Your school and district staff have a unique “pulse” on your school community, so giving them an outlet to share feedback and praise can give you, as a leader, a better sense of the community you lead.
Dr. Diarese George, the founder and executive director of the TN Educators of Color Alliance (TECA), is well aware of this, which is part of the reason he created TECA. TECA connects Tennessee’s educators of color to education policy and leadership opportunities, in addition to each other. Its mission is “to amplify the voice, presence, and support for educators of color while remaining teacher-led, student-centered, and solutions-oriented.”
A major part of amplifying voices is creating space for people to be heard, which is why TECA partnered with Possip during the 21-22′ school year. During our Possip Partner Retreat, Dr. George sat on a panel about elevating staff voice, read his Q&A on the importance of staff voice below!
Possip: Why is staff voice important?
Dr. George: In the education space, beyond students, staff voice is probably the next thing that you want to lean in on, especially when you think about leaders and organizations. Sometimes they (school leaders) can be removed more from the day-to-day things that take place so staff voice is extremely important to be able to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground in spaces within schools.
Hearing staff voice also allows you to be able to pivot, and make adjustments, to ensure that staff are supported, healthy and valued, and to make sure things stay functional.
Possip: Please tell us a little more about TECA and why staff voice is important to you in your role as Executive Director (ED).
Dr. George: I’m a former educator myself. I’ve worked in higher-ed. I also taught for six years, and then worked as an administrator and ed-prep provider–training people to be teachers. So I’ve seen it from different angles. For TECA, our work is to support educators of color to stay in the education space and then leverage their voices to make systemic change in the education ecosystem. Sometimes you’ve got to center the people closest to the challenges and the problems to understand how to generate the solutions to solve them and drive things forward.
We live in a state where 40% of our students are people of color, and our educators of color make up less than 15%. It’s extremely important, especially when you’re dealing with the least represented, to understand the value that brings and also how to cultivate it. If you’re not listening to people to understand explicitly what that looks like and how it feels (to be in their position), you’re not going to be very effective in your solutions. A lot of times people lean on quantitative data, which is good, but qualitatively you’ve got to lean in and understand what’s going on with people. It’s one thing to say “hey I’m racially isolated in my building.” It’s another thing to understand how that shows up and what that feels like so you can be strategic in how you solve things.
For us, there’s not a district or partner that we go into an agreement with without the understanding that we’re going to be listening and learning from our educators of color in those spaces. So when we say “Hey, these are the things we’re going to use to drive forward innovative solutions and support,” it’s not coming from us as an external organization, it’s coming from people who work and serve in the district. And oftentimes, many districts just don’t have the systems in place to tap into that voice in a very honorable manner.
Possip: What has been the impact of getting routine feedback from TECA teachers?
Dr George: Right now we have two district partnerships (with Knox and Hamilton counties), but we only piloted Possip in one this year. These are our larger metropolitan districts and one of the things we realized very quickly was there was no system for feedback–rapid feedback–particularly between educators of color and districts. The other thing we realized is the reason why we even started these partnerships: we’re trying to address retention within districts. Tennessee’s known to have all these “grow your own strategies,” investing a lot of money to recruit, but we have not done our due diligence.
When it comes to keeping people, in most of these larger districts, we lose more people than we recruit year-over-year. We’ve dug into the data and realized attrition was the biggest problem. When folks are recruiting 30, 40, or 50 educators, they’re turning around and losing 60, 70, and 80. They’re losing more in some districts than what they’re recruiting. Most of this exodus doesn’t necessarily take place during the winter break, we were seeing it happening during the summer. You may see five to ten people [leave] in the middle of the semester, and 30, 40, and 50 at the end of the year.
So we wanted to use the Pulse Checks™ as a way to be able to gauge how people were feeling throughout the year, so we can make adjustments to their needs in real-time.
The value of what we’ve seen is in asking the first main question “Are you happy in your work environment?” The Pulse Check™ showed we had about 20% of people say no, 40% said yes, and then another 40% said mostly. In the most recent Pulse Check™, half of those “mostly” respondents have moved over to yes, so now we have 68% saying yes, 15% saying no, and then there’s now 17% in the mostly group.
One of the biggest things we heard was, “I’m one of two (people of color) in my building, but I don’t know the people in the building next to me.” So, we’ve instituted optional affinity groups. This gives people an opportunity to connect. Possip enabled us to act in real-time.
Through the affinity space, we’ve been able to build committees, lanes for professional development, and opportunities for people to understand how they can prepare themselves for leadership opportunities.
All of this came from feedback we’ve been able to get month-to-month.
So to recap, we initially created a space [for feedback]. Then instituted support that people were saying they needed. Thus allowing them to get better and feel better. I think that’s been a driving force in making a shift– from people on the fence about their work environment, which we know plays a huge role on whether people will stay, and them saying, “I feel better about this now.” It’s also a shift from lip service.
A lot of people will do the first part of gathering the feedback, but instituting support allows people to say, “okay, they’re for real about this.”
Sending a Pulse Check™ routinely added an extra layer of communication, which again, most people don’t have set up in their districts. And if they do have it, there’s oftentimes a mistrust that exists that doesn’t allow people to truly engage. I think the fact that we’re running the Pulse Check™, and it’s not coming from the district, people have a level of comfort. They’ve been able, to be honest, and vulnerable in ways that I don’t think they had been, or have had the opportunity to, in the districts that they’re serving in.
Possip: How do you take what you’ve heard from the staff through Pulse Checks™ and communicate it to their district or school leaders?
Dr. George: I have an ongoing check-in with the Human Resources’ talent team, so when the Pulse Check™ Reports become available, I share them with them. Sometimes there are things that we can react to and do within reach of our organization, but sometimes there are things that the district needs to know to react accordingly. Sometimes comments are just people saying, “Hey, our AC isn’t always working in our building” or “We’ve had some infestation in our building.” Things like that are things the district needs to know.
Because we have a system in place where there’s constant communication– affinity group meetings, meetings with their talent team, Pulse Check™ Reports, etc– that allows us to be preemptive in some regards.
The district was so impressed with the circular motion of the communication, of that loop being created and closed. We’ve used the tool so intentionally that the loop that’s been created with the district office enables them to see the value. Now they want to potentially scale it across the district with all educators. That’s invaluable.
Possip is a great way to get a quick touch point, especially during the most challenging times of the year (like we’re heading in now with the testing season). It gives a sense of where people are and what support they need.
Possip: What are some of your long-term goals as you continue to gather staff feedback?
I’m hoping that moving forward, as we continue to generate and develop district partnerships, Possip can be a staple within that. For example, we recently announced a partnership with Knox County. We just did some engaging with stakeholders and one of the recommendations made is that we need continual Pulse Checks™. Just because there’s an opportunity to address attrition differently. Now that I have data to say “look at what we’re doing here in this district” as an example, it was an easy “yes, let’s build that into what we want to do.” My hope as we go into the next academic year is that we’ll also have Pulse Checks™ instituted in that district as well. We’re also looking longer down the road. TECA now has 3000 people in the network. Of the 3,000, 70% are educators of color across the state– Middle, East, and West TN.
We can have a broader snapshot of what’s going on across the state with urban, rural, and suburban districts.
In my conversation with rural districts, it’s even harder for them to establish a general partnership. They’re facing infrastructure challenges in buildings that they want to address. But, being able to get a pulse from those few, limited educators of color in a rural district can still add value to the overall view of what we’re trying to do here in the state. Hearing their voices aligns well with our (TN’s) more recent educator diversity policy that was adopted last year. Districts have to have goals, they have to have recruitment and retention strategies. Hearing staff voices can increase the diversity of perspectives from educators in roles across the entire state. So, short-term, we’re continuing to build partnerships, but long-term we’re wanting to have a broader reach to understand what’s going on, especially in places where district partnerships may not be in existence currently.
Thanks to Dr. Diarese George from TECA for participating in our Q&A! Want to learn more about how you can hear from staff voices? Reach out to us using our contact form or join our next demo!
Interview by Jasmine Blue. Editors: Natalie Sessoms, Cora Stammen, and Jasmine Blue.