Blog
Sep 23
2014

The Leader My Students Deserve

September 23, 2014
Janine Casella - Lead Educator, East Camden Middle School

When I first applied to become a Resident with CamdenPLUS—a principal residency program formed by a partnership between TNTP and Camden City School District—I was asked what inspired me to lead in Camden. I was befuddled. How could I possibly convey my feelings for a city that has been my second home for two decades? As a veteran teacher, there were many students who had inspired me, but that still did not fully convey the raw emotion I feel when I think about this amazing city. That’s when it came to me: My inspiration to be a leader was the city itself.

Last year, I led a group of students on long rides through the streets of Camden as part of our school’s cycling club. Traversing the streets with my students was a reminder of the heart of the community where I taught every day since the beginning of my career, and it was an opportunity to reflect.

I often saw former students on these trips. Some waved while waiting for a bus to work; others waved from street corners, where I would rather not know what they were doing. I was struck by the kindness of strangers on these rides, and reminded that there is beauty and hope in this city. But along with it, we also saw many streets full of pain and despair.

When we traveled through these areas, I told my students, "Eyes forward," but I was looking all around. I reflected on how my colleagues and I had contributed to this despair. Could we have taught differently? Could we have provided a better learning environment where students felt safe and nurtured? Where did we fail and how much more could we have done?

These questions are personal for me. Having been a part of this city for more than twenty years, I recognize the need for positive change in the schools. Many of the children I once taught are now parents themselves, and I feel a real urgency to provide their children with the kind of education they deserve. Though I haven’t lived these parents’ daily struggles, I’ve walked by their sides through so many challenges. This connection to Camden’s parents and children will enable me to begin my work as a school leader with greater confidence—and drive—to help transform their children’s journey.

I began the PLUS summer institute—an intensive five-week professional development seminar—with one question in the front of my mind: What can I do to lead the kind of school I want for the community I love? During the summer institute, my PLUS colleagues and I each had a name tent with a picture of a student who inspired us to lead. Every day, I stared down at a photo of my favorite bike buddy, Steven. Steven and his classmates brought me to this place. I wanted to be a school leader for them.

For five weeks, we focused on skills that would make us better leaders. We each set a vision for what our school would look like, and we revisited this vision often, refining it over time with the acquisition of skills and knowledge. I knew I wanted to lead a school that would feel safe, joyful and supportive for teachers and students, but also academically rigorous. Getting there wouldn’t be easy.

It became evident that to reach our ultimate goal of improving student outcomes, we would have to use every tool at our disposal. We watched videos of effective school leaders in action, identified high-leverage action steps we could take to support our teachers, and practiced having tough feedback conversations. Practicing those skills and getting feedback from our peers and facilitators pushed us closer to the leaders we aspired to be. By the time the institute ended, we were armed with the skills to provide meaningful feedback to any teacher whose class we entered.

The summer institute schedule left me physically and mentally drained at times, exposing the reality of how I may feel as a school leader one day. But in those long hours, I would stare down at Steven in his helmet and remember every student who had been failed in the past. Over the course of the summer, the anger and sorrow I’d felt when I looked honestly at those failures gave way to hope. I am now confident that I have the tools to make the changes I’ve always wanted to see, and—better yet—I am surrounded by a group of educators and coaches who share my vision. 

At the end of our summer institute, we conducted home visits with our future students. I was excited to get back out on the streets of the city I love. When my team knocked on that first door, I turned around and took it all in. As the parent opened the door, I knew that this time, change was for real. Best of all, I knew I could look down at Steven's face and say confidently, "Kid, we got this!"

Note: This post originally appeared on the TNTP blog, found here.