July’s Member of the Month is International Reading Association (IRA) member Sharon Pepukayi, the assistant superintendent of the Appoquinimink School District in Delaware. She joined IRA in 2008 and has used IRA resources to move from a classroom teacher to leadership positions in education. In this interview, Pepukayi shares her thoughts on the challenges of educators, both in the classrooms and in the administration offices.
When did you know you wanted to become an educator?
My mom was a teacher so even since being in school myself I knew I wanted to be an educator. I use to help her grade papers.
How did you begin your career, and what led you to your current position?
I began teaching in the fall of 1992 as a 5th grade teacher. I stayed in the classroom for 12 years and then become an asst. principal in 2004. I stayed in the same district and became a principal and then moved into the assistant superintendent role on July 2010. Being a part of the community since 2004 afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with stakeholders which led me to want to apply for that next level.
You recently attended the seminar with educator and author Stephen G. Peters. How did this seminar help you?
It validated what I always believed and that was how crucial it is in building relationships with students. He authored the book Do You Know Enough About Me To Teach Me. Teachers have such an impact on students learning and school success and building those relationships makes it so much easier to get the content across.
What types of professional development would you recommend to other educators?
Anything revolving around building relationships with students and the Common Core!
Has your outlook on literacy education changed since you became an assistant superintendent? If so, how?
Yes. For 18 years I had only been looking through the elementary lens—teacher and building administrator. As assistant superintendent, I have the opportunity to see all levels Pre-K to adult education. Literacy education spans every level and all content areas. I see at the upper levels the need for detailed and individualized literacy instruction but having the challenge of finding time to do this in the age of accountability. I know there is an ongoing debate of Sustained Silent Reading at the secondary levels—I can see both sides of the argument. I use to think it was just an elementary teacher's job but now see it as an entire district's responsibility—especially when the dropout rates are rising.
What are the major challenges for school administrators at this time?
Growing as leaders, prioritization, and accountability.
Sheila Murray Bethel said "Leadership is not something that you learn once and for all. It is an ever-evolving pattern of skills, talents, and ideas that grow and change as you do."
One major challenge a school administrator has is to juggle many things all the while growing and changing into greatness themselves. A second challenge is to juggle and prioritize the unfunded mandates and various initiatives. Third but not the end is accountability that has can't be ignored while leading staff members to teach the whole child.
How did they differ from past challenges?
There wasn't really much about school administrators as leaders—they were seen more as managers—but now it is everywhere that school leaders are second to teachers in moving schools toward greatness. Past challenges were more managerial issues and classroom management and
How do you see the environment changing in the future?
The environment has already changed to accountability and high-stakes testing, and I am afraid that there will be a population of students that are academically sound however won't have other life skills to be successful.
What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?
There was student who attended my school when I was the administrator and often would make bad choices. We worked very hard with him and his family. He graduated this past May, and when he walked across the stage to shake my hand he asked me if he could give me a hug. Being able to see the students who were once in my elementary school become responsible adults and walk across the stage for graduation is an awesome feeling.
What do you like to do when you're not wearing your educator hat?
Reading books on leadership and traveling.
What's the most valuable advice you can give to someone entering the education field?
Know that it is, in my opinion, one of the hardest jobs to do but also the most rewarding. You have to be in it for the right reasons—have the passion, dedication, and purpose to make a difference—not in isolation but collaboratively with others.