By Ann Schimke
Michelle Chambers had an eighth-grade teacher who pushed her to enroll in an advanced high school program. In ninth grade, after months of struggle, another teacher urged her to quit.
But Chambers didn’t quit. Instead, she became one of 35 students to complete the program, later becoming the first in her family to graduate from college.
“I understand … what it feels like to have one teacher believe in me and what it feels like to push myself beyond anything I imagined,” said Chambers, now an assistant principal of the online elementary program in the Cherry Creek district, southeast of Denver.
Chambers, one of two administrators named 2021 Colorado Outstanding Assistant Principal of the Year for elementary school, recently helped start a mentorship program for other aspiring Latina education leaders through the Colorado Association of Latino/a Administrators and Superintendents.
She talked to Chalkbeat about how the pandemic changed parent-teacher relationships, why online learning will endure, and what advice her mentor gave her that she took to heart.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first education job, and what sparked your interest in the field?
As a young child, I regularly invited my cousins to “play” school, and I was always the teacher. My favorite elementary teacher was Mrs. Lane. She made second grade so magical that I remember crying when I had to leave her classroom to go to third grade. She was so influential that when I taught second grade, I did many of the same activities, including reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” watching the original movie as a celebration, and making individual chocolate bars with an authentic golden ticket for each student.
My first education job was as a second-grade teacher in the Cherry Creek district. I went on to serve as a fourth-grade teacher, a gifted and talented specialist, an elementary differentiation coach, and an assistant principal.
What led you to be the first college graduate in your family? What challenges did you face along the way?
Even though I loved learning, it did not come easy to me. I also experienced test anxiety. From kindergarten through middle school, I took basic courses, often needed extra support, and earned low scores on standardized tests. During eighth grade, my social studies teacher saw something in me and nominated me for the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. To my surprise, I was accepted.
During my freshman year, I struggled in algebra. I went to my teacher’s office hours during lunch every day for months. I also spent four hours each Saturday at Sylvan Learning Center. After eight months, my mathematics teacher told me that even though I was putting in the extra effort, she didn’t think I had what it took to complete her course or the IB program. She said, “You can’t do it, and you should quit.”
Rather than quit, I persevered. I enrolled in an algebra course at a local community college the following summer and gained the skills needed to continue. My IB cohort was the first at my high school — starting with 75 students our freshman year. I was one of 35 who graduated from that first cohort. As a result of my experiences, I understand what it feels like to struggle, what it feels like to have one teacher believe in me, and what it feels like to push myself beyond anything I imagined.
Under your leadership, the district launched a new online elementary school. Given that young students sometimes have trouble learning remotely, how did you address that?
Thousands of families chose online school last summer. We quickly realized that all students, especially primary students, were more engaged during interactive lessons with real-world and personal connections. As a result, we began researching applications that teachers could use to ensure that students had the opportunity to share their thinking and voice. Overall, our primary students have shown incredible willingness to learn in an online setting.
Is there a remote lesson you’ve watched a teacher give online that sticks out to you as particularly creative or innovative?
To make a lesson on number bonds — simple addition facts — fun and engaging for kindergarten students, one teacher made a number bond “monster.” As a reward, students were invited to help the teacher choose different numbers to “feed the monster.” While the teacher fed the monster, the students and teacher made the sounds of the monster eating. Everyone, including myself, giggled while watching the monster eat the numbers.
In an online environment, parents or caregivers can listen in on their children’s lessons. What is the impact of this?
One of the many gifts that presented itself this school year was how much the relationship between educators and parents evolved into a true partnership. Rather than just meeting during regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences, many teachers and families found time, with the flexibility of the online schedule, to meet as needed throughout the school year. Parent-teacher conference time also looked different online since many parents were familiar with the daily instruction and helped their children complete assignments.
Do you think education will look different after the pandemic? If so, how?
I believe that online and blended learning will be a part of our world in some shape or form. Many educators and families have mentioned how much they love the flexibility that online learning provides. Teachers and parents have commented that they enjoy how their children can focus on learning with fewer opportunities for disruptive social behaviors during class.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.
As a beginning educator, I focused on building meaningful relationships with students within the walls of my classroom. I soon discovered that my relationships with students’ families were integral. After meeting and spending time with the family of a fourth-grade student during goal-setting meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and while attending his extracurricular activities, I found ways to support his entire family. I taught his little brother, invited his older sister to complete her volunteer hours in my classroom, and helped his mother explore career opportunities.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
As a Cherry Creek delegate for the Colorado Association of Latino/a Administrators and Superintendents, I participate in a Latina Leadership Networking group. Our group is reading the book “The Power of Latino Leadership” by Juana Bordas. The content includes learning more about culturally specific leadership principles, such as Conciencia — knowing oneself and personal awareness; De Colores — inclusiveness and diversity; Juntos — collective community stewardship; and Gozar la Vida — leadership that celebrates life.
What’s the best advice about educational leadership that you ever received?
When I was building confidence about sharing my voice as an educator, a beloved mentor shared simple but profound words of wisdom, “Michelle, just remember, if nobody else says it, who will?”
From that moment on, I vowed that I would use my voice to advocate for students, staff, and families. Soon after, I found myself in a team meeting discussing instructional rigor. I expressed my belief that we could provide more depth and complexity, and that our students could meet our expectations. Even though some of my colleagues said we were doing enough and had given students all they could handle, I continued to advocate for the best possible education for each student.
Ann Schimke is a Senior Reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado.
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