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Education Special: Building Great Leaders

This report and others in this series were made possible by The Wallace Foundation, The Principal Story project, and the Knowledge Center.


As part of our special series on education, These Days hits the road for a live broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School in Southeast San Diego. We'll look at how motivated teachers and principals are making a difference in the classroom.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to a special These Days broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School. We're actually broadcasting from a table we've set up right outside the library on the Lincoln High campus. We're right in front of the Center of the Arts, got some kids on the balcony looking at us there. Good morning. Now, we just spoke with architect Joseph Martinez who designed this impressive campus, and with Mel Collins, the principal who runs the operations of Lincoln High. They both could be considered part of the first generation of leaders for this new school. But Lincoln High as well as schools across the state will soon need a new generation of leaders to guide our schools through the middle of the 21st century. The University of San Diego is offering training to classroom teachers who want to be part of that next generation. It's called the Education Leadership Development Academy. And we're pleased to have one of the academy's recent graduates with us. My guest is Stephanie Brown, a math teacher here at Lincoln High School's Center for Social Justice. Stephanie, welcome.

STEPHANIE BROWN (Math Teacher): Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I say, you're a recent graduate of the Education Leadership Development Academy, which is on the University of San Diego. Now, I wonder, what did you find out there about what it takes to be a school principal?

BROWN: I learned a lot. I wasn't even sure that becoming a school principal was something that I wanted to do. It was a former principal of mine that recommended me to the program and I was interested and I like learning and so I had recently finished my master's and I thought, what the heck, just go ahead and go into the program, just keep the momentum going. So when I got into the program, I really had no idea what it meant to be a school leader and one of the things that I learned very quickly was what good instruction is. Going through a teacher credentialing program, the one that I went through, was very good but I did not learn to the degree that I learned in this program what it meant to be a good teacher and what that looked like in the classroom. And so that was one of the biggest things that I carried away, graduating from that program.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it's funny. You know, while we were in the first segment of the program and the kids were in the open space here changing classes, Mel Collins was pointing at them like, you know, put – take your hat off, and do this.

BROWN: Right, right, right.

CAVANAUGH: I mean, what kind of percentage, what kind of amount of that goes into being a principal of a high school?

BROWN: You know, that kind of just comes with the territory. I wouldn’t – I wouldn't quantify that into amount because it's just going through your day-to-day so, I mean, I think – when I think of amount of time, I think of things like doing operational tasks, working on planning for professional development, things of that nature. So I think that just kind of is like second nature. I wouldn’t like categorize that into its own – do you follow what I'm saying?

CAVANAUGH: You have to learn that on the job.

BROWN: Right, right, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, and in going through the Education Leadership Development Academy, did it sort of – Do you now want to be a principal or a school leader in the future?

BROWN: I did. It really inspired me to go into school leadership. I really saw what it meant to be a school leader because from the teacher's perspective you have an idea of what it means to run a school but until you're in the shoes of a school leader, you have no idea. As a classroom teacher, you worry about, you know, what am I going to plan for my next lesson? How am I going to deal with the student's that's giving me a difficult time? How am I going to challenge the kids that are like really far exceeding the rest of the pack? How am I going to make this kid who doesn't feel good about themselves successful in the class? Reflecting on how a lesson went. As a school leader, you worry about things on a much grander scale. You know, like Mr. Collins, like his athletic department. Are his teachers on par with their instruction? You know, planning for the professional development for the upcoming school year. How are you going to deal with the attendance issue? Security on campus, things of those nature (sic). So it really gave me a much bigger perspective of what it would mean like to run a school.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Stephanie Brown. She's a math teacher here at Lincoln High School Center for Social Justice. And I want to talk about your current job for a minute…

BROWN: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: …if I may. I'm wondering if there are any stories that you might be able to share with us about some of the students that you've taught or you are teaching here at Lincoln and how they've inspired you to want to continue working here and maybe even to go on to a leadership position in the future.

BROWN: Sure. One student that comes to mind is a young lady that I had last year in one of my classes, and a young Latina student and she's now moved on to the tenth grade but she shared with me that her mother is here illegally and that there – recently, her mom was going to be deported and – on false claims, and so they were very worried that the family would have to move back to Mexico because they've already established themselves here. They were getting a education. And somebody stepped forward and took on their case pro bono, an attorney, and represented her and they won the case. And so her family was able to stay here, and that really inspired my student to want to pursue a job in law because she did not know that something like that would ever exist and she was so inspired and touched by the work that this woman did and she wants to pay that forward. She wants to represent people who can't afford to represent themselves. And so she wants to become a lawyer and that's incredible. And so that inspires me to be a better teacher because I know that she needs a really good education. She needs to have a really good GPA, she needs to develop very good critical thinking skills so that she can go to college and she could pass the exams to be admitted into college. And so that inspires me because I know that I have kids in my class that aspire to be things like that.

CAVANAUGH: And I can see, Stephanie, you're becoming emotional as you talk about this and I think that's the sort of teacher that every parent wants their child to have and every child wants to have as they aspire to higher things than perhaps they ever imagined. And I'm wondering what – You know, this is one child that was in your class…

BROWN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …but, you know, the kids in your math class are dealing with a lot of issues…

BROWN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …at home and in the larger society.

BROWN: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you get that – how do you bring that into your instruction? Or how do you focus them so that now math becomes their ticket to a better life?

BROWN: You just – You have to start off by providing them with a safe space. They need to know when they come into your classroom they're not going to be ridiculed, they're not going to be singled out for not having their materials, they're not going to feel bad about not mastering their multiplication tables. So you have to establish a safe place. You have to take the time to build a relationship, get to know your kids. I started the first day of school doing a student inventory because I wanted to know if you have a nickname, what is it? Because that's like an immediate connection once you're called by your nickname. I wanted to know who my students live with because you can make connections by knowing who they live with. You can't assume that people live with their mother and their father. And it's difficult when you – you're talking to a kid and you're like, you know, do I need to call your mom? And you find out they're in a foster home because that becomes a very sensitive topic. So I think it's really important to establish relationships with your kids because once they know you care about them, they really respect and want to learn from you. So that's kind of how I start that off. Another way, too, is to make sure that you have really engaging lessons. You don't want to sit kids down and hand them a worksheet or make them copy off of the board and think that you're going to be engaging kids in wanting to learn. And then if they don't, if they're not on task, you get upset. Well, you didn't do your job to engage them. So it's important to make sure that they can, you know, in their minds remove whatever troubles they have when they left their house to come to school.

CAVANAUGH: And do you – We have to wrap it up, Stephanie.

BROWN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I'd love to talk to you for so much longer about this but I'm wondering what is your career plan? When do you see yourself transitioning into this leadership role in the San Diego school system?

BROWN: You know, I'm taking baby steps right now.


BROWN: I recently had a baby back in February so I'm still transitioning on being a mommy. I was very fortunate to be offered some leadership opportunities for this school year but I think my focus right now is to be the best teacher than I can be and the best mom that I can be and, hopefully, take on a few more leadership opportunities this school year to kind of develop myself to work towards that. So, hopefully, in the near future something that is a good fit for me will come.

CAVANAUGH: Stephanie, thank you for talking with us.

BROWN: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Stephanie Brown. She's a math teacher here at Lincoln High School and she just completed the Education Leadership Development Academy at the University of San Diego. We're taking a short break and we will return. We're at a special broadcast on These Days today from the campus of Lincoln High. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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