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‘Be the Change:’ María De Jesús G’11 on Educational Leadership, Making a Difference Beyond the Classroom
When María De Jesús G’11 was an undergraduate at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, she worked as a cashier at Nojaim’s Supermarket, once an anchor of the city’s Near Westside neighborhood.
“My interest in leadership began there,” recalls De Jesús, chair of the World Languages Department at Jamesville-DeWitt High School and a student in the School of Education’s Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Educational Leadership program.
Along with supermarket owner Paul Nojaim, the young De Jesús helped develop FoodWorks, a summer nutrition program for city youth. “We’d teach local kids about nutrition and where our food comes from,” she says. “We’d visit St. Lucy’s Church community garden and Nelson Farms. We had kids create a recipe for ‘Abuela’s Marinade,’ which Nelson Farms helped us make and we sold at Nojaim’s and the New York State Fair. We went from asking, ‘What is food?” to marketing our own recipe!”
That experience was when De Jesús—a Syracuse native and first-generation college student—first thought, “I can do this!” That is, become not just a Spanish teacher but one day lead a school and be in a position to encourage other teachers to imagine similar kinds of inclusive and enriching programs.
Courage to Lead
“I like to work with students in the classroom,” De Jesús says, “but I also want to work with them at a higher level. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a huge component at Jamesville-DeWitt High School. I’d like to impact the students directly.”
To realize her vision, De Jesús has returned to the School of Education, where she earned a master’s in reading and language arts in 2011. As part of the CAS program—which leads to a dual New York certification as a school building leader and a school district leader—De Jesús is learning how to create supports for struggling or marginalized students—exploring education’s legal, fiscal and political contexts, and developing conflict resolution and community building skills.
As part of her coursework, De Jesús participates in the School of Education’s eduSIMS program, which simulates—using trained actors—the challenging situations she might find herself in as an administrator to sharpen her interpersonal communication and decision-making abilities. She also is serving on a panel for Teachers of Color, hosted by Syracuse University.
Professors George Theoharis and Leela George, both in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, encouraged De Jesús to join the Teachers of Color group. “Maria is poised to be a highly effective school leader,” observes George. “She has passion for inclusion and equity, and with her courage to lead, she will make a difference for educators and students alike.”
“Professors Theoharis and George have taught me so much about DEI issues, how to work on them in schools, and how to implement practices. Both have contributed to my decision to lead a building someday,” notes De Jesús. “I’ve never felt such a safe space as within the educational leadership courses. Being able to speak my mind is huge for me.”
On that last point, De Jesús explains that as daughter and wife of law enforcement officers, she sometime struggles with how cops are portrayed in media, but her educational leadership courses have enabled her to address difficult subjects, such as policing practices. “Through the CAS program, I’m able to discuss these issues with students, faculty, and family. I’m able to bring different parts of my background together and facilitate conversations with all the communities I am part of.”
Such difficult conversations need to be brought to the table, De Jesús adds. “In the last couple of years, I feel I need to make a difference beyond the classroom. I’ve noticed mental health issues and gaps in education because of the coronavirus pandemic. The classroom just isn’t the same it was three years ago; neither are the students. Becoming an administrator will help me to address these problems while including all stakeholders.”
After graduating with her certificate of advanced study, De Jesús says her immediate aim is to lead a building and impact diversity and equity not only by hiring more teachers of color but also by create after-school programs for students of color.
Echoing her undergraduate experience with FoodWorks, De Jesús says as an administrator she would like to bring students together with after-school programs that mix educational components with free activity. “I have noticed how students, especially students of color, often like to stay after school with their friends. I want to create a space that allows the fun part of socializing with friends but also incorporates a tutoring-like component.”
And for other teachers thinking about certifying as an administrator, De Jesús says, simply, “Give it a try!”
“You’ll know at some point during the program whether administration is for you. But some teachers complete the program anyway and return to the classroom as better teachers,” De Jesús observes. “So, you have nothing to lose. Besides, in the post-COVID school environment, we teachers have a lot to say, and we have to be the change.”
Learn more online about the Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Leadership or contact Professor Leela George at email@example.com or 315.443.2685.