Offering Hope and Belief to Our Nation’s Youth
“I just fell in love with the craft,” Joaquin Tamayo reflects on the start of his career in education. “I fell in love with the opportunity to help guide and develop young people so they could really understand and live out their best potential, whatever that happened to be.”
Tamayo is currently the chief of staff to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, Cindy Marten. A New Leaders alum, he has served in multiple leadership roles: from high school teacher to principal, national nonprofit director to federal policymaker. He is passionate about redesigning our public education system so that equity in all of its dimensions—equity of experience, opportunity, relationships, gender, race, and more—has a greater chance of being achieved for our nation’s youth.
We sat down with Tamayo recently to learn more about how he got to where he is now and what his vision is for the future of our schools.
Where does your passion for redesigning our public education system come from?
I began my teaching career at a year-round school in Los Angeles. Due to overcrowding, we had three tracks, or essentially three schools, on one campus. There, I learned that I loved teaching social studies. I also loved the year-round schedule and, especially, having four months of time off each year.
But I also learned really quickly that my high school enrolled 1500 freshmen annually but only graduated 700 seniors four years later. And yet my classes were routinely oversubscribed. When I did some simple math, I was, like, wait a minute: this system is predicated, at some level, on the failure of a whole lot of kids.
It dawned on me that if our school was any more successful, if our graduation rates got any higher, if upwards of 800 students didn’t disappear between freshman and senior year, the school would quickly run out of quality teachers, space, or resources for many more students. It was a sobering realization.
Just operationalizing those two things alone — equity and excellence, at the same time — would revolutionize our public education system.
Scales fell from my eyes: the system wasn’t designed to deliver successful outcomes for all of our students. It was then that I truly understood my responsibility to be part of a systemic solution to ensure equity for all young people.
What drew you to New Leaders?
After four years of teaching, I went to graduate school for public policy to see if I could learn to do something about educational inequity at a systems level. It was in graduate school that I realized I didn’t want a policy job without more practical experience. I wanted to be back with the kids. So I applied to the New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program.
I was 26 years old. I had so much naivete paired with a pretty limitless supply of hope and optimism and dreams about what I could do.
After a successful residency at the Bronx Academy of Letters, I founded a small high school — The Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law — in New York City. I was a principal there for four years.
What New Leaders provided for me was a deeply personalized path to becoming a school leader. Beginning with those seven weeks of foundation courses—I’d never been in such an immersive experience—my time with New Leaders profoundly shaped who I became as an educator and a human being. Put simply, New Leaders changed my life.
New Leaders helped me to find my potential as a school leader, and that’s why I am at the U.S. Department of Education today. I believe to my core that every system is perfectly designed for the results that it gets. If we want different results, we have to redesign the system.
If you could redesign our PK-12 education system right now, what would your top three priorities be?
There are so many ways to redesign, but I would make sure that every young person and adult connected to any learning community in this country understand at a visceral level that they belong there. And that they belong not just because they were told they do, but because the relationships and the experiences and the environments are purposely designed to give them what they need, when they need it, and in the way they need it. When this happens for young people, no matter who they are or where they are in their development, they understand that they belong.
In addition to belonging, which is the foundation of anything good that happens in education, my second priority would be that everyone gets an equitable and excellent education. Just operationalizing those two things alone—equity and excellence, at the same time—would revolutionize our public education system.
My third priority, and it's intimately connected to my first two priorities, would be to design learning communities that convey respect, love, and care for young people and for the adults who work for them—schools that our kids deserve.
Additionally, and because I've been deeply involved in the science of learning and development over my career, I would want everyone to understand the three things that create the cognitive fuel any young person needs to learn and develop: positive developmental relationships, rich learning experiences, and supportive environments. Together, these three design elements support every young person in finding their own potential and intrinsic motivation to succeed.
We need to replace our current system and mindsets with a system designed for belonging, equity and excellence, and caring for adults and children alike—all of which would be guided by what we know from the science of learning and development around how young people thrive.
Is there a vision at the national level for how we can reimagine PK-12 education?
At the Department of Education, in alignment with President Biden, the secretary and deputy secretary’s vision is that we need to have a public education system that not only serves America but looks like America. Our schools must be responsive to our young people, to their individual communities, their families, their needs, wants, and aspirations.
We have a diverse country, so it matters that we have diverse representation in our schools. When we look at the landscape around the representation of leaders, teachers, and other school staff of color and compare it to the overall population of young people in our schools today, it strongly suggests that the current system isn't designed to have parity between who is developing our young people and our young people themselves.
And we know that one determinant of young people’s life trajectories, either the opportunity or lack thereof, is to deeply know people who have a shared identity, a shared cultural experience, a shared language. Our brains and bodies are constantly searching for that shared space. It feels safe. In those spaces, young people are able to make meaning of their experiences in a positive way so their minds are open to learning and expanding their horizons.
Our education system is an opportunity to really invest in the young people in our country. I never went into this to be a role model for Latino people in this country, but I tell everyone, particularly people of color, that education is a rewarding career. That our country needs you. And our young people need you, too.
What is your advice to education leaders right now?
I worry that we have a deficit of hope in this country and a deficit of belief. But it was hope and belief that powered me through the hard times.
We need more leaders in the system who are able and willing to offer hope and belief to our young people, and not just in rhetorical ways, but through relationships, experiences, and environments. We need leaders who demonstrate that all of this matters.
What New Leaders provided for me was a deeply personalized path to becoming a school leader.
I can tell you that our young people want to learn. They want to live happy and fulfilled lives. They want our country to succeed. The young people are ready for us. It's the adults in our system who need to do the heavy lifting.
My number one piece of advice is: If you think you're that person, then persevere. Be resilient and good things will happen as long as you keep holding hope and belief front and center.