Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to represent TCSA at Columbia University’s Summer Principal’s Academy – New Orleans (SPA-NOLA). The Summer Principal’s Academy is an intensive 14-month long program designed for aspiring school leaders and APs to earn a Master’s Degree in Education from Columbia University while still teaching, leading, and coaching at their schools throughout the country.

The program begins and ends with five intensive weeks in New Orleans with an additional convening during the winter at Columbia University in New York City. During in-person weeks, students attend courses six days a week focusing not only in pedagogy, leadership, and school design, but also reflection, self-awareness, vulnerability, and mindfulness. 

Despite knowing about SPA-NOLA previously, it was not until I had the opportunity to evaluate final school design projects that it became apparent how transformational and impactful the program was on the students. It was blatantly clear that the students came as strangers, but left as family. From the boisterous clapping and cheering during group presentation to the final graduation speeches and poems, it was clear that vulnerabilities had been exposed, trusting relationships were formed, and that many late nights were had discussing the challenges that students face on a daily basis in schools.

These discussions about equity, urban poverty, police brutality, restorative justice, social-emotional learning, voice, service, and agency wove themselves throughout the final presentations as each team proposed different approaches and outcomes to better serve students, both inside and outside of the classroom. In order to develop students at the individual level to meet the challenges of a changing world, SPA-NOLA graduates understood that at an institutional level, schools must also change and be adaptive and reflective of their community.

A self-aware leader, one who acknowledges their own weakness, understands their preconceived biases, and is focused on attracting and developing similar people is foundational in larger organizational change. Rather than trying to change the student, teachers and leaders instead must change their mentality and approach to understanding and educating.

As the program came to a close for the day and the graduates were preparing to leave, one of the students provided some final remarks that left most of us in the room in tears. She spoke about being a Latina growing up in LA, the first in her family to graduate from college, and now the first to earn a Master’s Degree. That despite learning that she would be a new single mom, the impact that an educator, in this case the director of the program Dr. Brian Perkins, could have on pushing her through to the end. That the belief of another, and her willingness to preserve in face of challenge, was what she needed to complete the program and will pay forward to the students at her school.

I was incredibly humbled by the SPA-NOLA experience, having experienced it for just a day. That day of participation forced me to reflect on my time as a school leader and the role that I played in the daily lives of my students, both positive and negative. It forced me to consider what my own biases were growing up in a relatively privileged household and community. I urge all educators, regardless of experience, to reflect their background, their leadership, their education, their weaknesses and strengths to determine how each of those factors can impact a child’s education and future trajectory.

I applaud the incredible work of SPA-NOLA as institution to develop leaders and the graduates themselves for their time and commitment to approaching leadership through a different lens. I am hopeful that our system will continue to change and adapt to meet the needs of our students and am confident that SPA-NOLA graduates will play a role in those efforts.

For Superintendents and Principals who have outstanding teachers ready to take on the challenges of leadership and who want to learn more about the SPA-NOLA program, please visit https://www.tc.columbia.edu/organization-and-leadership/spa-nola.