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The View From TC: Fariña is an Educator's Chancellor

fBy Joe Levine

Carmen Fariña, the new Chancellor of the New York City public school system, has worked extensively with the TC Reading and Writing Project and served on the Board of the College’s Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Principals. Public officials have certainly been known to tack in new directions when they take on larger roles, but the leaders of these TC programs believe Fariña’s past track record provides a clear indication of how she’ll run the nation’s largest school system.

“Carmen respects teachers and educators, and she believes the school system should be in the hands of teachers and educators,” said the Reading and Writing Project’s Founding Director Lucy Calkins, TC’s Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature, who has worked with Fariña for more than two decades.

“She believes that school culture really matters,” said Cahn Fellows founder and benefactor Charles Cahn, who used the word “enormous” to described Fariña’s influence on the program. “It was because of Carmen that we modified our curriculum to include a session on climate and culture. She also believes that the principal is critical to how well a school does. I think she’ll make the role of the principal even more significant.”

“Carmen respects and profoundly understands teaching and learning,” said Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, who was colleague of Fariña’s in New York City District 2. “We have never had someone like that as Chancellor. It is important because changing teaching and learning is the most difficult thing to do in education.”

Fariña, a former New York City teacher, principal, regional superintendent and, most recently, Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, serving as number 2 to Chancellor Joel Klein until her retirement in 2006, was born in Spain and immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. The experience of entering school as a non-English-speaking student profoundly shaped Fariña’s philosophy as an educator, she recalls in the 2008 book she co-authored with Laura Kotch, A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating Our Way to Better Schools (Heinemann, 2008), to which Calkins wrote the forward.

“My kindergarten teacher consistently marked me absent when I didn’t respond to the name she consistently mispronounced during roll call,” writes Fariña. "In a very real sense, my father was my first teacher. He accompanied me to school and insisted in his own quiet way that my kindergarten teacher repeat the correct pronunciation of my name after him so that she would honor his daughter’s presence in her classroom. The marginalization I felt because of my teacher’s inability or unwillingness to pronounce my foreign last name has remained with me and has created my deep commitment to welcoming, nurturing and personalizing every student, teacher and principal from the first time we meet through the entire time we work together.”

To those who have seen her in action, Fariña’s early experiences have translated into an insistence on teaching that taps students’ passions and welcomes the challenges they pose to received wisdom. 

“I recall first meeting her in the mid 1980s when I visited her sixth-grade classroom in Brooklyn to observe a lesson demonstrating arts integration,” said Ancess. “She was a teacher at the time. As part of a social studies unit on South Africa, the students were discussing Kaffir Boy, the autobiography of a black youth living under apartheid. The debate was so vigorous, the students were so involved, and Carmen's questions were so stimulating and challenging that it was hard to believe that the students were sixth graders. I remember thinking that they seemed more like unusually short college students. The experience provided an indelible image of great teaching and learning.” 

What Fariña is not, observers seem to agree, is an ideologue. “She’s forthright, and she has a strong point of view on the things she cares about, which is making schools succeed and ensuring that kids get a really good education,” Cahn said. “She knows the school system, and what a good teacher is and a good principal is. So she lets you know where she stands – but she’s willing to hear others’ points of view.”

Calkins added that the new Chancellor will be unafraid “to say that the emperor has no clothes,” particularly when it comes to taking stock of policies “that look good on paper but are impossible or absurd to implement,” such as a directives that currently require principals to conduct hundreds of classroom observations during the school year or to spend so much time sifting through student data that “they have no time left to actually learn about students from students’ work.

“People say she’s blunt and plainspoken, and it’s true,” said Calkins. “She’s not afraid to say ‘No’ – and she’ll say ‘No’ as much as she needs to in order to be able to say ‘Yes’ to what she really believes in.”

Yet even as she champions flexible teaching and individualized instruction, Fariña also believes in the power of school-wide and system-wide approaches. 

“Throughout her career, there have been so many ways that she has used systems to enable collaboration and the sharing of resources – and that’s been foundational to how the Reading and Writing Project works,” said Calkins.

For example, as principal of PS 6 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Fariña appointed a lead teacher for each subject at each grade. The lead teachers then came together in “k-5 articulation teams” for each subject so as to ensure continuity and to avoid duplication across grades. “To make sure that teachers across the school learned from each other and that good ideas were regularly shared, Carmen also wanted grade-level cohorts groups of teachers to function as think tanks,” Calkins said. “So she gave all her teachers an extended lunch four days a week in return for one lunch a week being reserved for teachers across a grade level to collaborate together during a working lunch. Those grade-specific working lunches were scheduled on different days of the week so that Carmen could join each one.”

Fariña also rechristened the principal’s “walk through” — which in many schools had become time when school leaders walk through a building, checklist in hand, noting everything that was not yet happening — into “ Glory Walks.”

“Her goal was to find the beauty, the pockets of rigor,” Calkins said. “And then she’d send people from across the building and the City to learn from that work so that those practices would spread.”

Asking teachers to think and study and talk together so they develop common practices is part of the new chancellor’s deep commitment to creating learning cultures within a school, district or system, said Calkins, whom Fariña looked to as a mentor. “Carmen is all about making sure that everyone’s learning curve is sky-high—including her own. She is an avid learner, and believe that schools need to be places where administers, staff, parents, teachers, and children all learn to outgrow themselves.”

Calkins, whom Fariña  has called her mentor, says Fariña’s approaches profoundly influenced her own thinking. “Earlier in my career, I thought of systems as constraining and limiting, but Carmen helped me to think of them as life-giving. Whereas I had previously encouraged each teacher to invent his or her own curriculum, I learned from Carmen that it would be life-giving and generative for not only Teacher A to be teaching essay writing in December, but also Teachers B and C. That way they could be supported by the system and by each other. The concept of shared units of study, anchored by collaborative study, began with Carmen’s leadership.”

Fariña’s stances on a number of other issues are well documented. She believes strongly in professional development for teachers. In addition, she is an advocate of workshop teaching; her support for a rich approach to social studies includes an emphasis on social justice; she’s been vocal about the importance of the arts; and she has championed a diverse student mix in classrooms (she disbanded the gifted and talented program at PS 6). Fariña also believes that while standardized testing has a place, the practice is limited in its ability to reflect students’ abilities or diagnose their needs.

Fariña also is “famous for being sure that parents are at the table,” Calkins said. “Since her retirement from the role of Deputy Chancellor, she worked part time with the Reading and Writing Project to mentor school principals. She developed something of a specialty in helping principals forge vibrant relationships with their parent-groups, and was often brought in to talk to the parent body at a school.  There is no question that the tone of the system’s relationship with parents will change markedly.

“I’m sure she’s not going to spend her time sitting in the office,” Calkins said. “She’ll be visiting schools, community meetings, thinking together with principals, working with children whenever she can.  She’ll do everything she can to develop a vision that comes from a lot of listening.”

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