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Q&A with Sharron Russell, Director of Positive Education and Student Support

Jared Scott Tesler
In 1995, Dr. Sharron Russell was hired to write and teach Shipley’s social-emotional curriculum. Dr. Russell, who holds a certificate and doctoral degree in school psychology from Immaculata University and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, respectively, has been directing student support since 2011 and positive education at Shipley since 2016. She is largely responsible for helping to make Shipley the first-ever positive education school in the country.
 
Tell us about yourself. 
I was born in Liverpool, England. When I was six years old, my family and I moved to the United States, where I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology, with a minor in social work, from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. I always thought I’d go to law school but ended up working in foster care and adoption before transitioning into education and school psychology.
 
What are your signature strengths?
Creativity, Hope, Humor, Perspective, and Social Intelligence.
 
Why did you go into school psychology? 
In 1995, I was interviewed by [former Head of School] Steve Piltch to work as an Upper School health teacher. He explained the position to me and I said, “I think you need a social worker for this job, because I can do more of what you call a psychoeducational group, not necessarily a curriculum that’s beginning to end.” I sold him on the idea. I taught for a few years and then began exploring school psychology. While working toward my doctoral degree, I did a bit more counseling, but what I love most is assessment. When a student needs to be evaluated for a learning disability or is trying to figure out why things aren’t going well at school, I run a battery of tests, focusing on IQ, achievement, attention, language processing, social-emotional skills, behavior, and executive functioning. Then I put all those pieces together in a report and really try to give teachers and parents a roadmap of where to go and what to do next.
 
How did you first learn about positive psychology? What did you like about it?
I first learned about positive psychology while writing my doctoral dissertation. I read about Martin Seligman [Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania], who was referenced in all my psychology textbooks and whose daughter eventually attended Shipley. I attended a lecture on incorporating positive education into schools by David Bott [Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School] and was blown away. I came back from that talk, walked into Dr. Piltch's office, and said, “This is what we need to do.”
 
Before I even knew what positive psychology and positive education were, I always focused on individual strengths as part of student evaluations, which many people see as simply evaluations of deficits. I’ve always said to teachers and parents, “If you don’t know the child’s strengths, all the deficits that I uncover don’t matter, because you’re not going to know how to work on them.” That’s why positive psychology makes so much sense to me, with its focus on balancing one’s strengths and challenges.
 
What do you appreciate about Shipley? Why have you spent most of your career here?
Definitely the community. I feel important and appreciated. I feel like I matter.
 
Shipley is so open when it comes to thinking about how we—faculty, staff, administrators—can be better and do better. I’ve always been able to learn and grow here. In 25 years, I don’t think I’ve ever been turned down for a professional development opportunity.
 
What do you do for fun or to relax?
Line dancing, walking, running, and spending time with family, friends, and our four dogs.
 
What are you really passionate about?
Building a better world. Creating, restoring, and nurturing hope in the lives of young people.
 
What are you currently watching/reading/listening to?
I recently watched [novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist] James Baldwin’s biography on PBS and [actress and LGBTQIA+ advocate] Laverne Cox’s documentary on Netflix. We’re doing the How to Be an Antiracist Book Club, so I’m reading that. I also bought Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, because I want to think about how we can incorporate it into our Social, Emotional, and Ethical Development (SEED) curriculum. Before I got into the Book Club, I was reading The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. I often read for fun, too. Amazon sends me a free book every month, which I’ll download and read on my Kindle. Most recently, I read Little Fires Everywhere.
 
What excites you most about Positive Education?
I think it fits so well with Shipley, with what we already do, our goals, our Strategic Plan, and what we want for our students and the community. I feel lucky that we have people who get that this makes sense for Shipley and that it’s the best thing for us to do. I feel lucky that we have that level of support and that we can be creative and move things forward.
 
What tips can you offer other schools that are considering adopting Positive Education?
Come and hear Professor Lea Waters speak at our Positive Education Conference! Her Visible Well-Being program is a great start.
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.