We Love Illinois Schools

Dr. Carmen I. Ayala says farewell -- for now

January 31, 2023 Illinois State Board of Education Season 2 Episode 2
We Love Illinois Schools
Dr. Carmen I. Ayala says farewell -- for now
Show Notes Transcript

 Just before her official retirement, Illinois State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala reflects on her four decades in education and especially her four years at the helm of the Illinois State Board of Education.  
Our theme music is by José Rivera.

Dusty Rhodes  0:02  

Hello, we are the Illinois State Board of Education. And we love Illinois schools. I'm Dusty Rhodes in the communications department at ISBE. Dr. Carmen Ayala has spent four decades as an educator, including the past four years as our State Superintendent of Education. Just before she officially retires, we asked her to reflect on her amazing career, and on the next chapter in her journey. We hope you will enjoy this conversation.

Dusty Rhodes  0:33  

OK, so I remember sitting next to you, the day you were introduced the state superintendent. And you were you told me you were taking it all in and savoring the moment. On that day, what did you envision this job would entail? And how did the reality of it compare to that vision?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  0:56  

Wow, that's a big question. Thinking back, you know, four years ago, you know, my mom and dad were with me, my sisters, my, my children were with me, it was, it was exciting and scary at the same time. I have always worked with a plan. And so, you know, I think having worked on that strategic plan very early on, not knowing that a pandemic was lurching around the corner, has really, really just served us well, and, you know, has really helped guide me. That has been a guiding star throughout these four years. And so, you know, I knew I wanted to do a few things, you know, I'm like, Oh, my God, I'm gonna be state superintendent, I could do this, and I could do this, because I mean, I came from the ranks from teacher all the way up to Superintendent and I was, you know, a leader at the time of the equity base formula, and pounding the streets and, you know, all of those things. So I knew where Illinois was, and there were some areas that I wanted to work on. And thankfully, many of them were encapsulated within the strategic plan. So I'm very grateful for that. So that's, you know, that's where I was four years ago.

Dusty Rhodes  2:24  

How do you think of the pandemic and the impact it's had on education? What do you feel might be the most lasting impacts? And are there any silver linings?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  2:36  

Well, the pandemic, who would have thought, you know? I reflect back on the pandemic, early on, when we had to pivot very, very quickly to remote learning, and not knowing, you know, here, we thought, okay, we're gonna have to pivot and it'll be maybe a month or two. And then that month or two became school quarters and semesters and years, you know, no one would have predicted that, and you know, that your most vulnerable children are always impacted the most. And that bore out to be true, you know, our low-income students, our, our English learners, our students with special needs. 

I think that what will be lasting, is recovery. Although we have federal pandemic support, emergency relief funding, through, you know, September of 2024, I think that there will be lasting effects beyond 2024. 

In terms of silver linings, we learned a lot, we learned that we are resilient, and that we are getting through, and that there have been some things that have actually been better, made better. You know, and in terms of the agency, I was always thinking about, well, how can I bring the whole agency together, you know, just to exchange ideas and to provide information and get everybody on the same page? Well, Zoom, and our WebEx systems, you know, our go to meetings, really, really helped with that. We were able to gather, you know, 6-700 people at a time, during the pandemic, to provide important messages and to seek their questions and have them share what they were experiencing out in the field. I think those are tools and strategies that I just think are going to even increase and have made communication better all across. 

You know, I think that communities really got an inside look at just everything that our educators and schools do for our students. You know, my sister's a teacher. And when she was teaching, virtually, her cats would come up on her shoulder or they would be in the background. And so the children got to see the teacher, as a, as a person, as an individual in their home, sometimes with their children engaged or with things going on in the background. 

And vice versa. Our, our teachers, our educators really got to see our students within their home environment. And I think that that, that created a sense of relationship between the teachers, the families and the students. That was that was at a different level than before the pandemic. And I think, from a culturally responsive equity lens, I think it provided our educators with some insight into the home environment of our students and, and some of the richness that maybe they wouldn't have seen with the child coming into the classroom, they saw the family component, and just different things that really gave them insight into the strength of family that the students come to school with or strength of community. So I think that those were silver linings, and learnings from the pandemic.

Dusty Rhodes  6:31  

So I'm sure you knew that this would be a stressful job. But I doubt you anticipated exactly how stressful with a global pandemic. And I can only imagine that it made a big job even more difficult. So how did you personally manage other added stress? If that's not too personal question?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  6:52  

No, not at all. Yes, I knew that it was going to be a stressful endeavor, a stressful four-year journey. I've been through some very stressful situations in my career, having, you know, been the first in some situations and have worked in communities that didn't have the resources and had many challenges. And so I was used to a certain level of stress. But I do have to say, the position of State Superintendent kind of topped that stress level. And it was, there were difficult times, needless to say. 

But one of the things that I, people who know me know that I'm very strongly grounded in faith, my mother, on occasion, I would say, Mom, I don't think I can do this, this is just too hard. It's too much. And she said, you know, God put you there. And if he put you there, and you can't, he's gonna carry you because you're there for a reason. And so I held on to my mother's words, and I held on to my faith. 

And then I sang my way out of stress while that I was in choir practice, and in church singing. And then I did yoga. And just took deep breaths, you know, just take some deep breaths and practice my downward dog and my warrior one, two, and three, and just tried to find ways to relax and relax and relieve the stress. Because if you don't, it could have some health benefits. And thankfully, I'm pretty healthy. And I'm grateful for just those outlets of stress that I was able to practice throughout these four years.

Dusty Rhodes  8:53  

What would you list as your top three accomplishments in your time as state superintendent?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  8:59  

Wow, top three accomplishments? Well, first of all, I didn't do it by myself. There's just no way. There have been so many individuals that have supported, guided and have rolled up their sleeves and have, you know, dug in and have we've worked together. And so my accomplishments are the accomplishments of everyone that has supported the agency particularly, not just me. 

So the three things that I would say first and foremost, I'd have to say, equity. I think having the internal Equity Analysis Tool that the agency staff is using, is learning more about and really how it being that Equity Impact Analysis Tool, guides decision making across the agency. The Equity Journey Continuum, you know, we've had the data in the report card, it's the data that's in the report card that has been in the report card for years and years. But now it's aligned and organized around an equity lens. And it tells the story of each district that is so unique across the state of Illinois, they're not cookie cutter districts, and we can't treat them as such. And so the Equity Journey Continuum has provided districts the opportunity to be able to have some of those conversations about why aren't all our children achieving, you know, high academic standards. And so I'm very, very proud of that. 

The next thing that I think has been an accomplishment has been the strategic plan. And the strategic plan has lots of little accomplishments in it. But overall, if we put that together, the strategic plan, I've, I've very often worked with strategic plans in my previous roles. And it has been critical in terms of a guidance piece for the agency. And I think that we've accomplished as much as we have, because of the strategic plan. The federal pandemic relief dollars, we had a plan. And so that's where we aligned all of our efforts, because they were girded in three critical areas -- student learning, learning conditions, and elevating educators. And when we we worked with the governor's office, the P-20 Council, and the four pillars that were identified through stakeholder engagement, really, also were aligned to our strategic plan. And so I think that was a huge accomplishment. 

The next accomplishment that I would, that I'm proud of is the equity work is one thing, but the diversifying of staff is another one. You know, when I walked in, at my first senior level, leadership meeting, I walked in, and I said, Oh, I was the only person of color. And so I thought, wow, we've got some work to do here. And there were some positions that were open, and some reorganizing, creating the Research and Evaluation Center and Policy and Communications and, and so I was able to hire more diverse officers, the highest level of leadership in the agency. And so within six months, I walked into the meeting, and I was like, OK, this is going to be good, because we truly reflected the student population of Illinois. And I'm so so proud of, of the management of the leadership of the staff at ISBE we've worked very hard to really diversify the agency. And that is being talked about, and that is being established as goals across the state is, is a huge accomplishment. Because we know when children have individuals in their schools that look like them sound like them share their culture, the road to high academic achievement is much more strengthened for those students. And so I'm very proud of that.

Dusty Rhodes  13:36  

What are three things that you would change? If you could? Or that you wish you had been able to get done?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  13:44  

Wow, three things that I would change because there is there is still work to be done. Right? There's always work to be done. 

You know, one of the things that I wish I could have accomplished or had gotten into the more along the road, if you will, is assessment. You know, I started off, I think it was within my first month or two talking about, we needed to really take a look at our system of assessment in Illinois. And so, you know, the pandemic put the brakes on a lot of things, and rightfully so, how could we even talk about a new assessment when we were dealing with, you know, basic needs, you know, food and basic connecting with students and, and health issues and, and family, you know, families losing their loved ones, we just couldn't, you know, go on that, go on that road. And so, we did come back. 

We did once the pandemic was a little more settled, if you will, and we were back in school. We had very robust stakeholder engagement. I think one of the most robust stakeholder survey responses we've had in a long time, and that formulated some recommendations. And I'm happy to say that the state assessment review committee is really looking at those recommendations and putting a plan of action together to move those things forward. So I'm really glad for that. 

The other thing that I think I wish there would have been more emphasis on or that we were able to focus more on is the looking at the services of our special education students, English Learners, really taking a look at the schools that are persistently low-performing. And really, you know, the vision that I had for that is maybe looking at the potential of an academic oversight panel, if you will. We've got some schools in Illinois that have been persistently lowest performing for various cycles in the school improvement cycle. And so I think doing something different, and many times, the challenges are not just within the school building, but outside in the community, and really being systemic and supporting those schools. I think that was something that I wish that we would have done more about,

Dusty Rhodes  16:34  

How did you get into teaching or education? And what would you say to a student who is thinking about becoming a teacher?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  16:43  

Well, I actually started teaching when I was about 14 or 15 years old. And I was recruited by Sister Mary Agnes, at the church I was attending at the time. And she invited me to help her teach the CCD classes, it's the class, the communion classes for students who are in the second grade, first/second grade. And so she kind of coached me and let me teach, you know, about the sacraments and all those kinds of things. And, you know, in high school, I continued in my youth group working with the children. 

And in high school, I heard over the radio of all things, Spanish radio, that there was a shortage of bilingual teachers. And here, I was thinking, wow, you know, I could become a bilingual teacher, because I knew that there was a very high Hispanic dropout rate in the 70s 80s. Right? And so I, you know, call then got information and the rest is history. 

I became a bilingual teacher initially, and did teach in general education. But that was, that was the impetus, Sister Mary Agnes, and learning about the need for bilingual teachers. And just that door opened, and I, you know, went in and the rest is history.

Dusty Rhodes  18:18  

So what would you say to a student now, that is contemplating making that same decision?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  18:24  

Well, you know, we've got about 10,000 potential teachers for the future in Illinois, through our teacher pipeline, our Career and Technical Education, Teacher Pathway, opportunities for students, and I'm just so pleased that there are almost 200 schools, high schools in Illinois that have the Teacher Pathway opportunity. And so, you know, even if they weren't in the Teacher Pathway programming, if I ran into a student, and, you know, I'm always asking and encouraging, you know, if they're interested in being a teacher, it is so satisfying, it is so rewarding. You get to have an impact on what the future might be like. There are so many lives that you can positively impact and affect. 

I wouldn't do it anything different. And would encourage anyone who is interested in joining the teaching world, it's fabulous. It is, you know, people say a lot about you know, teachers don't get paid and you know, they don't get paid enough and all of that. The pay is … is OK, I'll just say that the pay is OK, being a teacher. Certainly there's, you know, always room for improvement there. But the sense of satisfaction, and just the opportunity to take… I taught kindergarten and when they came in, they were like a blank piece of paper, you know, and you get to kind of help write that life story. And to see the growth. And when you see the light bulbs go on and when you and when you're working with a child who comes in who doesn't know a from s from F, and then by the end of the year they are reading. It's amazing. It's just amazing work. 

And so I would encourage anyone who, who has that interest to pursue it, to look into it to try it out. You'd be surprised, I've met a lot of people who are career changers, my sister being one of them, she started in the corporate world with a degree in accounting and decided I don't think I like this. And she asked me, Can you help me be a teacher? So I did. She has -- her students are her world. I mean, she she has found what her, you know, vocation and professional is. And so I encourage anyone to look into the teaching profession. it's great. 

Dusty Rhodes  21:03  

So why is it important to have teachers and leaders of color? You already talked a little bit about what it meant to you to increase the diversity of staff and leadership at ISBE. How important is it in the classroom?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  21:21  

Well, let's take a real life today example of our asylum seekers who are coming in from different Latin American countries, many of them now from Venezuela. Imagine if that child went to a school where there was no one that looked like them, sounded like them, or could even communicate with them. That still exists in Illinois public schools today, as a matter of fact, less and less, but it still exists. That child, if you if you know, Stephen Krashen, who is a guru in second language acquisition and in the English learner world, would say that your affective filter is way up. Your affective filter will keep new learning from penetrating, from going through, because you are scared, you are worried, you're not sure, you don't have anybody that communicates with you, that looks like you, that you can connect with. 

Imagine, on the other hand, if you go to a school, and you have a teacher that looks like you, sounds like you, puede hablar tu idioma decirte "hola,” and work with you and work with your family and talk to your parents. Just imagine how different that experience would be and how quickly you would be able to, you know, lower that affective field so that learning can penetrate and can really take off. And so that's one very, very important reason. 

The other reason is that we are becoming more and more and more and more diverse. We are now a state where most of our students are students of color. And it is the world that you know, with technology, the world, I would say is shrinking. Because I can talk to people in Ukraine, I could talk to people in Poland, I have a nephew who is in Amsterdam, and I can, you know, on the phone, I could send him a message. And so more and more. The world is becoming diverse. And I think that we need to prepare our students. And we can prepare them by helping them engage, see diversity. Having more teachers, educators, leaders of color doesn't just benefit our students who are of color. It benefits all students, because even our students who are not of color, as they grow, and they enter this diverse world, they would have had the experiences in their schools, of engaging with a person who doesn't look like them, or maybe speaks multiple languages. And that those are skills that are needed. And as I said, this global culture that we have. There are lots of reasons but those are the ones that come to mind right now.

Dusty Rhodes  24:30  

So this is the last question on my list. What are your plans for retirement?

Dr. Carmen Ayala  24:38  

What are my plans? Well, first I have to officially retire and that will be on the 31st will be my last day at the agency. So Feb. 1, I'll sleep in and I'll begin to rest. So I'll retire, I will rest. My father -- God rest his soul -- would tell us, you know, when you get ready to retire, you retire. And you don't put a date on it. You just rest, whatever rest means -- go on vacation, whatever it is -- rest, and your body and soul will tell you when you have rested. And then you can do whatever it is that, you know, you want to continue to do. Well, education is in my blood. And I definitely want to be continued to education. 

But I don't want to work like a full time I don't want to just … my challenge is going to be saying no, quite frankly. But I do want to be connected. I would love to do cultural audits for schools, districts, colleges, community colleges, other organizations. And I would love to mentor future leaders. So those are two areas that I think are near and dear, always with an equity background, girding it and keeping that going as well. 

So I don't think you've seen the last of me or will see the last of me, I think I'll be connected to education in some way. Because until every single child has what he or she needs to be successful, we must continue to work towards equity. And I have grandchildren, so I've got to make sure they have what they need to. 

Dusty Rhodes  26:33  

That was Dr. Carmen Ayala, reflecting on her four decades in education. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and share it with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for listening.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai