Emily Sullivan DoBell ’06 and Martha López Coleman ’01 took different paths, but each is now a school principal.
By Beth JoJack ’98
Neither Emily DoBell nor Martha López Coleman spent her childhood dreaming of becoming a school principal.
“I could have told you in second grade I wanted to be a teacher,” says López Coleman.
When she was little, DoBell thought she wanted to teach, too. “Then, as I grew up, I realized I really liked arguing,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, that must mean I want to be a lawyer.’”
And yet, both women now run schools.
López Coleman came aboard as principal of St. Patrick Catholic School in her hometown of Lufkin, Texas, in 2015. DoBell recently took a job as principal at KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate High School in Massachusetts after serving for three years as principal of KIPP Academy Boston Elementary.
Both women love their jobs.
“There are times when I will see a kid who’s struggling with math or something,” López Coleman says. “I will be able to stop and work with that child and give him some one-on-one attention, which was always the part that I loved about teaching in the first place.”
As a principal, DoBell has learned it’s possible to be warm with students while also demanding that they do their very best.
“Kids rise to whatever expectation that you set, high or low,” she says. “When you give a kid feedback or hold a line, as long as it’s a line that is reasonable, logical and meaningful, you are showing love.”
A winding path
After graduating from Hollins armed with a degree in history and her teaching license, López Coleman returned home to Lufkin, where she took a job teaching middle school and married her high-school sweetheart.
The husband worked out better than the job.
“I had 150 kids over two days,” she says. “That didn’t give me a chance to get to meet kids, to get to know them, to do what I thought was best for every child. I was just surviving.”
A move back to Virginia to teach at a junior detention facility didn’t leave López Coleman any more satisfied with her profession. She began reminiscing about how much she had enjoyed her work-study position in the Wyndham Robertson Library at Hollins. “If people had research questions, you were supposed to turn them over to the librarian,” López Coleman explains. “I would just field them.”
López Coleman took a new job as media coordinator for an elementary school in High Point, North Carolina, while earning a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “I felt like I’d finally found my niche,” she says.
Once she finished that degree, López Coleman started on a Master of Education from Averett University, while running a high school library in Martinsville, Virginia. She had an idea that one day she might like to work as an administrator, overseeing all the libraries in a school district.
Her carefully made plans went tilt-a-whirl, though, after having her first child. She and her husband decided to return to Texas, where they’d have support from their families. When she first got back home, López Coleman worked as an assistant director at a public library before deciding to try the stay-at-home-mom life. That wasn’t a great fit. “I was used to being very busy and having lots of interaction with adults,” she says.
She applied to the doctorate program at Stephen F. Austin State University, thinking the work would be good preparation for homeschooling her daughter. As she worked toward her Ed.D., members of her parish at St. Patrick Catholic Church mentioned again and again that the principal at St. Patrick Catholic School was looking to retire.
López Coleman knew the school well. She entered kindergarten there as a first-generation American who spoke little English. Her parents, who were born in Mexico, wanted their daughter in classrooms where everyone spoke English instead of in English-as-a-second-language classes. St. Patrick’s was willing to do that. “Because I went to school here, I have a doctorate,” López Coleman says. “It taught me that I could do things.”
Even so, she had no interest in running the place. “By nature, I’m very much an introvert,” she says. “It’s really hard for me to talk to strangers. That’s part of the job of a principal.”
By her third year in the doctoral program, people at church were still encouraging López Coleman to apply for the principal’s job. She thought about the adage that “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.”
She got the job.
St. Patrick Catholic School, which runs from pre-K to 8th grade, has about 80 students each year. López Coleman does double duty by serving as St. Patrick’s librarian.
Even though she’s not a natural extrovert, López Coleman has found her groove with the job. Each morning, she opens the school and holds a morning meeting, a time when she checks in on each of her students. “I can make eye contact with every child before we get into the classroom,” she says. “I’ve already got a feel for how my day’s going to go before 8:15 in the morning.”
She’s happiest walking through the school. “My students see me,” López Coleman says. “I hate being in my office because I’m away from the kids. I’d rather be walking through classrooms seeing what’s going on.”
What kids need
Like López Coleman, DoBell studied history at Hollins. She also majored in economics. She planned to teach for a few years after graduation before heading to law school.
In the spring semester of her senior year, DoBell remembers agonizing over whether she’d end up in a private or a public school. Professor of History Emerita Ruth Alden Doan told her, “All kids everywhere need great teachers.”
It’s a piece of advice she’s never forgotten.
DoBell ended up launching her career by teaching special education at public middle schools in North Carolina and Virginia. She loved the work. “It’s such a fun age,” she says. “They’re really exploring who they are.”
DoBell’s passion for teaching made her forget all about law school. But although she was excited about the field, DoBell didn’t think she was a very good teacher until she took a job teaching math in North Carolina at Gaston College Preparatory, a school run by KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program], a nationwide nonprofit network of public charter schools. Here, another educator taught DoBell how to assess whether students were learning as she taught and adjust her approaches accordingly.
“Not only are we having a fun time in class,” DoBell remembers thinking, “but they’re learning crazy amounts of math and then they’re internalizing that they’re good at this.”
Until the job in Gaston, DoBell had never considered working as an administrator. The principal’s office, she says, “seemed like the place you went where something bad was happening, and that’s not where I wanted to spend my day.”
With KIPP schools, though, DoBell saw leadership positions as being more about helping other educators the way she had been helped. “Coaching adults to be growing as teachers, so the kids could grow as students, did appeal to me,” she says.
In 2012, DoBell moved to Massachusetts to work as a learning specialist for KIPP Academy Boston. The next year, she was selected for a Fisher Fellowship, a one-year program that prepares educators to found and lead a new KIPP school in an underserved community.
DoBell opened KIPP Academy Boston Elementary, where she worked as principal for three years.
“I thought middle-school students learned quickly, but, dear lord, watching kindergarteners learn to read and write their names,” DoBell says. “I was like, ‘Elementary school is where it’s at.’”
Last spring, DoBell signed on as principal at KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, a high school. “I wasn’t sure I was going to love high school students the same way I felt about five- and six- and seven-year-old students. But they’re just taller. They’re the best.”
Throughout her career, Dobell says, she has felt twinges of guilt when she’s moved from one school to another. That’s when she thinks about what Professor Doan said.
“It’s really hard to leave a group of kids or a team of teachers,” DoBell says. “But ultimately, it has led me to be in a position where I can impact even more kids through even more teachers.
“I don’t know that I would have allowed myself to look forward and think about the kids that I was about to meet if it hadn’t been for keeping her words in the front of my mind.”
Beth JoJack is a frequent contributor to Hollins magazine.