Elizabeth Korab knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was in the seventh grade.
She said that decision was influenced after reading Alex Kotlowitz’s book “There Are No Children Here,” a book that details children growing up in Chicago’s West Side.
In 2007, Korab came to Charlottesville to pursue a doctorate degree at the University of Virginia. But, before that, she taught first grade for three years for New York City Public Schools.
Since moving here, she has worked as assistant principal of Greer Elementary School in Albemarle County and then an instructional coach at Clark Elementary School in Charlottesville. She became principal of the city’s Burnley-Moran last year.
Serving as the face of the school, which houses more than 300 students, Korab said she’s grateful she’s able to learn from the people she works with — and looking forward, her goal is to build and maintain relationships at her building.
Q: You completed your degree at UVa in 2010. Why’d you stay in the area?
A: Part of it was we were looking for a place to raise our children. I wanted to go back to teach at a metro area because I taught at New York City Public Schools. But I remember my teacher telling me Charlottesville might be small, but this area needs educators who are passionate about working towards social justices in education.
I have a pretty good evening routine. I try to go to bed early. I know I’m usually exhausted by the end of the day. My hours are ridiculously early. I’m usually up at 3 a.m. because I feel like that’s when I’m rested and can do some focus work and then exercise — and then being present on whatever I’m doing.Elizabeth Korab, Burnley-Moran Elementary School
Q: In terms of culture, what do you enjoy about the town?
A: I do love the outdoors — being able to be that close to going hiking and exploring outdoors with my family is really important to me. I love good food. The restaurant scene here is enjoyable. One of my favorite places is Shenandoah.
Q: Talk about why you joined Charlottesville City Schools.
A: I had been here for six years. I knew I wanted a change professionally. The instructional coaching model that the city had was something that’s really attractive. I love being able to focus at one building and being part of that school community.
Instruction is definitely why I do this. I know, as principals, there are a lot of things that we need to manage, but I love the instructional piece. I love instructional leadership. And I love what I did as an instructional coach, and being able to work with the principal really closely and develop these relationships with the teachers and the students at that building was really exciting. And then on a personal note, my kids are at the city schools.
Q: How crucial is culturally responsive teaching for this grade level?
A: “Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students” by Zaretta Hammond was one of the top three most influential books I’ve read in the past five years.
It’s not just with this grade level. I think it’s applicable to anyone who’s in education. It really shifted my thinking as far as some of my own practices and why I do the things that I do — or pushing me to think through why I do the things I do.
For example, we had a professional session on interactive learning structures. Let’s look at the research that she brought out about why that social interaction is important for students and connecting it.
Q: How can culturally responsive benefit learning?
A: It shifts our thinking and practice as to why we’re doing something. Is that really making the most for our students? For me, … when I was reading the book, one of the things that stood out, [was] I realized that when I’m interacting with a group of kids, it’s so much the teacher will ask a question, and then they’ll wait for one student to respond. OK. Why is that?
We know that students make meaning through talking and conversation. Why am I not giving students more opportunity to do that?
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Our goal is to build and maintain relationships, but when you look at the research that Hammond did, she explained why those brain relationships are important on the brain. When you do not feel comfortable, you cannot be calm and focused.
And it hijacked from the smallest things, as you, the adult, will not perceive as hijacking. That can derail learning from anywhere from 20 to three hours. When you think about students, schools have to be a loving and trusting place and that takes time.
When things happened that are outside of our control, it can emotionally eat you, as well. And that piece they talk about taking care of your well-being for educators — that piece is really important. So that you can fully serve your students. That’s something on a personal level.Elizabeth Korab, Burnley-Moran Elementary School
Q: What challenges have you faced as an educator?
A: When things happened that are outside of our control, it can emotionally eat you, as well. And that piece they talk about taking care of your well-being for educators — that piece is really important. So that you can fully serve your students. That’s something on a personal level.
Q: You mention things that happen outside your control; can you give me an example?
A: In any setting, we have what we can work on between the school day here and within our walls; and we do a lot with outreach in the community. But there are things that happen that students experience or see that definitely have an impact that you wish you could take away their hurt.
When students are going through stuff, like you go through it. Not at the level that they’re going through it, obviously, but your heart breaks when you see your students hurting. The natural empathy that comes for people in this field is so huge. Your mind can always keep going as far as ‘what I could’ve done differently?’ Last year, I was really exhausted. It took me a long time to shut down, and to really decompress.
Q: How do you overcome that challenge?
A: I have a pretty good evening routine. I try to go to bed early. I know I’m usually exhausted by the end of the day. My hours are ridiculously early. I’m usually up at 3 a.m. because I feel like that’s when I’m rested and can do some focus work and then exercise — and then being present on whatever I’m doing.
Q: The division aims to send fifth graders down to elementary schools. Sixth grade will go to Buford Middle School. Walker will become a centralized preschool. What are your thoughts on these changes?
A: I think that would be fantastic. My own fifth-grader is at Walker. So, I wish, obviously, that would have happened sooner. But I think that it’s great we’re moving into that direction. What I know from what I read from transitions, they are hard for anybody, including adults. So, fewer transitions will be beneficial.
Minimizing the transitions will definitely have an impact on students — especially when we think about relationships. It takes time. In my ideal world, I would love to have preschool through fifth grade here.
Q: Looking ahead, what are your goals for Burnley-Moran?
A: When I first started here, one of the things I did was meeting with each teacher individually and hear their perspective and strength in the building and rolled out a couple of things. Last year, our goal has been to build and maintain relationships. That will be our goal until who knows when. Maintaining relationships is really never off the table — and it’s adding to what we do.
We’re developing an advocacy around supporting for each other: community, positivity and respect. For example, I have an instructional assistant who has a passion for bikes. He worked with the city’s bike coordinator. And now, we have a fleet of bikes for 25 students. Anytime during recess, you can see second through fourth-grade riding around on bikes to get students another experience.
Q: The division has worked to make improvements into its gifted program. How’s it at your building?
A: The changes have come at a division level. There are two gifted specialists for every elementary school. Our gifted specialists bring a lot of strength to the table on how to collaborate and plan with teachers; push teachers’ thinking in a fact that all students can benefit from it. It’s [going] to be great.
The division went from Quest, to gifted teachers, to now gifted resource teachers. We’re looking at diversity and inclusion. The new model definitely fits within the goal of inclusion and giving access to these types of services for all students.
Q: Minority students are at the forefront of achievement gap and have scored lower on SOL than their white peers. What are your goals in boosting students’ achievement?
A: This past year, we had a small dip in reading with our Black students. Even though we had a small dip, overall, where our Black students are not where they need to be, … we also had a dip in our free and reduced-priced lunch.
As a staff, we’ve been looking at our data and seeing the ‘why.’ And the big piece was the question level where students are struggling with, which is why we’re talking about interactive learning structures.
If we want all students to be able to be successful, thinking at higher levels, how are we giving all students exposure and opportunity to be engaged in higher level thinking. This is not just from a test perspective. We want all students to be critical thinkers.