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Jacqueline Greer, Executive Director, DC, Urban Teachers
Outspoken. Authentic. Visionary
Tell me about your current role?
I’m the executive director of Urban Teachers in Washington, DC, where I manage a teacher residency program, which is pretty exciting work. I’ve been in this role for the last five years supporting talent work in our schools. I really believe that we can rigorously prepare new teachers so that every student has an awesome teacher, especially in high-need communities. (Jacqueline Greer pictured at right.)
Growing up, all of my teachers were 20-year veteran teachers and they really knew their stuff, I thought. I’ll never forget the way my British Literature teacher read Lady Macbeth; it brought literature to life for me. I want our students to have the same thing. I worked with kids in DC who told me that their teachers frequently left and that it was a gamble to get the right schools and right teachers growing up in DC. Your education shouldn’t be left to the luck of the draw.
Why not train our teachers for our schools in a way that ensures they have really good content and know how to teach our kids? I supervise fundraising and some outreach; we’ve grown quickly with quality. I never thought I would be in a role like this…thinking of how many students we reach is pretty incredible. I want every child to love school as much as I did.
What are some of your career highlights?
We staff a lot of summer schools at Higher Achievement and that’s where I got my start in this work. I love that I mentored kids there and now we train teachers there. Kids are benefitting from trained teachers and having rock star summer experiences. I’m glad my two favorite nonprofits can work together. It’s much easier than I anticipated.
Schools are starting to recognize that a teacher in their first year can be effective and we are trying to raise the bar for what new teachers can do. I work with a really awesome faculty – the clinical faculty who train our teachers remind me of my teachers. They embody their content and are very passionate, which keeps me excited for the work. They make me want to go back to school.
We have a diverse cohort – at least 50% people of color and 40% first generation. When you find an intentionally and inclusively diverse cohort, you know we are really thinking through what quality teaching is. That’s disruption within a system and it changes the game for our kids. I want to see our students reflected in their teachers.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Objects in the mirror seem more confident than they are. There’s a certain adrenaline in pulling off a deal or closing a partnership. How do you get up every morning and say to yourself, “No one knows what’s going to happen,” yet you keep going to find the best option that’s right for kids? But every day I get up with purpose and I get to visit schools which is always inspiring. We can do this.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Those that are known unknowns. There is a lot of adrenaline from high stakes meetings. I’m very competitive, so when someone underestimates me, I go for it. It then becomes my mission to prove them wrong. Growing up, I felt that I was often underestimated and mischaracterized, so I don’t mind being the underdog.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
I’m trying to read more lately. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It’s not a moral compass, but you need to know what power you believe in. Women are uncomfortable talking about power but need to know our power moves. How do you get comfortable with your own power?
The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert I. Sutton. There are no jerks on my team; it’s not worth it. If you’re the smartest jerk ever that’s not helpful to our team. This really transformed the way I think about working together.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum. If you’re a leader who is not culturally competent and you don’t understand the power structures of the society you live in, you can’t be effective…A lot of leaders have to embrace some level of white supremacy culture to get to where they are, and I think it’s important to call out that behavior and unpack that narrative. I always want my team to bring their full selves to the work.
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?
There are many times. When I have teachers who I see myself in who are working hard, trying to make it, and there is something they just can’t overcome, I often try to reconcile how we think differently to support them. Their hard work should be enough to overcome a circumstance, but sometimes it just isn’t. I want to be the person who has their hand out when people really need it. Every one of us knows of people who took chances on us, and I want to be that person for others. However, sometimes struggling on a journey teaches you the best lesson. When you realize you care about someone much more than they recognize at the time, that can be really tough. Showing you I care may mean holding you accountable and that is hard. If I can see your potential, I’m going to push you and invest in your growth. It’s much easier to just give up, but that’s not how I work.
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?
It’s not my job to speak 100x louder for you to hear my voice. I’ve been more forthright about only having so many hours in my day and really protecting the time I need to restore myself. In the past year, I’ve been better about quantifying the value of my time. You can have a three-hour meeting with me or I can go expand our footprint in that time and you can have an hour instead. I try to quantify the value for folks as gently as possible. I was inspired by Aunty Maxine. We don’t have extra time for foolishness.
I also think about what gives me joy. Our team used to email all hours of the night and we stopped doing that. We’ve taken days off to reclaim time, care for ourselves, and encourage each other.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I haven’t been good at it. I adopted a dog with special needs about two and a half years ago. There was a dog in the medical unit that couldn’t really walk on its own. It may sound like something to care for wouldn’t be self-care, but I can’t stay at the office until 10 p.m. Having something that needs me brings balance. I take longer walks. I’ve tried a few different things like Zumba and Bikram yoga to ensure I’m getting the physical activity I need. I also preserve my weekends. The weekends are for all of us to have that time to relax, relate, release and return on Monday. I’m selfish about my weekends.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Get accountability partners and develop trusting relationships. I work at an organization where there are lots of women of color in leadership. When there’s a need you see, fill the need. There are consequences for taking up questions of diversity in an organization, but the outcomes are better once you’re bold. Make the bold decisions and if you try something and works then realize it was a brilliant idea the whole time. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then it was just a pilot. There are so many things we do differently now in service to our students because we stopped being afraid of failure. You might fail a few times, but get back up and work to succeed.
Find your tribe of people who believe in you and your vision. I hold onto my tribe firmly and that has helped me find my voice. They are amazing. Who are the three or four people who will have your back and you can ask for real advice? You’ve got to have those people.
Be generous in who is mentoring you and who you are mentoring. You can be that person to someone who no one was to you. Belief in someone almost matters more than financial investment. You need to speak life into our children and the people who support them. It always pays dividends.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
Every organization serving communities of color needs leadership teams with 50% Black women. If you can’t find them, then you need to figure out how to develop them to become CEOs and leaders. No organization serving predominantly communities of color should be without leadership of color. What message does that send about our abilities and communities? It’s everywhere when you stop to look.