From SA Parent to Principal-in-Training: A Conversation with Robertson Leadership Fellow Jessica Nelson-Clark
Robertson Leadership Fellow Jessica Nelson-Clark led a choice session at New Teacher Training about building strong relationships with parents — from the perspective of a parent! Ms. Nelson-Clark is a parent of two SA Fort Greene scholars and her experience there led her to make the dramatic career switch from Executive Marketing Director with the Estee Lauder Companies to Principal-in-Training at Success Academy. We asked her to share some of her thoughts and insights about the role of parents at Success Academy, what it takes to build strong relationships with them, and why the world of corporate marketing is a great training ground for learning how to cultivate parent engagement.
What led you to make such a dramatic career switch?
As a businesswoman and leader, I was impressed by the innovation I saw at Success Academy, and as a marketer, I was impressed by the brand. Since my older child started attending in 2014, I have studied the model and observed the brand in every interaction I have had with the organization. And then this Robertson Leadership Fellow opportunity came up just as I was at an inflection point in my career, and I realized I wanted to bring my skills and experiences to something that I deeply believed in. I was fortunate to go to some of the best schools in the country and I saw what kind of opportunities a great education gave me and my classmates. I want that for all kids. SA stacks up against the elite schools I attended in terms of innovation and the commitment to continually raising the bar for kids.
What are some of the insights you’ve gained as an SA parent that will inform your work here?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that parents are the first teacher for their scholars. Parents, teachers, and scholars create this trifecta and when teachers can get the relationships right with parents and with scholars, that’s when the magic happens.
SA stacks up against the elite schools I attended in terms of innovation and the commitment to continually raising the bar for kids.
Why do you think parents matter so much for educators?
Parents can make or break you! If they trust and respect you, they will be critical partners in making sure their child is successful in your class. They will tell other parents about you and pave the way for how the next year’s parents come into your room. I’ve seen situations where teachers are struggling to get chaperones for field trips and have to send out email after email. But if you put in the hard work of building those strong relationships, all of that will come. Parents will help you find the chaperones; they may help you do your bulletin boards; they will go above and beyond to support you.
What were some things teachers did that worked for you as an SA parent?
I think the way teachers approach conversations and meetings is so important. One year, my daughter was struggling a fair amount. But when I would make the effort to come in to meet with the teacher, she didn’t always have a clear plan of action for what she was going to do and how I could help at home. It was frustrating. By contrast, the next year, my daughter had a meltdown one day because she was so upset that she failed her assessment. The teacher called me to let me know what happened and said to me, “This is my plan, what do you think? I want to make sure we are doing the right things at school and at home to manage her test anxiety.” It makes such a difference when a teacher demonstrates that they have thought through next steps for helping your child, and asks for your input and collaboration.
As a parent, what advice would you give to new teachers?
I love this saying: “What people remember most about you is how you treat them.” My advice to teachers is to remember that building great relationships with parents comes down to some basic things: manners, self-awareness, empathy — and respectful delivery! Your tone is sometimes more important than the words you say. Also, ask open-ended questions. Sometimes you need to let parents talk and not just launch into the issue. Asking questions can help you gain insight into what’s going on in their lives and give you important information that you can use to shape the recommendations and advice you give them.
What are some of the insights you bring from working as a marketing executive to your new career as an educator?
A big focus in marketing was cultivating customer loyalty and advocacy. Much of what I learned applies to parents — who are, after all, our customers. Building real customer loyalty is not an overnight thing. It takes time. And every single interaction matters. So I am coming into this work understanding that all of those interactions I’m going to have with parents — the greetings in the morning, the call at the beginning of the school year, the Class Dojo posts — all of those interactions are an opportunity to let parents know that I care and that I respect their opinions as the first teacher of their child.
Do your kids have any advice for you?
When I was doing my one-month observation at SA Williamsburg, I told Miles I was going to spend a week in Kindergarten. He said, “Oooh, that’s going to be your hardest grade. And right now it is at the end of the year! At the beginning of the year, you’re going to say ‘One… Get ready!’ and you’re gonna have somebody in your classroom who looks at you and says, ‘I’m not getting ready.’ And what are you going to do, Mommy? You can’t bring him to the principal’s office. You have to fix it all by yourself!” So, I think that boils down to this advice: Get ready to be challenged!