Thaly Germain is Director of the Lynch Leadership Academy, a partnership between Boston College and the Lynch Foundation to strengthen leadership among principals working in parochial, district, and charter schools in Boston and build their capacity to improve student achievement in the schools they serve. Born in Haiti, Germain, 33, immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s, following a military coup in her native country, and was educated in schools in both Haiti and Brooklyn, New York. She previously taught in a public high school New York City and a charter school in Washington, D.C., of which she later became principal, and has held a variety of positions with New Leaders for New Schools. An alumnus of Bryn Mar College and New Leaders’ Aspriging Principals program, she is currently in the process of moving from Washington, D.C. to Boston.
Why did you decide to become Director of Lynch Leadership Academy? (SM disclosure: some of my Bellwether colleagues worked on the search for this position)
At my core, I’m a creator. I started at New Leaders as Director of Charter School Strategy, working to develop a charter strategy in D.C. in partnership with NewSchools Venture Fund. I really enjoyed that, working with funders and other partners to develop a shared vision to impact the charter space and students in those schools. As I thought about the Lynch Leadership Academy and my new role, the idea of working in partnership with the School of Management and the Lynch Foundation appealed to me. Another exciting component of this role is that the Lynch Leadership Academy engages leaders from all three sectors of education in Boston--charter, district, and Catholic--and ultimately that means we are able to share effective practices across sectors and change the education landscape in a way I haven’t seen before. Finally, because Boston is a new to me, I have the opportunity to learn about a its educational landscape and am able to impact students schools and leaders in a profound way.
How did you come to work in education?
It’s definitely not the trajectory I imagined in college! I was an anthropology major and wanted to be a musician or a cultural anthropologist. The year immediately after my college graduation, I was in New York working on a demo CD and working with a lot of upcoming artists. I was coming from a studio session and saw an ad on the New York City metro that read “Take your next business trip on a big yellow bus.” I immediately thought about all the people who had shaped my life and started to question whether music was really having the kind of impact I wanted to have.
When I got home, I looked into the New York City Teaching Fellows program that had put the ad on the train. I applied and got in and I taught at a comprehensive High School in the Bronx. Working with the students there had an incredible impact on me, but I came to feel that in a large comprehensive high school I couldn’t get to know the students as well as I wanted. So I began looking into smaller charter schools, and I was very drawn to a Washington, DC Charter School because it specifically sought out and worked with adjudicated youth. The school’s mission was very important to me because where I grew up in Brooklyn, I knew that many of my peers lost educational opportunities because of those factors. At my I had the chance to work with incredible leaders who inspired me to become a school leader. As a teacher in Washington, DC, I knew I was having an impact in my classroom, but it was only with those students. I also realized that, as a leader, I could have a much broader impact. So I applied to become a New Leader, got in, and became a principal in the school where I taught. A few years ago, I joined New Leaders to lead a first-in-kind charter initiative where my impact would exponentially grow.
What experiences inform or motivate your work in education?
When I think about my life, I realized that my life trajectory was dramatically changed by the educational opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have. I am not from the U.S.--I’m a Haitian immigrant. When I came here in the 1980s, I didn’t speak English. What changed my life was the school I attended--a bilingual school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The principal of the school was a woman who was extremely driven by the idea that students who came to the U.S. who didn’t speak English should have the same opportunities as all children. I’m sure our free- and reduced-price lunch levels were high, and many students were immigrants and English language learners, but our student achievement was incredibly high. Other kids growing up where I did in Brooklyn didn’t have the same opportunities, because of education and other factors and I saw that very clearly. I went on to a performing and communication arts high school in Brooklyn, and then had the chance to go to Bryn Mawr.
Attending Bryn Mawr absolutely changed my life. Because of my background, when I got to college I was very far behind my peers, who had gone to private and boarding schools, even though I took every AP class I could in high school. I was also one of very few black students at Bryn Mawr. I almost failed out of college my first year, not because I wasn’t competent or smart, but because I was coming from a different background and I didn’t think I could be successful. The only thing that kept me there was that I talked to my mother on the phone every day and she told me, “You can do it, don’t give up.” Eventually, I realized that if I did the reading and the work in class, I would be as knowledgeable as the students next to me who attended the best boarding school. I was able to graduate with a good GPA even though I started out far behind.
It’s really important for students to understand that the path isn’t always easy. I think everyone needs someone in their lives who understands, who cares, who believes and forces them to do the work. Having my mom do that changed what happened for me.
How do you see the role of school leadership evolving with this generation of education leaders?
I’m not sure I see it that way. I think there are qualities of effective principals and schools that transcend time. The most critical is the focus on equity for all children. One piece I learned quickly was the importance of building relationships with the community, parents, students. Great leadership is not about sitting in your office, it’s about building the capacity of people in the community to build change in what is happening for students--it’s not just the school community, but making everything around the school better.
I don’t think I can see much difference between that and what the two exemplary principals I had in elementary and high school--Joe Bruno and Saul Bruckner--did. They were innovative, thoughtful, worked with students and teachers and most importantly, they believed in the capacity of EVERY child-no matter their circumstance. The truth is, the schools they led were different and successful because of those core beliefs. I think the next generation of school leaders needs to look more like them--they need to be innovative, they need to believe and they need to view education as an opportunity to transform the country’s trajectory.
What does the education field need to do to build the supply of high-quality school leaders, particularly for urban schools?
We need to put more energy into developing educators’ leadership capacity throughout their careers. You’re not just a leader when you have formal positional authority. As a teacher you are a leader. At the same time, just because you’re principal doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know. Leaders need opportunities to continue growing. Leaders need to be given the opportunity to continue growth beyond their position. In a lot of professions you get good at doing your work one way and then develop tunnel vision about the way you’ve always done your work--you’re unable to see creative new methods of achieving your goals. Leaders need constant opportunities to open themselves up and engage and see other ways of doing their work and engage with each other. We don’t leverage each other enough as leaders to grow our practices--I should travel to school x and see what they’re doing to get the gains they’re getting. There’s a lot that isn’t happening consistently that could or should.
We’re not allocating resources for developing our leaders. We have to get to a place where we value leadership in education enough that we’re willing to put the resources there. While focusing on teacher development is important, it is also critical that we build a pipeline of school leaders. Having ten exceptional teachers gets you 10 exceptional classrooms. Having an exceptional leader, changes the dynamics of an entire school community.
What do you see as the biggest challenge or opportunity in public education today?
We don’t know how to serve our poor students of color. The kind of schooling that we provide isn’t necessarily the best way to educate any student, let alone those who are most disenfranchised. We need to rethink how we do schools, teach, lead and engage our most important stakeholders.
Education is becoming more of a critical part of lots of conversations--politics, the economy, civil rights--in a way that creates huge opportunities to make a difference. As a result, a lot of resources are being provided to change the education landscape, but the challenge is using them to high impact--we’re not always doing that right now.
Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
People who inspire me the most are the people I see doing the work with kids.
My brother works for the United Nations as a psychologist working with children in post-conflict countries. In my work I found that a lot of my students came to school with social-emotional challenges that were never addressed, which made it hard to learn. My brother’s work looks at that component to try to enable children to succeed in school and other parts of their lives. He has moved with his family to Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda, and now lives in Congo. He’s made huge sacrifices to change what is happening for students.
The other people who inspire me the most are the two principals I named, Joe Bruno and Saul Bruckner. They were dynamic leaders who changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of students who attended their schools. Those students--including me--had different experiences because they attended those schools.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.