Katie is a dynamic and forward-thinking educational leader, with over 20 years of experience, in the K through 12 academic landscape. She has worked in public, private, and charter schools in Chicago’s inner-city, in the capacity of teacher, technology coordinator, new teacher mentor, instructional coach, Danielson teacher evaluator, and administrator. Over the years, she has found that her passion is in the training and development of new teachers. As an advocate for educational equity, she is pleased and excited to be leading a new initiative, recruiting and training educators of color, in an effort to build a strong pipeline of teachers to work in Chicago’s hard-to-staff schools. Her belief in the power of education continues to fuel her passion each and every day.
What was your dream job as a child? Did you imagine a job that you look forward to going to every day because it’s your passion? Because of the collegiality? Because of the room for professional growth? Salary? Have you ever had to sacrifice any of these to follow your passion?
Is the WHY the be-all and end-all of job satisfaction? I fell into education as a university track and it quickly became my passion. I worked my way through the ranks of a public school system, the nonprofit sector, the private sector, and back into the public education system. Along the way, I learned many things…and have had to unlearn quite a few in order to refuel my passion.
I began this adventure as a classroom teacher in a large public school system. Year after year of being a reflective educator, I added to my toolbox: strategies, practices, and tips and tricks, that would not only help me to move forward as an educator but those that kept my students engaged and move them forward academically, as well. I bounced around to a few different grade levels looking for the perfect fit where I could feel that I was doing the most for my students, and where I could provide a level of instruction and engagement that was fruitful and fulfilling for all of us. I moved on and through the nonprofit sector as an instructional coach and mentor, working with new teachers. I felt a sense of satisfaction saying that I was able to help others find their passion, fine-tune and build their practices. Moving into the private sector, I noticed a big culture shift, differing retention rates, and teacher compensation shortfalls.
In 2020, our world came to a grinding halt. Our new norm was something none of us had ever expected or knew how to navigate: Zoom classes, synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, and near pods all became part of our everyday vocabulary. We were building the plane while flying it. I know that those outside of the classroom will not ever fully understand what “a day in the life” looked like, as we asked for grace. It did feel as if we had to explain our methods and why what we were doing was for the best, and how we changed our practices/methods every day, in an effort to increase engagement and move beyond the noise of student deficits. We doubled down to prove our worth. We went from hero to zero and back. It was rough on the mental health of all educators. We plowed on. Resilience, to the point of breaking, came at a cost. We, as a school, made it out of 2020 relatively unscathed, as many teachers returned to their classrooms for continued pandemic learning, more in than out of the classrooms. Teachers stuck it out, putting their nose to the grindstone, working tirelessly to ensure student learning was at the forefront, while also trying to bring back what was a sense of normalcy, pressing down their own fears, and putting student and school needs first. There was no downtime to catch your breath, to understand the trauma we had been through together and were still going through. There was no personal time to process and mourn losses and grieve for loved ones. Everything inside the school was being “taken care of” while the rest of their lives, seemingly, were falling apart. As their administrator, I saw the shift and the toll it had been taking on them. I quickly morphed into cheerleader mode. I tried to make our school setting “extra special”, catered lunches, dress-down days, covered preps…I became the one showering them with toxic positivity. I tried to exude enough energy and enthusiasm for all of us, hoping they could catch whatever vibe I was throwing off. Wow. How could I not see that I was not helping? That was my one true calling! I had read so many articles about teaching, the pandemic, data trends, and retention strategies, and then I read one on… toxic positivity. Oops.
We were going through monumental changes and I was trying to not only keep up but get ahead of the unknown. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t. I was watching teachers throw in the towel, and leave the profession completely. I couldn’t blame them at all. I watched as job boards, blogs, and LinkedIn posts targeted transitioning teachers. Marketing firms and banks wanted to hire transitioning teachers because of their immense skill sets. I was so married to the belief that I had to hold it all together for everyone that I didn’t see everything slipping away. Well, what was the answer here: more money, more coverage, more dress-downs, less accountability?
While I was the biggest cheerleader of my staff, I was not a good role model. I veered away from the empty positivity and treats. I told them I could see the effects the pandemic had on their mental (and physical health). From my heart, I told them they always needed to do what was best for themselves and their family. I meant every word of it. What I didn’t solidify was the plan for when they took me up on my advice. I wore a different hat, not every day, but multiple hats throughout the day because I had to hold up my end of the bargain. I had built a GREAT team and I wanted them to not only stay- but be satisfied- when so many other options were evident and available to them.
What I came to realize through this pandemic journey is that I had taken my physical and mental health for granted, trying to be all things for all people. I had been beaten at my own game. I didn’t realize how rough the last two years had been on me until I made the difficult decision to walk away. I walked away from the comfort of a tight-knit staff. I walked away from a school I had invested in for many years, personally and professionally. I walked away from my extended family. I took a few weeks off and actually “felt” for the first time in as many years. It was cathartic, it was necessary and was welcomed. (It also felt foreign.)
My new job came with a steep learning curve, knowing nothing and knowing no none. I became a student, wanting to learn it all! I threw myself back into work, the only thing I ever knew how to do well. I was passionate about learning again! Oops again. The most important thing I have learned thus far, with consistent reminders from my new managers…slow down, relax, listen, and learn. I heard them “talk” about work/life balance and mental health, and prioritization of tasks. I know this, I did this. I never took my own advice but spoke of this often. I laughed, as I tried to even imagine a job that demanded work/life balance-such a novel suggestion. My managers speak it, model it, and live it. They consistently discuss this, reinforce this, and expect this. (I was actually reprimanded for sending an email after 5:00, expecting a response.) We are not good for our organization and our team if we are not giving 100% when we are needed. This has been an education and a deprogramming of sorts. As a manager myself, I constantly have to speak this, expect this and have learned that this is the norm because it is good for all of us. While it is not rote, the theory of work/life balance is practiced and modeled…and it is so refreshing!
While I thought I had a good handle on strategies to keep talent in schools, I did not. I was not the manager and role model my staff needed. I can see that now that I am outside the frame. I hope you have not read this far waiting for an answer. I do not have the answer about how to specifically retain good staff and administrators…not even close. Remember, I chose to walk away. I do know that my whys, my family, my health, and my passion have been reignited. Work/life balance is a necessity on all levels. The important part of this conversation is actually having the conversation. The problem is much bigger than a single solution or a single voice.
I took my leave from the private school setting and jumped back into a public school setting, out of the classroom, out of a school, and into an office. I am working with young men and women who want to become teachers. I am hoping to help them define their why, to help best prepare and train them in a way that gives them the confidence to want to continue in a system that seems to want our souls. We are working extremely hard to build the best support and facilitate meaningful training to prepare our future teachers, cooperating teachers, mentors, instructional coaches, and academic leaders, as best we can. That support comes not only from coaching and observations but from honest conversations about mental health and physical health and emotional well-being. Compassionate supports need to exist in order to maintain a healthy staff.
As a result of my journey, filled with many successes and failures, I feel I am in a position to offer new advice, the kind which comes from experience and reflection: the only constant is change, embrace the unknown, follow your passion, re-assess often, and make yourself a priority. Now, go forth and set the world on fire. It’s time to live your WHY!