Irma Zardoya // February 14, 2017
No child deserves to be seen as a statistic, to be known simply for the color of her skin or her country of origin. At the NYC Leadership Academy, we believe that every one of our students needs educators who know and honor them for all of their complexities and individualities.
Growing up in the Bronx, I was one of only eight Latinas in my high school, my sister and I the only Puerto Ricans. Classmates often denigrated my heritage and language. When landlords across the Bronx were setting their buildings on fire to collect insurance payouts, many of my classmates blamed Puerto Ricans, accusing us of “burning the Bronx.” Other kids would say to me, “You don’t look Puerto Rican.” They didn’t know that we were a people of different cultures, descendants from the native Taino Indians, the Spaniards who colonized the island and the African slaves who were brought unwillingly to the Caribbean islands. To confuse things further, the school prohibited us from speaking Spanish, and when there was a need to translate course content to help our Latina classmates who only spoke Spanish, teachers would scold us and accuse us of keeping our classmates from learning English. We were often treated differently and excluded from certain activities, conversations or social groups. Only once do I remember a teacher standing up for us, speaking with the class about the importance of respecting others. We felt invisible. Still, because of the importance my parents placed on our education and their expectation that we would go to college, we continued to work hard and focus on our studies.
Through a nonprofit organization called Aspira, I learned the value of my culture and its history, customs and language, instilling in me a pride for the legacy of my ancestors. I wore that pride as an educator, along with a determination to inspire each child to feel like the most important person on campus. I wanted my students to know that I saw them. I wanted them to recognize, as I did, that a good education in a school that values the whole child, coupled with hard work, can open the doors of opportunity. Without this possibility, a child might experience the fate of my uncle who, after dropping out of high school, lived a hard life of drugs and jail for most of his young adult years. I never wanted my own son or any child to go through what he had.
As a bilingual teacher in New York City, I was fortunate to work for a principal who continuously asked, “How can we improve our school?” He traveled to other schools and school systems to learn from them. After a trip to London, he returned excited about the concept of mini schools, which opened the door for me to start a bilingual mini-school. He appointed me as the lead teacher, and my lifelong journey into school leadership, with all its bumps and turns, began.
Wanting to reach more children, I later accepted a position with a New York City school district working with principals around bilingual education. Without real leadership training and experience, however, I realized if I wanted to support a community of school leaders, I needed to walk in their shoes. At 32, I became principal of a bilingual school. I saw firsthand how overwhelming the job was. Often times I would labor until 9 at night, inundated with paperwork to finish at home. My graduate program in educational leadership required a few hours of school administrative work, but I had been given lunch duty, which did nothing to prepare me for leading a school. Asking for coaching support was almost unheard of and seen as an admission of weakness.
Feeling like I had no one to turn to, I began creating my own community. I networked with organizations that gave me grants to support teacher leader development. Noticing my efforts around developing leaders, the Schools Chancellor and Bank Street College of Education asked me to help create a principal’s institute to recruit minorities and women to assume school and district leadership positions in New York City. I jumped at the chance to help develop educators into effective leaders. I wanted women and leaders of color to become visible and to hold positions of influence throughout the system.
In my own school, I slowly figured out that building teams of teacher leaders would ensure sustainability, and inspiring every adult to feel invested in each student’s success would make the difference. After nine years as principal and three as a deputy superintendent, I felt ready to become a superintendent in the Bronx. There I led a strategic planning process that pulled ideas from staff across the district – teachers, principals, secretaries, custodians, community organization officials and school board members. I knew if everyone felt ownership over the goals we set, they would feel the urgency and responsibility of giving every child in the district a great education, and we could be more successful in giving educational leaders the support they needed to do that work.
We created learning communities for every level of educator, developed teacher leaders to become experts in literacy, math, or bilingual instruction, and assigned coaches to every school. Every first-year principal received one-on-one coaching, and we identified strong principals to form a professional learning community to support principals across the district and align efforts toward improvement.
At the heart of the work was ensuring that each child felt proud of who she was and confident in her ability to learn and excel. Every child in my district needed to be seen. When we spoke about the data, I encouraged our leaders to see their children’s names and faces in the numbers. We confronted inequities, asking: How could we eliminate the large number of special education referrals? Why were most of our young boys of color in segregated classes led by inexperienced teachers? Why didn’t all of our middle schools offer accelerated courses? To tackle these inequities, we examined how we developed, recruited and assigned educators, allocated resources, and ensured equitable access to quality programs and curriculum. Over time, the district improved. Student achievement rose, school buildings that were once dilapidated became environments conducive to learning.
We will not have a great education system until every leader across the nation ensures that every child’s whole person is both valued and visible. My story offers one way to approach this work. I charge you to use your story to forge your own path.
At the heart of the work was ensuring that each child felt proud of who she was and confident in her ability to learn and excel.