Engaging Students to Foster Joy

Jasmin Harding’s father Newell Hendricks-Harding was a guitar player who looked, sounded, dressed like and swore he was related to the celebrated musician Jimi Hendrix, and her mother Mary Freitas was a homemaker who raised four children. “They were individualistic, and they fostered our individualism,” says Jasmin, who today is assistant principal at Thirman L. Milner Middle School in Hartford, Connecticut. “But I didn’t have the easiest childhood.”

The life of the typical musician is one of hard knocks and little money, she points out, and her family often struggled and sometimes resorted to food stamps. “I knew I didn’t want that life for myself,” she adds.

Her mother’s family hailed from Portugal, her father’s from Jamaica and the United States, and she is intensely proud of their immigrant background. Her African American paternal grandmother Miriam Hendricks stood out and influenced her most:

“She started college in her late fifties and was immensely proud of herself. She brought me along to classes, so I knew it was attainable for me. She was the very first person I called about every success I had.”

In high school, she found a job in a youth mentoring program for the city of Hartford where she was trained to understand domestic violence, the need for conflict resolution, and other issues and strategies common to contemporary urban life. She says, “We would go into other schools and present. I was actually teaching. This planted a seed.”

Her route into education was circuitous. After high school, she worked a year as a pharmacy technician to earn money, then she headed to Capital Community College, which was all she could afford, and finally went on for a BA in history and social studies at Eastern Connecticut State University. She also worked as a paraeducator while pursuing her degree.

Once she became a teacher at Dwight-Bellizzi Asian Studies Academy in Hartford, she was determined to take her time to master her craft, but she knew administration would be part of her career and quickly took on a variety of leadership roles, including social studies team leader and grade-level instructional leader. She was prepared when she became instructional coach and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) coordinator at Burns Latino Studies Academy some years later.

Today, she is assistant principal, under the outstanding leadership of Principal Leonardo Watson, at Thirman L. Milner Middle School. “He taught me to trust my judgment and use resources effectively within the school environment,” she says. Because the demographics of their community involve high rates of violence and homelessness, the school offers a variety of wraparound services, including after-school programs from martial arts to trades instruction, dental services, emergency services, a food pantry and mentoring groups. She says, “It’s a challenging school and I work very well under stress.”

But that isn’t all. “School is not just about learning, but about community," Jasmin says. Every month, she and the whole team, known as the ACE team (attendance, culture and engagement), makes sure they plan something to engage their students and foster joy—a pep rally, a fall festival, gift giveaways and Camp Milner, an indoor camp. The ACE team also works to determine and problem solve root causes of chronic absenteeism for students at Milner.

“One thing I’ve taken the lead on is the Mindful Schools program,” she continues. Frustration from pandemic-related academic loss has been ongoing. And the residual problems of poverty create very high levels of stress as well, which, of course, reverberate among the staff.

Jasmin explains that the mindfulness program provides strategies that help educators become more resilient themselves and thus more effective. It helps them cultivate skills to manage their own stress, and create safe spaces and coping techniques for their students in the classroom and beyond.  

Jasmin has outlets of her own. She is an avid “thrifter.” “It’s like a treasure hunt,” she says. “I can no longer step into a retail store.” Traveling is another passion, and she plans three or four trips a year. Right now, she’s planning a trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira where she has generations of family ties through her maternal grandparents. She hopes to strengthen those ties by bringing her husband Troy and her daughter Skylar, a college-bound senior, for the first time.

On the professional horizon, she foresees a principalship when the time is right. She is in no hurry.  

“Even as a woman of color, who never knew privilege, and who comes from an immigrant family on both sides, I’ve never had the mindset of disadvantaged, and this has to do with the way I was raised,” she says. “Even if I have to take the steps when others take the elevator, I am going to get there.”