Vanessa Rodriguez has deep experience working with the students of New York City. She started her career as a bilingual teacher at a Bronx elementary school, where she also served as a chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers. She’s now the chief of talent and leadership at New York City’s Citizens of the World Charter Schools and is a member of the first class of Future Chiefs with the Chiefs for Change organization.
Being a coffee drinker in New York City must be heaven. Are you one? How do you choose between coffee shops?
New York City is definitely coffee heaven. When I am looking for a coffee shop, there are three things that I take into account. First is the variety of coffee types offered, from flavors to different types of drinks. Second is the environment—music, comfortable chairs and aromas! Lastly, it must have wifi! I love NYC, and I especially love my NYC coffee shops.
Talk about your education and background and how it shaped your career path.
My family is from Puerto Rico, and I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. My first language is Spanish, and when I started public school I struggled with reading. Unfortunately, my teacher took that to mean that I was unable to do the work, and she didn’t have high expectations for me. My mother disagreed, and she moved me to a Catholic school where I improved in reading but the academics still were not rigorous.
My parents knew that education was going to be my path to better opportunities in life. Eventually, through a scholarship program, I attended a private school in another part of Connecticut that sent all of its students to college. I received a great education, but socially and emotionally it was the hardest time of my life. I never felt included or like I belonged. The students knew I was on scholarship and that my background was different.
Throughout my elementary and high school experience, I kept asking myself why school had to be this way. The lack of equity really stood out to me and motivated me to do something about it. I decided that the best way to improve schools was to become a teacher. I have now been in education for over 20 years.
As someone who’s worked in both traditional districts and charter schools, what do you see as some of the advantages and drawbacks of each model, especially as it relates to serving high-needs students.
We need strong, high-quality traditional schools and high-quality charter schools that serve all children. I also believe that we need traditional district schools and charter schools to partner and collaborate in working with families and communities. The best way to ensure all children are supported is to ensure we are maximizing all of our resources. There are very few school districts working in real partnership with charter schools and vice versa. A great school is a great school whether it is charter or “traditional.” We want and need more great schools, so let’s find ways to support each other!
There’s a lot of agreement that great teaching is one of the real difference-makers for kids. Are we doing enough to get the best teachers in front of the students who need the most support?
Teachers absolutely drive the experiences that students will have in the classroom. A high-performing teacher is priceless. I believe that we need to think about how the teaching profession is currently viewed, and then work toward redefining and elevating the teaching profession. Our teachers are working on our future, and too many non-educators see the teaching profession as an easy job with summers off. We need to continue to elevate the profession and empower teachers so that we continue to attract strong talent to the teaching profession.
Is there a “hidden” difference-maker that we should be talking more about? Something that really moves the needle on student achievement and merits more attention/investment?
Community. When everyone is working together toward a clear goal, it makes it achievable. Real and true partnership with families and community around academic progress and growth is crucial to the success of students.
What’s the one thing you’re most looking forward to about summer vacation?
I’m excited to spend time with my 10-year-old son, Devin. He is full of hope, love and curiosity about the world. He reminds me every day why what we do is so important. Our children are watching us and looking to us to lead them toward a bright future.