Training the teacher leaders

As the new director of Mount Holyoke teacher leadership program, Jemelleh Coes will focus on ways to engage educators who are interested in becoming leaders not only in their classroom but within their schools and within the education field.

By Brittany King

Growing up, Jemelleh Coes was convinced she’d be a nurse. “My maiden name is Nurse, and all my aunts and uncles are nurses,” she explained. Then, she had to take anatomy during her undergraduate studies at Georgia Southern University. “I had to deal with blood and other bodily fluids and immediately said, ‘Pass.’” She chuckled.

Despite realizing nursing was not the path for her, Coes was still committed to being in a profession that saved and changed lives. She began to gravitate toward education and never looked back. Since 2008, Coes has worked in general and special education classrooms in math and language arts, mostly focused on middle school–aged children. “In middle school I had three Black women teachers named Ms. Davis, and they were the most impactful on how I think about education, what I believe good teaching looks like and what good teachers look like,” she said. “My middle school educators had such a major impact on my life, which is why I stayed in that space for so long.” 

For more than a decade, Coes has spent her time in the education industry learning as much as she can both inside and outside the classroom. In 2014, she was named Georgia’s Teacher of the Year, which allowed her to understand how the education system works outside the classroom. She got a chance to tour the country and learn how education policy is shaped at the local, state and federal levels. “I realized that my ideas and beliefs about education were not necessarily aligned with the decision makers I was coming in contact with,” she said.

So, she went back to the classroom and took on a role that allowed her to support teachers in their own practice. She became a field instructor for teachers who were getting their initial license in teaching. She also began teaching coursework for Mount Holyoke’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, where her lessons focus on advocacy, social justice and equity in education and the classroom. Coes has taught for the institution’s Teacher Leadership program since its inception and has now been tapped to lead the Teacher Leadership program at the university.

“Jemelleh is fabulous,” said Tiffany Espinosa, executive director, Professional and Graduate Education. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on inclusion and equity, and when you’re talking about teacher leaders, we’re in some unique moments right now, and Jemelleh just had all the right stuff, and she was a great co-collaborator with the former director.”

In this new role, she will focus on ways to engage educators who are interested in becoming leaders not only in their classroom but within their schools and within the education field. “We want to help teachers think about how they can lead from their classroom without leaving their classroom, while also helping other educators recognize when it may be time to leave to benefit the classroom in different ways,” she said.

When Coes assumed the position in June 2021, she did so with a goal of being a connector for the educators she’s taught in the program and new educators joining the program. “This program is solid. It’s a cohort model — you come in with this built-in support system, you take classes together, graduate together, but then you go back to your classrooms and wonder how you can find spaces where you can continue to grow,” she explained. “In this new role, I’ve been thinking about how I can help the educators flourish and thrive even in environments that may not feel as supportive as their time at Mount Holyoke.”

As she settles into her position, Coes main goal and vision is to encourage freedom dreaming. “How do we radically imagine something different for education? That’s a big part of what I’ve already been doing and what I want to help educators do more of in this new role,” she said. She wants the educators she works with to take the information they learn at Mount Holyoke and reimagine an education system that is beneficial for all students. She believes freedom dreaming, visioning a future without worry about constraints, will help teachers create a more equitable, inclusive education system.

Long term, Coes hopes to one day see every teacher leader who comes through the program leading inside and outside the classroom in ways that have a lasting impact, whether that’s leading professional development opportunities at their school or shaping education policy at the federal level.

“Our Teacher Leadership program is an invitation for our teachers to do courageous work, to look at our [education] system as a whole and think about how we can heal and how we help students heal,” she said. “Each day is a day to do something courageous, lay a brick and do something great.”

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