In this Pioneer Profile with EP alumna Christie Imholt, Program Manager, Teacher Leadership & Career Pathways for Denver Public Schools, she talks about why the leaders who inspire her most have both an aspirational vision and a strategy to realize it; what it was like to be in the room with President Obama and hear him talk about education and work she contributed to; and why teaching—which requires an exceptional level of knowledge and skill—should be a profession to aspire to.
1. Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in North Haven, Connecticut—a pretty typical, mostly white, middle class suburb of New Haven. Living in a small town of only about 22,000, with one middle school and one high school, and with my mother a teacher in the school system, it was a very tight knit community—meaning you pretty much knew everyone in town. Both of my parents were educators—my mom, a school librarian, and my father, a college professor—so education was the focus of almost every dinner table conversation for me and my sisters, whether that being our days, my parents jobs, or the latest in education. As a result, it isn’t too surprising that I ended up in education
2. What do you like most about where you live now?
After 13 years living in Washington, DC, I now call Denver my home. I’ve never lived in the West before and love the friendly and relaxed attitude that people approach you with—even for transplants like me. More specifically, I've fallen in love with Denver’s City Park—whether playing tennis, Jazz in the Park, or just taking a walk through it and catching glimpses of the mountains. I love being able to be outdoors with Denver’s amazing weather—even in the winter.
3. What is your favorite school memory?
My 12th grade AP Calculus class with Mr. Mathews was both one of my favorite and most challenging classes. I remember walking into class one day with a container of Play-Doh sitting on each of our desks. We were a class of 17 and 18 year old students—we shouldn’t be playing with Play-Doh! As Mr. Mathews introduced the concept of integrals, we used the Play-Doh to create the shapes that would occur by rotating the graph around the axis. Not only was it incredibly fun to play with the Play-Doh, but I’ll probably never forget what an integral is. My favorite school memories are those where my teachers made learning fun.
4. Which leader (alive or not, in any field) do you most admire?
As a former history teacher, my head runs through many Presidents—FDR, LBJ, Obama; and activists—Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. Over the past several years, I’ve been particularly inspired and amazed by Geoffrey Canada for his work with the Harlem Child’s Zone. For me, I think what these amazing leaders have in common for me is that they have both an aspirational vision to make the world a better place, but also a strategy to carry it forward. What I admire most about Geoffrey Canada is his ability to implement his vision to have a sustained impact on youth and families from college to career in such a concentrated area.
5. When was the first time you thought about working in education?
Both of my parents are educators, as well as three of my aunts, so even in elementary school I often dreamed about what I would do if I was a teacher and had my own classroom. As I grew up, I developed other career interests, but always kept coming back to education--whether that being a researcher, teacher, or working in policy. In college, having the opportunity to work part-time in schools and take classes related to education policy was when I really knew that working in education would be my career trajectory.
6. What has been your most memorable moment working in education?
Being in the East Room at White House when President Obama announced plans to offer States the opportunity to request waivers from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. I belonged to the team of U.S. Department of Education staff charged with developing the waiver policy so that States could receive relief and move forward with education reforms while waiting for Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was pretty inspiring to sit in the room and hear the President talk about education, and humbling to hear him talk about the work that you had done.
7. What do love about your job?
I left teaching because I wanted to expand my impact. I love that I still get to work to improve schools for students and for teachers but from a broader vantage point and hopefully in a more sustainable way. I’m also constantly in awe of the insights of the people I get to interact with in schools and in the district office. I learn something new every day.
8. If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix or change?
If I had a magic wand, I would give the teaching profession the respect it deserves. Teaching is not only one of the most demanding professions, but requires an exceptional level of knowledge and skill--much like being a doctor. And yet, my observation is that many people treat teaching as if it is something anyone could do and not a profession that "successful" people go into. When I decided to go to graduate school at Harvard to become a teacher, I often got questions such as "Why do you need to go to Harvard to become a teacher?" or "Really, why do you just want to be a teacher?" I wish more people had the perspective that I was raised with--teaching is a profession to aspire to.
9. What are you still learning to do?
Everything! You can’t be in education without being a life-long learner. Professionally, I’m still learning how to influence others and manage change, particularly at a district level, as well as how to support schools from a human capital lens. Personally, I’m to navigate my way around Denver, play tennis, and balance my personal and professional lives.
10. What or who inspires you?
My former students—both ones I taught myself or mentored over the years. I try to always keep them front of mind. For example, I often think about a 9th grader I had in my first year of teaching. She was feeling the demands of high school and thought she was not doing particularly well. One day in my class she said "Ms. Imholt—I’m just not college material." It crushed me to hear this and I knew that she was wrong. Three years later, I watched her walk across the stage to receive her high school diploma knowing that she was heading off to college in the fall.