After striving for years to create public after-school and summer educational opportunities, Charissa Fernández came to the realization that, no matter how effectively her programs worked, “they could not compensate for the inadequate education during the rest of the school day,” she says. Since becoming the executive director of Teach for America’s (TFA) New York chapter in 2013, Fernández has worked to establish a homegrown, more diverse TFA pipeline, as well as partnerships with local principals and other classroom educators. NationSwell spoke with Fernández, who’s quick with a laugh, at TFA’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given on leadership?
Keep a long-term view. Perspective adds value to any situation. That is the notion of wisdom: the combination of experience and time. I was fortunate in my career, when I was younger, to work with older professionals who identified and nurtured talent in me, and they taught me that lesson. When you are inclined to freak out because something is happening, they told me this has happened before, it will happen again, and it will also be okay.
What’s on your nightstand?
I have a lot of things virtually stacked up on my phone, but I am excited to start reading Angela Duckworth’s new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s a little nerdy, but for someone who works in education and has children, I have both a personal and professional investment in getting this right. How do I instill this in my own children, and then help teachers instill it in the children they work with?
What innovations in education are you most excited about right now?
One is the integration of mindfulness into schools and workplaces — for both students and educators. We just welcomed our 2016 corps of teachers, and the opening workshop we did with them was on emotional resilience. We bring in people who are incredibly passionate and want to do everything to help kids. They have to take care of themselves to do right by their students, because teacher stress can have a profound impact on student behavior and student performance.
What do you wish someone had told you when you first started this job?
There are two things. One is just to make time and space for processing. In the urgency of working to improve public education, we always think we have to do one more thing: I have to go to that meeting, have to write that email, have to do that proposal. There are opportunities to make connections that we miss because we’re moving so fast. It’s information overload, unless you carve out time for processing, both individually — who are the people I met this week, what were the key ideas, how do they connect to each other, do I need to go back and ask additional questions — and as a group.
The other lesson, related to that, is how much this work is all about people. I believe, as a leader, the time invested in supporting people’s growth and development is generally always time well spent. Everything comes back full circle. When I think about starting my career, the first year, I taught 9th grade English, and one of my students is now a principal in the Bronx who hires TFA corps members. I never imaged that would be the case. It all comes down to relationships. You can’t over-invest in people.

Charissa Fernandez, center, takes pride in nurturing the talent of those who work with her.

What inspires you?
We live in a world that’s really set up to support being passive, to maintaining the systems as they are: inertia, the status quo, whatever you want to call it. In that context, when people choose to act, and particularly when they choose to do so without self-interest, I find that incredibly inspiring. The vast majority of our corps members are recent college grads, but we have two incoming members who are fifty-something, African-American men, both of whom have had successful careers in the private sector. I want to get inside their heads: what leads somebody to do that?
What’s your perfect day?
I usually wake up in the morning and say I want to accomplish roughly three things. If I get through all three in a day, that is remarkable. But I have to say, it doesn’t happen that often. Everything takes longer than anticipated, and there’s a million interruptions. A good day is one where I get through all my priorities.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I never think of this as my accomplishment, but I would tie it to finding great people and bringing them into the organization. I think about having left places, and when I’m making my goodbye speech, I’m proud that I brought these people here. I’m leaving, but they are still here and will continue the impact of what they are doing. It’s about identifying and nurturing talent.
What’s something most people don’t know about you that they should know?
When I think about my professional career — and I don’t think this was intentional — the jobs I have have all been public-private partnerships. I had an old boss who told me the reason I did a good job at those strategic partnerships was because I came from a big, complicated family.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MORE: Why It’s Important for Children to Learn Mindfulness at a Young Age