By PA Fellow Sharif El-Mekki

"A teacher (principal) affects eternity; he (she) can never tell where his (her) influence stops." - Henry Adams

As a principal, I often find myself reflecting on the myriad experiences I have had learning from others. During National Principals Month, my reflections naturally coalesced around the principals who had a long lasting impact on me both as a student and as a current principal. As with many mentor/mentee relationships, I have the tremendous blessing of still benefiting from three of these life-impacting principals.  

Community mindedness and skill development were two focal points that one of my first principals wanted to embody in her students. Mama Fasaha Traylor was my elementary school principal at Nidhamu Sasa, an African Freedom School in Germantown established in 1972. We were taught to have a positive racial identity with a focus on pride, self-discipline, self-control, and rigor. We were effectively taught that we were responsible for our actions and our community-even in elementary school. This focus on community building, student achievement, and dedication remains embedded in my decisions and outlook. Mama Fasaha and her team invested heavily in both our academic and social skills. Their goal was to do whatever was necessary to promote both our personal well-being and that of the community at large.

Mr. Charles D’Alfonso made a calculated investment in hiring me as a new, career changer to prepare his 8th grade students for high school and beyond. All too often, principals and districts don’t fully support new teachers or give them time to grow their roots. Mr. D’Alfonso and the School District of Philadelphia had the foresight to not only place me on a strong grade team, but to also provide me with mentors (Mrs. Corbett and Mrs Lee) and I was assigned Mrs. Savior (more on her later) as my new teacher coach. Mr. D’Alfonso also made sure I was connected with other teacher leaders in the school-including two Black men who had teacher leadership roles in the school. Dr. Blackwell was a Small Learning Community Coordinator (SLCC) and Mr. Gibbs was also a SLCC who later transitioned to become Turner’s Special Education Liaison.  I have tried to internalize the impact of the support I enjoyed and the leadership skills I gained as a well-mentored teacher leader and later a principal.

Later, after serving ten years as a teacher, lead teacher, and Assistant Principal at Turner Middle School, I was recruited to become the principal at Shaw Middle School in southwest Philadelphia. I would be reunited as a coachee and mentee with Mrs. Savior. She became my official new principal coach and would continue to challenge and mentor me as a principal in similar and different ways than she did when I was a nascent teacher. Although Mrs. Savior continued to provide feedback and support, she helped me to develop my own vision and systems for Shaw. She even chipped in with the inordinate amount of paperwork that could have easily inundated a brand new principal! When a supervisor expressed his chagrin at my  “unprofessional” poster of Malcolm X and lamented that my picture that was thumbtacked on the wall, Mrs. Savior supported me and purchased large, framed posters of both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Again, mentorship and coaching, both informally and formally, propelled my school’s success and solidified the impact of a great mentor on an emerging leader.

I remain in touch with all three of these coaches and mentors. Their influence resonates through time because their investment in me has allowed me to further invest in and partner with thousands of other children and families. The collective coaching that I benefited from impacted me over the past 23 years and informed my practice to ensure that new teachers and leaders have robust support. My experiences have guided me to partner with local leaders in order to commit support to a larger base beyond my immediate school community-especially Black Male educators- through our recently launched organization, The Fellowship and our Black Male Educators Convenings (BMEC). Through the BMEC, we will provide Black male educators with opportunities to network and receive support tailored to their unique needs. 

Indeed, the roots of influential support deepen over time. Mama Fasaha, Mr. D’Alfonso, and Mrs. Savior’s collective investments continue to ripple forward. With many of my former students and teachers now serving as teacher leaders and principals, the impact of my mentors continue to positively affect the future. 

For the past eight years, Sharif El-Mekki has been the proud principal at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia. El-Mekki’s team at the Shoemaker Campus has been recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Shoemaker Campus was also recently recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African American students. El-Mekki was recently a Principal Ambassador for the US Dept. of Education and currently serves on Mayor Michael Nutter’s Mayor’s Commission on African American Males and is a Fellow with Neubauer Foundation and America Achieves.