Written by Rachel Chewakin
In this PIC Principal Spotlight, we are excited to introduce you to Principal Suzanne Weathers of Uplift Grand Preparatory Middle School, and to highlight her journey to school leadership, the values she leads with, and how she is using her Principal Impact Collaborative (PIC) experience to inspire and support other educators to lead authentically.
Q; Please share a little about your background. What makes you, you?
A: I am originally from New York and came into education from a place of always loving kids. I knew I wanted to have a greater impact on the younger generation and the educational system. I was an at-risk kid and came from an at-risk background, so I know how much it means to have a teacher that invests in you – who sees you when no one else does. I had a teacher who took the time to build a relationship with me, when I was quiet or even when I was overly rambunctious. I know that made a difference in my trajectory, so I always tried to be that teacher for others. As an educator and now a school leader, I believe in building out a vision, mission, and climate that allows school to be a safe place for kids.
Q: What led you to education?
A: After attending college in New York, I started my career in education as a teacher assistant and worked my way to a resident teacher, co-teacher, and then finally to having my own classroom for a number of years. After my time in the classroom, I was promoted and became an assistant principal. Thinking back on my journey, I have loved every moment of it. What keeps me grounded in this work is a love and a desire for kids to be the best that they can be and the best version of who they are.
Q: What led you to your role as a school leader?
A: I always thought I wanted to stay in education as a teacher and that I would retire in that role. After teaching for five or six years, there was an opportunity at my school to serve as the administrator for the day while our administration team was at a leadership conference. After reflecting on that experience, my vision for my role in education changed. I found a love for the beautiful cadence of what is was like to walk in the shoes of a school leader. And it seemed like the shoes fit great. You could feel the mission and vision of the school come alive through how the students were acting and the way teachers expressed their support from leadership. This experience broadened my horizons on how I could impact students. At this moment, I didn’t really know if I was going to be a leader, but I knew something in me had shifted. Not long after, I completed my Masters in Urban School Leadership through Southern Methodist University (SMU) and later began my journey in leading a school.
Q: What are you most proud of as a principal?
A: My most proud moment as a principal has been this last year. At my current campus, we have made really significant gains as a school. We went from a C to a B+ rating with a fairly new staff. As a new staff, we came together, looked at data, and worked to ensure results would happen for kids. And as a result, our efforts on campus were being recognized across our network. We had this vision, and we were finally seeing it come to pass. Seeing that success made me feel proud of myself, and proud of the staff and teachers that made it happen.
Q: After getting to know you over the last six months, you have shown how deeply rooted you are in your values; can you describe those values and why they are important to you?
A: The two values that are most important to me as a person and a leader are integrity and humility. These are values I have come to appreciate over time, and became highly aware of their importance when I had to take a step back from leadership in a very intentional manner. This experience not only heightened my sense of humility, but also taught me that I wasn’t just a leader, I was a servant leader. And, in order for me to serve my students to the best of my ability, I needed to step down and focus on building my knowledge and skills as leader so that I could ultimately lead them more effectively. When making that decision, I had to ask myself: “Am I being honest with myself and the values I hold?” I knew I would always bring my true self to whatever role I was in, and I was confident in who I was – both my strengths and my areas for growth. However, I also knew I needed to take additional action to be the best for kids.
Q: Can you share an example of how you activate the values you named above in your role as a school leader?
A: There was a turning point when I first came to my campus. I was following a beloved leader who had been with the school since it opened. I asked myself all sorts of questions when I took on the role: “Should I try to lead like the founding principal? Will the staff connect with me? Will they get a chance to know the real me in the transition process?” When I first started, I asked for anonymous feedback around culture, instruction, and other key factors related to the new vision for the campus. After digesting the feedback, I felt like there was a disconnect that needed to be addressed and realized I needed to reground myself in not only my calling, but what it meant to lead change and how to go about that with a new campus and a new staff. I intentionally thought about where I could compromise and where I was confident in taking risks that would be best for kids. As a campus, we are continuously working towards living out our vision and mission. We know that there are areas we need to work out, but overall, I believe we have identified what is going to continue to drive the school from good to great.
Q: How has PIC supported you living out your values?
A: PIC has been a surprise present. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to get and I didn’t know I needed it until I had it. I always thought I was going to retire as a principal, but thinking back, I didn’t know that I was going to need support in order to make that dream a reality. I realized I needed someone to say, “we need principals to stay in their roles without stress or anxiety”. I cannot lead well when stressed. And, if I cannot find joy in this work, how can I find peace? PIC has given me a place to focus on that. I am better equipped to focus on my wellbeing and to stay in this role for the long term.
Q: What has been the most valuable part of being in PIC?
A: Our workshop around Leading through Trust highlighted what I have loved about the PIC program. There is something great about going through an experience with like-minded individuals, being able to be truly vulnerable with one another, and to sharing best practices around effectively leading. School leadership is lonely at times. In the PIC sessions, I am not only able to fill my cup, but I am also able to support my peers in the process. The program allows me to take care of myself and to focus on who I am as a leader.
Q: What types of leaders would you recommend joining PIC?
A: I would recommend leaders who are confident to take on something new for themselves or for their campus, and who are able to fully engage in what the program has to offer. As a PIC principal, you really bring your authentic experiences to the table and are asked to stretch muscles that you wouldn’t ordinarily stretch. This program requires leaders to be open to taking risks in areas they may not otherwise have considered. PIC is putting me in a place where I can embrace both failure and success equally— something I believe any leader needs to truly transform their school.