SCHOOLS | December 3, 2020
By Dr. Maria Campos, Principal of Lozano Elementary
My mother-in-law opens her “Tamal University” only about once a year. She gathers all the grandchildren and shows them how to make tamales for Christmas.
Family traditions—like so many parts of our day-to-day lives—are opportunities for learning. If one of our children decides they want to be a chef from those experiences, and they put in the work to reach that goal, that is a success story.
If a sixth grader in Chicago whose parents are tamale vendors decides they want to be a neuroscientist, and they put in the work to reach that goal, that is also a success story.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’ve never met anyone with a deep passion for something who has been unsuccessful. That doesn’t mean that every day—or even every year—will be a success. I’m an elementary school principal who spent quite a few years in an unfulfilling job in corporate management. But if you love to do something, the rest will follow and the puzzle pieces will come together.
That’s why I always tell my parents that their children are my responsibility for seven hours minimum. They’re my chickies; I’m their mama, and all my work is centered around them.
Preparing them to be successful in career and in life is a lot like cooking. You can make a meal with three ingredients, but it probably won’t be very good. Helping students find the ingredients—the skills, passions, and curiosities—that they bring to the table is key.
Above all else, this starts with treating our students’ native languages as assets rather than limitations. As a school leader, your entire perspective will change when your conversations with your kids revolve around the doors that their cultural backgrounds will open rather than the doors that will close.
This similarly holds true for students who may have academic challenges. When you focus on your students’ abilities as a foundation, you can partner with them to build upon what they already know and work toward mastering the skill or concept at hand.
You can also always add new ingredients to your pantry. At Lozano, this often comes in the form of strategic partnerships. I work with Junior Achievement of Chicago to plan career days for my students. Every Thursday, thanks to partnerships with Working in the Schools and Exelon, my fourth graders get to meet accountants, attorneys, and project managers as their reading buddies.
These opportunities are important because they provide exposure to a variety of careers and help students start to think about long-term goals that they might have. Still, equity gaps often keep these goals from being realized.
Through my participation in the district’s Great Expectations Mentoring (GEM) Program, I was able to work with other Latinx leaders on solutions to how these issues are persisting in our own district. I learned that one out of every 10 CPS students indicate teaching as a potential career interest before they graduate high school, yet our current workforce is not fully reflective of our diverse student population.
From my point of view, the link that is missing is mentoring and career guidance. When I prepare my eighth-grade students for high school, I always tell them: “Choose where you want to go. Do not let the high school choose you.”
In the same way, before students can have the confidence to say: “This is the career that is right for me. I am going to achieve this goal,” they need a mentor who affirms their potential and sticks with them every step of the way. Otherwise, when something doesn’t go according to plan, the student could draw inaccurate conclusions about their capabilities and give up on their dream.
Over the next few years, I am excited to keep a close eye on the district’s Teach Chicago Tomorrow program. With its commitments to equity, student-centered supports, and mentorship, I believe that it is an important step forward in helping more of our students reach their career aspirations and can be replicated in the future for other high-need positions.
I also hope that the district develops additional ways for students to master important skills, such as giving strong responses to interview questions or creating stellar presentations, before they graduate with their high school diploma. I know from my own experiences that these are ingredients that they will use time and time again.
School leadership is a powerful combination of learning, changing lives, and mentoring. If we can funnel all three of those attributes into helping our students prepare for their futures, we can create a success story for every single one of them.
Dr. Maria Campos is a Chicago native and has been the principal of Lozano Elementary for 10 years. She is currently writing her first book with her son, a project that reflects her belief that students should have rich, culturally diverse books that generate a love for reading.