Principal Ana Fernandez of Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary in Dallas ISD understands firsthand how important it is to lead from a point of empathy. Motivated by the experiences of her own children when her family first moved to the United States from Mexico, Fernandez knows what is possible for students when adults shine a light on the unique needs and experiences they bring into their classrooms each day.
In this PIC Principal Spotlight, we are excited to introduce you to Principal Ana Fernandez, and to share more about her unique journey into the principalship, what motivates her as a leader, and how she is using her PIC Project to give students and families a seat at the table in pursuit of a more empathy-driven school.
Q: Please share a bit about your background and what brought you to education?
A: I was born in Mexico City and attended college at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. My degree is in Business Administration with a major in Human Resources, so I have always been interested in supporting the growth of others, which is something that I have carried with me throughout my leadership. In 1998, my family moved to Chicago where my two small children started school with very little knowledge of English. Despite my own language barriers, I felt it was important for me to be involved so I began volunteering in their school and classroom. Through this experience, I began to see how both of my children were struggling with the language barrier, and how that was impacting their ability to progress and adapt to the new culture and school. Realizing this pushed me to pursue my teacher certification in Chicago so that I could better support my children and have the tools to help them as they struggled to both navigate the language and learn the curriculum, which I knew was critical for their success.
Q: Can you share a little more about your career path in education?
A: While the initial draw into education was really to better support my own children at home, I saw during my time as a volunteer the need for students and families from other cultures or languages to be better supported, and this is something that really stuck with me. Fast forward to post-9/11, when my husband lost his job and we needed to move to a place where we could obtain work visa sponsorship. This brought us to Dallas, which had begun to recognize the need and was offering work visas for more bilingual educators. Although nervous about the change, I was excited to take my first job teaching as a bilingual educator in Dallas ISD, and for the opportunity that it presented to support more students and families beyond my own. While I started as a kindergarten teacher, I have also served as a fifth grade teacher, a middle school instructional coach, and an elementary school assistant principal before becoming the principal at Hawthorne in 2016.
Q: How did you decide to become a principal?
A: When I first entered the classroom as a kindergarten teacher, it was extremely eye opening to realize the challenges faced by students from non-English speaking homes and students living in poverty. I worked very closely with my students and their families to make sure they felt supported to succeed, and after I transitioned to teaching those same students as fifth graders it was inspiring to see the progress that they had made. This was very different from my experience as a middle school instructional coach, where I saw so many students who had been left behind and really struggled academically. It was this experience that solidified my motivation to become an elementary school leader—I felt it was my calling to ensure that no elementary student was left behind and that all students were prepared for middle school and beyond.
Q: How have your unique experiences in schools, as well as your personal experiences, shaped the way you lead today?
A: All of these experiences—as an educator and as a mother—have tremendously impacted how I see my role today. I am compelled to lead from a point of empathy. When I see a student who is struggling, I always do my best to drill beneath the surface and to really understand what is going on with that child—whether in the classroom or at home. I believe that using empathy is critical to determining the right supports for a child. I also believe it is critical that we engage families and parents in a way that makes them feel welcome and empowered to partner with us to support their child. When I came here, it was difficult for me to communicate with my own children’s teachers, so I always try to be the resource for my students’ parents that I wish I had had. As a leader, this is something I am constantly trying to model for my teachers as well. It is important that my staff knows to look at their students as more than just their results on a test, but to prioritize working to understand children more holistically by getting to know them and their families. I try to create spaces that allow my staff to build their capacity in these areas, including the work I am doing with my PIC project. I have seen first-hand how this has impacted my own children’s trajectory and feel it is our job as educators to ensure we engage all of our students and their families in the same way.
Q: In many ways, your PIC project is reflective of your desire to lead from a point of empathy. Can you explain more about the work you are doing with your PIC project?
A: My PIC project is all about creating a culture of empathy and inclusion at Hawthorne. It intentionally seeks the perspectives of three key stakeholders—students, parents and teachers—to create more responsive and engaging systems and practices. First, student feedback is routinely collected through three areas: surveys, “engagement lines”, where students map their levels of engagement throughout the day, and student “feedback forums,” where students are able to share ideas on student engagement with their teachers. Parents are also routinely invited into the building to visit classrooms and do “engagement walks.” Not only do we give parents a chance to ask questions and learn more about what is going on in their students’ classrooms, but we also provide them with an engagement checklist during their walks, and ask them to give us feedback on ways we can improve student engagement and support in our classrooms. The third element of my PIC project is for teachers. Our teachers engage in routine “empathy walks”—an eye-opening activity I was exposed to through PIC—where they shadow students throughout the day. The goal of an empathy walk is to give teachers the opportunity to experience Hawthorne from a student perspective and to build their awareness of both areas of strength and areas of opportunity for how we can better engage and serve all of our students. Teachers are then given the space to synthesize all of the feedback and insights from these experiences, and incorporate this into either their lesson planning or daily routines.
Q: What do you hope to see change on your campus as a result of your PIC project?
A: I think first and foremost we hope to see students feeling more engaged and invested in their learning. It is important to me that our students feel like their voice and individual needs are valued at Hawthorne. By giving our teachers the opportunity to observe and hear from their students, we are also hopeful that they will feel more empowered to work together and get creative when it comes to designing student-centered lessons and campus systems. I also hope that by inviting our parents into the school to be a part of this process with us, we are empowering them to feel more comfortable advocating for their students’ needs, and providing them with a sense of ownership of our campus.
One thing I have learned through my time in PIC is how game-changing it can be when you bring multiple voices and perspectives to the table. Many times parents, students, and even teachers, are unaware of how powerful their voices can be. So, I try to be intentional about including them and making it clear that their voice has power, their experiences and perspectives are important, and they are capable of positively impacting our school.
Q: How has your time in PIC impacted your ability to lead on your campus?
A: PIC has not only given me the opportunity to grow in my role as principal, but it has allowed me to truly find myself as leader. I was getting to a place where I was not sure if being a principal was right for me anymore, but my time in PIC has given me a new perspective and understanding for who I am as principal and as a leader. I have a clearer understanding of how others see me, where my blind spots are, and what I need to do, not only to better serve my campus, but to better serve myself. The ability to learn from and alongside so many other talented principals is invaluable, and the content that PIC provides—from “Leading through Trust” to the “Empowerment Dynamic”—has truly changed the way I approach the principalship. I am not afraid to take risks or be vulnerable, and I believe that is playing out directly through the work I am leading with my PIC project. I am excited to see where this work continues to lead me and the positive impacts it will continue to have on the Hawthorne community.