In his work as a dean of students and counselor in the Bellevue School District, educator Hunter Sissom was struck by the wide disparity of opportunities available to students with different socioeconomic backgrounds. An administrator in Bellevue encouraged him to look into the Danforth Educational Leadership Program, and Sissom found that the program's guiding principles of equity and change resonated with his personal values.
After graduating from Danforth in 2015, Sissom accepted the position of assistant principal at Twin Lakes Elementary in the Federal Way school district, known for its racially and economically diverse student population. Here he talks about how the Danforth program helped him develop his leadership skills, and how it prepared him to take on issues of educational inequity and improve opportunities for all students.
What drew you to the Danforth program?
I've seen a lot of inequities in schools that have high poverty rates. The Danforth program is all about equity. Using a racial lens to look at things and making sure you are looking out for the students who are disadvantaged. We need to teach all students. To do that, education has to shift and change.
How would you describe your overall experience in the program?
A lot of personal growth – I look at things more critically in all aspects of my life. I have a better ability to talk about race and how that affects society and, especially, our students. I went into the program thinking I would acquire certain discrete skills, and what I've taken from the program is to learn to be reflective and to have uncomfortable conversations. And to make change where change is needed.
Was the fact that you lack a teaching background a limitation in your Danforth experience?
I have a background in counseling, and I was the only member of my cohort without a teaching background. I appreciated the instructional leadership focus of the program. I've grown a lot in terms of how I view, observe and give feedback on instruction. That was really beneficial for me.
You can be an instructional leader and a principal and not necessarily have a teaching background. I think everyone brings their own strengths, and everyone has their own growth areas. Whether you're a teacher, a counselor, a school psychologist or a special ed teacher, I think the main focus is that you need to have that equity lens. If you can do that, you can learn and grow in all the other areas.
What was your experience like with the Danforth internship?
It was great for me. I got paired with a really great mentor. My mentor has supported me when I needed it, has pushed me and has given me an opportunity to lead. She's a great leader herself. The program helped us find someone who would be a good fit for us. I found a great spot for me to learn what I needed to.
Was it difficult to balance the responsibilities of the program with your regular job?
It wasn't easy. I just put my head down and started working and got into a routine. You learn who to lean on to get support. For me, it was a critical friend in my cohort and my mentor. At my internship site, it was also my supervising principal. So, you find support where you need it and before you know it, you're almost done with the program.
Was it difficult to balance all the responsibilities of the program, including class and the internship, as well as your regular job?
It was very challenging, but I felt supported every single step of the way. We had mentors that came to our internship site on a regular basis. We were free to call them at any time and to talk about anything we felt we needed to. Also, we could connect and share experiences with other cohort members who were also interning, for example, in a middle school.
What did you value the most about the Danforth program?
For me, it was the equity lens and specifically talking about issues of race and education -- conversations we had as a cohort that helped me grow personally and helped our cohort grow. Also, the core values. My core value is authenticity, being honest and transparent and having real, authentic conversations with people.
How do you think being a Danforth graduate will help your career?
The reputation of Danforth is very high compared to other programs, especially in terms of getting a job. Schools want equity-driven leaders, and the program is all about equity. That's what schools need and that's what helped me get hired.