Recognized Education Leader, Meet Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools
Q: When your career in Education started, did you have any idea, you would be where you are today?
Dr. Dewan: I began my career in education as a fourth grader teacher. I loved teaching and I had no idea at that time what the future would hold nor what the possibilities for advancement were.
Q: When you began your career as a teacher, can you describe your philosophy of teaching?
Dr. Dewan: As a teacher, I thought it was important to create the conditions in the classroom for active learning and collaboration. I believed that children enjoy learning, like to set goals, and embrace new challenges. Students demonstrate their knowledge and are most engaged with “Hands on” learning lessons and projects. I believed that it was my job to be prepared and I was always eager to work long hours to prepare lesson plans and materials for students.
Q: How long were you a teacher before you knew you wanted to take the next step as Principal? Can you share with our audience what motivated you to take that step up to Principal?
Dr. Dewan: My career in Educational administration started when a leader I admired greatly encouraged me to become a school principal. I was hesitant at first to leave the classroom after nine years because the students inspired me. I had taken on several leadership roles with committees and schoolwide projects and really enjoyed the work. My mentor convinced me that I could do even more as a school principal and that I could make a bigger contribution to the community.
Q: Tell us about the time you spent as Director of Special Education?
Dr. Dewan: I served as Director of Special Education for about five years. It was a remarkably challenging and extremely rewarding position in which I could create programs and support young people and their families. During this time, we explored the concepts of universal design for learning as a means to break down silos and support all students.
Q: How is education changing?
Dr. Dewan: It is a very exciting time in education. We know more about how students learn than we ever have before. We are able to engage students in learning about science, technology, computer science, engineering and math through project based learning and hands on projects. We are also seeing the value of civics education, encouraging youth to understand and participate in our democracy, understanding history through varying perspectives and applying the skills of civil discourse.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that teachers face today?
Dr. Dewan: Teachers today are facing many challenges. Teachers worry about the increasing levels of anxiety that young people are experiencing. Safety and emergency preparedness are top of mind for many educators today as well. Teachers have to be prepared for potential emergencies created by fire, earthquake or flood. Campus safety continues to be an area of challenge for all of us in education.
Q: Can you share with us some of the educational opportunities you have championed as Superintendent?Dr. Dewan: I am a strong advocate for the expansion of Early care, heath, and education. The first five years of a child’s life are the most vulnerable years and also the time when the most brain development is occurring. Along with my colleagues on the County Board of Education, we have championed efforts to increase access to quality early learning. I was an early champion of Educare of California at Silicon Valley, a high quality early learning campus in east San Jose.
Inclusive learning is a high priority and one way that I demonstrate the importance is through support of the Inclusion Collaborative. We expanded the Inclusion Collaborative to have a focus on equity and to serve families and children birth to Grade 12.
Q: In your role as Superintendent, what steps can you implement to see that every child gets the opportunity to succeed and be prepared for college, career and life?
Dr. Dewan: Every child is precious, and it is our obligation to provide each and every child with opportunities. Strong partnerships are key. When we work together to offer enriching programs and services in and out of school and remove barriers to access, children have their best chance. A firm foundation in the first few years is an important component and investments in health and wellness pay dividends.
Q: I see several issues facing Public Schools like; Classroom Size, Parent Involvement, Student Health (Obesity) along with Bullying. I’m sure funding is a big issue … what do you feel still needs to be done to assure that no child is left behind?
Dr. Dewan: I am glad that you brought up funding. It is the biggest challenge facing our schools. California still ranks near the bottom in the nation in terms of per pupil spending, despite the fact that we are one of the wealthiest economies in the world. I think there is more that could be done to address funding in education. Educators, families, and community want schools to be able to support the needs of their students in many areas including social and emotional wellness. Another issue that is becoming more prominent in the bay area is homelessness and housing insecurity. More families and children are impacted by the devastating consequences of instable housing on their health, wellness, and education.
Q: What types of programs can be implemented to assure students and teachers can have a continued successful partnership?
Dr. Dewan: Programs that create a safe and healthy community and promote equity build the foundation for successful partnership. Mindfulness and trauma informed practices building community and wellness.
Q: What’s the toughest part of your job?
Dr. Dewan: I sincerely love my work. The things that make the work tough are the same things that make it rewarding. I enjoy tackling new challenges and problem solving. I hope that in some small way, every day, I can make a difference for the children in Santa Clara County.
Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Dr. Dewan: The pace of change today is incredibly fast, and the allure of the next new thing is ever present. This environment can be challenging and anxiety inducing. Living, working, and leading in this environment requires balance in ways previous generations did not have to worry about.
Q: What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
Dr. Dewan: Leaders make mistakes. We don’t always get it right. The leadership lesson is forgiveness. We have to be willing to reflect, learn from our mistakes, forgive ourselves and then extend the same to those with whom we work. Leadership is a people business.
Q: Can you share with our audience one of your most memorable events of your career?
Dr. Dewan: One of the most memorable events of my career was at the first graduation of our Opportunity Youth Academy. Each graduation continues to be memorable. Opportunity Youth Academy is a school for young people who need another chance and some additional support and encouragement to earn their high school diploma and embark on college and career. As one of the architects of the program, I was overjoyed at our first graduation. The stories of perseverance and gratitude from the students are unforgettable. We demonstrated that we believed in them and they achieved despite all odds.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
Dr. Dewan: I am inspired by women and girls every day. I admire the courage of women who run for elected office and engage in public service. This calling to elected office is foundational to preserving our democracy. Qualified, committed women who serve in elected office deserve our support and admiration.
I would like to honor my deceased grandmother, Rosella. She inspired me as a young person and continues to do so. Rosella advocated for inclusion and acceptance of her daughter with Down’s Syndrome at a time in our country’s history when individuals with disabilities were removed from their families and institutionalized. She fought against institutionalization knowing that inclusion, acceptance, and love were inherent rights for all children. Rosella encouraged me to pursue college and to have a career, opportunities that she and other women of her generation did not have. I continue to be inspired by her courage, persistence, and wisdom to advocate for all children.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
Dr. Dewan: Women continue to face challenges related to wage equity, affordable childcare, and access to diverse opportunities. We still have a long way to go towards equity in representation in elected office, CEO positions, and in the board room. And, in certain fields of work, women are still underrepresented. Women working in careers that have been traditionally dominated by women such as childcare and early education have lower than average wages.
Q: Can you offer some advice for young women that may want to pursue a career as an educator?
Dr. Dewan: I hope more young women will consider a career in education. I have found it to be a very rewarding profession. There are many types of positions in education so consider all of the possibilities. Not everyone who works as an educator is a classroom teacher. All types of positions exist such as college professor, community college instructor, tutor, special educator, school psychologist, interpreter, audiologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and school nurse. Educators are everyday heroes. The first few years can be challenging so it is important to take care of yourself, establish a network of colleagues, and never stop learning. The more we learn, the more we realize how much there is to learn about children, teaching and learning, curriculum, brain development, and building community in the classroom.
Five Things about Superintendent Dr. Mary Ann Dewan
1. What book are you currently reading?
I am always reading several books at the same time. Currently, I am finishing Peace Like a River by Lief Enger for book club, enjoying Becoming by Michelle Obama, and revisiting Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Alicia Grunow, Anthony S Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, and Paul G. LeMahieu.
2. What were you like as a student?
I loved school from my very first day in kindergarten. I was a hard working student, never afraid to raise my hand to answer questions in class, and an avid reader. I think my teachers got annoyed when I wanted to read ahead in the text book instead of waiting for them to get it.
3. What do you like the most about living in the Bay Area?
I love living in the Bay Area. The temperate climate brings me great joy! I love being outdoors so the Bay Area affords such easy access to the many wonderful outdoor experiences like hiking, visiting the coastal beaches, and exploring the parks.
4. What app can’t you live without?
I can’t live without my Starbucks App. The mobile ordering feature is a time saver for my busy mornings.
5. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I would appreciate a conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I am impressed by her perseverance, courage, and strength. Justice Ginsburg would have valuable insights into the building blocks of change. The conversation would be inspiring and I could personally thank her for her legacy of women’s equality in the law.