New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, GSS ‘80 told roughly 200 principals and assistant principals that he understands how teaching is in their DNA, and even on their “off” days, they interact with students, parents and teachers at a meeting at Fordham on Thursday, July 14.
His appearance at the Lincoln Center Campus was part of the second week of the Council of School Administrators Education Leaders Institute, and the chancellor told those in attendance to challenge him if they ever feel that he is not dedicating all his energy toward the 1.1 million students in the New York City School system.
“I never really plan out my next job, but I’ve always said I’ve always wanted to be a principal. I’ve always wanted to be a principal in one of the toughest schools, where students are not engaged at all, where student learning may not be what we would like it to be,” he said.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road, in everything that you guys do on a day-to day basis. It’s what life is about. It’s how you set the tone for what happens in your building and your community.”
In keeping with that, Walcott noted that like most people, he remembers the teachers he had as a child, but not the principals.
“I remember my third grade teacher Mrs. Long, because she worked with me with reading, and made sure I was reading at grade level, but when I reflect back, I can’t remember the name of my principal in elementary school,” he said.
“Take that charge, and say, ‘I want these students to remember my name. I want them to carry forward that message that they remember he was a very dynamic principal. He was in my life, he knew about my life, he was committed to make sure I was college and career ready, and ready for the next grade.’”
Noting that he likely only has two and half years to make an impression—“What, you think there’s going to be a fourth term?” he cracked, prompting laughter— Walcott promised that he was going to push the envelope on innovation.
As they face a $5 billion dollar deficit the next fiscal year, and he said there would be real challenges that they would have to face together.
“It’s going to be a very challenging two and half years, because I’m not some sort of Polyannish person whose saying you guys have an easier job. Your budgets are small, across the board an average 2.3 percent less,” he said. “I understand there are challenges, and we’re going to work through those challenges.”
He vowed to continue to visit schools around the system, a practice he began nine years ago as deputy mayor that has resulted in 400 to 500 visits.
“I’m going to listen to what you say, and I’m going to try to respond, and I know there are going to be times when we agree, there are times when we’re going to disagree, there are times when we are going to vehemently disagree. But you will always have a person who will listen to what you say and try to factor it in one way or another to make the system better.”
It was fitting to speak at Fordham, where he received a master’s degree in social work in 1980.
“I remember vividly taking a night class, and then going home to Queens at 10:30 at night, and standing on the number 7 line at Queensborough Plaza in December, with the wind cutting through your body and, and asking, ‘Is this it all worth it?’” he said.
“What you’re doing is all worth it. The struggles that you face are all worth it. It’s worth it because we’re committed to the cause or making sure our children are educated and are able to contribute to society.”