Nadia Lopez On Teaching The Babies & Taking Care Of Herself

February 27, 2017  |  

Principal Nadia Lopez gained national attention after one of her scholars Vidal was featured on the popular blog Human of New York. From then on, she received plenty of media attention even landing in the Oval Office to meet President Obama. Since then, the media attention has died down some. Recently, we caught up with Ms. Lopez to see which things have changed and which have stayed the same.

You said that God chose Brownsville for you, you didn’t choose Brownsville. So I was wondering if you could expound upon that a little bit.

At the time that the Department of Education approved the school, they had selected the location. And so, I had served an assistant principal in that neighborhood. And from that vantage point, I really got to see how, when a community is disenfranchised how it really impacts the residents in terms of their morale, their ability to have hope for the future, how adults interacted with children and having expectations of them having a brighter future. It was a lot to digest and the school where I was, had a lot of challenges. It was semi-violent. Often times, children had no regard for any of the rules.

When they offered the placement— well they didn’t offer, they were like this is where you’re going to go. I was apprehensive. I just felt like, ‘I’m ok. I’d rather go to the Bronx.’ They were real clear in saying, ‘Nope. You served as an assistant principal, you understand the dynamics of that community and it would best be served by a leader like yourself.’

When I say I was chosen for it, it is because what happened subsequently when a school was supposed to close which was P.S. 332 and I was supposed to become the feeder school. So that didn’t happen, it forced me to immerse myself in the community, go through the housing developments, make myself known to the leaders, go to all the community organizations, rec centers. It wasn’t that difficult because I had already been in the community. So it was like He had already prepared me. Like, ‘It’s going to be tough. These are the people you’re going to be dealing with. And you got this.’

So what is it like at Mott Hall now? You guys were on Humans of New York, then you were on Ellen, you were in the White House. Now that the media attention has died down, what’s the climate in the school like now?

I mean, it’s the same thing. When the story came out in the public, it was hectic in the sense that there was just a lot of media attention. So coming into the school, wanting to have interviews. We were constantly being highlighted. However the scholars themselves, they didn’t process it as super stardom or fame. They had already been used to cameras being in the school because any time we had done something, whether it was our arts program and turning our school into a gallery or if it was our “I Matter” event, our local news channels had been coming into the school. And myself and the director of programming, we were constantly taking the camera into the classrooms and making short videos so the kids could see themselves and their growth that we would highlight at assemblies. So folks coming in and out of the school, it didn’t change the sense of what we do on a day to day.

I think that the needs supersede anything else. So that hasn’t changed. The community hasn’t changed, mental health services that are needed hasn’t changed, parents failure to be as actively involved as we would like hasn’t changed. If nothing else, for me personally, there’s a lot more of a demand to try to balance between work and that means being present for my scholars and my staff and the demand of people wanting to hear me speak and being able to influence the conversation in education. And then still being a mom and a respectful daughter of two parents who are retired. So now I’m pulled in 4 different directions as opposed to two or three.

I remember you saying right around the time Humans of New York interviewed Vidal, you were feeling discouraged, wondering if it was too much. And I wonder do you still have those feelings today and…

Yes!

Ok, so to be honest, I always try to be clear and transparent, especially when it comes to social media. Depression is something that I do battle and it has a lot to do with when you’re a type A personality and you get to a level of leadership, there’s so much of a demand on you as an individual to never show weakness and to always be at 100% and everybody has a need or a want and often times when you’re leading people, they don’t take on the ownership of initiating because they want your approval. So leadership is very lonely and every decision you make has severe implications. It could be good or it could be bad. And when you work for the Department of Education, it can be very unforgiving because in general, you’re scrutinized in public school settings. You’re looked at as not being the best because your children’s numbers don’t reflect being on grade level. So I internalize a lot.

I can’t speak to my staff and play victim to it. I have to understand this is the community I serve, these are the changes that have to be made. The system wants the change to happen automatically and over night. And it can’t. Because the people who actually have to do the work are my staff and the kids have to learn. And that’s a process. And so I was really feeling depressed because I felt like nothing that I was doing was having an impact. And when you’re surrounded, constantly, by the feeling of hopelessness and people feeling helpless and they’re drawing off your energy, I had nothing else to give. So here I am spending countless hours—I literally worked Monday-Sunday. I started to feel guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time with my daughter. I started to feel guilty that I wasn’t taking care of my health. My health started to decline so I just wasn’t feeling it. And so that’s what happened because at the end of the day I just felt like this is all your fault. It’s not working because of you. You’re not leading. The kids don’t understand what you’re doing and why you keep fighting for them and with them. The teachers feel like you’re being too demanding. It was just a whole bunch of stuff at one time.

In terms of where things are at right now, I still have those moments. I mean, I had the moment yesterday because everyone is human and people want to feel safe, they want to feel respected, they want to feel acknowledged and when you’re one person and you have to do it for a staff of 30 and 203 kids and then their parents, it’s like I’m one person trying my best to make sure that we’re a success and that society at large respects the children that are here and the work that we’re doing. And the reality is everybody is not for you. Everybody doesn’t believe in the success of these children because they’re not able to see their brilliance. They see the behavior issues, they see their lack of drive. And they often have those moments. But it’s because— if you’ve been reminded for so long of not having value, it takes almost 10x the amount of time and energy to prove to you that you have value.

So I hit those walls. But what I have to do is, I literally have to check myself. I have to step back. I will pray when I need to. I will call my closest folks who are going to keep me off the ledge. And sometimes I just need to be still. And still means not being on social media. That means I’m not going to go out. I have to say no to a speaking engagement. I have to preserve myself.

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You don't know how much it means to receive all of your birthday wishes, especially after nearly dying last year from a blood clot. After weeks of bedrest, several months of taking blood thinners, and ongoing doctor visits I realized how fragile and precious life can be. My mother prayed for the restoration of my health, while Cenné would remind me to that she only has one mom. Like so many of you reading this post, I have put my work and others first. Behind closed doors in the silence there is a fight to stay encouraged and be everything to everyone. But life has a way of teaching you that self-care comes with making decisions that put your physical, mental, and spiritual well being first, even if it doesn't make everyone else feel comfortable. Take care of yourself because someone in this world needs you to be here, including me 💜 #theLopezEffect #Compass2017 #TheYearofCompletion

A post shared by Nadia Lopez (@thelopezeffect) on

So to that point, you posted on social media saying you had a blood clot issue last year. So what are some specific strategies you employ to make sure you’re a priority when you’re doing such important work?

We often suffer from Superwoman Syndrome and it’s not that we intentionally want to do that. But unfortunately for so long, we’ve just had to be the strong ones. And so being a single mom and having to manage going through stuff personally. I had to continue to get my degree, take pay cuts, hustle hard, make sure my daughter was taken care of and all those things. But once we got to leadership things were really, really different because it did take a toll on my health.

And so what I do, without fail, is that I do go to the doctor annually. But when I see signs and symptoms because I’m in tune with my body— like when I discovered the clot, literally I was on the plane coming back from Dubai. And I felt uncomfortable in a way that immediately it registered in my brain that I had a clot. And when I said it out loud, the folks that were traveling with me were just like, ‘How you know you have a clot? Who says that?’ I was like, ‘You know, it just doesn’t feel right.’ And my background is in nursing. So the way I was able to describe it from the way I felt, I just knew this isn’t healthy.

Lopez did indeed have a clot and a day later, and a couple of aspirin, she spent the night in the hospital and was on blood thinners for months. 

So that forced me to really think about prioritizing myself. I don’t work on Sundays anymore. I try my best to take as much care as possible but I will say this, the reality when you work in the inner city, is that the only way that you can get work done, is that you have to put in extra time to work. If I worked in another community, if I worked in Brooklyn Heights, if I worked on the Upper West Side, I would never have to stay in my building until 10 o clock. That’s just unheard of. I would leave my building by 4:30-5. And I definitely wouldn’t be working weekends unless it was a special event. But you can’t get work done because of all the other things that come up during the day that requires you to have to stay after school to focus on my work.

So what I say now, I will take time to actually take days off. I never used to do that. I try to stay away from sweets. I started to exercise. I jog in the building. I have a track team because we don’t always have access to a track all the time, they actually run in the building, so I started to run in the building. Staying away from greasy foods, I try to eat baked foods. And drinking tea keeps me calm.

I’m wondering what your scholars are feeling about the current president. These are Black and Brown kids. What are their thoughts and what do you say to encourage them if they are feeling discouraged?

Up until the election and even after the election, we engaged our scholars in conversation about the results. So they are constantly becoming aware. My social studies teachers really did a good job of just talking to the kids about the what-ifs and having them be able to really have a clear understanding about what both candidates were bringing to the table and being clear on the narrative that was being created by the both of them. The day after the election, we had a modified schedule so we dedicated the day to digital day which meant people who are in the digital industry but they had to be people of color. So people in the digital and tech industry came to actually do workshops with the kids.

So those individuals were bummed out, like what do we do next, like how do we talk to these kids?

If nothing else, It’s a time to build community and to realize we can’t rely on one person to save us. It was really for us to come together and understand that we can all step and do it.

That morning before the guests came, we had conversations with the kids about the election and not just what that meant in terms of us having a new president but what does it mean for his cabinet? And that’s what we wanted them to understand. It now will impact all of the different entities that have to be headed by people he’s going to select. So we showed them some of the names that he had proposed or some of the names we heard in the news that may be individuals that he would consider and talking about what their interests were and some of their past interactions in terms of interest groups.  And we also had them talk about what their concerns would be but then what was their responsibility. We see what happened, we see who’s now going to be in this position but when you turn 18, what is your responsibility? So the seed had been planted about the importance of voting and then also understanding for those people who didn’t vote and those people who were angry about the election in general, how their failure to vote had local as well as national implications.

My job is not to create a bias in them, it’s to keep them informed and to make sure they’re able to engage in good conversations.

Do you have plans to expand the Mott Hall model?

I would love to expand the model of Mott Hall but aside from just creating models of the school, I want to be able to support my colleagues who are doing this work and feel alone in the process. I think that there are great schools with amazing potential but there’s a lot that we’re not taught, how to leverage relationships, how to get rid of the people who are not about the vision. There’s just things you’re not taught and you have to get burned a lot before you understand what to do and you lose a lot of time between years and the sacrifice of that: our children. My future, I don’t know what that holds but I do know I’ve been blessed with the opportunity of making something out of what people thought was nothing and being able to create a place of hope that respects children and holds everyone accountable to make sure that we don’t fail them.

How do the children keep you inspired and encouraged?

I was having a moment like literally moved to tears because I was just feeling disappointed at how much people could have low expectations of children, basically dealing with mediocrity. It gets to the point where people try to convince you that your expectations are too high. It’s like ‘No, it’s not.’ This is just not right. And he came into my office because he was having a moment and I had to get myself together because I don’t have the room to be down and out. I have to be at 100 percent for him.

Lopez shared the time she spent with her scholar on her Instagram page. 

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Earlier this morning when Ethan came to school, I knew something was bothering him. His mother passed away a few years ago and today was her birthday. I grabbed him by the hand and said, "She was an Aquarius like me, so I know she was great! But you know if you find yourself having a difficult time being in class, tell the teachers that you have permission to see me. I love you and thank you for coming in today." By midday, he was escorted to my office and asked if he could just sit and have a minute to himself. We began to talk and I asked Ethan what was the last book he read, he couldn't give me a name, so I picked up three titles and placed it before him to choose one. After thumbing though them he selected 'The Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton', but then said, "This is a lot of pages, I don't know, it may take too long to get through." I smiled, found another copy and said, "I guess we need to read it together." We sat for nearly an hour and what seemed like therapy for Ethan actually became my saving grace. Before he came to my office I was struggling to push pass the mediocrity of those who claim to believe in the children, but are willing to sabotage the vision. Sitting with Ethan made the message very clear, "I AM HERE FOR THE CHILDREN!" When you get to that place of feeling defeated, find your purpose to claim the victory. Thank you @ekpeudoh for the books, they are the gift that keeps giving 💜 #theLopezEffect #OccupySchools #IamNotInvisible #HerStory #TeachersMatter #Education #bookstagram #BlackGirlMagic

A post shared by Nadia Lopez (@thelopezeffect) on

It just was a reminder of why I’m here. You can feel down, you can have that moment but if I wasn’t here and this child who had lost his mother came in and may have acted out in a classroom, someone could have responded in a way that would have set him off and made him not want to ever come back to school. Or him feeling alone and that no one else loves him. In that moment, it’s not about me, it’s not about fighting those who don’t want to do the work. It’s about me showing up and doing it so he knows the example of what it’s like to be nurtured, cared for and someone feeling that even just through reading we could spend quality time.

And by the afternoon, one of my graduates came back and he’s going to be graduating in June. So I had to meet with the teachers so they could just be reminded this is what we fight for. I opened the school in 2010 and now it’s 2017 and he’s going to be graduating high school. This is why we’re here. So if you don’t want to be here, you can leave.

Overall, we’re in a time where there are a lot of millennials in the world doing amazing things. But we are in an interesting time of when who we are as people will be attacked and our contributions in this world may be minimized, we just have to be reminded that the fight isn’t over and that we need to be more about substance rather than relevance because whatever we put into our children as an investment, those are the rewards we’re going to be able to reap. Because the system is designed for our kids to end up in prison.

For those of you who don’t know, Lopez wrote a book, it’s called The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World. 

You can purchase it here .

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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