Principal Shameka Gerald shares her tips on how to drum up excitement about learning and create close-knit community. This is the second spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter, or check out our School Leadership page, which we will update with each new spotlight.
The Makings of a Star School Leader
Principal Gerald, a former math teacher, wasn’t always a star at school. Believe it or not, she says, her younger self was “not the best student. I started out not loving math at all — actually, hating it.” After failing math in nearly every year of high school, her early math experience nearly threatened her ability to graduate. It wasn’t until she got to college that she found a professor who helped her turn it all around.
Professor Kirby taught me the steps in the process that I was missing. Once I got the process, I was like, “Oh, I can do this… this is easy.” After that, I did really well in math. I was in school to be a computer engineer until one of my math professors was like, “You know, you should consider teaching math, because you’re really good at explaining the process to folks.” And I think that came from me not understanding before. So I went and got my degree in applied mathematics, with a minor in education. I decided that I was willing to do for other kids what hadn’t been done for me.
— Principal Shameka Gerald, Heritage High School
Having a teacher who took the time to break the processes down so that Mrs. Gerald actually understood the logic behind the math helped her apply math in her everyday life. And so Principal Gerald made it a point to bring that understanding to her students. As she shares her story with the Kiddom team, we can feel the excitement and authenticity her school community likely feels on a daily basis.
What inspired Principal Gerald to take the leap from teacher to administrator?
At first, Mrs. Gerald had no interest in being a school leader — or so she thought.
As a ninth grade teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, she was asked by her principal to be the freshman team lead. She kindly declined the offer.
So it must have come as a surprise when about two weeks later Mrs. Gerald’s then-principal introduced her to their executive director as the freshman team lead. In that sink-or-swim moment, Mrs. Gerald decided she didn’t have much of a choice! And so the journey began.
It didn’t take long before Principal Gerald realized how much she enjoyed having an impact, not just on her classroom, but on the whole grade level. At that point, she says, she stepped back and thought, “Okay, this is pretty cool. If I can take this, what next?”
She knew she wanted to continue building relationships with the kids and teachers. At one point she thought she was going to be a curriculum supervisor, but that drive to build relationships took her on the path towards becoming a building-level administrator instead.
I’m trying to figure out how to have more of an impact on kids’ lives every single day. Having been the principal for five years, I’ve probably had somewhere around ten thousand kids come through this school, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing teachers who’ve made some big differences in kids’ lives.
— Principal Shameka Gerald
Impacting the lives of children is no easy task, but it continues to be the driving force behind Principal Gerald’s career. Her long-range goal is to be the US Secretary of Education, she shares. “You impact every kid in the United States of America’s education. That’s our job, too.”
What does Mrs. Gerald enjoy the most about being Principal?
“The best part about being principal is that I get to play with kids every day,” Mrs. Gerald shares. “I was just in the cafeteria with them today singing Lauryn Hill, ‘Killing Me Softly’ as loudly as I could, with them as my backup singers.”
Being able to see kids grow every single day, in a different capacity than she ever could before — and being able to inspire teachers to inspire those students to grow — is what Mrs. Gerald likes the best about being a principal.
But she does miss being in the classroom. “A lot of people miss it when they leave,” she says. But she believes it helps her be better at her job to have that exposure.
I make it every part of my job every day to be around the kids, because that reminds me why I’m back in the office, doing the things I’m doing. It reminds me why I’m going in and doing the observations with teachers, and helping teachers help their students’ needs. I think the best part is watching kids grow and getting to learn from them every single day.
— Principal Shameka Gerald
All About Heritage High School
“We’re a school of twelve hundred forty-eight. I try to keep my finger on that number every day,” says Principal Gerald.
The educators at Heritage High School serve what they consider an underserved community in the southeast end of Newport News. As the first in their school district to become a 1:1 Chromebook school, one of their greatest initiatives is to create a learning environment in which kids and teachers can thrive. “Because Heritage High is a school where everyone excels, and that means not just the kids but the teachers have to grow too — as well as myself and the administrative team,” she adds.
In an effort to build that community of learning, Principal Gerald makes sure her school stays very active on social media. This sends a message of inclusion that extends beyond the walls of the school to the parents and families of students, and all stakeholders in her community.
We’re making sure we tell our story and that it’s our own narrative about that story, because we have an excellent community built around us who want to hear it. We’ve had some negative press prior to my arrival, and even when I got here, but we choose to use social media as an outlet for sharing all of the positive things that are happening. If you follow us, you’ll see we have our own hashtag #5800family — because we really do operate as a family.
— Principal Shameka Gerald
One look at the school’s socials and we find just that — an overwhelming sense of family and community. It’s almost like a living year book of photos from school meetings, encouraging messages from various sporting events (Go Canes!), and even images of Principal Gerald running in a race with students. “I go running with my students every Tuesday!” she shares excitedly.
Mrs. Gerald is an amazing leader that inspires both students and staff. She is very caring and seeks to meet the needs of everyone. Mrs. Gerald’s leadership has allowed faculty and staff to go above and beyond in many areas. This includes teachers being leaders in and out of the classroom. Over the past five years as our leader, she has instilled many leadership qualities in teachers to be an effective teacher leader. This has allowed many to step out of the normal box and try new things in the classroom. Her leadership is very unique in that a few teachers have moved on to higher positions.
— Tiffanie Smith, Teacher at Heritage High School
“Blatant Transparency:” How to Create the School Environment That Thrives?
“The first thing I had to do is get the kids’ buy in,” says Principal Gerald, matter-of-factly. “If you can get the kids to buy in and change their mindset, that’s where it all starts.” Mrs. Gerald also recalls the first faculty meeting where a discussion was started around shared goals and initiatives. She believes that blatant transparency was a driving force behind the change — “Like, we don’t hide anything.”
Our data is our data. Our numbers are our numbers. If we don’t put it out there, we can’t fix it. So one of the first things I did is put the numbers in front of the kids and said, “People are judging our school based on these numbers.” I did the same thing with the staff. “Here are our numbers. — this is what people buy.”
Principal Gerald made it clear to her staff and students that if what the state report card says is not reflective of who you are as a school, you have the power to change that. One initiative that supported this line of thinking was the Youth Development Team, which put a lot of trust in students to lead. “We have so many student leadership initiatives, and we have used them to model for the division what student leadership looks like,” says Mrs. Gerald.
By giving students the responsibility, as well as laying out the steps on what was needed to do, Heritage has achieved new levels of transparency and growth — they are now a fully accredited school, and have been for two years.
Teachers are now holding students accountable and students are holding teachers accountable, as well as each other, for the work they do every day. And it all began with changing the culture and mindset of the students — letting them know they can do absolutely anything. “You know, us grown folks, we’re tough to crack. Sometimes it’s harder to change the adults than the kids,” she shares with a grin.
But when you start with changing the mindset of the child, and the teachers can see the child’s mindset is changing, it’s easier for them to take calculated risks. Because they see that the kids are buying into what we’re telling them; they’re giving their support. So then the teachers know they can move forward and take this risk and feel less afraid that they might fail.
What does Principal Gerald believe technology’s role should be in the classroom?
Principal Gerald has many opinions on this topic — and well-studied opinions, at that. In fact, she’s currently writing a doctorate dissertation on the impact of school leaders on 1:1 implementation and initiatives. “This is where I’m going to get real nerdy on you,” she tells us. (Of course, we’re all for it!)
Principal Gerald shares that we’re all moving from where we used to be agrarian or industrial — in terms of design, we’re now global. She believes that having technology like 1:1 Chromebooks in class helps to build global, real-world skills like how to be a good digital citizen, and how to conduct yourself in a digital meeting.
“Like, you can’t just show up in your jammies and have music playing in the background,” she jokes. “But also how do you collaborate with people who might not be from the same areas as you, and How do you use technology for research? Because a lot of our kids — the jobs they’re going to have don’t exist right now.”
Our kids are going to create their own space, and the way that they’re going to do that is through technology. Technology skills are just as important, if not more important, as the research shows, to those kids who don’t have parents in the home who are familiar with technology. If you don’t know how to use technology when you go into a job interview you might not have the skill set to thrive. You can’t not know how to send an email and use appropriate email editing. You can’t not know how to access the resources to teach yourself when you don’t know how to do something.
Principal Gerald’s perception of technology’s role in education shines a positive light, in that technology will likely be used as an enabler and not a replacement for students who grow on to join the work force. From her view, technology can help educators create an environment that fosters learning, not just for today, but life-long learning. On that note, we had to ask:
How does a principal writing her dissertation find time to sleep?
“Oh, I do get sleep. I go to bed around 9:00 every night or else I just get tired — I have a five year old, I’m married, it’s a lot!” she says, with a laugh. But Principal Gerald believes that doing the research helps her become a better school leader.
One thing she’s finding particularly helpful in her research is the topic of leadership styles. She’s very interested in how a school leader’s comfort level with technology can play out in school-wide implementation. And she’s certainly in the right environment to see that first-hand, as she leads the effort in bringing technology to her own school.
I love technology. I will take any risk. I get up in the morning and I come to work and I go to class, and use my weekends to work on my dissertation. The dissertation is something I’m passionate about, and I think it’s valuable; It’s very applicable to my job.
— Principal Shameka Gerald, Heritage High School
Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?
Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.
The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:
- Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
- Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
- Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.
To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.
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