Focus on mental health for all students. Our kids are suffering from anxiety and depression, as well as trauma at alarming rates and Special Education should not solely bear the cost of this issue. Students should have access to mental health services from a very early age. We must have systems and structures to ensure access for services within our school system.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Victoria Forrester, who is an adjunct professor in the Online Master’s of Educational Leadership program at Mills College. She has nearly 35 years of experience in public education, including roles as a K-8 teacher, a principal, and a director of student services, special education, and wellness for the San Leandro and Alameda Unified School Districts. Dr. Forrester has developed a deep interest and robust expertise in the field of educational equity, focusing on marginalized communities and especially the issues and needs that face LGBTQ students and their families.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I began in education when I was 20 years old. I had a passion for working with kids and making sure that all students got what they needed in education. I realized early in my career that some students are not fairly treated in the educational system and dedicated my career to marginalized students and families.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
22 years ago, the “coming out” episode of the Ellen Show aired and 42 million Americans watched the episode. The next morning I (then a quiet 5th grade teacher) allowed a discussion in my classroom in which students commented on the episode and its impact on their world. A parent took offense to the discussion and asked that I be fired and that the State of California revoke my teaching credential. This story launched my leadership career and thrust me, a quiet, excellent teacher, into national limelight. (I’m happy to tell this story in its entirety at any time.)
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think teaching “family life education” (sex ed) for the first time with my 5th graders was hysterical. I dressed up to be more believable and to look older, but I just looked younger. The lessons turned out ok, but my face was red the entire time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working with California school districts on building systems and structures for intervention and support for all students and families, both academic and behaviorally (MTSS: Multi-tiered Systems of Support). I believe this is the main way to transform services and education for students. It is truly equity work and brings joy and passion to my life!
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I guess because I’ve been in education for 35 years and have done transformational work in a variety of roles. I also have studied education using a multitude of lenses and developed curriculum for K-12 education as well as graduate level curriculum. I am a true practitioner who understands and teaches theory.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The United States set out 200 years ago to do what no other country had done before: Educate all. We have done that well at times, but consistently need to improve to meet the needs of ALL. We have not changed education much in the last 100 years and must do so if we want different results.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
All kids are guaranteed free public education; teachers are credentialed to a high standard; assessment is varied (not just summative, standardized tests); we are understanding now that college AND career is important; finally understand the social-emotional needs of students.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Special Education costs
- Intervention and acceleration for ALL students
- Social-emotional learning to be prioritized
- Differentiated instruction in ALL classrooms (we must give kids what they need and not just assess for special education when students are struggling
- Discipline practices need to focus on restorative approaches rather than solely punitive approaches
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
- Make STEM accessible to ALL students in the form of acceleration practices (access and opportunity for ALL)
- Make opportunities for STEM equitable, ie: rigorous coursework
- Be more intentional in reaching girls and students of color in this area
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It is clear in a multitude of data that girls can excel in math and science. Implicit bias and stereotype threat is at play when girls are tracked either by adults or by their own accord out of math and science. We must battle that bias in classrooms by making sure that girls have access and opportunity to learn and excel in these areas: show women in STEM fields; bring in speakers in these fields; teachers must confront their own implicit bias in all areas; make sure girls in high school have opportunities for internships in the STEM fields.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
We want well-rounded students who have the skills to excel in their chosen career. The STEAM focus (and debate) is more well-rounded and allows students to show their skills in math and science in the arts as well.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Focus on mental health for all students. Our kids are suffering from anxiety and depression, as well as trauma at alarming rates and Special Education should not solely bear the cost of this issue. Students should have access to mental health services from a very early age. We must have systems and structures to ensure access for services within our school system.
- Time for teachers to work together on curriculum and instruction using a system and structure for data analysis and improvement. This time must be built into their weekly teaching schedule. They would be taught how to ask questions and seek answers to their questions by studying good teaching and learning.
- A focus on social-emotional learning. This it NOT just “feel good” teaching, but curriculum designed to teach students to think, get along with other humans and be healthy.
- Students would use projects and service learning to show what they know.
- Financial change at the State and Federal level. We must invest more money in public education. The funding structure currently in this country is criminal. We must attract and retain highly motivated, dedicated and developed credentialed educators and funding shifts will help in this area. Students need services that address their whole self and this must be funded in education. Special education funding must also change. The cost of special education services increase while the funding for special education remains unchanged.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
- “When they go low, we go high.” — Michelle Obama Very pertinent as we experience the shift in our country that is supported by current administration, ie: name-calling is ok, meanness is ordinary, being different is wrong.
- “Kids (people) can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.”
- “Make your values match your actions.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Michelle Obama. She embodies equity in our world and in education. She lives her words and her life work matches her values. She is someone who I look up to and work hard to emulate in my life.
Ellen Degeneres. I was doing Ellen’s work before Ellen even knew what her work was! (This sounds a bit pompous, but not if you know the story.) I began a similar fight as Ellen when she came out. The work was real and I would love to share it with her.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Twitter @ Collaborative Learning Solutions.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!