Interview: Sela Leader Natalie Smith
By Keciah Bailey
Sela school leader Natalie Smith, PhD has over 11 years of experience in the field of education. She joined Sela in 2014 and has since then lead Sela to becoming a Tier1 school in the DC Public Charter School System – a significant award given to the highest quality charter schools in the school district. Dr. Smith has a National Board Certification and was endorsed as a New Leaders principal. On a daily basis, she helps teachers understand how to use data about student learning to improve instruction and also facilitates workshops to develop staff leadership. She is deeply involved in school and community development and is even learning Hebrew along with her students! Check out our Q&A with Dr. Smith below.
Tell us a little about your early life
One thing I will note is that my parents are from another country, Jamaica, and they really instilled the importance of education in my life and my siblings’ lives.
I grew up in Brooklyn and then I moved to Coral Springs with my mother and siblings (for Grades 10 through 12). I then attended Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business for undergrad and earned a bachelor of science degree in marketing and new and small business management from Georgetown University. I earned a master of arts degree in human development, with a focus on early childhood education, and a doctor of philosophy degree in curriculum and instruction, with a focus on minority and urban education, from the University of Maryland.
Why did you decide to become an educator?
As an adolescent, I was always the family babysitter during the summertime for my younger siblings and younger cousins. While I was at Georgetown University, I participated in the D.C. Reads tutoring program and the After School Kids program, which was a program to support and tutor students who were on probation. I’ve always had an affinity to help young children, so even though I had a position as a consultant for a public health consulting firm after college, I decided to apply for a program that supported people from other fields with entering the field of education as a teacher. It was called the Resident Teacher Program for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). I became a teacher in June 2003 and never looked back.
What subjects did you teach? How long did you teach and what grade levels/ages?
I taught third grade for three years, then taught algebra and pre-algebra to eighth graders for a year, and then taught fourth grade for a year. After five years teaching, I became an instructional math coach for PGCPS. During December 2010, I had the opportunity to enter school leadership, which allowed me to have a broader impact on building teacher capacity and improving student achievement. I became a director of academics and staff development for a charter school in D.C. I’ve been a school leader since then.
Where did you work prior to joining Sela? Describe your experience there.
Before joining Sela, I was completing my year as a resident principal at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy at the Parkside Middle School campus. The principal resigned in February 2014, and so I had to take over as the interim principal. It was a great learning experience. However, I knew that my heart was always with elementary school students. I love working with elementary school students because you can have an impact while they are still young and bridge the achievement and equity gaps a lot sooner than in middle school.
What drew you to Sela?
I always believed that language immersion programs allowed students to develop more cognitively than students learning only one language. I also knew that Sela was the only language immersion school in Washington, D.C. to offer Hebrew language immersion. I had heard of Hebrew scriptures, but could not read them in Hebrew. I knew that as the children learned Hebrew, I, too, would learn some Hebrew as well. So when I saw the vacancy for Sela, I was ecstatic.
Why did you decide to learn Hebrew?
As a school leader, I observe classrooms every single day. As I observed Hebrew classrooms, I began to learn the language along with the students. I also learn along with the students while we are signing songs, etc. At times, the students speak to me and almost force me to respond to them in Hebrew. Initially, I needed support from our Hebrew-speaking teachers to respond. But, I made it a point to learn a little bit of Hebrew each week.
Can you engage in conversations with the students or staff?
I still have a long way to go, but I am learning and committed to being able to engage in conversations with our students and staff in Hebrew. Right now, it is on a very small scale, but I each week, I’ll learn more and more.
I learned the numbers (Ahot, Steim, Shalosh, Abba, Hamesh, etc.), colors (Adom – red, Sagol – purple, Sahov – yellow, etc.), greetings (Boker Tov – Good morning, Laila Tov – Good night), family members (Safta – grandmother, etc.), weather terms (Shemesh – sun, etc.).
With the proficiency approach we use at Sela, I also learned how to use the words in context:
Touching my head and saying “A la Rosh.”
Or “Ani Ohev Sela” – I love Sela.
“Ma Shlomech” – How are you (to a female)? Or “Ma Shlomecha” – How are you (to a male)?
Response: Tov Todah (Ok, Thank you) Or Beseder (All Right).
Or “Todah” (Thank you) and the response “Bevakasha” -You’re welcome.
“Mah Hashem Shelcha” – What’s your name?
Response “Hashem Sheli Dr. Smith or Natalie” – My name is Dr. Smith or Natalie.
As I wrote this list, I realized that I know more than I think I know, but I still have a lot to learn.
Do you speak any other languages?
I took five years of Latin in high school. I can speak a little bit of Spanish and French as well, but I would not consider myself to be fluent.
What activities/hobbies do you enjoy outside of school?
I love exercising and spinning. I used to teach a spinning class from 2004 to 2011, and I hope to get back to that one day. I also love listening to music. I haven’t done this in a long time, but relaxing on a beach or near some water is always amazing. Listening to waves is so calming.
To learn more about Dr. Smith and Sela Public Charter School, visit http://www.selapcs.org/blog.