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Teaching on Principal

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Aravena helps a student with his lesson

Aravena helps a student with his lesson

Aravena connects with her students

Aravena connects with her students

In a time where we use fridges and phones, people may not realize that "principal" is an abridgment of "principal teacher." If so, they haven't met Janet Lynch-Aravena. Aravena has taught math in New York City schools for the past 29 years, continuing her classroom work even when she was named principal of the Hudson Cliffs School (P.S./I.S. 187), near Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Only this year, after five years in her "new" job, has she given up a regular class schedule to focus on projects such as mentoring principals. Still, she says, "my bookbags are ready at the door."

Teaching informs all aspects of her job, Aravena says, and you can see it in her laser-like focus on Hudson Cliffs' 835 students as she walks through the halls of the school. She has an easy but firm way with kids, whether she's fixing the collars of the kindergartners or checking the schedules of the 8th graders. Students' spines straighten when she enters a classroom, but she doesn't hesitate to mix it up with them-checking their progress or helping with group activities. "My favorite moment in this job," she says, "is when you go into the classroom and the children welcome you and want to talk to you about what they're learning and why they're learning it. It makes me smile, because it's what educating is all about."

Even outside the classroom, her background has helped her to be an effective administrator, particularly in dealing with her staff. "The teachers thought it was wonderful that I was a teaching principal," she says. Instead of being aloof, "I was sitting next to math teachers in their conferences, learning and growing along with them." She has used this familiarity to focus on teacher empowerment, creating what she feels is a stable organizational structure. "If I'm not in the building, everything still works like clockwork," she said. "As a leader, that makes me very proud."

With the ship that steady, the administration has had room to try some novel solutions to challenges. For example, after a recent wave of teacher retirements left P.S./I.S. 187 with more than 20 percent of its teachers in their first or second year, the school began using experienced teachers and even retirees to mentor the rookies. The result: significant gains in teacher performance and retention rates.

But Aravena isn't one to rest on her laurels-and that's where the Cahn Fellowship has come in. Her project as a Fellow is to facilitate the transfer of best practices in teaching. "I believe the culture of teaching has made teachers uncomfortable with sharing their practices, and I want to make that more open," she says. She's offered tours to other principals who are eager to see the workings of one of the city's best intermediate schools, and has started research centered on "learning walks," under the guidance of Teachers College professor Henry Levin.

"When you've been in the business for as many years as I have, you're constantly reflective, but the Cahn Fellowship has brought me to the next level," she says. "It's given me the opportunity to be part of a network of successful educators and allowed me to learn and share best practices. And that's made me more confident."

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