A Guide on the Side
Miriam Singer is associate professor of education, director of the MAT program and associate director of the Peter Sammartino School of Education. Her research areas include teaching and learning, student achievement, learning disabilities and college retention.
Fina Flores, BA/MAT’08, MA’18 (Metro), is vice principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in the Lodi, N.J., school district. She graduated from FDU with a B.A. in Spanish language and literature and a Master of Arts in teaching in elementary education. She later returned to FDU for an M.A. in educational leadership. She is now working on a superintendent’s license.
When Singer met Flores, she says, her future mentee was a young married woman, going to school full-time, taking 18 credits a semester and working 30–40 hours a week. “This young woman was trying to do it all,” recalls Singer.
“Dr. Singer saw all the struggles I was going through,” says Flores. “She gave me so many resources so that I could become successful. And she helped me push through. I’ve always felt like she was consistently there for me. I just felt like it was a divine connection, because I needed her in my life at that moment to be where I am today.”
The two still communicate often today, both by phone and by email. “Fina called me recently to tell me she has one of our student teachers in her school and that it is going really well,” says Singer. “If it continues to go well, they are planning to hire her for next year. That’s what we do. We like to put our students with previous graduates.”
Fina Flores: Dr. Singer, in your early life did you ever think you would be in higher education? When did you know this was the work that you wanted to do?
Miriam Singer: I started out as biology major, and I was going to go to medical school. That didn’t quite happen.
My first time teaching in a public school wasn’t anything like what they trained us for. I said, “Someday I’m going to teach a class that’s called ‘Everything They Should Have Taught You in Teacher Training But Didn’t.’” Between teaching and being a principal for seven years, it was 28 years before I started teaching at FDU.
F.F.: In reference to your career and how you became an educator, what would you title your autobiography?
M.S.: Maybe Lessons From Life or What My Students Taught Me. I’ve learned as much or more from my students over the years than they probably ever learned from me.
F.F.: You have been a role model for so many of us, so who do you consider to be a role model for you?
M.S.: My parents and my grandparents. They were absolutely adamant about us having a good education. My grandfather used to say to us, “Knowledge is the one thing they can’t take from you. They can take all your money, your jewels, your house, your business, your everything; but they can’t take what’s upstairs in your head.”
F.F.: That’s amazing. What is the most helpful piece of career or life advice you’ve ever received?
M.S.: I had one professor in my doctoral program at Seton Hall, Dr. Charles Mitchell, who told me something interesting. I’d gone for a particular job interview, and he asked how it went. I said, “not so perfectly.” And he replied to me, “You don’t really grow or become successful until you’ve been humbled.”
F.F.: What are the most important traits of successful leaders today?
M.S.: Good leaders are good listeners. They have to know who all the players are. If you’re a vice principal at a school, you have to know your kids, you have to know the parents, you have to know your faculty, and you have to know the person who’s over you. And, you have to listen to what they’re all saying. If you want to make good decisions, you have to ask for input from all those players. A really good leader, whether it’s a teacher in a classroom or a school administrator in an office, does best when they’re a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.
F.F.: What advice do you have for people taking on leadership positions in education?
M.S.: One of the best things to do is network. Look at other people in a similar situation, speak to people who have retired, speak to people who are newer to the profession, speak to people who are at an equal level or a little above or below you, ask questions and develop relationships.
The other thing I recommend is outside of school or professional life: have friends. You need something that’s not school-related that you can be involved in. It could be at your church, gardening, knitting, reading or even a weekly trip for a manicure. Anything!
F.F.: What are some things in your career that you regret not doing or not having done earlier?
M.S.: I never took the time to take a proper vacation and travel. That’s what I really would love to do!
Things that I wish I had done earlier? Maybe become a principal earlier. I also wish I had finished my doctorate sooner.
F.F.: In your career, what are you most proud of?
M.S.: I’m most proud of my children and my grandchildren and all of my students, who are also my children. Some of my “kids” are 50 years old, but they’re all my kids. I’m just so proud of their successes and who they’ve all become and the jobs that they are holding down.
I get these emails from my students that tell me they just got engaged or they just had a baby, or they just got a promotion or they moved to a new district and they’re now vice principals or principals, and I’m just so proud of them.
F.F.: How do you balance it all?
M.S.: Getting to know my students’ stories helped me to balance who needed the most attention and when they needed it. I’ve learned to set priorities, and I have become ridiculously organized, because life changes every semester, and every year and maybe every week these days.
Sometimes you have to remember to play. For some people that means going to the gym. For some it means taking a walk with your spouse after dinner. Sometimes it means you have a tennis partner on the weekend or a bridge club.
F.F.: As you continue to be a mentor at FDU, what makes mentorship fulfilling for you?
M.S.: Just watching my students succeed and watching them grow. And knowing that when they leave me, I’ve done something to help them get to a stage where they’re ready to fly out of the nest. I want to mentor my students to be role models for others and to succeed themselves.
F.F.: Dr. Singer, I personally want to thank you because I have learned so many strategies from you. Whether it was in the classroom, when you were my professor, or in our sessions when you were working with me to put my schedule together or when I had questions. You have been just a treasure for me. I want to thank you for paving the way for me, because I couldn’t have done it without people like you in my life.
M.S.: Fina, I want to thank you for teaching me that there is more to my students than just their grades. I encourage you to go on for your doctorate and to continue as a fabulous educational leader in our community.