Taking her love for teaching and passion for education to the next level “made sense” for Forest Park Middle School’s new principal Terriyaka Watson, who will be bringing her 27 years of experience into the leadership role for the 2023-24 school year. 

From a young age, Watson, a native Chicagoan, found herself to be the “mom” of the group and often helped out at home with her siblings. At school, she was known as the “teacher’s helper.” 

When Watson was around 12 years old, her grandfather, who was a teacher, moved into the family home and as the two bonded, her notion to be an educator grew as she wanted to emulate everything that he did. 

“It was the only thing that clicked,” Watson said. “I wasn’t a sports person, everything about books made sense to me.” 

Watson continued her education pursuing an accounting degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, but it wasn’t long until she was helping the chair of the education department plan programs for teachers while working as their law assistant. And then Watson changed her major. 

“It just clicked, so the next day I ran to the advisor’s office and changed my entire major,” Watson said laughing. “It set me back two or three years but it just made sense. The instruction, the teachers, the drive to push students to learn, it was all just there.” 

Watson transferred to Chicago State in 1992, graduating in 1995. She began her student teaching career at Bennett Elementary School in Chicago, where she taught from 1996 to 2015. 

After her time at Bennett, Watson worked as a literacy coach and as an instructional coach before becoming an assistant principal at Oliver S. Westcott Elementary in Chicago for the last seven years. 

“I saw a need, when I was a lead teacher in my own building, I was that principal go-to,” Watson said, adding she was always encouraged by her colleagues to pursue roles in teacher leadership. 

Watson received her master’s in teacher leadership as well as a master’s in instructional leadership. 

“There was a need for someone to support the teachers,” Watson said. “I wanted to be that person, that administrator, not just to sit there and sign papers or the runnings of the school, but I wanted to be that administrator that would sit down with their teachers and brainstorm instructional progresses, support them in what they are doing and how that looks in a classroom.” 

While Watson was sad to leave her school home for the past seven years, she is excited to come to D91 for the next chapter in her career. 

“I always wanted to work for a small community,” Watson said. “I always dreamed of being in a small district.” 

For Watson, D91 embodies the sense of community and togetherness she was looking for, a family unit where everyone works together to strive for a common goal and progress. 

Recalling the interview process, Watson said she loved being interviewed by students. 

“The student interview was the best. They were amazing,” Watson said. “They asked really good questions but they made sure to ask not just questions not only in regards to them growing up, but questions about instructions, schedules, questions about after school. That made me think that this was something I would really like to do.” 

Meeting members of the student body helped make the transition a little easier, said Watson. 

As she gets ready for the first day of school, which will be Monday, Aug. 21, Watson says this year for her is all about listening and learning. 

“I am not here to change anything. I am not here to fix anything. I am here to add to the greatness,” Watson said, adding she is going on what she considers her “listening tour” around the building and speaking with teachers to learn more about how she can support them during this upcoming school year. 

As for students, Watson hopes to make Forest Park Middle School a home base of support. 

“Our students are not looking at the adults in the community anymore as support,” Watson said. “They look to their friends, to social media, they look everywhere but us. I want this to be a place where they can begin to trust us and trust the adults again.” 

With a focus on educating the whole child, Watson is excited to make school a safe and loving place for her students and staff, as she said they spend more time in school than at home. 

“I am here to stay,” Watson said. “I lead with data in mind, the best interest of children and families, as well as the best interest of my staff. Everything is connected.”