What are your three Non-Negotiables when it comes to education?
What is your leadership style?
I consider my leadership style more along the lines of the “Transformational Leadership” style described by Burns. One thing I have found disappointing about past leaders of mine is the lack of follow through, or delayed follow through, on important concerns and even promises. Often these concerns are not those of one teacher but many, or even all staff, which can be even more disappointing when ignored or pushed to the back burner. As a leader I feel my job would be to make sure that all faculty can focus on what is most important, the students and learning happening. When faculty express issues and concerns yet they are not acted upon in some way, it can lead to resentment and distrust. As I school leader, my purpose would be to mobilize resources and satisfy needs, preemptively when possible, while simultaneously empowering faculty to collaborate on decisions and concerns. I cannot presume to solve every problem, but empowering staff to come up with creative solutions and working collaboratively can lead to more innovative practices as well as better morale and motivation.
In my current sphere of influence as a teacher, I have seen that this method of support and empowerment often increases motivation in students because it builds such a positive classroom culture. I believe as a leader, these same skills will serve to empower faculty, and lead to higher motivation and more efficiency as an organization overall. My goal as a leader is to create a work culture in which faculty feel trusted to make the right decision, and supported when needs do arise.
I have been in education for about 8 years. I began working in education with a position as an aide to a Resource Specialist, as a way to find my direction in college and see if education was the field for me. My RSP serviced three schools for students impacted by homelessness, in downtown San Diego: a residential high school (Toussaint Academy), an elementary school program at Father Joe’s Village, and a k-12 school called Monarch School. I was her only aide, and traveled to different sites to work with students identified with special education needs, through both one-on-one pull outs and assessments as well as supporting them during general ed instruction. I learned so many things in this position, one being that I definitely was not cut out for elementary school, and another being that each and every student could achieve success when they felt supported and their needs were met. I met some amazing families that overcame things I could never imagine, all with a little help and support from strangers at a school. I also met some amazing educators that were incredibly passionate and giving of themselves, for these students and families, which made all the difference in the world.
I only left Monarch because I needed the time to complete my student teaching. After having been at this unique school for three years, I wanted to branch out to “regular” public schools, so I signed up to do my student teaching in East San Diego County schools. They knew my history with Monarch, and asked if I’d like to work with their at-risk classroom at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley. I taught one semester of Geography there, and learned so many things about how giant schools are operated compared to small schools, and about working with at-risk kids in a more traditional setting. At Monarch, the school worked with partner agencies to ensure all the students had 2-3 meals a day, clothes, shoes, basic health clinic access, etc., as well as school supplies, so there were never any excuses and the focus was always holistic. In a more traditional system, many of these same problems go unnoticed, unless a family is brave enough to speak up and ask for help. It taught me that traditional schools could be doing more to help their students, because these home issues have a huge impact on their ability to achieve in school.
After student teaching at Mount Miguel, I had to do a semester in middle school and was assigned to La Mesa Middle School, in a GATE class as well as a general ed class. The thing that surprised me most about the GATE class was that many of my strategies for at-risk students were very much needed with the gifted students. They demanded clear expectations, a highly structured classroom that still allowed creativity, and consistency from the teachers and staff. This reinforced my beliefs that all students have the same essential needs and can excel in school given the proper supports.
After completing my credential I substituted for a year before returning to Monarch as a long-term substitute which ended up lasting an entire school year. I served as their 6th and 7th grade teacher, which was challenging to have to teach all subjects for two grades, but it was by far my most rewarding position yet. I still truly feel my passion is with middle school students. At that point in their life they are eager for knowledge beyond the basics of elementary school, and they are ready to do deeper thinking, yet they still have the imagination and creativity of childhood that makes learning really fun and exciting. I’ve already said what a magical place Monarch School is, and it was there I feel like I had the most support and therefore the most impact on the lives and education of those students and families.
Unfortunately I could not stay, as I was offered a contract at another school and after some soul searching decided to take the job. It was within the same district, and still with at-risk students, but in this case the most dire circumstances. I have worked for the last four years in 2 different juvenile hall institutions, with high school boys of all ages, grades, and ability levels. It has been exciting and rewarding at times, and frustrating at times. This is a situation where you have to be flexible and control what you can while letting little things go. It takes tough skin sometimes, but when you can break through to one of these kids and see them years later out of trouble it makes it all worth it. When I came in to the institutions it was very controlled and punitive, but over the last 4 years I have seen really hopeful changes that have opened up new doors and opportunities to our boys that they would have never had before. I believe that juvenile hall should be the perfect place for self-reflection and change, with little outside distractions, health coverage, food and shelter provided, no drug or alcohol temptations combined with counseling services available. However it greatly depends on the mission put forth by leadership and the actions of the staff and teachers “on the front lines”. The attitude is shifting to more restorative and supportive, and I am proud to be a part of this era of change.
In my sophomore year of college I was having a crisis. As most college students do, I had changed my major multiple times, between Film and Media, Political Science, and then Social Science. I felt strongly about social justice issues, and helping people, and though documentary film making or similar projects would be my outlet. I liked film best for the creativity, but began to doubt it as a lifelong career option. Though I loved editing film and audio, it was not always a stable career field and required a lot of time alone and possibly long hours to meet deadlines.
I took some tests at the career center and every single one declared clearly and undeniably that education was the field for me. I had experience with young, pre-school age children and wasn’t sold, but I decided to try and find a part time job at a school that would let me get my feet wet. I found a posting for a part time front-desk receptionist at an alternative school in downtown San Diego. When I was called for an interview I did some research. Monarch School was a small school for k-12 (yes that’s right, every grade) students that are living in homeless shelters or transitional housing situations. It was small, but provided every basic need of students including 2 meals a day, free clothing, toiletries, blankets, laundry facilities, showers, and of course any and all educational materials needed. I was blown away, and suddenly really wanted to be a part of this. My interview went well and I got a call back, however they thought I might be a better fit for a Resource Specialist Aid position that was open and offered me the choice. I took the position working with kids and ended up spending the next 3 years working one-on-one and in small groups with special ed students integrated into the general ed program in all grades. Eventually I was able to start subbing also, as needed.
Working at Monarch taught me so many things about the human spirit. There is a huge number of families experiencing some sort of housing insecurity due to more factors than I had ever imagined. The will of people to work hard to overcome these circumstances and grow, when giving the support and opportunity that Monarch provided, was truly inspiring. Kids often entered 3-4+ grade levels behind where they should be, and within 12 months nearly all had leaped at least 2 years. Students were treated as family, and families responded by returning the support. Students at Monarch loved school (at least most of the time), and actually supported each other knowing that every single person in their class was in the same unique situation. It was recognized and reacted to not as some deficit, but just something they needed a little more help with to meet the same high expectations as any school. This experience taught me that the relationships adult staff form with students and families, and the culture they create at school, make all the difference. Monarch’ resources were constantly stretched thin, but everyone was dedicated to sharing the wealth and resources, sharing offices and supplies, often out of their own pocket, and spreading the word to bring donors and eventually national attention. I knew if those kids could overcome that level of adversity, then any student had the ability to achieve, and I want to always be a part of that.
What do I believe about kids and their education?
I have a feeling I'll be editing and refining this post many times this semester, as it's already gone through some revisions. What a great exercise and a great question to reflect on. I feel like I have fundamentals, "non-negotiables", but it is hard to put them all down.
I believe that each child has the right to a quality education, and an equitable education. There is a quote from Enid Lee that I love and have posted in every classroom I've taught in, which is roughly: "Equity doesn't mean treating everyone the same, it means doing what is needed to get to the same place." Some students don't need much help, maybe just the tools and time. Some students need a lot of help and attention, and that's ok too. I think it's important for students to understand everyone has different needs, and that they can be just as helpful to their peers as adults.
I believe that education can be the great equalizer, if students have access to caring, thoughtful teachers that will do whatever it takes to help each student learn. I like to remind my students on tough days that their ancestors all fought for the right to education in some way. I like to remind them that school was only for the wealthy, the top tier of any society, and was used to oppress everyone else by denying them education or providing substandard education. Education has really only made an attempt at equity and equality for the last 50 years or so. A fact that many of them take for granted.
IS EDUCATION A PREPARATORY EXPERIENCE? FOR WHAT?
I once saw a sign on an elementary school that read something to the effect of, "You go to your job, and school is a child's job". I believe school is a preparatory experience, for just about everything. Elementary school builds foundations in academics as well as social skills, preparing students to operate in a social setting and be able to understand basic skills.
Middle School is a circus....I mean a transitional time. A time to solidify those fundamentals and start digger deeper into advanced concepts. I've always viewed middle school as a great time to coach students on positive social skills. This is a crazy time for them, and there will most certainly be social issues that arise in every student's life. They are starting to form an identity away from their parents, and I believe as teachers and staff it's our role to help the student look at their own behavior and what kind of person they want to be. This is not to say it's our place to instill values, I think that is best left to family, but at this age students should be looking at their own problems and how to solve them on their own, with maturity and empathy, and teachers can be guides for that.
High School should be more exploratory than it is today. I feel like the goals of high school are changing somewhat, at least in my district, to focus more on the expectations of a workplace or college environment. There needs to be far more career exploration in high school, as students are mature enough (at least physiologically) to understand more advanced concepts and need to be thinking about what to do post-high school rather than rehashing and practicing the same academic skills (which really don't change all that much after 9th grade, except different math courses). I think schools like High Tech High and HSHMC have the right idea with strong community partnerships that students can utilize for internships, while concurrently strengthening those academic skills. Regardless of whether a student really loves the field and pursues it, they have learned how to navigate a work environment, which generally has higher expectations than school, and has real-world consequences for both good and bad performances.