I began my professional career as part of the 2008 Teach for America Corps in New York City at P.S. 192 in Harlem. Idealistic and hopeful, I enthusiastically jumped right in to teach ESL (English as A Second Language) students – or is it ELL (English Language Learners) students…oh wait, now it’s ENL (English as a New Language) students. The ever-changing acronyms were the least of my problems: the reality was my 6th grade students were reading at a 2nd to 3rd grade level. Through navigating grad school classes at night and on the weekend, questioning daily lesson plan and classroom management failures, and late nights filled with rewrites and wonderings what I could change to make it successful, I had to learn how to deal with my failure in the inner city. I still got on the R train for that 1 hour and 15 minute commute, and every day I felt like I was not doing enough.
I had to learn how to deal with my failure in the inner city.
Armed with a BA in Political Science and a BS in Public Management & Policy, I had my sights set on law school after the two year commitment to address education equity on a systems-wide basis, but this all changed during my second year Debbie began leading as principal at P.S. 192.
Even though it was Debbie’s first year as a principal, she embodied the characteristics of a transformational leader – what Accelerate Institute calls the “building blocks” of transformational leadership. She excelled in the Relationship Building and Communication “building blocks” by creating an open school culture and fostering strong relationships with both the staff and community. Debbie was the first to admit when she did not know something and deferred to the teachers as experts. She led well-structured and informative whole staff meetings. During one PD session, a colleague stated that she felt like she was in college again with Debbie leading. Debbie also listened and invested in us each personally, meeting with us one-on-one and checking in on the goals we set together. As an example of investment, Debbie knew I practiced yoga as an escape, so she encouraged me to hold a class for the parents. This led to me obtaining my yoga teacher training certification, and leading classes for parents, students, and staff which I led for three years at P.S. 192.
Stephanie's students at P.S. 192 practice yoga
Leading with humility and purpose, she was able to get a mostly veteran staff on board with her vision.
It’s not just the social-emotional learning that motivated Debbie - she also inhabited the Instructional Knowledge and Strategic Planning & Thinking “building blocks”, with a strong focus on providing rigorous instruction and a strategic vision for achieving it. A veteran teacher expressed how Debbie was the first principal in 35 years to place a focus on increasing academic rigor. Along with seeking teacher input on revised curriculum, she restructured our day to provide common grade level planning time, and provided purpose for each meeting. Additionally, we had teacher-facilitated book clubs on higher order questioning and teaching writing. As one of the most junior persons on staff with veteran teachers, I wondered what I could offer to those 5-25 years further in their career, but she entrusted me to facilitate stating that I would “bring a fresh perspective.” That is just a small snippet of all she accomplished from my perspective. Overall, I knew Debbie cared and respected us as professionals . Leading with humility and purpose, she was able to get a mostly veteran staff on board with her vision of the school. This not only reflected in the increased positive school culture, but also in our academic gains: we moved from not meeting our Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) to meeting AYP during her principalship.
Like most people who are good at their jobs, Debbie got promoted. But because of her influence, I ended up staying for five years at my placement school, which is quite rare for a TFA corps member. During those five years, I had three principals - but no one had the effect of improving school culture and academics quite like Debbie did. Seeing the transformational change a school leader can have is why I do what I do: recruiting future transformational school leaders for The Ryan Fellowship to be the “Debbie” for students, teachers and communities that need them most.