Educator Dr. Erika Henderson shares her leadership journey and how she seized opportunities to learn how to better advocate for her students.
Author’s Note: This piece was largely written before the COVID-19 crisis upended education across the country. However, as the pandemic has unfolded the importance of equity, access to quality instructional materials, and the power of advocating for students’ needs has never been more important. The challenges of the pandemic have laid bare and exacerbated so many existing inequities within education. I truly believe that leaders who place the needs of all students at the forefront in tough times (and in triumphant ones) are those who find the most success. Equity in resources means high quality instructional materials for all (whether those are hard copies of work packets or online digital resources). We also must consider social-emotional needs as part of what’s considered high quality instruction as we make it through this unprecedented time in history. I know we will get through this together.
I grew up in a house full of teachers. My father was a preacher who spent his life counseling and tutoring others. My grandmother had no formal education, but she taught us all with her experience, wisdom, and stories. When I was young, I spent hours instructing my dolls on all the lessons I believed they needed to know. So even while I had many interests (writing, journalism, the law), no one was surprised when I decided to enter the classroom fresh out of college.
The first seven years of my career were spent at Kirby High School in Memphis, Tennessee where I taught high school English language arts. The majority of my students were from African American or Latino backgrounds and, in my early days, were not much younger than I was. Like most novice teachers, I faced many challenges due to my own inexperience but also due to a lack of tools and supports at my school. I struggled with finding the resources I needed, especially in the form of quality instructional materials.
The lack of high quality materials had a number of effects on the students I worked with. Text variety and complexity was often at a minimum. This meant my students were rarely challenged to analyze informational content and rarely exposed to stories that might introduce them to new narratives and provide historical context to the literature we read.
There was also a distinct imbalance between “windows and mirrors” in the content we were provided. Often, students were exposed to only a single person’s or culture’s view rather than diverse perspectives. Even less common were texts that would allow my students to see themselves reflected. This left students feeling unengaged because the instructional materials available to them sent the message that their stories were not valuable.
I wanted to talk about what I was seeing in the classroom—the inequities educators and students were dealing with every day—but as a new teacher I struggled to share my voice with people in leadership. I could barely speak up at a faculty meeting let alone approach administrators or policy makers who might make a difference. I knew that if I wanted to make a bigger impact and advocate for my students and colleagues, I would have to develop my own knowledge and leadership skills to become the change I wanted to see in school leadership. In particular, I focused on high standards and instructional materials because of the role they play in providing all kids with the education they deserve.
I dove in head first joining the New Leaders principal training program to gain experience in school leadership and administration. I also became involved with Student Achievement Partners as a Core Advocate so I could learn more about college and career-ready standards and how these standards can support strong instruction for all students no matter where they come from or what school they attend. The deep content knowledge around the standards proved invaluable as it gave me the skills to identify what the standards and shifts are and why students need a common foundation to support their learning.
I saw the impact of not having consistent standards when I took careful and active notice of homeless students’ experiences in the community around literacy and college and career-readiness. These students faced numerous personal challenges, but one of the things that affected their academic preparation the most was the fact that they changed schools so often.
Each school had different standards guiding instruction, and varying levels of quality materials that kids were accessing in the classroom. Our most vulnerable students struggled to build the skills they needed for success beyond graduation because the education they received depended upon their location—even within the same state or district.
As I became more confident in my evolving leadership skills and knowledge, I felt like it was important to share all that I was learning with other educators. I transitioned to a role as an instructional coach. As I worked closely with educators to help provide them with resources I never had, I came to fully appreciate what I had begun grasping from my earliest days in the classroom: that high standards matter little without the materials to support those standards. Teachers, who have to accept on good faith that the materials they are provided with are quality or else spend hours creating their own, deserve more than what districts are often providing them. Again, I wondered, how could I best prepare myself to advocate for the change schools needed?
I decided I needed to take my knowledge of the standards to the next level. I wanted to apply my expertise to understanding whether or not curriculum was aligned the way that it claimed and how those materials would truly speak to the needs of different student communities.
The next stop on my personal journey of empowerment was to become an EdReports English language arts reviewer. I wanted to continue exploring instructional materials in depth, learn how to better identify quality resources, and contribute to information that would empower educators to choose the best programs for their districts. I was also fortunate to have been selected to participate in the organization’s inaugural Klawe Fellowship. Not only did I receive training around the research that shows why materials matter, I was able to benefit from advocacy coaching, practice engaging stakeholders such as district leaders, and develop a local impact project to improve education opportunities for students. My advocacy project and recent work has also been greatly influenced by my current role at Facing History and Ourselves which deepened my learning for the role historical context plays in teaching and equity and the importance of seeking justice through high quality, culturally relevant instructional materials.
The culmination of my experiences—from my time in the classroom to the numerous professional development opportunities I’ve been involved with—has developed the confidence I need to speak out and take action when I see inequities. I no longer recognize the quiet 22 year old woman in the back of a faculty meeting not saying a word. The person I am today has sat down with CEOs of multi-million dollar corporations, with state and local policy makers, and with district leaders to advocate for better materials and a better education for all students. What’s more, these leaders are listening to what I have to say.
More than anything, my journey has taught me that when you recognize an injustice (and make no mistake—a failure to live up to the educational promise we make to students is an injustice) finding opportunities to learn and grow will make a difference. I did not start out where I am now, and I certainly hope that where I am now is not where I’ll always be.
I have more to learn and more to do as I strive to ensure every single student has instructional materials that are culturally relevant, will inspire them to learn, and will prepare them for college and careers. But I also know that change is only possible if I continue to share this learning by speaking-up, by being unafraid to be the leader I have become. My voice cannot be a light under a bushel; it must be on a hill for the world to see.