Paying it forward
It all started with Dave Breslin.
Breslin, a fifth-grade social studies teacher, set the bar high for his fifth-graders, including young Ansel Sanders. The dynamic educator brought learning to life and made it relevant and fun. He wanted to make sure his young students could articulate events surrounding the Trojan War and explain the war’s value to today’s society. Most importantly, he listened to his students, energized them, held a high bar, and recognized their potential.
“Growing up, I sought to emulate Dave Breslin and when I chose to become a teacher, I had my chance to do so,” said Sanders ’09, associate director of Public Education Partners in Greenville.
Sanders earned his B.A. in English from Washington and Lee University in 2004 and went on to earn his M.A. in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University in 2006. He began his career teaching English language arts to eighth-graders in Baltimore, Md., and coaching middle school soccer and lacrosse teams on the side.
If love hadn’t intervened, Sanders said he might still be teaching in that same Baltimore classroom.
He returned to his wife Helen’s hometown of Greenville and took a position as an assistant administrator at Mauldin Middle School. At the same time, he worked to complete his master’s plus 30 in school leadership at Furman.
For Sanders, Furman’s program offered him valuable guidance on both education theory and practical aspects of leadership, such as how to use the school budget as a tool to make decisions that would align with the school’s mission.
Sanders also learned basic management practices and the idea of “being present.” As an administrator, it can be easy to be sucked into minutia, said Sanders. Furman Education Professor Dr. Harris Heath focused on the need to take time to simply walk the hallways – “managing by walking around” – to be informed and aware of students’ and teachers’ successes and struggles.
“Dr. Heath walked us through the process of building our leadership and management capacity and gave us the personal attention we needed to be successful,” Sanders said.
It wasn’t long after finishing his studies at Furman when Dr. Phinnize Fisher, then the Greenville County Schools Superintendent, called Sanders into her office one Monday. “Give me your thoughts on how the young child should be educated,” she asked.
Fisher then told Sanders about her vision for A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, the first urban school built in Greenville in over 40 years, with the first school-wide engineering curriculum in South Carolina. Sanders was appointed founding director of A.J. Whittenberg and went on to serve as lead planner for the district’s new STEAM middle school, now open and named in Fisher’s honor.
Even more opportunities presented themselves for Sanders, and in 2012 he enrolled in a three-year, multidisciplinary Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
Sanders said he wanted a program that would allow him to focus on his field experiences coupled with leadership development. “I wanted to take time to step back as a practitioner and reflect with other practitioners who were wrestling with innovative ideas and system-level dilemmas,” he said in an interview featured on Harvard’s website.
After earning his doctorate from Harvard, Sanders and his family moved back to Greenville. It was an issue of loyalty, not only to family, but also to the network of people in the Greenville area who put faith in him, Sanders said.
“Dr. Heath gave me a shot. Dr. Fisher gave me a shot. Mrs. Gardner at Mauldin gave me a shot,” he said. “I appreciate these leaders and look forward to paying it forward to impact Greenville’s students and schools.”
As part of his role with Public Education Partners (PEP), Sanders is leading the organization’s efforts in OnTrack Greenville, a multi-year effort to improve high-need middle schools. Along with OnTrack, his priorities include strengthening school and community partnerships, fostering ways to support new teachers, and defining and operationalizing advocacy strategies.
“One thing Dr. Heath frequently said was that ‘it does no good to bring a group of people together to bless the status quo.’ I took this learning with me into my school leadership experiences and it served as a guiding principle during my time at Harvard. Now at PEP, I’ll be putting this learning to work, operating at the nexus of policy, research, and practice to challenge the status quo and support all of Greenville’s public school students.
Sanders and his wife, Helen, have three children, Field, Walker and Stuart.