Ed Interview: Carmela Dellino

dellino

1) Can you briefly describe your background in education and what your current position is?

I began my career in 1979 as a middle school English teacher. I taught for four years as a high school English teacher, after which I decided that I could best serve students and families as a school counselor. My school counseling career involved four years at a middle school and 13 years as a high school counselor. I then worked as a high school assistant principal in the same school at which I had been a counselor.

After years of being at my school and in many ways still consider the most rewarding work years of my life, I decided to leave secondary education and seek out an elementary school principal position. Admittedly, it was not hard to transition out of the high school AP role. What made it difficult was leaving the school community I had come to love. Since leaving my job as a counselor I really felt a void. I missed the “distance” I felt with kids and families, although most would not say that I was anything from “distant.” I was seeking a smaller school community, one that I could know really well and I also wanted to transition to a high poverty school. Throughout my educational experience, I found that what really fueled my soul was working with students and families who had been marginalized and who did not have all the benefits of privilege that others had. I also wanted to work in an elementary school so that I could support students and families before the gap was so wide and before students were feeling helpless and hopeless.

I served as the principal of a small, richly diverse elementary school principal in a highly impacted area of the City of Seattle. Wow! That was an amazing experience. After four years, I was asked to work as the Executive Director of Schools for the southwest region of Seattle.

I currently work for the City of Seattle as an Education and Leadership Consultant. In this capacity, I provide coaching, consulting and mentorship to Title 1 elementary schools in the city that are receiving Family and Education Levy dollars.

I guess that was not so brief.

2) What inspires you about the work you do at Roxhill?

What inspired me? Students, families and staff. What I came to learn on a daily basis was the power of resilience, determination, compassion, a shared vision and perhaps, most important, the innate capacity and ability of children and families to overcome massive barriers and to achieve at the highest level. What also inspired me was the staff that worked tirelessly with students and families so that they could grow and thrive at the highest of levels.

3) Can you share a story from your first year as an educator, counselor or principal that illustrates an important lesson or skill you think all first year teachers should know or have?

I remember seeing this question when I first read your email a long time ago and I thought to myself, how could I ever respond with just one story. My lessons learned have been many, from the very first year as a teacher, counselor and principal.

But, here’s what I remember:

Teacher: I was 23 years old and teaching HS kids who were 17 and 18. I wanted to show that I was in charge and not get walked all over, yet I really wanted them to “like” me. I remember using sarcasm with this one kid in my second period American Lit class. Well, to make a very long story short, I quickly learned that sarcasm and trying to be liked was anything but what I should be doing as a teacher. Sarcasm is hurtful. Sarcasm is mis-understood. Sarcasm is abusive. Sarcasm is anything but modeling compassion, understanding, “belief-in”, etc… I never was able to salvage a relationship with that student. I can see his face to this day.

Principal: Really, the story here has to do with Alejandra. Her first year at Roxhill, she would barely step into the school house doors. She did not feel it was her place to do so and she did not have the confidence in her own right and skill set of being a voice not only for her kids, but for all kids. I remember I saw her in the back parking lot and she was clearly fuming mad. I asked her what was wrong and she said she could not explain herself. I invited her into my office. At first she said no and then I said that I was there for her — to listen to what was going well and what was not going well. I tried to reassure her that we (me, teachers, the school) are not always right and that we make mistakes and if we have made a mistake, we need to hear about it and learn from it. I also said that she was an equal partner in her children’s education and that when we partner — truly partner – with parents, then our children will thrive. She came into my office. I learned of something a teacher had done that really upset her. The teacher had made a mistake and long story shortened, the problem was rectified. (Teacher did a great job of acknowledging that what she had said was a problem.)

From my first days and for every day that I was a principal at Roxhill, I learned the power of parents as partners in what we do at school. I also learned, experienced and re-affirmed what the great President of Malawi, Dr. Joyce Banda said at Nelson Mandela’s funeral service:

Leadership is about falling in love with the people and the people falling in love with you. It is about serving the people with selflessness, with sacrifice and with the need to put the common good ahead of personal interests.”

4) How do you continue to develop as a professional? Where do you see your professional growth taking you?

I love this question — and struggle with the answer. In my current role, I find that I need to be very mindful to seek out professional development. I can read articles and go to conferences (actually, not so much), but the best PD for me involves processing the work with colleagues. I do not have a small group of educators (I learned a great deal from you from our conversations. You pushed and challenged my thinking!!) that I can talk with, bounce ideas off of. I have been reading as much as possible and listening and learning from the teachers and staff in the levy schools.

Where will my professional growth take me? Hopefully to be partners with teachers and administrators in the field in closing the gap and seeing students achieve at the highest level. I want to continually know more about school reform. What is working? Why does it work? How do you get there? What does it take? What are the key moves for school leaders? How do you support the school leaders in doing what needs to get done?

5) What kind of learning culture do you try to establish in your school and among your colleagues/staff?

I try to establish a sense of urgency that is nurtured with compassion, commitment, and careful and strategic efforts. Everyone in a school (staff, families, students, and even community members) should understand what we are striving to achieve. With this shared vision, everyone needs to work collaboratively to achieve that vision. Hopefully, what happens, is everyone feels our work has meaning and purpose; we feel inspired and supported to do the very challenging work ahead of them; we feel like we are partners in the thinking about what is happening in the school (even though as a school leader, you will be the final decision-maker), and we have fun doing it!

6) What are you currently reading for personal enjoyment? And what book would you recommend for a first year teacher?

I am currently reading Wonder and Unbroken for my personal reading pleasure. Asiya Werfa wants me to lead a book club with Wonder. I am excited to work with some of the students at Roxhill again! My mom loved the book Unbroken and I really want to read it for her. Also, my brother’s father-in-law was a prisoner of war in the same camp where this takes place in Japan, so besides the Italian connection, there is a family connection.

Two books: Creating Highly Motivating Classrooms for All Students: A Schoolwide Approach to Powerful Teaching with Diverse Learners by Margery Ginsberg and Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. There are many more, but those two are what I think of right now.

7) How do you gain institutional knowledge about a school, district or city office that you are tasked to lead? How do you join that community and learn about its history?

Another insightful and great question that comes with complex and yet simple answers. Listen, learn, and engage. All this implies that I am going to ask lots of questions and immerse myself in as much as I can. It will mean going to the local grocery store and hanging out with books and art supplies so that families can stop by to visit and I can meet all their family. Maybe they will sit with me as we read a book; maybe they will leave their child with me as we read a book; maybe they will just look at me and gradually come to trust that I care about them. I will go to the housing complexes in my area and one night a month, hold a time when I invite children to come to read and do projects associated with the reading. I will invite families to talk about their own experiences in school, what they hope for and want for their children (it is to be happy and successful) and what does the school need to do to help them. I will go to businesses, walk the neighborhood, talk to the local law enforcement, talk with social service agencies and parks, and church leaders.

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