Dearest educational equity champions & leaders,
I wanted to take a moment to congratulate you. You have led your school or school system to the start of a new year.
Now, take a deep breath.
Think about why you are here. Think about all of the ancestors, mentors and guides who have deeply influenced you and your leadership and helped you get where you are.
I know I am here today thanks to ancestors like Japanese American freedom fighter, Yuri Kuchiyama, whose family was jailed in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor and who linked arms with the struggle for Black liberation and knew that our collective liberation was intertwined. As Audre Lorde so wisely said, “You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.”
I am here today because of Mexican American Profesora and Tejana Angela Valenzuela who, in her seminal book Subtractive Schooling, warned us about how schools harmfully strip young people of their identities.
I am here today thanks to my amazing mother who raised six of us alone and went back to school when I was in high school.
I stand on their shoulders. As you do this work, remember whose shoulders you stand on because you will call upon their strength in the leadership challenges you face this year.
Now, as you prepare for the work ahead, I have an ask of you: Take 15 minutes to make three lists. I promise they will be the most important lists you will make this year, if not in your career:
- List 1: This fall, what kind of learning experiences do you want for your own children, for your nieces and nephews, for the young people you love most in this world?
- List 2: What kind of learning experiences do you have planned for the students in your classroom, your building, your school system this fall?
- List 3: Where are the differences between those two lists?
In a recent conversation I had with school and system leaders in Newark, NJ, their answers for List 3 included “agency,” “aligning learning to student passion,” “experiential learning” and “joy.”
Closing these and any gaps you put on your List 3 is doing the work of a culturally responsive leader.
We know debates are raging in school board meetings and state legislatures about whether and how race, gender, and identity should be discussed in classrooms and in educator professional learning, and whether and how masks should be worn in classrooms. But through this, we must focus on what unites us, on our common desires for our children.
Have you ever heard a parent say:
- “I don’t want my child to be engaged and challenged in school.”
- “I don’t want my child to feel like they belong in school.”
- “I don’t want my child to feel valued for who they are in school.”
- “I don’t want my child to have the confidence and skills to question why things are the way they are in the world and to devise creative and innovative solutions to tough problems.”
Neither have I, in all my years as a teacher, a principal, a school system leader or as a leader of an educational nonprofit. Those things are what we all want for our own children, and now is the time to create systems and structures for giving them to every student who walks through our school doors. Our Portrait of a Culturally Responsive School can help guide you and your team.
After all, science tells us that our brains are best able to process and retain information, to think critically and creatively, when we feel safe, respected, and affirmed, and when we trust the people around us.
Creating learning environments and experiences that give students all that they need lives at the intersection of rigorous and engaging instruction and a culture of equity and access.
Take a summer classroom in the First Avenue School in Newark, NJ, where students were given the opportunity to research, write about, and debate a topic of their choosing — protests. In less than two weeks, their teacher, Susan Almeida, said she saw students evolve from hesitating to join class discussions to leading them. Said their summer principal, Daniel Guerra, “When you engage kids in what matters to them, their learning and empowerment blossoms.”
Now think back to the lists I asked you to make at the beginning of this piece, specifically List 3. What would your trusted mentors and guides say you need to do differently in your leadership to close those gaps and make those things happen in your schools?
How does the experience of a young person you love guide you? Personally, I lead for my niece Ava. In October 2019, at age 14, Ava was attacked at a high school football game by five older boys and girls from another high school who were upset about a social media exchange. Ava was rushed to the hospital, suffering from a brain contusion, multiple wounds to her head and face, and a dislocated shoulder. After she was cleared by the doctor, she returned to school, only to receive a 3-day suspension, removal from the cheerleading squad, and a threat to be banned from sports for the rest of her high school career — a far cry from a conversation about how to support her post traumatic stress, her injury-induced migraines, and her inability to carry books because of her injuries. A deficit frame and an exclusionary approach. The Covid-19 pandemic gave Ava a chance to catch up on her work – her GPA returned to a 4.0 — and she built renewed relationships with teachers. I hope when she returns to school this fall, she feels connected, seen, respected, that she is encouraged and supported in maintaining her love for learning.
Don’t take the collective learning we did this past year for granted. Leverage it. Apply your learning to this new year in an explicit way. Create human-centered spaces for our young people. And take Lisa Delpit’s 1995 warning to stop treating them like other people’s children.
Who is the young person you will see your reopening decision-making through? Make it personal. It’s the only way.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
Lead Executive Officer & President
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & Lead Executive Officer (LEO) of The Leadership Academy, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and developing culturally responsive school and school system leaders to create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive. Since 2003, The Leadership Academy has done work in more than 375 school districts, state education departments, and education organizations across the country, reaching over 12,000 educators in 39 states.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrators’ Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. In 2014, Nancy joined The Leadership Academy and served in various roles before being named President & CEO in October 2018. Prior to her tenure with the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of the top 100 most influential leaders in education in New York in 2020. In 2023, Nancy was named San Jose State University’s Distinguished Alumna.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She has served as an adjunct professor for NYU, Teachers College and American University as well as an expert guest at various Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership for publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, Learning Forward’s Learning Professional, District Administrator, and Hechinger Report. She is also the co-author of Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, a revolutionary guide to disrupting harmful mindsets and practices in our schools to ensure that students can thrive in their home communities.
Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at the Hunt Institute, brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.