Closing the Achievement Gap with Principal Jessica Gomez (Ep 32)

September 21, 2020 / By

Jessica Gomez is currently the Proud Principal and Chief Storyteller of Alice Birney Elementary School in the Colton Joint Unified School District. She has 19 years of experience serving Title I communities, 11 of those as an elementary school principal. Jessica is a leader that strives to have her passion and tenacity compel those in her presence to transform school cultures and climates. She is relentless in inspiring her students and staff to develop as leaders, be risk-takers, innovators, and champions in breaking down barriers of poverty and inequity. Jessica has a passion for creating a literacy-rich school environment, a school culture where students and staff feel appreciated, loved and supported. No matter what our roles are in education, Jessica’s hope is that she can inspire others to be the best they can be, for themselves and for our students. She loves to read and is passionate about being a life-long learner. She believes in the power of being a connected educator by building Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) through the use of social media. You can follow Jessica on Instagram and Twitter @mrsjessgomez and visit her blog at mrsjessicagomez.com.

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Transcript

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. Nathan here. I’m really excited to announce who our guest is today on the show. We have Jessica Gomez. This was such a fantastic podcast. Jessica was very vulnerable. She talked about her journey in becoming an educator. She talked about her support for her teachers, especially during the pandemic. We talked about inequities in education. I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode, especially during this time that we’re in. A little bit about Jessica. Jessica Gomez is currently the proud principal and chief storyteller at Alice Birney Elementary School in the Colton Joint Unified School District in California. She has 19 years of experience serving Title I communities, 11 of those as an elementary school principal. Jessica is a leader that strives to have her passion and tenacity compel those in her presence to transform school cultures and climates.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: She is relentless in inspiring her students and staff to develop as leaders, be risk-takers, innovators and champions, and breaking down barriers of poverty and inequity. Jessica has a passion for creating a literacy-rich school environment, a school culture where students and staff feel appreciated, loved and supported. No matter what our roles are in education, Jessica’s hope is that she can inspire others to be the best they can be for themselves and for our students. She loves to read and is passionate about being a lifelong learner. She believes in the power of being a connected educator by building professional learning networks through the use of social media. You can follow Jessica on Instagram and Twitter @MrsJessGomez. You can visit her blog at mrsjessicagomez.com. Hey Jessica, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Jessica Gomez: Thank you so much for having me. It’s quite an honor to be able to share with your audience and your team.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh my goodness. You know, I first met you just a few weeks ago for our WeVideo leadership round table. What you were sharing was just really resonating with me. I think it’s just it’s so impressive, the attitude and the leadership and just the positivity that you display, especially during this time.

Jessica Gomez: Thank you. It’s not during just this time, right? It should be always, right?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yup.

Jessica Gomez: But more than anything, during this time, we need to definitely elevate the level of leadership and elevate the level of passion because we have our teams that we’re leading and our communities that we’re leading. This is our opportunity to really let it come through.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. I love what you just said, you’re already throwing these truth bombs around with it’s not like during this time. I mean, you established the foundation before this time. I think that’s so important because if we didn’t have the foundation started prior to the pandemic, I think there would be a lot of miscommunication and lack of communication and chaos and things happen. Once the foundation is established, then you’re able to pivot and you’re able to support even during the most traumatic and stressful times. I mean, tell us more about how, because I can tell you’re definitely a leader that really focuses on social-emotional learning and relationships. I’d love to hear more about how that style has really led you as a leader and as educator.

Jessica Gomez: I think it all starts with my passion. When I first decided I was going to become a teacher, I just knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl. I mean, you hear, right? That, oh yeah, I used to play school et cetera, et cetera. I did a lot of that. I love to read. I loved all that. I loved going to school. I would cry when I couldn’t go to school. I was one of those kids. But as I grew older, I started to see that there was a bigger purpose for me in terms of not just being a teacher, but what I can do, what impact I can have. Because what I saw was I come from immigrant parents who didn’t really know the educational system in the United States. What I had to do is I had to advocate for myself a lot of the time because my parents just didn’t know how to navigate that. Of course, thank goodness for teachers in our lives and making an impact on a student, right. Specifically, a student of color because I didn’t have those connections.

Jessica Gomez: I didn’t have those role models in my family, in my immediate or my extended family to show me the way to go to college, to show me the way that these are the classes you’re going to want to take, because this is going to make your application stronger. I didn’t have any of that. I depended on my teachers to help me through that. Luckily, they saw something in me that they took extra time to help guide and navigate, help me navigate the system of getting into college. As I moved into, I just knew that I wanted to be an educator because what I wanted to do was come back and work into Title I communities that where I saw myself, I saw my parents and I saw the opportunity for me to impact in big ways because I understood what their experiences were. Coming home, speaking Spanish primarily at home, and then navigating the English at school and having to dominate the English language to a high level of success, it can be challenging. That’s where I saw my role and that’s where my passion started.

Jessica Gomez: As a leader now, I was that way as a teacher and I’m that way as a leader. I see myself and my parents and my experience in so many of our families and our students. I want to be that leader that I always wanted, or the leaders that I had that I want to emulate. I let that passion come out. I let it come out as a kid, as an adult, as a teacher, and now as leader. I just feel like that’s always going to lead what I do, which is my way of making impacts in our communities.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That’s amazing, Jessica. Your story is so inspiring. What jumps out at me, a lot of things actually, but I love the sense of self you have, the sense of what your purpose is. I also love how you’re able to reflect on your past experiences and be able to see your journey and what is going to lead you to where you are now. I’m interested to hear about, you talked about your teachers were a sense of inspiration for you. Obviously, they had an impact on you because of what you chose to do with your talents and with your expertise in the world of education. Was there one particular teacher that you think really inspired you and supported you? Do you have one that you attribute to, someone who was a mentor in your life?

Jessica Gomez: Yeah, actually. It was actually my Spanish teacher in high school. It really wasn’t until high school really that I actually saw and really connected with a teacher of color. She was Latina also. I don’t know if she saw herself in me and she wanted to see me succeed. She was a UCLA graduate. She said, you know Jessica… That’s why I’ve always wanted to go to UCLA, because as a kid living in an urban community in East L.A., they took us on a field trip there one time. That just takes me to the power field trips, right. I’d never left my community. They took us literally, I mean, East L.A. and West L.A. is like, I don’t know, 10 miles apart, but I had never left East L.A. It just was always in my head that I want to go there. I want to go there. Luckily, lo and behold, here’s my Spanish teacher who went there and she helped me. She said, Jessica, I’m going to help you write your personal statement.

Jessica Gomez: This is what you’re going to need to do. We’re going to fill out the application. She literally held my hand through the whole process. I think to myself, wow, had it not been for this lady, I don’t know that I would have been at UCLA or even believed in myself to go to UCLA. She was at the time where she was segregated when she had to go to school here in California. Mexican kids had to go to separate schools. She would tell me, you know Jessica, I had to go to school on the other side of the railroad tracks, but look at me now. That inspired me significantly. It impacted me significantly to the point of where I am now.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it’s so wonderful that your Spanish teacher was able to, one to provide those authentic experiences and just the power of a college visit and just the power of seeing a new place. Even beyond that, her ability to really connect with her students and obviously connect with you in a way that you felt empowered. She helped kind of see parts of you maybe that you didn’t see in yourself. I don’t know if that’s an accurate.

Jessica Gomez: Yeah, I would say so, because I don’t know that I would have believed in myself the way she saw me. I literally only applied to two colleges. I think back now, and I kind of want to kick myself because gosh, I should have applied to so many. Harvard and all of these elite schools, but I only applied to two. One that was right near my house. Then two, UCLA, at an off chance that I might get in, right? Because leaving home was not something that we did in Latino families. That’s not typically what you do if there’s not been that example. I literally had to beg and cry to my parents to let me go once I was accepted. These were all things that I had to navigate and I didn’t know how. I had this person in my life, this teacher in my life who helped see, helped me navigate those things that I had never experienced and no one in my family has ever experienced.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: This is so wonderful. Now I know from what I’ve read about you and what you’ve shared, you really have a passion for breaking down the barriers that we have in our society and how that’s reflected in our education world, especially with inequities and with poverty. There’s such a huge gap right now of resources. I’m curious about how are you currently addressing that in your role, because now that you are, I love how you call yourself the chief storyteller and the proud principal of your school. How are you actively tackling these gaps and these inequities?

Jessica Gomez: I think having conversations with staff about let’s think about this. If a child is not turning their camera on, let’s think about why that would be. Let’s have a conversation about what we expect, but also let’s have a sensitive conversation about what might be happening in that home. If I have students who live in a motel and our district says, you get one hotspot per family but there’s five kids in that motel room. One hotspot is just not going to do it. Right. Then as a leader, I’d say, we’re going to have to do what we have to do to make sure that those kids are online. You give them two and three hotspots, right? Whatever it is that they need, then we give it to them.

Jessica Gomez: We do that by having strong connections and conversations with our staff where they know, hey, Jessica, hey Felicia, which is my assistant principal. This family needs X, Y, and Z. What can we do for them? Absolutely. We’re on it. Anything that we can do to help close that achievement gap, because it’s one thing like we don’t close the equity gap with distance learning with just giving them a Chromebook and a hotspot, right. I mean, that’s just like the bare necessities of what you need, but what are we doing with that? What kind of experiences are we providing for our students? I said, hey, I gave every teacher… I said, look, we’re going to start with $500. I want you to order inclusive books, diverse books that you can include into your lessons. I want you to build your classroom libraries.

Jessica Gomez: Even though we’re in a virtual format, I want you to use those $500 to buy books that are specifically culturally relevant to our community that are specifically, that they can see themselves in those books, that they’re diverse. We have to be very intentional about how we spend our money and what we’re trying to achieve. Those are just a few little examples that I can think of off the top of my head, but really, the biggest thing that I can do is just advocate for our families, advocate for our students, and continue to have true dialogue with our staff and community.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It’s interesting. I think it’s because you’re so humble and you use the phrase, those little things. Actually, they’re huge things. I know what you mean, though. You’re obviously seeing the power of simple decisions in kind of the “small things.” But what you’re doing is such a huge thing education, because it takes courage. It takes the kind of awareness of where we are in education. It takes awareness of the relationship with your community to know what does our community need? What do our kids need in order to find role models? Like you say, you have culturally relevant curriculum materials for our students. I think you are making these huge strides in education. I love how you’re so deeply connected with your community.

Jessica Gomez: Thank you. I guess I feel like I do so much day in and day out that sometimes I just feel like, oh yeah, I just did this. Doesn’t everybody else do that too?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Right. That’s why you’re on the podcast right now, because we want to share your experiences and your examples with the world. I’m curious, we have so far to go in education with so many different areas of underfunding, to inequities with race, and with technology, and with curricular materials and assessments. There’s so many things to tackle. I guess, what is your big focus now in addressing these inequities? I know you talk about the conversation piece. Is there a next level that you’re looking at attacking next? How are you building this team or this coalition to help address these matters?

Jessica Gomez: Well, I would say the first and foremost, I need to be supporting my teachers to the best of my ability because I need them to feel successful. I need them to believe in themselves, right. I had somebody who believed in me. I believe in them all and they’re doing some amazing work. Sometimes they don’t feel like they are because it’s been a rough four weeks, let me tell you. It’s been rough four weeks, rougher than I would have ever imagined. I know if I’m feeling it, they’re feeling it. I take on that stress, right, on myself because I want to be that problem solver. But really what it has been, I feel like right now, my key role is to support them and encourage them and ensure that they have what they need. If they need a second monitor for their home, my gosh, every teacher should have a second monitor.

Jessica Gomez: How do we expect them to do work and have a tiny little screen, right? Come to the classroom and you take that second monitor home. If you need your document camera, then you take your document camera home. Because those are the basics, right? It’s going to be hard for me to really push harder or to push to a deeper level if they don’t have their basic needs. We talk about kids having their basic needs. We also have to talk about our teachers and our staff. Do they have what they need so they can do their job to their utmost best? Because we expect the best from them. but if we don’t support them so that they can do their best, then I don’t think that’s very fair to expect that from them.

Jessica Gomez: Once they have those things in place, my goodness, I mean, the opportunities are endless of what they can do. Because then I can start to say, all right, now let’s start thinking about how do we include coding. How do we include things like video making? How do we include things where kids are recording and where kids are thinking at deeper levels? I really feel that the first thing that I need to focus on is making sure that they have everything that they need, and that they know that I have their back 100%. I support them and that I listen to them, and that together we’re going to problem solve this one way or another. We’re going to get through this together. There’s a lot of things that I do to make sure that they feel encouraged and that they feel supported.

Jessica Gomez: I just wrote a quick little blog post about the power of morning inspirational message. Every morning I use a Remind app, they’re all on there. I send a message every morning. I used to do that when we were in person on the little whiteboard by the mailboxes. I said, you know what? This is something I can do virtually, if anything, even better, because now the quotes are beautiful like in pictures and stuff. I didn’t think that that was going to make a difference until a few of my staff said, you know what, thank you so much for that because it starts my day off. That’s where my focus is right now at this moment in time.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: My takeaways from, well, so many. Again, like always, talking with you. Listening to how you are supporting your teachers, I definitely wrote down being a listener, truly listening to your teachers and not just saying, oh, have an open door policy or you can come talk to me anytime, but truly actively listening and being able to respond to their needs. I love what you’re doing with having the notes of encouragement. I think it’s so important. I reflect back when I was a school building leader and thought about the importance of relationships. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this. As leaders, we’re always looking at, obviously, ensuring that our teachers have all the resources they need. Typically, the district will say, hey, we’re going to embrace this kind of initiative. Maybe it’s like project-based learning or STEM, and these are all really good initiatives, but sometimes it became all about the initiative.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: What would happen would be, sometimes we would run into a snag or we’d have resistance. As I reflect back on it, I think if we all had more of the approach that you had with the relentless and unending support for your teachers, I feel like those strategies, those initiatives eventually naturally will get embedded in your conversations. They’ll get embedded in professional development. It doesn’t become this district, I hate to use the word mandates, but that’s kind of what it looked like for so many districts are there’s initiatives and mandates that are top-down. But I feel like if more schools had your approach that we could just easily and just naturally insert these ideas in our ongoing conversations, they’re not framed as mandates anymore. These are best practices. We all agree that this is what’s best. Then if something happens, it doesn’t work, we trust they knew. I’m curious about what you think about that.

Jessica Gomez: It’s interesting you frame it that way, because as you were talking, I was trying to think of like, yes, yes, yes. I was thinking of all the things that has happened with. It’s interesting because the pushback is not the same. The pushback is really not there. The reason for that is, well, let me just move back to listening. Right? One of the things that I did the first four weeks of school was every single day from 2:00 to 3:00 PM, I held office hours. You can come if you wanted, you didn’t have to come. But they knew from 2:00 to 3:00 I was going to be there face-to-face. There was no agenda. There was nothing of that nature. It was, you have a question, let’s hear it. Let me see what I can help answer. What can I help clarify? But what they organically became are like these problem solving strategizing meetings where it’s like, okay, I’m having an issue with this.

Jessica Gomez: Well then, there will be another teacher who say, oh, I figured that out. Let me tell you how to fix that. You didn’t need me, right? But at the same time, what it became was I started to listen. I was just sitting back and saying, okay, I listened to you. This is very frustrating for you. How do you deal with these engagement reports that the state is asking us to do? I get that there might not be clarity with that so let me write that down so that I can get help get clarity for you. That’s how I think I really helped to keep the anxiety level down. I mean, the anxiety is up already, but at least try to bring it down a little bit by letting them know I hear you and I’m going to ask the right questions and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get that answer. When we do have to try something new or when we do say, you know what, these are best practices, there’s trust.

Jessica Gomez: They’re going to say, okay, Jessica, we might not want to do that right now but we’re going to trust the process. We’re going to trust that if you are behind it and you believe in us, then we’re going to go, we’ll give it a shot. I feel like that’s really how we’ve been able to navigate our schooling for the past 10 years together here at this school. It’s really built on trust and relationships. It’s always going to come back to that, trust, relationships, and listening, because if you don’t have a space for them to share their concerns and their celebrations. Because then I’d say, okay, let’s hear a story. What happened today? Some would give us this funny story about what happened, and others will be like, oh, I just want to share a huge celebration I had today. Then sometimes it’s literally a venting session, which we need those too. I’m not doing that every day now.

Jessica Gomez: Now we cut it down to two times a week because we met so much that I think we got through most of the questions, which I thought was fantastic. It just organically happened. I didn’t know what was going to come of it. When people ask me, what are some ideas? There’s people who will email me and say, we’re going to start, what are your suggestions? It’s like, do office hours. If anything, just do office hours, make yourself available.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You know, I’m so happy that you allow your teachers to feel all of their emotions. I think that sometimes in education we are so hyper-focused on making sure that teachers are positive, we’re all positive. Only happy thoughts, only happy thoughts. Obviously, yes, we do want to really rally behind the good things and celebrations. But important part of being real and authentic humans, because that we are humans in the end is being able to feel all the emotions and being able to express frustrations or express when something is a challenge or something is sad, something that’s not good, because that’s part of the human experience. Obviously, we get to cycle back around to solutions and being able to find the joys. But it’s really important that we not forget to acknowledge every emotion. As a leader, it’s so wonderful and refreshing to see that you’re allowing your teachers to express everything.

Jessica Gomez: Yeah. As a leader, you too have to be vulnerable. They have to see that. You know what? You don’t have all the answers. At one of the office hours, I think all the questions were just coming at me, right. Like this, this, and what about this? What about this? Finally, I think I just broke down. I started crying. I thought, oh my God. Oh no. They just looked at me like, are you okay? I said, you know what? It’s a lot for me too. But you know, I let myself feel that. Then I got, I was like, okay, but we got to move on. We still have these issues to solve. I think that we have to be okay with that as well because we have a lot going on too. For them to be able to see like, okay, she doesn’t have all the answers and she has emotions too.

Jessica Gomez: I had to be okay with letting myself not beating myself up for letting that happen because I am human. I don’t remember what the question was, but it was like my breaking point where it’s like, I don’t have all the answers for you. I feel like I’m letting you down. I think that’s what I was feeling. I was feeling like I wasn’t being enough for them. They helped me kind of work through that as well. That was an important part for them to see and tell me like, no, you are doing enough and we’re getting through this together. I said, okay, because I tell you that all the time. Yes. Now I got to tell myself that.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Isn’t it amazing? The barriers that are broken down when you’re vulnerable. Because I think everyone wants to see that their leader is sincere and genuine and have struggles just like all of us. You’re not afraid to share those parts. That obviously shows a sense of confidence in yourself and security when you’re able to share those parts. I’m glad that you’re able to do that because sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes people feel like if they are vulnerable, then it’s going to expose some insecurity. But I think those people who are truly confident in themselves are able to be vulnerable to their teachers.

Jessica Gomez: Yeah. I knew that they were going to be there with me. I knew that, you know what, well, so what ended up happening, people step up to the plate. What can I help you with? What can I take off your plate? Right. How can I help move this process along? Just like they ask for help, we have to ask for help too and be okay with that, because we’re one person. These are times that we’ve never been through. Even when it was “normal,” you still want to look to your team. This is not the Jessica show, right? This is not the Nathan show. This is we’re a team here and together we’re going to make it better. Being able to count on them as much as they count on me is so important.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It really is, such wise words. Okay. Last question, from the pandemic and all the challenges that we’ve gone through, and as a leader, I know you think about lessons learned. Do you think about what is the biggest lesson that we learned through the pandemic? And therefore, I’m going to do this differently. As you reflect on those things, what’s one thing that you think of that you have decided, okay, this is a big lesson learned? This is how I want to make things different.

Jessica Gomez: I think for me, the best lesson is to follow the things that you can control, right? There’s two main things you can control, that’s your attitude and your effort. Your attitude, you can control that on how you are going to embrace all the unknowns. Your attitude towards the challenges. Your attitude towards when things don’t pan out as you planned. Your attitude when things are going well and when things are not going so well. We can control our effort, the amount of effort that we put in on making things the best that they can. Are they going to be perfect? No, but we strive to make them as best as we can. For me, that’s where I’ve led from during this pandemic is we focus on the things we can control.

Jessica Gomez: There’s a lot of things that we can control. We can control how we build relationships with kids. We can control the level of engagement that we bring to our virtual classes. We can control how we make our staff feel appreciated. We can control how we communicate with our community and our families. There’s a lot of things we can control and there’s a lot of things we can’t. Let’s focus our energy, our attitude and our effort on the things that we can.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I love it. I have to say that it’s easy to have a good attitude though when I’m talking to you. Jessica, it has been so wonderful having you on the show today. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day. I know you’re in the midst of a remote distance learning. We’re really thankful that you took time today to spend with us and sharing some words of wisdom.

Jessica Gomez: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure and my honor. Please, if there’s anybody out there that needs anything or has any questions or needs ideas, feel free to reach out to me. I’m always available.