Story posted September 22, 2011
Nell Sears is Principal of Paul Cuffee School in Providence, R.I. She graduated in 1997 with a BA in History (at the time, Bowdoin didn’t offer a major in Latin American Studies).
Tell us about Paul Cuffee School and your work there.
Paul Cuffee School is a public charter school in Providence, R.I., founded in 2001 and named for Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe) who was a ship captain in the late eighteenth century. His mother was a Wampanoag Native American and his father was a freed slave, originally from Ghana. Cuffee is credited with founding one of the first integrated schools in the country in nearby Westport, MA. I've been at Paul Cuffee School for eight years; I helped to design and start our middle school. Our school reflects the demographics of the Providence Public School district; roughly 75 percent of our students are Latino, and over 75 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. It's been exciting for me personally to be able to stay connected with Latin American cultures through my students and their families. We provide an engaging and rigorous academic program with a heavy emphasis on developing a thoughtful and supportive community and fostering in our students the desire and the tools to effect positive change in the world.
What are your biggest challenges as principal of the school?
One major challenge is resources. In Rhode Island, charters do not receive funding for capital costs, which translates into insufficient buildings. Though our amazing teachers can work in almost any conditions, space impacts teaching and learning in many important ways. A great way to illustrate the inequities in our education system is to look at the educational spaces in poor districts next to those in wealthier districts. Poverty is also a huge challenge for our students and for our families. Students from poor backgrounds often come with more stressors and fewer resources, which means that they have to work much harder to succeed academically.
How did Bowdoin prepare you for your current position?
There are three main aspects of my Bowdoin experience that come to mind. First, I think Bowdoin helped develop my ability to prioritize. During my four years, I participated in a lot of activities outside of the classroom. Juggling those demands on my time meant that there wasn’t always time to do everything as perfectly as I would have hoped, but I learned how to make reasonable choices about where to focus my time and energy (don’t worry, Professor Wells, I always read every word of the books you assigned). In education, the job literally never ends. Teachers and principals could work twenty-four hours a day and still not be finished. It’s critical to be able to decide when to stop or what needs to take a backseat for the time being.
Second, the love for Latin American history and culture I developed at Bowdoin and through my study abroad program has definitely given me more context for my Latino families’ experiences and culture than I would have had otherwise. Studying Latin American history at Bowdoin also fuelled my passion for working for social justice through education.
The Bowdoin College Upward Bound (UB) program was extremely influential in my career path. That is where I first encountered up close the class-based inequities in our education system and came to understand how essential college preparation is for poor students. I learned the basics of teaching and learning, and it was at UB that I first became hooked on the power of a supportive, engaging, and challenging educational community to change students’ lives. I imported many wonderful traditions from UP to my own school; in many ways Paul Cuffee’s middle school was modeled after Bowdoin Upward Bound.
What path did you take to Cuffee after leaving college?
I guess I'd say it was a circuitous trip. When I graduated, I really couldn't have predicted that I would go into teaching. I had worked at summer camps and at Upward Bound, but until I spent some time working in an office at a nonprofit, I thought I would go to law school. Frankly, I just couldn't get through the day sitting at a desk. I really missed working with young people. After that experience, I made my way toward teaching; I worked at an adolescent crisis shelter in Lewiston, a private boarding school outside of Philadelphia, and a public school in rural New Hampshire.
What goals and aspirations do you have for Cuffee for the near and the long-term future?
We’re currently building out our high school program. We added our first class of 9th graders in the 2010-2011 year, and we’ll be adding 10th grade next year. One near-term goal is to see my students graduate from our 12th grade and go on to fabulous colleges. In the middle school, we are continuing to work to strengthen our culture of scholarship in a number of ways. Ultimately, I want Paul Cuffee School to offer the kind of rigorous, enlightening, challenging, inspiring K-12 education regularly available to children from wealthy families.
What suggestions do you have for current undergraduates about how to succeed in teaching?
The first thing to realize is that teaching is extremely demanding-- both intellectually and technically. The public perception of teaching right now is a very negative one, and it doesn't do justice to the intellectual and creative skills that good teaching requires. I would encourage current undergraduates to take full advantage of everything Bowdoin has to offer; study anything and everything that is exciting and interesting. In my view, a solid liberal arts background is the best foundation for teaching. Before graduation, spend some time with children—work at a summer camp, volunteer in a classroom, or walk down to McClellan and talk to Bridget Mullen about working at Bowdoin Upward Bound for a summer or two. After Bowdoin, look for a teaching program that is very practice- based rather than theory-based. Being a good teacher takes experience and exposure. It’s like riding a bike; reading about how to push the pedals doesn’t get you up the Pyrenees in the Tour de France.
Interview originally published in the Bowdoin Latin American Studies Newsletter
— July 2011