The Leadership Initiative invited its members to reflect on different aspects of leadership, bringing to light unique pathways, approaches, challenges and lessons learned. TLC hopes that through this series you get to know these diverse individuals and take away an appreciation for their journeys and leadership skills and its impact on the lives of children, families, their staff and communities.
Eileen Ellrodt has been an educational director in a CBO in the Bronx for the last four years. She graduated from Mercy College and Fordham University and has been an educator in the Bronx since 1987. She is a single mom of a high school freshman, college junior and college senior, and currently resides in Fishkill, New York. Eileen has published over 30 articles in the last four years. She is also a part-time working photographer. Eileen has been a member of the Leadership Initiative since 2018.
What experiences inspired you to pursue a career in early childhood and a leadership role?
I have been asked why I became a teacher many times in my life. My answers have changed over the years, but essentially it all goes back to an inspiration from my second grade reading recovery teacher Mrs. Goldburg, an act of desperation, and a roundabout journey.
It is often said the difference between a child failing and thriving is having one person present in their life that inspires them and believes in them. I came from a dysfunctional, poverty-ridden family where alcohol addiction and mental illness kept me in constant fear. While my family was dysfunctional, they scrimped and saved to put me in Catholic school. By second grade I still could not read, and that’s when I began working with Mrs. Goldberg, who discovered I was dyslexic. I went from barely able to recognize my name to reading at an 8th grade level by 3rd grade. Mrs. Goldberg made me feel safe in her classroom when all the chaos of the world was going on outside. But most of all Mrs. Goldberg gave me hope that I could succeed.
Fast forward to my 1987 graduation from college. I never intended to be a teacher. I originally wanted to be an art therapist, but my family wanted me to be a nurse. Eventually I set my sights on becoming a psychologist. School was hard for me and my family felt higher education was a waste of time. I did my best to be a conscientious student and worked to pay for my education myself.
Upon graduating from college I got my first job as a 5th grade teacher in the Bronx. I fell in love with teaching. I found children in my classroom who were being bullied and struggling just like I had, and for the first time, I was able to pay it forward from all that I learned from Mrs. Goldberg.
I received my Master’s degree from Fordham while pregnant with my first child and became a stay-at-home mom. On September 1, 2001, the director of the nursery school where my eldest had just graduated from asked me to sub for a few weeks while she found a teacher. On 9/11/2001, the world exploded and life as we knew it would never be the same. On September 11, I gathered my children and stayed with my school babies until 9pm when the last weary, dust- and soot-covered, traumatized parent came to collect their child. We were lucky, we did not lose anyone. But that night I realized, being a teacher was not a job, but an honor, a calling, and something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
So here I am, 32 years as an educator, 18 years into working with PreK For All children, 8 years as an Educational Director, and almost an entire career in the Bronx. My school is always a place where children can feel safe. No child will ever be bullied or made to feel small or insignificant on my watch. I know what it is like to be poor, and go hungry, and be bullied. I know what it is like to not feel safe. I know what it is like to live with people with addictions and battling demons. My school is a beacon. Whatever journey a child had before they walked into my school, I promise them that it will not deter them from being whatever they want to be.
I thank Mrs. Goldburg for being there for me, and I will do my best to inspire all who come through my school like she did. I believe in them, and know they can succeed like I did. Behind every great student stands a great teacher who taught them hope and to never give up. Thank you, Mrs. Goldburg!
How do we, as leaders, get better/grow?
To be an effective leader is a continuous process. We should use our successes as learning templates of what we do well. We should use our failures as learning experiences of things we still can improve at, and as a reminder that failure keeps us humble. But most importantly, we should never forget our responsibility to those we lead. We must be beacons in the dark times, an inspiration in the good times, strong yet compassionate, and always open to learning from those we lead, actively, positively, with flexibility and with hope. It is ok to be human. It is ok to not know all the answers, but a true leader never stops learning, never stops growing, and never stops improving.
What goals are you currently working toward as a leader?
I am currently doing my best to keep my center running smoothly in the face of uncertainty. My center has been opened during the entire pandemic as an emergency childcare center for first responders. My chief goal this year is to keep my teachers positive and hopeful and mentally and emotionally together. They have risen to the occasion and have done an amazing job! When things calm down we will work on what we have learned and how never take for granted our jobs as educators as being essential.
What role does determination and persistence play in your leadership?
Being a leader is tough on a good day, but being a leader in the face of a global pandemic sometimes feels like an impossible feat. The only thing that has kept me together is not giving in, not giving up and not backing down. As a leader I am determined to keep the teachers and all the children in my program safe, healthy, positive, hopeful and alive. As a mom I am determined to keep my family safe, healthy, positive, alive and hopeful as well. There is no choice here, only actions.
Serene Stevens is a Leadership Coach at the Institute.