Use Your Own Story, NYC Schools Chancellor Tells Teachers

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New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña told a gathering of educators on April 4 to embrace their own backgrounds and personal stories as a means to bring more joy to their teaching.

In “Paying it Forward: A Commitment to Learning and Service,” Fariña, who assumed the role of chancellor in 2014, highlighted the ways that her personal experiences during 50 years as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor informed both her past and present decisions.

“Education is as much about morality as it is about education,” said Fariña, who spoke at the Lincoln Center campus. “We really need to bring that back to our schools and do right by all our kids—for all the right reasons.”

On a personal note, she said bilingual education is a high priority for her because she recalled the stigma of being the only student in kindergarten who spoke no English, having fled Spain with her family the year before to escape civil war.

Likewise, Fariña said she understands from personal experience the importance of parent involvement. Although she realized early on that she wanted to be a teacher, she started out on a track toward commercial jobs. She attributed the misstep to the fact that neither of her parents had graduated from high school, and simply did not understand how the system worked.

“If your parents have been through this and know how to do it, you’re already a step ahead,” she said.

Universal pre-kindergarten is part of the school system’s efforts to make the system fairer and attempt to close the word gap that many children experience in the first grade, she said. And as part of a drive to increase college enrollment, the school system will soon offer the SAT free of charge to high school juniors during school hours.

This too resonated personally, as she recalled having to get a money order to take the test when she was a student.

She also cited the Single Shepherd program, which aims to pair a middle- and high-school student with a dedicated school counselor or social worker who will support them through graduation and college enrollment. It’s an effort to extend a lifeline to students who are dealing with stress outside the school.

Fariña acknowledged that one of the changes she instituted as chancellor—extending the time it takes for someone to become a principal from two to seven years—has been controversial. However, she said it’s critical that leaders spend more time as teachers in the rank-and-file.

When she became a principal after 22 years as a teacher, she convinced recalcitrant teachers to embrace a new social studies lesson plan by demonstrating it herself three to four times a week for six months.

“It changed the climate in my building because the teachers began to understand that what I was asking people to do, I knew how to do,” she said. “When people ask me [today], ‘Does it matter that the chancellor’s an educator?’ You bet it does.”

Ultimately, teachers should be prepared to assume leadership rules, she said. And when they do, their experiences today will influence what kind of leader they’ll be tomorrow. She advised them to know what their core values are, and learn to become a good communicator so they can inspire others.

“People will work for a principal in any neighborhood in the city as long as you inspire them. And they won’t work with a principal [even]in the best place, if you’re not inspiring them. People want to feel they’re working for a bigger cause,” she said.

Fariña’s appearance was part of the Graduate School of Education’s Centennial Lecture Series.

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