I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Andrae Townsel, Principal and graduate of AASA’s Urban Superintendents Academy, to talk about his journey into education as a career. I was struck by how much the right mentorship at just the right time can steer a young, impressionable student toward success. Townsel describes how a football coach in high school played a pivotal role in keeping him focused and on course. The results of guidance were phenomenal as Townsel went on to receive a college scholarship, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and eventually, a doctorate.
AASA’s Urban Superintendent Academy is a training school concentrating on bringing opportunity and advancement to minority candidates throughout the country. Howard University in Washington, DC, and USC in Los Angeles have teamed up with AASA to bring more opportunity to minority urban educators whose efforts are already making a difference. By training up-and-coming minority school leaders, the Academy hopes to graduate superintendents that can act as role models to youth in their communities.
I found it compelling that Dr. Andrae Townsel is setting his sights on becoming the next superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. It’s somehow reassuring when a graduate of a school system chooses to return and give back to their hometown community. It feels like the cycle of life is working. Townsel was the recipient of guidance at a crucial juncture is his youth, and now he gets to pay it forward many times over. We could all learn a thing or two by following his example. I’m sure we will be hearing a lot more about Dr. Andrae Townsel in the years to come.
Rod Berger: Andrae, it's nice to spend time with you. I think we were talking off camera about your path of becoming a principal and, obviously, now, working towards a superintendence position.
Tell me about that decision from your perspective professionally to say, “Here's what I've achieved so far and I want to take it a step further.” What was the decision-making process like?
Andrae Townsel: I think it's, more so, helping on a larger scale. I can remember going from the classroom to administration. If there's a way to make an impact on a larger scale, then, that's the scale I want. As a graduate of Detroit Public Schools, having access to high-level coaches, teachers, administrators, and even the cafeteria workers was vital.
To be in a position where you can find talents out there and put them all over your district ─ I think every student deserves that opportunity.
RB: Andrae, I've been having a lot of conversations with people around the challenges in expanding the breadth of superintendents in leadership to be more inclusive of opportunities for minorities - what sense of responsibility do you feel to raise the number?
I've heard it's only two percent of superintendents.
What sense of responsibility do you have in being a beacon of opportunity and light for younger professionals who are saying, “I'd like to be the next Andrae Townsel”?
AT: I think it's very important not only for students of color to see people of color in leadership positions but also for the majority of students to see people of color in leadership positions. It can help change the overall mentality out there - that we're all equal and everyone has the same opportunity. Everyone’s idea is great and everyone can help.
It's the mentality that every thought matters, and every thought counts.
RB: At the end of the day, right?
AT: Yes, at the end of the day.
RB: Tell me a little bit about your experience with AASA and being a part of the first cohort.
AT: The Urban Superintendents Academy.
RB: Yes, The Superintendents Academy - what surprised you about that process? When you were going into it, did you have expectations? What did you learn that was eye-opening for you?
AT: Honestly, everything was eye opening to me. I went with the expectation that I was going to learn and have a comprehensive knowledge of how education works, in general; and that's exactly what the program did for me.
It gave me a comprehensive knowledge of the thought that goes into the curriculum the teachers teach or the thought that goes into the policies that govern food or counseling and the social-emotional services that we put forth for our students. There's also an understanding of the politics of education because it’s not always about student achievement, unfortunately; sometimes it's about about budgets.
RB: There are some realities.
AT: Also, the reality of relationships. It's being a person. It is being a likeable person and just building a good team and having that one common unity of direction where everybody moves together.
RB: Given your career path, what was it for you when you were a young student that made the light first go off in your head that said, “I think I want to work in education, not just graduate, but be employed in education?"
AT: I graduated from Detroit Public Schools. My light bulb went off when I was a senior in high school and I realized I was going into the real world, I said to myself, “I need to listen to some of these adults who are telling me something.”
And here's a funny observation about social media. Everyone is following everything.
But if you want to be successful, follow directions.
I decided to follow directions from some of the leaders who were in my school - and I listened.
I'd be honest with you ─ it's made the rest of my life the best part of my life.
I want to give that opportunity to whoever student I have the opportunity to serve. I want to give them an opportunity and tell them the best things possible, the right things, and open opportunities for them - and then let the chips fall where they may.
Specifically, it was my twelfth-grade year and the first time I played a full season of football; it led me to receive a college scholarship to get my bachelor’s degree; and that bachelor’s rolled into a masters; the masters turned into a doctoral degree.
But if I didn't listen to that coach, if I didn't go to breakfast, if I had quit like I was going to do, if that coach didn't come to my house and say, “Get up and go to school; colleges are looking for you,” if he did not do that for me, I don't know where I'd be, to be completely transparent.
RB: To be transparent, I grew up in Detroit area and I'm curious as to when any of our professional teams are going to crack the barriers. Is it going to be our Lions or our Pistons?
AT: It's going to be one. I'm completely optimistic. As long as you have breath in your body, you have an opportunity. So as long as there's another season, there's another opportunity. (laugh)
RB: Andrae, I grew up during the Bad Boy era. (laugh)
AT: Oh, my. (laugh)
RB: Well, continued success!
AT: Thanks so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.
RB: And with you as well.
Dr. Andrae Townsel
Dr. Andrae Townsel is Principal at Southbridge Public Schools, Southbridge, MA. He was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. As a graduate from Detroit Public Schools, he earned an athletic scholarship to Howard University in Washington, DC. Dr. Townsel received a bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree from the prestigious Howard University.
As an educator in the District of Columbia, Dr. Townsel served as a teacher, coach, director of athletics, dean of students, district specialist, and assistant principal. Dr. Townsel is a recipient of numerous awards and has a track record of student achievement. Dr. Townsel is committed to the students, families, faculty, staff, and all other stakeholders of the community.
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About Rod Berger, PsyD.
Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes
Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.
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