Principals at ED: Educator Voices Matter

Last week, I had the unique opportunity of being invited back to the U.S. Department of Education for “Principals at ED,” along with ten other principals.  We spent the day at the Department, fondly known as “ED,” meeting with Secretary Betsy DeVos, interacting with senior career leaders, including former interim Secretary Phil Rosenfelt and Acting Deputy Secretary Joe Conaty, and learning from policy and communications staff.

I was honored to serve as the Principal Ambassador Fellow in 2015-16. Now, as a principal, I again face the day-to-day realities of the students who keep me up at night and the overwhelming task of ensuring that all of our children succeed. The ability to take a step back and look at education from “3,000 feet high” helps ground the day-to-day work in which all school leaders are engaged.

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Applying for the Principal Ambassador Fellowship: Seeing Education from a Broader Perspective

ED's Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

ED’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

I never imagined that one day I would be a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. When I look back to where I was a year ago, I was busy running my school—meeting with teachers, students, and parents. I was working with custodians to review blueprints of our newly renovated cafeteria. I was observing classes. And I was facilitating conflict resolution with my guidance counselor and our students.

One day last year, when I rode the train to work, I read my principals’ weekly newsletter and that’s where I first saw the information to apply to become a Teaching or Principal Ambassador Fellow. Although caught up in the day-to-day frantic pace of working in a school, I also am a learner. I am always reading education articles and thinking about what new ideas will help my students improve. I was interested in opportunities to learn and grow.

So, I applied.

Once in the thick of it, I realized that the application process was no joke. The written application required me to think strategically about who I am as an educator and what I have accomplished in my career. The phone interview that followed had me thinking on my feet, talking about what I believe matters in education and why being a fellow could make a bigger difference. The final round involved both an in-person, one-on-one interview and a fishbowl-style interview with other applicants. I had to exhibit all the skills needed to lead: communicate clearly, be a team player, and work in a fast-paced environment.

As a teacher, my first love was impacting my students in the classroom. Then, I found I could provide opportunities for all students’ learning by leading a school. Now, I am looking at what policies shape our educational landscape for the country. This is exciting work!

As a Principal Ambassador Fellow at ED, I get to share what has led me to be an educator for my entire career. It’s a unique opportunity, and well worth all the steps to get here. It’s why I want to pass the word along and encourage others out there to take a chance and apply.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

The Power of Principals: Why They are so Important to Building Great Schools

Everyone remembers a teacher that inspired them. How many of us remember our principals? Principals are responsible for ensuring our schools are open, that the teachers who inspired us are receiving the support he or she needs, and that our classrooms are environments that will help us learn.

I was inspired by a principal. But, it wasn’t when I was a child; it was when I was a teacher. And that inspiration has guided me to become a principal who continues to adapt and learn based on what I saw worked and didn’t work.

My principal, Jill Myers, inspired me to lead. She helped me become a strong teacher. She opened doors for me in education, challenged me, and supported me. She showed me that strong leadership builds strong schools. What I learned from my principal was that leadership matters.

When I was a first-year teacher in the South Bronx, I almost left the teaching profession. Like many, I was new; I was hopeful and wanted to make a difference. But, I still didn’t know how yet. Great teachers aren’t born – they are nurtured and developed. Great teachers have a mentor that helps them grow.

The strongest model for schools is one in which principals are creative, innovative instructional leaders. They find opportunities for their teachers to lead. They support teachers in their growth and create a safe space for adults to take risks in their learning. As we look at what builds a great school, we need to look at the principal. Who is at the helm? What vision have they set for their communities? How have they developed an environment that fosters learning and creativity?

Our kids need great teachers. And our teachers need great leaders. One can’t exist without the other. Principals bring in opportunities for their communities – they find resources where there weren’t any before. They connect families. They find places for children to thrive both in and outside of the classroom.

As a Principal Ambassador Fellow, I am proud to be able to represent principals in education. With this fellowship, ED recognizes that principals can make a huge difference in a school. This October, for National Principals Month, I urge you to get to know your principal. My hope is that the next generation of students will say that their principal inspired them to lead, and as a result, more great schools will emerge and continue to thrive.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education

Learning Mindsets: The “Grit” of Learning

As a principal for the past twelve years, whenever I meet with teachers and ask them what they want to focus on to help students learn, over and over again, the resounding cry is: how do we teach effort? “Too many of our students just give up!” they cry. “If they only tried, they would succeed!” others say. Teachers are not flustered by a student’s struggles academically, but rather, they say, if students learn the habits of “stick-with-it-ness,” they can grow and feel successful.

Educators play an especially important role in building growth mindsets in middle school, and middle school students benefit from additional support from their teacher when learning growth mindset skills.

Schools across the country are implementing strategies to teach learning mindsets, so that when we talk about learning, it involves more than just intelligence, but an understanding that teachers can help mold a student’s perspective and outlook on learning, and help him or her discover what it takes to succeed.

At Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan, the mathematics department is trying to change students’ mindsets from fixed to growth. Teachers are working to instill grit, tenacity, perseverance, and resilience in the classroom. They’re making grit part of the class conversation with open discussions that reveal moments from their own lives where grit was relevant or should have been.

In Dr. Elizabeth Jaffe’s class, she teaches a lesson by moving all the chairs to the side of the room. Students are only able to get their chairs back through problem solving. The problems aren’t difficult, but they require perseverance.

When you walk the halls, you see posters on classroom doors reminding students that hard math problems are not the same as long math problems. The bulletin boards allow space for students to add ways they’ve displayed grit academically or personally. The school culture’s has created an environment where students are reminding each other to show grit throughout the year.

Another way the school supports effort over smarts is through their homework policy: homework is graded based on completion. If they don’t know an answer, students need to show where they went to get unstuck, even if it didn’t work. Students also have flexibility in their assignments, allowing them to use their strengths. This may be something as simple as choosing from three debate topics, choosing the method of presentation for their work, choosing homework questions, or choosing which section of the newspaper to critique when determining how the media uses statistics to manipulate the public.

In Brooke Simon’s Algebra class, she provides students with hint envelopes. In the beginning, when they solve a problem they can use as many hints as needed, but the goal at the end of the year is for them to stop using the hint envelopes as a crutch. Students are taught that a wrong answer can be as informative as a right answer. This increases student confidence, allows them to feel more comfortable participating, and it teaches them to keep going no matter what.

Ultimately, the students feel more successful and develop a greater love of mathematics when they realize that it’s not always about the right answer, it’s about recognizing the beauty of the mathematics around them.

Students often say “I’m not good at math.” Baruch is a great example of how a school and its staff are actively working to combat that mindset, and building on the concepts of Learning Mindsets, they are changing students’ minds one problem at a time.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.