Justin Holbrook

There are days when Justin Holbrook, principal of Armistead Gardens Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City and a member of the Public School Administrators & Supervisors Association of Baltimore City, AFSA Local 25, misses the classroom, but he deeply cares about inspiring his teachers. 

“So, I have GOOSE Day: Get Out of School Early Day,” he says, “where I let the teachers off early and I teach their class. The students get super pumped, and it keeps me on my toes. It gives me a common ground with our teachers.” 

He comes to understand their unique challenges and sometimes has helpful insights to offer them. At heart, Justin will always be an educator—and he has plenty of accolades to illustrate the point, from Baltimore City Schools Teacher of the Year to Maryland State Teacher of the Year finalist to Outstanding Educator of Gifted and Talented Education for the Maryland State Department of Education. 

Although he started out as a first grade teacher at Roland Park EMS—“the hardest grade to teach in my opinion, where learning to read confidently is imperative”—he spent most of his classroom years as a fourth grade math and science teacher. Watching videos that show him at work is rather like watching a virtuoso conductor in front of an orchestra.

In his current role, Justin tries to practice “clear and concise leadership layered with compassion.” His mother was a nurse, and then a hospital administrator. His father was chief financial officer of DuPont. 

“I got the compassion from my mother and the mathematical organization from my father,” he says. His parents and his Montessori education instilled in him a love of learning and he went straight into education at Goucher College, minoring in Spanish, which helps him connect with the Latino families in his school community. Sometimes family members test his fluency, and he passes the test with a few laughs. 

Justin believes in brain-targeted teaching, an initiative he adopted from Dr. Mariale Hardiman of the Neuro-Education Initiative, a Johns Hopkins professor emeritus and a former Roland Park principal. He incorporates that approach—targeting emotional climate, physical environment, learning design, teaching for mastery, teaching for application and evaluating learning—into the coaching feedback he provides his teachers. 

Brain-targeted teaching is partly about building a positive learning environment to minimize stress: inviting sounds, lighting, smells and personal items like Justin’s childhood stuffed gorilla, Mr. Borilla, which became a class mascot. He made real-world connections for all math concepts, including money. He would ask, “Tell me a job where money isn’t involved?”

His students used art in math to create memories that stuck. They drew and colored math problems and sang math rap songs. They also took brain breaks, sometimes dancing to videos. “It’s hard to actively listen without taking a break,” Justin says. “When they’re physically primed, they have more confidence as they jump into their work.”

He divided his class into three data-driven groups to help students master complex concepts. They had a “genius hour,” where they could do a passion project like designing their own dream vacation and planning how to present it to a board of directors.

His transition to formal school leadership began in 2019 when he was named an assistant principal at Lakeland EMS, but his preparation came earlier as resident principal, first at Roland Park and then at Lakeland, through the New Leaders’ National Aspiring Principals Fellowship, where he developed a network of educators he still relies on. As a principal, he’s also still involved with a Twitter chat tagged #BmoreEdchat, which goes back to his graduate school coursework at Loyola University Maryland with Prof. Jack Rice. It was Rice who introduced Justin to social media to knock down the invisible walls blocking collaboration between teachers.

“I met teachers from all over the world teaching in every subject imaginable,” he says. “Twitter destroys educational hierarchy. Everyone can collaborate on the same level playing field. Our chat has lived on for nearly 10 years.” Today, he still supports by leading a chat or two.

Understanding social media helps Justin understand how it affects his school community. He says, “We have to teach kids how to evaluate what’s appropriate and inappropriate on social media. We are entering an age that’s messy. If there’s one group in this country who can model the way, it’s teachers.”

He acknowledges the job of principal is humbling and some days it is hard, with some of the hardest days coming during the pandemic. As a result, he is concerned about the mental health of teachers and school leaders, which he thinks is being largely ignored. He understands firsthand as he remembers how he and his wife Kaitlyn, a second grade teacher, had to figure out how to take care of their baby daughter Teagan as they worked from their rowhouse in Baltimore City. Today, there is a second baby, Tanner. 

Justin says, “I thought after the pandemic schools would be given credit for all they coordinated, but that’s not the main narrative. People don’t like to name it, but when’s the last time you thanked a teacher?”

Still, every day, as he walks through Armistead Garden’s halls, greeting the students by name, he says he feels “pure joy.” His staff calls him Ted Lasso. “My job has many hats, but cheerleading is a favorite,” he says. “Ted Lasso 2.0.”