A machine generated transcript of Superintendent Cheatham’s 2019 Madison Rotary Club talk:
Thank you, Jason on this spring equinox. Our speaker is superintendent of Madison schools Jennifer Cheatham who has been in the role since 2013. She’s a graduate of Harvard who started her career as an eighth grade English teacher. She’s titled Her speech leading for equity. And will share her personal leadership Journey as an educator sure implications and Reflections on leading a school district for race racial equity. Join me in welcoming welcoming superintendent Cheatham to the podium.
Hi everyone. It’s good to be back at Rotary. I’m a little more nervous than usual because I have current board members and future for members of the audience. I feel like I’m interviewing today. It really is nice to be back. There is a lot happening in our city right now. There’s a lot to talk about.
I would like to recognize a couple of people before we dive in I want to recognize Gloria Reyes our newest board member who is in the audience. Can we give her a round of applause? She’s a phenomenal board member and I’m very lucky to have her as one of my seven bosses and I want to recognize James Howard. Who is here. He is our most senior board member. He only has a couple more weeks.
Find the board and I might shed a tear before I leave the podium today. He’s been the board president for five years during his nine years on the board and I pretty much talk to this guy every day for the last six years. So I just want to extend my heartfelt appreciation for your leadership. James couldn’t give him a round of applause.
I also want to recognize Reggie Cheatham who’s in the audience. Who’s my husband my rock? I love you, babe. Can we give him a round of applause? All right. So, you know, it seems right to reflect on one’s leadership at a major Milestone on April first. April fools day. I will have my 6 year anniversary in the district, which is surpassing the typical tenure for a female. Urban superintendent is want to put that out there. Thank you. Thank you. This fall we launched a brand new strategic framework that is more ambitious than ever that centers black student Excellence very proud of that. And on April 2nd as we all know.
We have a School Board Race that I believe will demonstrate the extent to which our community wants to follow through on that promise. And I want to personally thank everyone who’s running for school board. That’s a big deal. It matters to me a lot. Let’s give the candidates another round of applause. So rather than my typical update on progress that I know you guys really enjoy when I come here. I am going to do something a little different. I want to share with you a story of me. I want to share with you a story of us and the story of what I think it means for us right now. This will be my leadership story, which I do think demonstrates. How I’m becoming a stronger leader for Equity. It’s a story of confidence-building risk-taking personal identity development and teamwork. So this is me in kindergarten. I went to gray school in Chicago. I was an early reader reciting nursery rhymes for relatives begging to go to school as soon as I could talk. When asked by my neighbor’s I used to tell everyone how much I loved school and I was always surprised by the adults reaction because they were surprised by my response.
By fifth grade. I had already decided on a potential career path. I would sign all of my school papers. Dr. Jenny Perry. That’s my maiden name because I thought I wanted to be a doctor Someday My Teacher nicknamed me. Dr. J that Year little did I know I would become a doctor the first in my large extended family, but not the medical kind. Make sure I got this. These are my parents. That’s Wanda and skip my mom grew up in a humble Farm family and Whitewater, Wisconsin. She married my dad who grew up on the west side of Chicago with much without much financial means or family support but he was he was Scrappy and he was the first in our large extended family to go to college.
From their early days in Chicago and they lived in an apartment above a pet store. I live there too to their later days in the suburbs on a one-acre lot all that grass. I watched my parents grow up together. I watched them raise our family together. I watch them transform our lives together. It has been amazing for me to Bear witness to the positive impact these two people have had not just on my immediate family, but all of my cousins all of their children these this is the couple that opened the door to possibilities that hadn’t previously existed for any of us.
But what strikes me most about their parenting was their curiosity and me and my siblings the four of us, each of us were unique they expressed interest in each of our interests. They were curious about what we were curious about and they recognized our real talents and not the ones that they wished we had. Looking back for everything that they did for us. That was the greatest gift. My parents gave me their curiosity in me. This is an important lesson as a parent. I think their curiosity in me was this incredible confidence Builder from the from a young age?
I don’t actually remember them ever reading to me. I don’t remember them pushing me hard to excel which I think some people May Be Imagined happened to my family for me. It was just a blessing to be seen and that’s important. Because confidence is needed to take risks. And I’ve learned that. To teach requires risk-taking.
Well, I thought I’d be a doctor for their a while. They’re in elementary school. I changed my mind when I got to high school decided. I wanted to be a teacher. In graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I trained to be a teacher I came to view teaching as a form of activism. This is me as a first-year teacher. I worshipped Paulo Freire e right this idea that teaching should be designed to liberate and never to oppress. I studied vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. I think Ali Mahdi. All right. We got it as a way to stretch my students thinking to their learning Edge. I remember forever being changed by reading the book Savage inequalities by.
Jonathan kozol and forever inspired by Gloria ladson-billings conception of culturally relevant teaching that was. Well over 20 years ago. I loved what I was learning about action research as a way to capture my own learning as an educator. I was absolutely convinced. This is what I wanted to do with my life. And then I started my student teaching at Wayne High School outside of Detroit where I was given three classes to teach for a full semester or two of those classes were called teen fact and fiction and it was an English class that was. For under credited Juniors and seniors essentially was the class to just get kids graduated that make sense.
I was given a poorly designed curriculum a set of Cortex that were dumbed-down inspiring. I remember one of the books was the boy who drank too much. It was turned into like some side kind of daytime movie that starred Scott Baio and was filmed here Kali. That’s right. I learned that. Yeah, it is interesting how these courses are given to the least experienced teachers, right? I was a student teacher.
Anyway, I decided that I would rework the entire curriculum with the students themselves. We took the first weeks to get to know one another and we laid out all the themes that we wanted to explore together things. That would be relevant to teenagers the group wanted to talk about race. They wanted to talk about gender. They wanted to talk about sexuality substance abuse depression. I think they were surprised when I agreed with them. I searched for high-quality literature as the focal point of our exploration. We read black literature even feminist literature. We read lgbtq literature that was before it was called that. Fine introduce a reading workshop to reignite students interest in reading right there identity as readers and I searched continually for things that I thought individual students would like based on my individual conferring with them all I did back in those days.
I had no life.
I don’t have much of what now, but outside all I did was planned my teaching teach and reflect on its Effectiveness all I did my mentor teacher. I almost let her know. I’m not going to say it. I loved her because she entrusted me with teaching this class and she sat in the lounge while all this was happening. I was crossing some boundaries you guys it was a good thing. She was in the lounge and yet students. Cooper regularly skipping school started coming back. They were sneaking into school to go to this class and I wouldn’t call it. My cousin was our class. There was a buzz about this class the kids and I were in some kind of solidarity with one another we felt like we were in cahoots, which is unfortunate, right?
It shouldn’t be like you’re having to sneak in really good high-quality instruction.
But we’ve become this community of Learners. They were learning so much. They were constructing knowledge. They were challenging each other. They were challenging me. I was learning a ton and then at the end of the semester I had a student tell me Miss Perry. I really want to recommend this class to a friend, but I know it’ll never be the same. leaving. That school was hard but fresh out of my experience with student teaching. I was just desperate to start my career.
Remember I’m from Chicago jobs were scarce at that time in Chicago and I had heard that there was a teacher shortage in California. I never planned on teaching at a junior high. No one ever. Does this just to be clear? Yeah. I never planned on leaving. Home. But I interviewed for this job over the phone as an 8th grade language arts teacher in Newark, California in the East Bay of San Francisco.
I drove 2,000 miles across the country without knowing so I arrived in California the day before school started that year my first day seeing my classroom like walking in the door was the first day of school. The kids came about 30 minutes later. It was the first major professional risk. I’ve ever taken but I was finally a teacher and my identity formed around him after a decade of teaching and teacher leadership in California working in partnership with amazing teachers amazing principles like the women in this picture. I thought I had some serious instructional jobs as what a lot of perspective on what it takes to support teachers and doing their best work passionate about our profession. I set out to take yet another professional risk and explore what it would take to lead instructional Improvement on a large scale.
Maybe even become a superintendent someday the kind that I had dreamed about someone who actually knew something about teaching. But if someone told me just recently sometimes you need to be stripped of your ego your confidence to become even stronger. I went back to graduate school this time as a member of the 16th cohort of the urban superintendents program at Harvard, which to me I got to tell you was some kind of Miracle there were Great Courses. Micro economics politics lot instruction and it was incredible. I loved it. I excelled in those courses, but I was also assigned a mentor to test and develop my thinking about leadership.
I would come to learn that that relationship with my mentor one that has lasted now well over a decade. Was more powerful than any book. I had ever read or any course I had ever taken. I was assigned to the renowned Carl cone. All right Collegiate. He’s wowing up here. Someone knows that I’m talking about. I was assigned to the renowned Carl cone Carl an African-American leader had left Seminary school to become a high school counselor in Compton at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He eventually became the superintendent in Long Beach California leading the district transformation into one of the highest performing urban districts in the country. And that is still true today. He was not an instructional leader. And he intimidated the hell out of me.
I just saw Carl this past summer and he recalled a familiar story. We’re really close till at the very start of our mentoring relationship. Carl said to me he’s got this low gravelly voice and very slow way of talking Jen white female instructional leaders. Like you are a dime a dozen. That’s what he told me a dime a dozen what makes you think you could ever gain the street credibility to lead in an urban District at this is like a weeks into my mentoring relationship with him. I think I cried when I got home did my rent. I was crushed. I remember the first wave of feelings. I felt misunderstood. I was actually kind of pissed at first right? I felt misunderstood undervalued. I felt stereotypes. I’ve felt sick to my stomach and unsettled. I felt like I was on a rocking boat. Now that feeling by the ground was not solid underneath my feet and it was because I felt that my identity as an educator does felt fundamentally threatened and that moment.
After I got over the good cry I realized the Carl was not criticizing me in that moment. He was trying to open a door to a new conversation about who I was about who I could become and what it would actually take for me to lead and it was the first time I’m a bit embarrassed to say this the first time I had to name out loud and I have been an educator for over a decade at that point the first time I did name out loud and begin to actually understand my privilege as a white woman. I would have to acknowledge that my parents success and economic Mobility which I was very proud of did not happen just because of their hard work. I would have to come to understand that my ability to pick up and pack my stuff and move across the country for my first job was not simply an act of my own bravery. I would have to see that my singular focus on instruction and instructional Improvement may have been a convenient way to avoid looking inward at my own bias or outward at the institution that was reproducing the outcomes that I said that I wanted to change all along.
I had been a beneficiary. My white privilege and Carl he was pushing me to try to figure out how to use it and uncompromising Alliance of people who didn’t have it which would mean taking real risks, right? Not the fake risks that I thought. I was taking real risks right to start risking failure my own personal failure. By the way, I hope that that song that we sing in the beginning wasn’t about me the ring of fire. So I took that a little personally I’m letting it go. Okay. Carl had I just I don’t doubt it Carl had a ton of respect for what I could do as an instructional leader.
He just knew that dramatically changing outcomes for students would require a totally new order of things and that’s when I started to begin a New Journey right to create a richer identity not just as a teacher not just as a champion for the profession, which I am. But as a faithful Ally to the children and families, we serve and someone dedicated to creating empowering spaces for teachers and students so they can change the world. I’ve learned other things too.
I’ve learned the importance of assembling talented teams. I’ve learned the importance of assembling talented and diverse teams. This is not about heroic leadership. It is about empowering capable people who have different points of view to work together towards a common goal. I’ve learned about quiet determinations and Steely resolve. I’ve learned about how to feel my way through complexity. I’ve learned about the trust and respect necessary for people to excel especially those who work most closely with children. I’ve learned about leading with more humanity and vulnerability. And most recently I’ve been learning about what it actually takes to Center the voices and experiences of the people who are most affected by the challenges.
And problems we face what it looks like to authorize the people the many people who are already out there doing the work and to pave the way for more work to be done. Now last year of this is animated this lag kind of drives me crazy you guys this is happened to me before there we go last year. I listened personally to over a thousand people in this community. In over 50 hours of meetings prioritizing listening to the voices of students staff and families of color. I wanted to know how we could build on the progress that we’ve made but more importantly what it would actually take to transform our schools into the places that we want them to be right the truly represent what we want for our community. And we use those discussions to inform the development of our new strategic framework, which I will say is on the back table if you want one on your way out. Well what I want you to know is what I heard.
When I talked to educators of color, which I did in depth over many hours, they told me that we needed to commit. Once and for all to being an anti-racist organization and learning what that actually means right to enact it from the Board Room all the way to the classroom. They told me that policy is budget Investments are long times wait ways of working. They all had to be tested deconstructed rebuilt. They also said that we had to make deep and long term investments in our staff as anti-racist Educators, right? If you sign up for this profession, that’s what you’re signing up for and then that is not just Technical Training that is about doing deep inside out work on your personal identity right for the lifetime that you’re in this career.
Students of color told me that they needed stronger more trusting relationships with staff. Right? And that’s because you can’t be in what is called the struggle of learning, right? If you’re not interesting relationship with the teachers in the the friends and colleagues that are in your learning community where you can’t actually struggle through learning without trust. They told me that they believed in their white staffs like their white teachers ability to do so they do they believe that and they need more teachers of color, right? They need more representation. They told me they needed more cultural. Well, not more they needed cultural representation and historically accurate curriculum for just fed up with it with it not being so. But not just because they wanted but it’s because they want to challenge the world around them, right? They want to understand that what they want to analyze that they want to challenge us right there desk. They’re seeking deep and Rich learning opportunities.
They want full participation in advanced coursework with their peers. Right, which is fully integrated into those courses and separate spaces to talk about racism and the micro aggressions that they’re experiencing everyday in this community. They need both. Parents of color told me that they wanted to share power with schools. Like we’re doing at our community schools. They wanted rich and deep learning experiences for their children as well. Not just more programs to support struggling students. This is important, right?
They see the path right to eliminating the achievement Gap is about rich and deep learning experiences. Not more intervention. I hope that makes sense. But that’s the only way you actually get there and they want aggressive execution of strategies and programs that ensure meaningful exploration of College and Career options for every child. The message was clear to me after all those discussions that the next level of transformation in our district would require a New Order of Things. Which is why? We’ve made such a strong commitment Central commitment to lifting up black excellence in our district. This is not a programs not an initiative, right? This is a good-sized central commitment. So we’ll learn together right about how to enact will learn with and alongside the black community that we serve because we.
And the Brilliance the creativity the capability and Bright Futures futures of black students in Madison and everywhere are measures of success is a school system have to be aimed at more than narrowing gaps.
I’m tired of that language but focused on cultivating the full potential of every child creating space for healthy identity development and new and more importantly true narratives about black youth. And this community that doesn’t mean that we diminish our commitment to other students right Latino students Latino Community ICU, right? I see you too, right? I see everyone. But that we recognize that all of our fates are linked. And of course this school year maybe that’s where the ring of fire song came from has been.
With all of its promise. It’s been trying right? That is an understatement. Yeah, it’s been trying it’s been testing our core values in our commitment. In a way that I predicted to some extent but didn’t understand until I’ve been in it. So I want to be real clear. I am extraordinarily proud of the progress. We’ve made we wouldn’t even be able to have this discussion right now without it.
But now we’re being asked by even more people to do even more and better right and we will. But we will only do so if as a community not just the school district, we are centering the lives of people of in color in a way that we’ve never done so before right. I’m going to tell you what I’ve been telling my staff all year. I have sort of a mantra that I just keep telling them. So I’m going to share it with you. I’ll try to not cry as I say it. I see the gifts and talents you bring to this work.
Let’s take more risks on behalf of the students and families we serve. Sorry, it’s been a rough few weeks. Let’s embrace our common identities as both proud Educators and consequential allies. We’ll work together as a team. remain faithful. You are enough you have to be. I know it is my honor and privilege to continue to serve alongside you especially when the boat is rocking.
Thanks everybody. Thank you superintendent Cheatham. Please take advantage to speak with our school board candidates that are with us today on your way out. We are adjourned.