By Marilu Aguilar-Moreno
from Aspire’s Talent Team
A new academic year is in full swing and teammate spotlights are back with stories about the amazing people that bring our core values to life. To kick us off, Lena Anthony, Director of the Aspire Teacher Residency Program (ATR) for the Bay Area at Alder GSE.
Although she grew up in a family with many educators, Ms. Anthony didn’t immediately choose to be one herself. Her sights were set on becoming a lawyer, but the meaningful moments as a classroom volunteer led her to a dual master’s program at UCLA, where she studied African American Studies and earned her teaching credential.
After a series of calculated risks, Ms. Anthony found herself in the Bay Area (Oakland, CA), where she joined the leadership team at Aspire College Academy in 2016 as a principal resident. She later became an assistant principal, and in that role, Ms. Anthony led the vision to develop a comprehensive behavioral health program along with a team of school leaders and mental health counselors. The program flourished shortly after its implementation due to finely tuned data protocols that captured root causes of behavior, as well as professional development that equipped teachers and staff with trauma-informed tools to meet students where they were. She credited her team at ACA for the success of the behavioral health program. She said, “We did a great job. Our teachers were amazing. There were hard days, and it took a lot of team collaboration to overcome those.”
Ms. Anthony graciously reflected on her career journey, her learnings along the way, and what keeps her grounded as a leader and mentor.
Can you walk me through your career trajectory? How did you become an educator?
I actually majored in pre-law and was on track to be a lawyer. I was working at a law office and had applied to law school, but at the same time, I was still volunteering at school sites. Many people in my family are educators, so growing up, I was working in their classrooms and I just felt safe. I had fun and enjoyed it so much that I started volunteering at The Accelerated School in Los Angeles, teaching an Ethnic Studies class after school and I loved being with kids as they understood their culture and identity. Realizing this was something I wanted to do, I waived my law school options to attend a dual master’s program at UCLA. I then worked at LA Unified as a teacher to start out and then moved to San Fernando Valley, where I worked as a literacy coach, supporting teachers with instructional delivery.
After that, I took a leap of faith and left the school district to travel all over the country as a consultant and instructional coach – I did that for about six years and I loved it. The goals were to ensure that students were engaged and to support teachers in designing lessons anchored in core standards. Six years of traveling began to take a toll, so I took another leap of faith and moved to Oakland for a principal residency at Aspire. While it wasn’t my dream to become a principal, it was important to me to understand what it meant to run a school. Because I always wanted to support new teachers within a teacher preparation program, I needed to understand the systems and structures from a school leader’s perspective. Once I felt prepared, I stepped into my current director role at Alder, but the weird thing is that I started in the midst of the pandemic.
Of course! What systems/structures have helped you manage or adapt to the “new normal”?
I think my background in administration has enabled me to be a strong director. As an assistant principal, I understood the power of relationships and defining clear expectations to support new teachers. With the ongoing pandemic, it’s not just about checking boxes, it’s about taking the time to cultivate relationships, getting to know our new teachers, and identifying what barriers and challenges might contribute to turnover. Reflecting on my previous experience has helped me frame how I am setting up support systems for my residents to succeed. This is the first class that did pretty much all of their teachings online, and operating from an asset-based perspective helped knock down a lot of the barriers brought about by the pandemic. For example, where the residents might feel uncomfortable with building out a balanced student community in the classroom, they may have stronger expertise in planning and implementing engaging instruction online.
I want to pivot a bit. What change do you want to see in education and how is Aspire addressing those needs?
I definitely feel like Aspire is on the right track with the equity focus. As schools transitioned to distance learning, a lot of systemic inequities revealed themselves. Access is a big focus for me. I hope that the education system shifts to a better understanding of what students have or don’t have access to be successful – it’s about race and it’s also about socioeconomic status. It’s important to consider intersectional experiences when building structures to support students’ needs. I’ve been in education for 21 years and I believe Aspire is the closest thing I’ve seen to where they’re putting action to the word and I want to see us maintain conversations, continue building out resources, and remaining transparent with families, especially when the intensity of the work sets in.
Speaking of intense work, how do you stay grounded and make sure that you’re well?
I’m working on that. I’ve been trying to get out of perfectionism because I’ve held myself to that, and at times I’ve held my team to that, which contributed to burnout. I’ve heard of this term, connected care, which defines the impact we have on others when we take care of ourselves, and that got me to think about self-care more intentionally. Being an administrator at ACA, I had to adjust to being okay with not having all the answers and to seek my own support systems because I was good at encouraging my staff and teammates to take care of themselves, but I wasn’t doing the same.
For example, if you’re in an airplane and need your oxygen mask, how can you help others, if you don’t have your mask on first? So, having therapy supports, setting reasonable boundaries, and finding the time to rest have helped me navigate. You still have to think about impact, however. Your boundary can’t be to shut down at 3 pm if everyone else is still operating until 5 o’clock. You really have to set a tone of clear expectations, while keeping impact top of mind and follow through.
Lena Anthony said that she looks forward to upholding the legacy of the Aspire Teacher Residency program and ensuring that Aspire schools are able to cultivate effective educators who want to serve our schools and communities and who are prepared and supported to implement high expectations, equitable practices, and culturally responsive pedagogy. She elaborated, “I want ATR to flourish as a pipeline for teachers, especially teachers of color that represent our communities, so that they can remain in our schools long-term. I know that it takes consistency in wrapping around the whole adult and that will remain my priority every year in this role as a Director.”
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