As assistant principal at Andrew Carnegie Elementary in Chicago’s Woodlawn community, Shirley Roberson works every day to affect change for nearly 600 students. She is a proud, confident educator whose visionary leadership radiates from the first moment you speak with her—but in fact, she never planned or wanted to become an administrator.
Roberson says that when she was first approached by a former principal to join the school’s leadership team after working at Carnegie as a fourth grade teacher for over a decade, she balked.
“My immediate answer was ‘absolutely not’: My passion is with my babies.”
It was only after successfully taking on more responsibility as the head math teacher for every fourth and fifth grade classroom at Carnegie that Roberson realized that she could feel as fulfilled affecting change beyond just her own classroom.
For her, the opportunity was empowering and inspired her to do even more: “I came out of the classroom four years ago and I’ve been in this position ever since.”
Today, discussing the mission for teachers and administrators at Carnegie, Roberson is as clear as she is determined: “Equity is our number one priority.”
“We are a predominantly African-American school; however, there’s diversity even within the African-American culture of the students that attend here. We want to give everyone an equitable chance at success, no matter what that looks like for that student.”
She added, “If they want to step into a career, if they want to go to college, we’re meeting them where they are and giving them the resources that so many of our students lack when they attend schools that are predominantly African American.”
For her part, Roberson supports student success at her school by enabling educators to live up to their full potential. For example, every year, Roberson tries to recruit teachers to become National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs), participating in a national two-year intensive program designed to make sure that educators’ instructional practices align with national standards and best practices. This former program was brought to Chicago through a collaboration between The Fund, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
Her recommendation of the program comes from personal experience: “Although it was strenuous, it was very well worth my time because of the growth that I saw, not just in my professional practice, but also in my students. It wasn’t just about scoring higher on a test, but the connection that I made with my students, and really understanding my craft.”
Even now as an administrator without her own classroom, she continues to renew her NBCT certification as a symbolic gesture showing her dedication to the high-quality teaching: “If I have to be in front of a crowd of adults, and I am teaching them what best practices are and look like, I have to make sure that my instructional practices are aligned to what national board standards state.”
By modeling a dedication to the highest level of teaching, Roberson hopes to inspire and motivate the teachers on her teaching team. For teachers undergoing rigorous professional development and receiving feedback, she stated, “I was able to let them know those red marks and revisions are what’s going to make you who you are when you come out on the other side.”
She summarized, “All true learning comes by the way of change. And I had to change myself, send myself through this sort of metamorphosis, and reflect on my own craft to know I can be better.”
Changing—continually reflecting on how to become a better educator—has been central to how Roberson and Carnegie have responded to remote learning and challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.
At the beginning of the switch to remote learning in spring 2020, their administrative team made sure to reach out to staff, students and families, emphasizing the importance of taking care of one’s own mental health. They also increased regular communications with families by increasing the frequency of their school newsletters.
Roberson’s own daughter attends Carnegie as a third grader, giving her helpful perspectives on how to understand and address the school community’s needs. When uncertainty was high and families were looking for answers, she says she regularly asked herself: “If I was a parent, what would I need to hear right now from administrators to feel okay?”
When students were set to come back remotely at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, she and her team leapt into action, crafting an equitable plan that would ensure that all students were able to learn. Roberson said that luckily, because Carnegie had been a one-to-one technology school since 2012, and developed a Balanced Literacy Program before the pandemic, the students at the school were able to adjust.
“Having a Chromebook in front of them, going on a site, meeting with their teachers on Google meets: prior to this school year, they were familiar with that,” she said, “The only thing that we had to get our babies prepared to do was stay on the duration of the time that we needed them to stay on.”
She emphasized that even in the remote and hybrid environment, she and her team are working as hard as possible with the background they have to make sure that all students are receiving high-quality, equitable instruction. “It’s not just ‘log on and do the work I’m assigned,’” she stated. “It’s meaningful activities that they’ve been learning to implement since 2012.”
But no matter the circumstances, she will continue to help lead Carnegie as an educator focused on honing her craft and keeping students first. “I know at this point in time, I am where God has led me to be,” she shared. “I am elated to be able to affect change on a broader scale.”