Cheryl Lang came into this world too early, weighing only 2 pounds. She spent the first five months of her life in the hospital, and was even given her last rights twice. Doctors told her mother when she was 18 months old that she would have many obstacles in life, and seemed to have developmental delays. Despite the outlook, Lang says her family supported and encouraged her to reach her full potential, with her grandmother giving her extra encouragement to follow her heart. She got through school, had children and volunteered at their school. One teacher saw her gift in education, and encouraged Lang to pursue it. Now, she is a principal and on her way to having her doctorate in educational leadership.
Name: Cheryl Lang
Occupation: Principal of Telstar High School in Bethel.
What made you want to start volunteering at your children’s school in the first place? Was there something about the academic world that called to you then, even after your challenging experience in school? I wanted to volunteer at my children’s school because I cared about the education my children were getting and, as a parent, I wanted to support their teachers. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t have a “supportive” experience in school, but it was more of the “here and now,” as in “You are here with me now, and this is what I have to teach you.” Nothing more, nothing less. That is when the teacher teaches the content and not necessarily the child.
What have you learned from the teachers you’ve met along the way who make a difference in their student’s lives, and just as importantly, what did you learn from the teachers who didn’t take extra time with you while you were in school? I have learned from personal experience and the teachers I have met along life’s journey that children don’t come to us saying, “Hey, look at what I have to offer!” And in the cases of those children who need us educators the most, what they have to offer may be buried deep beneath other stuff. I have learned that teachers, more than ever in today’s fast-paced world, need to teach students and not just content. I have learned that schools need to figure out how to better relate to the world that children live in, and I have learned that we need to notice every child who steps through our doorway, and most importantly, find out their story.
You’ve said all that children need are caring adults who take the time to find the sometimes hidden gifts within each of them. Can you expand on that a little, and give an example of how your grandmother helped unveil your hidden gifts? Growing up, my grandmother continued to give me strength and resilience as I battled hospital stays that continued to impact my education. She expected more from me than I sometimes expected from myself. Sadly, she passed away as I was about to fulfill my dream of returning to college to become an educator, but she was still with me as I wrote my entrance essay that told my story, and she continues to be with me as I continue persevering along life’s journey.
Now that you are a principal, what sort of things do you do in your day-to-day interactions with the students that have stemmed from your experience at school? In other words, what do you do to make sure your students don’t have the same experience you did? I hold myself to high standards. I don’t expect anything less from myself than I expect from others. Now that I am a principal, I make sure that I am a visible presence in my school, and I expect the same from the rest of the staff. I make myself available to students, parents and staff as much as possible. I will drop what I am doing when someone indicates that they need me. I work hard at developing relationships with students, parents and staff, and it is in this relationship building that I begin to see the gifts that each individual has to offer.
What would you say to a student who doesn’t have the family support system that you did? How can they still reach their full potential? I would say the same things I would say to anyone when appropriate: Don’t give up on yourself. You might not know it now, but you have an incredible gift inside you just waiting to be unwrapped. Don’t ever close the doors of opportunity. You don’t have a choice in how others act or interact with you, but what you do have is a choice in how you choose to react. More importantly, I try to find out what those gifts are: love of writing, great at technology, athletic ability, strength of friendship, resiliency, etc. and I capitalize on them. Most importantly, I show that I care . . . even when I am handing down the strictest of disciplines. The old cliche lives on: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. This includes my relationships with parents and staff too! I work really hard at helping others learn how to put “life’s baggage” on the back burner when necessary, so they can indulge in what life has to offer at the moment.
Cheryl Lang, principal of Telstar High School in Bethel. (University of New England photo)