The pandemic has highlighted the role schools play in providing stability for many Polk County families. Recently, I met with Susan Copeland who has served as the Executive Director of the Polk Education Foundation (PEF) since 2005, to talk about leading through crisis and making a difference in our community. Susan is a lifelong resident of Auburndale and after graduating from high school, went on to graduate from Polk Community College and Warner Southern College with a degree in Elementary Education, following in both of her parents’ footsteps to become a teacher. She then earned her MBA at Southeastern University. Susan served on the boards of READ Polk, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, all of which she served as President. She has also served with Polk Vision and the Winter Haven Chamber Education Committee.
In 2016, Susan was awarded the Virginia Snively Award by Girls Inc. In 2019, she was awarded both the Consortium Champion award by the state agency for education foundations and the Distinguished Alumni of the Year from Polk State College. In 2020, Susan was inducted into Auburndale High School’s Hall of Fame. Under Susan’s leadership, the PEF has played a critical role is filling the gap created by school closures and distance learning during the COVID 19 crisis.
What is one thing that most excites you about starting your day?
I’m very task oriented. I make it a priority that before I leave work in the evening, I identify what I need to work on the next day. Creating that list sets up my day as a challenge because I know I’ll never complete every task but I try to highlight one or two items that are critical for that day and focus on accomplishing them. Knowing that there is more work, more people I can reach, more connections I can make drives me to get up, get to the office, and get going. I’m fortunate to have meaningful work that truly benefits students and teachers. It’s okay that the work is never “done” because I see the impact it has on the community.
As Polk County manages through and recovers from the COVID-19 crisis, what are some of the ways PEF is making a difference in our community?
In the early stage of the crisis, our first thoughts went to helping families who are living with food insecurity. Even though this hasn’t traditionally been a focus area for PEF, we couldn’t ignore the need here in Polk County where schools provide lunch, and often breakfast, to all of our students. We developed a grant application that simply said, “If you have an existing weekend food program or food pantry or you want to start one, here’s a $500 opportunity. Tell us what you could do with it.” It didn’t take long to give away all 10 of those grants. Our response to the immediate need was much appreciated by the community but it became abundantly clear that the need was far greater than our initial grant could support. PEF is now working with donors to fund additional supplemental food programs for Polk County schools.
After making strides to address the critical food needs of Polk County students created by COVID, the next hurdle we faced was school supplies. In normal years, we provide supplies for students by stocking up their teachers with classroom essentials at our Free Teacher Market. This year, we had a new challenge because not all students would be returning to the classroom. E-learners might not have access to the same supplies that are available in a traditional school setting. PEF recognized the need for quality school supplies for children learning at home and we secured a $15,000 grant funded by the CARES Act distributed by United Way of Central Florida to purchase pre-made supply bags. For three months, as schools re-opened, PEF’s Free Teacher Market was transformed into a drive through event to stay safe through COVID. It provided teachers with supplies for their classroom as well as a school supply bag for each e-learner in their class.
With programs for food and school supplies in place, the third focus area for our COVID relief efforts was technology. There were so many students in the district without access to the technology required to learn from home. PEF secured funding to help the district buy iPads to support e-learners and their families.
PEF identified the needs in our community and was able to make a meaningful impact in all three of these focus areas with our current staffing – all while continuing our annual efforts to award more than $850,000 in college scholarships to graduating seniors and maintain our other programs and services. This says a lot about our team and their commitment to Polk County schools, students and families.
What are the most valuable leadership lessons you’ve learned over your 16 years as PEF’s executive director?
I have four lessons that define me as a leader. First, in a leadership role, not everyone will agree with you and that’s okay. If I have clear reasoning for my decision and a process that I followed to make that decision, then I’m good. There may be stakeholders that disagree with my decision, but once I have a comfort level that I made the best decision possible with the information I have access to, then I am ready to move forward.
Second, don’t ask others to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. Leaders must set a good example by demonstrating their work ethic. Especially when the task is not glamorous, like setting up for an event, taking on an extra assignment, or sharing difficult news with one of our donors.
Third, the buck stops with me. Leaders take the ultimate responsibility. I can educate my team and prepare them for as many different scenarios as possible, but eventually, because we are all human, an error might be made, or, we have to share undesirable news. I want my team to feel like I will support them no matter what happens and if mistakes are made, they know they have done all they could to prevent it, but, I will be the one who takes responsibility for making it right.
Finally, leaders never stop learning. There are always situations that you can learn from. Learning comes not only from formal professional development, but by observing those around you. There are great lessons to be taken from colleagues and community members if you are just willing to watch, listen and learn. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what position you have, you’ve got to stay flexible and be willing to be taught.
What keeps you grounded?
In my work at PEF, my experience in the classroom helps keep me grounded and connected with the people we serve. Teachers appreciate that I can connect with them about shared classroom experiences and that our entire team, which includes 3 former teachers, supports them while they support our students.
At home, my husband and my friends keep me very grounded, especially this last year when I went through a health crisis. Sometimes it takes a scary situation to make you realize there are a lot of people who care about you and will do anything for you.
Lately, I’ve been focusing more on work-life balance and that has also kept me grounded. I’ve learned you have to enjoy your time away from work. I don’t open email on the weekends and do my best to be fully present when I am out of the office. Whether I’m boating or camping, I try to focus on the beauty of those moments and truly enjoy the people around me.
Ten years from now, what do you most want to be remembered for?
My career started as a teacher. Both my parents were teachers. And for more than 20 years, I have served students and teachers through the PEF. I hope people think of me as a problem solver who got things done for our community. Education is part of who I am, and I’d like people to remember I served education with a strong work ethic and a passion for connecting teachers and students with the resources they need to be successful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interested in strengthening your ability to lead with confidence and excellence? Consider enrolling in one of Emily’s professional development programs for women leaders. The next one, Mastering Leadership, starts April 14th.