Let the Sunshine In: A Profile of Kamilah Hampton, Principal of Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy
When I first visited Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy the week prior to the beginning of the school year, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the front office team and Assistant Principal invited me to “make myself at home”. Principal Kamilah Hampton was en route and while I waited in her office, I did what everyone does, but no one talks about - I snooped around. I looked at her photos, the book that she’s written that is proudly displayed on her book case. I noticed that we own many of the same books and that she’s also a coffee enthusiast. Her office was busy with the strategies and inner workings of her mind displayed on charts, diagrams, and notes, as she was, like principals everywhere, preparing to equip her team with the knowledge and contexts that they needed to support their incoming students. Suddenly, Principal Hampton erupted through her office door, coffee in hand, with a giant smile on her face, cheerfully greeting me like we’d known each other our entire lives, “I’m here! What are we doing?!” I knew at that moment, that this fiery, dynamic young woman, whose passion for her students and staff literally radiated from her eyes like rays of sunshine, was going to have a huge impact on the success of Daley Elementary. It was immediately evident that she would lead with such passion and high expectations, that the desired results and student outcomes were surely to follow. Today, with the first semester of her second year under her belt, we had the chance to sit and talk one-on-one. She still has the same energy and excitement she had in August, as well as the same drive and deliberateness. I asked her to share a little about her experiences so far in her leadership journey. Here’s what she had to say.
You’re in your second year at Daley. What are you most proud of so far?
For me it’s all about building the capacity of those around me. We not only improved from a Level 2 to a Level 2+ school, but now I also have individuals in our building who are aspiring to become instructional leaders: principals, coaches, etc. So building the instructional capacity of our team is the fruit of my labor.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Challenge? Which one?! (She laughs.). The biggest opportunity has been building a culture of collaboration among the teachers. I want teachers to see the value in peer to peer dialogue, peer observations, and objective peer feedback. I was very strategic in how I selected my Instructional Leadership Team this year, because they are very strong leaders and I want to build their capacity, and also guide them in supporting their colleagues. We’re building a culture where teachers are receptive to the feedback and support they get from their colleagues.
How were you trained as an Instructional Leader?
I started as a Diverse Learners middle school teacher and then I entered the New Leaders program. Going into the residency provided me with a fresh experience, working in a school with a totally different population than I had worked with in the past. I had only worked with African American students in the past. Language was a barrier, but I viewed it as an opportunity of growth for me. I was extremely successful in my residency. My K-2 students in ELA were at 42% proficiency, and by the end of the year with coaching and support, professional development, the implementation of strong guided reading practices, we moved to 73% proficiency. My mentor for my residency attested our growth to strong instructional practices in her program. I’m trying to bring some of those same instructional practices to Daley. I’ve spent a lot of time building trust among the team, so that we can focus on developing sound instructional practices and strengthen the instructional capacity of our team. We moved from Level 2 to Level 2+ this year and we have some strong wins, and those gains were results of just a few adjustments. I’m really excited to see what we can do moving forward to becoming a Level 1+ school!
You mentioned your mentor. How important was the role of your mentor in your career journey, and how important is subsequent mentorship to you?
I did not desire to be a principal! I was “pushed” by my mentor, who was my Assistant Principal my first year of teaching. She really stuck it out with me. She saw leadership potential in me and really pushed me out of my comfort zone. She made me go into the Emerging Leaders Program and then made me go into the New Leaders program, which provided me with experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten in a traditional principal preparation program. But before New Leaders, my mentor was already guiding me on things like how to have difficult and courageous conversations, so I got some great training from her even before New Leaders. Even to this day she still pushes me to greater things. She is finishing up a doctorate program and she encouraged me to start my doctorate program. My goal is to finish in 2021! Her mentorship is really important because she helps me see potential in me that I don’t always see in myself. That’s why it’s so important for me to give back to my teachers and staff here at Daley. Now I’m encouraging them to apply to leadership programs. If they are able to be leaders and we’re speaking the same language, then that’s supporting the work that I do. A great leader is one who grows other leaders. So ideally, I’m not the only leader in this building. If I’m out, there are others who can and will step up and continue the work.
What is your why?
The very first day of professional development I brought my son. Of course, he was mad because he was still on summer vacation. But I brought him because I wanted everyone in this building to understand that any decision that I make for kids here are always reflective of how the decision would impact my son if he was a student at Daley. So, I always think about how decisions would impact my own son. Having an African American son, who is a Tier 2 kid, who’s not in the 80th and 90th percentile, I think about what support I would want, as a parent, as well as what type of school I would want my child to go to. I always go back to my child when I’m making decisions, supporting teachers, etc. And still, I’m not that far removed from the classrooms, so I often remind my teachers, when I talk about high expectations or say to them this is possible, that I’ve done this work when I was in the classroom. I had Chicago Public Schools students. I had students living in poverty. I have a strong love for supporting African American males (I may be biased because of my son). But I understand that there are days when they may come in upset or dealing with challenges from outside of school, so if a student is brought to me for disciplinary reasons, I always unpack what the student experience might be, and advocate for appropriate support for the students. I want students to feel that school is a safe space. And that goes back to “my why” being my son, and how I would want him to be supported.
Principal Hampton laughed and then walked out of her office to meet with a student who was having a rough day. I think if I had to describe her leadership style, I would say she leads with love. Her expectations are high, her approach is aggressive and fearless, but the love for her students shines through. I think we can all get behind a leader like that.