01/31/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Game Changers: Cynthia Robinson-Rivers


Read the introduction to Game Changers.

Today's Game Changer is Cynthia Robinson-Rivers. A former classroom teacher in public schools in Oakland, East Palo Alto and Washington, D.C., Cynthia served as a senior master educator for early childhood in D.C. and as director of the program during the inaugural year of IMPACT, D.C.'s teacher evaluation system. She is currently the Director, Teacher Retention and Recognition for D.C. Public Schools.

Why do you think we often see our most talented teachers, ones who have a documented impact on student achievement, leaving our classrooms?
I think many teachers leave for the reasons I did: a desire for a wider impact and opportunities for leadership and skill development. Others are frustrated by a lack of like-minded and equally hard-working colleagues with whom they can collaborate and on whom they can depend for support or guidance.

How is D.C. Public Schools currently working to reverse this trend?
DCPS is working to improve retention by implementing a career ladder that rewards and recognizes high performing teachers and provides them with an array of leadership opportunities. We are also working to improve the skills of our school leaders so that they are better able to cultivate talent in their teachers, appreciate them, and create environments in which they feel they can thrive. Two other programs I've developed aim to improve teachers' ability to meet one another and collaborate. "Monthly Meet-up Groups" allow teachers to convene in content area or grade level groups to share strategies, network socially, or participate in formal and informal professional development. The Teaching In Action program allows teachers to observe high performing colleagues and then debrief with them to learn about how the lesson they observed was planned and executed. Both these programs contribute to improved teacher morale and better sharing of best practices.

How do you work to bring teacher voice into the work of the DCPS district office?
I think it's really important to include the teacher voice as much as possible in district or central office decision making. So often, school administrators implement policies that would be so much more beneficial and well-run if teachers had first been consulted for input.

DCPS attempts to address this in a variety of ways. We have a six-week summer internship called the Teachers Central to Leadership (TCTL) program that brings 6 to 8 teachers to work on projects over the summer. They are able to meet with senior managers, give their opinions on key decisions, and manage projects of their own. We also have the Chancellor's Teachers' Cabinet, which includes 25 teachers who meet with the Chancellor and other school leaders each month. They are able to not only hear about the rationale for new initiatives and give their input on them, but are also tasked with going back to their schools to get further input from their colleagues and report this information back to central office.

How did you involve teachers in the creation of the new career ladder system in DCPS?
As my team developed LIFT: Leadership Initiative for Teachers, we sought feedback from hundreds of teachers. Since the program aims to better retain and recognize our highest performing teachers (through additional compensation, greater responsibilities, and leadership development), getting their perspectives and finding out what would be most meaningful to them was essential.

We enlisted the support of teachers for the launch and roll-out of LIFT by recruiting and training "LIFT Ambassadors"- one to two teachers in each school who will explain and promote LIFT to their fellow teachers during an initial training and subsequent feedback sessions. This was critical to us. Since LIFT was created for teachers, who better to champion it than the teachers who would benefit from it? Utilizing LIFT Ambassadors will hopefully also help with teacher buy-in, where teachers have a more positive impression and understanding of the program, having heard about it from fellow teachers who they respect.

What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to be change-agents in or outside their classrooms?
If you find that your colleagues aren't where you are, you should take on the responsibility of developing them in whatever way you can. Work to convince them to take on school leadership roles, even if they are informal. You may need to start with helping to improve teachers' mindsets or belief systems or you may support their practical classroom skills by inviting them into your classroom to observe and learn from you.

How would you like to advance the teaching profession?
I would love to see teachers grow to be as valued and highly regarded as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other similar professionals. We can do this by raising the standard for who is invited to become a teacher, evaluating teachers rigorously so that we keep only the best, rewarding those who perform well, and compensating teachers at a level that is commensurate with other well-respected professions.

Ten years from now, what do you hope to be different about education?
Ten years from now I hope we will have closed the achievement gap and see students who come from diverse backgrounds and high-poverty, urban environments performing at the same level as their wealthier, white, suburban counterparts in both public and private schools. This would then of course mean more of these students would be graduating, entering and finishing college, finding gainful employment, and contributing to both their own communities and the larger society. I also hope we figure out a way to simply make school more fun for children. I think it's just as important to focus on the development of students' moral character, awareness of the world, and critical thinking in a variety of scenarios, as it is to see them perform well on the standardized tests that will ensure their professional success.

Just for Fun

Dinner with anyone, alive or dead?

Michelle Obama.

First Job?

Kindergarten teacher in Oakland Unified School District.

Teachers are...

Doing the most important work in the world and should be valued, recognized, and compensated accordingly.

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