Five Ways to Invest In and Keep the Best Teachers and Leaders
“My hope is that with every interaction, I leave leaders stronger and more confident to face whatever comes their way,” reflects Dr. Melissa Kim, Deputy Chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). “That is my barometer for how I lead and develop leaders across our district.” A New Leaders alum and former principal, Dr. Kim drives instruction and equity work in all 116 DCPS schools. Her team of ten instructional superintendents and their offices lead leadership development, teaching and learning, strategic planning and innovation, school and student supports, and post-COVID recovery and acceleration.
It’s not something she ever imagined as a young immigrant girl, an English language learner in schools where her Korean identity and accent were not accepted. “I never felt included in school. I never had a sense of belonging there and thus was never able to fully be myself.” This, she is quick to point out, is not unique to her identity. People of color, as well as those with varying linguistic backgrounds or sexual identities, often face norms that let them know they do not belong. That pattern of exclusion based on identity is not one she wants repeated in schools.
Today, she is working to not only get—and keep—the very best teachers and leaders in front of students but to cultivate a mindset in both that ensures students are embraced in their full identities so they can grow without limitation—and thrive. “We are aiming for something bigger and higher than what education aspired to be twenty years ago. We know all children can and should succeed, not just some children who often fall along race and socioeconomic lines.”
We sat down with Dr. Kim to learn more about how she prioritizes inclusion in schools, how she is working to retain high-quality teachers and leaders during this unprecedented time, and how together they are working to redefine public education. In this era of the Great Resignation, here are five leadership actions that can work for your district and school too.
Drive equity transformation via practice and policy
“We’re changing the way we do things,” Dr. Kim explains. Prior to the pandemic, DCPS launched an initiative to become a whole-child and anti-racist district. Hundreds of staff participated in a DCPS ARE-U (Anti-Racist University) that was open to all staff. The district also launched a multi-year review of the teacher support and evaluation system to examine patterns of inequities and bias and create a path to address them. DCPS also has plans to repeat the same for leadership evaluation. “To be whole-child and anti-racist,” she adds, “you have to look at every single system and policy and practice through that lens. We’re far from having it all fixed, but our people can see that change in tangible ways and in our systems. And they are engaging and leading in this work with us.”
Offer opportunities to be a part of something bigger
“I definitely lose many nights of sleep worrying about not having enough people to do the work, but I also know that it is incredibly motivating to be a part of something worthy and full of purpose,” offers Dr. Kim. She argues that crises are also ideal times for new ideas and innovations to grow. In her work, she intentionally seeks to bring more voices to the table, many that have gone untapped for too long, and create spaces in which educators are actively engaged in redefining how schools work. “Being on the cusp of meaningful change and having your values amplified by your district,” observes Dr. Kim, “is a motivator to stay.”
Provide incentives that reflect your values
“We want to keep our very best educators with students who need them the most,” explains Dr. Kim. With support from a Department of Education grant that the district sought and won, DCPS is offering financial incentives for teachers to stay in the schools that are serving communities furthest from opportunity. “Our people power this, and we have to do whatever it takes to get and keep our awesome teachers with our students.” Incentives include retention bonuses, hiring bonuses, stipends to attend courses, and expanded access to professional development. According to Dr. Kim, these incentives are a reflection of what the district values for student learning and for growing teacher talent.
Keep thinking outside of the box
After listening to the perspectives of teachers and leaders, Dr. Kim and her team are exploring options beyond the traditional workday, including more flexible schedules, sabbaticals for the strongest teachers, and supports that allow staff with young families or aging loved ones to stay in the profession and take care of their families during different stages of life. “We haven’t cracked the nut yet, but we need to make the variety of options wide enough so we can meet people where they are. Everyone needs something different.”
Champion a broader, more inclusive mission
“This is where leadership really matters,” offers Dr. Kim. “We have to cultivate and bring on people who have a different purpose for why we do this work. It’s more than just closing the achievement gap. It’s about students becoming whole, being ready to engage in and take on the world right now.” To do that, Dr. Kim leads regular conversations, large and small, that engage a diversity of stakeholders in figuring out how to find solutions and create new systems. This kind of adaptive leadership, she observes, requires that leaders pull more people into the process, tap people who don’t typically get tapped but in whom they see greatness, and then push toward the larger goal of redefining public education.
The pandemic, she notes, affirmed this need for change. “As a mom, I was working to run a school system while I was watching my children experience their own version of that at the classroom level. I was immersed in it, which made me even more committed to a whole-child and anti-racist approach.” And, looking forward, she adds, to developing benches of diverse talent that will further interrupt the pattern of who has been historically included and traditionally excluded in our school communities.
Her advice to leaders right now:
“You can see obstacles for what they are: something that gets in the way. Or, you can see them as many great leaders do: a speed ramp that will help you get to where you need to go even faster. Flipping that paradigm can be freeing. It can illuminate the many other possibilities you didn’t see before.”