A Conversation with Dr. Sylvia Diaz

The First “Superintendent in Residence” at McGraw Hill

By Guest Contributor, McGraw Hill

This interview was originally published here.

Dr. Sylvia Diaz has recently joined McGraw Hill as the company’s first Superintendent in Residence. In this new role, Dr. Diaz will champion the voices of educators and district leaders, identifying and forming relationships with forward-thinking administrators who are eager to empower their communities.

Before joining McGraw Hill, Dr. Diaz spent the greater portion of her career with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where she supported educational practitioners by developing and implementing innovative solutions and strategies to address the complex work of a large urban school district educating a diverse student body.

The following is a Q&A with Dr. Diaz about her background and her vision for the future of education.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and personal journey in education?

When I was growing up, I always thought I would be a teacher. Each summer, as far back as I can remember, I would go to school with my favorite cousin and help her get her classroom ready for the fall. I loved going to school with her and I admired her and her peers. They were smart women who could have pursued a myriad of careers, but like many of the educated women of their generation, they pursued careers in education. By the time I got to high school, I began to think differently about pursuing a career in education. I had other options, and teachers were not well compensated or appreciated.

When I enrolled at the university, my brother, who is a mechanical engineer, persuaded me to enroll in a couple of engineering classes. One of the first classes I took was a computer programming class and I was good at it. After taking additional classes, I decided to pursue a degree in computer science. When I graduated from the university, I took a job working for a military contractor writing satellite communications programs. The work was intellectually stimulating while you solved the problems and developed the procedures but mind-numbing as you wrote the thousands of lines of code to make it work. I hated sitting at a terminal all day writing code. It was such solitary work. I really wanted to use my skills in a more social, interactive manner and began to consider other options. I married shortly thereafter, resigned from my position, and moved back home to Miami.

When I started to look for work, I saw a job advertisement for a computer teacher at St. Rose of Lima School. I applied for it, got the job, and began teaching students in grades PreK — 8. While the job did not involve the technical and mathematical complexities of the prior work, there was a new type of complexity. It centered around persuading students to do what you asked them to do and finding ways to engage and instruct students with and about the technology that I loved. The little kids were so funny and cute, they loved the computers and applications that we used, and they would stand by their stations rarely sitting down, too excited with all the multimedia stimulation. The older ones were clever, always trying to outdo the teacher, and it was fun teaching them to use applications, write code, and grow their interest in computer science.

After getting my feet wet at St. Rose, I applied for a position with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where my first assignment was teaching mathematics and computer science at Horace Mann Middle School located in a predominantly Black, low-income community. At Horace Mann, I learned firsthand the challenges faced by children living in poverty and the schools that educate them. I also had the extreme good fortune to teach some of the best and brightest students in the county, many of whom lived in difficult circumstances. After a few years at Horace Mann, district office staff recruited me to take a position helping other teachers develop computer science and programming skills. A few years after that, I became the leader of my division at the district office and over the years took on additional responsibilities relative to classroom technology, instructional materials, virtual school programs, innovation, magnet programs, and curriculum, terminating in the final post of my public-school career as the Chief Academic Officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Throughout my career, I always remembered my students at Horace Mann Middle School and sought solutions to address inequities and ensure educational opportunities were not zip code dependent.

What makes you feel optimistic about the future of teaching and learning?

I believe in the power of education to change lives and it is exciting to consider the possibilities for the use of innovative technologies in schools that can support customization and personalization of the learning experience. Largely because of the pandemic, we are finally in a place where schools and districts have the technology tools and network infrastructure in place to support teaching and learning. At a minimum, technology can be used routinely to automate teacher tasks and to provide students with practice, feedback, and multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency. 

How do you see the role of curriculum providers in a larger PreK — 12 space evolving in the near future?

I think there will be more custom solutions through educator—provider partnerships and a greater emphasis on the role providers play in delivering professional development and supporting teachers. Understanding how students and teachers respond to learning tools and platforms is critical, as day-to-day use exposes weaknesses and gaps, and as consumer technology continues to evolve and offers powerful features which are simple to access and use, classroom solutions need to keep up the pace.

Sylvia Diaz

Sylvia Diaz, Ed.D., currently serves as Superintendent in Residence at McGraw Hill. As a member of the School Impact! Team, Dr. Diaz serves as an internal voice of senior-level educational practitioners and an external representative of McGraw Hill steering its strategic vision. Before joining McGraw Hill, Dr. Diaz spent over thirty years as a teacher and district administrator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth largest school district with over 331,000 students across 480 schools. Most recently, she served as the chief academic officer (CAO), managing a portfolio that included all academic programs, early childhood, Title I administration, innovation, school choice/magnet, information technology, student services, school turnaround efforts, school improvement, and leading district efforts to promote academic recovery.