“Training Ground”

I watched this video/TED talk a while back and came across it in a friend’s Facebook newsfeed today.  This is a powerful commentary from a Chicago student’s perspective on how high school  is a “training ground” for society.

From TED:

Young poet, educator and activist Malcom London performs his stirring poem about life on the front lines of high school. He tells of the “oceans of adolescence” who come to school “but never learn to swim,” of “masculinity mimicked by men who grew up with no fathers.” Beautiful, lyrical, chilling.


Michelle Obama Tuskegee Commencement Address

I found her speech (starting around 7 minutes in) to be incredibly inspirational to me as a black woman who has served in a variety of leadership positions.  There is a lot of noise when you sit in those roles with that identity/background.  There are a lot of people who make surface interpretations of your leadership based off of their own limited awareness of the world because you are a black woman.  Some folks choose to succumb to and fear those interpretations, while others (such as Michelle Obama) choose to actively disrupt them by silencing the noise and staying true to their inner compass.  I am so grateful to Michelle Obama for speaking her truth and illuminating the truth of many people who don’t have her platform and unapologetically dream for a better tomorrow, first by silencing the “noise”; second by following their own truth.

I think that it is so indicative and clear that when systems struggle to embrace leaders of color who are clear on their purpose/why which is deeply rooted in their community, we should not be surprised when those same systems struggle to embrace children of color and the unique gifts that they have to offer.  There is nothing surprising about that parallel reality.  And we shouldn’t shy away from the truths that this reality illluminates.  Thank you Michelle Obama for your courage in beginning to speak your truth.  We should all be inspired to do the same.

“Are You Still Dreaming?”

The events of the past few weeks (Baltimore) leave me largely speechless and still processing… as I process I am purposefully feeding my spirit/soul/mind with words of wisdom, strength, and hope.

Last night, I re-watched this speech by Susan Asiyanbi (Executive Vice President of the program continuum at Teach For America, where I work).  I had the opportunity to see this speech in person in January at a conference.  Her words moved me to tears then and again last night.

Susan’s words remind me that in the midst of our most challenging moments, we must keep dreaming.

I’m still dreaming….are you?

Early Childhood Educator Views on Children A Powerful Force

Read this.

With 14+ years in education, this is nothing new to me.  There are so many amazing teachers and administrators doing the work…but unfortunately, there are also those who we entrust our children to who do not believe in their worth/potential.  And it’s a big enough trend to be surfaced through formal research.

As a parent of three children of color, with an insider lens into how public schooling works, this research terrifies and energizes me.  I know that as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and director, I always advocated for kids beyond what most would find to be professionally safe.  I also know that approaching the work in this way is hard to do without potentially damaging one’s career in some way (particularly if you are an educator of color).  I am so grateful that this was not the case for me and I am still reflecting on my own protective factors- deep belief in higher purpose, clear vision for what is possible, access to external network/theory of change, ability to politically “read” people quickly and accurately, courage to act…

As a parent and fellow educator, I am so incredibly grateful to those educators who speak up, out, and advocate for children on things that we/parents would not necessarily be privy too (like a teacher inconspicuously picking on our kid, an administrator viewing and talking about our kid through a deficit lens, etc.).  I just want to tell those educators who are passionate, deeply committed, and mission-centered….thank you!

The most critical time for our babies is when they first enter school and begin to form their identities at school.  We need more educators who see the best in our babies and who are courageous enough to challenge the status quo.

New ISBE Chief Named

I hope that everyone is paying attention to this.

From the Tribune:

Rauner, who does not directly hire the state school chief but appoints members to the state board, has been focused on putting in place a “transformational” leader over Illinois’ education system.

What that means remains unclear.

But board Chairman James Meeks said: “Well, I think that his reputation is for fighting for and having a compassion for kids who are underachievers. The biggest mark about Tony Smith, and when you talk to him you will discover, that he has a passion for kids who are not quite achieving. He has a compelling story, and when you guys get to hear about his story and get to know him and know where he’s come from, you’ll love him.” 

Interesting.  Will watch how this unfolds.

I’ve Been Neglecting This Blog…

So…so much has happened since I last posted!

I got married (amazing; about time…lol), registered my brilliant almost-kindergartener for kindergarten (excited/interested to see how schools of choice plays out), treated my family (including parents and sister and nephews) on a vacation to Puerto Rico, and have been absolutely buried in work.

In spite of all of this, I have been closely following how things have unfolded in Champaign with the newly elected school board.  I am interested to see how things play out moving forward, and am looking forward to being a critical friend to the district and community.  I do have a story to share.  Early morning, the day following the election, I was flying out of Willard airport for business in New Orleans (by way of Dallas) and as I checked in, I heard a loud, white male, bragging about the defeat of all of the “incumbents” on the school board.  I turned around to look at him and did not recognize his face, but could not help noticing how he appeared to be wealthy, old, and out of touch.  It was jarring and sobering…   While there was a part of me that wanted my community to get a wake up call (stop co-signing on folks who are really about their own political status and don’t give a damn about your kids; stop thinking that playing the role of “safe black” will save you, politically or otherwise; be strategic about your endorsements and leadership priorities– ie. the endorsements of the NEBC essentially split the black vote and relegated black candidates to political doom)….I am hopeful that equity is not pushed to the side to satisfy the privileged segment of the community who set the tone, and from my perspective, set the political path to ensure election for the newly elected Board members.  I am hopeful that Board members will use their critical thinking skills in their new positions and find the strength to push past peer pressure to make the best decisions for the most vulnerable children being served by our school district.  I am hopeful that those who didn’t get re-elected, but who championed equity as a cause, take time to re-organize and press forward.  In fact, something that I’ve been throwing around in my head is the idea of pulling together a community equity group focused on examining district outcomes and engaging in political activism to push real equity forward.  Email me (cheryl.camacho@courage3.com) if you are interested in being a part of this movement.  I’d like to hold the first meeting for this group by 6/1/15.

One thing that dramatically stood out to me, as I reflect on the election outcomes, was the lack of real strategy.  Moving forward, I envision a powerful group of people with diverse experiences/ideas who work together to put the real issues back on the table:  achievement/opportunity gaps, discipline disproportionality, and the desperate need for courageous leadership (from administrators and teachers) in our schools and district.  People who question and hold accountable those who claim to be leaders of our community….This painful but hard look at leadership is 100% necessary in our community.

In honor of getting this blog back together; I want to share a post that speaks to the anti-testing movement that has erupted in the past few months.  I know from my attendance at several BOE forums pre-election that several BOE members who got elected were anti-standardized testing.  I provide here a counter-narrative from Tenicka Boyd, an African-American parent in NYC who is warily eyeing this movement.  I’m right there with her.

The Belief Gap

I came across this post entitled “The Belief Gap:  Stop Blaming the P’s” this morning and it resonated with me so deeply given my own experiences as a student of color, a parent, a teacher, and leader.  The belief gap is real.

Pedagogy.  Preschool.  Professionals.  These things should be our equity focus as educators..

The author Chris Stewart writes of successful traditional school systems and charters:  “It isn’t magic or miracles pushing them above other schools. It’s more boring than that. In these schools, “reforms” focus intently on instructional leadership, relationships with students and their families, using data to improve instruction, and fostering a culture of achievement.”

In Unit 4, I see a big need for a focus on each of these things.

Instructional leadership:  All principals and instructional leaders should be able to demonstrate that they were successful teachers.  How can you lead a team of teachers to successful outcomes when you can’t speak to those outcomes in your own professional past?  A high premium should be placed on hiring principals and leaders who have had demonstrated success with African-Americans, English Language Learners, children with learning disabilities/special needs, and children living in poverty, given that these are the groups who have pronounced achievement gaps in our district.  Principals and leaders who have deep instructional expertise and knowledge should be actively recruited and developed.

Relationships with students and their families:  This is a huge area for growth.  As things currently stand, there are surface-level attempts to “involve”.  There needs to be a bigger focus on engaging and empowering.  Parents need to be engaged to have a stronger voice in important decisions that impact the lives of their children.  When parents complain, bring a concern, or advocate on behalf of their children, it shouldn’t be viewed as them trying to manipulate the system or get over.  Ninety-nine percent of parents deeply care about and love their children.  The thing that makes a teacher/leader great is an ability balance high expectations and rigor with a high level of relationship.  Master teachers and leaders view the children in their charge as people, with feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams…not as obstacles to success, or things to control/manipulate.  The beliefs that teachers and leaders hold are powerful and directly influence their ability to build strong relationships with students and families.

Using data to improve instruction:  The key here is using data to do something with it, instead of collecting data, or analyzing data and continuing to do things in the same way.  This should be happening at a systems level, a school level, and a classroom level.  Professional development is needed so that people can build and develop skill.  Time is also needed.  I used to be so frustrated as a building principal because contractually (per the agreement between the district and teacher’s union), I could only formally meet with grade level teams for 80 minutes/month (40 minutes/every two weeks), which after teachers dropped kids off for specials (art, music, PE, etc.), really was more like 30 minutes every two weeks.  Many teachers agreed to meet outside of this time- but it was uneven.  Faculty meetings could only take place twice/month.  I used to run faculty meetings from 3:30-5:00pm, on the first and third Mondays, but a few teachers complained about the length, and I was encouraged to reduce faculty meetings to no more than one hour on the first and third Mondays… Given the time constraints, it was really hard to provide the time for us to analyze and come up with plans using the data.  It (time to use data to improve instruction) was a critical lever for school improvement and as a building principal, I felt like my hands were tied.  These agreed-upon constraints/barriers are unacceptable.

Fostering a culture of achievement:  A culture of achievement is a culture that expects all learners to achieve and all adults working in the building/district to keep this expectation central to their work.  I don’t believe that there is a strong culture of achievement in the district.  Foundational to the weak culture of achievement are the beliefs held by adults.  I have engaged in discussion with many staff/leaders (school and district) who express deficit views to explain away the achievement gap.  Let me be clear, there are some good people who lead classrooms, schools, and the district; this is not about personal attacks- you can be a nice person with a good heart and still hold deficit beliefs…you may not even be aware that you do.  This is about the power of those beliefs and how they influence practice and impact children and families.  One big solution that would have high impact to strengthen the culture of achievement would be to increase the rigor of the hiring process (for school/district leadership and teachers)…once strong instructional leaders are in place, decentralizing professional development to allow schools to deeply focus/engage on key improvement strategies relevant to their schools.  Right now the district has a centralized professional development structure (I will speak to the elementary level, because that is what I have direct experience with).  This means that central office has contracted with experts to provide professional development to all teachers on the same things (right now, guided reading and close reading).  While I am passionate about literacy and the need for educators (teachers and school leaders) to improve their knowledge and skill around this, there are some foundational things that need to come before skill and knowledge building (like belief work).  The centralized professional development means that principals and teachers are told when they’ll receive training and then on that set of days, they leave the building to receive training, away from their classrooms. Substitute shortages (another district system) really interrupt the flow of the school day/week/year because subs don’t always show up (this is particularly common in buildings on the north side, which serve a higher percentage of kids living in poverty/minority children…another indicator of adult beliefs about certain children).  With all of the external professional development that takes teachers out of classrooms and then results in subs not showing up to take classes, what results is internal substitution (where a teacher who has remained in the building takes over the class or adds students from the class with no teacher to their class.  This is incredibly expensive; would love to see a report on the costs related to that- used to be 32.50/hour for a teacher to cover a class in addition to their base pay/salary)- another union/district agreement.  It also results in over-sized classes, which absolutely impacts the culture of achievement for the day/week/year.  Job-embedded professional development is the best model; where teachers and leaders learn and build skill in their classrooms/buildings with the support of whoever is leading the professional development.  Job-embedded professional development supports a strong culture of achievement.  The current model does not.

Beliefs are powerful. They influence what we see and don’t see.  What we find problematic or not.  What we do and don’t do.  They impact whose perspective/experience we choose to pay attention to.  They impact everything.  I would love to see a stronger focus on belief work in our district.