Spotlight: Rachel Tommelleo (DC '18)March 8, 2019
Years in the classroom and as an instructional coach reinforced for Principal Rachel Tommelleo (DC ’18) the tenets she now lives by: the importance of working with urgency, listening to her gut, and putting students’ needs first. Rachel won Washington, D.C.’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Center City Public Charter Schools’ Brightwood Campus on October 26, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: You were both a classroom teacher and an instructional coach before moving into administration. What did you learn in your previous roles that helps you be effective as a principal?
Rachel Tommelleo: I can’t imagine being in my current role as principal without having had the experiences I did as a teacher and coach. Just like I never saw myself becoming a teacher, I also never saw myself becoming a principal. But the training I received while working under a few stellar principals and at TNTP [formerly known as The New Teacher Project], coupled with my own personal experiences teaching both elementary and middle school students, really helped me feel prepared and excited about leading a school.
Some of the most important things I have learned over the years are the importance of working with urgency, listening to my gut, and always making decisions within the lens of what’s best for kids. I try my best to be the kind of leader that I would have wanted as a teacher.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Rachel: When I was a student at New York University, I began working with “America Reads,” a program through which I tutored public school students in several boroughs. Honestly, I never thought about becoming a teacher before that. In my junior year I started to shift my mass media communications major to include children and education in any way that I could. I interned at Sesame Workshop and focused my senior thesis on “Children as Media Audiences.”
During this time, I also learned about the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I remember standing on the platform at the West 4th Street subway station and seeing a train pull up with an ad: “You remember your first-grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” This really struck a chord with me because my favorite teacher also happened to have been my first-grade teacher. I remember thinking, “Wow—what if I could impact a child’s life in the same way she impacted mine?” I researched the program, was excited to learn that I would also be able to obtain a Master’s degree in Elementary Education as a part of it, and the rest is history.
MFF: Why did you choose elementary school?
Rachel: I didn’t really choose elementary school—it chose me. As a NYC Teaching Fellow, you are assigned to your general teaching area, and from there you take the teaching position they give you. I went in for my first day to ready what I thought was going to be my third-grade classroom, only to be told that I was actually going to be teaching second grade.
Over the next three years I fell in love with teaching second- and third-graders and actually had to decide at that point if I wanted to make the jump to middle school. I made the move and fell in love with teaching them as well. At the end of the day, it is a joy to educate children of any age.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Rachel: So many of my greatest role models in education have been the amazing leaders I’ve been lucky to work under over the years (all incredible friends to this day), many of my talented educator friends and colleagues, and my family, who instilled within me the importance of education from a very young age.
My most beloved teacher continues to be my first-grade teacher, Sister Jeanne Marie. She began each day by playing the guitar and singing songs with us. She took a genuine interest in who I was as a little human being and understood the importance of teaching the whole child. She truly cared about me and my classmates and somehow found ways each day to make sure we all knew that. I was only six, but I remember hoping I would become an adult who really listened to, saw and understood children the way Sister Jeanne Marie was always able to.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Rachel: I think I experienced just about every emotion. It was terrifying, fun, exhausting, exciting and more. I lost a child on the first day of school—she was just on the recess yard, but I was sure my life was over for a good five minutes. Another student, in an attempt to perform a magic trick and make a pencil disappear, swallowed a tiny pencil stub right in front of my eyes. A balloon popped into my eyeball during a failed science experiment. I chased many, many mice out of my classroom.
I had the most incredible group of little human beings anyone could ask for. I cried a ton, and I laughed even more.
I sure am happy that I was able to loop with my second graders to the third grade that following year, because by then I had a much better idea of what I was doing and was able to have a “do-over” year with that group (I definitely owed it to them). I had an incredible mentor who really helped make things click for me when it came to teaching, as well as a very supportive assistant principal, both of whom are still close friends. I also had other NYC Teaching Fellow colleagues in my school who supported me, including one who became my husband. Most days were extremely challenging, but we had an incredibly close-knit group of colleagues who helped keep each other going—it was a really special work family.
MFF: We’ve heard about “Brightwood Families.” Why is this program important?
Rachel: We started our Brightwood Families program after our data showed that we were letting some of our students slip through the cracks when it came to building relationships with them and advocating for them. Each staff member serves as a family “lead” for a group of students consisting of one student from each grade (PK3 through eighth). We meet monthly to participate in team-building and service activities.
This program helps us ensure that every single student in our school feels like they have at least one adult advocate they can go to if they ever need anything. It further supports our mission to be driven by character, excellence and service. This program has had an incredible overall impact on our school culture, for both staff and students. It’s really helped to strengthen our community as a whole. On Brightwood Families days our students (and even some of their parents!) arrive excited, saying “Happy Brightwood Families Day!”
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Rachel: I have never been so surprised in my life. I remember being incredibly excited when I thought that one of our phenomenal teachers was about to win an award, and also confused at the same time, wondering why nobody had told me anything. When my name was announced, it all became very surreal. I still don’t know how I managed to speak to everybody after that! I was definitely in shock for quite some time.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Rachel: I have the most incredible students in the world. They were all so sweet, and I got tons of hugs and congratulations throughout the rest of that day and following week. (I also got lots of requests for an elevator—we’re in a four-story building without one.) The week following the notification, one of my middle school students came looking for me to tell me how excited and happy he was about the Award. This is a student who wants to become an educator one day, so that moment meant a lot.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Rachel: If I’m constantly growing, and my students are constantly growing, then we are all achieving success. Success isn’t just about getting awards or good grades, or meeting a certain “success marker.” It’s really about the journey we all take on the way to those bigger milestone moments. It’s about figuring out what you are passionate about in life, pursuing those passions with everything you’ve got to give despite the inevitable challenges, and figuring out how to use your talents to improve the lives of those around you.
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