Partners in Leadership
What happens when two people who are passionate about making educational change join forces personally and professionally?
We spoke with current CANDEL student Stephanie Morgado (MA ’15) and alumnus Byron Laird (EdD ’18) about the challenges of being educational leaders, how they’re bringing social justice to their students and what it’s like to be married collaborators.
Tell us about your leadership roles and the community you serve.
STEPH: We are both in Vallejo, which is an urban school district with a high percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students. Byron and I are within the same charter management organization, and I spent this past year opening up a new middle school that I direct, Griffin Academy.
BYRON: We’re all one organization called Griffin Technology Academy, and I’m the high school principal of MIT Academy. The last four years we’ve been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best high schools in America.
You both started your careers as teachers. What drew you to education?
BYRON: I chose to go into teaching because I was working in the corporate world and I didn’t feel like I was really doing what I wanted to do. I know it sounds cliché to want to make the world a better place, but I felt a calling towards education. I taught social science, psychology, geography and world history before I went into administration.
STEPH: I was an astrophysics major at UC Berkeley at the same time that CalTeach was being piloted. I took education classes every semester alongside my major courses and did student teaching for almost four years as an undergrad. Doing astronomy research really opened my eyes to the lack of diversity in the scientific community. Being pretty much the only Latina around was just hard. At the same time, I was also working with kids and seeing that even at a young age they didn’t believe that they could become scientists or engineers. In the end, that’s where my passion grew, and that’s why I ended up taking the education route instead of doing research. I was most recently a high school physics, chemistry and astronomy teacher at our charter management organization before transitioning to my director role.
How did you come to be in your current roles as administrative leaders?
BYRON: If you’re a teacher with any interest in taking on additional work, there’s lots of it there for you. My director told me he thought I’d be a good person for administration. I took his advice and got my administrative credential as well as my master’s in education. I thought I could affect change on a much deeper level by getting into administration.
STEPH: In my student teaching experience, I understood my role more as a teacher leader and was always thinking about other ways I could be involved in policy. I always took on more and more teacher leadership roles and dabbled in various administrative things, whether it was ensuring that our seniors were ready to graduate or starting a program with Byron for our students to make up credits. While I was a teacher, I earned my standalone master’s degree at the School of Education, and it really made me think about what I was doing in the classroom. I knew I could be a mentor for other teachers, but there are greater systemic issues that we need to challenge at a policy level, and that’s what drove me to do this.
What are your approaches to being administrators?
STEPH: Everything that I’ve done is for all students, not just the highest-achieving students. When I think about all of the programs our students are offered, I’m really thinking, “Why can’t all kids be a part of this?” That’s what drove me to open up a third school this year. I’m thinking about what policies I can implement from the beginning to ensure that all students have access to rigorous curriculum and a college-going culture.
BYRON: There’s a great deal of work that needs to be done. We’re both trying to bring more equitable outcomes to our students and challenge teacher perceptions and biases around student performance and learning outcomes. My EdD work at UC Davis has definitely helped me realign my vision about an administration’s role to advocate for all students.
How do you put equity into practice?
BYRON: First, we view our students as coming to school with assets, not deficits. We need to collectively check our privilege and biases so we can recognize those assets, whether that be their learning capacity, cultural experiences or something else. Then we take that one step further and think about how to empower students so they can have control of their own educational experience.
STEPH: I think of equity as the first stepping stone to dismantling some of the structures that aren’t benefiting our students. We want more than equity. We want to move toward social justice. A lot of ideas we’ve talked about felt like short-term solutions. For example, instead of getting a donation of backpacks for students, let’s think about the supports and services that they really need in the long term. We need to dig deeper and think about how to dismantle those things that are putting our students in boxes. As leaders we need to drive the conversation forward, and that starts with awareness. So this year we started the Equity Committee at our schools. I want staff, students and families to be aware of equity because they can feel injustices occurring. I want them to see that they have some allies here that want to do the work. I want to get the word out that this is really our vision.
BYRON: This is generalizing, but I think teachers all have a unique view of equity that varies based on personal beliefs and whether they’re keeping up with ongoing research. So how do you challenge the viewpoints that don’t benefit students? We’re trying to create a committee where we can have conversations that really confront these systemic issues that have plagued education for decades. One thing I’m worried about is getting people to buy in and not treat the committee as just another meeting. What I hope we can communicate is a sense of urgency for people to join in and that there’s this opportunity for people to make impactful change, whether that’s in their classroom, in their community or both.
What is it like to be working together while married?
BYRON: It’s funny because I just don’t think about it that often since I’m really immersed in it right now. And when I wasn’t working with Steph, we would still come home and bounce ideas off each other. We met at the school and our personal relationship definitely had a component of work. We are both driven, passionate people, and we connected pretty quickly in that sense. I love working with Steph because it’s awesome to see her in action, making a meaningful impact. How many people can say that about their spouse? Working in administration is difficult, but having Steph as a partner has helped me stay focused through all these years and has really driven me. It’s been an amazing experience, and I definitely wouldn’t trade it for anything.
STEPH: It’s been awesome to have Byron there through some of those really hard times, and I couldn’t imagine doing a lot of the things that we’re doing this year without our collaboration. A lot of the boundaries between work and home bleed over because we’re working towards this common mission together. It hasn’t all been just policy. It’s also been organizing opportunities that are good for our students and just fun for us to do, like student camping trips. It’s been really great to experience this wide range of things with him, and I have a feeling we’re just going to keep going.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Catalyst magazine.