Eight Questions for Emerging Leader Karen Baptiste

We’re always looking for new ways to insert ASCD voices into our conversations on Inservice. With this in mind, we’ve developed a question and answer session for our ASCD emerging leaders. The Emerging Leaders program recognizes and prepares young, promising educators to influence education programs, policy, and practice on both the local and national levels. Learn more about emerging leaders on the ASCD website.

Karen Baptiste Education PhilosophyTell us about your role as an educator. What does your typical day look like?

To sum up my very long title, I am a traveling special education instructional manager. I am out in the field four days a week traveling to 26 different schools, across multiple districts in New York City, coaching teachers and supporting principals. Getting people the resources they need in a timely manner that they find effective is part of the many things I am expected to do in a day. I meet with different school-based teams and attend trainings at the district as well to get the most up-to-date, ground-breaking research and tools for schools. My primary focus is always students with IEPs. I don’t like using the term “students with disabilities.” These students have always been and continue to be marginalized. People are now paying attention, but we need to do more. My work is bringing global awareness to people that people with diverse needs should have equal rights and access to what the general population has always had access to. That’s their civil right; who is anyone to take that away?

What’s your education philosophy summed up in one sentence?

One sentence is quite difficult because I like to talk, but I would say equity and access, all day, every day—especially for students with IEPs!

Why did you become an educator?

Well I must clarify for you that I didn’t choose to be an educator; I was chosen to be an educator. A friend of mine saw something very inspirational in me and encouraged me to leave television and pursue a career path where I can lead and guide those who may not have had that set before them. I ignored his suggestions until another friend I worked with told me about his second job where he was working in an all-male group home, where these children were crying out for help. I just could not believe that children went through this, so I started working in the all-girls division as a behavior specialist with children who were abused or abandoned. People always told me that I was a nurturing person and that there are children out there who can benefit from that. I realized this work is my calling. Although I always tell people in jest that I think I’m supposed to be like Oprah and not have children, but to take care of everyone else’s children. After a few years of doing that, I went into public education and taught special education because I always feel like I’m not doing enough.

As an ASCD emerging leader, how do you hope to have a greater effect on education in your community and beyond?

When I was going for my second master’s degree in leadership, my adviser, who is like a mother, shared the Steve Jobs quote with me and the other eight members in my cohort that states:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

I share this quote with you because I believe I am crazy enough to change the world, one person at a time. Equal access to a quality education is a civil rights issue, not only in this country but also in this world. I’m passionate about policy because that’s where these decisions stem from. If I can work to change policy, I would. And I am!

What types of professional development (books, DVDs, webinars, courses) have made a difference in your career?

Hands down, my leadership courses at Bank Street College of Education. My favorite course was adult development besides my district leadership courses. I didn’t even realize it was my favorite course until I left the classroom and my role changed to developing and coaching novice and veteran teachers. My epiphany came when I needed to tap into those resources on how to support adults. I always had the misconception that adults were easier to guide than children. That misconception changed within the first week on the job. As far as books, The Daily Disciplines of Leadership and anything from Maya Angelou are always inspirational and motivational.

Was there a pivotal moment when you realized your career choice in education was the correct one? Describe that time.

Absolutely! Well, when you work with adults and you have people who trust and believe in what you provide them so much that they reach out to you to help guide them in their personal life, that’s huge. When I was in the classroom, I think every teacher can connect to this when I say that moment when a child gets it, especially when they learn to read, is priceless—not to mention the cute little letters they write you, telling you you’re the best teacher in the world because they know you care. Oh, and sometimes they even tell you how smart and pretty you are. That’s always a nice reminder. Part of my advice to teachers now is that we must always be our best for our children because sometimes we are the most consistent people in their lives.

If you could make one major change in education, what would it be?

Normally when people ask me this question, I jump to say teacher preparation programs. But another change is tugging on my heart. If I could make one change, it would be to make teaching a respected profession again. It used to be a noble thing to say you were going to become a teacher. Now, when asked what they do, people are reluctant to say “teacher” because educators feel beaten down, overworked, underpaid, and, most of all, devalued. This change can only be made when teachers are provided with tangible resources, smaller class sizes, funding for programs that support students, and parental involvement where it is seen as a respected profession instead of highly paid babysitters, as some people believe.

What’s the craziest thing a student has ever said to you?

You do realize it’s hard to share one crazy moment, right? The elementary school-age children are the funniest. They are so observant and will say the most interesting things. Right as I was about to do a read-aloud, I remember telling my 4th grade class to push in their chairs and come to the rug. Well, I had students running, skipping, jumping, rolling on the ground . . . well, you get the gist. I was furious and asked, “Why are you running? You know better than that.” One of my dearest angels said, “Well,” as he put his index finger up, “you told us to push in our chairs and come to the rug, but you didn’t say how.” Lesson here: you must be explicit with your students!

Tina Byland is a public relations and social media professional on the ASCD Communications team. She helps manage various ASCD social media channels and the ASCD Inservice blog, while also working in traditional media outreach. Before joining ASCD in 2013, she was a pre-kindergarten teacher in Annapolis, Md. and a selector for D.C. Teaching Fellows. Prior to teaching, Tina has six years of public relations experience.