Questions for California School Leaders: LaWanda Wesley on Supporting Teacher Well-Being in Oakland

Wesley supports young children in the city by making sure their teachers have the resources and training they need to do their best work
Blog Post
July 15, 2019

California’s new governor has made a splash proposing new investments to support young children and families. But at the local level school leaders have been working on these issues for years—focused on providing early childhood teachers and caregivers access to quality training and preparation.

In this occasional series, we talk with school leaders (administrators, principals, school superintendents) about the students they serve and new ways forward in training teachers to provide quality education to the children growing up in the golden state.

In this post, I talk with LaWanda Wesley. Wesley has deep roots in Oakland. Her mother and aunt worked in the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program in the city in the early 70’s. Today Wesley is also supporting young children in the city by making sure their teachers have the resources and training they need to do their best work.

Tell me about your job in Oakland, what do you do?

My job title is director of quality enhancement and professional development for early learning for Oakland Unified School District. In that role, I support quality initiatives as well as all the professional development offerings made available to our early learning teaching staff. California has a professional development and retention initiative that supports teachers to make sure they are a skilled workforce, and also to support retention because we know the more knowledgeable teachers feel about their jobs, the more likely we are to retain them in this field.


What are the areas in which early childhood teachers in Oakland need the most support?

The big one is challenging behaviors that may be more or less about children who have been exposed to trauma. If children aren’t able to verbalize their needs, have trouble sharing, aren’t able to engage in their natural interest and curiosity to learn, it can be really challenging to the teacher’s goals for the rest of the class. Teachers need strategies. We had a behaviorist come this past year who led several sessions and talked about what practical classroom supports looked like and practical strategies teachers can use to support children who have challenging behaviors. The goal is that we no longer want to engage in the practice of expulsion and suspension of young children. We are now seeing that teachers are more knowledgeable, but as they feel more knowledgeable, they more than ever feel less equipped. Now they need higher-level skills and we are working on that. Many of our children in Oakland are trauma-exposed. We are working with teachers to understand the difference between challenging behaviors, where children, for example, can be helped by skill building and social emotional learning, and when children may be having a trauma trigger because of their history. That’s not easy to always sort out.

I know many teachers in Oakland are also living in stressful conditions themselves.

Yes, early education teachers can’t afford to live in Oakland. We know that the majority of the early education workforce in our state is made up of women, and they are made up of women of color. We also know the majority of them earn below $15 an hour. In a high cost county like Alameda, specifically in Oakland, how are they to live? They are driving for Uber and Lyft and working second or third jobs. They are stressed. We have to figure out how to raise teacher compensation.

Are you hopeful about the budget commitment from Governor Newson and the new bills coming out of the state legislature? How will this affect your teachers?

We are thankful for the budget commitment from the governor, and very grateful. But we are still concerned about how this is going to look long-term. Will these investments be sustained? Will we address compensation and make sure teachers can afford higher education programs?

The educators I work with in Oakland Unified too often can’t access training opportunities because of their low salaries. Many are relying on public assistance themselves to get by. They plop themselves on my desk and say “Ms. LaWanda, I’m 15 units shy. I know that if I can get 15 more units, that will allow me to move higher on the school district’s pay scale. But I don’t have the time. I don’t have the money. And if I do go back to school, how am I going to pay back those student loans?” This is current reality.

You are born and raised in Oakland?

Working in OUSD has become so personal. I was raised by a single mom in poverty in Oakland and suffered from what we now call adverse childhood experiences. I raised 5 children. When I go back and do this work in Oakland, it’s personal. It’s like my ministry. Children need at least one caring adult who is crazy mad about them. I had that one person in my life, and it made a difference. I’m really proud of the trauma-informed practice work we are doing in the school district; it says no matter what the conditions are we want to seed a birth of hope. Teachers and families here have a lot to be proud of.

Read more about Oakland’s work to train teachers in trauma-informed classroom practice.

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