Finding Your Voice, Remembering Your “Why” as a School Leader
“It’s not easy to be a school leader right now,” reflects Maria Esponda-Medina, a former middle school principal, district and state administrator, and now Senior Executive Director, Program Implementation at New Leaders. She currently leads our district partnerships in Illinois, California, and North Carolina. “Principals have to stay strong because the children depend on them. The teachers and families do too. In our work, we try to re-energize leaders, give them hope, and ensure they have the tools to lead effectively.”
Esponda-Medina launched her leadership journey as a teacher in New York City. She never intended to be a principal. She loved teaching, running middle school initiatives, and creating opportunities for children in the classroom. Then a mentor suggested she apply for an aspiring principals pathway the district created. She resisted at first, but 25 years later, her leadership continues to impact principals and children across the nation.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Esponda-Medina to share her journey from her fifth-grade classroom to the principalship, district network leader to leadership development expert. Here are the four principles that guide her work.
Know your “why” and reconnect to it
“In college, I started thinking about education and how unfair it was for people to make assumptions about me just because of an accent, the color of my skin, my gender, or where I live. I wanted to offer kids like me a chance. I wanted to tell them that they are smart and that even though some of us may have to work harder than others, we are all smart. We have a right to an education. My “why” is about creating schools where children feel they have a right to be there, that they have a voice, and that their families belong, and their voices are welcome too.”
According to Esponda-Medina, the same applies to school leaders. They have to find their voice and remember their “why”. On really hard days, when barriers seem overwhelming, she coaches school and district leaders to use challenges as an opportunity to have conversations that help get everyone involved back to the core, back to their “why”. Once their personal drive is shared, she recommends leaders ask: What is it you’re not getting that you need to make your “why” happen? What can we rethink together? What actions can we take to be better?
Listen to the children
“We need to create more opportunities to listen to our students. Many school leaders use student surveys. Some leaders shadow a student. Others host focus groups. For me, on the days when I was feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do, I would go find four or five students and just talk with them. Hearing their stories, their experiences, gave me perspective. It helped us make better decisions as a school. Listening to our students, in the same ways we listen to teachers, families, and staff, can even give us the inspiration to keep going.”
This is especially true right now, as she points out, for the children in Puerto Rico whose learning has been disrupted by the devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona—and the resulting trauma. Right now, many children in Puerto Rico are dealing with immense losses: the loss of a home, family members, a sense of control and predictability. Even the sound of rain can trigger anxiety in children and adults, Esponda-Medina notes. All of that shapes them as learners and impacts their educational journeys in different ways, including inspiring them to help support each other and make changes on the island. We need to heed their stories.
Pay it forward
“I appreciate celebrating our Hispanic heritage, and I also see it as a reminder that it’s not only about the month. It’s about every day, all the time, every minute, celebrating who we are as individuals and the colorful diversity we bring as a Latino culture. It’s also about honoring those who came before me, who gave me opportunities to share my voice. I want to pay that forward. As we all continue on this journey of transformation, I invite us to reflect on how we can continue to create and support our Latino/a/x students and communities.”
After making the shift to becoming a principal, her next leadership steps centered on impact. Research shows that students in schools with effective principals can gain up to three additional months of learning each year, on average. When Esponda-Medina moved from the principalship to working at the district, state, and national levels, she took her “why” to a new level, supporting principals to drive real change in schools and to remain resilient for the children and the communities they serve.
Lead with your team, not alone
“I still remember that first day as a principal. My heart was coming out of my chest, standing there, greeting the children. When I took the position at Jonas Bronck Academy, I brought all the teachers and families together. As part of the new schools movement, we re-envisioned the school together. We created a plan, worked together as a collective community to make decisions, and gave teachers a chance to lead too, including building a going-to-college culture (long before Common Core). It was distributed leadership in action. Sometimes, they told me I was making too many changes, so I received that feedback. We were a team.”
Distributed leadership, an approach to school leadership in which decision-making is shared between the principal and the school community, brings more perspectives and voices to the table and creates a stronger sense of community. It also provides avenues for teachers to shape school-wide decisions and to be a part of the solution, observes Esponda-Media. Right now, that is a main reason teachers cite for staying in the field. That, and a sense of belonging and community within the school. Today, Jonas Bronck Academy is still doing well.
Her advice to school leaders right now:
This is not a one-person job. We need to lean on each other. We all have something to learn from one another. Find a coach or someone you can talk to. When things get tough, talk it out, remember your “why”, trust your leadership, and get back to it.
We’re making progress, but it’s not enough. I always tell leaders you are the beacons; you are our hope. Hope with action, that’s what we need.