We asked one of our 26 alumni principals to share how her Teach For America experience shaped her career as a leader in education in DFW.
September 4, 2015
Teach For America Dallas–Fort Worth: What inspired you to join Teach For America in Dallas?
Katie Wanserski: I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Notre Dame. While I originally thought I would return to my hometown of Atlanta, I was inspired to be a part of our Dallas charter corps. As the corps came together, the entrepreneurial spirit definitely bonded us, as this group was setting the tone for what Teach For America meant in Dallas. As a group, we took intense ownership over this responsibility and wanted to ensure that Teach For America in our city was synonymous with people who worked to do right by our students. I have since put down permanent roots here, bought a house, and have every intention of staying for the long term.
TFA: How did your TFA experience influence your values system, how you lead, and how you intend to contribute to the DFW community?
KW: Being a part of the charter corps meant that we felt a deep responsibility to our community—and most importantly, our students—to ensure that TFA–DFW would always prioritize doing whatever it takes for success in the classroom. I remember the entire first year feeling like a grassroots effort to earn the respect of our respective students, administrators, and communities. We worked to keep our heads down until we had data to speak for itself, which kept us focused on one outcome: student achievement. The charter corps experience taught me the importance of the “do whatever it takes” mindset and how building relationships with students and the community leads to far more success than if you attempt to do it alone.
TFA: Who were the role models who compelled you to pursue your current work in education?
KW: Teaching at Spruce High School after its reconstitution allowed me the opportunity to work with some of the district’s strongest veteran teachers. As they discussed the students they had taught in the past and their hopes for every student who walked through their classroom door, I became increasingly focused on how individual inspirational teachers make the difference for students. Dynamic Dallas principals Dr. Hakemack, Mrs. Barnhardt, and Mrs. Mitchell showed me how imperative strong school leadership is in empowering teachers to do this work for students, and their leadership inspired me to stay in education for the long term. Their focus on making the tough decisions for students and leading always by example compelled me to always work to be that leader for our current Dallas kids.
TFA: What progress do you see being made in education in DFW?
KW: In my current role, we have seen a distinct increase in positive campus climate, especially around teacher feedback. We have focused in on a clear mission that teachers and students know will lead to student academic success. We have put data systems and technology devices in place such that teachers can purposefully plan and differentiate instruction. Our Professional Development this year led teachers to up the rigor of their questions and increase student voices in daily lessons. Teachers are working on each lesson being a genuine learning experience for students by prioritizing guided reading with authentic texts, by teaching math concepts with hands-on manipulatives, and by utilizing our garden for transdisciplinary learning.
We have committed to further shifting our pedagogy in the classroom to be inquiry-based, student-centered, and project-based by taking on the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme next year. We worked with MLEP to strengthen our dual language program and Early Childhood to increase the Kindergarten readiness in our Pre-K classrooms. With increased focus on parent and community engagement, we saw an enormous increase in volunteer hours on campus and over 200 people at each of our PTA meetings this year. I look forward to building on these systems this year to see student achievement that we expect at Kramer Elementary!
TFA: How do you see the DFW community working in partnership for kids?
KW: I see an unbelievable effort from the community to partner together to leverage resources in a thoughtful way to positively affect student success. So many community members outside of the education sector are getting involved in their community schools to make a difference. Kramer partnered with our neighborhood Whole Foods this year, which provides monthly sessions for our students that connect the foods we grow in our garden to nutritional choices students make. Making what could otherwise be seen as a standard health lesson a hands-on experience leaves a lasting impression on our kids. The Jiv Daya Foundation, which spends the bulk of its time in healthcare, has supported Kramer by funding a one-to-one Kindle program for every one of our third through fifth graders. This provides me the infrastructure as a school leader to empower teachers to differentiate instruction all the way down to the individual student level.
TFA: What made you decide to become a school leader?
KW: I learned from my TFA experiences the enormous impact that leadership has on teachers, students, and the larger school community. Even small leadership decisions can lead to unbelievable consequences for kids. I wanted to become the leader that supported teachers in doing their best work thus empowering students. While I know that my job would be impossible without the support of our central district team, I believe that change happens for students at the campus level. I want to give back, support, and empower the community that helped develop me to be the person I am today.
TFA: As a principal during the first Teach For America DFW Summer Institute, how do you see this training program impacting teachers?
KW: For the first time, our teachers transitioning to careers in DFW honed their craft in partnership with DFW mentor teachers and our students. Teachers were able to create a network of educators in DFW that they can turn to for support and new ideas throughout the school year. Beyond the classroom, our new teachers proactively spent their summer both building relationships with the DFW community and learning our specific challenges. By working in DFW during Summer Institute, new teachers now have the opportunity to directly translate their experience in the summer to their school site in the fall in a very meaningful way.
TFA: What do you hope to be true for students in DFW?
KW: I hope every student in DFW has the opportunity to realize their potential both in their education and in making decisions for their long term path.
TFA: What does it mean to you to be part of the TFA alumni network?
KW: For me, the TFA alumni network has become a support system, a problem solving team, and a rallying force when the work is tough.
TFA: What role do TFA alumni play in improving education across DFW?
KW: Inside or outside of the schools themselves, TFA alumni in DFW are staying involved. What motivates me the most is that alumni not in schools remain directly focused on what happens in individual classrooms. For example, an alum who left the classroom for the finance world serves his neighborhood school on the SBDM committee, while another is leading the new Personalized Learning initiative for Dallas ISD.
TFA: What are you most excited about for the future of education in DFW?
KW: I am extremely motivated every day by the vision of Dallas ISD. Beyond my district, I believe our community is working together to build a critical mass of strong educators and leaders in DFW that can make the daily change that leads to long term difference for students. Finally, I am thrilled that the tough conversations around education are occurring. People with differing views on educational decisions, testing, and education reform are getting involved in the conversation, and this brings important attention to these issues and will ultimately lead to progress. I am hopeful, because I believe a critical mass of community members and leaders are focusing on students first.