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Leaders & Lessons: A Conversation with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah A. Gist

This interview originally appeared in the Impatient Optimists series by Gavin Payne of the Gates Foundation.

Much of our work here at the Gates Foundation involves looking at the big picture in education – how connections between policymakers, K-12 teachers, and parents are fostered and strengthened nationally. And while understanding these connections is important, we also know how critical it is to explore and listen to what’s happening at the local level, where many of these high-level issues culminate.

There are lessons we can all learn from the leaders who work hard to turn policies into practice. They’re the ones on the ground every day doing the incredibly important and meaningful work of educating our students. What drives their vision? What lessons have they learned along the way? How can other education leaders apply this wisdom and use it to advance student outcomes in their states and communities? I strongly believe the answers to these questions can inform the entire field of leaders working to advance student achievement.

That’s why I am featuring a series of conversations with state and local education leaders on this blog over the next few months. Each of the educators in the series is at a point of inflection in their careers as they transition into different, but equally prominent, leadership roles. In these conversations, I’ll explore their experiences, the insights they have to share, as well as what drives them to tackle the challenges of their new roles.

For this first conversation, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking with Dr. Deborah A. Gist. Dr. Gist served as Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island for six years, where she earned a reputation as a bold leader. In 2010,TIME magazine named her one of the 100 people who most affect the world. This past summer, Dr. Gist returned to her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she now leads Tulsa Public Schools as Superintendent. 

Gavin Payne: Dr. Gist, thank you so much for kicking off this series and joining me for this conversation. Let’s jump right in. You have returned to your hometown to serve as the Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools after serving as Education Commissioner in Rhode Island. What are some similarities and differences you’ve noticed in the transition from leading state education policy to now working on the district level? 

Dr. Deborah A. Gist: It is awesome to be home. It is so powerful for me to combine work that I love and deeply believe in with a place that I adore and people who feel like family to me. This role is really a dream come true for me. It has been fascinating to experience the difference between state work and being in a district.

I had worked in a district as a teacher and leader of programs, but not as a superintendent or member of a superintendent’s cabinet. This is a new experience and I am completely in love with it. I am deeply enjoying and appreciating the impact we can have with the work we are doing at the district level.

One of the biggest issues we had to tackle was the teacher shortage in Oklahoma overall and more specifically in Tulsa. This was a situation I had never before faced and was a new challenge. We filled every open position before school started, compared to 77 vacancies at the beginning of the prior school year. Overall we had to hire 499 teachers. We only have 3,000 teachers, so that was a big effort that required ‘all hands on deck’ to be successful.

GP: Wow – that is a remarkable achievement. You touched on the various roles you’ve played throughout your career – and I’m so interested in the unique vantage point you have for observing and understanding how different states address the same challenges, like raising academic standards. From your perspective, how critical is it to raise expectations for students? And what impact have you seen higher standards have in classrooms and districts?

DG: Standards are a key component of our ability to educate our students well and prepare them for success.

In Oklahoma, we are in the process of creating new state standards. We have a third draft of the standards and expect them to move through the approval process in the next few months. I am anxious to see the third party reviews.

It used to be that standards were for teachers. Today, however, standards are for everyone in that the attention people pay to them has really changed. Once we have the standards, we can be clear about what they mean for instruction in the classroom.  There is no question – having high standards is critical. Standards play a role in helping us improve instruction.

GP: And you’ve had some great results in classrooms – though you’ve achieved your results in some pretty interesting ways! You’ve literally jumped out of a plane when students reached a goal you’d set. You recently danced the “Whip/Nae Nae” to fire up your teaching staff.  How is your outside-the-box approach part of your plan to tackle challenges facing your district?

DG: We are all people and all a team. Fun is underrated, but it is so important. Learning should be fun and our kids should enjoy school. The work can be engaging and rigorous, but also fun at the same time.  Adults and children are working incredibly hard. We need to lighten up a little bit while are doing this hard work - unbutton our suit jackets and enjoy ourselves.

GP: That’s a great philosophy, and one that I’m sure comes in handy during particularly challenging moments. For instance, when you were Rhode Island Education Commissioner you had some battles that received national attention. What advice would you give state education leaders facing intense pressure as they try to improve educational opportunities for young people in their state? 

DG: Find that really delicate balance of listening to feedback – hearing it and responding to it without losing sight of what you are trying to accomplish. This balance is so difficult because you can get so caught up in responding to feedback that you get off your path and lose what you are trying to accomplish. What I have noticed over time, especially at the state level, is that you will have people reacting to your work no matter what it is – you can’t please everyone. You should want to be respectful of and pay attention to feedback, but know that if you did the opposite you would have a different group of people saying you are wrong. Do what you know is right.  Do what you have to do for kids. Keep that at the center of everything. Really listen – listen past and through the anger. Those providing feedback have important points that should inform what you are doing. You have to hear it and make sure what you are doing is right. Make corrections to improve, but keep doing what you need to do for students.

GP: You make two really great points here: one being the importance of truly listening to feedback and reflecting on practices, and the other on keeping students at the center of the work, because everything we do in education is grounded in improving educational outcomes for students. How much are those lessons grounded in your classroom experience? Do you have a specific memory from your time in the classroom that continues to inspire and drive you? 

DG: My teaching experience was the most important experience I’ve had. It is, without question, the firm foundation that everything else is built upon. I was in the classroom for eight years and have not forgotten it.

I remember what it was like to be in the classroom and have decisions made outside of the classroom. I remember my students having needs I was not able to address because they were outside of my role – especially the social services they needed. Teachers today experience their students having these same needs – even more so then when I was a teacher. Some of our communities are more challenging. That is in the forefront of my mind when I am making decisions and leading the district.

I have three leadership dispositions: love, inquiry and grit. Those three definitely came from my time in the classroom. Love is about caring about those you are serving. Sharing your appreciation for them and being kind and caring. Love is also about passion, enthusiasm, and fun. Inquiry is about reflection and learning; analyzing and improving; thinking and getting better and better. Grit is that you have to hold steady on what matters. You have to know what your values are, what drives you and know where you are going. Most important to me is the combination of all three of those.  For example, a school with amazing teachers who love their students but aren’t doing what needs to be done to prepare them academically is not sufficient. Other places are about courage and hard decisions, but they are really just bossing people around. They think that bravado is something to be proud of instead of an ineffective leadership strategy.

GP: Love, inquiry and gritHearing that list strung together, it strikes me that they really do encapsulate so much of leadership.

I find myself frequently revisiting that inquiry piece – reflecting on what I hear from leaders, like yourself, and educators – to help influence our policies here at the foundation. In a post this summer, I talked about the need to find ways for parents, teachers and policymakers to talk more to each other. You’re doing that in community forums on your strategic plan, and you also often participate in the Twitter chat #OklaEd that connects educators in your state. Has listening in these forums (online and offline) led you to think differently or taught you something new that you’ve put into practice in Tulsa?

DG: We have done a ton of outreach and will never stop. Communication is a constant state. It isn’t something you check off a list.

A good example of something new that I’ve put into practice in Tulsa is in regards to testing. As an educator and as someone who has seen excellent schools do well for students, I value the role quality assessments can plan in improving educational outcomes for students. We have had productive dialogue about testing to determine the benefits and uses of each of the assessments we were using.

People make good points that our kids aren’t all the same and that our teachers need to teach and not test. It is easy to draw a line in the sand on this issue and pick your side. In talking with teachers, parents and students, I was trying hard to hear their feedback and heard clearly that we did have too much testing. I found a group that had been convened on the issue and started working with them when I arrived. We can value testing and know we need it while also acknowledging that we have too much – that some of our tests overlap and aren’t used. We were able to come to a positive place together because we listened to each other and worked together. If you set aside your ideological views and listen to one another you can make progress. 

GP: So seek feedback and listen to others, keep students center and lead with love, integrity and grit – certainly advice that many of us can benefit from in our own practice.  Before we run out of time, one final question I think you’ll appreciate:

If you had to choose five words to describe the key(s) to improving education for all students, which five would you choose?

DG: Love. Beliefs. Boldness. Relentless. Innovation… and Fun!

GP: I think that’s perfect – those five, well, six words really reflect the passion and energy you bring! Thank you very much, Dr. Deborah Gist for your thoughtful answers. 

Continue following Impatient Optimists for our upcoming conversation with Maryland’s former State Superintendent Dr. Lillian Lowery. 

Leaders & Lessons: A Conversation with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah A. Gist
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