Educational leadership doctoral candidate takes inspiration from her students
Nicole Dickens-Simon was raised in a family that understood the value of education. Her mother started out as a substitute teacher and worked her way up the ranks, eventually becoming assistant superintendent in Newark Public Schools and then assistant superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, while her aunt used to homeschool many neighborhood children.
“I had very strong role models,” Dickens-Simon recalls, “so my love of learning and impacting children was always there.”
Still, she didn’t start out on the path to a career in education. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a double major in Spanish and journalism, her first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter.
It wasn’t until a few years later that she decided to go into teaching.
“I absolutely loved writing,” she says. “However, even at that time I could see that the newspaper industry was tapering off and segueing into an electronic domain. I just decided a natural next step for me was to become an educator.”
She went back to school to earn her teaching credentials, and became a Spanish teacher at Abraham Clark High School in Roselle, N.J. But even early on in her teaching career, she knew her ultimate goal was to transition into administration. “I wanted to be able to effect change and have a greater impact on my students,” she says.
To help herself accomplish this goal, Dickens-Simon earned her master’s in educational leadership from Rider in 2004. She also made the strategic decision to move to a school district where there was a greater chance for growth.
“I selected Hamilton Township (in New Jersey) as my next professional opportunity because it’s such a large school district,” she says. “When I interviewed, I stated that I have a great passion for the Spanish language and culture, I love students, and I will impact the classroom in a very positive manor, but I want to be an administrator.”
During her time with the district, Dickens-Simon has progressed from Spanish teacher to World Languages Department chair at Nottingham High School, then vice principal at Hamilton High West, and in 2017 she was named principal of Greenwood Elementary School.
As she continued to grow in her career as an educational administrator, she knew that she would also need to keep evolving in her own education.
“I always wanted my doctorate, it was just a matter of timing,” she says. “I looked into several different programs, but I could never find a balance between earning my degree, professional success, and ensuring time for my family and faith.”
Several years ago, when Rider announced that it was launching its doctorate in educational leadership program, she knew the time was right for her.
“I was first in line,” she says. “I didn’t even know the credit hours or the cost, I just said, ‘I’m applying.’ Rider is in my community and I feel very comfortable here. The professors were great to me as a master’s student and I had a phenomenal experience. So enrolling in the doctoral program was a no brainer.”
Dickens-Simon was part of the inaugural cohort that started in 2017, and she is on track to earn her doctorate in the spring of 2020.
“It’s been wonderful,” she says of her time at Rider. “Our cohort is a close-knit body of professionals who come from all different levels of experience, age groups, and interests, but we really connected. Rider did an amazing job of bonding us and helping us feel that we would be successful.”
Dickens-Simon is writing her dissertation on “the joint implementation of restorative practices and Responsive Classroom in a Title 1 K-5 elementary school,” and she explains that her goal is to have a positive effect on school climate, social-emotional learning and student behavior.
She adds that what she has learned in the educational leadership program has had a direct impact on helping her achieve this goal, as well as making her a more effective principal. “It has made me a much better leader, and a much better person. It has also made me more empathetic and more focused on presenting opportunities to my students to ensure that they are more well-rounded learners.”
Dickens-Simon hopes to use her doctoral degree to grow in her career pursuits. She says she would love to be an adjunct professor in a teaching college, and also wants to write bilingual children’s books. But first and foremost, her focus is on doing everything she can for her students at Greenwood Elementary School.
“I want them to have a voice, to feel cared for, and to know that their school is a place where they can feel safe,” she says. “I try very hard to make sure that everyone in our community is working as a team to accomplish this. There’s a lot of work to do, but we have to get it done because our students’ futures depend on it.”