Retired Educator and Chief Education Officer, Scientific Learning Corporation on Brain Research

How did your interest in education begin?

Both of my parents began their adult careers as teachers. My grandmother was a professor in a college, so education was always in my background. My mother taught in the elementary school I attended so it was difficult not to stay on task with your mother down the hall. I always felt I needed to learn things well so that they would be proud of me. As a result, since I learned quickly, I spent time helping others who did not.

Well, that wasn’t always accepted in some classrooms so when a teacher was explaining something to one of my friends, and I realized that they wouldn’t learn it the way it was being explained, I seemed to be able to figure out a different way to say it, which helped. This became my burden sometimes since my friends would always say "Ask Sherrelle, she’ll explain it to you." It became easy for me to figure out where the disconnect was in the learning process and make adjustments for others even though most of the time I didn’t realize that I was doing it.

How have you been involved in education, professionally or as an advocate, over the years?

I began my career as a teacher in a middle school in Hartford, Conn. I realized early that some of the behaviors that we executed in schools could be changed or improved. After a few years of teaching, I decided to get my master's degree in education and did my doctoral coursework in curriculum development/administration. I felt I could make a bigger impact being an administrator working with educators to improve teaching and learning.

Well, after serving as an assistant principal and principal, I was tapped to be the director of secondary education in a Washington school district. This then led to being the assistant superintendent of schools in Federal Way Public Schools. We were in a position to make some significant changes in how we delivered instruction by focusing on concepts and processes for learning, using standards to guide instruction and developing unique strategies to deliver instruction.

We started the second Internet Academy for students in this country (which was featured by CNN), established a new teacher professional development initiative through using existing outstanding teachers who taught part time and trained teachers part time, and we focused on changing science instructional delivery in elementary schools through a science kit program and science center to name a few.

What one or two education issues are you most passionate about (and why)?

The number one issue for me as I think through my years in education continues to be "equity" in educational opportunities. This focuses on excellent instruction, opportunities to participate in the many facets of schooling and career options. I’ve been in many schools in my life and this issue is constantly in the forefront. I’ll continue to work on this even though I’m retired because our children and young adults need all of us to do this.

Tell us about an educator who made a particularly large impact on your life?

One educator, whom I’ll never forget, was my plane geometry teacher in the 9th grade. She was over 6 feet tall, with her hair pulled back so tight it looked like it was pinching, and she was very precise in her speech, rarely repeating herself, and had the most piercing eyes I’d ever seen. When she looked at you and asked a question, she expected you to be prepared to answer, question yourself on your conclusions and find options to your answer. She forced us to analyze everything!

One day in March (it was near my birthday so I’ll always remember), she asked me to see her after class. I couldn’t imagine why since I was an A student and tried to be as quiet as I could in this class (which for me was a task). So of course I stayed, and she informed me I would be teaching the last unit to the class in May. I was speechless and I knew she could see the astonishment on my face. She informed me I would be meeting with her after school for the next two months (is she kidding I’m on the tennis team) and she followed up with the fact that she had talked to the tennis coach and there would be time for us to meet.

Well, as you can imagine, I did teach that unit and excellently I thought (although at the end she simply said "Well done"). When the class ended, she came up to me on the last day and said “Sherrelle, you’re going to be a great teacher (really, I’m going to be a physical therapist) so do a great job.” That was it. And I did go on to be a teacher and whenever I was teaching she was always in the back of my mind guiding me through.

Share an unusual/fun fact about yourself.

One of the things I enjoyed doing early in my life was designing children’s bedrooms, which I did for most of my friends. Today, however, I’m an amateur photographer and I make photo books of my prints.