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Without TFA, I Never Would Have Become the Principal I Am Today

Without TFA, I Never Would Have Become the Principal I Am Today_5fbe74a55b28d.jpeg
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Without TFA, I Never Would Have Become the Principal I Am Today

Without TFA, I Never Would Have Become the Principal I Am Today

My journey in the world of education started as a freshman at Howard University. Although I was a political science major, I always held a very strong interest in issues pertaining to education, and specifically the achievement gap.

Growing up in Chicago, I was well aware of the inequities that existed within the school system. Although I was fortunate enough to test into one of the best schools in the city, most of my family and friends did not have this option. I saw the subpar education that they received and I knew that I wanted to do something to change this. There was no reason that all children shouldn’t have access to a high-quality education, and where you live should never dictate the type of education that you receive.

I come from a family riddled with drug abuse and violence. I wanted a better life for myself and I wanted to help as many people as possible escape this vicious cycle of poverty. As a result, I decided to dedicate my life to fighting educational inequity. I believe that education equals freedom and I have seen firsthand the dramatic impact that having a strong educational background can have in one’s life.

Although I initially sought to do this through politics, once I learned about the mission and core values of Teach For America (TFA), I instantly knew that it was the right choice for me. I was accepted into the 2007 cohort of Teach For America and joining has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made.

I was placed as a seventh-grade teacher at Catalyst Circle-Rock Charter School, a predominantly African-American school on the West Side of Chicago. Through my teaching experience, the achievement gap went from being a bunch of numbers and statistics to becoming real students, with names and stories. It was my job to ensure that these scholars not only learned, but left my classroom as better people than they were when they entered.

In my eyes, there is no greater charge than that of a teacher. I knew that being in the classroom was my calling, and I decided to stay in my role beyond the two-year commitment.

As a teacher, my class was able to consistently produce some of the highest results in the school. The academic success of my scholars can easily be reduced to numbers and facts, however the long-lasting effect that I sought to have on my scholars’ lives is not quantifiable.

Although it was very gratifying to see my scholars achieve at high levels, what was more inspiring was to see scholars who had hated math their entire life show over three years of growth in one academic year, or scholars who hated reading but finished “The Outsiders” and begged me to help them find another book. Or years later, scholars I taught in seventh grade who sent me an invite to their college graduation. That is why I do this work.

Teachers Don’t Quit Schools, They Quit Principals

During my fifth year of teaching, I was promoted to director of instruction. In this new role I was able to extend my influence past my classroom and to teachers and scholars around the building. I learned more about academic practices, creating and delivering high-quality professional development and using data to make informed decisions.

After nearly four years as director of instruction, I was promoted to principal and given the opportunity to deepen my impact on the school community.

As a school leader, I have learned the importance of a strong team, shared leadership and a focused vision. I once read that teachers don’t quit schools, they quit principals. As leader, one of my main responsibilities is to get and keep the right people on the bus. I initially spent a lot of time on recruitment, but now that I have the right people, I spend a lot of time making sure that I have established a clear vision, offered ample opportunities for leadership and provided the appropriate support so that my team can continue to thrive.

Each year I have created a detailed strategic plan, presented the plan to the entire team, received feedback and revisited the plan frequently throughout the year to monitor progress toward our goals. As a result, we have retained over 90 percent of our staff each year, we have decreased behavioral transgressions by over 25 percent, we have seen significant increases in our math and reading scores and we have adopted “The Leader in Me,” a program centered around the premise that everyone can be a leader.

Growing up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, it would anger me that children had to leave their neighborhood in order to get a good education. As a school leader, I will do everything in my power to make sure my scholars have access to a world-class education regardless of their zip code.

This is why my school is full of inspirational artwork and my scholars have access to a host of extra-curricular activities—including sports teams, orchestra, student council, empowerment organizations and academic clubs. We have invested in one-to-one technology and our scholars are provided with a host of leadership opportunities.

It takes a village and I am fortunate enough to be a part of an amazing village that is fighting every day so that our scholars are offered the very best and are equipped with all the tools that they need to succeed.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Jamison-Dunn.

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