What is Impact?
Recently, Leading Educators announced that Laura Meili will step into the role of Chief Impact Officer, a shift that will put greater focus on supporting partners to understand what’s changing in their schools in complex ways. This move comes at a critical time for the education community as school systems respond to the dual threats of a global pandemic and systemic racism. Educators across the country are having to ask: what is impact?
In many ways, Laura’s career has always been headed toward meeting this moment. Since starting her journey as an educator in juvenile detention centers and prisons, Laura has been an architect of systemic change within a district and from the outside as a partner to leaders. Leading Educators seeks to fill a consequential gap between research, instructional practice, and leadership capacity to eradicate deeply ingrained inequities, and Laura has led design efforts to take that vision from theory to practice for the past six years.
Speaking over Zoom from our respective “home offices”, Laura and I talk about the experiences that have shaped her leadership and her vision for how we can ignite equitable impact as partners to schools and families.
Adan Garcia: for those who haven’t met you, Let’s start from the very beginning. What BROUGHT YOU TO EDUCATION?
Laura Meili: I was always around kids when I was growing up, and I loved it. I was the oldest of my cousins, and eventually I led the church children’s choir, I babysat, and I taught swim lessons. When I went to college, I missed all of that.
Fortunately, I heard about a course that offered writing workshops and drama workshops in Detroit high schools, and I applied. Buzz Alexander, the most amazing professor, created this program called the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. When I interviewed to get into the course, Buzz said, “We actually do work in all sorts of settings, not just schools. We support students at juvenile detention facilities, at jails, and at a prison mental hospital. Would you be interesting in working at different sites?” And I said, yes.
In the course, Buzz had us reading Paulo Friere, Jonathan Kozol, Myles Horton, and all of these people who talked about American education and the criminal justice system through the impact of policies like standardized testing and school discipline. Then in the workshops, we had the privilege to meet and work with students directly. We wrote together, shared our stories, and connected deeply despite our disparate experiences.
What brought it all together was the reflection piece. We wrote weekly journals with Buzz—I would write four pages every week, and he would write four pages back to respond or pose questions—for three years of college. It was really coaching in that respect. It was my first experience with examining my own identity, grappling with my experiences alongside other peoples’ identities and experiences, and learning about the systems of injustice and white supremacy underneath all of it.
AG: How did that shape or challenge your understanding of equity?
LM: There’s a lot of problematic “white savior” mentality you’re socialized into in education, and the connection that I felt in those writing workshops was identical to the connections I had felt before at summer camp or at school. Across so many lines of difference, the sense of humanity in those spaces was never a question. It started a hard process of beginning to see and unlearn the systems of injustice that live within me, connecting with others who are suffering because of the system, and then working toward change.
That time was completely transformative. Teaching those workshops for three years was really the beginning of me understanding the social injustice and racism we see in and outside of schools. The values like love for kids, empathy, connection, and humanity are what brought me into teaching, but my perspective on those things was colorblind until the program. It’s been a long journey working through that. I became a teacher so that I could work on the other end of the system. I did a teaching fellows program in Chicago, where I still live, and I taught middle school English for six years.
AG: After you started teaching at CPS, I know that you eventually became more involved in effecting change within the system. What was that like?
LM: In the middle of my fifth year of teaching, the union sent an email to all of the teachers saying that the teacher evaluation policy is going to change and they wanted teachers’ voices included in the policy. “If you want to share your thinking, come on over.” So, I went to this union event, and I ended up being on the bargaining team for the teacher evaluation policies.
That was in 2011, right before the Chicago Teachers Union strike. We negotiated the evaluation system that is still here eight years later—the tool that we still use to coach and develop teachers. By the end of that process, Chicago Public Schools and the union realized that we needed supports for teachers to roll out the new system.
I left the classroom to work at the district, and my new job was to develop teachers aligned to the new observation framework. But I was one person, and we had 25,000 teachers, so I started a teacher leadership cohort. We brought together teachers from all across the city. They were teachers of all grades and content areas who led professional development, shared artifacts from their classroom, coached people and led PLCs in their school. It became a more formalized teacher leader program in Chicago Public Schools, and it still exists today.
AG: How did those experiences working with various levels of leadership bring you to the work you do now?
LM: In those two years at the district level, I also consulted at Leading Educators. Chong-Hao always jokes about this story, but we met at a conference. The pre-reading for this conference included a Leading Educators brochure, and I was just obsessed with it! I was like, “This is the most brilliant programming I’ve ever seen.” And it had this long works cited list. I wanted to read every book in this bibliography, and I was like, “I need to figure out who it is that knows about work.”
I was drawn to Leading Educators because I really struggled as a new teacher leader. I craved the systemic conditions and learning spaces that our work creates to grow in adult leadership. I didn’t have the adult leadership skills I needed when I started leading the middle school team at my school. I felt the lived experience of not having the skills or the systems and structures in my school that would have made our teams more effective and made our school better for kids.
Thinking back to my earlier experiences, our work and my colleagues at Leading Educators have helped me critically examine the ways “white saviorism” has sometimes come in. It was necessary for me to understand the systems, to see my own privilege, and to really be pushed to understand those things in college. And I thought back then at 20 to 22—and even coming to teach on the South Side in Chicago—I thought I got it. I was like, “Oh, I’m seeing these things, I’m thinking about them. I know I’m supporting kids.” And I kind of went with that for the beginning of my teaching career. When I came here and we started doing the equity work together, it felt like starting over and going through that same journey again to really, deeply unlearn and see the depth of the conditioning. I saw how it shows up in me, in my practice, in my leadership, and in my relationships. It’s daily work in my head, in my heart, and in my actions.
Teachers today have even more to contend with than I did as they navigate both the pandemic and their responsibility to confront and transform racial inequities. They shouldn’t have to face this difficult work alone. I believe in the work that we do to connect teachers to learn together, and I know it will continue to make our teachers more supported, our teams more effective, and our schools better for all kids.
AG: Speaking of support, you’ve played a role in significant programmatic shifts at Leading Educators. How has that shaped your perspective of what contributes to strong instruction and outcomes for students?
LM: I was first hired at Leading Educators as a single Director of Design. I remember my first week was a staff retreat, and my manager said, “Here’s your task for this year. You’re going to design 10 sessions for the leading teams module.” I designed 30 hours of professional learning around team leadership, but there was really nothing in that module about content. That year, our team also created the Facilitation Version of Excellence Rubric (FVER), a tool that we use to identify strong professional learning principles in action. As we were rolling it out, we did teacher leader observations. Our coaching-focused people turned in videos from coaching sessions, and my “leading teams” people would turn in videos from professional learning.
There was one person who scored perfectly on the rubric, but the meeting was about the dress code. This team was doing rich collaboration. It was like 20 minutes of them debating and asking each other questions, and it was collaboratively owned. But they were spending limited time on a policy that had little connection to helping students learn more. That’s no shade to that teacher; it was the expectations we set in our rubric. It focused on the way you did it but not what you did.
At that same time, we visited sites and we started to feel that headache across the program. People were putting in so much time and effort, but their collaboration wasn’t focused on the most important things for kids’ learning yet. That pushed us to explicitly incorporate college and career readiness standards into the work. We started with one session, and then we played with the idea of a cycle as we dug into the research. That became a full set of summer sessions, and then we added the layer of curriculum.
I think how we design has a big impact on the longevity and the quality of capacity we build alongside school systems, because so many people get involved. We’re so focused on human-centered work and getting concrete about the pain points teachers are actually feeling. And then we’re not afraid to iterate.
Over time, we’ve leaned into our values so much more. When we made the pivot into content, we had three hours total of content about equity—sessions that really explicitly named culture and identity. We needed to really pull our equity value off the wall and figure out what it means and how we practice it. Now, we have somewhere between 30 and 40 hours of actionable equity content. We recognized that strong content and having high expectations for kids as well as teachers is so incredibly important, but we can’t do that in ways that are colorblind and identity neutral.
AG: You have LED professional learning within one of the largest school systems in the country and also supported partners in more than 20 cities. Why is professional learning important to a strong education system?
LM: The work of a teacher is so incredibly complex. There’s this quote from Lee Schulman that comes to mind: “After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.”
Between the new standards, between where we’re at in our country—the deep histories of injustice and the role of education—being a teacher in this age means helping uphold and finally move toward the values we’ve always said we hold in our country. What teachers need to do is so, so incredibly hard that they deserve really robust systems of support.
Schools where adults learn are schools where kids learn. Unfortunately, there is a wide range of professional development (PD) quality in the world. I experienced a huge range of PD when I was a teacher. Some of it was amazing, and some of it was not practical enough or was too lecture driven. It came from great intentions, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference for kids quickly or in sustainable ways. A teacher’s time is also incredibly limited. They need people who can change the system and change the conditions to value their time and make sure that they’re supported in their growth so that they can show up for kids.
AG: We’re at a point in education where much feels uncertain, and you’re taking on a new role that has “impact” in the title. What does impact look like now? What should schools be striving for?
LM: Bottom line, impact is about serving kids the best we can and seeing change at all of the layers that help us get there. I believe in our theory of action: that we need to support systems. That we need to build a culture, and that we need to support leadership development. That we need to develop teachers, and that all of those pieces come together to support kids.
But at the end of the day, teachers and leaders in systems around the country are getting up and working so, so hard. We need to make sure that we’re learning consistently and driving toward work that really changes kids’ lives. Impact is not just quantitative data. Quantitative data matters. But so does qualitative data that helps us see what students are experiencing. It’s stories, it’s evidence. It’s looking at artifacts. That’s all of the different ways that we can learn about and reflect on the work that we’re doing and understand how it’s helping serve people.
When it comes to quantitative data, we need to be looking at disparities. The way we think and talk about impact should push us to monitor gaps and notice when our actions maintain or widen gaps in opportunity. All kinds of data plays a role. It’s one of many ways that we can see equity and inequity living in the work. One of the biggest things we’re working on right now in the program and in our field is really understanding the whole picture of impact when it comes to the whole child and whole adults.
We should be looking at impact not only in terms of academic outcomes, but also in social and emotional needs and the extent to which we’re meeting them. Right now, both students and teachers are experiencing trauma. It really comes down to equity and all the different ways that we define it. So, that’s what a lot of our upcoming innovation work is about: painting that whole picture of all of the different ways that we can best support teachers and students.
Our world is experiencing profound change that I hope offers us the opportunity to disrupt and transform inequitable schools. However, there is no blueprint for what’s ahead and so we’ll need to imagine what transformation looks like together. At Leading Educators, human-centered design is at the core of what we do: we ask questions, listen closely to people, and analyze evidence and research to inform our design. We then translate what we learn from theory into practice so that our work directly meets teachers’ real needs. Ultimately, I believe that working toward a vision of equity powered by this cycle of listening, learning, design, and analysis can lead to transformation for all kids.