Transforming Minds and Transforming Lives
"It makes me happy to go help people. It makes me happy to know that what I’m doing for a job is making a difference, and it’s making a greater impact." - Danielle Nelson
Danielle, a current Peer Power Assistant Program Director at Ridgeway Highschool, joined the organization when she was in her final year of college at The University of Memphis. During the first year of her employment, what began as a straightforward plan to earn funds to help at home grew into a love of being in the classroom. Throughout her time at Peer Power, Danielle has acquired personal growth and discovery that motivates her to foster students’ development and positive self-image. I sat down with Danielle to talk about her Peer Power journey from that first day at Whitehaven High School, to now.
“I would never describe myself as a leader before actually getting into this job and having some of that responsibility,” she says when I asked about her experience with Peer Power. Beginning as Success Coaches, Peer Power allows its employees to enhance strengths that are used as tools in the classroom to reach Shelby County Schools’ students. From there they have opportunities to be promoted to Team Leaders, and possibly Assistant Program Directors at their respective school programs. During my conversation with Danielle she spoke fondly of Peer Power, stating that it has helped her to sharpen her skills all while revealing characteristics about herself that she didn’t know she had. “…through Peer Power I was able to figure out what kind of leader I am in practicing servant leadership and seeing how my strengths – like my characteristics, how they fit a leadership role. I always credit Peer Power with giving me a different perception of myself…”
The Memphis native began as a Success Coach at Whitehaven Highschool in 2015. “When I was a Success Coach it was all about, how can I assist the teacher? How can I be that extra pair of hands in the classroom to make sure that the teacher’s vision for her class or his class was going forward?” From there, her leadership skills began to shine light on her potential to lead others entering the program. Moving up as a Team Leader, Danielle showcased the effort and passion needed to be effective in the classroom and to build relationships with scholars and fellow Success Coaches. As a Team Leader, Danielle was able to assist with everyday guidance: suggesting strategies for specific content instruction, and approaches for reaching troubled students. One of the most important lessons that she’s been able to pass on to scholars is one she has learned through her work over the years. “I struggled a little bit with seeing myself as anything that resembled leadership, so helping them to have a positive self-image of themselves [is the most important lesson I can give].”
Prior to working for Peer Power, the field of Education had never been on Danielle’s radar. With the intention to go into community development, she majored in Anthropology and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis in December 2015. “But then through that first year [with Peer Power], I kind of fell in love with being in the classroom and the work that we got to do with the students – having that one-on-one interaction with the students and being able to be a part of their lives on the day-to-day.” What started as a plan that most Senior-year college students make, quickly became a road of passion for education, mentorship, and the Peer Power organization.
Working in education can be one of the most rewarding careers for those who enjoy interacting with people and helping them on their growth journey. We talked about these moments, but also about the moments of the position that call for openness.
“The highlights of my experiences as a success coach are all centered around moments of complete vulnerability. Helping a student succeed in the classroom is amazing, but the moments when your scholars share their insecurities, their successes, their difficulties, their hearts are the most impactful parts of the job. I've had a few students who I'll never forget, but I'll share the one that is most recent. This student experienced a great tragedy and was struggling to focus in the classroom. Once I pulled the student out, they decided to share their grief with me and trusted me with their pain. That hour or so created a safe space for that student to unburden themselves that may not have happened simply because this incident happened at the busiest time of the semester. The teacher was so busy and justifiably stressed. If it had not been for the open eyes of a less stressed coach in the class, this student probably would not have gotten the opportunity to unburden themselves. If it had not been for Peer Power's focus on relational learning, I may not have been granted an opportunity to share my own experiences or speak over this student. There have been many moments like these and much happier moments, but this moment in particular made me especially happy that Peer Power exists… Imagine if every teacher had the option of having this daily support in the classroom… How much more effective could we all be for the next generation of this city?”
Peer Power strives to teach scholars in unorthodox ways, and Danielle explained what that looks like for a Success Coach. “Making sure that they [students] feel safe in the classroom. Making sure that someone else can understand some of the struggles that they may be going through. Or feeling safe to grow as a human – sharing stories back and forth. That all comes from relationships.” Success Coaches are most commonly described as a hybrid of mentor and tutor. Since Success Coaches are closer to the age of scholars than most teachers, building relationships can be one of the best tools used to encourage scholars to become more invested in their education and futures. When asked if Peer Power was the best approach to enhance the learning environment and increase direct student support, Danielle confidently said she believes so -- “Because we have the unique approach of using college-aged students [as tutors and mentors for scholars]. And also making sure that we have people in place who may have a similar story as those students that we work with.”
From her ability to create innovative lessons that scholars enjoy, to demonstrating examples of how to navigate challenges Success Coaches could encounter in the schools – Danielle has played a fundamental part in providing support for the many branches of Peer Power. Now as an Assistant Program Director at Ridgeway Highschool, those objectives still stand and expand with every new responsibility she takes on – “…my biggest goal for this role as the Assistant Program Director, to make sure that we were communicating at Ridgeway. To make sure that the Success Coaches felt heard…” She also strives to share the importance of having a positive self-image for the position and does her best to foster this for the Success Coaches on her team and other teams. “…highlighting the things that they do well, or trying to use them in their strengths so that they feel like they’re [contributing] to something, to the whole process.” But being a Success Coach calls for more than having a positive self-image, and Danielle makes sure to make that known to new employees. “You’re not just going to be another person in the corner of the classroom, or another responsibility.” Success Coaches are there to support both teachers and scholars, and those that leave the greatest impact excel in those areas.
Danielle has also had a hand in the creation of the Peer Power Club at Ridgeway that allows initiatives to come to fruition for the scholars. Danielle knows that one of the community’s needs at Ridgeway is more access to events like UM Connect, where Peer Power allows seniors from our partner schools to take a day trip to the University of Memphis. There, they tour the campus with Success Coaches to get an inside look at what it’s like to attend a university. They also get to hear from important University of Memphis staff including Admissions, Financial Aid, and Multicultural Affairs. When Danielle and the Ridgeway team informed the scholars, their response was ecstatic -- “…they got really excited. A lot of them don’t have access to maybe the faculty or professors, or even college-aged students that they can go and talk to about the next level.” The Peer Power Club also allows the coaches to have more mentorship time with the scholars, ACT Prep afterschool courses, and even community service projects.
Being a Peer Power employee not only offers an environment that encourage scholars to invest in their education, it also provides an environment for Success Coaches to invest in their own personal development. “You’re not just pouring out, you’re getting something too.” The Peer Power work environment challenges its employees to not only educate others, but educate and personally develop individually. “So for me, just having that positive self-image of myself, I think, was one of the biggest changes that happened through Peer Power. I was in the classroom helping other people, but through that I was able to see what I was good at, what made me happy.” When I asked Danielle about how she’s seen Peer Power change over the years, she talked about a few new additions it has been able to offer its Success Coaches. “I was talking about [it] with David – he has this internship that he can study under Gabi [and Chris and Marygrace]. So creating opportunities for our Coaches to grow or to develop in areas outside of just being in the classroom [is a way that Peer Power has grown in my eyes].”
As an employee that has been with Peer Power during some of its most instrumental changes and expansions, Danielle has ambitions to continue to be a part of that growth. “I hope to one day be a Program Director, and I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunities to learn from what I see from Malcom [Ridgeway Program Director], and what I saw from Cortney [Whitehaven Program Director]…” She went on to explain the different elements she has studied so far – how to steward the whole team, be in partnership with the principal and teachers, and learn how to balance it all.
In her own words, an important message has been personally instilled throughout her journey with Peer Power -- “…it was like having a greater revelation about myself, and also realizing that okay I can be a leader. Even though my leadership may look a little different than everyone else’s.”
By Sydney Wright