This work is all-consuming. I am an entirely different person that who I was when I entered this field, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am more self-aware, I am a stronger advocate, and I look for the good in everyone I meet. I knew I would love the scholars in my classroom, but I didn’t know that I would prioritize their needs above my own, working hours beyond the school day to create engaging lessons, buying coats and clothes to ensure every child has what they need, or taking kids to the movies on the weekend so we can get to know each other more. My husband and I now have a code word to be used when I need to stop babbling about school!
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Weber.
Sarah is an elementary school Principal at Citizens Academy Southeast, a Breakthrough Public School in Cleveland, OH. She started her career as a Teach For America Corps Member teaching Kindergarten, also with Breakthrough Public Schools, before transitioning to KIPP Columbus where she taught third grade and served as a Dean of Instruction. She holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University in Elementary Education and from Teachers College, Columbia University in Education Leadership, and she is deeply committed to creating excellent spaces for all children to learn and grow. Sarah currently leads the Care Counts™ laundry program by Whirlpool brand’s implementation at Citizens Academy Southeast where she provides access to clean clothes for all of her students who are in need.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My family has always been very committed to “paying it forward” through service and community work. My dad served on the board of the Boys and Girls Club in Akron for many years and believed that all children deserve access to opportunities, regardless of where they grow up. I have always been interested in psychology, specifically how the brain works and what makes us “human,” as well as working with kids. Education is the perfect intersection of all of these things, so I’m very lucky to have found a path that allows me to do what I love every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Remote learning! This is my first year as a building principal, and I never could have imagined that my rookie year would be conducted online. We have pivoted pretty much on a dime to provide the best instruction that we can while prioritizing the safety and security of our scholars, staff, and families. It’s been an incredibly challenging and rewarding adventure to watch the team come together, families, scholars, and teachers, to design a whole new way of educating our kids.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my first year of teaching Kindergarten, I had a pretty real “aha” moment with my coach at the time. I was reflecting on how messy the floor of my classroom was at the end of the day after we made a craft that day that involved cutting and gluing. I said to her, “Who teaches kids that we need to keep our classroom clean during the day and we can’t put our scraps on the floor?” She just kind of looked at me, and in that moment, it dawned on me that I was the one responsible for teaching them this! It was a small thing that should have been obvious, but it just hadn’t clicked for me yet. It really helped me understand the weight of my responsibility for helping our youngest learners adjust to life in school and to set them up for years of success.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
In addition to providing an excellent education for the scholars in our care, we seek to engage our families at every turn. School is about more than just learning how to read, write, and do math; this is the place where scholars learn who they are, what excites and motivates them, and encourage them start to dream about the possibilities for their lives. However, this doesn’t just happen by chance. We partner with our families to fully understand who they and their children are as people as well as what they need to help their child be successful in school and beyond. This is where our relationship with the Care Counts™ laundry program by Whirlpool brand comes in — one of our teachers recognized that regular access to clean laundry was a barrier for some of our families and sought to rectify this by bringing laundry machines and all of the necessary supplies to our campus. Now, our families have access to this resource whenever they may need it, due to a move, financial hardship, or because it’s just more convenient. Either way, our school goes beyond just teaching kids the basics; we consider ourselves one giant community and family.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of our families went through a last-minute move in the spring, just before our building closed due to COVID-19. The new home did not have laundry services, and the mom was brainstorming how she was going to work full time, support her daughter, and still run a home. She was able to come to the school several times to do laundry, and this actually allowed her to actively volunteer in her daughter’s class while the laundry was running. Not only were we able to help her solve this challenge, but we were also able to engage her in a different way during the precious little free time she has.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The root of the problem is that our education system is not set up to provide an equitable experience for all young people. As a network of schools, we are looking to change the narrative about “urban education” by proving what’s possible for all kids in our country when they have access to excellent education from the very beginning. We’re not simply focused on high school graduation; even starting in Kindergarten, we start to talk about college and teach a rigorous curriculum that will set our scholars on the path to college. One of our biggest barriers is having access to the right resources, financially and otherwise, to ensure our scholars and families have what they need. Something as simple as not having access to clean clothes can stand in the way of a child regularly attending school, meaning they are not getting the instruction that a peer with adequate clean clothing would, or that their self-confidence suffers as a result. It’s pivotal that schools have the resources they need to focus on the main thing — making sure that kids are learning and growing each and every day.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the capacity to see a problem, carve a path forward that addresses it, and inspire others to do something about it. This has been the cornerstone of our society since its inception, and in our current reality, the last piece there has never been more important. Our country is going on its sixth month battling a pandemic, and we’re engaging in more dialogue about the profound injustices of racism than ever before in my lifetime. As a school community and as a larger network of schools in our city, leadership looks like directly facing these incredibly painful realities while driving forward with a sense of conviction and optimism that we will come out on the other side a stronger community.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- This work is all-consuming. I am an entirely different person that who I was when I entered this field, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am more self-aware, I am a stronger advocate, and I look for the good in everyone I meet. I knew I would love the scholars in my classroom, but I didn’t know that I would prioritize their needs above my own, working hours beyond the school day to create engaging lessons, buying coats and clothes to ensure every child has what they need, or taking kids to the movies on the weekend so we can get to know each other more. My husband and I now have a code word to be used when I need to stop babbling about school!
- Kids are the most inspiring humans. They face every single day with this unique sense of wonder and joy, and they dish out love like it grows on trees. They show up every single day hungry to be better than the day before, and they challenge the adults around them to meet them on this journey of improvement. Every day brings its own smiles and belly laughs.
- It’s really hard to make it all about the kids. Education is incredibly high stakes — everyone thinks they can do it better than us. From state testing mandates to performance-based pay to yearly evaluations, there are so many barriers that make it incredibly difficult to prioritize what’s best for kids. Our school, and the network, for that matter, is uniquely committed to ensuring we always keep kids at the forefront of our decisions, but sometimes the red tape can be unbearable. Schools are absolute champions for their scholars, and we need to trust that they’re making smart and wise decisions.
- Focus on the bright spots. There is always something we can be doing better — a lesson plan to improve, a better way of doing dismissal, one more email to send — and sometimes we have to change our lens to look for the magic that’s already happening. Like I said, kids are the best humans and they’re always ready to make us smile and laugh — the rest of it can wait.
- Lead with love. It sounds really simple, but when your heart guides you, things start to fall into place. We start to do things like listen to others, like really listen. We start to notice when folks are struggling and lend a helping hand. We start to see that a grumpy scholar actually just needs a hug and to feel seen. There’s also a certain trust in yourself that comes when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything you say or do is coming from a place of love for self and for others.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a white woman that works with almost entirely scholars and families of color, it’s incredibly important that I do the work to understand structural racism in our country as well as my own personal unconscious biases that may be playing out in my practice as an educator. Of course, all of my intentions are in the best interest of our community, but I have to also look at my words, actions, and beliefs to ensure I’m not operating from a place of internalized racism — I can only be an anti-racist if I can learn to confront this within myself. Beyond my context however, I believe this work is crucial in moving our society forward; if it’s just the white folks who work with kids in historically underserved communities are doing the work, we’re never going to face the harsh reality that racism is alive in our country. I would challenge every person to start to do this work as well — when we have enough people screaming for change, that’s when we’ll reach the tipping point where our country can begin to heal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Dwell in possibility.” — Emily Dickinson
I drop the “I” in this quote on purpose to make it sound more like a call to action than an affirmation. The work that we do in schools is incredibly challenging, and it can lead to some pretty jaded educators. When we forget about what’s possible for our classrooms, our schools, and, ultimately, our kids, the day in and day out can feel excruciatingly hard. However, when we see the magic and dream about the future and all of the possibilities it holds, those little nuggets of brightness keep us showing up every single day.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama! She is the epitome of a servant leader, always prioritizing the needs of the people around her, and she exudes a grace and humility that make it easy to follow her. She remains a champion for education as well as a voice for historically marginalized individuals.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/citizensacademysoutheast or on Instagram @citizensacademysoutheast! You can also visit our network website at btcle.org.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!