Social Emotional School Finance - A Conversation with Dominique McCain

Dominique McCain: I'd be willing to bet that many of the teachers that are in the classroom right now are there because of a teacher that influenced them.

This is teacher, administrator, nonprofit leader and early childhood advocate Dominique McCain.

McCain: As much as I did not ever see myself as being an educator, my grandmother is a retired 40 year educator. She was a third grade teacher, and I spent many days after school in her third grade classroom washing her chalkboards. That was a real thing back then. And she is pivotal in my development throughout the course of my life. And I will say this: my grandmother had the access, right, and the awareness as an educator to put me in the right classrooms. And so I know that I'm privileged in that way, and have been throughout the course of my academic career. Our parents now may or may not have that opportunity.

So we’ve got to ensure that every classroom a child goes into is a high quality classroom, that every teacher that has the opportunity to work with children is the right teacher. Because otherwise, what are we doing?

This mission- to ensure children have access to high quality classrooms and teachers- has guided McCain throughout the course of her career, which began as a middle school science teacher in Aldine ISD, outside of Houston.

McCain: One of the things I used to share with them is puberty makes you a little crazy, and you are the ugliest and the smelliest you'll ever be in life, right now. And if you can make it through this, you can make it through anything. And I shared pictures of myself in middle school with them and brought in my old middle school yearbooks so they could see that the teacher that I was, and the person I was standing before them wasn't always who I was. And sometimes the things that they shared were hard for me to take in and proceed in my work, but I always was honored and felt humbled that they made me aware of something that they were dealing with so that then it could inform how I continued to deal with them.

McCain was able to speak directly to the challenges being faced by her students not only because of her educational training, but because of the realities of her personal story.

McCain: There were many traumatic and very difficult experiences that I had as a child. When I was a teacher in the classroom, every single one of the things that I had dealt with as a child showed up in my classroom with other children. And if I had not worked on myself and dealt with some of my own issues, I wouldn't have been able to support those kids through some of that stuff. A child who is visibly upset, having what appeared to be an emotional breakdown to some degree, is not ready to learn these science vocabulary words, no matter how much I wish they were. And so it behooved me, in my practice, to put my students first, literally.

For McCain, that meant entire class periods dedicated to a “feeling circle,” in which students could express their emotions- but only if they were willing to work double the next day.

McCain: And, believe it or not, you know, my middle school students were very willing to work double. They were very willing to trade off that time and meet my expectations, even if it required more work, because it really mattered that they got an opportunity to talk about the things that were bothering them.

McCain was making a huge difference in the lives of the students she taught, and seeing the evidence in their academic achievement.  It inspired her to spread her strategies throughout her school district.

McCain: As I began to learn the craft, learn the skills, develop my own philosophy, I began to understand that my sphere of influence as a classroom teacher really was not where I wanted to end my career. I had some really great mentors who began to push me to do things such as, you know, go to different campuses and turn around their science departments and help develop their science teachers. And that was my work. I spent 15 total years in Aldine, three different campuses, five years apiece, working what, inevitably, was a turnaround strategy. I didn't have that language at the time. I was just doing what I knew was best, but working a turnaround strategy for students who had not seen success on any of the high stakes standardized tests that had been given to them, and am grateful to say I saw lots of success with students who previously hadn't passed tests. And it took a lot of creativity, to be frank with you.

McCain then brought that creativity to the Dallas Independent School District as senior talent lead, teaching newly-hired teachers the best practices she had developed.

McCain: I wanted teachers to be well equipped for the job, the way I felt like I had been well equipped. But I will say, I saw some of the very same challenges in those college-educated adults that I saw in my middle school students as it related to testing, both from a literacy standpoint and a math standpoint. Because science is a subject where you have to activate both literacy and math simultaneously. And once I saw that adults were still dealing with some of those deficiencies, it instantly made me think, we've got to get in front of this sooner, and sooner in my mind meant earlier, and earlier in my mind meant with younger children.

So she moved into Dallas’ Early Education department as director of instructional strategy.

McCain: I was responsible for all things curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development for all teachers and students Pre-K through second grade. And so, just take a breath, taking that in. It required me to build relationships with people across so many different departments in the district.

This work also allowed McCain to build relationships with nonprofit partners to the district, including Early Matters Dallas, where she now works as director.

McCain: Now, a lot of the work that I did in early learning in Dallas ISD, a lot of the best practices that we're now hearing about that Dallas has implemented, I'm able to take to multiple school districts across the county. And it is definitely a privilege be able to do that.

Early Matters Dallas is a broad-based coalition of business, civic, education, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations and volunteers, working together to achieve a goal of 60% of Dallas County third graders reading on a college-ready pace by 2025.

McCain: We primarily focus on supporting early childhood- the ecosystem from birth to eight years old, and that shows up in the form of a couple different things. Our work is mostly measured on kinder-readiness and third grade reading, and across the county, we're really trying to encourage best practices both within school districts as well as outside of school districts that really target quality instruction for children as early as possible. And so we've tried to create a space where we bring people together to really focus on, how do we make sure that kids are learning in the best ways possible, as soon as possible.

Translating the very personal and often emotionally-charged work of effectively educating young students into actionable policy directives across a county (or state) can be difficult work.  But it helps to be led by someone with the level of experience McCain has.

McCain: It takes a holistic approach to understanding a child and who the child is as a whole person and the whole child. Is the teacher who has been assigned to give students the information they need and to teach them the things they need to learn, is that person high quality, has that person been given the tools and skills that they need to actually execute the work? Is the environment in which we have children as early as birth, are those environments safe? Have we made sure that the materials and the supplies that they will work with are not toxic, are not sharp-edged, different things, and that's kind of in the weeds. But bottom line, we really just want quality experiences and quality instruction for all children in Dallas County.

In its report released late last year, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance recommended the creation of a third-grade reading allotment, which would direct nearly $800 million toward early education statewide. Texas legislators have demonstrated a willingness to support new funding for public schools in a bipartisan and bicameral fashion during the current legislative session.

But all this raises an important question: if our schools can expect new money for early education, how can we ensure it’s spent in a way that improves student outcomes?  Dominique McCain has some ideas.

1. Shift resources and attention to the “non-tested” grades 1 and 2.

McCain: The best predictor of future performance is past performance. And when a third grade teacher gets their roster of students at the beginning of the school year, they aren't getting a classroom of kids ready to now execute the skills necessary to be successful in third grade. They're getting a group of students where, in some instances, the majority of them are not ready for third grade. So then that teacher now has the onus and responsibility of not only teaching this child what is necessary to be successful in third grade, but trying to figure out a really creative and consistent way to onboard all the skills and foundational knowledge that was needed to get them ready for third grade. That might sound convoluted, but that's the reality for a lot of our teachers.

And so I really do believe that we have to shift our focus from just kindergarten ready and third grade ready to every grade ready, because it requires a certain level of skill from every teacher at every grade to execute such that students are mastering skills in that particular grade level.

2. Increase access to professional development for teachers that is personalized to their classroom needs.

McCain: It can't be a cookie cutter model. It's not easy to figure out. And sometimes it's very costly to even think about differentiating that professional development or support. But it's necessary, because teachers are trying to navigate two very different spaces: the space of intervention and the space of prevention, which requires very different skills for them. If I'm a second grade teacher and I've honed my craft as a second grade teacher, am I really prepared and developed for a child who comes into my classroom reading on a kindergarten level? How do I address that, and who supports me in addressing that?  We say a lot, but we don't practice a lot, start with where they are. And I believe one of the reasons we don't practice it is because we don't know how.

Teachers need to have access to a robust set of systems and resources that allow them to teach the child wherever that child is in their literacy development.

3. Re-think the way we hire and promote campus leadership.

McCain: Typically principals are promoted by going up to middle school and then promoted again by going up to high school.

I’d like to offer that we need really strong leadership in our elementary schools, and in our early childhood schools, because without that strong leadership, that foundation is not set for what comes next and later in that child’s academic career.

I think campuses really need strong campus based leadership so that early childhood teachers and elementary teachers are being led instructionally by people who really have been prepared to lead the work that they specifically have to do.

4. Create partnerships and ensure alignment with “zero-to-three” childcare providers.

McCain: I.E. Those educators who are serving our children before they even come to school districts. How are we aligning with them in some of the supports, potentially some of the curricular resources. Are there ways for us to use that funding, possibly, to support the zero-to-three community so that there is a really smooth transition for children as they're going out of the childcare space into the school and into the care of the school?

5. Create the administrative framework for an early education department.

McCain: I think Dallas ISD is a great model for really strong early childhood infrastructure because there is a complete and total team dedicated to early childhood and that team literally has their tentacles out with every other department in the district. But for a lot of the districts here in Dallas County, they don't have specific people who are laser focused on early childhood. And so I think investing money in early childhood directors, Early Childhood assistant superintendents, or whatever role is necessary that brings that high level of knowledge around early childhood best practice, what's developmentally appropriate for students, but also able to integrate with key priorities that the district already has. Identifying where are the right places for alignment, strategizing and figuring out what is the right way for us to execute instruction in a very aligned way that starts in early childhood, not trickling down to early childhood, but starts in early childhood and trickles up through the K-12 continuum.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for McCain: Focus on social emotional health- for students and teachers alike.

McCain: As it relates to policy, I think one of the things that we have to do is really push ourselves to think deeply about the child. Right? Brain research tells us so many things about children and how they develop. Specifically, I want to talk about toxic stress and trauma. Brain research tells us that there is a level of stress that can occur in the brain that paralyzes, or creates and sets up a sense of paralysis for cognitive function. Now that's fancy words for basically saying that there is a time and a place in a person, and specifically in a child's life, where stress can be so high that they can't think. And in our schools where children are already dealing with such difficult lives, right? They are coming to school daily, whatever their motivation is, it might be a meal, to be quite frank. To understand and know that someone in the building cares about them and is willing to take the time to connect with them is impacting how they are performing academically. I can tell you that I've had so many students say to me, Miss McCain, I'm going to do it for you. It makes me emotional to think that I was the one person that they felt like they wanted to do something good for, because that is a responsibility that I think as teachers we really don't put as much weight into as we should. And I didn't know at the time that I was a teacher who was exercising and practicing what we now call social emotional learning strategies, but I was. And it looks like de-prioritizing- and people aren't going to like me saying this- but it looks like de-prioritizing academics temporarily to be able to prioritize the child, and where they are cognitively, to then be able to re-prioritize academics with a child whose brain is fully functioning and ready to learn. And that is, in my opinion, how we begin to put into policy. We start to think about the whole child.

Kumler: And, paradoxically, by de-prioritizing, before re-prioritizing, in the end, the academic outcomes are that much better.

McCain: Absolutely. I have personally, in my years of training teachers, read research that showed that the difference between a student liking a teacher, which was also translated into building a relationship with the teacher, actually had a 40% impact on student achievement. So we're talking about the difference between a child performing at 60% and the child performing at 100%.

I will quote my grandmother in this. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That is not a myth, that is not made up. That is a reality. When kids are happy and healthy, they learn.

Because their brains are open to learn and that's even true for adults, you know, when we're stressed, we can't take in as much information as we'd like to and we probably aren't as pleasant as we could be. Same is true with kids. I’ll take one step back and say we really have adults who are trying to provide support for students in places where they themselves don't have support. And that is unfortunate, but it is the reality. We have to start with the social emotional support and social emotional competency of adults first. Because it is true that people can only give what they have. And so if we are expecting emotional support at a level that is effective for students, then we have to consider are we as a system, whether that'd be leadership, campus-based, district, et cetera. Are we promoting a culture that provides our teachers with the level of emotional support that they need also? I've probably said this 80 times in the last year, but I really do believe that, in a lot of instances, we're putting the cart before the horse when we prioritize academics over emotional support. And that's not to say school needs to be a touchy feely place, but school does need to be a place where kids feel safe and they feel like they've made connection with someone in a way that now that it's time for them to activate the work of school, which is academics, they're ready to do that.

This session, the Texas Legislature will likely make a substantial investment in our public education system. We would be wise to let expert educators like Dominique McCain lead us as we decide how to take advantage of this historic opportunity. By doing so, we can ensure that the hard work of lawmakers, educators, and advocates is directly tied to student success.

When we know better, we have to do better. And we know better now. We do know better. So my hope is that we will keep doing better.

I don’t know what you’re going to get out of that, Josh, but that’s my two cents.

The Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance is powered by InvestEd TX, and produced by me, Joshua Kumler.  It is executive produced by me, along with Kathryn Mikeska and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer.  Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Dominique McCain and her entire team at Early Matters Dallas. You can learn more about the incredible work they do by visiting their website,  Our website is, where you can sign up for action alerts that will keep you up to date on school finance reform this legislative session. This podcast is dedicated to two groups of hard-workers who don’t get paid enough for all they do: teachers and Texas legislators.  The future is in both of your hands. We’ll be back soon with more of the Twisted Saga.

Joshua Kumler