Teacher Perspective: Removing the Caution Tape


In the final stretch of a school year, the only thing a teacher can think about is that last bell, on that last day, of that last short (but very long) week. That moment when your hard-earned summer break is within reach. The emails landing in your inbox are usually just reminders of all the things you need to check off before closing the door on another year. That is, unless your principal is Dr. Jackie Menoni. For Dr. Menoni, the door never closes. The work of building up a school in CPS isn’t about just one open door, but many. And even in the last days of a school year, she’s always thinking about the next, and how to actualize a vision that reaches even further into the future.

So I wasn’t surprised when I received an email from her, in that last week of school, with a quick note: “I think this is right up your alley.” It was an opportunity to apply for a teacher leadership fellowship with Teach Plus and their new Chicago initiative called “Change Agent.” I thought to myself, “There must be something she sees in this program that fits what she sees in me.” Upon investigating the opportunity, I immediately saw she was right. The program empowers teachers to drive the change they want to see in their own schools. She was encouraging me to take a bigger step in my growth as a teacher with a program that I knew I could not only get behind, but jump into with enthusiasm. Dr. Menoni was right; this was totally up my alley.

A couple of weeks into the summer, she met with me to hear the change I wanted to make and give me honest feedback in how to accomplish it. It was never an island project to her, but an important piece of her own vision and goals for the school. I felt like my own professional development was tied to the vision and goals she had for the school. That inclusive attitude remained consistent throughout the entire year. She opened a door for me and did her best to see to it that I walked through it with the support I needed. She believed in the change I was working to achieve and gave me space to take risks and fail safely. Together, we saw students reach new and incredible heights. With a focus on math attainment in the 3rd-5th grade, we saw students in that grade band close the attainment gap. In September, only 29 percent of third through fifth graders were on grade-level; by June, 43 percent of students were on grade-level!

When I think about my time under Dr. Menoni’s leadership, the best analogy is that she helps me remove the caution tape and encourages me to take the risks needed to grow and make a greater impact. She cares about her staff and thinks carefully about the opportunities that align with each of our goals, both as a teacher and a teacher leader. She knows how to build leaders. She focuses on each individual’s strengths and empowers them to take a piece of the vision to make Diego a better place for kids to grow and learn every day. I’m proud to be a part of the work she is leading at Jose De Diego!

Michelle Velez is a 3rd grade teacher in her 6th year at Jose De Diego AcademyShe was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Change Agent.