I didn’t know I was supposed to be a failure until I was in college, and at that point it was too late for them to make me fail.
As a lifelong educator, my mission has been to shield children from the dirty secret that poor children of color, children like I was, are not expected to succeed. An African American woman, I grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn in the 1950s. I was lucky to have a mother and grandmother who always told me that education was my way of being more than what they had achieved. They pushed me to work hard, to get good grades, … and to stay in classes with white children. It was in those classes, they said, that the teachers would have to teach me, even if they didn’t want to.
Because I did well on an IQ test early on, I was placed in the top class in grade school. All but one of my classmates was white; the lower performing classes were almost all children of color. The principal and teachers were clear that they would be happy to put me out of that class if I didn’t meet the mark. So I worked hard. When I got to high school, no one had to tell me that I was placed in the honors class — I knew because almost all my classmates were white.
It wasn’t until college that I learned that I had beaten the odds. In my education classes, I read about the high dropout rate of children with my demographic profile. It was always doom and gloom, about these terrible children we would all be teaching. It was only then that I realized I did not belong there, but I just said, “I’ll be darned, I’m just going to keep on going.”
I brought high expectations into my classrooms as a teacher, making it clear to my students that I was not going to lower them. I scaffolded the work, planned lessons well, and helped students with school work over lunch. I had my personal phone open to parents, and reached out to them about both their children’s successes and challenges, speaking to them in Spanish or English, whichever language they were more comfortable speaking.
As a principal in Harlem, my message to teachers was clear: There is no room for failure in our building. I spent a lot of time in classrooms. The teachers knew that I knew what good instruction looked like. I constantly assessed students, asking them to read or explain something to me when I stopped by classrooms. If the student struggled, I would ask the teacher about it later. I had teachers observing one another, and if a teacher was not being observed by peers, that sent a message. If they did not want to improve, I made it clear our school was not the place for them.
Over time, real change happened. Struggling teachers left, more effective teachers came in.
I knew as a principal and later as a superintendent the importance of having well-defined core values and being very public about them. Great leaders are public learners and constant learners, they show that they don’t know it all. I knew we could always do better, that we needed to do better. The staff at my schools understood that doing your job meant wanting the best for all the children.
When I work with principals now as a leadership coach, I tell them, “If you’re not providing professional development for teachers that helps them with their practice, you’re not doing your job. If you’re not supporting parents, you’re not doing your job.”
And perhaps most important, we look at data. If you’re not looking at data, you’re failing your students. Data does not lie. Equity is about mining the data and doing something with what you discover. Data often tells a surprising story. How are English language learners learning? And students with special needs? What are the credentials and track records of the teachers assigned to your school? I often see discrepancies between what a leader is saying and what the data tells us. A leader might say, “I believe in such and such.” So I say, great, let’s take a learning walk and see where that vision lives.
Leading is not about doing what’s easiest or avoiding conflict, it’s about doing what’s best for the children.
And if we can keep quiet that secret that all kids living in poverty, that all children of color, are supposed to be failures, we can all do powerful things.