By Julia Straka, ’21

Gilma Beverley Steele, GC’19, has been engaged in education for most of her life. Beverley, which she prefers, earned her bachelor's degree and master's degree in teaching from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and has worked at Henrico Public Schools for 13 years. For much of this time, she worked as a history and social studies teacher and more recently as an administrative aide at Douglas Southall Freeman High School.

This past May, Steele graduated from the SPCS Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS) graduate certificate program, which helps educators transition into administrative roles. Shortly thereafter, she was named an assistant principal at Freeman, where she continues to serve.

Steele knew early on that she wanted to become a teacher. She had a turbulent childhood, but two exceptional second grade teachers helped her realize that her background didn’t have to determine her future. She knew she wanted to become that positive influence for other children since she was seven.

However, she did not anticipate teaching history. History was one of Steele’s least favorite subjects in high school; she found all the memorization and recall of facts boring. It wasn’t until she was in a European history class at VCU with a professor who would literally hop up on his desk when talking about Charlemagne that she began to see history as a story.

Steele also never expected to go into administration. Assuming teachers have the most impact on students, she was a little apprehensive about becoming an administrative aide in the 2017-2018 academic year. During her second year as an aide, she realized that principals actually have more influence. “As a teacher, the other kids may not know you,” she said, then continued, “As an authority figure throughout the whole school, I may be able to encourage a kid that is not in my class.”

Steele also realized that administrators have the ability not only to support students, but also to encourage parents and other teachers. Steele’s favorite aspect of her SPCS experience was the relevance and practicality of her courses; she was able to immediately apply what she learned in the classroom as an administrative aide.

However, her time as an SPCS student did not come without hurdles. Steele’s greatest challenge was finding time to make everything happen. “I kept wishing I could find one more hour,” she recalled. As a full-time teacher, administrative aide, school track coach, mother, wife and student, she sometimes caught herself wondering, “What was I thinking? What am I doing?”

However, Steele’s tenacity and fear of failure fueled her success. Steele was a runner in school and found that she hated coming in second place more than she actually enjoyed winning.

The stakes of her success were also raised by her twin daughters, who are about to go to college themselves. Failing was not an option for Steele. She conjectured that it would “delegitimize what I have taught them, [that] nothing is unsurmountable to them,” she said.

Constant learning is also one of her favorite parts of teaching, whether it involves researching a question a student asked her or becoming fluent in pop culture. It’s what keeps her job fresh. “There is never a dull moment. Kids say and do the most interesting things. The comments you hear, you wouldn’t hear anywhere else,” she said while chuckling.

As an aspiring administrator, Steele found one of her mentors during an internship at Greenwood Elementary, a low-income school without the best reputation. The school’s young principal, Ryan Stein, made himself visible and accessible, communicated great ideas, involved community partners, helped the school attain accreditation and gave the place a bright and happy energy, evident not only in the children, but in the teachers and office staff as well.

Steele also sees herself being the happiest in a “tough school,” one that is low-income and has a fast turnover rate. She explains that most people shy away from schools like Greenwood Elementary, or work just long enough to move along to a better school. However, Steele believes in sticking around and making a real impact: she hopes that one day, like Stein, she can “change the culture of a building in such a dramatic way.”

In terms of long-range career goals, the old adage that “home is where the heart is” applies. Steele is originally from Grenada and moved to the U.S. with her husband, whom she met in Grenada during his Peace Corps service. She hopes to return one day and join Granada’s Ministry of Education.

Steele received a good education in Grenada, but she believes there is always room for improvement.

Not every student is given the opportunity to graduate from high school there. After the first portion of secondary school, children who don’t score high enough on the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exam are not able to advance to the last two years of their education and leave school at the age of 14.

Steele believes this is an injustice not only to the kids who never graduate, but to Grenadian society as a whole.

“There are some kids that don't hit their stride until later on,” she remarked. “What becomes of their earning possibilities?” She believes this system is one of the nation’s causes of unemployment, especially since there are few opportunities for agriculture or trade school in Grenada.

A product of the school system in Grenada, Steele has a unique perspective on the American system as well. “It seems casual. It is not as revered as I think it should be,” she said.

There are much higher expectations for Grenadian students. Steele remembers this in the form of the dress code. She had to polish her shoes and iron her skirt every night. Every morning, she lined up in front of teachers who would check that she and her classmates were wearing slips and vests. Now, she feels a little dismay every time she sees a student dressed informally.

She also recognizes the vast resources to which American students have access. Even in schools where people think kids don’t have a lot, she observed, students are better resourced in the U.S. than in other nations. In Granada, for example, Steele remembers having to buy all of her own textbooks and find her own transportation to school as a kid.

Steele has gained invaluable insight having experienced both education systems in different capacities. With her new graduate certificate and leadership skills, she can apply her wisdom and passion for impacting students to a larger, and possibly international, scale.