Making a Difference as an Educator
I really need to start off with a disclaimer – Every day, I miss being a classroom teacher! I taught seventh grade English for the majority of my teaching career, and I loved it. My student-teaching experience was strictly high school, so I had a snooty outlook on middle school – that was a job for those who couldn’t be high school teachers. But, when you get offered your first job, you are excited to take on any position that will allow you to teach. It was about three minutes into my middle school career when I realized I was destined to work with this age group. Truth be told, maturity-wise, I’m still about 14, so I’ve always been able to relate to my middle school students.
There is no other environment like middle school – where you have students moving from dependence to independence as they navigate the tumultuous terrain of adolescence. They are in a state of constant change: physically, emotionally, socially, and academically. Middle school students bring a unique perspective and energy to all that they do, and it has been a privilege to be their partner in education for the past twenty-eight years.
I left the classroom about nineteen years ago to take on the role of school administrator. Although I don’t receive the instant gratification that comes from being a classroom teacher, I believe my administrative position allows me to impact learning on a more global scale. I was fortunate to end up in the Great Neck Public Schools (GNPS) in 2007. I started as an assistant principal at Great Neck South Middle School, and held this position for eight years. In 2015, I threw my hat into the ring for the principalship of the other middle school in our district, Great Neck North Middle School. After an intense interview process, I took on the role of principal in July of 2015.
My school community is exceptional! The students of North Middle are compassionate, inquisitive, and resilient learners who value the journey of discovery that takes place at NMS. Our parent body and whole Great Neck community appreciate the transformative power of learning, and their support is essential in our partnership. Finally, the teachers and support staff of NMS provide our students with fantastic opportunities to engage with the curricula and take ownership of their learning.
The role of a principal is continually changing, and I believe there are specific qualities one must possess to meet with success as a school leader.
First and foremost, you must be a strong communicator. It seems like every moment of every day (and, yes, that includes nights and weekends), I am asked to respond to questions, suggestions, and concerns; it is essential that I respond in a manner that is consistent with the school’s policies and my own guiding principles. Be it a phone call (many), an email (countless), or a meeting (all day long), I must be able to clearly communicate to the many stakeholders of NMS. And, of course, a large part of being a good communicator is being a good listener – others want to know that you hear their “voice.”
Strong interpersonal skills are a must for success in education. In the course of a day, I will interact with students, teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, central office administration, board of education members, bus drivers, security guards, cafeteria personnel, etc. And, in each of these meetings, I have the ability to make a difference in how that individual’s day is going. I honor this responsibility and try to give every single person my attention so that they recognize the power of our relationship. It may mean asking a student about the book she’s reading or asking a teacher about his son who has been studying for law school. These are the interactions that make my day, as I believe that when humans share a positive connection, they share the power to positively impact the environment in which they live.
Flexibility and Responsiveness is a component of the rubric we employ in my district to evaluate teachers and administrators. These two qualities are crucial in my role as principal. Every morning, I have an image of my day and how I believe it will go, but, usually before homeroom even starts, that image has changed – perhaps there was an incident on the morning bus or we have five teachers absent and only one substitute. In either case, I have to be responsive and flexible – I have to make sure that the learning continues, that the social emotional needs of our students are met, that the students are enjoying their day at their home away from home.
Finally, a school leader must possess focus - a focus on the art and science of teaching and learning. In the hullabaloo of the daily routines and countless interactions, I must remember that we, as a school, are charged with challenging our students to think critically. They must be encouraged and supported to meet the rigors of middle school and to stretch themselves so that every day provides an opportunity to showcase their personal best.
So, did Hamilton prepare me to be a school leader? To lead learners? Absolutely. In every class at Hamilton, be it English, theatre, philosophy, or geology, I was asked to think deeply about the topics and express my thoughts and ideas through speaking and writing. Professors engaged us in open discourse and encouraged us to see that our different perspectives made us a stronger community.
If you are interested in the education sector, I would encourage you to “do your homework.” Observation hours are a must in most teaching programs, and these visits provide fantastic opportunities for potential educators to see what goes on in today’s classrooms. And, then there’s student teaching – an opportunity for you to “intern” with the support of a cooperating teacher who will provide you with guidance as you test your mettle with YOUR students. Finally, it is important to identify a discipline for which you have a passion – perhaps it’s a foreign language or elementary education or chemistry. Regardless of the topic, your passion for the subject and your desire to share that passion with others will carry you through the most challenging days.
When I tell people that I work in a middle school, they often provide sympathetic comments about how challenging that must be. They’re right – education is challenging. Being a school leader is challenging, but I wouldn’t trade my job for any other. I often boast, “I’ve got the best job. I get paid to work with kids.” And, I mean it – every day is an adventure and I get an overwhelming sense of pride and fulfillment knowing that I am the principal teacher is such a wonderful school community.