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Learning to Lead: Reflections on Rocketship’s Rising Leaders Program

From students to staff, diversity is a point of pride at Rocketship. Our staff come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring unique perspectives, goals, and skills.

To celebrate that diversity while working toward ambitious achievement goals for our students and communities, Rocketship customizes professional development and career pathways to meet the varied needs and goals of our staff.

We launched our Rising Leaders program in 2010 to offer our teachers professional development in leadership skills, management frameworks, and mindsets that are essential to their current and future role at Rocketship. Rising Leaders reflect on and grow their leadership capacity to prepare themselves for the next step on their leadership path — whether that is in the classroom, as a school leader or on our Network Support Team. Through monthly workshops, reading, and instructional feedback, the program focuses on effective management frameworks while also identifying individual strengths and challenges. The cohort meets throughout the school year and progress is measured with surveys every session, semester, and at the end of the year.

To show what this looks like in action, we spoke with two very different San Jose educators who have  participated in the Rising Leaders program. Delisia Davis is a first grade Humanities teacher at Rocketship Alma in South San Jose who got her start in teaching in Louisiana nearly a decade ago. Davis recently completed the Rising Leaders program and aspires to become a founding leader at a new Rocketship school. Kimberly Stevenson is a transitional kindergarten teacher at Rocketship Brilliant Minds in East San Jose who is currently in the Rising Leaders program. Although she’s been teaching for nearly as long as Davis, Stevenson wants to find a leadership position that keeps her in the classroom.

Q: Can you tell us about your career path?

Delisia Davis (DD): I grew up near cotton fields in Belzoni, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, where poverty and racism still dance along the streets. Yet, my entire family made education a priority: “an investment with unmeasurable return.” I attended a magnet performing arts high school, where my passions were theatre and sports. I had a knack for captivating an audience and conveying things simply. After getting my degree, I was working at the Louisiana State Child Support Office when a woman thanked me for explaining something to her, then said I should become a teacher. Serendipitously, she told me about a teaching program whose deadline was in three days. Taking a giant leap of faith, I quit my job and began an intense training program in the same month.

That was nine years ago. I taught 5th grade in Baton Rouge, Louisiana  at a public inner city elementary school. The school was over 95% Black and over 98% low-income. Students were on average two grade levels behind, if not more. I earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Southern University A & M College (a historically Black school). All of my professors had first-hand experience leading “Our Kids” – low-income and minority students. While in Baton Rouge, I earned “Teacher of the Year,” achieved leading scores for the district and trained new teachers in district and university programs.

After five years in Baton Rouge at the same school, my husband and I packed up the dog and moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with an opportunity to make a difference. Despite all the changes, schools there were still not closing the achievement gap, though I was fortunate to teach at a school on the West Bank, the only A-rated all Black charter school for the parish. There, I fell in love with Early Childhood and earned the Early Elementary credential.

Kimberly Stevenson (KS): I grew up in Folsom, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t have a magical moment where I realized I wanted to work in education, it’s just been what I’ve always felt pulled to and passionate about. My early teaching experiences were helping teach Sunday school classes at my church, which evolved into volunteering in local classrooms for a child development class in high school, to a program at San Francisco State where I was able to get classroom experience all four years before graduating with both a bachelor’s degree and my credential.

Starting in 2008, I worked in a district school in San Mateo County teaching in both a general education classroom and a special education self-contained classroom. Though I loved many of my coworkers and the families I taught, I was frustrated by the infrequency — and sometimes total lack — of constructive feedback on how to become a better teacher.

I came to Rocketship at the start of the 2014-2015 school year as a transitional kindergarten humanities teacher. I have stayed in that role for this school year as well. I’ve realized over the years that my long-term goal is to become the best classroom teacher I can be. I aspire to stay in the classroom but want to grow personally and professionally into a leader on my school campus.

Q: Why did you choose to come to Rocketship?

DD: I wanted to lead. When I earned a Master’s Degree from Southern University in Educational Leadership, I picked a school where my professors spoke with first-hand experience teaching urban populations. I trained new teachers for Louisiana State University, working with their “GeauxTeach Program.” I had been teaching in Louisiana for several years, and after my husband, a dedicated officer of the law, graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans, we started hearing about Rocketship on multiple sites, in multiple positive articles. I watched every video and read every article and grew so impressed. [Founder] Preston [Smith]’s passion pulled me in. I applied for an Assistant Principal position noting my experience and achievement scores. I was offered a classroom position and decided I should have a year to gain first-hand experience, to build schema and make connections with their future teachers. There is so much to learn on the “front line” of a classroom that an effective leader needs to learn first. The cornerstone of any school is the classroom and a Rocketship classroom is different from any charter school.

The  Rising Leaders program is what cemented my decision to join Rocketship. The program’s coordinator, Kristen Buri, said the heart of the Rising Leaders Program was “to prepare the network’s future leaders today.” I knew the program would not be easy, and there would be additional meetings, assignments, work, and responsibility but I knew it would get me ready for leadership in the classroom, a network position, or campus administration.

KS: I chose to come to Rocketship because I was looking to grow professionally. I felt like my district didn’t have the resources available to give me the feedback and coaching that I wanted to keep learning and growing- and getting another master’s degree would be expensive! Although I am in the Rising Leaders program, I actually have no desire to leave classroom teaching. I wanted to learn more about myself professionally and how I can improve myself to benefit my school and maximize my role in creating a school culture I can feel proud of.

Q: What is different about Rocketship’s approach to leadership and career development?

DD: In Louisiana, the district would pay for teachers to get their Master’s degree because they knew teachers would stay longer and invest in their schools if they had affordable training. Rocketship’s Rising Leaders program is also free, yet tailored just like we personalize learning for our students. The bonus is that the training is specifically for the Rocketship network, filled with teachers and leaders from within Rocketship. Often in grad school there would be great tips shared by other classmates but I would think “that doesn’t apply at my school.” You will never hear that here; every tip and best practice is relevant! You get to see what your administration sees and go through some of the same workshops your administration does. You’re getting what leaders get, while gaining support and learning from other classmates. It can get personal, which is the toughest for me, but genuine reflection is needed for true growth. That is another factor not present in the traditional programs. You get immediate feedback that is just for you.

KS: The largest difference between my experience at previous schools compared to Rocketship’s approach to leadership and career development is simply the existence of a program to encourage this growth for teachers in the network. I never would have received any of this development had I stayed in my previous school. I also feel that the Rising Leaders program creates transparency around the leadership selection process. It gives teachers who are interested in the potential of being a school leader in the future the option to explore that possibility and develop themselves to be prepared for the role.

Q: Can you explain how the Rising Leaders program works? What types of topics do you explore in the Rising Leaders program?

DD: The Rising Leaders program is like grad school without the tests and thesis. The content, preparation, and flow reminds me of a graduate program. The program is packed with knowledge. We meet at the regional office once a month for 2-2.5 hours and there is usually an article or book excerpt we read beforehand and discuss in class, and everyone is accountable for meaningful participation. Ms. Buri does a great job of choosing interesting and targeted topics like managing up, orchestrating  successful professional development, effective teacher evaluations, different channels of management, and receiving & giving effective feedback. Everyone is always eager to apply the new practice, or learn what to look for in certain scenarios. In true Rocketship fashion, evaluation is always embedded.

KS: We’ve tackled a wide range of topics. For personal growth, we’ve discussed topics such as what our strengths are according to Strengthsfinder and what our triggers might be when receiving feedback. Professionally, we’ve looked at topics such as influencing without authority and delivering effective PD. To prepare for these sessions we usually have some pre-work like reading an article or watching a video to get us prepared to be active participants in the discussion.

Q: What are one or two specific goals you have/had for the Rising Leaders program? How is the Rising Leaders program helping you reach those goals?

DD: To make meaningful connections within the organization: All sessions are held in the regional office. We have had the opportunity to sit and have real conversations with some key people within the Rocketship organization. My other goal was to “sharpen my craft.” You can never know enough about the layers of your organization or learn too much about effective leadership. There is always room for improvement; it translates to growth. Rocketship will push you as a classroom teacher; your preparation, practice, execution, and evaluation is a continuous cycle of growth.

Q: Can you think of one specific topic or lesson you learned about in the Rising Leaders program and how you have implemented it in your classroom or school?

KS: The biggest impact topics for me have been about my professional growth and relationships with other teachers and staff. Examining how I give feedback to others and practicing giving clear and actionable feedback has been extremely helpful. I find encounters where I can apply what we discussed, and practice. Having a set of go-to strategies is incredibly helpful.

Q: Reflection is a big part of the Rising Leaders program, but this can be difficult. How does the Rising Leaders program turn this into something productive rather than discouraging and how does the idea of “targeted improvement” apply?

KS: The culture that we have in our group is one that encourages reflection in a productive way. Everyone is very open with their opinions but extremely respectful as well. Being in a group where everyone is owning their own growth areas is incredibly powerful and fosters that professional growth that we’re all looking for. Since we all set specific goals at the start of the program, we are able to target more narrow areas of our development and stay accountable to improve in one focus area. Having the monthly check-ins to personally own our progress (or neglect) towards these goals keeps productive growth going.

Q: Can you think of a time Rising Leaders pushed you out of your comfort zone and what you learned from that experience?

DD: The “it was effective when…next time try…” will test you every time. The goal is to find something to improve on. This question reminds me that I can always do better. My students always get a better Mrs. Davis. Each lesson. Each block is better than the last. Being pushed out of my comfort zone in Rising Leaders transformed my mindset to one of continuous improvement. This network is working non-stop to eliminate  the achievement gap in our lifetime.

Join a network of educators driving transformative change in underserved communities.  Apply Now! ➟ bit.ly/rsedJoinUs

Kim is a Transitional Kindergarten teacher at Rocketship Brilliant Minds. She is in her second year at Rocketship and has taught first grade, kindergarten, and 1st-3rd special education previously in a district school. Kim spends the school year with Rocketeers and her summers in the mountains.

Delisia is a Humanities teacher at Rocketship Alma. Having grown up in poverty, she is passionate about closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students. Her background in theater assists her in being a powerful communicator both in and out of the classroom.


Published on April 25, 2016

Read more stories about: Teacher Experience.