This post was originally published on Defender Network
By Laura Onyeneho
Education is a form of resistance that Black people have used to fight various systems of oppression for centuries. Women’s History Month serves not only as a time to celebrate the achievements of women throughout U.S history, but it also is a time to reflect on the struggles and triumphs of past generations, and those today who continue to be the change they want to see in their communities.
Errica Dotson is a Houston-based leader in education and the acting executive director of Writers in the Schools, an organization dedicated to improving children’s academic, social and creative abilities through reading and writing.
The Los Angeles native began her career in education 20 years ago as a Teach for America Corps Member, teaching 6th grade ESL, or English as a Second Language, at Houston Independent School District. Later, she served as an instructional leader, assistant principal and school support manager in HISD. She also served as the manager of teaching and learning for the Harris County Department of Education.
She’s dedicated her career to “create innovative learning experiences” for her students to “unlock their own passion and creativity.”
Dotson spoke with the Defender to share what she’s learned throughout the years.
Defender: What interested you in being an educator?
Dotson: My mother was the product of the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1960s and ’70s, and when she entered the workforce, she realized that she didn’t have the tools needed to be able to matriculate successfully through her career. She pledged to herself to do whatever she could to ensure that her children received the best education. She sought out a program called “A Better Chance,” and I was able to attend an independent school in Los Angeles on a full scholarship. That experience was revolutionary for me to use my education to impact the lives of my family and community members.
Defender: What inequities did your mother experience at the time? Has much changed from when your mom went to school?
Dotson: From our conversations, I remember when she started as a clerk and worked her way up to payroll supervisor for the city over 38 years ago, and realized that she didn’t have the same tools that (co-workers) came in with. That would have exposed me to literacy, opportunities, and learning how to prepare business documents. She decided to go back to school and went to Los Angeles Community College to better her skills. She felt cheated because she was spending money and going to work at night to prepare for what her counterparts were thriving in. Most things have stayed the same. I made the classrooms I work in as free of a learning space as possible, so the students can decide how they want to show their proficiency and understanding of concepts.
Defender: As a Teach for America corps member, what did you learn about the public school system that worked and didn’t work?
Dotson: It taught me how to be resourceful because I didn’t have much of what I needed to create this accessible space and engaging lesson. Teach for America had many resources. It helped us to be able to look outside of the school system to get what we needed for the classroom. The second thing was that I could talk directly to the principal and dean to let them know about my progress in the school. For example, I was teaching ESL, and I had beginner and exit-level students in the same class. I had 36 kids, so I did what worked best for me. I also learned that it would take much more than clocking in from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. I was at school at later hours. I was at school on Saturdays and spent Sundays planning for the week. You have to be driven by passion, a deep connection, and an understanding that children need more than someone who stands in front of a classroom teaching concepts.
Defender: How were you able to successfully turn low-performing schools around?
Dotson: I went to seminary after two years of Teach For America. I learned about my Christianity, spiritual truth and awareness. Eventually, I transitioned into Christian education because there were many challenges immigrant families faced in the communities I taught in. One parent could be working to provide for multiple kids, dealing with food insecurity, having an incarcerated parent, or watching students struggle with alcohol and drug problems. I wanted to be better equipped with tools for the school setting and my sanity and security. I was part of a turnaround team at Dogan Elementary during the 2017-2018 school year. About 10 schools in HISD were in danger of a state takeover, and students consistently failed the state test. I wanted to look at previous years’ test scores to see how students fared. Many third- to fifth-grade students needed a basic reading level. I spent time with my principal, who had a background in early childhood education, to get them caught up. At the time, we bought curriculum through McGraw Hill for corrective reading. It took a lot of time and consistent readjustment before we saw progress. In a period of (four) months, kids improved their reading skills. The next step was decoding. We were able to integrate that into the (English Language Arts) classroom. Later, I became the Manager of Teaching and Learning at the Harris County Department of Education. The work allowed me to interact with 26 school districts and make a broader impact.
Defender: Why is reading and writing a focus of Writers in the Schools?
Dotson: Writers in the Schools is essential because it merges everything I love, like reading, writing and working with teachers and students. Since 1983, the organization has engaged children and the joy and the power of reading and writing. The goal is to revolutionize the way reading and writing are taught. In schools, children are taught to prepare for tests, not writing for self-expression or pushing the needle forward to impact change in their communities and families, or at least to own their thoughts. What they think matters, and we have to nurture the growth of their imagination. We partner with authors, journalists and poets to work in tandem with teachers in the classroom.
Defender: This year’s Black History Month theme is Black Resistance. What does that mean to you as a leader and educator?
Dotson: Black Resistance to me means using your voice to inspire change. Sometimes we are handcuffed by expectations or fear of what others may think of us when we are powerful in our own right. Showing up daily with the education and experiences I’ve received to encourage and uplift others has been rewarding. Resistance is giving out that joy to those who are coming up from behind.