Interview with Deborah Gist

The following is an interview between Deborah Gist and me.

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Deborah A. Gist is the Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. Previously, she was Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. Before coming to Rhode Island, Deborah served as the first State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia.

She began her career in education 26 years ago as an elementary-school teacher in Fort Worth and, later, in Tampa, where she conceived, designed, and initiated a literacy program serving families in 108 elementary schools in Hillsborough County.

Deborah is a graduate of Memorial High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She holds a bachelor of science degree in early-childhood education from the University of Oklahoma, a master of arts in elementary education and curriculum from the University of South Florida, a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctoral degree in education leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2008, Deborah was a Broad Superintendents Academy Fellow, and in 2015 she completed the Pahara fellowship through the Aspen Institute. In 2010, Deborah was one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and one of The Atlantic’s Brave Thinkers, whom the magazine recognizes for “the year’s most intrepid and original thinking.” In 2012, she was a winner of a Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award from Democrats for Education Reform.

WDP: Welcome back to Oklahoma, and thank you so much for taking time to share! Can you start with one of your favorite success quotes?
Deborah: I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.–Nelson Mandela

WDP: That’s beautiful. How have you used the idea contained in your favorite quote to affect your own leadership?
Deborah: I love this quote and find it valuable for so many reasons. First, Nelson Mandela is a personal hero of mine. I deeply admire his leadership, faith and perseverance. In this quote he acknowledges that work that is important is difficult and that even though we try not to falter we will make mistakes.

The quote also reminds me that while our work is never done, it is important to take those moments to stop and appreciate how far we have come before we forge ahead. In doing so, we get strength from what we’ve accomplished in order to carry on with the hard work of making change.

The quote is also a reminder that Mr. Mandela and others have endured challenges and led through hardships that many of us could never contemplate. That example of perseverance gives me strength and perspective during difficult times.

WDP: Take us back to a failure or obstacle you overcame and how you did it.
Deborah: I recall an instance when I was very new to management and just recently out of the classroom, I became very impatient with someone who reported to me. While I had patience with my students, learning to be patient with adults was very new to me. In fact, during that first year or two, I failed many times in my interactions with adults and really had to learn how to bring adults–both as individuals and in groups–along.

All of us, no matter our age or experience, need leaders who set high expectations, lead with vision, help us to believe in ourselves, and coach effectively when things don’t go well. In that way, it actually is a lot like teaching.

WDP: I couldn’t agree more! Can you give us one quick example of something you have done that required risk but created great results?
Deborah: The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was the decision to leave the classroom. Even though I believed at the time that it was a temporary decision, I had never contemplated it happening at all. That decision was extremely difficult for me. While I miss being in the classroom, I am very grateful for the experiences I’ve had and for the results I’ve seen in my career since then.

WDP: What is an example of an “aha!” moment where you realized a key truth that you turned into a success?
Deborah: I certainly would not say that I am a success. I am a work in progress. Because of that, I have aha moments all the time!

WDP: Have you ever had an “I’ve made it” moment?
Deborah: I have never had the thought, “I’ve made it.” I just see things as more of an ongoing journey. However, I do remember my first classroom and how excited I was after years of studying and working in the classrooms of other teachers to have my own classroom. I remember getting ready for my students and studying the roster of their names in anticipation before seeing their lives before me when school began. Experiencing that every fall throughout my teaching career was a joy, and I miss it very much.

WDP: What was something holding you back from seeing the high levels of achievement you are seeing now?
Deborah: I don’t think anything held me back but instead my experiences–both personally and professionally–have been a series of lessons that brought me to where I am today.

WDP: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?
Deborah: There are so many choices here, but I think I would go with, “Don’t make assumptions.” We need to focus on what we know and not on what we have created in our minds. It is amazing how much our imagination creates situations in our personal and professional relationships, and then how we use that information as if it actually happened. Instead, we need to work more directly with others, ask a lot of questions and work with what we know.

WDP: What is something that is working for you or your team right now?
Deborah: We have found the work of Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Death by Meeting, to be very useful. I manage with a meeting structure based on recommendations he makes.

WDP: Do you have a resource that you just love that you would recommend to other school leaders?
Deborah: Well, I love my professional learning community on Twitter and find it a great place to build relationships and learn new things. I also think the Teaching Channel is an incredible resource and often think about how much I would have used it if I was still in the classroom.

As a leader, I really love the book Good to Great, and I find the online tools that Jim Collins provides on very useful.

There are so many books that I have learned from and still use every day. For leading change, some of the most important writing for me has been anything by Ronald Heifetz. One of his most practical books is The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. It is a great introduction into his work.

WDP: If you could speak to the 20 year-old version of yourself, what advice would you give him or her?
Deborah: Be kinder than necessary. It isn’t about you. Don’t make assumptions. Wear sunscreen!

Now It’s Your Turn
A big thank to Dr. Gist for taking time to share! One of my favorite quotes of hers was, “All of us, no matter our age or experience, need leaders who set high expectations, lead with vision, help us to believe in ourselves, and coach effectively when things don’t go well. In that way, it actually is a lot like teaching.”

What is one practical step you will take this new school year in your own school community to set high expectations, lead with vision, help others believe in themselves, and coach effectively?

You can check out other interviews like this one at the Principal Matters Interviews Page.

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker