Interview with a Change Agent - Ted Howard
June 22 2021 · By Heather Cunningham
From childhood to adulthood, we travel down roads that shape our future and sometimes who we are as a person. We meet people along the way that influence our decisions and help craft us as professionals. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with one of these people, an amazing educational leader, Mr. Ted Howard, Chief Academic Officer at Tukwila School District. He is working to change the landscape of education for the better.
As a brilliant and successful educational leader, it’s no wonder Ted was raised by two educators himself. His parents worked in various positions within education over the years. His mom was an elementary school teacher of 23 years who passed away due to Covid-19 this year, and his dad is an elementary, middle, and high school principal. Mr. and Mrs. Howard were incredible role models that instilled strong values in their children and students alike. Like the importance of lifelong learning and their love of continuous exploration.
Besides the mentorship of his parents, Ted also had many incredible educational mentors along his journey. Professor Sarah Wolverton at Western University was someone he looked up to for her exceptional literary skills and ability to help him draw conclusions on his own terms. Ted would often go to her with questions, and she would guide him in a manner that helped him become a more independent and inquisitive student and eventually leader.
Not only is Ted unafraid to seek out his own answers, but he is also vigilant when it comes to asking the hard questions that come with being an educational leader. The Coronavirus Pandemic has been an example of how Ted has leveraged his can-do attitude to help staff and students. While some educational leaders became overwhelmed with the possible negative implications, Ted looked for positive changes that could be made because of it. The quick dissemination of digital devices to students and families, so that learning could continue remotely, was one such example. But, it was quickly apparent that devices were not the only issue. Many families also faced problems with internet access, required for successful remote learners. That realization led Ted to work with local businesses towards providing internet access and hot spots for student families and the community.
It is a turbulent time in education right now, but Ted is not afraid of what the future holds. Along with the tutelage of some professional mentors, Dan Kaufman and Mike Riley, Ted learned early in his career to face his fears head on. His notion of perfect quickly dissolved into the realization that perfect does not exist. An idea may be perfect in your mind, but once it is brought to light and discussed, it becomes a fluid concept that morphs and changes based on the needs of your constituents.
Ted is a transformative leader who exudes his passion for innovation and raises the voices of those around him. Successful education depends on students knowing who they are and where they come from. This includes collaborating with the community and parents to understand their hopes, fears, and dreams for their children. Ted has been explicit in his desire to involve the community and says, “we need to create a place to have parents at the table….to get more people involved and make sure they feel comfortable.” He speaks about the importance of having a “constant feedback loop” and building credit with both the community and staff by listening to requests and needs, and being immediately responsive to their concerns.
Creating change within an established school system involves knowing firsthand the intricacies of working in education. Teachers are given tools in college, but once in the classroom, everything changes. Having a strong, culturally relevant support system, creating a continual learning/growth system, and being the kind of leader that models quality work ethic and values are all vital to teacher sustainability, retention, and success. Ted exudes all of those qualities, and he talks the talk and walks the walk. Even while in our interview, Ted respectfully paused to take a call for support from one of his leaders. For Ted, effective leadership and being a change agent is all about building trust, honoring your word, and being present. Change is about breaking down systemic barriers, developing culturally relevant programming, and creating opportunity and access where there was once a void.
Ted’s success as an educational leader goes back to his inquisitive nature. Ted created a process of asking outgoing seniors their thoughts on their high school career - what they liked and what they would change. The next year, he asked juniors as well, so he could begin to make changes earlier. He eventually began to start at the freshman level. The point being you cannot create change if you do not understand the needs of the people you serve, which includes students themselves. It is also imperative to be present in your schools and talk to and ask your teachers, students, and staff questions. Hear stories from your community and solicit questions and collaboration. In another instance, Ted worked with school alumni to create a book of shared stories from the community. In it were experiences of redlining, internment camps, dating taboos from race to religion, and other stories that have shaped the community. It was a powerful real-life history book that served as a valuable tool for teachers and students to build a common understanding of what their education should look like. The book was published and given to every teacher and student as a resource to reflect on.
My own collaboration with Ted has been in bringing computer science and coding to his district through an Amazon Future Engineer + BootUp Elementary Computer Science Sponsorship. Working with BootUp, Ted and his team will help elementary teachers learn computer science, computational thinking, and coding concepts over the next three years. Those teachers will in turn, teach those same concepts to their students, providing early access to skills that may not have been available to them until now. When asked about how to implement a program such as this, Ted explained that you “have to look at a teacher's schedule and what they're doing already, and show how this adapts into what they're doing already in a digital platform.” It is important to help make the connections of why this type of initiative is valuable to their teaching and most importantly, to their students’ learning.
Ted Howard is an incredible leader, one whose warm smile and heart-felt stories are infectious. There is no doubt he cares about his teachers, staff, students, and community and will not stop until he has succeeded in raising up the voices of those around him, and creating opportunity and access for innovation and change. I look forward to our continued collaboration next year, as well as the opportunity to expand my own professional growth through his mentorship.
Ted Howard on Change and Innovation
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