“Mr. Smith convinced me I was smart. He convinced me that William Shakespeare was the best rapper of all time. Mr. Smith convinced me to be a teacher.”
Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, who this year was confirmed as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, told me during a recent conversation at his office in Harrisburg, that it was his tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Smith, who inspired him to not only go into teaching, but to go into teaching English himself.
Mr. Smith showed him how English and literature could open up worlds for students, especially students like him and his classmates in one of the most underserved communities in Philadelphia. He also showed that teaching and learning could be engaging and uplifting, even for students who face additional barriers to success.
Now as Secretary, he said he feels uniquely positioned within the administration of Governor Josh Shapiro to propel that work in new ways.
“Since Ed Rendell, there hasn’t been a governor in the state that really put education at the forefront of their platform,” Mumin said. “We do now with Governor Shapiro, and I feel very fortunate in that sense.”
As a teacher, Mumin says he was sustained by the scores of colleagues and mentors who touched his work, impacted his trajectory, along the way.
“This is a career of mentorship and people who are able to see things in you that maybe you can’t see yourself,” he said. “I had a series of mentors who were on the sideline, telling me ‘you can do this’. That has led me to believe throughout my career that if you don’t have the head and the heart, this isn’t the profession for you.”
“When I got into the classroom I knew I wanted to make learning fun,” recounts Secretary Mumin. “With learners, you can never ever count them out. Never. [Teaching] is that message in the bottle that you throw out to sea. You don’t know who’s on the other end of it and how it may impact them.”
A chance run in with then-Governor Tom Ridge very early in his teaching career gave him the confidence to believe he could one day ascend the leadership ladder.
“Governor Ridge wanted to visit our school because he was interested in creating new academic standards,” Mumin recounted. “ I didn’t know what a ‘D’ or ‘R’ was. Nobody wanted him to come to their class, they were too nervous, but I said ‘Sure!’ My lesson was on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He sat there and watched the whole lesson. He said, ‘Kid you’re going places, you ever need anything, be in touch.’”
From that conversion, Mumin went on to help norm the first state English assessments. He ascended the leadership ladder in districts and was soon at the helm himself.
His focus, as he recounts it, has always been on having a clarity about who educators and leaders are working in the service of: students. It means recognizing that the community needs the best from their schools at every turn, that the members of communities are owed at least that, and then some.
“I’ve been in some tough districts and we’ve had some remarkable results,” he recalled. “I remember a tough meeting in one district, just a few months into the job. My team was complaining about there being insufficient parent involvement. I said, forget about parent involvement, that’s the old way of thinking about it. Our goal is engagement, we have to meet them where they are. We have a 96 percent in person attendance rate. The parents are giving us their best.”
“I said, we have 7 students in the building who were proficient, a few advanced, the rest were split between basic and below basic,” he continued. “When do we take responsibility for this?”
“I said if we can’t create a sense of hope and safety for these students within the walls of our schools, how do they stand a chance in our society?”
There are new challenges as the state’s chief school officer, but he remains focused on the quality of teaching and learning for all students.
“As a superintendent I had great autonomy and great control. In this position, I have autonomy, but everything moves through a series of processes and steps—this job is so complex,” he noted. “Trying to get to a place of compromise, being in a room with people you just aren’t on the same page with, but we’ve got to find common ground. This is what leadership is, it’s trying to establish trust and for our agency saying what we do and doing what we say—we’ve been working on being more responsive.
In his new role, Dr. Mumin brings the same internal compass, that same northstar.
“Wherever I went in my career, I saw a lot more similarity than difference,” he explained. “What do you need for student success? You need parents, you need teachers with excellent pedagogy, instruction, and engagement.”
The state is taking action to strengthen the teaching profession from the state department level to a coalition partnership of school districts, nonprofits, and philanthropy. The PA Needs Teachers coalition is focused on addressing widespread and specific teacher shortages while at the same time holding firm on and elevating teacher quality. Mumin and his team are taking active steps in an aligned vein, focusing on processes that can be easily improved to benefit educators and school systems alike.
One of those steps and processes that he’s focused on impacting has been the state’s approach to teacher licensure. As part of a broader effort by governor Shapiro to streamline credentialing processes, Mumin and the Department have taken what was a 14 week process that saw high rates of attrition from applicants, to a process that runs closer to between two and four weeks.
He’s also focused on accelerating the placement of student teachers directly into the districts where they have done their student teaching.
“Student teachers are unique,” he noted. “You get to see them for 14 weeks, see what they can do for 14 weeks. Why should they be at the back of the certification line? There’s now a VIP line for them so they can be hired on the spot. It’s a great graduation gift.”
The gift of becoming a teacher is hopeful and empowering for a young person coming into the field. It’s a spirit he carries with him even today.
“We have to show that there is true joy in teaching,” he concluded. “You have to demonstrate that when you’re in elevated positions. You have to recognize that you have the next set of teachers in front of you, model the power and joy of teaching and you can inspire the next generation of teachers.”