people live not in pursuit of that which is comfortable, but somewhat willing to face the challenges of the job and never lose sight of the ultimate goal to cultivate the hearts and minds of their children in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Dr. Toyin AtolagbeThe students make me happy.  They enjoy talking to me and telling me funny stories about their families.  The kindergartners are my absolute favorite.  There are no dull moments with my students.  Their wealth of knowledge never ceases to amaze me.

There are many important qualifications that a Headmaster should have; Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is essential. Pat Lencioni describes this as being “people smart.”  He further describes it as having common sense for engaging and interacting with people.  My job as a Headmaster is closely tied to human interactions and customer service, so EQ is necessary for me to be successful.

It begins with the mental abilities that allow a person to be mindful of oneself and others.  Self-knowledge is critical, and self-knowledge enables one to stay in control of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions.  It allows one to use emotional reasoning to think and make common sense judgments of others without restrictions. It helps one stay in control of one’s emotions such that you do not lose control of situations but allow the people you serve to trust and believe in you as a leader.

As a leader, I have self-awareness, which helps me stay positive and self-motivated. I have a strong elevation and affirmation of myself, not to the point of being prideful.  Still, humility helps me understand that my calling as a leader is to serve others, so I do not have reservations about putting myself in service to others.  This state of humility is rewarding because the more I do that, the more I know people and understand them better.  This knowledge of others helps me navigate the demands of working with them.

One personal philosophy of mine is to think the best of others and situations, treat others with respect and dignity, and devote time to getting to know people well.  The genuine inclination to get to know others allows us to perceive better what they like and what would work in their best interest.  It will enable us to understand the emotions of others better.

I love my students, faculty, and parents and extend goodwill toward everyone because that is what I want from others.  Because I know what I want, I can treat others how I want to be treated – This is Emotional Intelligence in simple terms.”

Do you have a story or know of a story that you would like to see featured at Great Hearts?  Please contact jmoore@greatheartsamerica.org.

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