Principal Pam Gildersleeve-Hernandez
The Collaborative Leader, Star School Leader Recipient
Now the executive director of CUE.org, former Principal (& Superintendent) Pam Gildersleeve-Hernandez has dedicated her career to advocating for students, empowering teachers, and using technology to break barriers and enhance education. This is the eighth spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter, or check out our School Leadership page, which we will update with each new spotlight.
When asked about what inspired her career in education, Principal Pamela Gildersleeve-Hernandez cites a meme: “If you go back and look at what games you were playing when you were 6-10 years old, that’s your true calling as an adult.”
In retrospect, there was no doubt that Principal Pam would be an educator some day. She recalls having a chalkboard and benches in her garage, and inviting all of the neighbors’ kids to come to school. “God bless the kids in the neighborhood for indulging a Type-A, oldest-sibling personality and playing school with me,” she jokes.
Still, teaching was not on Principal Pam’s agenda until years later. “I had no intention of going into education as a student. I watched often how disrespectful kids were to the teachers, and how tired they were.”
She had her sights on foreign service, and even began to pursue a master’s degree in international public administration. While she completed her own schooling, Principal Pam taught swimming lessons on the side.
One of her teachers observed her swimming class and pulled her aside to say that she would make a great teacher. “I said, ‘Mrs. Nulty, with all due respect––there’s no way in hell I’d ever become a teacher.”
But the garage classroom never forgets. After leaving her master’s program, she began substitute teaching for income. That’s what her true calling finally clicked: “I remember thinking, holy smokes, you can get paid to do this?”
“What I really love most about my position is that I have the authority to help set the direction and empower everybody within the organization. I get to be the ‘Yes!’ person.”
—Principal Pamela Gildersleeve-Hernandez, San Antonio Union School District
From Classroom Garage to Front Office
Mrs. Hernandez taught for 17 years before transitioning into the role of principal. Up until then, it seemed that with every passing year, it was less likely that she’d ever leave the classroom. “My passion is with kids, so it was a hard leap to take,” she says. One could not prepare for how hard that leap would be.
Ultimately, Principal Pam was wrenched away from the classroom by tragedy. Gang violence was very prevalent in her community: “My last year in the classroom, we had the highest per capita murder rate in the country.”
That year, one of her students was killed.
“It had such an emotional impact on me that summer,” Principal Hernandez recalls. “I realized I didn’t have it in me to lose another student. But I do have it in me to support teachers that may be in a similar situation.”
Aside from being her inspiration for administrative work, supporting teachers has played a huge role in Principal Pam’s career. During her first year as an assistant principal, she may as well have earned this spotlight. “I had some quick wins, so I ended up getting a lot of attention right out of the door.”
After examining contracts at her school, (Asst.) Principal Pam advocated for teachers and better working conditions. Less than a month into the school year, the assistant superintendent paid her a visit. When he asked how she was doing, she replied frankly: “This may have been a mistake.”
It didn’t take long as an administrator for Pam to realize that working with kids is what “feeds her soul.”
She credits the superintendent’s advice for maintaining the rest of her career in school leadership. He told her to block two hours a week in her calendar, and connect with a teacher whose classroom she could teach. “That’s what kept me on the administrative side of the house, and in education.”
Serving a small school district allowed Principal Hernandez to wear many hats, and keep one foot in the classroom. Adjacent to her office is a door that leads directly to the playground. Throughout her time as a principal (and later, superintendent), Principal Pam continuously made time for direct interaction with students. In fact, the 2019-2020 school year will be the first time in 26 years that she hasn’t taught!
“If I’m struggling with a decision, or if something doesn’t feel right, I get to walk out on the playground and hang out with the kids. Then I know exactly who I’m making the decision for, at any time. No doubt whatsoever. And that is by far the best part of my job.”
—Principal Pamela Gildersleeve-Hernandez, San Antonio USD
Setting the Tone for a Campus Community
The impact on the school’s community is at the forefront of every decision Principal Hernandez makes, whether it’s combining classes or rearranging the staff lounge. While telling us about her time as principal, she beams brightest when praising her team of teachers, office administrators, guidance counselors, and custodial staff. “Everybody has each other’s back all of the time. Nobody hesitates—we’re a team. And when we take care of each other, it’s good for the kids.”
“Despite the challenges of working in a small district, and wearing many hats, Mrs. Hernandez continues to grow as a learner, as well as a leader. She attends as many conferences as possible with us, and makes every effort to provide team-building opportunities.”
—Diane Stensrud, teacher at San Antonio USD
Making sure that teachers enjoy their jobs produces a huge impact on the students. Teachers have piloted dynamic initiatives to foster a stronger reading culture at the school, using Bitmojis to show themselves immersed in books. “When my team brings me these ideas, it just puts me in a really nice place. I get to say, ‘yes, that’s it!’”
Accelerating Learning with Technology
At San Antonio Union School District, technology is used to accelerate learning and show students their own impact on the larger world. With the Future Ready initiative, students learn about workforce opportunities that feed their interests and benefit their local community. “We connected with a NASA astronaut on Twitter, and he ended up being part of our summer STEM program — how cool is that?!”
One last time, Principal Pam invites her neighbors to take a seat in her classroom garage — although by now, she has upgraded to a podium. When asked for advice to give other school leaders trying to give technology a resonant role in their community, she offers one word, “Perseverance.”
In addition to a lack of funding and late adopters, educators who advocate for technology are also fighting against public perception: it can’t be a good thing that we are so connected to devices all the time. Can it?
Principal Hernandez recommends listening to people’s concerns, and bringing information and experience to annul them. “We need to look at it more closely, and rely on partnerships with people — even those that may be pushing back on something that we want to move forward quickly.”
When embarking on a new technology initiative, the first step is to align on the vision, the purpose, and the goal you wish to achieve. Technology can make processes more efficient, but only when they are appropriately matched to a need. Ultimately, success comes from communication: to parents, teachers, pilots, and leaders. “It’s really important that every voice is heard,” Principal Hernandez says.
“Mrs. Hernandez continually seeks to better herself by reading, attending conferences, and taking classes—both to remain current, and to push the boundaries of education. She is an inspiration to me!”
—Diane Stensrud, teacher at San Antonio USD
Using technology to enhance education has been a lifelong passion for Principal Pam—so much so that it has inspired her to take the next step in her career. In March 2019, Mrs. Gildersleeve-Hernandez was named the Executive Director of CUE (formerly Computer-Using Educators, founded in 1978). Check out her blog here, and tweet her a congratulations using the handle @pgilders!
Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?
Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.
The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:
- Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
- Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
- Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.
To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.
More From the Star School Leader Series
At Henry Ford Elementary (TX), teachers, staff, parents, and students alike are brought together and inspired by Principal Priscilla Salinas’ leadership.
As a principal, Mr. Nemlich views technology as a way to open doors that may otherwise be closed to kids from a rural environment.
We spoke with Taos Academy founder & Principal Traci O. Filiss about change management, empowering teachers, and inspiring students to be self-motivated.