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The Experience Has Absolutely Changed My Life.

Aspire Fellow Keenen Stevenson (2016 Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana) and his coach, Dr. Joseph Shoffner, Professor and Leadership Coach at UIC’s Urban School Leadership Program, discuss the experience of working together.

By Whitney Stoepel-Brewer

February 16, 2022

Alumni Conversation Series: Dr. Joseph Shoffner with Keenen Stevenson

The Aspire Fellowship is a collaborative program between TFA GC-NWI and UIC that prepares aspiring leaders of color with the experience, confidence, and support network they need to enter principal certification programs. Watch the video or read the transcript below. 

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: My name is Joe Shoffner. I'm currently an assistant clinical professor at University of Illinois in Chicago, and also a leadership coach. And out of that work, I also work with TFA in supporting aspiring leaders. And the reason I do the work is definitely around the fact that there's such a glaring need. The need for not only leaders, but leaders of color. And it's the disparity in student performance everyone is pretty much aware of, but the difference that leaders make in those environments is just exponential. And so I've seen it in my experience as a school leader and I've seen what happens when there's a deficit. And so the ability to impact that in some way is definitely is a charge worth investing my time in.


“There's such a glaring need. The need for not only leaders, but leaders of color.”

Dr. Joseph Schoffner

Keenen Stevenson: My name is Keenan Stevenson. My core year is 2016. I currently work as a therapist at Mind and Life Counseling. And for me, what motivates me towards educational equity is that I have been fortunate to have a good family and great parents that are able to invest in my future. But I also have friends and family members who have not had that access. And I look at my privilege. And then also my identity in understanding that not everyone who shares my similar background has an opportunity like I've had. And so that's what motivates me to work towards educational equity.

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: Keenan, I'm your coach right now, and as you participate in the UIC, TFA Aspire Fellowship Program, could you share what the experience is like as a fellow?

Keenen Stevenson: I feel like the experience has absolutely changed my life. One of the things that it's done is that it's allowed me to focus my energy more effectively. I'm a person has like all these great ideas, all these great things, but sometimes through your coaching then tutelage, you've taught me how to bring those things in to focus on something that's tangible. So when I think about the tangible outcome for my project, my project for change, one of the things I'm working on is advocating for educators, social and emotional support. I've created surveys, I've talked to people, trying to get at the idea of why teachers are having such a hard time. Why are teachers burning out? Why do teachers feel as if like their students aren't learning? What is the issues with COVID and how's that impacted education? And so now with things being present of mind, it's allowing me to really just dive into something that's very specific, detailed. And now that I'm looking at the specifics of the project, and then also going with the ebbs and flows and the changes that come along the way, it's allowing me to take charge, lead, but look at something that I guess pretty much is my baby. Something I've created and seeing how I can use that to maximize my own brand, this person.

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: One of the things about the coaching sessions that I really like is that when you come back and we share dialogue around the challenges, the challenges are very often aha moments for you, but in the leader positions, those are really the things that happen on a regular basis. So it's really great seeing you become aware of the process of change and your role in it. But when you think about diversity and the school leadership pipeline, which we've about, what do you think that we can do to get more sworn leaders of color and more leaders that look like the students that are in front of them?

Keenen Stevenson: I just think about when I was first teaching back in 2016 and I happened to have a principal, he was a black man and it was a very different experience. But I think the thing that we need to do is that you just have to actually understand that representation is important. Oftentimes I feel like it's said, but not necessarily implied. Also, in order to diversify the pipeline, people have to feel like they're heard. Oftentimes I've seen people of color get into positions of leadership and get seats at the table, and they're just there as a novelty and not there to participate. So if I'm sitting here and I'm supposed to be an active participant and I'm just here for a picture or here for a look, I think that's what has made people very standoffish towards that is because once I get a seat the table, how do I maximize and utilize that? And then, we've always talked about equity and equity being important and equity can be expensive and all these things, but it's only expensive because of the assistance have been in place to derail people. And it's hard to ask a person to give up something, especially if it's an advantage. But it's for the betterment of students. Like I've always said, I'm a proud American citizen. And America always says is the best country in the world, but for me, how can it be the best country if a portion of our population are uneducated and not because they choose to not be educated. It's because there are barriers in place that impede education for them.

“ Equity is important and equity can be expensive.”

Keenan Stevenson

Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana Corps Member 2016

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: We've talked about this before, but I'm wondering now, what is something you would want people to say or remember about you and your working education 10 years from now? What would you want the students to say, or even the community to say about your work?

Keenen Stevenson: I want people to understand that everything I do is out of love. I've been very fortunate to have a good family. I've had friends and some family members that have not been afforded the opportunities I've had and understanding that. And given the unique position I'm in, I've always believed in, "I came, I seen, I conquered". And that's been like something that I take with me everywhere I go. And as a teacher, I always put on my door, this is a place where architects are made, no matter what they do. I believe that, I'll never be an engineer. That's not something I'm interested in, but because I taught STEM, the stuff that I'm teaching in class will tend to aspire other people to see engineers, to become an engineer. Because one of the things I, which was very important to me is that I had students that have never seen a black science teacher. Or I've never seen a black male science teacher. And for me, it didn't hurt my feelings, but it really... Something resonated with me. 10 years from now a kid's going to remember, "I remember Mr. Stevenson. He was my science teacher, and he showed me that science could be for me". And so overall I want to be known as a person who has taken things that I don't want to say taboo, but things that they might have had access to previously, but now it's because of access and proximity, they've been able to reshape their worlds. And I find pride in that because I had one black science teacher growing up and he changed my life. Made me interested in science and you know, hopefully 10 years from now, someone will see me like, "You changed my life too, because you made me want to... You showed me that something was possible because before I didn't think it was".

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: Yeah. I think what you just said though, what that was so important is it's not even about what someone else sees. It's how you see yourself. And it's really been rewarding for me to see you see yourself in a leadership role. And I'm thinking there's going to be some good news in the future for you.

Keenen Stevenson: So now Dr. Shoffner, I have a question for you. So, I know you have a lot of wisdom. So what would be your advice for someone like me or others like me who are considering a school leadership pathway?

Dr. Joseph Shoffner: I definitely would say start leading now. I mean, the fact is that, and you said it, that as a teacher, you had to start being a leader. And to all young educators, understand that in every school, change is one thing that's inevitable, and there's always so much change that's necessary. And there's usually only one leader, defined leader, maybe two, but in reality, you can have a whole community of them. And so that would be my wisdom would be to get busy, start leading, start your path to changing the inequities, but also the realities of public education at this time. The reality is that the change process is complicated and it takes a lot of capacity to learn how to navigate it. And watching you grow through the program has been rewarding on that behalf because it's the start. It's the impetus to you seeing the role indefinitely, as you said, seeing yourself in the role. So we're looking for big things from your Keenan in the future.

Keenen Stevenson: Thank you, Dr. Shoffner.