Getting to know Director Wise in 10 questions
Who or what inspired you to become an educator?
I went to college thinking I’d be a lawyer like my dad. I decided to be a history major, and I had a couple of great professors. I loved the content of history, and then I had the opportunity, when I was a junior in college, to be a teaching assistant for the freshman history course. It was a western civilizations course, and it was known as one of the more difficult core courses at Creighton. That’s when my passion first started to shift from the content to the student, and I realized how critical the teacher is in really bringing the content to life and the connections that can form between the teacher and the student. Before that, I was a student for whom the content alone could light my fire. I realize for all students that’s not the case. That was the spark that made me think, “I need to change my path.” What deepened my passion and commitment was that I ended up graduating and joined Teach for America and was placed in the Mississippi Delta in Tunica, Miss., in one of the lowest-performing high schools in Mississippi. I was teaching 11th grade American history, and I had several classes of amazing students who defied every expectation that I think people would assume of them. These kids really accepted me and valued my role as a teacher, and I really accepted and valued them.
What is your general impression of Iowa’s schools and education system?
There are amazingly committed teachers and school administrators in Iowa, and communities are invested in the education of their kids. There are a number of bright spots to look at. The fact that Iowa has the highest graduation rate in the country is something we as a state should be very proud of, and we are blazing a new and bold path that will be a model for many other states. A great example of that path is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation System, which will fundamentally remake the teaching profession for the better. Iowa’s emphasis on early literacy and the state’s effort to ensure all kids can read well by the end of third grade is critical. In addition, the comprehensive review of our state standards, to ensure they are appropriately rigorous and prepare students for success both in and beyond school, is the right work. At the same time, we face some real challenges. The fact that one in every four third-grade students is not proficient in reading is primary among those. We also have gaps in performance at every grade level, particularly among students who are English Language Learners, who come from low-income backgrounds, and African American and Latino students as well as students with disabilities. We need to continue to work as a state on how we best address those gaps to ensure all kids have a bright future ahead of them.
Your previous work at the Iowa Department of Education focused on developing and delivering Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation system (TLC), the most ambitious teacher leadership system in the nation. What do you see as the possibilities for TLC?
TLC will be transformative for teaching and learning. When I’m out talking to teachers I hear again and again that TLC is giving them an opportunity they’ve never had before to really take a significant role in school leadership while still maintaining direct links to kids. It further promotes collaboration and professional learning in ways that will ultimately benefit student learning and student achievement. Roughly 160,000 students benefited this past year from additional support from teachers who are in leadership roles through TLC. Thousands more students will benefit this year and next. We fully anticipate that every Iowa school district will come into the system during the 2016-17 school year.
What has the TLC implementation work taught you about leadership?
I’ve viewed leadership now for many years as creating conditions under which others can do their best work. Having been part of elevating the teaching profession and putting teachers in a place where they have a broader scope of authority to help others do their best work, I think that has really furthered my view that we’re on the right path and furthered my belief in leadership. Part of it is being able to set a vision and motivate people, but also, how do we help others take on leadership? I’ve never lost the view that teaching itself is an act of leadership. Twenty-five percent of teachers in TLC districts take on formal leadership roles with responsibilities outside of the classroom, and that’s the foundation of this, but at the same time, the system should not diminish the teachers walking into the classroom and working to lift every kid up. That’s leadership as well.
What is your own leadership style?
My leadership style is collaborative and empowering. I think the best decisions are ones that are owned collectively. At times, leaders need to make difficult decisions that are not always shared by everyone, but to the extent leaders can build consensus, the better that positions them. I’ve always worked to hear as many diverse viewpoints as possible to set paths. I’ve tried to focus on when and where can I empower others to lead and to see how I can play a role in building a consensus and communicating that vision.
How has being a parent influenced you as an education leader?
It reinforces to me what a big job teachers and schools have, and as a Department we need to be mindful of the nature of their work in addressing the needs of diverse learners. I really see that as a parent when I hear my own children talk about the kids in their class and where they come from and the languages they speak and the projects they’re working on. Kids come from all different places. For me, it’s about helping to build and sustain an education system in Iowa that meets the needs of all learners, regardless of their backgrounds.
As a former classroom teacher, what was your most remarkable experience?
My most remarkable experience actually happened after I had left the classroom. I was on the campus of Creighton University for a wedding and one of my former students, who was now a sophomore at Creighton, approached me and gave me a big hug. She told me how thankful she was that I was her high school history teacher. She felt prepared and confident and had the skills and knowledge she needed to be successful. This was a student I had struggled to reach. I would have never guessed I had such a positive impact if not for this chance encounter.
Speaking of top priorities – schools and districts have a lot of them, ranging from effectively implementing Iowa's education standards to early literacy to teacher leadership programs. What is your advice to districts on being able to launch these initiatives simultaneously?
My message is that we should always view the component parts as a connected system. For example, teacher leadership is not an end in itself. School districts should leverage teacher leadership to achieve the mission, vision and goals they have set for their school communities. The more we look for and see coherence across the pieces of our work and the more these efforts reinforce each other in a seamless way, the stronger our schools will become.
What do you see as the role of the Iowa Department of Education? Has it changed over the years?
The most important role the Department plays is as a partner with our stakeholders in effectively implementing federal and state education policy. In addition, the Department is uniquely positioned to provide and interpret information and data to support transparency, accountability and continuous improvement of Iowa’s school system. I also believe that we have a role to play in communicating a compelling and consistent vision for education in Iowa, convening critical conversations about this vision, and piloting and scaling promising educational practices like teacher leadership and competency-based education. While I have only been in Iowa for three years, I do think this is a shift from the typical model of a state education agency, which is traditionally focused on compliance and oversight.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.” – Lewis Carroll