Dena Simmons (CT ’04)
If I were to ask you to list the top five individuals in your life who have influenced you the most, I’m certain that a large percentage of you would name at least one teacher. And I bet you’d have a ready example of why that is so. I think it’s also a safe wager to suppose that the ones making your lists went above
and beyond the basics. They were, most likely, people who were fiercely dedicated to giving as much as humanly possible in order to increase your chances at success. Maybe, like me, you find it a bit confounding to come up with a word that adequately describes how far reaching their impact has been on you. We call them teachers, I guess, because that’s the widely accepted appellation. It has always struck me as a term falling colossally short, though. Especially in capturing the essence of the ones who stand out. The ones we remember vividly across our lifespan. The ones whose words of encouragement, acts of kindness, enduring patience, piercing insight, tireless imaginations, and indelible role modeling help shape our character and drive us to believe in the fullness of our potential.
I don’t know if I’ll ever come up with a word that fits the “rockstars” of the profession. But I can give you a name synonymous with the one percent of the best of the best. The name of a woman who continues to raise the bar higher still, and who is a unique gift to every student ever fortunate enough to sit in her classroom, or somehow sneak an opportunity at some point in their lives to cross her path.
Her name is Dena Simmons.
Among many accolades to her credit, Dena was recently selected as a MAKER: Women Who Make America, which is an ongoing initiative aiming to be the largest collection of women’s stories ever assembled. MAKERS.com is a dynamic digital platform, developed by AOL and PBS that showcases compelling stories of female trailblazers, including our very own Madeleine Albright, President of the Board of Trustees. You can see Dena’s powerful interview here.
Having just completed her dissertation, Dena will be graduating with her EdD in Health Education from Columbia University, Teachers College in May 2014. She is a graduate of Middlebury College, and she has an MA in Health Education from Teachers College and a MSEd in Childhood Education from Pace University. She is also a Certified Health Education Specialist.
Her list of credentials is extremely impressive and hard earned. It is, however, Dena’s passion that defines her.
This is her story as only she can tell it:
For as long as I could remember, I have always wanted to be an educator. My mother’s dedication and hard work to provide my two sisters and me with a good education instilled in me the importance of education. I grew up on Creston Avenue and 183rd Street, a drug-infested, violent neighborhood in the Bronx. Nothing about my dilapidated surroundings sent me the message that I mattered. Yet, my mother’s struggling to send my sisters and me to the neighborhood parochial school sent us the message that we mattered. After eighth grade, my sisters and I were fortunate to receive full scholarships to boarding schools and colleges in New England. Over the years, I have seen how education has opened up doors to more opportunities and to a better life. Education has empowered my family and me, and because of that, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to empowering others, especially those in marginalized communities like the one in which I was raised. I want to provide others with access to knowledge and to resources that could improve their lives and allow them to experience their visions of success. Being an educator allows me to work from the heart, and that type of work is the work that wakes me up each morning.
Because I learned early the importance of good schooling, I am dedicated to providing others with what my mother provided to me—a better life through education. My dedication to educating others led me to New York City’s Office of the Mayor as an education policy intern. One of my projects was to research the teen mother population by analyzing pregnancy prevention programs, data related to the health, education, and economic status of pregnant and parenting teens, and the schools that serve them. I spoke to experts and practitioners in the field, built a case for improved focus on the population’s needs, and provided recommendations for next steps to City Hall officials.
My internship exposed me to the public health problem of teenage pregnancy and informed my policy proposal for my application to the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, an award I was granted. Dedicated to implementing my policy proposal, I pursued research in the Dominican Republic with a Fulbright grant to learn how schools and health agencies collaborate to engage vulnerable youth and to prevent unwanted teenage pregnancy. While in Santo Domingo, I interviewed teen mothers and assisted medical personnel at a government maternity hospital. I observed effective and ineffective health education programs at educational institutions and completed projects for nongovernmental organizations.
My Fulbright research and work with nongovernmental organizations exposed me to the lack of access youth have to healthcare and to information about their sexual and reproductive health, the discrimination and injustice pregnant and parenting teens face in schools and in society, the cycle of poverty teenage pregnancy perpetuates, and the absence of programs to empower young men. The blatant disregard for Dominican youth strengthened my commitment to empower young people through the education and public health sectors.
My commitment led me to teach in a public middle school in the South Bronx, where I guided my students to high levels of social and academic achievement. Committed to my students’ success, I taught for three years in a row until they graduated. I brought the world to my students. For example, I invited outside organizations to bring social justice, music, arts, and athletic programming to my students, especially considering the depletion of such programming in our schools because of the current culture of test-based accountability. For example, when teaching in the South Bronx, I asked Americorps volunteers at Bronx Lebanon Hospital to teach my students lessons on nutrition, substance and alcohol abuse, safe sex practices and sexuality, and other health education topics. Since my school did not have a health education program, I used a community asset to fill a gap in my students’ education. To bring dance instruction to my class, I invited Columbia University students to teach my students West African dance while we learned about the African slave trade and the history of African Americans through reading Walter Dean Myers’ Now Is Your Time!: The African American Struggle for Freedom.
Additionally, I connected with outside social justice groups and took advantage of my circle of friends during some of my social justice lessons. During a unit on worker’s rights, for instance, I invited two representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to speak to my students about their experience working on farms as well as the need for fair wages. I wanted to not only expose my students to the many inequalities in the health and education systems, but also to equip them with necessary knowledge to recognize injustice when they see it so that they can combat it.
By connecting with the community and other outside resources, I transformed what education was “supposed” to look like for the Brown and Black children in the South Bronx by bringing the world to my students, by making their education about what they wanted to learn, not by what politicians with little to no education background thought looked good in headlines. Essentially, building relationships with students, their families, community members, and other social justice groups is key.
In the summer after my first year of teaching, I went to Antigua, my mother’s native island, and worked with the Directorate of Gender Affairs as a volunteer consultant to help Dominican sex workers find educational and health resources to improve the quality of their lives. The Dominican women I met had such interesting lives and stories that amplified how poverty often impacts the decisions one makes. I was able to speak with practitioners in the field as well. Overall, I gained a better understanding of the experience of being undocumented and, as a result, having limited support and resources. I left more certain that dedicating my life to empowering others and to fighting against social injustice was what I was destined to do.
While I loved teaching, the classroom felt limiting. Working within a broken system set up to fail some students and not others frustrated me. On top of that, teacher voices are often excluded when making education policy. That said, despite being intimidated by graduate school, it offered me an opportunity not only to learn how to be an effective public servant on a larger scale, but also to become a visible, respected, and included voice in education policy. Particularly, I wanted to learn how to ensure that students (and teachers) had safe, secure learning environments.
As an educator, I make it my mission to create a safe classroom environment for my students. However, while commendable, my actions are unsustainable and only benefit my small group of students. My desire to ensure that all students are safe, not just the ones in my classroom, to learn inspires my research interests in preventing and reducing bullying and violent behaviors in schools. Specifically, my research focuses on teacher preparedness to identify, to prevent, and to respond to bullying situations in the middle school setting. By understanding teachers’ needs with regard to violence and bullying prevention at schools, the hope is that policymakers, researchers, and schools of education can better equip and support teachers to prevent aggressive behaviors and to create and foster safe and supportive learning communities.
My work and research experiences have been unified by the theme of empowering others and confronting and interrupting multiple forms of violence and injustice. This is the work that calls me—always has and always will.