I began teaching roughly 10 years ago. With nothing more than a teaching certification and a lot of ganas or desire to be successful, I was hired at César Chávez High School. At the end of the interview, I remember the principal telling me that I had answered every single question incorrectly, but that he saw potential in me and was willing to give me a chance. One of the questions he asked me was if I wanted the students to like me. I was quick to respond — no. I was there to teach students, not to be their friend. Boy, have I come a long way!
When we do everything right in schools, our students move closer to that peak on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – self-actualization. It sounds pretty awesome. I’d like to achieve self-actualization too. But when you’re a student facing poverty, racism, family trouble, or just life as a kid growing up, that peak starts looking like K2.
The question then becomes what changes can we make in our systems so that schools can support students in meeting their basic needs while still pushing them to make academic gains that will impact their future choices and opportunities? For me, answering that question starts with the people who are with the students every day – their teachers.
As a founding teacher on the Design Team for the pilot high school, Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) in Los Angeles, last week I was invited to join a small group of teachers and principals in a Tea with Teachers meeting with Secretary of Education John King to discuss the value of teacher leadership in schools and in educational policy-making. SJHA is a Teacher-Powered School, and as such is driven by teachers and their connection to students. The school was founded by a group of teachers who envisioned a school centered on building our students’ humanity through curriculum that is rigorous and relevant to our students.
Teachers discuss teacher leadership with Secretary of Education John King during a Tea with Teachers session.
I am a white woman and my fiancé, Brent, is a black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, at the height of the crack epidemic.
Unlike me, Brent was excited about his thirtieth birthday – a day several of his childhood friends didn’t have the chance to celebrate because they were in prison or dead. Brent’s mom may have saved him from meeting a similar fate when she sent to live with his aunt to attend school in the affluent suburb of Summit.
Brent and his friends were just as smart and talented as their suburban counterparts, but their schools were underresourced—as a result of a racially unequal society— and couldn’t support student development the way that staff and families knew their children deserved. That’s why Brent’s mom made the difficult decision she did.
And, that’s why Secretary Duncan’s recent speech on Investing in Teachers Over Prisons at the National Press Club resonated with me, both personally and as a social justice advocate.
I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education to learn about education policy and champion my core educational beliefs—cultural competency training for teachers and human rights-based learning for students—toward the goal of creating a more just society in which future generations won’t experience the injustice that Brent and his peers did. I hope the Secretary’s speech proves to spur a nation defined by unequal access to resources and opportunities to feel “uncomfortable with this truth” and take action to change it.
The Secretary understands what happened to change the course of Brent’s life. He believes in the power of excellent educators to support students’ personal and academic growth. He also recognizes the pernicious effects of systemic racial inequity.
Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of their white counterparts. Traditionally underserved students of color attend and complete college at lower rates than their peers. America imprisons black people at a higher rate than in Apartheid South Africa.
These facts aren’t coincidence – they’re the result of a system defined by racism and inequality on an individual, cultural and institutional level.
In his remarks, Secretary Duncan urged America to challenge the status quo. He urged us to examine unconscious biases by taking an “unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class”. And, he urged that we do “something transformational and revolutionary” to fix our broken system: shift funding out of prisons and into our highest-need schools. By doing this—along with the other key components of the Secretary’s plan— we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve outcomes for all students.
The Secretary said that despite the progress we’ve made, “we have to do more” to provide all students with equity of opportunity. We have to do more to send more students to flourish in college and fewer to languish in prison. We cannot continue to squander the potential contribution of countless students who are left “on the sidelines,” like Brent almost was. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is.
And, the time is now to put this revolutionary thinking into action. We can’t wait any longer to do right by all of America’s children and to fulfill the promise of our nation.
Everyone remembers a teacher that inspired them. How many of us remember our principals? Principals are responsible for ensuring our schools are open, that the teachers who inspired us are receiving the support he or she needs, and that our classrooms are environments that will help us learn.
I was inspired by a principal. But, it wasn’t when I was a child; it was when I was a teacher. And that inspiration has guided me to become a principal who continues to adapt and learn based on what I saw worked and didn’t work.
My principal, Jill Myers, inspired me to lead. She helped me become a strong teacher. She opened doors for me in education, challenged me, and supported me. She showed me that strong leadership builds strong schools. What I learned from my principal was that leadership matters.
When I was a first-year teacher in the South Bronx, I almost left the teaching profession. Like many, I was new; I was hopeful and wanted to make a difference. But, I still didn’t know how yet. Great teachers aren’t born – they are nurtured and developed. Great teachers have a mentor that helps them grow.
The strongest model for schools is one in which principals are creative, innovative instructional leaders. They find opportunities for their teachers to lead. They support teachers in their growth and create a safe space for adults to take risks in their learning. As we look at what builds a great school, we need to look at the principal. Who is at the helm? What vision have they set for their communities? How have they developed an environment that fosters learning and creativity?
Our kids need great teachers. And our teachers need great leaders. One can’t exist without the other. Principals bring in opportunities for their communities – they find resources where there weren’t any before. They connect families. They find places for children to thrive both in and outside of the classroom.
As a Principal Ambassador Fellow, I am proud to be able to represent principals in education. With this fellowship, ED recognizes that principals can make a huge difference in a school. This October, for National Principals Month, I urge you to get to know your principal. My hope is that the next generation of students will say that their principal inspired them to lead, and as a result, more great schools will emerge and continue to thrive.