How many of you remember the trigonometry you learned in high school? And all those dates you had to memorise in history class of the major World Wars? Chances are, all this info is long gone for many of us – but for those of you who could answer any or all, kudos!! Ok, fun aside, here is the important question–do you still remember your favourite teacher in school, the one who really had a significant impact in your life? Chances are, this person is still alive and important in your memory.
I have the honour and privilege of introducing you to Nadia Lopez, a Teacher, Educator, Principal, who has had that kind of meaningful impact in the minds of hundreds of children–and not just any children: she’s had an impact on the children from one of the most underserved communities in America.
Nadia’s story became an international sensation in a matter of days as millions of people around the world learned of the positive learning environment she created with the founding of a New York City Public School, Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, one of the poorest and most violent neighbourhoods in New York. How did Nadia’s story spread? Through one photo, and one question, posed to a 13-year old: “Who has most inspired you in life?”
The Facebook post went viral. Stanton launched a crowdfunding campaign to send Mott Hall students on visits to Harvard University — which Nadia believed would inspire them. The fundraiser raised $1.4 million to take Nadia’s students on college trips that include Harvard University, Summer STEM programs, and college scholarships. The success story was shared through numerous media outlets and resulted in Nadia guest appearing on The Ellen Show, visiting President Barack Obama at the Whitehouse, and receiving the Medal of Distinction from Barnard College. In addition, Nadia was honored alongside First Lady Michelle Obama with the Change Agent Award at the Black Girls Rock show hosted on BET Networks, nominated as a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize, and became a TED Fellow speaking on the education revolution at TED Talk. Most recently, she was interviewed in the new Netflix film ‘She Did That’, featuring some dynamic Black women entrepreneurs.
What are three critical turning points in your life so far?
One of the three turning points in my life was the birth of my daughter. Becoming a mom inspired me to pursue education as a career because I wanted to be a positive influence on children the way so many teachers had been in my life. Second, was Vidal Chastanet’s interview in Humans of New York.
Pictured: The original Facebook post from 2015 of eighth grader Vidal Chastanet featured in Humans of New York (HONY), a project on storytelling by photographer Brandon Stanton. Stanton's post after meeting Lopez. Stanton, Lopez, and Chastnet curtesy of Jeff Bachner.
The third turning point has been experiencing a medical crisis in May of 2019, which forced me to reprioritise my health and wellness. For over a decade my career has come before self-care that would ensure that my mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Consequently, I have engaged in meditation, taken yoga classes, and found balance in how I spend my time as a way of prioritising myself.
Walk us through a day in the life of Nadia: what does a typical day look like for you?
Currently, I am the principal of Mott Bridges Academy, a New York City Public School I founded in 2010 to create a positive learning environment right in the middle of one of the most under-served communities in America.
I arrive at the school by 7:30 am to greet the scholars as they enter the building in the morning. (I call our students “scholars” because I want them to know they’re learning even when they leave). Once the classes are in session, I walk by each classroom to check in with staff members to get a pulse of the school’s climate. At a minimum, I conduct four observations, followed by meetings with teachers to discuss their lessons and provide feedback. During lunch, I host small groups of scholars who need additional academic or social-emotional support. We read books, talk about life, and create goals that will help them improve their academic achievement or behaviour. Throughout the day, I meet with parents or facilitate conversations to cultivate relationships that will build relationships that will provide resources for the school. Our after school program begins after 2:30 pm until 6 pm, which is time that I meet with my administrative team to discuss the day, our school goals, and concerns that may have presented themselves. By 9 pm I leave to go home.
Pictured: Lopez and students at Mott Bridges Academy with students.
Where does your appreciation of schools and education come from? Did you always feel this passion, or did something in particular happen to help you realise this?
My parents didn’t have the luxury of completing secondary school or going to college and neither did my grandparents. As a result, education was a major priority in my home. My mother and father enrolled me in the best public schools, bought me books to read at home, and taught me that wealth did not only come from how much money I had but the amount of knowledge that could be applied in life.
Pictured: Lopez, Chastanet, and President Barack Obama.
Of your many accomplishments (to name just a few– being featured in major television shows, publishing multiple books, and visiting President Barack Obama at the Whitehouse) which are you most proud of?
Honestly speaking, it has been an honour to speak as a keynote at various conferences and be featured in various publications throughout the world. Rarely do you ever see women of colour in education highlighted as thought leaders within our industry. Delivering a TED Talk with over a million views, authoring multiple books, traveling the world as an ambassador for education has allowed me to serve as an example of what diversity and inclusion can look like in educational leadership.
Professionally, my greatest accomplishment has been opening Mott Hall Bridges Academy and being able to witness my scholars not only graduate our school but to go onto pursue careers and/or attend college. I can honestly say that I have created a tremendous legacy and fulfilled my mantra: I opened a school to close a prison.
Pictured: Lopez's book "The Bridge to Brilliance" and her TED talk.
If you could make one book mandatory for students around the world of all ages, what would that be and why? And what book(s) have had the most impact in your own life?
Years ago, I came across the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which I believe children around the world should be required to read. The main character, August Pullman, who was born with a facial deformity, goes from being home-schooled throughout his primary years to being enrolled at a neighbouring school, which presents numerous challenges. It is a story that reveals how people within our society can be cruel when they lack understanding and see others as different from themselves. But it also teaches the importance of empathy, kindness, compassion, which all children need to learn so they can be accepting of others without prejudice.
One of my favourite books that has really impacted my life has been The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. As an educator and leader, I have high expectations and want the very best for people. But over the years what I have learned is each of us has different life experiences, which is instrumental in determining what we deem as a successful accomplishment in our lives. This book puts into perspective how each of us enters a journey to pursue our dreams and when we are determined to achieve a particular goal, the universe will bring together everything you need, to make it happen.
On Jan. 9, 2015, eighth-grader Vidal Chastanet was featured in Humans of New York, a project on storytelling that photographer Brandon Stanton began in NYC in 2010 and has since gained millions of followers around the world. When Stanton asked Vidal who influenced him most in life, he replied, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.” “When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us,” he said. “She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. She tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
Nadia is pioneering a path of inspired leadership to show the world how underprivileged communities can beat the odds and create positive institutions that have a global impact. Her story is full of beautiful seeds of wisdom–and no matter where you come from, what you do, how old you are, those seeds will, if you let them, grow into a magnificent garden, your own Eden.