This past May was my official graduation from Columbia University. Even though I finished SPA last summer and officially graduated in October, Columbia only has one graduation each year, so here we are! As it has been said, “the hardest things in life are the most difficult to say, because words diminish them;” it is honestly hard to articulate how incredible these last two years have been. I feel like it was just yesterday I was packing up to move to Teachers College for Summer I. These past two years have arguably pushed my thinking more than at any other point in my life. I am so honored to have made so many lifelong friendships, obtain some awesome memorabilia for my future office, and even design a new school!
We were only given three tickets for graduation (or convocation, if you want to get technical), but I was able to get two additional tickets through my Columbia network. Invited were my parents, my sister, my mentor Marist Brother Seán Sammon, and my mentee Matthew Atehortua (who aspires to become a doctor in the future and has so much potential). I met up with my family briefly before the ceremony, and then head over to meet my friends and fellow SPA graduates.
The graduation itself was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is a stunning place to have a graduation ceremony. We heard from Teachers College President Dr. Fuhrman, who encouraged us to go forth and set the world on fire, and our graduation speaker was Madhav Chavan, the co-founder & President of Pratham working to achieve educational equity in India. During the ceremony, I had a chance to catch up with many of my friends whom I had not seen in months.
After the ceremony, we took a plethora of pictures around campus, and then went to a brief reception at Teachers College. After saying goodbye to all of my friends, my family headed over to my favorite restaurant in New York City – Smith and Wollensky’s. I absolutely love the food there, and it was a lot of fun being at a table overlooking the kitchen. It truly was surreal having my entire support network be together for the first time. The food really was fantastic, but it was the people that really made that night so memorable.
Truth be told, my graduation was honestly one of the most meaningful days of my life, and a lot of people have been asking me what is next on this incredible journey we call life. I am extremely humbled and honored to officially announce that I have been named as a Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Scholar, and will travel to Taiwan next year to study eastern mathematics pedagogy. In Taiwan, I will be a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University, where I will research eastern mathematics pedagogy and consider how to implement best teaching practices that are culturally responsible. I am really excited to learn, research, and become a cultural ambassador for the United States.
This was such an awesome year, and I was so honored to have been named as a National Finalist for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Performance and be recognized by the Newark Teachers Union, too. I am proud of all these accomplishments, but I am honestly even prouder of my amazing students who work relentlessly on a daily basis to learn and receive the education they deserve. Before you know it, I will be sitting on a plane heading off to Taiwan! I do not leave until January, though, and will be transitioning to an instructional coach position in the fall at East Side High School. Although I am super excited about living abroad for six months, I sure will miss the marvelous students of Newark, New Jersey. If I have learned anything over the course of the last six years, it is that my students are some of the most resilent people on the planet, and I honestly believe they have the collective power to change the world. As iconic Teachers College Professor John Dewey alluded to in his 1897 publication of My Pedagogic Creed, “Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” Now, I resolve to work voraciously until every child has the opportunity to obtain a truly excellent education.
As I alluded to in my last post, three months after finishing, I am not sure that if it has hit me yet that we are officially graduates of the Summer Principals Academy (which we often nickname as SPA). Our degrees were conferred last month, meaning that we are all officially alumni of Columbia University! Even though we finished our program at the end of July and got our diplomas in October, Columbia only has one graduation a year, so we will “walk” this upcoming May.
To earn a Masters from Columbia, one must either write a thesis, pass a cumulative test, or complete a capstone project, depending on the specific requirements of the program one is enrolled in. For members of SPA, we needed to complete the famous New School Design Project. Taken from the SPA website, New School Design teams are “challenged to develop a new school that reflects the domains of knowledge, skill, and habits of mind, and is relevant to the challenges faced by children seeking a 21st century education in an urban school setting. The event offers the larger educational community of leaders the opportunity to share their insights and expertise regarding how to close achievement gaps effectively through the design of innovative and high-performing schools.”
For anyone that it vaguely familiar with SPA, it is well known that the New School Design (NSD) is by far the most stressful part of the entire program. During the fall, we had to complete an individual leadership diagnostic, and the SPA staff then uses those results to organize us into NSD groups. During winter call backs, we all find out who we are going to be working with for the first time. After the Associate Director of SPA showed us all of the NSD teams, she called our group up individually, and told us that our group was the last group formed. She casually let us know that we had the least in common with one another; some group members wanted to open a public high school, while others wanted to start an elementary charter school, etc. She told our group that we could change our assignment if we wanted to, which was our first conflict with our newly formed NSD team (Side note: If this ever happens, please do not tell the group that they are the leftovers).
We collectively decided to keep the assignment as given, and we hit the ground running. We did some preliminary work during the Spring, but many of us had no clue what to expect come the summer. During our first day of summer II at Teachers College, we went on a city-wide photo scavenger hunt with our NSD group. Although we did not win, we had an absolute blast! We also got to know each other really well and grow as a team, which was extremely important. Here is just a sampling of pictures from that day:
As the summer progressed, we became more and more of a tight-knit family. Our NSD proposal was due a week before we had to “defend” our new school, and our final paper ended up being over 125 pages long. One of the most memorable nights was going to Columbia Copy to print our entire NSD proposal at 11:00 at night. We all grabbed a quick drink after, as the major deliverable was out of the way!
We then focused all of our attention on our presentation. During the NSD closing ceremonies, each group essentially defends their school in front of a panel of educators, including professors, assistant superintendents, and nonprofit leaders. That panel essentially decides if your capstone “passes” or not, so it is a really stressful day for all of the NSD groups. If your capstone does not pass, you need to do it all over again the following summer, and you do not graduate.
Everything seemed like our group was heading in the right direction. We were hitting every self-imposed deadline, our preliminary presentation got great feedback, and our Keynote was looking fantastic. With less than one week to go as members of the Summer Principals Academy, we felt like we were in good shape.
During the last week of SPA, we present our New School Design to the entire group twice to get feedback from each other and make our presentations even better. The first time we presented, our group did not get any major feedback; things like, “this slide needs to look better” or “maybe include an example here?” Our NSD group met up on Tuesday night, and made the small suggestions that we were given. We were all feeling really good about Saturday.
On Thursday, we ran through our NSD presentations one last time, and tried to catch anything else that everyone may have missed. Our presentations needed to be submitted by 8:00 Friday morning, so this was our last opportunity to change anything before the gauntlet on Saturday. We were one of the last groups to go that day, and we were excited to see what everyone thought of the changes we made. Through our presentation, we felt great about how everything was going, and the other members of SPA seemed to like our presentation. Which is why everyone in the room was completely blindsided when the Associate Director of the Summer Principals Academy tore our presentation to shreds.
We were all in disbelief.
Why did this person wait until the very last minute to give such drastic feedback? Some of the members in my NSD group were angry, others were sad, but I was personally upset. I set up a meeting with her that night, and she explained to me that if we did not make “serious changes” to our presentation, we would not be given the opportunity to present on Saturday. My heart sunk. I texted our group chat what I just heard (and asked my team not to shoot the messenger). We had to get together ASAP and overhaul our presentation.
It is worth noting that nobody (like literally not one person) I talked to thought that our presentation needed this serious of an overhaul. Most of my friends and acquaintances were shocked about this entire ordeal, but none of us wanted to be the group that did not have a chance to present our New School Design and be forced to come back the following summer. Around 8:30pm or so, we all met up, divided up the work load based on the Associate Director’s “recommendations,” and got to work.
We worked frantically as a team to get our new presentation done. Since we were so pressed on time, we no longer could work collaboratively; each person was responsible for a different part of the presentation. By that point, we had so much trust in one another, and even though we were all perturbed working on this major presentation the night before it was due, it was truly incredible watching this well-oiled team get to work.For me, that included putting the final touches on the Keynote, which I could not do until I get everyone else’s information. As such, I was the last person to fall asleep that night. I finished putting the final touches on our presentation at 4:08am. I ran upstairs to my room, feel asleep for two hours, and had to be up by 7:00 for our last day of class.
A screenshot of a SnapChat I sent to my NSD group after finishing our presentation at 4:08 am.
That Friday – my last day as a full-time college student – was miserable. I had less than two hours of sleep, and I actually fell asleep during the NSD walkthrough at the end of the day (which was literally the first time in my life that I feel asleep during a college class). I used to tell my high school students that, in college, you never need to pull an all-nighter if you plan ahead and do not procrastinate. I guess I can no longer share that piece of advice…
Our incredible NSD group (L to R) – Adam, Megan, Jenn, me, Alisha, and Myke
I went to bed early on Friday night so I could semi-recover for our big presentation on Saturday. We were scheduled to go towards the end, so we watched other NSD teams go before us. Although many groups were asked tough questions by the panel, every group before us seemingly passed. Before you know it, they were announcing the Birney School, and we walked across the stage and started our presentation.
I was still so incredibly tired from the day before, but we all did our best. I had the added responsibility of running the presentation, so I needed to know everyone’s lines, too. I thought our team absolutely killed it, and I was happy to help answer a question about college readiness from one of the panelists. Based on the questions they were asking, the entire panel seemed to love our New School Design. After we finished, we walked off stage and went to another room. We all started cheering and had a giant group hug, and that is when it all hit us: We did it!
Although the Summer Principals Academy was started in 2006, we found out that this year was going to be the first year that the panel was going to give out awards to the best New School Design. We were all sitting together, and the panelists came on stage and announced that our school won a New School Design Implementation Award for being the most innovative new school. I cannot put into words the emotions we felt when our group won. Outside of Student Government elections during my junior year at Marist, I am not sure if I have ever felt so vindicated in my entire life.
After the NSD presentations, Teachers College had a small reception for us, we took some photos, and went to the closing ceremony. We heard from three incredible speakers, which was so powerful, too. My family then helped me move out of the residence hall, grabbed a quick dinner, and started heading back to Newark.
So that’s a wrap, folks. One hell of a story, if you ask me. I am so proud of our entire 2015 SPA cohort, and know that I am going to miss them immensely next summer. Now, I honestly cannot wait until graduation!
Wow. I honestly cannot believe that we are already finished with Summer I of Columbia University’s Summer Principals Academy (SPA). These last six weeks have been such an incredible learning experience, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the best educators across the country. It was a much-needed break from the horrendous end of the school year I just went through. Between all of the student walkouts, teachers quitting daily, and (in my perspective) terrible leadership, I asked myself for the first time in my life whether there is a point when education reform goes too far. To be honest, the last four months of this past school year were the hardest four months of my career, and I was ready to put this year behind us.
During our orientation in May, I genuinely did not know what to expect. They definitely tried to scare us, if nothing else. I knew from the very beginning that I was privileged to be able to join such a prestigious graduate school program with such an incredible group of people. Our cohort is diverse in a plethora of different ways, including race, age, and experience; we have teachers from public schools, charter schools, and private schools, and educators that hail from across the country.
This July, we took 14.5 credits in five weeks, meaning that we were busy! We took Introduction to School Leadership and Decision Making, School Leadership for Adult Development, Supervision of Teaching and Learning, Basic Practicum in Conflict Resolution, and Program Development: Teaching, Learning and Assessment. We also took a 1-credit equity series class, which features classes such as emotional intelligence, culturally relevant pedagogy, and examining the district/charter schools debate. I made the decision to stay on campus this summer, so that I could devote all of my time to school. I recognize that I am extraordinarily privileged to be able to do that, and have so much respect for my peers that had to leave behind their families this summer to attain a transformative school leadership experience.
Our first class on our very first day was 4001: School Leadership. This class was run very similar to the way a Harvard Business School class would be run, with a heavy focus on case studies. We started our course with a discussion about Machiavelli’s The Prince, and then took a Values-Based Leadership diagnostic. This tool helped us conceptualize answers to broad leadership questions, such as, “What are we trying to accomplish? Who is leading this work? Why do I lead? How do I lead?” We learned about research from Joel Murphy that turnaround schools are not effective (which was particularly meaningful after the spring I just went through). We learned about Research form Eric Schmidt of Stanford that suggests that if a school exits the lowest 33.3% of teachers, student achievement will increase by 25%. We also learned about a plethora of decision making models, and Jack Welsh’s philosophy that “meetings are for leaders who don’t trust their subordinate’s ability to get things done” (Our professor also told us that Welsh apparently never lead a meeting that was longer than 15 minutes). During 4001, I got really lucky in that I was put in a group that quickly became my best friends at Columbia. Every day in that class we had a case study to analyze, and it was due at 9:00pm sharp – even though we had days in which we did not get out of class until 7:00pm! This group of people really means a lot to me, and quickly became my support network throughout this summer.
The two classes that had the biggest intellectual impact on me was, without question, adult development and conflict resolution. As I wrote in my reflection paper, it is hard to believe how much I have grown as a leader, and perhaps more importantly as a person, over the course of the three weeks in 5018: Adult Development. Going into that class, I was excited to learn about adult developmental psychology, as it was something that I had neither previously considered nor studied. Although I knew that everyone had their own lenses in which they observed and made meaning of the world, I never had the academic language to fully articulate my feelings towards adults that make meaning of life in different ways. This course pushed my thinking in multiple aspects, both personally and professionally. Perhaps most prominently, I left that class with renewed feelings of optimism and excitement, and personally feel that the practical applications of the theory from 5018 has the potential to really make a transformational impact in the lives of others. One of the most important lines that Dr. Drago-Severson has repeated throughout the course is that, although you can never force an adult to develop, “you can create an environment in which adult development is possible.” This is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also sense the urgency in this course; in the globally connected and ever-changing 21st century, where we are faced with challenges that are highly adaptive in nature, true leadership not only takes true courage, grit, and perseverance, but some level of self-authoring capacity. In synthesis, adult development is something that is not simply ideal but is rather an ideology that must be studied and practiced if we are serious about pushing our country and thus our world forward.
In our conflict resolution class, I read on the syllabus that we were actually going to run a prisoner’s dilemma on the first day of class. Having read about the prisoner’s dilemma (including having had the opportunity to write a paper on the topic during undergrad), I was personally very excited to hear that we were going to be acting out the prisoner’s dilemma on the first day of class. Although I was ready for the challenge, the nature of separating the two groups and placing us into two different floors made this much more realistic than I ever could have imagined by simply reading theory. When the two groups first separated, my outlook was to maximize both teams’ returns and fully “cooperate;” after coming from a transformational adult development course that literally ended the day before, I thought that most of my peers were thinking in similar ways. In hindsight, I found that I could not have been more wrong. As previously mentioned, during these heated debates with my colleagues about what the best course of action should be, I learned very quickly that it is one thing to study the prisoner’s dilemma and another entirely to actually participate in it. Reflecting back on the activity, I thought that I had originally convinced my group to cooperate early on in the activity, and since the other group was willing to cooperate, I wrongly thought that the adaptive challenge was completed. As we kept going back and forth, and both teams picked “blue” (to cooperate), I felt that we had sealed the deal. Unfortunately, many of my teammates’ values were seemingly thrown out the figurative window during the last round when our group decided to vote for “red.” I tried my best to persuade my group to go along for the greater good, but in the end, my efforts were fruitless. Even though I felt as though I did the right thing, I was still upset because our group ended up looking out for our own interests exclusively, screwing over the other group in the process. It was rather disconcerting to hear some of my peer’s rationales and opinions about why they choose to “get ahead at the cost of others.” I feel that, looking at the greater picture here, and as we all are aspiring school leaders, we need to be open and willing to collaborate together by constantly looking out for the best interests of all of our children. During this experience, we had an opportunity to let both groups win, and our group chose to be selfish and take advantage of the situation. Even though this was just a game, it was clear that many people had a deep and emotionally charged reaction to the activity. For me, the prompt also had me beg the question, “at what point does this game become reality?” Although it was an interesting exercise and a great way to start a conflict resolution class, I felt that this gave me tremendous insight into certain people’s true personalities while bringing me closer to other individuals, as well. Regardless, it was a fantastic learning experience that will always serve as a personal reminder about why we should always be looking to “do the right thing.” I really feel as though this basic practicum in conflict resolution has given me both the intellectual rational and technical skills needed to truly make a difference when involved in a conflict situation.
The only class I was particularly disappointed with was our Program Development: Teaching, Learning and Assessment class. I was originally really excited when I heard that one of the former deputy chancellors of the NYC Department of Education (under Joel Klein) was going to be one of our professors. I learned very quickly that although he might have been a great #2 person running the DOE or he understood the NYC bureaucracy incredibly well, he did not know much about effective teaching. This was made evident when he showed us an “exemplar” math classroom that really was nothing special. I also did not appreciate how he treated graduate students like middle schoolers, but perhaps that is a story for another day…
Overall, it was such a transformational summer; one that I really needed. I am so excited to shadow some awesome school leaders in the fall, start my New School Design project, and get ready for the fall semester. Now, I am off to Buenos Aires! ¡Hasta la próxima vez!