Opening The Door To Freedom Through Education

    Q&A With a Principal: Would-be Lawyer Turned Educator Passionate About Giving Students Access to Quality Education

    Stefanie Spencer, Principal
    Sherwood Elementary School
    Houston, Texas, Spring Branch ISD
    Raise Your Hand Texas Alumna ’15 (REEP)

    Stefanie Spencer, principal of Sherwood Elementary School in Spring Branch ISD, is an idealist and a doer. She is a passionate educator who believes her work can – and will – change the world.

    After her first year teaching, Spencer wanted to better understand what the federal government did for her fifth graders in Bryan, Texas. So she sent 40 resumes to the three main education offices in Washington, D.C. In 2000, Spencer served at the U.S. Department of Education as an intern for Terry Dozier, a former National Teacher of the Year, who had been selected to advise the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, under President Bill Clinton.

    Spencer returned to Texas invigorated and resumed her teaching career. She became a principal in 2009 and continues to seek learning and growth opportunities.

    The same tenacity and drive Spencer demonstrated in D.C. made her a natural candidate for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), a yearlong course that teaches school leaders to apply business theories to the public school setting. Raise Your Hand sponsored Spencer to attend the program in 2015.

    Here, Spencer answers questions about her journey as an educator and the changes she has affected on her campus.

    Q. When did you know you wanted to be an educator?

    A. I did not want to be a teacher. My mother was a teacher and I thought that was just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something to better society. I had really passionate views on what freedom meant, what access meant, and I wanted to be part of that and I thought that meant law. I started taking some classes and realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

    Q. What changed for you?

    A. I went to a bookstore and I found a book by Jonathan Kozol called, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools and it talked about urban education and the disparities in some of the schools: not having enough classrooms for kids, not having adequate textbooks, the teacher in the classroom changing multiple times over the course of a year. I kept looking back at the copyright date, and it was current time. [The system] sounded egregiously unfair. How can you have access to freedom if you don’t have education? So I changed my major to elementary education and I am so proud I did.

    Q. What teaching triumph are you most proud of?

    A. One year before “Meet the Teacher,” we put out the names of the kids who were in that classroom. A teacher who was highly regarded at my school – everyone thought she was the expert – came up to my class list and told me all the kids I would not enjoy in my classroom. I was horrified. Everyone gets a fresh start. How can we characterize someone from their behavior in 4th grade? I was bound and determined to prove her wrong. It was done. Those were great kids. It was the best teaching year of my life. After that, I decided I would be the leader of a school and I would stop that behavior.

    Q. What insight did you gain from your experience at REEP?

    A. There are tenets in business and tenets in education but managing people can cross those lines. People want to be treated with respect. They want opportunities to grow. They want their voices heard. They want their concerns addressed. That can happen in a business; that can happen in a school. Lessons and perspectives from one can carry over to the other.

    Q. What is a challenge REEP has helped you overcome on your campus?

    A. One of the things I wanted to work on is making certain that teachers are honored and empowered to make decisions: decisions that affect the school. Decisions that affect students. The people closest to the action can sometimes come up with better solutions than I can. Once you step out of the classroom, you lose a little of the sense of what that classroom is like. So we need to honor the people within it.

    I’m using the structures of the campus improvement team to approve and push back suggestions based on our beliefs and practices, and I really want to thank REEP for that. REEP has empowered me to take that risk and to step back and let them lead.

    Stefanie Spencer

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