A Q&A on early learning leadership with 21CSLA's Chris Thomas

Chris Thomas headshot
Every family wants the best for their child. What would I want my children to have access to? That’s what I want every child to have access to.
Dr. Chris Thomas, UTK Certificate Coordinator
October 17, 2022

Dr. Chris Thomas has woven in and out of local schools and higher education institutions over the past two decades, embodying a fusion of research and practice: from teaching in a fourth grade classroom in California’s Inland Empire to securing his PhD in Education at the University of Wisconsin to serving as a professor at the University of San Francisco to working as a elementary school principal in Seattle to (probably the most challenging and yet fun) being a parent to toddlers. All of it, Thomas says, informs his approach developing a new Preliminary Academic Service Credential (PASC) for school leaders implementing Universal Transitional Kindergarten (UTK)  in California—a $2 million California Department of Education funded project led by the 21st Century California School Leadership (21CSLA) State Center. Named California's Professor of Education of the Year in 2010 by the Association of California School Administrators, Thomas has focused on teaching and research to develop social justice leaders—work that is at the heart of this latest 21CSLA endeavor. 

Q. What from your own education or early years as an educator has shaped you? 

A. When I was younger I was very shy and self-conscious. I figured out how to navigate the system by figuring out what I was supposed to do, but by not being noticed. My early experience with school was just to kind of hide out. I got picked on. I grew up in Indiana and that has a lot to do with my own learning and growth as an educator. It’s so important for us to see the world from all of these vantage points. I have been fortunate to live in lots of places and work in lots of spaces. That has helped me to grow as an educator and as a learner….There’s always a vantage point that you haven’t seen before. 

Q. When did you first start to think about equity in education? 

A. Inequity became really apparent to me when I started my teaching career in California. I had thought about it, I had learned about it, but the stark issues of access became really transparent to me in my first year of teaching [in terms of] what kids had access to and what they didn’t and the way in which people framed students and families. Students are highly talented but not getting the same access. As a White educator there are always pieces for me to be learning and challenging. What’s happening is not OK, and we have to do something differently. How do we listen to the students and listen to the community and bring that into the work we’re all trying to do together? Expertise and wisdom are in the community, and we need to listen. 

Q. Did you have any pivotal moments in your understanding of equity? 

A. I saw it right away. The classroom that I started in…I was supposed to teach first grade. I was supposed to teach second grade. And when I moved to California, they said to teach fourth grade. ‘You’re a male.’ There was some bravado I was supposed to bring. If you know me, you know I’m not the bravado kind of person. Decisions did not seem to be rooted in what is best for students but what made sense for adults or the system at large. We were almost 100 percent students of color and considered one of the lowest performing schools in the district. My teaching career started right when California just went to class-size reduction. Portables were put up everywhere. A lot of people were starting careers who never even taught before and were being placed with the younger children. I did not feel it was based on what was going to be best for students. I believe there were a lot of assumptions at the time about how to make this all work.  We had year-round schools in some of the places I worked. It wasn’t about instruction. It was, ‘Could we fit another 300 students in the building?’ There were a lot of systems-level things we were doing that weren’t about equity, but were creating greater inequities for students. 

Q. Are you a researcher, practitioner, or both? How does one inform the other? 

A. We often fall to an identity: ‘I’m a researcher.’ Or  ‘I’m a practitioner.’ Some of it is comfort about where we feel the most successful. It’s one of the things I appreciate about the opportunity to work at Berkeley: You have folks who are world-renowned scholars. And you also have people on the team who are amazing leaders. And they actually collaborate and work together. There aren’t many spaces unfortunately where those things coexist. We need the research pieces to inform what we’re thinking and to even to get new mindsets and reimagine our work. And there are also practical pieces: How do we take this aspect of the research and really think about how it can  inform what we’re doing? You have to have both and it’s hard to hold both. 

Q. Why did you go from working as an education professor at the University of San Francisco to being a principal in Seattle? 

A. My mom passed and I was just like…I felt like I still wanted to go back and be with kids. And it was great to go back to the field and see how to walk into this work with a different lens than how I did it a long time ago. As a young principal  I was like, ‘Wow we did it! That  worked. Oh my god, it worked. I’m not sure why it worked!’ Later on, you are much more aware and hyper-critical of yourself. You are always growing in what you see and think about. It was a powerful experience.

Q. How do you think about your own social-emotional learning in this work? 

A. I am at a stage in my career where I have a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old. How do I do the work that I want to do and also be a person to my family, too? Everyone has to figure out what that looks like for them. That’s a part of my own learning too. There’s so much to do. It’s so easy to be in ‘go mode.’ There are so many inequities….We have to do a better job as leaders modeling for our students. We all need to slow down. We need to think about what our meeting spaces look like. How do we get to know each other? How are we building on each other’s stories? We should have been doing more before the pandemic: slowing down in certain spaces to make sure we really know each other, know the work, and know how to do it. We rush into things and then we spend a lot of time on the other side. We were fast to get it started, but now we are dealing with ramifications. We didn’t build trust and relationships, and we didn’t get to know people. It’s the work we should always be doing as leaders regardless of the pandemic. Sometimes just working more is not helping if we’re not building time to establish relationships and trust with each other. 

Q. Is UTK a turning point for equity in our schools or just another state policy? 

A. It’s nice to see money coming toward education. That’s really important. At a base level, UTK is going to create more access—just in a very simplistic, straightforward way, it’s going to create new avenues for equity. That being said though, it’s going to be extremely important for all of us within education…to really reimagine what that means for us, for it to become a truly equitable piece. Access is important, but are we providing developmentally appropriate programs for students across the state no matter where they are?  What do those look like and how are we doing it? 

Q. What will happen with caregivers and preschool teachers—often women of color—as UTK comes into fruition by 2026 in California? 

A. One of the really important issues that I am learning is to think about the local context. How are we bringing caregivers and families together so that we build on things that were already successful? We have to be really thoughtful about the community as UTK programs are developed in spaces that didn’t have them before. What does that mean for the local community? How are we making sure we are utilizing the knowledge of folks who have been doing childcare and finding ways to bring them into opportunities in the work that we do, too. 

Q. Is TK just kindergarten for 4-year-olds? 

A. My biggest fear is that we’re going to bring Kindergarten down to TK and TK down to preschool. What can we learn from early learning? There are so many things we have to work on in education already. We don’t need worksheets for TK. 

Q. Is it helpful to have preschool-age children as you implement this work? 

A. When I started the work, I always saw myself as a kindergarten teacher. I have always loved the early learning environment. The love and joy that peaks as they walk down the street. We need to make sure that we harness environments that allow young children to express themselves. Developmentally appropriately also means linguistically appropriate. We have to be super thoughtful. My little ones are the best part of my day. It’s for all leaders to remember: the best way to heal yourself is to walk into an early learning environment with that joy and excitement that we should be building on. It grounds you in this work. Every family wants the best for their child. What would I want them to have access to? That’s what I want every child to have access to. 

Q. How do you hope these courses will contribute to uplifting equity in the rollout of UTK? 

A. People are coming into this space who have varying experience and little to no exposure to early learning. Even folks within the elementary level may not have foundational knowledge about preschool or TK. It’s going to be new learning for a large percentage of folks. What does high quality, developmentally appropriate instruction look like in the UTK model? This is a new paradigm for everyone. We have an opportunity to think about how we align TK in our buildings instead of just having TK that exists in our buildings but operates separately. 

Q. What do you hope will be the impact of these UTK courses and your work in this area? 

A. The part that is most important is that the leadership work is going to be framed through an equity lens. That’s very important. I think it’s an opportunity for a lot of people to be exposed to and take away foundational knowledge about early learning. What does that look like? It’s an opportunity to…walk away and say we need to be incorporating this not only in this space, but these are things we need to be thinking about all the way up through our grade levels. We know the power of play. We know about students’ autonomy to experiment. Things we’re talking about at a level with a 4-year-old are things we start to fade out when we get into our elementary, middle, and high schools. This is learning for people to see those connections and to re-remind us of those connections. It’s a powerful time for us to learn around something together because it’s going to be new for many. It’s an opportunity to dive into really important educational change….There is real opportunity to have alignment in our work. We can make some deep connections with families and students if we really think about and do this work the right way.