As a child growing up on a Louisiana bayou, Kimberly Eckert understood that an education was her ticket to a different life. Books and learning were right up her alley, but her dream parted ways with the Hallmark Channel ending: Eckert didn’t want that path to lead her away from her roots. After all, her flight wouldn’t make things better for the generations to come.
So Eckert, with a degree in social work from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in her hand, landed a position with a nonprofit group called Best Buddies. She was assigned to promote social inclusion among children with and without intellectual disabilities in schools across Louisiana.
That’s when she determined she could make a bigger impact as a classroom teacher.
“I really wanted to focus on empowering people,” she has explained of her career change. But she knew that completely shifting professions left her at a major disadvantage when it came to entering the classroom as a teacher. “I was a fish out of water. I didn’t have a foundation of traditional training. What I did have is a lot of passion. It’s hard to get me discouraged.” So she buckled down with the books again to earn a master’s degree in special education, along with teaching certifications in special ed, English and as a reading specialist.
Today, she's dean of undergraduate studies at Reach University as well as innovative programs coordinator for West Baton Rouge Schools.
In 2018, she was recognized as the Louisiana Teacher of the Year, which came with life-changing perks. She was given a seat on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and was the first recipient of Louisiana’s Public Interest Fellowship, which included state funding to spend a school year implementing an education initiative.
She used the resources to pioneer the national Educators Rising program in the Pelican State – a program to introduce promising high school students to the possibilities of turning their talents toward the classroom. Eckert strives to ensure at least half of her recruits are students of color to reflect the 58% of West Baton Rouge’s Parish schools and serves as a spokesperson on the Be a Teacher LA campaign.
It’s a vital goal, as studies show that teachers of color have been leaving the profession at higher rates than white teachers since 1991. That’s nearly three decades of attrition Eckert aims to turn around, and she walks the talk by developing tailored induction, coaching and professional development for new teachers and paraprofessionals.
It’s no wonder she continues to earn respect from her colleagues. She was named a national finalist for NEA’S Social Justice Activist of the Year, assists with the Diverse and Learner Ready Teacher initiative through the Council of Chief State School Officers, is a Stand for Children’s LEAD Fellow facilitator, a fellow through Understood.org, and an expert teacher through the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
She was also a 2020 finalist for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize that recognizes exceptional teachers who make outstanding contributions to the profession.
You planned to become a social worker but instead returned to school to become a teacher. What attracted you to the profession?
I think the most striking question to start with is why wasn’t I attracted to the profession to begin with? Neither of my parents received a high school diploma, and when my academic, creative and leadership skills were identified, I was discouraged from becoming a teacher every time I mentioned it might be a good path for me.
Teachers and friends told me different variations of “you’re too smart to be a teacher” or “you can do so much more than that.” I knew I wanted to empower others and bring about positive social change, so I chose to become a social worker. Interestingly enough, not a single person discouraged me from this. That profession, though also super vital and demanding, often pays professionals even less than teachers. It appears, though, that it carries more respect.
I spent a lot of time working in schools and working with people with issues related to our inability to truly support mental health and what boiled down to completely inequitable access to education. I decided for me, I wasn’t changing the world fast enough and that I needed to be with people at a point where I still had more time to build relationships, empower them with education, and reach them while they still believed me when I told them how tremendously invaluable they are to our world.
Teachers have this unique, pivotal opportunity. I’m still a social worker every day. Now I just get to reach more people at the critical moments that start the ripples of life’s more epic waves.
You incorporate project-based learning and time for passion projects into your work with all students, including special education students and learners with neuro-diversities. Can you point to some of the ways your students have used technology for problem-solving and creation?
For the first half of my career, I served exclusively as a special educator and reading interventionist. Most of my students were considerably older than their peers, felt with 100% certainty that school wasn’t for them, and absolutely hated the stigma carried by needing me as a special education teacher. Because of this, I was determined to help my students not only progress academically, but to become part of such awesome experiences that they would leave me proud, confident and feeling like we were all better for our time together.
In the earliest years, we spent a lot of time focusing on reading, lack of access to age-appropriate/culturally reflective books, etc. Together, we wrote a grant to purchase loads of books of their choosing and launch a schoolwide book review blog where students read and reviewed books, then posted reviews and recommendations to our blog. This was back before blogs were even cool!
According to their abilities, they were able to use voice-only recordings, videos, typed or dictated reviews, and we ended up with so many students outside our class borrowing books and looking up their recommendations! One of my proudest moments was when a team from the state department came to observe my reading intervention and walked out mistakenly thinking they’d entered an honors class. That’s the type of education all kids deserve!
Through the years, I developed more as a teacher and my teaching expanded into larger, inclusive classrooms – at a bare minimum every child I teach (regardless of ability or prior computer access) now develops and maintains their own websites with content ranging from journals to podcasts to videos.
All of my students are incredible, and when we commit to providing high-quality access and authentic experiences to all of them, they’ll continue to blow us all away!
How can educators help students use technology to improve their communities?
I think perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we make in education is that we fail to communicate to students what our communities actually need and that they are more than capable of delivering it. Students are the solutions to every problem, even those we have yet to identify. But they can’t just figure this out on their own. How many of us can?
We take for granted that because students are digital natives, that technology use is part of their “programming.” This just isn’t true. As with any tool, it’s used most effectively when we’re allowed to learn about it and explore its possibilities. An underdeveloped tool is unwieldy, often either a distraction or a decoration. I take the time to model and teach my thinking about tools, embedded with content.
In my classroom, I invest a lot of time encouraging students to identify needs in our school and community, their own strengths and passions, and from there we spend a lot of time designing solutions. When students have a clear understanding of their own desired outcomes, they start to see technology as one of many tools to help them navigate and bring about change – even change that might be small and personal.
I incorporate mini-lessons about the power of technology and how we can essentially harness it at every opportunity. I consistently allow them to interact with and create content using their technology, and we discuss its potential for positive impact. We talk about outcomes and why certain technologies are best for bringing them about.
I incorporate and encourage problem-based learning. I have a process for supporting students through their navigation of identifying challenges, gaps and solutions, and make sure they know it’s a process, but one they can work through. They already live in the real world and I’m not their only teacher. The more authentic experiences I can allow them to safely navigate in class, the more their confidence builds to tackle any problem outside of class.
You’ve referred to the “If You Listen, We Will Stay” report from Teach Plus and the Education Trust that outlines some reasons that teachers of color leave the profession, and what it would take for them to stay. What points from that report resonate with you today?
In the 2019 “If You Listen, We Will Stay” report, one of the most powerful recommendations for me was that schools should be places that affirm a teacher’s humanity and racial identity so that they can be their most authentic selves. For far too long, schools have been places that prioritize conformity and assimilation to ideals from a distant, toxic past – a past that has proven again and again to be damaging to students.
Students become adults who remember all that made them feel disenfranchised in school, leading them to hold a career in teaching as about as attractive as pushing a heavy ball uphill, while being constantly told they’re doing it wrong.
Why would any of us want to become part of a profession that demands so much, yet discourages all that makes us vibrant, unique and more powerful in our ability to connect with and welcome students? We should be inviting in and recruiting teachers because of the strengths their diverse experiences bring, not asking them to completely ignore this and pretend that their perspectives don’t exist.
What do school leaders need to better understand about supporting diverse educators?
Perhaps the first thing school leaders need to better understand about supporting diverse educators is that they have to decide to support them, specifically, and then set out to do it on purpose. Currently and historically, the majority of educators fall into the category of middle class, Christian, cisgender, white female. Obviously, diverse educators are affected in very different ways by perception, implicit or explicit bias, and the often unique, tacit expectations and pressure placed on them.
Since differences are often shut out, diverse educators can feel isolated, voiceless, that they carry additional burdens as a standard expectation (such as having to further educate all adults around them), and feel there are few opportunities to advocate for themselves or students without rocking the boat or being seen as problematic.
If school leaders decide to recognize these truths at the onset, they’ll find themselves in a better place to listen, invite conversations, lead for engagement and inclusivity, and become an ally for all teachers – just as our classrooms are at their best when we become an ally for all students, so, too, is the profession itself.
Where have you seen diverse educators thriving?
I’ve seen diverse educators thriving in any space where they feel safe, uniquely valued, heard, given space to make mistakes and grow, and allowed to self-advocate for and challenge things that aren’t working without feeling that doing so will be a mark against the entirety of their race, culture, sexual orientation, faith, gender, etc.
I believe the first several of those attributes are super normal and fair expectations for each of us as human beings and educators entering into such a human-focused profession. That final factor is one in which diverse educators carry an obscenely disproportionate burden.
Tell us a little about the grow-your-own teacher initiative you started in Louisiana. What is particularly powerful about a teacher who comes from the community that they serve?
In facing a global teacher shortage of around 69 million by the year 2030 according to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, recruitment of new teachers is a matter of utmost urgency to me, especially considering that it takes years to become a great teacher, and that we often lose teachers long before that evolution takes place. In Louisiana, like much of the world, we’re facing major issues within our teacher pipeline in that fewer and fewer people are actually entering into it.
Some of this is because, according to polls by PDK International in 2018 and 2019, more than half of parents and even teachers actively discourage talented teens from becoming teachers. This reflects a major troubling issue in terms of appeal for a profession even though it’s our only hope to ensure the other global goals.
As a whole, we do next to nothing to purposefully recruit, and we often attract new teachers with a warped perception of what it actually means to be a teacher to begin with. They enter the profession often unaware of and unprepared for the realities that exist in our highest need areas: rural, urban, special education, math, science, areas affected most by poverty, etc. Coupling lack of realistic preparation and cultural competence with our failure to also recruit for diversity, we end up with a workforce that is often not “learner ready.”
In my community, we sought many different ways to address this need, and knew we needed to start sooner in terms of seeking out promising talent, exposing them to the realities and brilliant opportunities in the profession. We wanted to tap into the amazing student voice and sense of activism of Gen Z and welcome them into learning about education from a place of impact, hope and empowerment, with the hope that by helping them see all the things teaching could and should be, we would elevate our profession and attract them because of their unique abilities to have global impact through a classroom.
With some variance, 60% of teachers work within 15 miles of where they graduated. This means they would start their preparation understanding their unique communities, adding their experiences and advocacy to larger conversations, and feel a stronger sense of connection to the outcomes for the students in that community.
Of course, hiring and expertly training a variety of talented professionals from anywhere and any background is smart and necessary! But if a community has a chance to carefully cultivate its own pipeline and help reduce or eliminate barriers to becoming a teacher, this will undoubtedly lead to powerful outcomes.
As educators, what are some strategies we can use to better connect with our communities to multiply our impact on student success?
I’ve learned over they ears that our communities want to be a part of our classrooms. Oftentimes, they’re just waiting to be asked. When we set out a clear vision of what we want for our learners then reach out and ask for time, expertise, resources, mentor ship, etc., our communities won’t let us down.
What is also fundamental is that we directly take charge of the narrative about our classroom and schools, then use every opportunity to highlight both methods and magic. For most, people think having had a teacher makes them an expert at what it takes to teach. The best of us make it all look so easy.
That’s why it’s so important to share out the success, ongoing training, intentionality, barriers, opportunities and humanity that make each of our classrooms really flourish. The better our communities understand how much goes into our teaching and how enormous the impact we’re having, the more inclined they’ll be to want to take part in that success and see us for the highly skilled, learning experts we truly are!
What are some positive, and perhaps permanent, changes or realizations you’ve seen come out of the switch to online learning during COVID-19?
I hope that a permanent, positive solution that has come out of this is what so many already knew: That we should have already been doing far more to ensure that we made family engagement and access to information a priority. I think we now see that allowing open house, events, principal or teacher conferences, forums, tutorials, etc. to exist virtually (and in addition to face to face) is just powerful best practice.
Teachers are the experts of content and teaching, where families are the experts at their children. Offering every possible opportunity, and then some, to ensure families feel like truly valued members of our team is critical. Everyone sees this now.
I also think we were forced to face and deal with the appalling inequity in access to technology head on, and now many districts are receiving and applying funding to ensure all students have devices and the internet. This gaping divide was seen for years, and now all eyes are turned to it.
It’s one thing to hear far-off, seemingly nebulous factoids that “not all schools are equal.” It’s another thing to learn that your kid’s school is teetering on the under-resourced end of the scale.
What are some things policymakers can do to narrow the equity gap that widened due to COVID-19?
An excellent place to start would be attending to the systemic failures that perpetuated the equity gap to begin with. Inequities in funding; a shortage of highly skilled, highly trained educators; inadequate resources; a lack of diverse and learner-ready school communities; low expectation for students; implicit bias; and outright institutionalized racism.
Until we get to a place where we’re having conversations about these things, asserting ownership of the problems and solutions, then implementing supports and policies that directly address reality, we won’t close any gaps.
However, policymakers should never engage in these conversations without actual, living, breathing, education professionals being present. Ever. We must insist that the voices, expertise and experiences of teachers and school leaders are at the forefront of every conversation surrounding school policy.
It’s completely absurd that the highly skilled professionals actually carrying out the most vital work in schools are largely absent in decision-making. Truly, nothing about this gap is new. A sudden realization that it might affect your kid is, perhaps.
Policymakers should seize this moment to ensure all students no longer fall victim to our collective apathy and willful ignorance. We know what’s wrong. We know how to fix it. It’s just hard. But as all teachers know, we can do hard things.
How do we best maintain a sense of a vibrant learning community when we are separated from each other so much of the time?
This question excites me! At all times, we need to never lose sight of the fact that the most vibrant parts of any learning community are the students themselves!
Year after year, when I facilitate workshops involving technology for teachers, I always encourage them to focus on the classroom culture and outcomes they’re striving for, then work backward to select the right tools to accomplish that.
Never has that been more sound. If we redouble our commitment to place students at the center of their learning, create learning experiences interlocking content, empower them, and allow for curiosity and learning, then it just becomes a matter of selecting the right tools to support those commitments.
While I may not be able to give my students hugs or solid high fives, I can still build in collaboration, student-to-student interaction, student voice and choice, feedback, agency and all the things that are central to my class. I’ve even mastered the virtual, air high five.
Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtech.