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We all know that teachers matter, chances are, your life was greatly impacted by a teacher and that is why you decided to become a teacher yourself. Even if you are not a teacher, you may have the highest regard for teachers knowing how hard they work to make the lives of children better, but sometimes you meet that special teacher, who has dedicated their entire life, to transforming the lives of their students and their community. Nadia Lopez, Founding Principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, is one such teacher. Dr. Nadia Lopez is a pioneering teacher and school leader, whose work has transformed the life chances of many children in her community. Due to her work in education, Nadia has appeared on the Ellen Show, visited President Obama, and received the Medal of Distinction from Barnard College. In 2015 a HONY fundraiser, raised $1.4 million, to provide Nadia’s students with college trips and scholarships. Dr. Lopez is also a Black Girls Rock Change Agent, TED Fellow and author of “The Bridge To Brilliance” an inspirational account of the creation of a path breaking inner-city middle school in Brooklyn, New York.

Nadia was born and raised in Brooklyn. Both of her parents believed in the power of education and made it the number one priority in their household. Growing up poor in Central America, her mom from Guatemala, and her dad from Honduras, believed that knowledge is the greatest wealth anyone could ever posses. She attended public schools from early childhood through to high school, and then graduated from Wagner College with a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing. She loved learning and applying the holistic approach needed to help people, but she quickly realised that nursing wasn’t her calling in life. Nadia eventually became a teacher, after giving birth to her daughter, Cenné, because she wanted to be a positive influence in the lives of children, like so many educators were for her.

We met Nadia at the Global Education and Skills Forum Dubai in 2017, and we were extremely impressed with her poise and grace. Her passion for education was easy to see, The Teach Middle East Magazine team enjoyed speaking with her and gaining from her wisdom and wealth of knowledge on education and leadership. Her book “The Bridge To Brilliance” is a must read for all educators, it will remind you of why our profession is so vital. In this special interview we get to know a little bit more of what drives this powerful mother, educator and change agent.

Who was your favourite teacher? Why?

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Stephanie Paone, who taught me in second grade. She was a calming force that was always pleasant, but no nonsense when it came to her students completing their work. I remember Ms. Paone, was the first teacher to give my mother her home phone number so she could explain how to support me at home and always gave me extra work beyond the classroom that was challenging. These things were important because my mom was unfamiliar with the education system, but knew she wanted me to have the best learning experience. It’s been 33 years since I’ve been in Ms. Paone’s classroom, but she still sends me cards for the holidays and reaches out to let me know she is proud of my accomplishments.

What inspired you to start your own school?

I decided to write a proposal to open Mott Hall Bridges Academy after working in a school where I experienced working with teachers and administrators who had low expectations of the children they were suppose to serve and educate. It bothered me that a child’s address dictated the quality of education they would receive and the respect they were given. Unfortunately, for many scholars, living in poverty made them susceptible to low academic achievement and many mental health issues that impacted their behaviours. But I never believed that these factors should ever define them, which resulted in a vision of creating a learning environment where children would be nurtured to thrive by being surrounded by adults who were passionate about teaching and empowering children. 

Share two major challenges that you faced when you started. How did you overcome them?

I faced so many challenges when I opened up Mott Hall Bridges Academy.   The summer before opening the school, I literally had to go out into the community day and night to recruit scholars, because I have no children enrolled. It was not easy finding families who were interested in a new school; especially because I was I was unfamiliar in the neighborhood. That first year I ended up with many of the kids that none of the neighboring schools wanted, which meant many had a reputation of being violent. One child set the bathroom on fire in the middle of the day; thankfully no one was hurt.  The second challenge was losing nearly $225,000 the same year because we were under enrolled, which meant I was unable to purchase textbooks and technology that we desperately needed to engage our scholars in their learning. Although I had no control over those circumstances, I felt defeated and found myself praying through each obstacle. Ultimately I developed resilience and a resourcefulness that has become immeasurable. By our second year, we tripled our numbers and became a school known as the beacon of hope for the community.

What are three key qualities that every school leader should possess and why?

Every school leader must be reflective, adaptable, and a visionary. Within every organisation, there must be vision of what can be possible and a firm belief that everyone must work towards making it happen. I have found that in education, when there is a lack of vision, a culture of excellence will not exist.  People will trust and follow a leader who has a vision that everyone can become a part of and believe in. Now because we are in a world that changes every minute of every hour, leadership requires adaptability to any situation. What worked yesterday, won’t necessarily be the solution today, therefore adapting to change and being reflective in the process is critical. As a leader, I am always thinking about how to improve my work, build relationships, and manage open lines of communication. It’s easy to criticise a teacher for a poor lesson, but a true leader reflects on whether the teacher has received professional development, mentorship, or had a lesson modelled to demonstrate best practices. Actions make people a leader, not just the title.

Share an important life lesson that you have learnt and how it has impacted your life.

About a year ago, after traveling for many hours on a plane, I developed a blood clot that led me to be hospitalised. The emergency room doctor was astonished that I was still alive because of the location of the clot and immediately put me on bed rest.  For the first time, I was forced to prioritise myself before my work.  In my absence, my team stepped up and managed every aspect of the school. They worked collectively to maintain the level of excellence I would expect in my presence. It was during this time that I realised that as a leader, I must trust that the vision will continue, even in my absence. As a result, I am finding the balance I need to become my best self not only for me, but those that I lead.

What is one of your proudest achievements to date?

My proudest achievement is my fifteen-year-old daughter, Cenné, who is currently in her third year of high school. She inspired me to become a teacher that led to me opening my own school. Because of her, I created an environment where children graduate at a rate of 100% despite the high drop out rate in the community of Brownsville.  My measure of success is seeing how much she is able to accomplish, while I try to balance being a mother and a principal everyday.  She is the most selfless individual who sacrifices being with me, so I can be present to support other children.

What are three fun activities that you do to relax and take your mind off work?

When I want to relax and get my mind off of work, I enjoy traveling because I love discovering new cultures and learning what the world has to offer. My guilty pleasure is shopping in the home section of stores for linens or decorative items that will create a warm and inviting living space. But my all time favourite is taking pictures and videos, which is something I learned from my dad who is a photographer. He taught me that the only way to capture a good memory is to take a picture.