As the chief of Madison Metropolitan School district’s 32 elementary schools, Nancy Hanks is responsible for supervising principals and making sure they have the support they need to thrive.
Hanks is a product of Chicago Public Schools and earned her Master’s in Educational Leadership and Administration from Harvard University. Before moving to Madison in 2013, she was a principal at Melody Elementary School on Chicago’s west side, near where she grew up. In 2016, Hanks was recognized by The Root as one of the 100 most influential African-Americans in the country.
As she wraps up her fourth school year in Madison, Hanks spoke with the Cap Times about her commitment to public education and ensuring that Madison’s youngest students have the “mirrors and windows” to reflect on themselves and see possibilities in the world around them.
You are a former teacher and principal. Do you miss anything about the day-to-day operations at an individual school?
Oh God, yes! Every single day. There is a close sense of community. You celebrate and mourn with your staff, and they become like a part of your extended family. Now, I have a big, blended family across 32 schools. I miss that all the time. Kids going down the hallway, “Hi, Ms. Hanks, how ya doing?” I get a bit of that now, being in the district close to five years. I’ve seen kids that started as kindergartners now getting ready to go off. So, it’s fun.
How does your background as a public school student and your experience growing up in Chicago influence your work?
Being a principal influenced my desire to want to be in this role. The principalship is a really hard job. It can be very lonely. Only four of our elementary principals have assistant principals. It’s hard to be the person that feels that you are carrying the weight of the school and the community by yourself. What makes it doable is being able to embrace shared leadership at the school and having a central office that put schools at the center. We like to say our role at the central office is one of two things: you either are helping a school to maximize their strategy, or you are doing everything you can to minimize distractions so they can do their best work. There were times, as a principal, where I felt I didn’t have that. In this role, it feels good to do that for our principals.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in Madison’s elementary schools during your tenure?
Definitely a focus on equity. There have been educators across our district that have really valued work around race and equity. Conversations around what it means to hold kids to high expectations or the impact of bias or implicit bias on discipline were happening in pockets across the district. Now, to hear those conversations in every school-based leadership team and principals’ meetings, at the table with people that look at data and make decisions, is probably the biggest change and one of the things I’m most proud of.
What are some of the challenges that MMSD faces moving forward into the next school year?
I think that we are beginning to balance. We’ve had a relentless focus on literacy the past four years. No apologies for that, it is the right focus, and we have to build strong readers. But also, making sure we are tending to other areas. Making sure that we are as well-rounded as possible so that we are providing kids with the type of support and academic prep that they need and we know that they can rise to, while also maintaining recess and exposure to the fine arts, all the things that we know are important for kids.
Why did you go into teaching in the first place?
I had great teachers who held me to extremely high expectations. They were very much aware of the issues of my community and my family background: growing up poor, raised by a single mom, dad was incarcerated. They were certainly empathetic, but they never allowed that to be an excuse for why they didn't expect great things from me. They acknowledged my cultural background. I was able to be unapologetically black in my classroom, but I also wasn't put in a box of what it meant to be a black girl. I was able to have both mirrors and windows, which I think was really helpful. Having experiences like that, it felt natural that becoming an educator is what I would do. I owed my community and others to pay it forward to another generation of kids. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
I’ve never heard the phrase, “mirrors and windows.” What does that mean to you?
It is critical right now that kids see reflections of themselves throughout their school experience. In the leaders, in the teachers, in the classrooms, in the curriculum, in the books. Not in a tokenized way, but in a real way that makes them feel included and valued and like they belong. I also think it is helpful to allow students to see windows into other worlds, communities and ways of life. It’s a balancing act of making sure that you give them enough to affirm themselves, but a window to what the rest of the world is like. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be educating them for anyway?
There’s been a big focus on preparing students for life after high school. How are the elementary schools helping to prepare students for the transition?
Focusing on some of the ideas in the graduate vision that aren’t just academic — things like social-emotional skills, having a growth mindset, how to be an advocate for yourself — are skills that you see being taught in elementary schools. Making sure students are academically sound, but also that they have the soft skills. They become increasingly important as students get to middle and high school and have more independence and autonomy over their learning experiences. We are making sure that kids are really ready for that.
You are a keynote speaker for this year’s Black Women’s Leadership Conference. How have you worked to develop your leadership capacity here and, in turn, develop others?
I try to collaborate with people within Madison and outside of Madison. Working with people who are in similar roles in other cities, I try to figure out what are they doing and what does their school support look like, especially if they are getting great results for kids. If there are great pieces of training or readings that I experience when I’m learning for myself, I bring them back to principals or the senior leadership team.
It gets harder as you move through leadership to prioritize your learning and make sure that you are still growing, even as you are trying to share leadership and grow others. Every summer for the past three years our team has gone away to Harvard for the Public Education Leadership Program. We bring a problem of practice and work on it in retreat for a week. We are surrounded by other districts who are doing the same thing. We are learning from other sectors, too. Education is certainly unique, but there is a lot that you can learn from other sectors that can inform the work that we do.