Carmen Williams knew she wanted to be a leader in education by the time she was in seventh grade. She climbed the rungs from classroom teacher to principal, and last year was hired as Needham’s first assistant superintendent of instruction and innovation. She is also the first woman of color to hold such a highly ranked position in the Needham Public Schools. Driven by data and a belief that collaboration and cohesion are the keys to success, Williams discussed her journey, her philosophy, her first year on the job, and her goals for the future with the Needham Observer.
FSL: How did your journey from teacher to assistant superintendent begin?
CW: When I was in seventh grade, I was in all honors classes, and I absolutely hated it because my friends weren’t in my classes. I started not performing to my full potential. But I had a teacher that saw me and knew what I was up to, and she wasn’t having it. She put in the time with me, and I worked harder because I knew she had high expectations, and I began to see I could do it. I want every child to have an adult that sees them. I started as a classroom teacher knowing that I wanted to be a building leader. It’s so important that leaders have a deep level of empathy for the classroom teacher.
FSL: What did being a building leader, or principal, mean specifically to you? And why did you choose to move out of that role?
CW: Being a building leader is dual track. I need to put my kids first by any means necessary, which means I need to put my teachers first by any means necessary. Teachers and students are number one equally, which is hard because sometimes it feels there’s a tension between serving kids and serving adults. It’s finding that third way, that magical path, that’s hard. But that’s what I wanted to do. So I did that as a building principal, and got really frustrated with central office leaders because I knew what I was putting in to support my teachers, but I didn’t feel that they were putting in what I needed to support me. So I decided to become a central office leader to support all the school leaders so they could put teachers and students first.
FSL: Why did you choose Needham over the other districts and programs you were considering?
CW: I can be me no matter where I am – and the question is can I find a place that values me where I can be me. I would have that question for any school district. But if I can offer myself and contribute myself to this organization and it can be valued, then that’s a win win because I can do the work I’m called to do, I can live my dream, and I can do the work that they need. I know I’ve found that with Needham.
FSL: You had some reservations about being a woman of color in this position. Can you talk about that?
CW: I’m from Indiana, a very conservative state. However I was in South Bend, which was very Democratic and progressive in nature. Our community was very diverse, and I loved it! I knew coming to Needham would be a very different experience. I did my research and saw the stats on students of color, the staff of color. I was wondering if there would be a cultural mismatch. I knew I was taking a risk – and I knew Dan [Gutekanst, superintendent of schools] was taking a risk. Bringing on a woman of color could have the community look at him differently and hold him to different standards, so I asked him if he was ready to assume that responsibility. And luckily he said yes.
FSL: This position was originally assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. Why the change to “instruction and innovation?”
CW: The change had a lot to do with the perfect storm of the health pandemic and how we think about delivering instruction. It was also about the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning pandemic around the world. And at the same time, this idea of auditing in schools became more prevalent. Prior to 2020, only with schools that were deemed in trouble and not meeting expectations, the state would get involved with some kind of audit and some kind of help. Now it’s applied to every school – equity audits, pedagogical audits – this idea of using data to drive our decision making is now a must-do.
FSL: How is this data-driven approach different from how we approached education here before? Why is it important?
CW: Before, we could rely on our experiences in a more organic way. I could try something in my classroom and if I liked it and the students liked it, we’d keep doing it. But data helps us answer more questions than, “Are our students participating and do they like their activities?” We can see which activities serve which groups, we can look at demographic data more intentionally. Student data is students telling us what we need to do better to support them, and what support is needed to close the gaps. What can we do as a learning organization to improve our craft? That’s the power of data.
FSL: What were some of your goals coming into this role?
CW: When I started in July, I sent out a letter to the school community letting them know that my first phase is to learn more about them and the district. I set up meetings with about 40 leaders, and once the school year started, I did focus groups with teachers at every building. It was important for them to share their passions, what they’re really proud of, and share their frustrations. It was an opportunity for me to see how I could support them, but also to say we’re going to have to do it together so the work can actually be done.
FSL: If you could describe your approach in a nutshell, what would it be?
CW: I hope people hear me champion coherence, collaboration and collectivism. We are all championing the same cause, we’re working together in order to do it, not applauding someone “over there” while they do it. Coherence means the systems that enable us to work together toward one cause.
FSL: How do you feel this first year went?
CW: I think it went really well! It wasn’t easy, but when I think about my actual goals of getting to know and being known, I think it went well. I want people to know my values, where I stand on issues, my skill set – what I can do really well and areas where I have a lot of learning to do – so they can help me. If those were my goals for year one, we’ve done a lot of work in those areas.
FSL: What aspects did you find most challenging?
CW: I’m constantly thinking about how we get everyone on the same page. It has to be a combination of grassroots and leadership meeting in the middle. Honoring teacher and student voices because they’re on the ground level, but because they’re in the thick of it all the time they rarely have the chance to come out and be visionary. So we need the leaders to be visionaries, we need teachers and students to look at the reality – and then come into the middle to see what’s practical, and balancing it is tricky. It’s a small district, and you think it would be easy, but because of the wealth of resources we have a lot of leaders, and finding a way to work together is tricky but important.
FSL: Do you think, based on the guidelines of the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, that the schools are headed in the right direction?
CW: I’m always amazed by what our students can do. I was able to observe the Greater Boston Project. The level of work and understanding the students have, the ability to collect data from surrounding districts, work with community partners – they didn’t just learn this senior year. It’s indicative of the work from K-12. Sometimes the community focuses on rigorous pathways like AP courses, but that project better demonstrates what our students can do as critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. That is our future. AI is going to take over so much, but it’s not going to be the critical thinkers and creative problem solvers – that is the human gift.
FSL: You mentioned that you researched the statistics on our students and staff of color. What is your perspective on where we stand in Needham?
CW: Whether you’re a citizen of Needham or a METCO student, if you are a student of color you have this dual consciousness where you are constantly working on what it is to be a member of this community and staying true to your identity which is often othered. Research says that students who are in environments with adults who look like them tend to do better. And it’s not the physical representation, it’s the idea, “If you belong here, I belong here too.” So we have more work to do in that area to build a diverse staff so that students can see themselves as belonging. It ought to be the responsibility of everyone that interacts with the staff of color on a daily basis to ensure they feel welcome here and can do their best work here. This is a national problem, not a Needham problem. But because I am here, I think of it as my problem to solve.
FSL: Looking ahead, what are your plans for next year?
CW: Now that I have the understanding and have some relationships, year two will be a real opportunity to dig into the work because the foundation has been laid. The next two years will be about systems and process versus outcomes. Creating those coherent systems for collaboration so no matter what is accomplished, it’s not accomplished in a silo. It’s community work and with a strong alignment to the Portrait, to the vision.