Katlyn Culligan, seventh grade social studies teacher for a school in Chicago’s NorthShore district.

Alumni Spotlight: Katlyn Culligan, Principal Certification

Katlyn Culligan graduated from Concordia University Chicago with a principal certification and currently works as a seventh grade social studies teacher for a school in Chicago’s NorthShore district. As an accomplished educator with nearly two decades in the classroom, we asked Katlyn to share with us her experience at Concordia University Chicago.

Why did you want to work in education? What inspired you?

As a child my stuffed animals were the most educated in town, and my chalkboard easel with colored chalk was likely the best gift that Santa ever brought me. From five years old, I was certain that I wanted to be a teacher, and I lived for Institute Days in my district so that I could “help” my mother teach kindergarten in her district.

Oddly enough, my mother was the one to initially caution me against going into education because of the political shifts that she felt detracted from the best interest of children, teachers, and families. However, despite her frustrations, she remained in education and helped lobby for a more progressive education system. She was passionate about making change that was meaningful rather than just for the sake of change, and her determination has inspired me to pick up where she left off.

Why did you choose Concordia University Chicago for your principal certification?

Prior to becoming a teacher, I studied child law and earned my master’s in social work. My desire to work with children never wavered, but I found that I was my happiest while in the classroom. There aren’t many professions where you can say that you laugh at least once every day – even on your most frustrating day. Of course, that is the luxury of working with children. Their optimistic view of the world is contagious.

Considering leaving those happy four walls of my classroom for a more managerial position is a struggle, but Concordia’s unique commitment to servant leadership helped give voice to the urge that I felt to initiate change from a more systemic level, and the affordability and flexibility of their schedule for working teachers made it the perfect fit.

What skills did you gain or sharpen through your program at Concordia University Chicago and how do you use them today?

While I have not yet investigated principalship opportunities, I have brought that servant leadership model into my classroom and into my involvement in my district. Quarterly student and parent surveys guide my classroom expectations and procedures because they help me to understand the needs of those specific stakeholders, which we sometimes forget is the purpose of schools and education in the first place.

I also better understand the concept of learning and assessment alignment. Leading my department in creating more standards-based practices and reporting has been one of the most challenging and worth-while endeavors I’ve experienced as an educator, and it has forced us to reflect on our purpose, structure, and effectiveness as teachers. Without Concordia’s final internship project, I may never have had the opportunity.

How has your principal certification impacted you in terms of your current position or a position you’d like to attain in the future?

Since finishing my principal certificate, I have used my knowledge of the education system in my leadership role on the district’s union. Having this more well-rounded point of view has helped clarify for me the needs of both teachers and administrators at the micro and macro levels. It has given me a broader perspective that helps me create a more cohesive district that best meets the needs of students, families, and all faculty. It also gave me the confidence to mentor my first student-teacher because Concordia’s framework for leadership focuses so heavily on the importance of instructional coaching.

What was a challenge you faced during your principal certification program, and who or what helped you overcome it?

I have studied and taught at Christian schools for most of my life, but the faculty at Concordia lives these values in a way that I had not experienced before. As is the case with most students who attend Concordia, I am a diligent student and a bit of a perfectionist. Feeling vulnerable isn’t something to which I often admit, and I have high expectations for myself.

There was a moment at Concordia that really helped to reframe some of that for me, though. It forced me to acknowledge the human side of myself and of learning. My father was permanently injured and I had to take over as his caregiver and legal guardian. The emotional and physical exhaustion was visibly noticeable. When I opened up to my cohort, the outpouring of sympathy and kindness reinforced for me that this was a safe place. My professor even insisted that I go home, “eat something and rest.” He posted the slides from the class for me, and I didn’t have to take any time off. I am not sure that I had always shown the same grace and mercy to my own students, but I am mindful of that lesson now.

What was the biggest takeaway from your principal certification program?

Undeniably, the best part of Concordia’s program is the relationships built within the cohort. The bond that you form with your cohort creates a support system that motivates and energizes you. We looked forward to those four hours together every week, and we often chose to get together outside of that time, too. Moreover, for the eight weeks that we were with a professor, he/she felt like one of the group. They modeled flexibility, empathy, knowledge, experience, and servant-leadership in their interactions with students. It was clear from orientation that these are values prized by Concordia.

Being back in school while working full-time also reminded me what it felt like to be on the other side of the desk, and this I something all teachers could likely benefit from after teaching for several years. Sometimes we forget how challenging it is to balance the academic workload with commitments outside of school. Putting myself in the shoes of a student again reminded me how important it is to empathize with this more human side of learning. Students need a safe place to learn, to be vulnerable, and be known as a whole person. As a principal, I hope to create that culture for students, teachers, staff, and families, as well.

What would you tell (or what advice would you give) prospective students considering the principal certification program at Concordia University Chicago?

It is daunting to take on graduate courses while working full-time, but this program is designed specifically for that situation. You not only expand your learning, you form strong connections with people who share the same goals. Having at least a few years in education before taking on a leadership role may provide a little more perspective on the system as a whole, but once you are in the program, everyone at Concordia is invested in your success. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

At whichever level of education I end up, Concordia University Chicago has taught me to keep learning as the central focus of each endeavor and that it is through our actions as much as our words that we create positive change. My career path has been a winding road, but my five-year-old-self would not be at all surprised that my dream of being an educator finally came true.