Q&A with Jacqueline Greer, Executive Director, DC at Urban Teachers
Jacqueline Greer (2006 EP Fellow) has built an impressive career in education. Now serving as the Executive Director, DC for Urban Teachers, Jacqueline’s expertise in human capital has enabled her to lead a team that has supported over 300 teachers who reach over 9,300 students in 53 Washington, DC schools. She was selected for the inaugural Emerging Human Capital Leaders Initiative in 2015.
As Executive Director, DC at Urban Teachers, how do you think about talent and hiring, both on your team and in your work to support great teachers?
Jacqueline Greer: When I think about hiring, I always try to assess two key elements – will and skill. Having a tight team that works well is vital, so anyone I work with is going to have to work really hard, push the team forward, and be intrinsically motivated. We’ll get there together.
I use the phrase “talent mindset” often. I work to see if we’ve thought about what a core member of the team brings to our work by asking, “what are their strengths and weaknesses?” We all have them, and it's actually okay (it took me a long time to learn this).
Beyond that, I also ask “what does everyone need to do their job well?” Once a year, I ask my team, “What do you need from me?” Then I try to honor that.
In our work to support teachers, we have a variety of teachers and schools we work with. Making matches can be very difficult. So, if a teacher expresses concerns with school climate and culture, we take that very seriously. We are asking our teachers to commit for 4 years, so we want to make sure our schools – and teachers – are in the right place.
Additionally, if a teacher requests a certain coach (special education or math, for instance) or support, we try to honor that request. Even if we can't, I try to be really direct. It helps our stakeholders to know that they have been heard, and it's vital to our work.
What are some of your hiring best practices to ensure you get the right people on your team?
JG: For our faculty, we hire really smart, really humble, and really thoughtful practitioners. They are experts in their field, but also continual learners who take great pride in their craft. Finding someone who is a “teacher of teachers” is a big job, but our faculty go above and beyond the job. Our process is rigorous, which mirrors the rigor of the role.
When I interview team members, I always ask myself, “would I want to have dinner with this person?” It sounds like an unusual question, but I want to know whether they will add to our team and really work to push collective thinking. Also, you will share a lot of team lunches, so you want to ensure that you are always learning. In urban education, you can be correct and incorrect at the same time. I want our team to acknowledge that and be very flexible.
In terms of culture, I want to also ensure that our team is very reflective, but also balanced. At Urban Teachers, a colleague pointed out that when we ask each other, “How was your weekend?”, we do actually care how your weekend went. It's an amazing feeling.
Let’s talk about capacity. How do you know if you have work that can be delegated, or if you need to grow your team and hire more capacity?
JG: This is a timely question. I look around at the team – if everyone is working weekends and evenings and we still feel stretched – it’s time to grow the team. One of our core values is that, “we live fun and full lives.” If we can't make time for that, it's time to rethink our work.
In our office, we survey our stakeholders constantly and if we aren’t able to have time to think about new ideas AND to do our daily work, we’re really stretched.
In terms of delegation, I hire people with a variety of skills and also continue to push the team. (Also, if someone doesn’t feel confident in their skills, we work to find places for them to continually learn.) I have a lot of achievers in my office and we can be hesitant to delegate, but building trust on the team is really what sits underneath this work. Once we trust each other, we push each other much better. If we’re not constantly learning something new, we can’t perform well.
You’ve had many years of experience in human capital. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a human capital leader, and what were the strategies you’ve used to overcome them?
JG: I don’t think everyone “gets it.” I think that people don’t understand the job of an urban educator and the many roles they fill – teacher, therapist, mentor, etc. Many of our communities are under duress and teachers feel like they are blamed for failure and not credited with the vital work they have to do.
Also, many talent colleagues think that every teaching vacancy is the same…it isn’t. It’s become very important to get to know our leaders and school partners well and work to present them with a variety of different options for their school buildings.
Every teacher we place is a 4-year commitment to a school, and we want it to be a good fit. That’s tough and we don’t always have it quite right, but we're reflective and work to be honest. I find that school partners appreciate that.
I also want principals to have the time to think 1 to 2 years out about their schools and the strategies to continue to improve. When a principal meets with me and maps out the next 2 to 3 years of their talent strategy, I’m thrilled. They rarely have the time to do that, but when they think about the long-term plan for success in their school building, students always benefit.
Overall, in your experience as an education leader, what are some of the biggest talent or hiring challenges you’ve seen in education?
JG: Turnover. Successful companies don’t turn over a large fraction of their workforce every year. I don’t know that we can make that work in our hardest-to-staff schools. Often, the strategies to keep teachers and leaders are simple: ask them what they want to stay. It’s not always the students in a building – it’s the adult culture that can be so tenuous.
I also think that – beyond pedagogy – we have to know our communities well. It’s important to understand our students, their walk to school, their daily lives, and their challenges. The role of an urban educator is critical and can be one of the most important adults in a child's life. We need to honor that as a society.
How can we make our cities a great place for educators as their needs change and evolve? I think that we all win when effective teachers stay in our buildings – regardless of sector (traditional public or charter).
What role do budgets play when it comes to attracting or supporting talent or hiring in education? Is it a barrier? How can you work with our around the budget you have to meet your hiring needs?
JG: I think that we have to model budgets over time. How much will it cost me to replace a teacher vs. sending them to the professional development they have always wanted?
Budgets shrink over time, but many of our partners use existing positions (i.e. educational aides) to bring in teaching residents and then shift the functions of the role to become more instructional, thereby maximizing their impact. A variety of funding sources can be used to support teachers – we’ve had to be creative.
On my team, budgets are a consideration, but often we try to ask about the other perks. At our office, they recently updated the vacation policy for more time and that was a huge bonus. It didn’t have a cost to the organization, but morale quickly improved.
In education, do we think about talent in the right way? What should we be doing more of, and what should we be doing differently?
JG: It’s hard to say. I think that we don’t always have a unified theory around talent, and I have to compare this work with a lot of other organizations. For instance, finding a principal, at talent-minded schools, is approached with the same depth as a CEO search. But, we also don’t make these jobs sustainable in many instances.
We need to train people in a robust way. We really can't continue to think that teaching, in our hardest-to-serve schools, is something you can either do or not. Any sustainable industry trains their special teams in a robust way. Urban teachers need high-quality tools available constantly.
How can education leaders plan for and sustain high-performing teams?
JG: They have to be intentional and ask themselves tough questions. I also think you have to balance a team around your strengths, but more importantly, around your weaknesses. You have to have a function on each team and a clear growth plan for each team member.
I also think that you have to create an environment where it's safe to make mistakes and innovate. Invite disagreement. That’s the best way to grow. If you create an environment that is open to feedback, you’ll learn lots of new things along the way.
Education leaders can look to business in many cases – but not all. I think you can often look to your high performers to tell you what's needed.
Also, create systems. If you have team members who create smart systems, replicate that. I think it's important to recognize and reward innovation.
The other part that’s tough is knowing when something is outside of your mission. I am very clear on our team’s mission. Our goal is to provide high-quality teachers to schools in DC who will stay. Ultimately, we want to drastically reduce – even eliminate – teacher turnover, which we believe will improve student performance. That's our priority. All other items are secondary.
Sustaining a team is hard. It’s important to show the team what you expect and how you expect them to get there. Once a year, we take a day off, but at work…and go do something fun together. We need that time to bond and build trust, then we go home early. I think it’s important to show your team that you are human and try to keep the drama to a minimum.
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