Culture, citizenship, service: Graduate student develops school leadership philosophy during year-long residency

Michelle Cooley

Michelle Cooley’s colleagues describe her as “a passionate educator” who is steadfast in her belief that quality education is a right for all children – and that all children need and deserve positive role models they can see themselves in. (Photos by August Jennewein)

The motto on Westview Middle School’s website reads, “We’re all in this together.” For Michelle Cooley, the words aren’t just a slogan, but an approach to leadership she wholeheartedly believes in – one she hopes to emulate someday soon.

Cooley, a principal intern at Westview, is pursuing a master’s degree in educational administration and school leadership from the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her position, made possible by funds donated to UMSL last spring by Civic Progress, is a full-time, fully paid, year-long residency which allows her to walk a mile – or more – in the shoes of a school administrator.

“I’m allowed to do so many great things every day,” Cooley says. “I get to see their process for discipline, attendance, the budget, teacher and student management, all the pieces of working with Special School District, just everything that a principal does. It’s so beneficial because there really is no other opportunity exactly like this.”

While she says she couldn’t imagine not having the experience now, Cooley admits she wasn’t always certain it would be the right fit.

Cooley came to Westview seven years ago as an instructional assistant because her out-of-state teaching credentials didn’t carry over into Missouri. She found UMSL via the university’s partnership with Teach for America in 2012 and became a core member as an avenue for re-certification. After a couple of years teaching math, she moved into an instructional coach role – a position she says she was just starting to feel confident and comfortable in when the residency opportunity came along.

It was Westview principal Valeska Hill who pushed her to go for it.

“I actually fought her on it a bit. But she cleared my schedule and told me not to come out of my office until I’d completed the application,” Cooley recalls with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ and she said, ‘No. You’re ready. Do this.’ She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself yet.”

What Hill saw was unparalleled potential.

“Ms. Cooley is an amazing educator,” Hill says. “She takes the time to build relationships with families, students and teachers and models collaboration in all that she does. She has made some suggestions to our administrative team regarding practices, and, without hesitation, we have incorporated her ideas. It’s exciting to see a person this passionate about changing students’ lives.”

Principal Intern Cooley

“At the end of the day, I know this is my purpose,” says Michelle Cooley. “This is what I long to do, and it’s the reason why I keep coming back.”

As it turns out, Hill’s guiding moment was only the latest in a chain of serendipitous occurrences in Cooley’s education – ones that ultimately pointed her toward her calling.

In Plano, Texas, where Cooley grew up, there was Ms. Crow.

“My favorite teacher in the whole wide world was Ms. Crow in fourth grade,” she recalls. “I was the minority. Our school was probably about 3 percent African American at the time. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, middle class, both parents – it was great. I had a phenomenal childhood. However, I knew I was different. My hair was different, my skin color was different, all around I was just different. But Ms. Crow told me that my difference was beautiful. She instilled in me not to ever shy away from difference. I came back every year that I could to see Ms. Crow.”

There was also Ms. Belamy, who used chemistry as a mechanism to teach perseverance.

“Chemistry was the first thing I really had to study in school, the first thing I really had to work hard at. And it was Ms. Belamy who said, ‘No. We’re going to push through.’ It’s funny because it became my minor in college. And because chemistry and math go hand in hand – all those math classes – that’s why I was able to get certification to teach.”

Finally, there was an undergraduate behavioral science class with a life-changing assignment.

“I chose to go into an inner-city school and tutor children in math and science. I wanted to see how it would go,” Cooley says. “So for a whole semester I tutored them every day, Monday through Friday, and I had to write up everything I did and what the results were. When I went there, I fell in love with those kids.”

Now, in the busy halls of Westview where she’s always on the move and a different set of kids are vying for her love and attention, those formative moments shape both where and how Cooley wants to lead.

Being a good role model is positively essential, and urban educational environments are where she’ll always feel most at home.

“I really want to show them, ‘You too can be successful. You too can have multiple degrees. You too can move past whatever your circumstance is to be better.’ And I want to do whatever is necessary to build community and culture and all those things that are massively needed for urban populations.”

Culture is something Cooley references often – hence her connection to that “we’re all in this together” philosophy. She strongly believes that the entire environment at a school will be the most positive if those in charge act from a place of service. And she credits her residency experience for making character building, instructional leadership and a restorative rather than punitive approach to discipline much more than theories in one of her textbooks.

“My philosophy is ‘servant-leader,’” Cooley says. “I’m going to let my teachers and staff know, ‘I’m in the trenches with you. I am here to support you and help guide you in the direction that we’re going in together.’”

And when it comes to her students?

“Being a productive citizen is my end goal. Yes, I want you to be successful in math, social studies, science. I want you to be the best achieving. But I really want you to be a good citizen. Whether you’re a doctor, a custodian, a cosmetologist, an artist – whatever that thing is for you – how are you going to be the best you? And then how are you going to share those gifts with your community?”

Two other UMSL graduate students in addition to Cooley –  Nytanya Lauderdale and Justin Brotherton – also received fully funded residencies in the Riverview Gardens and Ferguson-Florissant School Districts, respectively. To read more about the funding from Civic Progress which made the positions possible, visit the The St. Louis American.

The UMSL Experience

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