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Forget the Academy Awards, Meet the NYC Assistant Principal Who Won the ‘Oscars’ Of Teaching!

Princess Francois is an Assistant Principal at the Math, Engineering, and Science Academy Charter High School (MESA), in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

In 2019, she was New York State’s only winner of the National Milken Educator Award. What makes this educator outstanding and how can her practices be extended to other NYC schools? New York School Talk went right to the source to find out!

New York School Talk: What are the Milken Educator Awards?

Princess Francois: The Milken Educator Awards are prestigious awards given to celebrate and empower outstanding educators. Because so few people earn them and they are given out with such glam through a surprise assembly, they are considered to be the “Oscars of Teaching.” Only 40 educators a year receive this national accolade. The main goal of the award is not only to validate, motivate, and inspire current early-to-mid career educators, but to open a window of opportunity as well!

NYST: How did you come to be nominated and to win it?

PF: Apparently, no one nominates you! The Milken Foundation actually finds you somehow. This makes it all the more rewarding as it emphasizes that someone is always watching your work and impact. To get technical about the process, according to the foundation, there is a “confidential selection process and then review by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education” who make a recommendation for the Award. The Milken Family Foundation makes the final approval. 

NYST: What exactly does an Assistant Principal do?

PF: As Assistant Principal, I wear multiple hats. My top priority is supporting teachers and coaches to better serve our students both academically and socio emotionally. Helping teachers become better at their craft directly leads to improved student achievement. For example, I provide personalized teacher coaching in order to push inquiry and authentic projects while supporting all students. Although I am a supervisor, I stress being a coach first, meaning that I am establishing a partnership so that we are collaborating to grow. I am not aiming to impart knowledge, but rather learn alongside them, as we work towards a common goal. This has helped teachers feel invested in their development and they feel that we are working as a team. In addition to coaching, I am actively involved in organizing tailored professional development internally while also actively sending teachers to outside professional development opportunities based on their needs. 

Aside from instruction, my position involves school culture with some operational aspects. On the operational side, I have created streamlined structures that enable efficiency. I oversee a range of items including advisory conferences, report cards, trimester exams and Regents exams. On the school culture side, I have led school culture initiatives such as schoolwide diversity and equity conversations and sustain a college bound culture. I also have reshaped school culture events such as Pi Day and the Black History Month Assembly.

An important aspect of my role is my interaction with students. I serve as an advisor to 10 students from 9th grade onwards as a part of our advisory program. On a larger scale, I build relationships with students, whether it’s while students pass in the hallway or when I visit a classroom and sit next to a student. 

Ultimately, I view myself as a liaison between teachers, students, and school leadership. We are all here to serve kids!

NYST: What do you do, in particular, that makes you stand out?

PF: This took me a while to ponder as it is something that I have never been asked!

I think that I stand out because of my unwavering passion for the field of education and for all whom I serve, my unwavering confidence in my life’s purpose, and self-drive in all aspects of life. No matter what I am doing in my professional and personal life, I am all in, which not only produces positive results, but also becomes truly infectious to others. Believing wholeheartedly in myself instills confidence in others. I think my passion, confidence, and self-drive has led to many opportunities and accomplishments. However, it is important for me that I lift others as I climb myself. For example, it is important for me to bring others to the table so that they can contribute as well. I have been told that I inspire others to go after their goals not only by encouraging them, but by also leading by example. I think a critical part of being able to inspire others is my ability to establish and strengthen relationships, whether that is with students, staff, parents, or my own friends. Passion + confidence + self-drive = one unstoppable person. 

NYST: We know Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work is a passion of yours and something that you’ve invested a lot of time in.  Why do you think it’s so important and what results have you seen?

PF: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work (and I would also like to emphasize antiracism as there is a difference between diversity and antiracism) is important because our education system is so diverse. Everyone has multiple identities, whether we look at it from a racial, gender, or ethnic perspective among a wide range of other characteristics. Identities intersect within a person, which then plays out in different spaces such as the classroom. As a result of our identities, we all enter spaces with implicit biases. Such biases can have a negative impact on another person, intentionally or not. That impact could involve negative stereotypes, low expectations, microaggressions, among other things. As much as it is important for our students to understand this (so that they are not internalizing racism and prejudice), it is even more important for educators to understand this. We are all at different starting points when it comes to discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, it is crucial that we get better for our students so that they can feel safe and welcome as well as prepare them to function in a diverse world. 

Over the course of a year — as it has been a year to date — there have been many results! The work started off with Black History Month, but now has grown beyond that. The biggest shift has been embedding consistent structures into our school day for both staff and students to delve into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In order to see progress, we needed to carve out time to make this a priority!

For staff, we have embedded ongoing professional development throughout the school year, with the support of an outside consultant as well as our very own staff members leading caucuses on various topics related to this work. That has led to actual changes such as the creation of MelaNATION, a group focused on celebrating, educating, and empowering black female students, or a design think group to brainstorm around Staff of Color Recruitment, Retention, and Development. 

For students, we have monthly school-wide conversations through advisories on topics such as Culture and Music through the lens of protest and unity or national anthems. We have also developed more of an education component to heritage months. For example, Black History Month has been revamped from being just a one-day assembly to a month-long celebration with food and music festivities, educational workshops, and race thought conversations. 

We are constantly trying to collect qualitative and quantitative data from both staff and students to continue to be responsive to the needs of all stakeholders. 

NYST: Which of your school’s practices, in and out of the classroom, do you think could be adopted by other schools, and what is the best way for them to be implemented?

PF: One of our best school practices that could be adopted by other schools is our approach to coaching. It is important to look at coaching from not only the lens of teacher coaching, but also from the lens of coaches coaching. From a coach to teacher perspective, it is important to understand that coaching is very different from supervising and mentoring. Coaching, specifically, is centered around establishing a collaborative partnership to grow. Coaches are learning alongside their coachees as they work towards a common goal, which is not imposed on the coachee, but more so decided together and then developed.

Development includes entering the classroom, observing and providing feedback through the lens of that goal. It also includes sharing resources and sending teachers to PD based on that targeted goal. A big aspect of our coaching is that it is non-evaluative. We use a framework strictly for providing feedback and for common language, not to rate a teacher. Ultimately, teachers feel supported and excited to improve their practice. 

In order to coach effectively, we have to coach the coaches. We have coach meetings on a regular basis where we analyze academic data and learn skills important to coaching, such as how to have difficult conversations or how to coach specifically for behavior management or student voice. We empower coaches to share their best practices by having them facilitate many of the meetings, so it is not a top down approach. We also have spaces where, as interdisciplinary subject teams, we meet to discuss coaching through the specific lens of humanities and math/science as those skills and content look very different, so how you coach will look different as well. We take the same approach with coaches, to work collaboratively towards a common goal. Collaboration while skilling up is crucial to implementing an effective coaching program!

Do you have an NYC teacher you’d like to praise? Tell us in the Comments below and we’ll reach out to find out what makes them great!

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