An Interview with Tara Ranzy, Founder, The School of Life

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Tara Ranzy, Founder & Chief Culture Officer, The School of Life (SOL)

Powerful. Resilient. Magical.

Twitter: @Pedagogy4TheSoL I LinkedIn

Tara Ranzy invites readers on her journey of self-discovery and offers insights into how she clarified her purpose.

What are some of your career highlights?

I want to start by saying that the challenges and accomplishments I’ve had in my career coincide with the challenges and accomplishments that I’ve experienced in my personal life. In general, I am most proud of the lessons I’ve learned and applied as the daughter of a third-generation housekeeper, first-generation college student, African American studies major, pioneer of schools, transformation agent, and—most of all—human being. I believe careful attention to how educators and leaders develop their own character is synonymous with student achievement. This was, and is, the element that helped me be most effective inside and outside of the classroom. (Tara Ranzy pictured at right.)

In general, I am proud of my accomplishments publishing, teaching, and consulting. Specifically, in 2010, I was invited to contribute a chapter titled “From Nightjohn to Sundiata: A Heritage-Based Approach to Engaging Students in Literacy” to the anthology Practicing What We Teach: How Culturally Responsive Literacy Classrooms Make a Difference. During the same year, I helped my fifth graders earn the highest scores on the writing PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) in school history.

In 2016, after losing my mother—my wife and I moved to Atlanta to be closer to family. We sold our home and literally jumped into the dark. During this time, I stopped working for others to figure out what I wanted and most importantly, needed from my career. My mother’s transition and a growing dissatisfaction led me to confirm a hard truth: I allowed others to choose my career path, and I was the passive recipient of job titles that others felt I deserved. In January 2017, I decided to own my gifts, to exercise my power to choose, to articulate my passions and to translate my gifts into income. For six months, my in-laws supported me while I explored the idea of what I wanted to do when I grow up.

During this time, I wrote my own job description and realized one of my dreams to earn money helping administrators, leaders, educators, and parents heal their own historical, social and educational wounds by deepening their understanding of the achievement and opportunity challenges facing children of color in both economically distressed and highly resourced educational environments.

Last, I am very excited about publishing my life story, Healing Rage In The Rhythm of Haiku. My book is an expression of the power and knowledge I gained from a challenging childhood. Healing historical, social and personal wounds are what I believe make me most effective as an educator and leader. This is why I started off saying that the work I’ve done on myself is synonymous with my accomplishments. Healing my own wounds and helping educators to do the same is a main focus.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

Fear is my friend. (Laughter.) As a leader, I had to learn to sit with, lean into, put my arm around, and embrace fear. I will never forget sitting next to a seventh grader during school interviews. He straightened up and looked me dead in the eye and asked, “Ms. Ranzy, why aren’t you applying for the job?” I babbled a response. He listened, tilted his head matter-of-factly and said, “What? You scared?” That kid doesn’t know it, but he changed my life. I was scared, so I had to face and overcome those fears.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

Building things from scratch. Most of my career has been in startups. I love design, LOVE IT! I like translating big ideas into actionable steps…building healthy infrastructure. I have a desire to create harmony, safe spaces where adults and children can really thrive.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

Life. Reading people. My intuition. My experience. Honestly, it’s not a book. I’ve learned what to do and not do watching other leaders and working in both healthy and unhealthy environments.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

My approach to discipline, hands down. As a principal in a school district of Philadelphia was the first time I felt the most a part of the problem. As a teacher I knew that I was changing lives, but as a principal I suspended and expelled kids. In doing so, I added to the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s haunting. I will still think of some of the kids. The system is broken. As a “rule follower,” the way the laws and policies are written require expulsions or suspensions for certain behaviors. Adolescent decisions are criminalized.

The way that I reconciled this tension is I partnered with Hilary Beard, who is working with schools (both independent and public schools in Philadelphia) to dismantle stereotypes and provide the most effective approaches to caring for marginalized children—especially black boys and girls whose suspension rates are three to four times higher. We evaluate the impact of America’s racial history on educational experiences and explore how racism plays out as educational achievement and opportunity gaps. We use data to help leaders, teachers, and parents make fact-based decisions about how they care for all of our children.

Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

Girl, I worked for KIPP. (Laughter.) We had to be there at 7 a.m., work until 5 p.m., and kids could call until 9:30 p.m. Working for that organization wasn’t a job, but a lifestyle. I had to leave in order to reclaim my time. I had to put family first.

Time is my currency. Time is priceless—can’t get it back. When you lose someone it only exacerbates how precious time is. As far as time…in terms of legacy, what our ancestors had to do, and how most of us in America aren’t happy at work, I faced that. I didn’t work for six months and turned down jobs if they didn’t fit the criteria, I created in terms of what was going to make me happy. I reclaimed my time by drafting my own job description and seeing it manifest in different ways. If I’m in a toxic environment, I will resign. I don’t believe in staying anywhere that I am not happy. That scares the heck out of my wife that I’m like that, but I have to let go in order to receive.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

Morning prayers. Korean spas. Massages. I like yoga, basketball, and recreational sports. Silent time. I like creating space to do nothing, but my favorite thing and the reason why I work is travel and fine dining. Literally, that’s why I work. Self-care is really important to me.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

Face those historical, social wounds—whatever they are. Take the time out to do that work. If you gotta go to therapy, whatever it is, prioritize being healthy. Prioritize mental health, physical health…the self-love piece is huge. If you prioritize your mental and physical health and your mind is right, you’ll be able to be comfortable in your own skin. When you’re comfortable, you can advocate for yourself. Do the healing work and be able to articulate what you want. You can’t advocate if you don’t know what you truly want.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

Hiring practices would be one way. Changing or clearing up the lens through which hiring managers look at Black women candidates and how we’ve defined who’s qualified and who’s not. In order to get them in the door, we need to change hiring practices. Once in the door, make sure you create space for them to have a voice.

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