The Life Behind the Principal

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Yalonda Colbert is the new principal at Obama Academy, and if this isn’t your first year here you may remember her as the Assistant Principal and Middle School Director. But do you know how she came into this position? There are a lot of things about our principal that you may not know, but I got to sit down with her and take a look into the life behind our principal.


How would you describe being the Principal so far based on this school year?

So far, first of all I’m super excited. But, there’s a lot of paperwork. And I think that, that sometimes interferes with my ability to be as visible as I would like to be sometimes and as supportive as I would like to be. Especially in the classrooms to help students and thinks like that. It’s been really good, parents have been very welcoming, students are I think really giving me an opportunity and a chance to provide support and insight on things that we want to change, things that we want to keep, things that we want to improve upon. But it’s been a lot of work, which I expected. But like I said the paperwork piece is really- I don’t want to say overwhelming because I knew that there would be a lot just being here the past to years. But the paperwork is intense. Kind of like, you guys’ class schedules and managing all of your papers and projects you guys do. I’m having to do that for the entire school. But it’s definitely been fun, I’m enjoying it. Just kind of getting to know all of our systems that we have in place and how to make things better. So I’m just looking forward to the second semester.


What was your position before becoming Principal?

Before I was Principal for the past two school years I was the Director, so that’s kind of like being Assistant Principal. The only difference is that I was responsible for a lot more of the paperwork than someone who is an Assistant Principal in the District. So there was a lot of work that I did side by side with Dr.Walters these past two years just because of the nature of my role. So on top of being in charge of discipline for middle school, I also had to support discipline for high school. But then also having to be like Dr. Walters’ right hand person, whether he was physically in the building or not. I had to make sure that school was still happening, students were being taken care of, parents were listened to and taken care of, activities were still going on, the budget, all of those types of things. It was really fun but last year I just felt like I was able to get out into the hall space a lot more.


What were some jobs you had before that helped you prepare for being a Principal?

I began in the district in 2006, I started at Arsenal Middle School. I was a middle school math teacher. After that, I applied to be one of the founding teachers to open up University Prep at Milliones here in the district. So I left Arsenal Middle School and started over at U-Prep in the 2008 school year and I stayed there until 2013 I think. So I was a middle school and a high school math teacher for about seven, seven and a half years then I became a high school and middle school math coach for U-Prep. So I did that for one year and then I had the opportunity to apply to become a Secondary Supervisor over curriculum for mathematics for grades 6-12 math at the district where I was able to be a supervisor and go over and write the curriculum and kind of get some things going on to support students in their learning and teachers in their teaching. And with that I was able to learn all about budgets, all about writing, board tabs to like say “Hey we need this program to come in or we need this person to come in.” So I learned a lot of the back end paperwork from growing from a teacher to a coach to being an assistant supervisor over in the central office, so the math department. And then, like I said just with Dr. Walters’ leadership and challenging me to learn. I learned a lot in two years, he always tells me that. We learned a lot in two years and you don’t often see that from a lot of people. Those are basically the things that really helped me but I think the biggest thing that helped me is just that I’ve always been pushed by others to be a leader. I enjoy leading people and helping, you know to be their best and that really began for me when I used to help my friends who were struggling in math and were struggling in French because I really love French and I really love math, coming through 6th grade to 12th grade. I always loved math probably since I was really little but I didn’t even really get the chance to take French until middle school. So I’ve just always tutored people, helped my friends’ kids, my cousins, and always just being pushed to be a role model so I think that those are my early year experiences all the way through like becoming a teacher and things like that.


Where did you go to college and what did you major and minor in?

So I first started off at Penn State. I had a full ride scholarship, so all I had to pay for was my books. So I was very blessed and thankful for that experience. I declared myself as an Accounting major at first, because I loved math. But I found it to be quite boring so I kind of left that alone and enrolled myself, well declared myself to be an Education major. I transferred up to the main campus and I didn’t have a good transition from the branch campus to the main campus. So what I ended up doing was transferring back to Pittsburgh and I came to the University of Pittsburgh, their main campus and I enrolled in a program that was under the psychology branch. My Bachelor’s is in Developmental Adolescent and Adult Psychology so that helped me to really begin to learn why people behave the way they behave, why they think the way they think and things like that. So I would also say that my Bachelor’s learning and stuff also helped me to be able to really help children and be in the position that I’m in right now. I remained at the University of Pittsburgh where I got accepted to their secondary mathematics education program there so I became certified as a teacher in secondary mathematics. So middle school and high school mathematics. I am still certified to teach, like if I decided I don’t want to be a principal anymore I can go back to teaching math. And then I went to IUP to get my principal certification. And so you learn a lot about community engagement and what it means to be a principal and how to support all three entities in the school. So not just the students but the parents and the community, they make up the school. It’s not just your school and you run it, you have to really make sure that you pay attention to all of those variables.


What was your first choice in careers?

My first choice was accounting, when I was going to school Penn State had a partnership where they helped students get jobs and if you had a certain GPA and you passed your exams, you were guaranteed to be starting out at like $80,000. So like what kid–you know you’re 19-20 years old. I was a very good kid, I was always on the Dean’s’ list. I had to be on the Dean’s list to keep my scholarship. And so just the incentive of, “Oh my gosh, I can really work for a really prestigious accounting firm for $80,000. I’m young, single, I can do this by the time I’m 22 or 23.” That was like really awesome for me but I was missing the whole relationship piece which is what drives me to do what I do like interacting with human beings. Sitting and crunching numbers all day, that just wasn’t going to work for me I couldn’t do it. And so knowing that I still love numbers and I love math I knew that a lot of African-American students in particular just reflecting back on friends they would say, “I hate math, I don’t know how you like it, what is it about it? What is your obsession with it?” It just kind of makes me feel powerful and strong and confident. So I just thought that I could be a role model in that space if I sought to become a mathematics teacher. Not only being an African-American but being a female. You really have a female math teacher so that was how I chose what to do. So first accounting but I quickly switched over to education.


What were some other passions you had that could have affected your career choice?

Middle school was really when I became– people would always say like “Yalonda you are so ambitious” like kind of just know what you’re going to do. And so, I actually applied to go through the Magnet process here in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I’ve been in PPS all my life. I went to Oliver High School which is now closed, but I went there because I actually wanted to be a lawyer at one point. And then somewhere my teachers kind of turned me off, which I would never advise a student to let anybody get them into that kind of space. But I had a rocky road with a couple teachers in that program which caused me to not even be focused on it or love it and enjoy it, and pursue it as much as I probably would have had I not had those encounters. But I would say early on that was one of the spaces that I really wanted to go into and be this voice of justice, voice of reason because of all the stuff I was witnessing in that community. You know with the drug epidemic at that time when I was growing up and I had my peers thinking that early encounters with sexual promiscuity meant that “Oh I’m going to be ok” versus staying in school and being educated and things like that. So I just knew something had to change. I saw a lot of my friends, not necessarily my friends but just people I went to school with being arrested, getting into gangs, just the typical statistical type of thing. What people would say “You’re another statistic” about or something, so that’s why I was interested in pursuing law and just becoming an attorney and I hoped I could be a judge at some point. I can give someone someone a second chance if I really have evidence and I can really see that they deserve a second chance.


Do you ever wish you had chosen a different career?

Sometimes I really do wish I would have at least stuck with pursuing law to at least achieve earning my Juris doctorate. Sometimes I even consider it, will there ever be a point in time in my principalship where I could go to night classes and take those classes so I could at least be certified and go through those courses because I feel like those courses may give me the opportunity to still support some other places that students would need my help and support here in school. So that would be one thing I kind of still have on my bucket list. I haven’t quite put it off but, that’s one thing I still hope to be able to do.


What are some hobbies you have outside of being a principal?

I don’t know if it’s a hobby but I enjoy being a mom, I enjoy being a wife, I enjoy like– I don’t think you guys would even know because I don’t think you guys kind of give me the opportunity to like interact in that way but I love to dance, I love to sing, I really like to eat, I love movies, I just really love to be silly and hang out with my friends. I guess that’s kind of boring but that’s who I am.


What would you say to a student that wants to become a principal some day?

I would say that you have to accept that this position is not necessarily a position of power. So don’t let the title get your head big. You have to approach the position and the work that you have to do through a servant’s heart. The work that you will be charged with as a principal is very delicate and you have to be ok with being lonely. Because it is a very lonely job. And at the end of the day you’re held accountable and responsible for everything and even like your assistant and other people aren’t always going to be there for you or physically in the space when everything is happening. So you have to be ok with working in solitude because it is a very lonely space.

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