At the beginning of third grade, Robert Spencer’s mother hopped on a bus with him for the long journey from their home in the projects of Wilmington, N.C. to Vallejo, California. The move to California was prompted by a desire to raise her son in a diverse, accepting community. That commitment is one that Spencer has carried throughout his life and exemplifies in his career choice every day—as the vice president of schools at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.
To learn more about this school leader of color, I sat down with him for a Q&A.
What made you first want to work in the education field?
After I decided I would not go to medical school, I joined Teach for America (TFA). In short, I remember creating a poster for a lesson I needed to present as a part of the TFA recruitment process. Although I had never taken any education courses, nor planned to teach, I gave it my best. My experience, as an eighth grade English and social studies teacher in North Carolina, watered and nurtured the budding educator inside me! I loved it, even though I was broke with student loans and other bills that the 25-year-old me had to figure out. I joined the U.S. Army to get some experience and pay off my college loans. Afterwards, I returned to education again as an eighth grade humanities teacher. I reunited with the future love of my life — doing all I could to provide an inspiring educational experience to poor and underserved young people. I taught for two years in Maryland while working on my Master’s of Secondary Education at Johns Hopkins University. Teaching young people from impoverished and often dangerous neighborhoods, setting high expectations inside the classroom and through my ROTC club, challenged those same seeds to root, sprout, bushel, and take hold. During my third year of teaching, I applied to New Leaders for New Schools to become an urban school principal because I believed I could have greater impact if I could create the conditions in my classroom and my hallway section school wide. I imagined I could positively impact the outcomes of young people struggling to escape poverty. This opportunity also allowed me to finally return to California Bay Area, where it began!
Describe how you were able to navigate the education field to get to your current position?
Although I started as a middle school English Teacher, and trained to be an urban school leader, I thought the principal job was the most challenging and rewarding job I could ever attain. From there, I felt the call to coach and develop school leaders. After facilitating a school turn-around, investing in a new community and opening two new schools there, I started building my experience by training my on-site staff, coaching two New Leaders' Resident Principals, and preparing two teachers to become principals at the schools I opened. With that experience under my belt, two esteemed colleagues encouraged me to apply for the Vice President of Schools position at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy (CNCA) under Ana Ponce's leadership. Thus, I have been coaching and supervising eight CNCA school leaders of pre-k to 12th grades since the summer of 2016 in downtown Los Angeles.
Why is diversity in education important?
As I started to absorb the nutrients in the foundation of our country's history, and more deeply began to understand the ploy to enrapture people of color in an endless, evolving struggle for sunlight in the darkest city corners and rural cotton-fields, I surfaced a desire to arm those same people with the gift of learning how to learn. Honestly, I believed and still believe, this gift of learning is the ultimate gift because whatever thirst a sapling in the concrete yearned, arming it with the ability to learn how to meet that need is invaluable—and my passion is finding ways to help as many as possible meet their needs.
Diversity in school leadership helps school teams understand the diverse community they serve sooner if those teammates have similar shared experiences, values, and cultural awareness. As I climbed the educational ladder, I found out that if only the majority continued to purchase the curriculum, hire the school team, and create the conditions for a school community similarly to state and federal expectations, which did an excellent job of limiting access for poor people, especially, poor people of color, then it would be challenging to grow and establish a different school experience! Hence, I followed my own advice and used my gift of “learning how” to learn to figure out ways to engage a diverse group of adults in one of the toughest parts of Sacramento and to turn a struggling school destined to close into one of the best elementary schools in California in the early 2000s. I partnered with my students, teachers, staff, and families to determine what their needs were and what they valued. Also, given my school community’s circumstances and seeing that we had shared experiences, figuring out how to meet their needs and provide a college preparatory education was a little easier. This five-year experience transformed the lives of everyone involved and solidified my belief in spreading this type of opportunity to as many school communities as possible.
Why does representation matter?
A professor at the University of Virginia once said to me, ". . .you know 0 plus 0 is still zero Robert." Such profound words embarrassed me and simultaneously motivated me to see things in the world that I had not even fathomed existed and shaped this country's landscape. A lack of diversity atop politics, business, and education has prospered generations of failing schools that serve communities of poor people of color. Why? Well, if all local, federal, and state politicians were required to send their kids to the poorest and lowest performing schools in their districts, then I do not think our current education system would still repeat its patterns of injustice. The majority, especially those in the top 10 percent, would be forced to partner with the systematically disenfranchised to build high performing schools that their children could thrive in too. Through partnership, many of the needs of the majority and the poor would surface, and both of their educational experiences would be more fulfilling—truly engaging and not just for survival.
Again, it is hard to become a master of navigating an experience one has never successfully overcome. Our school systems in poor, underserved communities will continue to spiral and result in similar outcomes until the people who have successfully survived them have input on the conditions, curriculum, and hires needed to support the diversity they are situated in. Representation in the education system really means empowering adults who serve—because they understand (or seek to understand) their community's historical laden barriers and current realities. Educators of color, or those who serve people of color, must recognize that surfacing disenfranchised voices and needs is consistently challenging, but always the right thing to do. Thus, the educator who has similar experiences and values the voices of those they serve does not start with zero. They can contribute perspectives, strategies and tactics that will yield informed educational experiences and conditions for the diverse communities in poor urban and rural America.
As a Black male educator, what bar do you hope to set for others in education?
I practice, and truly believe in setting high expectations for myself and others, as well as "modeling the way" in every aspect of educating young people. I hope to continue to facilitate capacity building in the adults of any school team or district I guide, support, and lead. I feel a tremendous responsibility as an educator of color to unveil the hidden rules that coat the ladders of success. I believe adults in schools need clear expectations and professional development that helps them meet students' standards-based content needs, social and emotional developmental needs, and that teaches them America's code of conduct. We must squeeze all of this into the pre-school through 12th grade experience while simultaneously motivating those same students to become productive citizens who see education reform as a civic responsibility. At minimum, any student, family, or teammate matriculating through a school or school district I co-lead will know that education reform has direct and indirect local, state, and national consequences. Incorporating all of these into my school community experience raises the bar for all stakeholders who contribute to our successes and challenges.
Describe the importance of minority teachers in classrooms.
When poor, urban and rural students of color grow up with limited images of success, and many times a sub-culture that devalues an educational experience, their identity and culture, teachers of color are often bridled and entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. Teachers of color must safely remove America's veils and engage all students in the evolution of this country and world regardless of the barriers firmly situated along their path. Minority teachers consciously and subconsciously represent so much more than they often desire to, or feel is necessary. They are always evidence of an achieved step towards the American Dream, as they have the power to affect one of the most impactful systems in this country—our education system. All educators of color, and any adult in a school community, must view their opportunity as a moral imperative to provide equitable access to a reformed educational experience.
In what ways has your charter school supported your professional growth?
The learning and growth opportunities I have experienced in charter schools have been immense and targeted. I learned various leadership strategies and tactics to develop all teammates, especially teachers and teacher leaders. I have received specific support to ensure every content area was addressed via the best teaching and learning practices at those respective times. I was encouraged to innovate on best practices to ensure we made the best use of every instructional minute we had.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Thank you Robert Spencer for giving this teacher and future leader an opportunity to learn and develop. Thank you for sharing your story, leading with integrity and remaining loyal to your ultimate boss. Nice blog post too...