More than a decade ago, while running a high-performing school that I loved, a small moment forever shifted how I lead. As a Black woman who was a teenage mother and had dropped out of high school, I was proud of my career and taking great care to figure out what was next.
While at lunch with a mentor, a leader of a large charter network, she asked, “Have you ever considered being a CEO?” I remember feeling grateful that she thought so highly of my work.
“You think I could do that job?” I asked. She said she did and went on to explain that I was already doing a lot of that job; I just didn’t know it yet.
Now, after many years of hard work and mentorship, I’ve successfully served as CEO of three different school networks. I find joy in many parts of my job, but what keeps me devoted to this work is so much larger than leading school networks and all that entails.
Ever since that lunch with my mentor, my work, my calling, has been evolving and expanding. I serve in ways that have allowed my life to come full circle — creating pathways to college for children who might otherwise be counted out. I also work to open pathways for the adults who work at the schools I lead. I want everyone to have the full picture of what they can become.
To be sure, I wouldn’t be where I am today without other leaders guiding me on my journey, especially when I lacked the social capital and background knowledge to make the next right move. From my former principal who helped me secure my first assistant principal job to another mentor who encouraged me to seek out executive coaching, I’ve been lucky to receive sound advice and practical support.
But my commitment to professional growth for educators, particularly those who are women and people of color, is not just a matter of paying it forward. It feels like a necessary investment — and a smart one.
While some of the recent efforts focused on recruiting more teachers of color have paid off, keeping those teachers in our schools and classrooms is an urgent challenge. A 2021 RAND study found that nearly half of Black teachers reported that they were likely to leave their jobs at the end of the school year because of stress and challenging working conditions. What if schools retain and grow these educators? Chances are their perspective and leadership could help improve retention across the board.
The current reality, however, holds back rising educators and potential school leaders as well as students of color. That’s because research has shown that when students of color are exposed to teachers who share their race or ethnicity, they perform better academically and are more likely to stay in school.
Yet, we’ve failed to show many educators of color that teaching and education leadership are viable career paths. That means losing the next generation of educators only a little past the starting line.
So what must we do differently? First, access is a game changer.
In too many schools, the leadership team is small and insular. At our school, we schedule leadership and board meetings in the evenings, when our whole staff can attend. We invite team members to show up, contribute to materials, and present directly to the board. This may seem small, but if you don’t know what it looks like to be a principal, chief of staff, or CEO, how can you aim to become one?
Next, it’s time to build on access with resources, information, and opportunities. When you open doors to what is possible, you have to make space for learning and growth to follow. That looks like taking time to mentor people or setting them up with mentors, and providing professional development stipends in amounts that allow them to pursue further education.
A year ago, I had a new middle school principal and assistant principal who showed great potential and were hungry for development. After a year of intentional support and mentorship, both individuals have been promoted and joined our school’s leadership team. They’ve since been invited to speak at conferences, and their work has been highlighted in the media.
Finally, it’s important to be supportive of the many places this kind of development will lead. When you invest in your staff, you might end up with your next great principal or CEO. You might also send people beyond your school walls to other schools, to advocacy organizations, and to district or state offices. Remember, your investment in talent is not just about growing leaders that benefit your school; it’s about building the next generation of leaders and elevating women and people of color who will shape education in this country.
We want our students to dream big and be prepared to chase whatever future they want. We should want the same for our teachers. Increasing access and opportunities — that’s how we diversify the profession, strengthen our schools, and build the kinds of talented, driven leaders that students at every level need.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.
- In 2024, education will move to adopt AI—but slowly - December 8, 2023
- Mitigating data breaches with live patch management - December 8, 2023
- How video coaching helps us support teacher growth and retention - December 7, 2023