Q&A with Dr. Monica Washington
Monica shared some thoughts with us on teaching, learning, and life as an educator.
What made you decide to become a teacher?
I always loved learning and being in school. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Elion, made us all feel like we were her favorite student.I remember that I felt seen and heard in her classroom. I already loved learning, so I thought becoming a teacher would give me the opportunity to help my students love learning in a classroom in which they were valued.
What do you love about being an educator?
I love being able to create and sustain positive relationships with students. I love building an atmosphere that affirms students and helps them build the courage to take risks. Mostly, I love that being an educator isn’t confined to the space of the classroom. When students feel connected to their teachers, they invite them into other spaces of their lives. These might be athletic events or other performances, and when they become adults, those events become college graduations and weddings. Relationships begin in the classroom and grow from there.
What made you decide to leave the classroom and focus on your equity and leadership work?
I felt like I had developed some tools and processes that led to my students experiencing a great deal of success, and I wanted to share my strategies with other teachers. I worked alongside teachers, planning lessons and projects that would challenge their students and honor student interests. Being able to work in classrooms across the country showed me some common challenges that teachers faced, and I was able to create more tools to address those challenges. I love being an ear, a mentor, and a non-evaluative partner in a teacher’s growth.
What passion and purpose drive your work these days?
Lately, I have been studying education policy and paying close attention to legislation that policymakers introduce. While it can be difficult to pay attention to legislation that threatens the type of school experiences all students deserve, I’m determined to stay focused on it so that I can support teachers through it. Teachers are tired. They feel as though they are not valued. Many self-censor out of fear of violating some state or district mandate, and this is harmful to both the profession and students. Through my current fellowship, I’m able to speak to legislators, engage with educators, and engage with the media in order to advocate for student-affirming legislation.
What message will you bring to DC for the Schools to Watch folks?
I’m sure I will have a lot to say, but one of the things I know I’ll discuss is the power of voice. It’s so important for educators to know the power of their own voices in this profession. They are the experts but are often silenced when they should be invited into rooms in which decisions are being made about education. In addition, it is vital for educators to elevate the voices of their students. When we give students space to share, we can often find out what we need to do to better support them.
“It’s so important for educators to know the power of their own voices.”
-Dr. Monica Washington
What are your thoughts on how we can make more widespread awareness of the steps to take to make equity, cultural relevance, and inclusion more standard and uniformly implemented?
I don’t think we get to a point at which equity, cultural relevance, and inclusion are uniformly implemented when we try to do that work through one-off educator trainings. There must be a clear and relevant goal with steps to achieve that goal. The work has to be embedded in all aspects of the school, and both school leaders and teachers need concrete examples of how to do the work. If there isn't a clear direction with specific examples, equity work is just performative and theoretical.
If you could share one teacher strategy or tip with our subscribers, what would it be?
I would say that one of the best things I did as a teacher was to listen to my students. I provided multiple opportunities for them to share about their experiences in my class. Sometimes I learned from them that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was and needed to adjust. Sometimes they gave me really good ideas I hadn’t thought of. It can be hard to get feedback from students, but it is a critical part of our growth as professionals.
How about a strategy for school leaders?
I would say that leaders who give space and grace to teachers and who listen are some of the best leaders. Teachers often feel overwhelmed and often need time to process and collaborate. The culture of the profession tells teachers to keep pushing even when they are drained. Leaders who allow for pauses, who think about the number of tasks teachers have before assigning a new one, who ask for feedback and actually listen, are leaders who will have more teachers who feel valued and will therefore be more effective.