Those are the two words that inspire Mike Conway, a senior education specialist and director of Engineering Environmental Innovation (EEI) at the Center for Powerful Public Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to equity, access, and choice in public districts and schools.
Conway brings over 19 years of experience as an education leader, specializing in making high school mathematics and other technical learning accessible to students who have not yet had the opportunity for success. An acclaimed math teacher and faculty coach, he has taught across the country, most recently in a juvenile justice facility in Washington, DC.
America’s Promise Alliance was able to hear from Conway about what excites him in the field—and what challenges him. Take a look at his answers to our questions below:
Q: What work in your community are you most excited about right now?
A: As part of the EEI program I am working with a teacher at Carson High to plan a chemistry unit that will culminate in a trip to work in research labs at a local university. Chemistry, like algebra, is too often a gateway that bars students from graduating, usually due to dumbed-down teaching techniques.
We focus on developing engaging activities that spark curiosity and jumpstart students’ innate drive to discover and create. That’s what’s so exciting about the work I do at Center for Powerful Public Schools. We help teachers and students be proud by building their capacity to take on high-level, real problems.
Rather than saying “they aren’t ready because they can’t do this and that,” we honor them by working alongside scientists and grad students in a professional lab, and the students step up to learn “this and that” and a whole lot more.
Q: What inspires you to keep doing this work?
A: Student genius. It is just so inspiring to see the variety and ingenuity of the solutions that students come up with. It fills me with hope. The challenges imposed by poverty and neglect in the communities that we work in can seem intractable. And actually, if it were just left up to me or other people like me, I don’t think that the challenges would be overcome.
The most difficult problems we face will take new ideas and ways of thinking. That’s where these students come in. Diversity is their strength. The different cultures, traditions, values, beliefs, family situations and life experiences good and bad, elicit unprecedented solutions from these young people.
Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
A: I have learned that access is not enough. Students need to be actively supported in pursuing opportunities.
So often I hear, “We only want students who take the initiative to do it themselves.” An application for an internship is floated and then you wait to see who turns one in. This flies in the face of my own experience. My parents signed me up for things all the time. Colleagues and mentors pulled me into trainings or sought me out to submit a proposal for a conference workshop.
Students learn of the value of their contributions when they are compelled by caring mentors to contribute.
Q: What are the top three words that describe the biggest challenges to your work?
Stasis, Expectations, and Poverty