Patti Castellano is the Director for School Improvement of a large urban school district in San Antonio, Texas. Her district has approximately 70,000 students and 66 schools. As a fellow participant in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Art of Leadership” seminar I had a chance to get to know Patti. Her warm and friendly approach and her passion, expertise, and wisdom as an educator made a strong impression on me. I’m grateful to her for setting aside some time for an interview.
RP: Could you share a bit more about your district and the context of your work?
PC: Our district has a very diverse student population that mirrors the state. We have some neighborhoods that are very impoverished and some that are very affluent. While the district has been very successful we know that our English language learner population is growing and when we look at our data we don’t feel that we are serving them as successfully as we want to. So, while we have had many successes in increasing student achievement, we have our challenges as well.
RP: What’s your role within the district?
PC: I serve as the Director for School Improvement (which in some districts would be similar to the curriculum and instruction department). This means that I supervise a team of program supervisors and instructional specialists and that we, in addition to creating curriculum and instruction documents, also go to campuses and provide guidance and support. I visit schools, work with principals, do classroom walks, often with principals who say, “Here’s what I think is going on in the school would you agree?” Sometimes we do this in conjunction with the instructional specialist who also supports the campus. And then, if the principals have any questions about instruction, I provide support or I connect them to resources where they can get support.
RP: How did you get into education and what keeps you engaged in your work?
PC: Education wasn’t what I first intended to do when I began college, but right out of college I was approached about an opportunity in a private school to teach Pre-K and I loved it. I decided to pursue this career, obtained my certification, and taught for quite a few years in private school. Then I went to public school and my first experience in public school was in another school district (not the one where I currently work). This school had a high population of minority students most of whom lived in poverty. I had grown up in this district so I really could relate to the students and many of their struggles. The students were wonderful, I felt that I had much to contribute, and I really loved it.
What brought me to teaching was the kids and what kept me in teaching was the kids and what keeps me in education is the kids. I found that my niche was really working with students who were struggling. I learned so much from them and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the district was quite a ways from home and I had small children, so eventually I left that district for a district closer to my home. It was a bittersweet move. I missed the kids but since I live in the North East District I was much closer to home. So, I moved to North East as an instructional specialist for science. It was a very difficult year for me because there is a type of mourning that I went through because I didn’t really have my own students. I was in classrooms and I did work with students but you don’t develop the relationships with them that you would if you were their teacher. Over time, I came to enjoy and even love the job as a teacher of teachers. Eventually I became the Program Supervisor for Science for the district and then the Director for School Improvement, which is the position I currently hold.
RP: When you reflect back on your work, is there a specific student that stands out for you? A student who taught you something?
PC: There was a student, her name was Catherine, and she really stands out in my mind. I was teaching 1st grade at the time and Catherine’s parents met with me at the very beginning of the year before I, even before I met Catherine. They met to explain that she had some type of disability, a temporary one, because she was born with a congenital abnormality. To correct it, that they had to remove the bone structure right in front of her forehead so they were very cautious with her when she was little which, as a mother, I completely understand. The challenge was that when she came to 1st grade she was all healed up physically but she was extremely behind socially and academically. Her motor skills weren’t very good because she didn’t have as much experience running and jumping, playing and falling like the other kids. So, when I first had her in my class I was just stumped as to how best to support her because her challenges and her behaviors were so outside of the norm. Some of the students were afraid of her. She would scream going down the stairs—and I could see why, because her parents were probably very afraid when she was around the stairs and it stuck with her. It became very important to me that the kids saw her as part of the group. I tried to normalize help the kids see her behaviors as a normal part of learning, model patience with her, and get the kids to help her—so, together, we all taught her to walk down the stairs.
The reason that sticks with me is because we worked together, the parents, students, and I, and Catherine. I saw some progress but you never really know how much progress. She eventually left the school and I didn’t hear anything It was always sort of a question mark in my mind…wondering how she was doing. One day I’m at school working and here comes this high school aged girl and her parents. They came to visit me just to say hello and let me know how she was doing, and I thought, “Wow, she looks so good, she’s done so well.” Just the fact that I had maybe contributed to that, just a little bit, made me feel good.
I think that we don’t always immediately see the results of our work. Sometimes the work is very hard, sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen kids in all kinds of situations, kids that don’t always have parents in the home, or parents are in jail, or they’re living with family members or are homeless. So I’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking things but there are also so many hopeful stories. You can’t assume that since you don’t visibly see a lot of progress with the students that there wasn’t progress made or that they were not listening or watching.
RP: What strengthens you as an educator? How do you maintain your commitment, energy and enthusiasm?
PC: As an educator you can go a long time without hearing praise. One thing I have to do in my job is be self-sustaining and not depend on that. I had to learn how to look at situations and say, “This was a good thing today, and I’m going to celebrate this thing.” Even if no one else celebrates it or it wasn’t publicly acknowledged or maybe not acknowledged at all.
Jon Gordon, who wrote the book, Positive Dog, writes that, before you go to bed at night you should reflect on three positive things from the day. That’s kind of what I do before I go to bed. What were three things? Three accomplishments? And sometimes they’re not big things, but just three good things that happened. Like a lot of educators, I have an affinity towards people so they’re usually people oriented things: an email where someone says, “I’m retiring and I want to thank you for all the support you’ve given me over the years.” Or someone who says, “Thank you for that email, I really appreciated you sharing that information with me.” Don’t underestimate the little things because the job is difficult and education is becoming more difficult. I think it’s important to do things like that to rejuvenate myself. Plus, spending time with my kids and appreciating the fact that somewhere there were teachers that did the same thing for them. There was an educator that gave of her time, of her weekends to grade papers, doing the same thing that I do for other children. It’s important to appreciate that. Ultimately, we are “growing people.” It’s a really big responsibility and also a privilege.
RP: Education is complicated and challenging work, and it’s fundamental to our society. It is a privilege.
PC: A friend shared two things with me. First, “Where you stumble, there your treasure lies.” I try to remember that despite my best efforts I’m going to occasionally have a really bad day. There’s something to learn from that and it may be something that, in the long run, is really going to help in a profound way, if I acknowledge it. The second thing, “You will have a dark night of the soul.” It is just part of the human condition and I think that it’s especially true about a job you feel passionately about. If you feel passionately about what you do and pour your heart and soul into it, then at some point you’re going to have a “dark night” and think, “Is this really what I want to do?” Know that everybody goes through that, that it’s normal, that it’s part of being in a job that is so close to your heart.