Reflecting on the Past and Our Collective Strength & Influence as IRT Alumni

Mayra Canizales Cruz, IRT ’07

It may be hard to believe that in just 3 months we will welcome 2022. For many educators, 2020 was the year that flipped our lives upside down and forced us to (re)discover elements of ourselves as people, family members, teachers, and leaders. We tended to others before tending to ourselves and had little to no opportunity to stop and reflect about all that we had learned and unlearned in the months of a global health pandemic and the racial justice movement of our lifetime.

A year ago, I was a 7-year veteran principal in the nation’s capital and was launching the first-ever virtual school year.  It was both exciting and unnerving and I struggled to find my new leadership voice in a virtual setting.  My superpower was leading with love, justice, and vulnerability- everything else felt like a test or like I was functioning off gut instinct.  Throughout the months, we heard scholars, organic intellectuals, elders, parents, and students alike say the same thing, “We can’t go back to what was normal.  Normal wasn’t working for our Black and Brown children.” Families were officially seen and acknowledged as co-educators and the school and family partnerships were stronger than ever. We finally saw a light that felt bright enough to follow, one that would lead us to deconstruct, reimagine and rebuild a new (a better) educational system for our children. This was the chance and for a large part, it was not taken.

We re-opened schools and students sat in the same classrooms, wore the same uniforms, and greeted each other with masks and desks in straight lines to allow for social distancing. Students were given the same standardized tests to gather their baseline data for the beginning of the year and teachers put them in excel documents to calculate what the coveted +1.5 years of growth target would be for each child. The intervention kits are being dusted off and the honors and AP classes have likely already given their first timed assignment. Our educators are being observed with the same rubrics as before and on the same timeline.  The standardized test-taking companies and curriculum developers are writing blogs and op-eds about the “learning loss” and repackaging their common core curriculum in fancy gloss covers for districts to purchase. Innovation and reimagining take courage, creativity, and more than anything else, it takes the willingness to be “messy”.  “Messy” work does not mean unplanned or unhinged, but rather it means that you are planning for different outcomes within uncertainty and have the willingness to fail to learn.

The messy work involves listening to parents and caregivers, giving students space to feel and lead the way and it meant putting teachers and educators first.  This messy work takes time and patience and it takes designing for the margins instead of the masses. Some may ask, “We taught from home and on virtual screens almost overnight, we did what we never thought was possible- why were we so afraid to radically change the in-person experience?”  At the height of the pandemic, educators and communities were dreaming up schools without bell periods, flexible scheduling for older students and student parents, standards-based settings vs. age/grade level based cohorts, social justice-based community work as school, hybrid options for students who thrived in their virtual settings and so much more. Educators are not new to creativity and are courageous by nature but the “grind” and the realness of SY 21-22 has hit and is hitting us hard.  Educators and school leaders are functioning as safety coordinators, COVID communicators, in some cases leading multiple school postures (in-person, quarantine, and virtual learning), managing shortage of staff and lack of substitutes. Even if an individual or a group of individuals are willing to innovate, the conditions are not currently in place to allow that to happen.

While this shift did not happen on a national scale, we should acknowledge that equity work is in the motion of the small actions we each take over time.  To that end, I wonder what the IRT’ers are doing in their spheres of influence, both at the PK-12 and university level?  IRT’ers have always been radically different and there are small ways that we can act and move differently that can drastically change the human and educational experience of our students.  The following four questions are an offering to help us all reflect on our collective strength and influence:

  1. How have I changed as a human being and how do I want it to show up in my practice? What are the moves I need to take for this change to be actionable?
  2. Have I given myself permission to change even when my institution seems like “business as usual”? Do I need permission?
  3. Have I created space for my students and their families to teach me about how they have changed?  Have I truly listened?
  4. How am I listening to the needs of the school leaders and educators to build direct supports that create the conditions they need for transformational change?

Adelante, mi gente.

Mayra Canizales Cruz is a Dual Language and English Language Learner expert and national award-winning instructional leader.  Most recently serving as the principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington, DC Public Schools from 2014-2021 where she was an equity driven school leader, ultimately leading the school to be awarded a 2020 National Blue Ribbon in the Exemplary High Performing Schools category.  In 2020, she was also recognized by the US Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon principal, being awarded the coveted Terrel H. Bell awards for outstanding school leadership. She is now a Founding Partner of The Canizales Group and teaching as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and urban education policy from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Elementary Education from Boston College. She lives in Washington DC with her husband and sweet pup, Tank.   She can be reached at Mayra@canizalesgroup.com.

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