For Leona Watson, working in an urban charter school near where she grew up is the result of a lifelong passion.
Leona was raised in Roxbury, Massachusetts but attended a suburban private high school in Wellesley. As a student, she knew how lucky she was to go to such a great school. She also knew that her cousins, neighbors, and peers weren't given the same chance. Leona grew up wanting to change that. "I was given great opportunities, and I've always wanted to come back to the city to give students the same kind of opportunities I had," she says.
Her desire to encourage, challenge, and support students from her hometown led her to study school counseling at Lesley. In her current role as a middle school counselor, Leona says she's able to support the "whole child." Her days are never quite the same. She balances her drive for social justice with the everyday needs of her students. Students come to her for advice, for guidance, and sometimes just for a hug.
“I wear many hats. Sometimes you’re a coach and sometimes you’re a teacher," says Leona. "But all the hats lead to the most success for the students.”
Leona works with students to make sense of the very serious issues that they face. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a number of her students learned about other schools organizing walkouts to protest gun violence. Her job as school counselor was to help them set goals and to understand what their message was.
She challenged the organizers by asking, "What’s the point of this and what’s your mission? What do you want to accomplish with this?” Leona was there to make sure that students’ voices were heard. She knew that for the walkout to be successful, her students had to understand what they were protesting.
Students took two-and-a-half weeks to plan the walkout. They invited prominent community members, they researched victims' personalities to honor them, and they voted on which students would speak during the walkout.
“I gave them the space and the tools to access their voices. I want to empower students to think really powerfully and be active members of their community,” reflects Leona, who values that her career allows her to teach students how to make change in the world and become agents of change. “Through planning the walkout, they learned what it means to protest, how to be an ally, and what it means to be an advocate.”
She loves working with middle schoolers because they're at such a critical point in their development. "That one conversation you have with them might trigger a change in them or might motivate them to make a change. It might completely change how they view something."
At the same time, she knows that her students are typical middle schoolers. It's a time of change for them and Leona loves that she can support them and guide them. “There’s a nice innocence to them. They’re still trying to figure out who they are and they’re so very playful. They’re still kids at heart.