Spotlight: Princess Francois (NY '19)January 28, 2020
Princess Francois (NY ’19) inspires students by sharing her own life experiences without hesitation. “I confronted and defeated many of the same challenges they face,” she says. “Not only did I survive, but I am thriving.” The assistant principal received her Milken Award at Brooklyn’s Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) on November 20, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: One of your primary roles at MESA is supporting other educators through coaching and professional development. How is this work improving outcomes for your students?
Princess Francois (NY ’19): Helping teachers become better at their craft leads directly to improved student achievement. I have experienced that personally as a teacher receiving professional support. When I received direct mentoring and opportunities to attend teacher professional development, I learned specific strategies that I could immediately put into practice in the classroom. I then felt empowered to share those strategies with others. In addition, I have witnessed that impact on the teachers I coach.
During my tenure as an assistant principal, I have always made sure to differentiate between supervising and coaching. I aim to coach first, establishing a collaborative partnership to grow. This isn’t about imparting knowledge. I’m learning alongside them as we work towards a common goal. This helps teachers feel invested in their development and they know we are working as a team. Teachers I have coached say they feel very supported. More importantly, they are excited to try something new that could improve their practice. As a result, students then become excited to learn, which is reflected in our school data.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Princess: Teaching found me. Starting in childhood, I tutored my peers and achieved great results. In college, I mentored minority pre-med students to help them gain admission into medical school. I thought that was my ultimate dream as well. I noticed that a lot of my peers who shared my background—first generation, colored, poor—were struggling through college, particularly in the Ivy Leagues and especially in core STEM classes. I realized that their struggles were rooted in the quality of their K-12 education.
I joined Teach for America fresh out of college, wanting to make a difference, not realizing what that truly meant. I wanted my students to have the same quality education that I received. However, that quality education did not come from my zoned school. Rather, it came from my mom making numerous sacrifices to enroll me in Catholic schools.
Things hit close to home when I was placed at the very zoned school in Prospect Heights that my mom refused to let me attend. I worked at that school for five years. Those years not only allowed me to invest in my own community, but they also fostered in me a strong desire to be a role model for my students.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Princess: They are at the perfect age to have deep conversations on a wide range of topics such as current events, the meaning of life and the future. They have already had some life experience but are still sponges that soak up new experiences. In addition, high school students’ entertaining commentaries and stories keep us young. Spend time with high school students and you will always know the latest trends in music and fashion.
As the “cool nerdy educator,” I appreciate that I can be super corny or sarcastic and they will go along with it. Many even create their own corny jokes to top my level of corniness! Most of all, I appreciate that after they finish high school, they are fully functioning adults. I can see very quickly the impact I have on their next steps in life.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Princess: It was quite a roller coaster. I truly felt like it was sink or swim. During the first few months of the school year, I was either sinking or my head was barely above water. I struggled a lot with classroom management, not only because I was new, but because I was also fresh out of college. There was a six-year gap between myself and most students, and in a couple of cases only one year. Gaining their respect was a process.
I tried so many different management systems that failed. The game changed when I finally found one that worked. I did not think I was the best planner, but I was often praised for it. And between balancing the learning curve of a first-year teacher and attending classes to earn my master’s, I was barely sleeping. My biggest challenge was figuring out how to teach a rigorous science class like chemistry while also tackling glaring academic gaps like not knowing basic multiplication.
By March, however, the roller coaster made a full upswing. My students not only respected me but were rooting for me. Fellow teacher friends from TFA and grad school helped me endure. I was able to turn to them when I needed to vent or share ideas. Ultimately, I succeeded because of the love, enthusiasm and successes of my students. I learned as much from them that year as they learned from me.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Princess: Ms. Hunter, my seventh grade math teacher, taught me to have high expectations. Even when I found the correct answer, she would push me to find a faster way to get there.
In high school, Ms. Belletierre and Ms. Postler told corny jokes and came up with ways to help the content stick. If you ask any of my students, they would tell you that I share jokes and memes related to the content, but then take it a step further, pushing them to explain those jokes and memes in writing.
Ms. Caughey taught me the importance of building relationships with students without being their friend, and of believing in and challenging them to reach their full potential. She immediately saw that I did not belong in a regular English class my sophomore year and made sure to put me in her AP English class junior year.
My mother is my ultimate role model as an educator. She helped me build my foundation in reading and math and taught me the importance of those foundational skills. This is why it was so important to me to become an educator: I needed to help close that gap in foundational skills for my students. Most importantly, she instilled in me the values of self-discipline and perseverance, both crucial to being an educator.
MFF: Your Instagram shows how much you like to travel. Why is travel so important to you? Do you bring those experiences back to share with students?
Princess: I’ve always had a curiosity to learn, but also a long-deferred desire to see the world. Growing up, I loved learning about various cultures, largely because I did not have the opportunity to travel across the country or around the world. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My mom and I traveled locally, hopping on buses or the subway to explore different neighborhoods, other boroughs and the tri-state area. In New York, crossing into a different neighborhood means stepping into a different world. These experiences not only provided me with a greater appreciation for different cultures, but significantly increased my desire to travel as well.
Travel is the best education I will ever receive. In addition, representation matters in the traveling space just as much as in the education space. When I travel, I am traveling unapologetically as a black, plus size woman. Each part of my identity comes with its challenges, most especially being black. I like to travel with a “black lens” perspective, which doesn’t get enough attention. We are the minority among travelers to begin with and often other people are traveling into our spaces (especially the Caribbean). We not only deserve to be there, but our narratives should also be shared.
During my first year of teaching, I realized that like my students, I had never traveled by plane. I feel it is part of my duty as an educator to expose them to the world and inspire them to travel. I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of my advisees who stepped out of her comfort zone and spent a month in South Africa with a host family. Without meaning to, I have inspired staff members to travel as well. In my office I pin photos of my travels to a world map. I display artifacts from different countries and bring back souvenirs to show my school community that a person of color born from similar beginnings has a place in this traveling space. I hope to show them that they too can walk along the great winding walls of China, see the grand architecture of Italy, and be inspired by the majestic pyramids of Egypt.
MFF: Your students clearly see you as a role model. What lessons do you hope they take away from the personal experiences you share with them?
Princess: I want my students to internalize that no matter the adversity thrown their way, no matter the stereotypes anyone may impose on them, they got this! Their biggest competition is themselves. Perseverance will take them far.
I want them to be inspired by the fact that I, too, confronted and defeated many of the same challenges they now face or may come across in the future. Not only did I survive, but I am thriving. There is a lesson and purpose to every single experience, both positive and negative. Strive to thrive!
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Princess: When I discovered that I had won, I was in complete shock! I’d been antsy throughout the assembly. It happened during a trimester exam day, and no one knew why we were having it. As the person who organized all the logistics behind the assembly, I was worried about the assembly finishing on time so students could resume their scheduled exams. As the assembly continued, I was dealing with tons of student questions and it was hard for me as the assistant principal not to have a specific answer.
Once it was announced that someone in the room was winning an award, I literally started looking around the room and going through names in my head. Minutes later, I heard my name and saw the big check unravel as I tried to process that it was ME!
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Princess: The students’ response has been the best part of all. During the actual assembly, it felt so good to hear an entire auditorium cheering and applauding. Now, a few months later, I still hear students congratulate me in the hallway or when I walk into a classroom. Winning the Milken Award shows them that they, as students of color coming from Brooklyn, can achieve an honor like this someday as well.
Many of my former students have reached out not only to congratulate me, but also to share the impact that I have had on their education. A student from my first two years of teaching recently tagged me on Instagram to express that because of me, he not only developed an interest in chemistry, anatomy and physiology, but he was also inspired to go to college. Before that, he never thought he’d go to college, let alone major in science.
This Award has also had a huge and unexpected impact on our staff. So many staff members have shown so much love and appreciation, especially for my impact on their coaching. For our staff of color, this was a moment of pride. We do not often get such opportunities. My Award inspires them to achieve greatness for our kids. As one put it, “A win for one is a win for all.”
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Princess: I am getting married in November 2020. My fiancé and I are both educators, so this will be a huge help as we plan a wedding and honeymoon. I also would like to celebrate my mom, who has been the rock in my life’s journey. She deserves everything. Being able to plan something special for her would mean a lot to both of us.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Princess: Success for myself is constantly evolving. Currently, it is being able to move in this world unapologetically and passionately while having a positive impact on as many people as possible. For my students, success is growth: growth in academic learning, growth in social and emotional learning, growth in mindset. There is no growth without discomfort. Every student is starting at a different point. However, as long as they are progressing, they are moving in the right direction—forward.
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