As an educator and a leader, I always have my eye on students who have not been well served, students with challenges to overcome and barriers to break through. Then, I always set my sights on how we can ensure their success. This is the moral imperative that has guided my work throughout my education career. Why? Because I was that student.

I was that data point that would be easy for a teacher to ignore. The student with barriers and challenges that could have gotten in my way, that could have stopped me altogether. I know firsthand the experience of being able to thrive because some educators on my path lifted me up, and I am committed to lifting up others.

In particular, my focus has been on lifting up other women of color who choose to lead. The origin of this focus stems not only from my own lived experience but also from the lived experiences of generations of women before me. My focus on students who need and deserve better in schools, and my focus on lifting up female leaders of color may seem distinct, but in fact, they are very connected. They both center on identifying the talents, skills, and needs of others, so we can all lift each other up toward greater success.

Deputy Superintendent Lora de la Cruz.

If I could give any guidance to principals who are women of color, it would be this: Know the origins of your leadership story, shine a light on talent, and let your moral imperative guide you.

Know Your Leadership Story

My leadership story is only possible because of the would-be leaders who came before me. I grew up surrounded by mamá and my tías, strong Mexican women who had the kind of resilience and perseverance that comes from living through very difficult times. When I was very young, my mamá became a young widow with five children, spoke broken English, and had a dream of attending college. She spent her days in class and her evenings studying and working. As a result, I was that kid some teachers could easily judge—you know the one—the student with a single mom who did not understand the American public school system, who did not have time to attend parent-teacher conferences, school festivals, and PTA meetings. The student “who isn’t going to make it because her mother doesn’t care.” But the reality was quite the opposite: My mamá cared deeply but came from a culture that trusted schools and teachers to be the experts. I ultimately found my way to success because my mamá expected it, and because a few teachers along my path saw something in me and went out of their way to lift me up.

Growing up, my siblings and I spent time at my grandparents’ small, humble home in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. There, I was immersed in the talk of my tías, where I watched them make a meal for many out of very little. Where I witnessed my tías deeply listen to each other, acknowledge, support, and encourage each other. Where I learned about women lifting up other women. I realized then that relationships form the core of leadership, and I have never forgotten their value.

Shine a Light on Talent

I am proud to have led across the K–12 spectrum and to have worked with students and families from all socioeconomic backgrounds. When I moved from school leadership into district leadership six years ago, I was immediately drawn to helping support building principals as leaders. My work specifically focused on leading alongside middle and high school principals and assistant principals to improve conditions for the students we serve.

The unique environments of middle and high school are ripe for professional learning communities, data-driven instruction, and multi-tiered systems of support. The content area expertise of secondary teachers lends itself well to professional learning communities and data-driven instruction. I have had incredibly impactful experiences with secondary school principals, from aligning our practices across classrooms, schools, and campuses to providing leadership toward dramatic improvements, to ensuring greater inclusivity for all students. In every case, I have sought out the skills of principals, held them up as bright spots, and built upon their excellence to scale their good work so that others could learn from promising practices. Shining a light on their talent is one effective school improvement strategy that I have relied on throughout my career.

Let Your Moral Imperative Guide You

Having served as an assistant principal, principal, community superintendent, superintendent, and now a proud deputy superintendent, I am continuing my mission: to find those students who have not been served well historically and who are experiencing inequitable educational outcomes, and to improve practices and provide opportunities that will lead to their growth and development. This is my moral imperative. This is my north star.

I believe that every leader must know theirs as well. That way, we will never waiver from what is most important, and in turn, students will benefit—which is why we work in education, isn’t it?

Lessons Learned

Making a positive impact on students’ lives and futures is a privilege. Even so, it’s not easy. Throughout my leadership journey, I have encountered many challenges, all of which have taught me one of the most important life lessons I have ever learned: not to take things personally.

I’ll never forget when, as a principal, I was engaged in a tough conversation with a parent who asked me, in an attempt to put me down, if I “even understood English.” Or the time I was hired in a competitive process and a community member rudely commented that I was a “diversity hire.” Or the time I raised expectations to change practices in schools and received strong pushback in return. In all of these instances, I kept my eye on my north star—doing better for the students in our care and ensuring that they have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

These experiences have taught me not to give in to debates or arguments and lose myself in them. Instead, I have always strived to keep my cool, to listen to concerns, and to share information to build collective understanding. Among the greatest lessons I have learned as a school leader? Start with relationships and seek common ground so that we can move forward together.

Leadership is tough and presents new challenges every day. That’s why it’s so important for women in school leadership to always be lifting each other up. As we know, the higher that educators climb through the ranks, the fewer women we see in leadership positions. It’s long past time to change this.

To that end, my work with women principals, and in particular women principals of color, is focused on uplift. As the saying goes, “empowered women empower women.” I urge every woman in school leadership to find and lift up other women as school leaders. Only then can we finally fill top leadership positions with women and with women of color, and with the kind of uplift that makes a tough job just a little bit easier and a whole lot more meaningful.

Lora de la Cruz, EdD, is deputy superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, CO.