A Leadership & Life Playlist: Songs That Have Inspired My Work


By Charli Kemp
Leadership & Life Coordinator, Green Dot Public Schools California

"Wake Up Everybody" by John Legend and The Roots is the theme song of my teaching experience. I love this song for so many reasons, especially the lines: “Wake up all the teachers / Time to teach a new way / Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say / Cause they're the ones who's coming up / And the world is in their hands / When you teach the children / Teach 'em the very best you can.” I employed this song as a signal for students to come in to class and get started quickly – it meant we had a lot to cover that day.

“Wake up all the teachers / Time to teach a new way / Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say / Cause they're the ones who's coming up / And the world is in their hands / When you teach the children / Teach 'em the very best you can.”

- "Wake Up Everybody" John Legend & The Roots

As a middle school math teacher in New York City, I used to say I didn’t care if my students ever learned math. Yes, it shocked people. But it was far more important for them to learn to believe they could do anything they put their minds to. As a child, I was brought up to believe and embody this statement. I realized that if students came to a place where they had the character, social-emotional, and non-cognitive skills necessary to believe that they could achieve whatever they put their mind to, they would be able to master any level of content. My most important measure of success each year was whether my students who walked in afraid of math left with a level of confidence that they could persist through any kind of academic challenge and an understanding of how important math is for everything in the world.

To support those skills, teachers have to create a fun and connected learning environment for students to be able to learn. Preparing students for a hard day’s work with John Legend is just one way to do that.

From New York to Los Angeles

After taking a break from the classroom and earning my MBA with a focus on Social Entrepreneurship, I came to Green Dot, first working as a Cluster Business Manager and now in a new role as the Leadership and Life Coordinator. I quickly realized the lessons I’d learned as a teacher about the value of non-cognitive skills applied to these new positions.

Creating a System for Non-Cognitive Skill Building

Research shows there’s a strong and unfortunate correlation between family income and the ability of a child to develop those all-important non-cognitive skills. In California, more than 94% of our students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch. At its most fundamental, low-income students are more likely than affluent students to be exposed to traumas in their communities, including poverty, violence and crime, all of which inhibit their health development – and that impacts their academic performance and college enrollment rates.


But at Green Dot, our mission is to prepare all students for college, leadership and life. And that means we have to provide them with the non-cognitive skills necessary for success. And that’s where I come in.

Part of my job is helping our teachers and staff make best use of what we call our “College, Leadership and Life” framework. The framework was developed from a compilation of research and best practices in order to guide our organizational approach to educating of the whole child. The framework is a collection of pillars and skills that we would like to enhance and instill in our students. The framework is organized by our “Mission Drivers” —College, Leadership and Life—and three strengths: mind, will and heart.


The first, Strength of Mind, we call our thinking strength. Under this Strength our goal is to teach students to open their mind and build a belief system that helps them expand their vision for the future. The second, Strength of Heart, focuses on the building of relationship skills, including but not limited to communication, emotional literacy, and conflict resolution. The last is Strength of Will; we affectionately call these our doing strengths. These strengths focus on teaching kids how to complete action steps towards their goals and also how to persevere when challenges arise on their future path.

Our three strengths are important because without developing the social-emotional or non-cognitive skills, students will find it very difficult to have success in school and persist in college – and far too many of our students haven’t developed them enough when they come to a Green Dot school initially. They need assistance in learning about and even accessing these skills, things like persistence, self-discipline, focus, confidence, teamwork, and organization.

Non-Cognitive Skills in Real Life

I recently sat down with Yaritza Gonzalez, and alumna of Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School. She listens to the song “Fly” by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna to help her get through a tough time: “I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive, I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise to fly, to fly.” Yaritza just graduated from Dartmouth and is currently working for the Central American Resource Center supporting undocumented women who have experienced domestic abuse. Yaritza is shining model of Green Dot’s mission: She is the daughter of immigrant parents, and before coming to Green Dot’s Ánimo Inglewood she had never read a complete book. And now she’s a Dartmouth grad.


I think Yaritza is one of my musical soulmates because we have similar taste in music, in that we have some of the same songs on our individual persistence playlist. “Rise Up” by Andra Day was one of the songs on her “persistence playlist” and it reminds me of why we are doing our work to teach our students character, non-cognitive, and social-emotional skills: “And I'll rise up, I'll rise like the day, I'll rise up, I'll rise unafraid, I'll rise up, And I'll do it a thousand times again, And I'll rise up, High like the waves, I'll rise up, In spite of the ache, I'll rise up, And I'll do it a thousands times again, For you, For you, For you, For you”

Developing Ánimo

Ánimo, the beginning of the name of all our schools in California, denotes courage and persistence. Zest. Mettle. Pluck. A spirit of tenacity. It refers to something or someone who stands strong in the face of adversity. It signals that in order to truly prepare our students to be successful and embody Ánimo we must teach them to persist and to believe they can do and can be anything in life they want.

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