My Journey To School Leadership

From teacher to assistant principal, learn how one New Leaders Fellowship alum stepped into school leadership to be for her students what was missing in her education journey.
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Blog date
10/5/23
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“As a student, I never saw myself reflected in school leaders,” reflects Iris Ferrufino, a New Leaders Fellowship alum and assistant principal at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. “Much of my ambition in pursuing school leadership comes from me wanting to be for our students the person that I did not have.” Ferrufino completed our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship last year at the same time she stepped into her assistant principal role. 

Designed in partnership with two preeminent minority-serving institutions—Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University—the Fellowship is uniquely designed with leaders of color, for teachers of color. It offers pathways to principal certification—with or without a master’s degree—in 40+ states through a network of accredited college and university partners. The Fellowship is completed in your school, in your current role with coursework online.

“The Fellowship immersed me in leadership—and it gave me a network of school leaders who I feel deeply connected to who are aligned in terms of our values and our mission. That made my transition into leadership more manageable for me, and less scary.”

“I was looking for something that would push me,” Ferrufino adds. “I knew school leadership was my next step.” Her more than 15-year career began in the classroom, first in high school, then at a dual language middle school, and later as an instructional coach. “During my last year as an instructional coach, I felt a plateau in my professional learning and I thought to myself: what do I need to do next? Then the Fellowship presented itself, and I took my shot.”

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Ferrufino to understand her journey to school leadership, what prepared her to be successful, and what keeps her going. 

Keeping students top of mind 

When asked what is top of mind as an assistant principal, Ferrufino smiled and said: “Students. It’s a simple answer.” This school year she is grateful that it feels more consistent and stabilizing, unlike last school year when COVID-19 continued to impact students and teachers and created a sense of unpredictability. “Our kids are here and they’re ready to go,” she adds. “It’s up to us to show up just as ready as they are.”

Seaton Elementary School serves students in PreK through fifth grade. Approximately 40% of the students are English Language Learners with native languages ranging from Spanish to Amharic, Mandarin to Russian. While the demographics are often shifting, the two main student populations are Latino and African-American. 

According to Ferrufino, part of Seaton’s shared mission is to foster an inclusive environment. “We want to make sure we’re making sound data-driven decisions so our students are met with both challenge and nurture—and they develop a love for learning. As a school community, we’re thinking about what that looks like. What are we doing well? And where do we have to push ourselves next?”

What fueled your leadership journey

“I am a first-generation daughter from immigrant parents who fled the civil war in El Salvador,” Ferrufino begins. “My parents risked everything to come here.” Born in D.C., Ferrufino shares that she never had anyone at her schools who reflected her identity, not a teacher, school counselor, or school leader. “I had good educators, but I didn’t have anyone who really understood the dynamics of my life.”

“As a student, I never saw myself reflected in school leaders. Much of my ambition in pursuing school leadership comes from me wanting to be for our students the person that I did not have.”

As she explains, it was a humbling experience as a child to learn a new language, navigate a different culture, translate for and explain to her parents school policies and traditions that were new to them. “All of this made me a very independent person who is really driven, and I understand those dynamics for our students. I see myself in them. So I try to make school a place that they can navigate, where they don’t have to figure it all out, where they can be kids.”

Surprises on your leadership journey

A dual-language middle school was not in her plans, Ferrufino admits with a smile. While fluent in conversational Spanish, she quickly realized that she did not have the academic vocabulary in Spanish needed to teach and communicate all her ideas. “I was placed in the seat of a language learner, and that was challenging for me. It taught me what it feels like to have the knowledge and the expertise, but not be able to communicate it.”

Our students, she adds, are coming with a depth of knowledge and experience, and what they need is language access. “I bring that perspective here as an advocate for our emerging bilingual students. We have to honor their home language, whatever that may be. And we have to develop their second language so they can express themselves clearly.”

Preparation for school leadership role

“The Fellowship immersed me in leadership—and it gave me a network of school leaders who I feel deeply connected to who are aligned in terms of our values and our mission. That made my transition into leadership more manageable for me, and less scary.” 

Ferrufino’s new role as an assistant principal became her job-embedded residency, a central component of the Fellowship that allows Fellows to exercise leadership, apply their learning, and receive coaching support in their current roles. “So, as I was learning about instructional leadership or diagnosing a school culture in my Fellowship classes, I was immediately applying that learning in the moment at Seaton. It was all incredibly relevant.”

“Talking about the tough, nitty-gritty adaptive work—What are the challenges we face? What are the hesitations we have? Where are those hesitations coming from?—was really helpful as I navigated becoming a school leader.”

Add to that, she notes, the importance of having space and time to have deep conversations about where the lack of equity in schools comes from historically, how it was structured, and what is needed to dismantle it. “Talking about the tough, nitty-gritty adaptive work—What are the challenges we face? What are the hesitations we have? Where are those hesitations coming from?—was really helpful as I navigated becoming a school leader and thought about how I get to my end goal, which is about kids.”

What stays with you from the Fellowship

“One is the power of connection,” Ferrufino reflects. “I feel connected to school leaders across the U.S., all of them Fellows, who are doing the same work. I can reach out to them at any time, and everyone is supportive of each other.” This is particularly valuable, she notes, when she is faced with tough decisions or when she knows her decisions will not make everyone happy, but that they are part of the work of leadership. 

Second is knowing that she is not alone in equity work. “What also stays with me is that we can question the traditions behind schooling—and we should question them. That we can pause, we can reflect, we can think about school in different ways. And, that there is a framework to do that. We’re not starting from the beginning. Equity work is ongoing. I’m just stepping into it.”

“What stays with me is that we can question the traditions behind schooling—and we should question them. That we can pause, we can reflect, we can think about school in different ways."

What keeps you going

“I can show up as my authentic self in front of students,” Ferrufino explains. “It does something to my spirit to see the girls see me and see the possibility that they could be me. That they could be an assistant principal one day. It’s no longer a thought or an idea, it’s what is right in front of them. That definitely keeps me going.”

Advice to school leaders right now

“Give yourself grace. I’m very hard on myself and I think it’s because I have this eagerness to do well and to do well fast. But in schools, you don’t always see the outcomes immediately. This is long term work. So we have to give ourselves and others grace. We have to give ourselves space to reflect, to seek feedback from others, to get perspective on the work we’re doing. 

The days go fast. It’s very unforgiving. Giving yourself grace re-centers you.” 

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Iris Ferrufino

Iris Ferrufino

Iris Ferrufino serves as an assistant principal at Seaton Elementary School in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Over her career, she has served as a high school special education teacher, dual language middle school teacher, and instructional coach. A native of D.C., Ferrufino is the first-generation daughter of immigrant parents from El Salvador.

Iris Ferrufino

Iris Ferrufino

Iris Ferrufino

Iris Ferrufino

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