Debby Previna wanted to be a teacher since sixth grade. One day, she was sitting in class at Shady Hill School, a private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the fifth school she had attended since she had come to America from Haiti at the age of six.
“I was done with being the new kid. I’m introverted by nature,” Previna said. Her mother urged her to have a positive attitude, but “I was not a performer.” However, Previna’s teacher, Miss Harriman, told her that she didn’t have to smile if she didn’t want to.
“There goes an educator who’s come here to educate,” Previna said of Miss Harriman. It wasn’t just Miss Harriman; Previna said she admired Shady Hill School’s approach to teaching. “The culture of the school was such that if a kid was spacing out the window, they might be actually thinking a really magical thought,” she said.
At Shady Hill School, Previna started to think about her peers from public school who could not afford the private education she had access to, and she saw the injustice in that. “From a very early age, I thought about access to education and how I wanted to devote my life to making sure that all students have equal opportunity to be in a space where they’re seen and encouraged,” Previna said. Previna founded or expanded four charter schools in Boston before she came to work at GDS in 2016. At the charter schools, Previna developed the schools’ curricula and hired faculty.
Previna started working as the Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning for the GDS lower/middle and high schools on July 1. According to Previna, she is the third person to serve in this role. Previously, her position was held by Dresden Koons and then Laura Yee, neither of whom is still at GDS. Koons and Yee had different titles, but they, like Previna, managed curriculum development. Much of Previna’s job is to collaborate with teachers and other administrators to improve the ways the GDS curriculum is structured and taught to students. Before Previna assumed the position, she was the middle school principal.
Previna said she became an educator “by osmosis.” Her stepfather was the head of the Department of Black Studies at Salem State College. Her mother became a teacher and got her college degree while Previna was in middle school.
After becoming Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning at GDS, Previna said her focus changed from the day-to-day management of the middle school to thinking about the school as a whole. Previna said she manages teachers’ professional development.
Previna said she facilitates meetings between teachers to discuss how they instruct their students. For example, Previna might gather teachers and have them ask, “How am I going to get my kids to write really powerful thesis statements?” She also looks at metrics teachers are tracking to see where they are doing well and where they can improve.
Previna said she might also work with a teacher to find how they can vary their approach when instructing different classes. Previna said that as a teacher, “you’re always listening and trying to understand how your students learn, what do they need, and making adjustments to the curriculum along the way.”
Previna is responsible for ensuring that the skills taught to students in early grades align with the skills taught in later grades. She does so by having meetings with the teachers who teach different grades at GDS, including with teachers at the lower/middle school. “If we’re expecting kids to write an essay in senior year, we should probably teach them how to write a sentence in lower school,” she said.
“It requires another layer of collaboration that I didn’t have before,” Previna said of her new position. She consults with department chairs, principals and administrators at other schools who have the same role that she does. Previna said this helps her understand what other schools are doing and share her approach to teaching, allowing her and administrators at other schools to improve their ideas.
Previna works with teachers interested in adding topics, such as books, to the current curriculum. These discussions, Previna said, are important when she thinks about GDS’ curriculum and the way teachers apply it in their classrooms.
Former Middle School Assistant Principal Mayra Diaz, who worked with Previna for six years, said that “one of Debby’s superpowers is her ability to remain non-judgmental.” Diaz said that when Previna works with her peers, she is open to feedback and “appreciates honesty and the opportunity to work through a problem.”
Previna works alongside the Assistant Head for Equity and Inclusion Marlo Thomas and Associate Head of School Meg Goldner Rabinowitz. Previna said that she and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work together when deciding on how teachers should introduce material that involves sensitive topics of race and marginalized identities. “Given our school’s mission, the work of DEI intersects with everything,” Previna said.
“The partnership between our office is critical as we continue to uphold our core values related to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Thomas said.