Brittanie Howard is no stranger to the challenges of the public education system. After attending a rural, predominantly white elementary school in West Virginia, a diverse urban high school in Charlotte, and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, Howard has experienced for herself the disparities and funding gaps in education.
Now, the Master of School Administration (MSA) student is preparing to change that.
After graduating from high school, Howard enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in pre-medicine. However, her passion shifted to education while volunteering alongside teachers, administrators, and students at a local elementary school.
“My time with the students was so much more life-giving than my science and math classes,” Howard said. “I had a hard time making the shift into education because growing up I was told that if you’re smart, you’re a doctor. But I couldn’t deny I was feeling a pull to education.”
Once she began taking classes in education, Howard was met with understanding professors, mentors that would become close friends, and a new perspective on learning.
“The School of Education is one of both grit and grace,” she said. “The programs are challenging, and require much of their students in their studies, diligence, and pursuit of field experience. However, the School also extends much in grace — understanding that everyone’s journey does and will look different, and allowing room for students to explore what success looks like for their specific journey.”
Doing whatever is necessary
After graduating from Carolina in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in middle grades education, Howard began working as a sixth-grade social studies and English language arts teacher in Durham Public Schools. What she did not expect on her first day of teaching was a second-period class full of students who spoke almost exclusively Spanish, a language that Howard knew little of.
Howard did what some first-year teachers would be frightened to do — she began breaking down that barrier by learning the language.
“The biggest part of teaching is finding out what the kids need and then working with them to get there,” Howard said. “I don’t need to feel pressured to know all the answers, content, or strategies, but I do have to be in a position where I’m always willing to investigate and do whatever is necessary to meet those needs. My kids needed me to learn Spanish, so I did.”
Howard taught herself conversational Spanish, accepting her role as a novice and learning alongside her own students. She went on to earn her English as a Second Language (ESL) certification and teach ESL courses at her school.
“I knew then that I had to move into positions of influence so that I can better protect those students who are typically overlooked,” she said. “Even today in the hardest moments, I remember that second-period class that didn’t speak English, and I think ‘I’m doing this for those kids.'”
Redefining a position of influence
At the suggestion of her mentors and professors at Carolina, Howard returned to the UNC School of Education in 2019 to pursue a Master of School Administration degree. Not only did the program allow her to continue teaching, but it also offered her the same quality and compassion she had come to expect as an undergraduate student.
“I know the School of Education to be one dedicated to building instructional experts, social justice advocates, and system-shifting educators,” she said. “When deciding upon a school to pursue my master’s degree, I knew that I needed that same tenacity in a graduate program. Where better to learn than the place where those values were instilled in me?”
While in the MSA program, Howard has gained the knowledge and skills to pursue equity, to address opportunity and achievement disparities, and to create and sustain inclusive schools. Among courses such as EDUC 730: “Curriculum Leadership for the School Executive,” EDUC 740: “Cultural Leadership for the School Executive,” and EDUC 741: “School Inquiry and Reform for the School Executive,” her favorites are those in which she can put her knowledge into action.
“My professors make an intentional effort to assure that we observe the various theories and practices that we are discussing in class,” Howard said. “There is never a strategy that we talk about within the course that they do not give us an opportunity to see in real life.”
In addition to academic coursework, students in the MSA program may choose to complete a full-time or part-time internship. Howard is currently a principal resident at Jordan High School in Durham, where she has taken on responsibility as the school has shifted to remote learning.
“I have been extremely equipped with the technical skills of school administration, so much so that my principal puts a lot of trust in me because she recognizes that I have been so well prepared by the MSA program,” Howard said.
After she graduates from the MSA program in 2021, Howard hopes to work as a school administrator. And after that, she plans to pursue a law degree. Law school has always been a possibility on the horizon for Howard, and she believes her time at the UNC School of Education has helped her hone her passion for child advocacy and school district compliance, the area of law she plans to pursue.
“The unfortunate part of seeing behind-the-scenes of the school system is that it is really infuriating in some circumstances,” she said. “Carolina has redefined what a position of influence looks like for me, primarily through law school.”
Howard said she has ideas for how she can right some of those wrongs.
Through her coursework and guidance from her professors, she has discovered that she can use a degree in law to work as an attorney for a school district, as well as being a child and family advocate in situations where students’ needs aren’t being met or are being denied.
No matter what Howard pursues, one thing is for sure: She will live by a set of values she hopes to instill in her students and the education system as a whole.
“I have always said that my goal is to come home with my shield and to help others do the same,” she said. “I got that from the Spartans. When they would go to battle, their wives would say to either come home with your shield or come home on it. So every day I ask myself: ‘How can I come out of this victorious alongside these children?'”