On the first day of school this year, the scene outside Hirsch Elementary was the typical back-to-school rush of parent drop off, reluctant kindergarteners, and school buses idling out front. Right outside the main doors – wearing Hirsch yellow – stood LaToya Patterson, greeting parents and high-fiving students as they entered the building for a brand new school year.
It was a familiar place for Patterson, despite the fact that it was her first year as principal. That’s because she had walked the halls of Hirsch Elementary years before as a student.
“I think it’s important for the students to be able to see that I am from where they are from,” Patterson said. “Of course a lot of things have changed in the neighborhood, but a lot is the same. There’s really great families and they want the best for their kids. They’re sending the very best that they have every day, and it’s important to not lose sight of that.”
Her path to Hirsch wasn’t exactly linear.
Despite the fact that her math teacher in high school encouraged her back then to become a teacher, Patterson pursued a math degree and a consulting career.
But after being furloughed due to the economic downturn, she took up substitute teaching and returned to one of her original loves, the theater. While working with multiple professional theaters in Houston, she also worked with educational outreach programs in schools. That return to campus sparked her interest in education, a fact she shared with her high school math teacher, much to his delight.
She started as a math teacher at Dekaney High School, in that school’s second year of existence. She eventually moved to Anderson Elementary, where she taught math and art. She stayed at Anderson for 12 years, with four years as assistant principal. And last year she moved into her first principal position at Hirsch.
“I don’t know that I ever thought I would be a principal, but I knew that I wanted to impact students,” Patterson said. “I think it was a series of having really great principals in my career in education – from high school to elementary school – that really poured into me and allowed me to see the leadership potential that was there. They really guided me onto this path.”
In fact, one of those mentors was Kristin Falcon, the principal at Anderson Elementary.
And just like Patterson, Falcon is now serving the community she once called home. She attended the school as a student, and now has been at Anderson Elementary for the last decade, four years as assistant principal and the last six years as principal.
As a graduate of Texas A&M with an education degree, she always knew she wanted to be in education. What was less sure was where she wanted to end up.
“I went back to get my graduate degree, and I knew I wanted to make an impact on more than just the kids in my classroom. But I wasn’t sure that meant administration,” Falcon said. “Even when I went on that first assistant principal interview, I was still on the fence. Because I loved teaching.”
Despite those initial reservations, she eventually realized the impact that a principal can have not only on the school but also the surrounding community.
“What I love about being a principal is getting to impact the whole community,” she said. “I get to share what I know is true and what I believe about teaching with my teachers. And when I talk to them and coach them through things that are difficult, I’ve got that experience.”
That experience includes more than a decade in the classroom, including stints at McNabb Elementary and Northgate Crossing Elementary, teaching every grade from 1st through 5th. And Falcon even has plans to return to the classroom one day.
“I’ve never loved anything like I loved teaching,” she said. “The year before I retire, I want to go back into the classroom, even if it’s just for a year or just to tutor or in a college classroom. Someday, somehow I’ll go back.”
For both Falcon and Patterson, the role of principal is not something they take lightly. It is a chance to impact the school as a whole.
“I know that I only exist in this role to support teachers. And when teachers are supported, the kids thrive,” Patterson said. “I really try to figure out what the teachers need. Where are there needs? Where do they need to grow? What are their hopes and what are their dreams?”
At Anderson Elementary, Falcon aims to provide unique opportunities for students to “hook into” school.
“Something that is important to me, and always has been, is recognizing kids for more than just academics. What we try to do is provide a well-rounded education with opportunities for them to shine in other venues outside the classroom,” she said. “We have so many stories of students who struggled academically, but found other places to shine. And that led them to have a reason to succeed in the classroom.”
Those activities are widespread and unique, particularly for an elementary school. They include choir, volleyball, Student Council, dance, basketball, soccer, and many other activities, with more to be added in the future.
“We are always looking for opportunities to expand. It’s based on what our staff brings, what they love and what they are good at. It’s exciting to see where that will lead us,” she said.
As Principals Month – celebrated annually during October – comes to a close, both principals are grateful for the impact they can have on the communities they have called home since they were students themselves.
For Patterson, it is always important to keep the goal in mind. Her advice for her fellow principals is straightforward: don’t give up.
“Just keep fighting the good fight,” she said. “The work that we do is worthy. The work that we do is important. I know that it’s really hard to get bogged down in the enormity of the job. But the work that you do matters. Even if it’s just for that one kid, it matters.”