William Ko, Administrative Intern/Summer Principals Academy (SPA) at Teachers College (TC) Wallace Fellow
- What is your current role and professional history?
I am a special education coordinator and administrative intern at East River Academy, an alternative high school serving student-inmates at the Rikers Island jails. Prior to teaching, designing curriculum, and provisioning instruction for our students with special needs, I was an independent filmmaker and the founder and editor-in-chief of a print publication. In California I opened the first magnetic revolving sushi bar in the United States. These experiences may seem unrelated to my current field of work, but they have provided me with key skills in education leadership: the ability to stake out and assume responsibility for a vision, and the drive to realize it through the design and implementation of an adaptive plan of action.
- Why do you believe your leadership role is a critical lever to student achievement?
The education landscape is filled with many exciting new studies, programs, and blueprints for reform, but equally important is how these ideas are implemented. The unyielding optimism of a school leader is crucial to the school’s success amidst constant and myriad challenges; schools need to approach problems with the hope and knowledge that nothing is given and that no problems are insurmountable. I’ve learned from teaching in jail that you cannot teach students how to write essays or learn math before you teach them how to hope, and I am committed to building an organization that is equally unabashed in fulfilling its potential.
- Why did you choose the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College? How has the program impacted you as a leader?
The Summer Principals Academy (SPA) at Teachers College is an incredible community of brilliant, passionate, and dedicated educators who are constantly pushing out at the constraints of education reform across the country, and interactions I have with a member of the SPA family—from professors to students to alumni—usually result in an avalanche of learning. SPA is also uniquely focused on reflective leadership; one of the first and the most memorable things I learned from the director of the program Eric Nadelstern is that “leaders do not inflict but absorb pain.” The program aspires to build self-aware leaders that lead by example, and the underlying SPA ethos that “good leaders are good people” deeply resonates with me.
- Tell us about a personal or professional experience that have shaped you as a leader.
My first year of teaching I had the opportunity to teach math to an extremely bright student-inmate. He learned everything I threw at him. When I asked him why he hadn't mastered these skills before, he said that he did not have a consistent math teacher during his three years of high school—his teachers either resigned or were terminated, and he simply gave up.
It made me realize that our time with students is short, but the results in that time have far-reaching consequences. People often ask me why I’m always in a hurry. This is why.
What is unique about leading in New York City?
The New York City Department of Education is not only the largest but also the most diverse of any school district in the country. It is an incredibly complex machine with innumerable moving parts, and in such a dynamic environment the optimal solution is less about cloning high performing cogs but to build many healthy cells that can adapt to their unique sets of challenges. New York City schools are constantly evolving, growing, adapting, and learning from one another, and the same expectations hold for their school leaders.