Tommy Chang brings over 25 years of education experience and leadership to his role as CEO, including significant positions in schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations. His journey began with and continues to return to the life-changing moment he answered the call to become a teacher. Before his most previously held position as acting CEO and President of Families In Schools, Tommy spent three years as a consultant and coach to school system leaders and advised organizations such as Great Public Schools Now LA, FourPoint Education Partners, and Whiteboard Advisors. He has served on several nonprofit boards such as Leading Educators and Silicon Schools Fund as well as Education Leaders of Color, an organization dedicated to elevating the leadership, voices, and influence of people of color in education to lead more inclusive efforts to improve education. From 2015-2018, he served as superintendent for Boston Public Schools during which time the district saw increases in student graduation rates and decreases in school dropout rates. He also supported the development and implementation of The Essentials for Instructional Equity, an innovative framework for teaching and learning aimed at closing opportunity and achievement gaps.
What are you carrying forward to NTC from your leadership and connection with Families in Schools?
Families in Schools grew out of a community-wide network created in the late 90s/early 2000s in Los Angeles with funding from the Annenberg Project. A significant focus was to bring families and communities to the table not only for decision-making but also for capacity building. (See Families in Schools history.)
My experience there shaped my understanding of the importance of family-school partnerships. When you create the conditions for families and educator partnerships to thrive, you will see school improvement and better outcomes for students. (For more on this, see the Dual Capacity Building Framework developed by Dr. Karen Mapp.) So, that means finding organizations that do this work with families and communities to partner with, work hand-in-hand with schools. They have a lot to teach us.
NTC has historically focused on building educator capacity. And part of that is making sure educators understand the assets that students bring to bear on classroom learning. To be truly culturally responsive, our work must go deeper in terms of building relationships, not only between educators and students, but also between educators and families, and educators and the broader community. This is the foundation for what effective teaching and learning looks like, and it’s part of NTC’s DNA, that focus on relationships, understanding that relational trust is critical to the success of any partnership, so spending the time, doing the work to build those relationships.
You’ve talked about that life-changing moment when you became a teacher. Can you talk about how that has impacted your role as an educator and a leader?
So much of my personal identity, my relationships, and how I try to give back are shaped by the person I’ve become because of my teaching experience.
I grew up in a middle class community with very few Black and Latino peers. I went to an Ivy League school. It wasn’t until I started teaching in Compton that I really saw the social disparities that exist in America and that I had been blind to most of my life.
As an educator, I have served communities that have not been reflective of my own cultural and linguistic identity, and it was through the relationships I developed with my students that I saw the beauty of their communities. I’ve never really returned back to where I grew up. My life really is centered in the communities I’ve encountered because of my teaching.
I try to lead like a teacher. A great teacher amplifies the greatness within us. They know themselves, their students, their content and craft. Teachers must have a strong sense of themselves, their identities, and the lenses through which they see the world. They work to build relationships with students, families and communities, to understand their experiences, values and aspirations. And through knowing themselves and their students, they are better able to engage, motivate, and facilitate deeper learning.
This is also what grounds NTC’s approach to coaching and mentoring. Great coaches provide the space and structure for reflection, learning, and growth to help teachers leverage their assets to meet their goals. To help someone in this way, a great coach must be anchored in deep knowledge of themselves, the teachers they support, and their craft. We can’t go back to the old models.
Can you talk more about your own identity?
I’ve written about my experience on the first day of school as an immigrant, which began a process of self-suppression of my cultural and linguistic identity, to stop speaking my native tongue, to go to Protestant churches, to eat hamburgers. Assimilation is part of the American ethos and for many people in our priority communities, a matter of survival. But through assimilation, there is potential for so much loss, of one’s own culture, language, and history, and the ability to share it.
It’s only in recent years that I have become more attuned with my own community, and one way I have tried to give back is to work to organize Asian American educators in affinity spaces. One of my “passion projects” is this podcast I do with my friends. It’s our avenue to elevate Asian American voices, voices that may not be mainstream. We prepare by researching and networking to bring different interesting people to the table for these conversations. Then we ask questions and probe. We want to learn about things we’re not already familiar with. We are genuinely curious. That’s what good teachers are. That’s their way of being, of knowing. The podcast is also my way of making up for some of what I’ve lost.
Can you talk more about what those affinity spaces look like and what came out of it?
A small group of us came together as a sort of “steering committee” of Asian American education leaders from across the country. We just wanted to create space for educators in our community to talk. We started with small group conversations, and then, in the midst of the pandemic, doing them over Zoom.
The community kept growing and growing and evolving. We had a study group that met on Saturday evenings to talk about something we read together. We formed “consultancy” groups to support each other with work dilemmas. We created the podcast. Some of us got very politically active. Some of us got very involved in youth voice work, to elevate Asian American youth voices, providing resources to educators to help young people share their stories. (This effort, called MakeNoiseToday, grew into a national essay contest with over 800 student participants.)
We also felt it was important as a community to write a letter, a very public letter, after George Floyd was murdered, especially because an Asian American police officer was involved. The letter was directed to the AAPI community as a call-to-action to fight against white supremacy and disrupt acts of racism — in public education and in our own communities.
To shift gears a little, NTC just had its first in-person retreat since the pandemic based on the theme of what it means to be a “disruptor.” Can you reflect on how that’s sitting with you right now?
When I used to lead school systems work, I would say, “When we transform adult learning we will transform student learning.” I still believe that. We’ve got to get the adult learning right. Learning is a dynamic human exchange, a two-way interaction. If we don’t shift how we build our own communities as adults to be adaptive and dynamic and curious, educators are going to continue perpetuating proscriptive ways of teaching in a one-way direction. We have to rethink what adult learning looks like.
And it’s urgent. The data are showing that we’ve just lost 20 years of progress on student achievement. If we hope to accelerate learning in the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s going to require a complete transformation of the entire ecosystem of education.
NTC’s primary lever is adult learning. Our goal is to revolutionize how we prepare and support educators once they are in the classroom. We want to give them a radically different experience than what’s been available in the past, one that helps them become effective faster and promotes continual growth throughout their careers.
But NTC is also about collective action, not just around professional development, with a much wider focus on all the young people and adults in the building, the school community, and the communities they serve.
What are some examples of what needs to be radically different when we think about professional learning for teachers?
Teachers are too busy. They’re so overwhelmed. We call on them to be superheroes yet we don’t do enough to sustain them. Jeff Duncan-Andrade talks about Maslow and what young people need, their basic needs. People need to be fed. They need to have clean water. They need to have clean air to breathe. Basic physiological needs. Above that is safety, physical safety, mental safety, feeling that they’re part of a community, and that they are loved. These are some basic human needs that are all critical before you can get into those cognitive spaces. Well, teachers need that too. If you want teachers to think critically about how they transform mathematics instruction, they’ve got to have some of their other needs met.
We need to figure out ways to provide real time for them to do their work and anytime/ anywhere 24/7 support. We can’t just say, “If you want support, you have to show up Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00-4:00.” It’s not office hours. It has to be on demand. It has to be personalized. It has to be adaptive. Educators need to have choice and agency. We’ve got to figure that piece out.
Another way we have to innovate is to figure out how to get teachers connected across district lines, across state lines. The more echo chambers we create for teachers, the more echo chambers we’re going to create for the belief systems of our communities in this nation. The future of our democracy, the future of our pluralistic society, depends on educators growing and learning together.
NTC’s National Program Leaders Network (NPLN) is one example of how to do this. We bring together educators from urban environments, rural environments, red states, blue states, purple states, all in the same space, and they’re all aligned about wanting to make sure all kids are successful. We need to continue to find ways for educators to be connected in this way (no matter what’s going on politically in their states) that doesn’t require everybody to fly into one city to learn together. How can we ensure that professional learning is being a part of a community that is diverse and reflective, and rich, and dynamic, and maybe, sometimes even, in conflict with each other? Where we bring the strengths (assets) of all the different communities in our nation together? How many organizations can say they do that right now?
What gives me hope at NTC is we are walking the talk. We prioritize trust and safety between mentors and coaches and the teachers they work with. We’re providing and modeling the same sorts of supports and behaviors that students need to see in their classrooms. We bring adults together in safe spaces so our partners can learn with and from us and also with and from their colleagues. We’re creating learning communities that are generating a lot of optimism about the future of the profession. That’s what gives me hope.
I was definitely trained from a stance that teachers are the knowledge givers. But I’ve come to understand it needs to be turned around. We have to go into teaching and learning spaces with a lot more curiosity, where teachers are learners. The National Equity Project’s tagline is “Equity is a verb.” What that means to me is that the process is far more important than results. When you are looking for solutions, ultimately, it’s those who are closest to what you are trying to solve for who will have to shape the design. You have to be curious, listen, and learn.