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Although October is National Principals Month, Nancy Antoine's commitment to education and leadership endures year-round. Her 34-year career began with nine years as a secondary math teacher, including stints coaching volleyball and fast-pitch softball. Since 2007, she has served as principal of Northfield's Bridgewater Elementary. A past president of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association, Antoine was recently named Minnesota's 2021 National Association of Elementary School Principals National Distinguished Principal. A biracial woman, she aims to use her professional and volunteer platforms to diminish persistent educational gaps and seek equity for all students.

Q: What led you to education?

A: I've always loved math, and math was my ticket to get a seat on the school bus. Our family had six kids, all growing up in Cook County with a Black father and a white mother and yet our parents never discussed their mixed-race marriage. Dad was born and raised in Lutsen. He knew the path we would have to take, but he gave us no road map for navigating it.

Q: What did that mean for you?

A: We were ostracized, tormented and ridiculed as kids. My ability to help other kids with their math homework gave me some relief. I learned that education was a steppingstone for the next steps in my life, and that once you get an education, it can't be taken away from you. I went into teaching because there were certain things I believed should be done differently than I experienced them as a student. As long as kids have equal opportunities, then education levels the playing field for everyone.

Q: You've been a principal for over two decades. How has your leadership philosophy developed?

A: I want my teachers to be leaders and to fly, and I want my students to do the same. I'm there to help them, but I refuse to be the one taking credit for their progress; they get the credit. I spent a lot of my life embarrassed about the things I'd experienced, but I'm now doing a better job of finding my voice. I see that, in my role, I'm able to bring a deeper understanding of the need for equity to my staff because of the authentic examples I can provide. Sometimes I hear, "Thanks for sharing; I had no idea that happens," so by offering that window into my life, I can help teachers and other administrators better understand students. And I'm blessed with a good staff.

Q: Do certain students need accommodations due to their backgrounds?

A: No. Don't pity your students, teach them. Pity won't take them anywhere. A solid education will.

Q: How can teachers discover what each kid needs to succeed?

A: There are 550 K-5 students in my building and I work hard every year to get to know each one's name. Students need to be seen. One of the most frequent comments I hear from kids years after they've been in my school is, "I can't believe you remembered me." Greeting someone by name tells them they're valued. And that opens the door to relationship-building, which is key.

Q: Is a college degree a universal ticket?

A: We need everyone in this society. Everyone has value. We shouldn't negate the importance of the trades or two-year degrees because, let's face it — we need plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics, chefs and hair stylists. We should support students who want to work in the trades, and there are many paths to really good salaries and satisfying careers stemming from two-year degree and vocational programs, along with those requiring four-degrees and beyond.

Q: What's changed since receiving your national honor?

A: While continuing in my principal role, I've become an adjunct faculty member at Concordia University, St. Paul, teaching a graduate level class for future school administrators. I enjoy helping other teachers work toward administrative licensure while talking about the hardships and solutions I've learned over the years. The award is a reminder I need to constantly give back so the next generation of leaders is ready to take over when we retire. My late father-in-law, Deane Antoine, was a school superintendent for many years, and he was such a great mentor for me; I'm trying to fill that role for younger teachers now. Mostly, I'm honored the award brings positivity to the elementary schools I've led — Bridgewater and, before that, Prairie Elementary in Worthington — and I realize it's given me a platform to help other people.

Q: You mention mentorship and positivity. How does that translate to student contact?

A: The fight for equity and justice in education is real. I'm standing in the gap for my kids. But it all comes back to the fact that the greatest indicator of success for any child is a positive connection with one adult. In schools, that could be a lunch lady, a teacher, a bus driver, a custodian or the principal. Everyone needs that one person who is in their corner.

Q: What's the best part of your job?

A: I love what I get to do. As long as you remember you're here to serve others, your perspective stays correct. And these kids — their conversations, their creativity — bring me joy all the time. Overhearing two young brothers trying to figure out my age was hilarious. "She's 16." "No, more like 35." "That's older than our mom! I think she's 29." To them, 16 is old! The laughter of children is my favorite sound.