It wasn’t hard for Cornelius Lee to find motivation as a teacher on Chicago’s West Side; all he had to do was look at his students.
“I was constantly reminded of the harsh realities my students faced on a daily basis,” Lee says. “My students were bombarded with images and messages of low-expectations, lack of self-worth, and inescapable oppression. Many of them entered school academically behind and were affected by emotional and social development challenges.”
Although the charter school at which he worked was a supportive environment, both for its students and teachers, Lee couldn’t help but notice a greater struggle happening in the public schools around him. It was the desire to close the gap in opportunity that led him to the Ed School’s School Leadership Program (SLP).
“I firmly believe education is the primary lever to break the cycle of poverty,” he says. “As such, schools should work for all students attending any school, not just for some students attending certain schools. Wanting to impact educational equality drove my desire to come to HGSE.”
Described by classmates as a “scholar, activist, and leader” who acts with “humility and grace,” Lee had great impact on his cohort at HGSE this year.
“Cornelius Lee’s blend of passion, purpose, intellect, and deep caring and connection for people has contributed powerfully to the learning of classmates — a concept we call ‘stewardship,’” says Lecturer Lee Teitel, program director of SLP. “He exemplifies that spirit and we — the teaching staff and the peers that nominated him — are proud to give him this award.”
Post-graduation, Lee will be returning to Chicago as a principal resident in the Chicago Public Schools. Upon learning that he had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for SLP, Lee answered some questions about his time at the Ed School and beyond.
What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? Learning experiences best occur when people are authentic and vulnerable with one another. This takes a high level of trust, which school leaders must cultivate. Trust is contingent upon strong relationships and honesty. I’ve learned that a good school leader creates conditions that build trust by honoring who people are and what they bring to the table. Race, gender, class, culture, and sexual orientation create the fabric of who we are, and as such, people can’t be expected to leave these identifiers at the door when they come to work.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year? I have an extremely supportive partner who has been my rock throughout this year. Although he’s not a person of color, he is dedicated to combating the injustices people of color face in our country. One of my favorite things about our relationship is our shared passion for seeking out opportunities to push each other’s racial development and understanding. It isn’t always pretty or easy, but we usually walk away learning something new.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Be your authentic self in every moment. Leadership is deeply personal, and can be lonely at times. People naturally approach any job with contrasting beliefs, values, and fears. Take the time as a graduate student and allow yourself to take low-stakes risks towards understanding who you are and how your identity relates to others as you pursue a role in system-level leadership. Also, build a network. The best part of this year has been the ability to connect and form deep relationships with a plethora of people who bring diverse perspectives and expertise to the field. I know I’ll call on many of these people when I enter the workforce.
What will you change in education and why? I’ve been thinking a lot about changing the education structures that impact low-income, minority students. From a structural perspective, the primary architects of our country’s urban school systems don’t reflect the racial or economic backgrounds of the students they serve. As a result, racism and classism is embedded in these structures that make up the system. I don’t believe this is always nefarious or even an intentional choice. Yet, I do believe this sort of structural racism is part of a larger issue of not having strong people of color in positions where they are driving the design of the structures that impact our nation’s most disadvantage people.
If you could transport one person/place/thing from HGSE and/or Cambridge to your next destination, what would it be? The continuous supply of candy from the office of student affairs. Chocolate tends to make everything a little better.