We All Need Someone to Believe in Us
Meet LaKimbre Brown, Chief of Networks
Dr. LaKimbre Brown recently joined Leading Educators as the new Chief of Networks. Throughout her 22-year education career, she has made equity, fairness, and belonging for students her personal mission. In this conversation with Adan Garcia, she shares about the experiences that have shaped her leadership and her vision.
AG: Let’s start from the very beginning. What was your personal experience with school?
LB: I don’t know if I went to good schools, but I was very fortunate to be tracked into schools where I learned. My dad was in the military, so I grew up all over. Because I was tracked, I was usually one of maybe two people of color in most of my classes. When I went to college, I found that I was ready. I was equipped. I had what I needed to then do. But that’s when I first realized there’s a difference in the quality of schools, and that difference can set you up or not to be successful.
I really attribute the fact that I had access to good classes to where I am now. When I look at my family, my mom had me at 19. She went back to college when I went to college, so we both graduated in 1999. So, it wasn’t like I had this long generation of college graduates in my family. But, I knew I had a family that valued education. When I look at the landscape of my family, that’s been the biggest difference maker. The schools we went to were the only difference between me and some of my cousins and then the lifestyles we were afforded to live.
AG: How did you come to the work you do now?
LB: I’m really grateful because my degree is in chemistry but I was able to find my way into education. It was like the best thing! It’s twenty-two years later and I’m still here. I never would have thought I’d be here.
What took me from the classroom to being an administrator and then a central office administrator was always other people seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself. When I was a teacher, I was looking for graduate programs because I’ve always loved learning. My principal, Larissa Adams, said “Have you thought about Berkeley’s ‘blah-blah-blah’ program,” and I’m like, “That’s for principals!” And she’s like, “Yeah, I think you’d be a good principal!” I had not even thought about it. It’s kind of like that kid who is writing in class, and you say, “Jakorian, you’re a great writer!” and they’re like, “You think so, Ms. Brown?”. They start seeing themselves as something that they had not seen.
I had never seen myself as a principal. I didn’t even really know what a principal did. She planted that seed and then, two weeks later, I was in the office getting my mail and she’s like, “Did you get that application in?” I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, she wasn’t just being polite because I asked her for a recommendation. She really believes I can do this.”
At that time, we had a really small school in Oakland and there was a lot of flexibility, so when she would go off to principal meetings, she would get a substitute for me and let me fill in. She’d write me a schedule, and it was mentorship in its purest form that exposed me to leadership.
I learned from Ms. Adams that leadership is about developing people. She took an investment in me. That’s what I think teaching is at its core. It’s developing little people, and then when you become an administrator, you’re developing adults. I love that path. Ms. Adams saw it as her job to make me better and to see me as something that I didn’t quite see myself as. I think that’s what any good mentor does. You see the potential, and then you create the conditions.
AG: You’re a career educator who has worked all over the country. What have your experiences taught you about what students and educators need?
LB: We all need someone who is going to believe in us. Teachers need principals, and leaders, and systems who believe in them and create the conditions where they can do their best work. Students need teachers who won’t lower the bar or say, “Well, let’s just modify this.” Over time, all of those little things add up, students grow up, they graduate, and then they go to college and realize, “Oh, I actually didn’t learn this.” That’s when it’s really brutal. You think you’re prepared and you’re not.
Beyond beliefs, the technical skills of teachers really matter. They need schools that provide the technical skills—where teachers can talk to each other, collaborate with each other, learn from each other. Those conditions need to be in place. But first you actually need to believe that kids can do it.
AG: Who is a student who stands out in your memory? What did you learn from them?
LB: A story that really keeps me in my work is about a student named Tyrone. I was teaching at San Quentin, a maximum-security state prison in California. My students were 19 to 62, mostly Black and brown males, and my class was the math class they would take to get their G.E.D. So, it was really like eighth grade math.
I loved teaching there! That was like teaching at its purest form! We were in this old, decrepit laundry room with roll-away chalkboards converted into a classroom. There was always a guard closeby. My students were eager, they were happy to learn, and they had not seen a purpose for school on the outside. But on the inside, it was never late, always there, always ready, homework done.
So, we’re working on area and perimeter and I’m explaining the difference, say you’re going out to the basketball court and measuring the area and the perimeter around, and I get to Tyrone. He says, “You know, Ms. Brown? You’re a real good teacher. Maybe if I had one like you on the outside, I wouldn’t be in here now.” I think that was the moment. I was teaching at San Quentin on Friday nights, but I was teaching at Ascend K-8 every day. I knew that I could get it right during the day and be able to show the world how brilliant my students were, or I’d wait 10 or 15 years and they would show up in my class at San Quentin on Friday nights.
It was like, teach them now or teach them later. But I knew, I was going to teach them. In light of everything that’s happening in the world, I’m reflecting on that class and seeing that it was pretty much all Black and brown males. That was it, that was the moment.
AG: You’re joining Leading Educators at a difficult time in the world. What does this moment call for?
LB: I’m sitting with the value that we place on certain lives—how some are just so disposable in this society. I think this moment calls for some deep introspection from everybody on a personal level. People need to ask themselves, “What have I done to contribute?” and “When have I stayed silent when I shouldn’t have?”
Right now, I’m seeing schools make herculean efforts to get kids Wi-Fi, laptops in like a week! You’re out there in the whole district with laptops in a week? Kudos, great job, and that tells me you could have done it before if it’s a priority. Those are the kinds of questions I’m asking. I don’t think it should take a crisis for us to stand up and do the right thing.
Sometimes I feel like we react in crisis, and the best in humanity comes out. Even with COVID-19, we’re changing the hours for grocery stores and having senior hours—these are great ideas and we should have actually been doing that before. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say that, but I also feel there’s a space where we don’t need the crisis to cause us to do what is morally right. We can each look ourselves in the mirror every day and say, “What am I gonna do today? What did I let slide yesterday?” I think those daily moments are going to be what makes the biggest difference. To change the system, you need people doing daily actions.