What Made Me: DC’s Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson

She talks about her mother’s climb out of poverty, a teacher’s faith in her, and withstanding failure.

By: Michael Gaynor

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The Family Figure: I watched my mother, Kathleen Henderson, use public education to climb out of poverty. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, the first to buy a home, the first to get an advanced degree. That’s the promise of public education in America.

The Teacher: When I was really struggling with logic and geometric proofs, my ninth-grade math teacher, Louis Cuglietto, would stay after school to help me. I remember one particular day when I was completely exasperated and Mr. C just looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Henderson, you can do this.” His belief in my ability changed my whole approach to the work. That’s what our children need to feel.

The Piece of Advice: My grandma used to always say, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” I don’t think I really grasped what it meant when I was younger, but now I find myself repeating it regularly. It taught me that failure is a natural part of life, and it taught me resilience and persistence. When you’re trying to create a high-performing school district, you have to be able to innovate and try new things. Some of them are going to work, but some of them are not. And if you don’t have a tolerance for failure, then you’re never going to find a better way of doing things.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.