A Vision for Our Future

Cheryl Champ

(Note: This speech was given by Dr. Champ to the Pelham teachers and staff on the Superintendent's Conference Day on Wednesday, September 4. View the presentation slides that accompanied the speech.)

Good morning! It is my pleasure to speak to each of you today as we kick off the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. It's hard to believe that this is the start of my third year in the district. It's even harder to believe that we are basically 20 years into the 21st century. And did you know that the construction of this very building, PMHS, began 100 years ago this year? Time passes so quickly, yet thankfully there are many things that stand the test of time. 

Today, I am excited to share the new Strategic Plan that has been collaboratively developed using survey and focus group feedback from students, staff, parents, and community members, research, and a lot of critical thinking by professionals within our organization. It is my hope that through this plan you will see connections to the foundational work of the past few years, connections between my vision and the priorities and values of the Pelham community, and clear connections to the core work of public education in which we have all invested our lives. 

This morning, I want to share a little about my story and how my experiences shaped the educational philosophy that is at the core of who I am as an educator and and why I do what I do.

I went to college in the south, and that’s where I landed my first teaching job -- teaching stringed instruments in rural Pickens County, South Carolina. Born a New Yorker, it was a little strange that the students of the surrounding towns in which I taught, like Liberty, Croswell, Dacusville, and Pumpkinville, who lived in the shadow of Clemson University casually referred to the violin as a fiddle, and the viola as the viola (long I). String bass was just fine, of course, but the cello? What even is that?

Three years later, my husband Patrick and I moved to the Raleigh, North Carolina area where I taught the same thing. What I found there was that those small differences that I had noticed in South Carolina, were nothing compared to the challenges I would face in my new District. 

You see, after cutting my teeth in a rural district, I was now assigned to an urban school where 60% of the students were minority, predominantly black. The content and skills of my curriculum were the same, Every Good Boy still Deserved Fudge, but for the first time in my life, I found myself struggling to bridge a gap that was foreign to me -- a cultural and relational gap between my students and me. 

I grew up in upstate New York in a predominantly white, middle class community. Although my family was on the lower end of the economic ladder, I was white, I had an intact loving family, food on the table, an emotionally safe environment at home, college-educated parents that supported my education in every way, and I got good grades. I tell you these details, because they shaped my culture, and the lens through which I viewed the world and my teaching. 

But in a minority-majority school in North Carolina, my students, for the most part, had none of those privileges, and yes they were privileges. The culture that shaped how my classroom functioned didn't work for them. They were black, they were poor, many came from broken homes, they had gaps in their academic backgrounds, they did not have emotionally safe places outside of school, let alone dedicated quiet places to do homework or practice the violin. 

Plain and simple, I didn't know how to connect with them. And everyone in this room knows, if you can't connect with your students, you can’t teach them. You can tell them all you want about the key of E, or the Battle of Bunker Hill, or Pythagorean Theorem, but you won’t be reaching them.

This was hard for me. So hard in fact that I thought very seriously about quitting. Leaving teaching. Doing something else with my life. 

But after a lot of soul searching and watching teachers around me who were successful with their students, I realized that me leaving education was not the answer. Me changing was. It was that moment that I realized that I needed to get to know my students for who they were, to find not just their deficiencies but their strengths and gifts, and to start to find connections that would facilitate learning of skills, content, and lessons that would translate beyond the classroom. 

A few years later, Patrick and I made our 700-mile trip to return to the Empire State. When I was interviewing with the suburban district where I wound up working, I remember thinking to myself -  “Wait, where are all the students of color?” It was small, but powerful moment where I realized that my “normal” had changed and I knew that I was better for it. 

I wanted to focus on these racial and economic differences today, maybe to make us a little uncomfortable, but also to highlight how culture can be so vastly different and influence not only how we teach, but how we view the world around us. 

In my journey as an educator, from South Carolina, to North Carolina, back to upstate New York, Westchester and Long Island, I learned incredible lessons about the devastating effects of poverty, mental illness, and unemployment on families and communities. I also learned too much about how vulnerable parents and students are without financial, social, or cultural capital in a public school system, how the structure of schooling has traditionally perpetuated inequities in our society, and the need for educators with integrity, who will advocate for students who don't have anyone to advocate for them.

These lessons have been paramount to my work in administration -- particularly in my last job as an assistant superintendent on Long Island and now here in Pelham. I came here three years ago, still not fully formed in my own learning, but as a much different educator than I began. As a community and district we too are not yet fully formed or perfect on these issues. But, I truly believe that we are on the same page about wanting to grow and create an environment for the current and next generations that is more just, more equitable, and more inclusive than that of the past. One where students and staff understand and appreciate differences and can navigate different cultures skillfully, respectfully, honoring the assets of others. One that wants relevant learning, that builds relationships, and makes connections across content and across life. And one that is concerned, more and more about not just the academic outcomes of its students, but about them as well-rounded, balanced, vital human beings. This is the vision of what I always hoped education would be. I suspect and hope this is the same for each of you. 

That vision is captured in the preamble to the new strategic plan that we begin this year. To develop empowered learners that are adaptable, well rounded, who are equipped to meaningfully contribute to society at the local, national, and global level. 

Here are the strategic goals that will outline our work. As you can see, and as you have heard repeatedly though these two days, they focus on the areas of Cultural Competence, Authentic Learning, and Supporting the Whole Child. 

This is not a departure from the direction of the past. It is simply a bridge to the future where we extend 21st century learning skills into authentic realms of application and audience. Where voice and choice are honored and respected for all in both the culture of our school and the design of our programs and curricula. Where we integrate social-emotional learning and networks of support to develop self-management skills in our students and provide the academic and emotional supports for their success. And where students and staff understand the function of culture in our schools and society, the power each of us holds as potential dividers of people, and the tools necessary to disrupt that division and build the inclusive community we strive for. 

Prior to today you received an email with the framework of the new plan, which defines the goals and the action items for the next 18 months. Thank you to the many people that took the time to review the framework and provide feedback through the Thoughtexchange (Thoughtexchange is an online tool used to solicit feedback about a relevant topic). The top themes that surfaced with the most consensus, and that we will work to address as we move the plan forward, are listed above. I will send out a complete listing of ideas later today so that you can see the great thinking and open dialogue that has begun on these topics already. 

Over the last day or so, I hope you are already starting to see what this plan will mean to you and the work of your department or school. As an administrative team, we hope to help make what is aspirational tangible and manageable. This will be the first but not the last time that we will come back to these action items. And as we move forward with this work we will check in and seek feedback periodically so that we can adjust the plan in a way that works for us and our students, always with an eye on these three goals. 

In education, we are famous for our acronyms and our lexicon of educationese. This plan is not short on jargon and terminology. But lest you think these are empty buzzwords thrown in to sound like we are on the cutting edge of educational practice, I want to close by bringing us back to why we really do what we do, and how these so-called buzzwords have true depth and meaning as they are connected to something far more enduring than my years in the district, or any one or two decades, or the life cycle of any school building, no matter how old it is. 

Our work as educators has always been rooted in the power, the privilege, and the responsibility we hold to shape generations of children to be productive citizens of our democracy. Our Constitution, while it may be  as imperfect as we are, is the enduring but ever-evolving beacon that binds us together as a country and a culture, and what has connected us to a higher purpose and calling over centuries. There have been many threats to our democracy over many years. We have overcome them in the past and must continue to do so. But let us not forget that we, more than anyone, hold the power to shape the culture of our country through the culture of our classrooms and our schools. 

We the educators. 

We the people.

We the people - Collaboratively. Inclusively. Empowered with voice and choice. 

In order to form a more perfect union - through Innovation. Adaptability. And Creativity.

Establish justice - Equity. Equality. Fairness. Acceptance. 

And ensure domestic tranquility - through Communication. Problem Solving. And Civil Discourse.

Provide for the common defense - Using Critical Thinking and Service to Society.

Promote the general welfare - by applying Authentic Learning and Cultural Competence to Support and Build Connection. 

Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity - As Agents of change and builders of culture.

We the people. 

We the educators have the power, the privilege and the responsibility to walk this path. I know I would never choose another one. Would you? 

I look forward to walking it with you for the next five year. Thank you. 

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