With over 10 years of progressive leadership experience in the development and oversight of academic programs, policies, and initiatives to promote student growth and achievement, I am an educational administration professional with expertise in equity-centered educational leadership.
Through my leadership, I have increased teacher retention to 100%, decreased chronic absenteeism to under 10%, reduced referrals by 70%, lowered behavioral infractions by 15%, and reduced disproportionality on every academic data metric for all subgroups.
Although I’m proud of how far I have come so far, I am currently working on earning my Ed.D. in International and Multicultural Education with an emphasis in human rights and critical race theory – my work is just getting started.
Daniel: Okay. Okay. Okay. We do this all the time. As leaders, we see a problem and then we fix it. But fixing the problem actually causes an issue that we did not anticipate because we didn't think it through. We needed to slow down. A clear example. Your staff's all white. Your students are mostly black and brown. Most leaders would agree that it would be beneficial to having a teaching staff that's more reflective of the student body. So you fix it, you hire more teachers of color, but then they get to school and the new teachers have a different way of teaching than the rest of the veteran white staff and they don't feel supported by the administration. In fact, some even feel oppressed. This is what I'm talking about. Good and effective leaders, fix problems. Great and proactive leaders they fix problems and anticipate the new ones because they consider second and third order consequences.
Daniel: It's this type of thinking and issues of equity. I talk about with today's guest Ashlee Gutierrez. Hey, it's Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our shows sponsors. All students have an opportunity to succeed with organized binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn firstname.lastname@example.org. Today's podcast is brought to you by Teach Fx. It's basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk, get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting teachFx.com/BLBS.
Daniel: Isolation is the number one enemy of excellence and isolation is also a choice. There's a better way. In fact, here's what Michelle, a school leader in Maryland has to say about the Mastermind. The best part of the Mastermind is a supportive community. School leadership can be isolating, but knowing I have a team of other school leaders with whom to share ideas, struggles and wins gives me the courage and resolve to do what's best for my school community. Get connected and level up your leadership by applying to the Mastermind today at better leaders, better schools.com/mastermind. Today I'm joined by Ashlee Gutierrez. She is currently the coordinator of equity initiatives at San Ramon unified school district. Ashlee has over 10 years of progressive leadership experience in the development and oversight of academic programs, policies, and initiatives focused on liberatory learning spaces for students immediately prior to her role in San Ramon unified as she was the founding principal of caliber beta Academy, a position that she held for five years, Ashley is currently completing a doctorate in education with an emphasis in human rights and critical race theory. Ashley, welcome to the show.
Ashlee: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
Daniel: Yeah. So you were telling me that initiatives can look good on paper, but much different in their implementation and you were part of a big project to hire more educators of color. Tell us that story.
Ashlee: Sure. So at our school, we were really focused on diversifying the teaching staff, making sure that the teachers in the building looked like the kids in the building. Since we know that research shows us that all students, not just students of color learn better from teachers of color. I know that this is an initiative that's being pushed across the country. We're not unique in this work. But one of the things that I noticed is there was a lot of conversation around how we were going to get folks in the building and not a ton of conversation around what we were going to do to sustain them once they were there. I realized that isn't that just like ed reform? To identify one problem and come up with a bandaid solution for it and not think about the many additional problems that are created by solving the one.
Ashlee: And I think that for something like human capital, human lives, where we're talking about bringing people into a community, there's some really serious consequences for not taking that work seriously and not really thinking about the sort of culture that we create in our school and the way that it does or does not serve the adults who are serving kids. So we really had to pivot to a focus on what it looks like to create a culturally and linguistically sustaining teaching environment, not just the pedagogy for the kids and focus on not just getting folks into classrooms, but retaining them and sustaining them once they're there.
Daniel: Yeah. And if I'm hearing you correctly too, you mentioned ed reform and the band-aid solution. I have a post and I'll put it in the, in the show notes. And I think this is really talking about second order and third order consequences because we see the initial pain point or challenge and leaders are very good at solving problems, but the best leaders are then able to look past the effects because once you make that decision, okay, we're going to bring in a diverse teaching staff, what are the positive consequences of that choice and what may be some of the challenges we'll experience, and then how are we going to address those. That's proactive leadership? So I think you noticed that and to communicate some of those challenges that you predicted would happen and then started to happen. And that was tough, too.
Ashlee: Absolutely. There's also this element of managing up that happens in that experience, right? This was a gap that I had identified. Teachers had identified, but also folks ahead of me in the organizational chart had identified and they came with a very specific solution. We need more staff of colors. This is what you need to solve for. And when you returned to that conversation and say, yes, this is what we need to solve for. As we start to do that, here are a number of consequences that are created and we also need to start solving for this. And there's that moment of tension where they say, wait, that's not actually the problem we were going to solve. As a leader, who's looking at these adaptive challenges, you can identify what's coming two or three steps down the road, but everyone isn't always with you in the urgency of that priority as well. And so that ability to navigate that space and sort of manage up to folks who may not agree with you about the consequences that are coming can be really difficult. One where I found, I just have to maintain, resolve and focus around what I know is right, and what I know matters, but it can be really tricky.
Daniel: Tell us more about that. What's it like being a female leader with bosses that are primarily male and like you said, leading up and helping them see where they have to level up to.
Ashlee: It's a really delicate, it's a delicate dance. I often find myself as one of the few women in the room with mostly men, primarily white men. And you have to sort of find the right balance between being strong in your conviction and urgent in your focus and, , being nice enough to be palatable. And there's this, this sort of dance that I find myself doing frequently, where I'm trying to strike the right balance. And, , especially as an early young leader, when I was trying to find my footing, that was more challenging for me. And now with some experience and, and a bit more, I guess, a thicker skin these days, I find myself doing that less. I just focus on the conviction I have around what's right for kids. And what's right for teachers in the building. And it's not as complicated these days, but it's difficult to be kind of the only one in that space. And the only one arguing from a very specific position, I find that that is also the case that even if I'm in a room of mixed folks, I'm often the only one arguing for a particular point or a particular cause. And that can be really lonely.
Daniel: And so you talked about like dipping back into what's right for kids in your convictions and we'll get to the four pillars of your school. I think values and that kind of stuff's really important to you. Is there anything else that helps you get through those lonely moments to stick to your convictions because this is helpful for you as a female, as a leader of color, but I think all leaders too, as well, when you need to stick to what's most important, what else pulls you through those moments?
Ashlee: Yeah. You got to create the emergency group thread. I have a group text with some other female leaders of color. And I mean, it is it's going off all day every day because we know that my success is their success and their success is my success. And in that way, we're actually supporting work across four schools, not just one school in the way that we can show up and support each other and remind each other that, "Hey, you just came from this really difficult meeting and a bunch of men told you are wrong and a bunch of people said that that was not the way to go and they threw all sorts of data and all sorts of information at you, but you stuck to your guns and you stuck to your resolve and we're here to assure you that you absolutely did the thing that was right for kids. Having that community in a profession that is so isolating almost intentionally and there's no other person just like you in your school house. You're the one. So getting outside of your school house to find your people and making sure that you have consistent channels of communication to just lift each other.
Daniel: Awesome. Thank you for that, Ashley. And I'm so happy to hear you have that emergency text chain and isolation is the enemy of excellence. That's a real battle a lot of school leaders face. Ruckus Maker, listening if you don't have that emergency support group like Ashley, does, I invite you to check out our Mastermind because that is a group of 60 plus school leaders from around the world, every continent except Antarctica because it's too cold there to have school. We have leaders from everywhere and we can be your emergency support. I like looking at the inverse from the problem. So in this case the inversus is me, I'm a white male. Would you coach me in this moment? How could I be more open to somebody I serve maybe even the Mastermind who you represent, because I don't want to be closed off in terms of things I need to be hearing. What would you tell me or others listening that look like me?
Ashlee: I think that folks who end up in a principal seat have a very specific skillset. We're often the folks who take charge, take leadership positions right away who were decisive. We jumped right in and sometimes those character traits and those tendencies that serve us so well in the role are the opposite of what we need in a given moment. So I think my advice would be to slow down and to listen. I think I think of myself as being a servant leader, I make decisions and run a budget and I do these things, but I try to really run a school like a co-op where I'm really seeking teacher input and student input. Because I recognize that even though I consider myself a white passing woman of color, I still come from a tremendous amount of privilege. I need the folks who bring a diverse perspective to help me see the things I'm not initially seeing.
Ashlee: I think that in those spaces where we frequently default to action, because there's so much to do, I really hold the mantra of going slow to go fast and making sure that you have diverse voices at the table that you're running plans and ideas past key constituents and stakeholders. And that it's okay to say, I don't actually know the answer but I'm going to, I'm going to think on this and get back to you. I think that there's also some fear and not always having the answer and, and people really actually respect a leader who says, I'm going to take a minute because I want to make sure that I get this right. Those are all ways that you can sort of just slow down the process to make sure that everybody's involved in the decision-making and you're ultimately gonna get a far better outcome. And you're far less likely to do this, start, stop, restart because you'll get it right the first time and you can actually end up quite a bit further ahead than you initially anticipated.
Daniel: It goes back to the proactive leadership and thinking the multiple ripple effects that you have based on your decisions, but to reflect back to you, some of those big ideas. We're in leadership positions because we solve challenges. We, we are doers, we're action takers, and we're used to taking charge. So you're seeing a slow down to go fast, collaborate with people, make sure diverse voices are at the table and be confident that you might not have the answer. Did I miss anything that we should repeat again for the Ruckus Maker listening?
Ashlee: I should probably add when in doubt, talk to kids, , it's funny, we, we spend so much time in rooms with adults and I've just discovered recently that kids are capable of being a part of every conversation that has to do with school. We recently started having kids drive our teacher interview process, and they're fantastic. They haven't been wrong yet. Their gut instinct about every person is right on. And it's wild that we do all of this work that's focused on kids and yet we elicit their input and feedback in very specific areas for very specific things. When in doubt, just your problem to the kid. They probably have a solution for you.
Daniel: Cool. I definitely have more questions for you. I didn't know. You're going to talk about kids with the interview process. So tell us a little more about that.
Ashlee: Sure. We felt like we were in a rut with our interview process and we felt like we had some gaps in being able to vet folks. We put them in front of kids, but we couldn't quite put our finger on what we were missing. We went round and around with ideas for performance tasks or editing interview questions or better questions we could ask someone's references before we extended an offer. Finally, our assistant principal said, let's just bring in the kids. Why are we trying to figure this out? Let's just let them do it. So we brought in a group of students who'd been trained as peer mediators in the school, and we gave them a preview of what the interview process would look like. We did demo lessons and then students asked questions and then they also gave the teachers live feedback on their lessons. And it was so powerful. And the feedback we got from candidates who interviewed in that way really showed us that they were seeing the values that we held as a school of, of students leading and students showing us the way. And we realized that just the message we were communicating from that choice was really powerful in the type of teacher that was accepting a role with us. So I will never go back, put students on your interview panels.
Daniel: Yeah. I love that. Include them as much as possible. I'm loving our conversation. We'll get to the second half in just a moment. I'd love to talk about forms of leadership that are valued and not valued, but we're going to pause here just for a moment for a message from our sponsor today's show is brought to you by organized binder, organized binder develops the skills and habits. All students need for success during these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom, learn email@example.com during COVID. Every teacher is a new teacher. That's why innovative school leaders are turning to Teach FX whose virtual PD is equipping thousands of teachers with the skills they need to create engaging equitable and rigorous virtual or blended classes to learn more about Teach FX and get a special offer. Visit teachfx.com/BLBS that's teachfx.com/BLBS. All right. And we're back with Ashley Gutierrez. Ashley Is currently the coordinator of Equity Initiatives at San Ramon Unified School District. I highlighted before our break, I wanted to talk about forms of leadership that are valued and not valued in the district. You have a interesting story about that, too.
Ashlee: Sure. I think that many of us have come from very similar leadership training programs and we're really sort of focused on specific types of leadership. We learn data protocols and we learn open, narrow, close, and we learn how to sort of execute in this ed reform world in a very specific way. As a grad student, I've just begun just very surface level, started to understand what a specific form of leadership that is. It's a really sort of individualistic rooted in capitalism sort of way to go about facilitating. As I do more learning of Indigenous and African communities who have such a focus on the collective, I'm learning that there is such a different way to orient yourself as a leader that I didn't even realize existed. I'm trying to be more conscious of keeping that in mind and sort of reframing the ways that I set up a meeting set up an agenda.
Ashlee: So that looks like not always driving towards a specific outcome, being open that the needs of the people in the room might be different than what I thought they were when I created the agenda two days ago and being adaptable and flexible thinking about the way that I obtained feedback that it's not just we could do this, or we could do that, but also really allowing folks to generate a solution that I hadn't even thought of yet, which I think goes back to that idea of going slow to go fast and making sure that you have the diverse folks in the room who can bring a different perspective that you hadn't considered. I think it's also about just an orientation around who and what you're in service to and thinking about in a society that is so individualistic in a society or in a school system that is all about test scores, which for one student to succeed relies on another student, somewhere else to fail. How do we shift our focus to being about our collective success? And what does that look like in the constraints of the environments that work in? So that's an idea that I'm sort of playing with and learning about and trying to understand how I can be a better leader within,
Daniel: Yeah, those are good questions to be chewing on, for sure. And yet that kind of leadership isn't always valued in where I'm trying to lead you is that people have critiqued that kind of leadership before. If I remember your story correctly, however, the outcome, the culture that you built, the results of your staff wanting to stay were quite high. So can you connect those dots for us?
Ashlee: Absolutely. I had this epiphany because of my experience in grad school and because of learning that I was doing, but people around me did not. When I started to pivot my focus a little less on data meetings and the little more on community building and trust building and cultivating a common vision that all folks on campus were bought into, I was met with some, with some negative comments, like, well, you're not being an instructional leader. You're a culture leader. And instruction is just as important as the culture. And there was sort of this focus or the, or this idea, this critique that what I was doing would not advance outcomes for kids, specifically academic outcomes. What we saw over time is that when people are a part of a process when we've, co-created the vision for what the school is going to do and be together, they're so much more bought in that instead of sitting in a PLC griping about the protocol we're using, they dive right into use it because they co-created it and the outcomes for kids are phenomenal.
Ashlee: You're cutting out all of this unnecessary energy waste because folks are all on the same page. Over time, we saw a hundred percent retention in an urban charter school, which is it's unheard of. We were starting to build the tradition and the ritual that sort of the sweet stuff in a school that nobody teaches you about. The power of a school is that sixth grade teacher who does the Shark Tank unit that kids have been looking forward to since third grade and that's only possible when that sixth grade teacher has rooted into the fabric of the school and been there for years. The way that you get teachers to stay in an urban school is by building this culture where you've, co-created what the school is about together. Initially I think it can look like maybe putting priority in the wrong place, because we're so focused on the opportunity gap and what's at stake for kids and how far behind they are and how much work we have to do. But we saw a slow and steady increases in test scores, and we weren't even talking about academics yet. Now that we've laid that firm foundation, now that you have folks that are on board, I anticipate our scores will skyrocket. We were really looking forward to look at our scores this year and then COVID happened. I think it's just right. I really wanted that data to prove this theory will work, but I think we'll see it. And I, I believe in it.
Daniel: Definitely, Here where we're recording, you're moving into a new position by the time it releases you've already executed on it. But right now, what are you most excited about with this new position?
Ashlee: This is a brand new position. They have never had this position at the district office before this district is primarily white and primarily wealthy. I'm just really excited about moving into a position where I can be supporting white folks in equity work. I think there's a lot of people who are focused on equity work in urban spaces. It can often feel like you're in an echo chamber where you're saying things to people who agree with you already, and you're deepening each other's understanding, but there's something really interesting to me about doing this work in a primarily white space and thinking about the power of cultivating a generation of co-conspirators who truly understand the history of our country, truly understand the dismantling work that's ahead of us and are equipped to execute that dismantling work. I think that's really powerful.
Daniel: Thank you for your leadership on that. I'm excited to follow the impact and the ripple effect that you make. So that's definitely personally, just really interesting to me before we get to the last two questions. I asked everybody I'd love to talk to you about Teach FX. You've had some experience there. How does that help with the development trajectory of a staff?
Ashlee: Sure. I think this is sort of rooted in this idea of individualistic versus collective and sort of this like adult culture that we were creating. I think, , in a lot of ed reform leadership programs, you're really learned you learn that you're supposed to identify issues. You're supposed to come up with your strategic plan, and then you're supposed to have this PD plan for the year where you dive into those things. And all of that is right and good and true. And one of the unintended consequences of that is that you have teachers who may not be super bought in to that idea or that topic might not actually be with that teacher needs in that year with that group of kids. And so we really found teach FX valuable because it allows teachers to pick their own pathway of development, but it's rooted in actual data.
Ashlee: So you can look at your class report, you can identify the amount of student talk or teacher talk, and then you can set a goal or a priority around what it is that you want to focus on. A lot of those conversations are really rooted in equity. Like who's talking in your room and who's not talking and what's the consequence for the kids that aren't talking for processing for engagement, for participation. Our teachers would take that and run with it. So I could get into a classroom every other week for observation and feedback. But if a teacher is on Teach FX, they'd record a class, every single period and have data to look at that evening to prep for the next day. It was just the number of reps that were possible, and the ways that we saw teachers really take ownership of their own development.
Ashlee: So I'd come in for a debrief conversation and they had a laundry list of things they wanted to talk to me about. Sometimes, my agenda was scrapped, so we could talk about their thing and that's really powerful. I think teachers are not always considered professionals in the way that they are in other fields. I think it's important for us to kind of reclaim the fact that teaching is a complex art and science that's unlike any other role. I know teachers are professionals and they should be able to drive their development in the same way that you would in the tech field or any other field.
Daniel: So teachers have more ownership. They have data instantly many more mirror moments because they reflect through what that data shows. It essentially multiplies your impact because you can only be in classes so often, even if you're doing something like Justin Bader, I don't know if his work, but he, he really encourages principals to be in classrooms and have a set schedule and it has a challenge and it's really great. But even with all of that, you're still limited in capacity. And so this really exponentially increases the ability to understand right, what a teacher's doing within a classroom. So, cool. Thanks for sharing that. Was there something else you wanted to say
Ashlee: That I don't remember the exact statistic, but I want to say something like caliber teachers were receiving 12 times more feedback than other schools because of their use of the tool. So just that impact the multiplicative impact of the number of reps, mere moments that you've helped teachers have is really powerful for changing practice.
Daniel: Well, maybe the way to frame it is, what would it be worth to you? Ruckus Maker to 10X, the impact of feedback within your school, right? That a, that's a good question to ask. So Ashley, what message would you put on all school marquees across the globe if you could do so for just a day?
Ashlee: Well, if you'll indulge me as a grad student, I am reading all the articles, all the people and Grace Lee Boggs is a scholar activist who I have really gravitated towards. I think there's such wisdom in her work. My marquee would actually be a gracefully bogs quote, which says we urgently need to bring to our communities, the limitless capacity to love, serve and create for and with each other.
Daniel: Ashley, you're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources, you're only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?
Ashlee: So I would design the school in collaboration with a cross section of students, parents, community leaders, anti-racist SEL leaders in the field. I'd pay everyone a salary for the planning years so that this could be a full-time focus for folks. Whenever possible, I let students lead. I think, I've designed a school that's what we did at caliber. We got ourselves into many of the same situations we had originally set out to solve because it's just, it's a sticky mess. I would want to capitalize on the creativity that's within students, especially those who are still holding on to their hopes and their, their dreaming channel, that to help us rethink what's possible because I think my adult brain is, is not always as open to possibility as, as kids are. And I need some support going back to the days where I could dream mile dreams and not worry about if we could make it happen, but will it into being. I think the three priorities I would focus on are radical love that prioritizes the collective anti-racist pedagogies modeled after the freedom schools and rigor as defined, not by the espec, but as defined by critical thinking, problem solving and dismantling white supremacy and racism in our country to build a better future for all of us.
Daniel: Ashley, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we talked about today, what's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.
Ashlee: Remember that kids have the answers they always have and they always will. So when in doubt, go to the kids.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud and using the hashtag #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.
- Proactive leaders look at adaptive challenges to anticipate consequences down the road to truly fix problems
- Shared success for female leaders of color with an emergency thread
- Not always having the answer is the right answer for service leadership
- When in doubt, talk to kids, kids are capable of being a part of every conversation that has to do with school
- Focus a less on data and more on community building by co-creating protocols for advocates on PLCs and scores will skyrocket
- Pivot focuses on creating a culturally and linguistically sustaining teaching environment, not just the pedagogy, but retaining
- Ashley shares how Teach FX gives ownership with 10K the impact on reflective, impactful teaching
“Teachers are not always considered professionals in the way that they are in other fields. I think it’s important for us to kind of reclaim the fact that teaching is a complex art and science that’s unlike any other role. I know teachers are professionals and they should be able to drive their development in the same way that you would in the tech field or any other field.”
“I’m just really excited about moving into a position where I can be supporting white folks in equity work. I think there’s a lot of people who are focused on equity work in urban spaces. It can often feel like you’re in an echo chamber where you’re saying things to people who agree with you already, and you’re deepening each other’s understanding, but there’s something really interesting to me about doing this work in a primarily white space and thinking about the power of cultivating a generation of co-conspirators who truly understand the history of our country, truly understand the dismantling work that’s ahead of us and are equipped to execute that dismantling work. I think that’s really powerful.”
– Ashley Gutierrez
Ashlee Gutierrez’s Resources & Contact Info:
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School leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time! TeachFX is changing that with a “Fitbit for teachers” that automatically measures student engagement and gives teachers feedback about what they could do differently.
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