Q&A with Deborah Gist

September 2019

with Deborah Gist

Get to know Deborah Gist of The Line Editorial Advisory board

The Line is proud to have an exceptionally talented group of education leaders serve as advisors to the publication. We have brought together some of the brightest superintendents from across the country; experts in leadership, management and education policy; think tank scholars; and former union and nonprofit leaders — all educators at heart. Each brings a unique voice to The Line, shaped by personal and professional experience, expertise, ideological leanings and passion. But all are united in their dedication to finding common ground that advances the future of public education.


Deborah A. Gist is the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools and a proud graduate of Memorial High School. She holds a bachelor of science in early-childhood education from the University of Oklahoma, a master of arts in elementary education and curriculum from the University of South Florida, a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctoral degree in education leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

Prior to returning home to lead Tulsa Public Schools, Deborah served as commissioner of education for the State of Rhode Island where student achievement reached historical highs, and graduation rates increased significantly.

Deborah started her career in education in 1988 as an elementary school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas. She moved from the classroom to education administration in 1996, designing and implementing a literacy program serving families in 108 elementary schools in the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Florida. Deborah continued her work to advance student achievement through access to education as a Senior Policy Analyst for the U.S. Department of Education and as the Washington, D.C. State Education Officer. In 2007, she became the first State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia; overseeing early childhood, elementary, secondary, adult, and higher education.

Deborah is a member of the 2008 cohort of Broad Superintendents Academy Fellows and a 2013 Pahara-Aspen Fellow through the Aspen Institute. In 2010, she was one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and one of The Atlantic’s Brave Thinkers, whom the magazine recognizes for “the year’s most intrepid and original thinking.” Deborah is a founding member of Chiefs for Change and serves on the boards of the Tulsa Area United Way, Junior Achievement of Oklahoma and the Boy Scouts of America Indian Nations Council.

Q: Tell us about the priorities for your school district and how they’ve evolved over the course of your tenure as Tulsa Public Schools superintendent.

A: Like school districts across the country, we want our students to graduate from our schools ready for success in life in whatever they hope and dream to do. For us, that means we want them to be academically prepared, and we also want them to be prepared as whole people.

One priority that has become increasingly important is creating a sense of belonging and a healthy, strong culture throughout our district. I want everyone on Team Tulsa — students, parents, teachers, principals, and other team members — to be able to show up as our whole selves in whatever way we identify and to know that we’re loved, appreciated and affirmed. The value of feeling like you belong to a part of a bigger family is so extraordinarily important for people of all ages to be happy, productive, successful, and to be and stay engaged. This is clearer to me now more than it has ever been. As a leader, I must be a model for what it means to foster spaces, schools and teams where everyone feels safe and supported.

To accomplish that culture requires a combination of helping everyone in our organization to be a leader of leaders, to commit to our core value of equity, and to be really clear about what it means to love and celebrate one another for who we are.

The evolution of this commitment rising to one of our greatest priorities came through hearing stories directly from our students and teachers about what is happening in our classrooms and the world around us and listening to what people need. When you hear someone’s story, you see and feel their experience. We must have priorities and plans for our district that are deeply driven by those who know it the best.

Q: What have you been able to accomplish at Tulsa Public Schools? What have been some challenges you have faced?

A: We’ve seen a significant increase in our graduation rates since I came home to Tulsa in 2015. When I came to this district, our graduation rate was 63 percent, and we’re about 75 percent now. That is a significant improvement and is life-changing for our students and their families. This increase is the result of a tremendous amount of hard and smart work from our students, teachers, counselors and school leaders.

There are other aspects of our work that have been necessary to build a strong foundation for success and to create tools and supports for our educators so that we can see the significant improvements in student achievement that we need. For example, getting strong curriculum in place and setting shared expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do. To some, that likely seems like work that should already be in place, but we had a lot of work to do. Developing those tools and supports — along with other very intentional efforts to keep our teachers — has resulted in a 10 percent increase in novice teachers who are staying in Tulsa.

Additionally, Oklahoma state leaders have taken important steps forward to turn around from more than a decade of cutting already inadequate funding for education. From 2008 to 2018, Oklahoma cut more to education on a per-pupil basis than any other state in the country. During the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions, our governor and legislators have begun to reverse that pattern. We’re very grateful to our state leaders and of the hard work of many Oklahomans — that includes people right here in Tulsa, especially our teacher-advocates. We certainly still have a long way to go to even be close to what we were spending on a per-pupil basis in 2008, let alone to adequately invest in our children.

Our statewide teacher shortage remains a challenge and, of course, results from inadequate funding. It hits us particularly hard because working in an urban setting is wonderful and rewarding but is also very demanding for educators. We are doing a much better job now of supporting our teachers, but it’s still not enough, and we remain committed to doing more.

Q: Describe the importance of building relationships, especially with those individuals who hold different perspectives and opinions.

A: Strong relationships are foundational to the ways that we teach, learn and work together. When you have established trust with people, and you know that you have a shared commitment to each other and to the work, you have the solid foundation to navigate through hard times and difficult decisions. Without that rock-solid base, relationships can start to erode when things get tough.

Strong relationships are foundational to the ways that we teach, learn and work together.

I think in any relationship — as colleagues, friends, partners, neighbors, students and teachers — we need to learn how to communicate with each other and sort through disagreements with mutual respect and a commitment to understanding differing perspectives. It is easy to just dig in our heels and insist on being right, but we truly grow when we actively listen, open our minds and our hearts to someone else’s experiences, and seek to understand where they’re coming from. It can be difficult and even uncomfortable to humble yourself enough to listen to someone whose values and opinions may be diametrically opposed to your own, but leaning into that discomfort and remaining open to others helps us all to grow.

Q: What is the disconnect between the value we place on public education and the amount of resources provided?

A: People value public education: they know that it matters, they want it for their children, and they want it to be rigorous and robust. I think, however, that there is often a disconnect between what people want and need in their education systems and the resources it takes to provide an exceptionally high-quality education.

One way education leaders and advocates can help advance public education is by talking more about the very specific resources we need to invest in our schools, including sharing what is required in order to give our children the experience they deserve while providing our teachers with the supports they need. We must make it clear how we will use these investments and what will result from them.

At Tulsa Public Schools, we have done that analysis so that we can have productive conversations with our lawmakers about exactly what we need, why we need it and what we will do with those dollars to ensure that Tulsa children have a world-class education.

Q: Tell us about the significance of including teachers in a district’s decision-making process?

A: Whether I was a classroom teacher or an advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, I’ve always wondered why it was not clear to everyone that teachers must be in the decision-making process. When we engage our teachers from the outset of any major change, we will have a much more realistic understanding of how the decisions we are making will impact those in the field doing the work.

One of the practices that I brought with me when I came home to Tulsa was creating a “teacher cabinet” to work with throughout the year to get feedback on decision points both before and after decisions are made. I’ve gotten some tough feedback from the teachers in the group that has helped us continue to improve in the ways that we support school teams. I am so grateful to be able to have those honest conversations with our teachers, and it makes a very real difference in the ways that we work at the district-level. Of course, a regular convening like that — no matter how valuable — can’t be the only avenue for engagement and action. We must do more and do it consistently.

For example, recently I was at our annual summer kickoff for school leaders to plan our upcoming school year. We were discussing budgets, creating our goals for the next year, and getting annual plans in place. This year, each principal and assistant principal brought their team of teacher leaders. So, our meeting was made up of teams of leaders from our schools coming together for us to work as a district on our plan for next year. It was incredibly powerful — and so productive — to engage in that work with our extended school leadership teams.

Q: What does professionalism in teaching look like to you?

A: Not only do our teachers deserve to be at the forefront of decision-making, they also need the time to be reflective and to work together as colleagues. If you look at the time spent on instruction in the United States relative to other countries where children are doing extraordinarily well in school, our teachers have dramatically less time to plan, to prepare, to reflect, to work together and to learn themselves — and this is what professionals need and deserve to practice their craft with excellence.

Q: What has been the significance of teachers successfully running for office in Oklahoma?

A: It has been so inspiring and exciting to see and experience the ways that Oklahoma teachers advocate for our children and families. They are our champions. Last year’s state-wide teacher walkout led to a historic reinvestment in public education and a record number of teachers running for office. While I know these leaders are certainly missed in their classrooms, they have invaluable perspectives to add to our state legislature. We now have these absolutely relentless champions in state office who have first-hand experience with the impact of chronically underfunded schools and carry that powerful message to other decision-makers at the state-level. Our team of teachers in Oklahoma led our state to a better place, and, with the ongoing leadership and support of our teachers union, they have continued to stay organized to drive change.

Q: What’s on your reading list?

A: I’m actually reading several books right now. One is “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown. We’re reading that as a district leadership team this summer. I’m reading “The Person You Mean to Be” by Dolly Chugh, which is about identity and bias and how to fight bias. I’m also reading a fascinating graphic memoir called “Good Talk” by Mira Jacob. Then for one of my book clubs, I’m reading a novel called “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones.