Glenda Colon knows what it is like to be confounded by your first day of school in America.
She was in the first grade when her family moved to Revere, Massachusetts, having been raised in Puerto Rico. Things were different here.
“There was a lot of culture shock that day,” says Colon, now 38, a wife and a mother of two children, 6 and 10.
Right off the bat, it was winter when she first started at the old Paul Revere School.
“I remember the first snow,” she says. “I can recall the first time I felt the cold snow, the snow falling from the sky, and being so excited.”
But the look of the place was more forbidding.
“Going in to a large brick building — just the appearance of it is very different than in Puerto Rico,” Colon says. “Schools in warm climates have a more campus-like set-up.”
And there was something else. She didn’t speak English.
“I’m an English language learner,” says Colon says, explaining that while English was presented through song and play, all academics in Puerto Rico were naturally conducted in Spanish. “At the time I moved in, we were the first Hispanic family” to move into her Revere neighborhood.
School in those early days proved difficult. She was introduced to her classmates as the new kid, and directed to take her seat, though she didn’t really understand what was being said.
“It reminded me a lot of the Charlie Brown school experience,” she says, referring to the indecipherable squawking used in the cartoons to depict the speech of teachers and other adults. “I immediately began to use my eyes and ears — I assimilated by copying everything the other students did.”
In the course of finding her way, and learning to communicate in English, there were bumps along the way.
“I do recall being upset because I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “I do remember lifting my desk (lid) and crying.”
But she persevered, prevailed and eventually mastered the language, as did her sisters, and put their newfound English-language skills to use for their parents.
“My sisters and I were often the people who called the doctors and made the appointments,” Colon says. “We were always the interpreters.”
Colon soon found her way through an auspicious academic career. She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Salem State University, earned a master’s from Lesley in creative arts and learning, and emerged from the Lynch Leadership Academy at Boston College. That’s where Colon, who spent 15 years working in Boston Public Schools — most recently as principal of the Dante Alighieri Montessori School — met Lynn Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Tutwiler.
Though, Colon says, “I wasn’t looking for a transition,” she was intrigued by the panel Tutwiler was on. It addressed the changes happening in Lynn schools and touched on how they’re tackling attendance issues, “and that’s something I have been working on at my school.”
Eventually, she resolved to try to take her talent and experience to Lynn, a city she had been drawn to as a child from visiting relatives there. She is now the new principal of Connery Elementary School, the first Latina to serve as a school principal in Lynn, where approximately one-third of the population is Latino.
Tutwiler liked what he saw, saying in a press release issued by the school district, “Ms. Colon distinguished herself among an experienced and talented pool of candidates as one who is and who would make a wonderful addition to the Lynn Public Schools leadership team. … (She) will bring impressive experience and know how to bear on her role as principal at Connery Elementary. She has a proven record, demonstrating notable strengths in instructional leadership, professional learning design and delivery, and building school culture.”
Colon indicates that what began as a disadvantage — her scant familiarity with English — spurred her to buckle down on academics and equipped her for her career.
“I think my level of success comes from being an ELL (English Language Learner) and understanding the family dynamic,” Colon says, explaining that her experiences as a child help her identify with students and families with limited English skills. She makes sure to help familiarize them with the school building via tours and activities, and she includes them and their culture in lesson planning.
When, during her teaching career, she discovered that one of her students was from Mexico and knew how to make sugar skulls, she invited his mother to lead a class on Día de los Muertos. Similarly, as head of the Dante Alighieri school, she had the family of a student from Jerusalem come into class to talk about issues and life in the Middle East. In that vein, she has also invited families from Morocco and Turkey to class to talk about their culture and, when one student exhibited a fascination for trains, she invited a father who worked for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to lead a classroom presentation.
Colon is committed to “family engagement” as a way of buoying children’s social and academic success. “Sometimes, we don’t look at families as a partner,” she says.
By getting to know families, and offering herself as an example of a Latina in a position of educational leadership, Colon hopes that children and parents from Spanish-speaking places will view Connery Elementary School as a safe, welcoming and important part of their family. She calls it “leading with love.”
“I think it’s really important to get to know the community you’re working in,” she says.