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Supporting Teachers to Strengthen Education: An Interview with the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation

October 18, 2023

As part of living our mission and values, 快播视频 is featuring in-depth profiles of our clients to highlight their work in creating a just world. RPA Deputy Principal Joanne Schneider聽spoke with聽, founder of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation, and聽, former grantee of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation and current member of the foundation’s Advisory Board. The聽聽is a private family foundation that aims to support a thriving, effective, equitable, and respected education system in California and beyond, where all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed. The conversation between Joanne, Karen, and Taica focused on聽, a foundation program that directly supports groups of teachers; they discussed the history of their grantmaking and how philanthropy can model better support for teachers and students. This interview reflects edits for length and clarity.

 

Joanne Schneider:聽

Welcome, Karen Leshner and Taica Hsu. We’re excited to talk about the great work of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation and the LIGHT Awards. Before we get started, please take a moment to introduce yourself and your connection to the Foundation and the LIGHT Awards.

Karen Leshner:聽

Thanks so much, Joanne. I’m Karen Leshner, the Founder and President of Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation. The LIGHT Awards are the flagship project of our Foundation.

Taica Hsu:聽

I am Taica Hsu, a teacher on special assignment in the San Francisco Unified School District. I was on a team that was awarded a LIGHT Award in 2016 and am now on the Advisory Board of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation.

Joanne Schneider:聽

Karen, can you tell us about the driving force behind creating the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation and the focus area of the Foundation?

Karen Leshner:聽

I launched Intrepid in 2008. Before that, I had a couple of different careers, working as an engineer and then in finance. When I founded the Foundation in 2008, my goal was to focus most of our grantmaking on one area: education. More specifically, I wanted to center our work on the teaching career. Teachers have always been my heroes. My first teacher was my grandmother, who started a nursery school that she ran for 30 years in suburban Cleveland, Ohio.

I vividly remember being three-years-old, going with my Nana to nursery school, and feeling that it was a magical place. I have three adult daughters who had amazing public school experiences, mainly in California, and I noticed the impact that the career teachers had on my daughters. When I started Intrepid, the focus on teachers was born out of my feeling that teachers are excellent, undervalued folks in the American workforce and my desire to become knowledgeable on a single issue area. We are trying to inspire great people to go into teaching and stay in the profession.

Joanne Schneider:聽

Thank you, Karen. We’ve mentioned that the LIGHT Awards are the flagship program of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation. Can you tell us more about the LIGHT Awards and how they support teachers?

Karen Leshner:聽

Our main goal was to encourage talented people to go into the career of teaching and stay there. We spent a few years brainstorming the best way to do that and ultimately came up with the LIGHT Awards. LIGHT stands for Leveraging Innovation to Grow and Honor Teachers. In the early days of the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation, we did traditional grantmaking; that is, we gave grants to other nonprofits that were already functioning and inspiring folks to go into teaching. This included organizations like Teach for America or the Breakthrough Collaborative. But I always had a desire to put money directly into the hands of teachers. The LIGHT Awards project is our way of doing that.

The project is based on a program that the state of California did for a few years. PacTIN (Pacific Teacher Innovation Network) gave grants to teams of teachers to implement career development projects of their choice. I loved that this program focused on teacher choice. Teachers are rarely asked how they would like to learn and grow in their careers. Most of the time, professional learning is top-down; it comes from the school or the district, and no one takes the time to ask teachers what they might want to learn to grow in their careers. I also like that the program centered on collaboration. We initially decided that the LIGHT Awards should not give money to one teacher. The funds are meant to be spent and used collaboratively as a team. We’ve found that those two elements of teacher choice and collaboration have led to spectacular results.

Joanne Schneider:聽

How do you center community within the Awards and build a network of teachers and grantees?

Karen Leshner:聽

We wanted funds from the project’s original design to go to a group of teachers, not necessarily at the same school. In fact, many of the best projects create community among teachers at different schools. Teachers who feel isolated at their school or unsure about implementing an idea can branch out and share their projects with teachers doing similar work. In that way, the Awards have helped foster a sense of community among different groups of teachers.

We also make an effort to connect groups of teachers who are working on similar projects. Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen many teams interested in the same work. We put these groups in contact with each other to help strengthen their ideas.

Finally, we host the annual LIGHT Awards Convening for all our selected awardees. We gather as many members as possible to celebrate and learn together in a beautiful location. The Convening is a two-day event where the teachers get professional learning and a chance to celebrate and connect. This kind of celebration is something that’s quite rare in the world of education. Teachers don’t usually get pampered and honored in this way. This was an important part of the experience and a way for grantees to feel special and connected with each other.

Joanne Schneider:聽

It’s a beautiful thing to see the teachers being valued and appreciated. I have one last question about the LIGHT Awards before we turn to Taica. What was the process like to create the LIGHT Awards? How did you get it to the place where it is today?

Karen Leshner:聽

When we were developing the concept of the LIGHT Awards, we were extremely excited but also had to consider how the project would work inside our foundation. We met with multiple stakeholders to learn what was needed and what was working. We held a focus group with educators, and RPA helped us put together a focus group with different school stakeholders. We wanted as much input as possible regarding how to structure the award.

There was a considerable amount of brainstorming and community involvement that helped us shape the project. We also view the LIGHT Award as a continuous learning experience. We learn new things every year and strengthen as we iterate on our processes and interactions with the teachers. The application process is constantly evolving.

Finally, we established an advisory board that is made up of teachers to ensure that we are making decisions with input from the right people. Taica is one of those advisors. Their lived experience and knowledge of the educator community are essential to our work.

Joanne Schneider:聽

Taica, you’ve been involved with the Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation and the LIGHT Awards in many different capacities. Karen mentioned that you helped with the input into the original design of the LIGHT Awards. You’ve been a LIGHT awardee, done application review, and are now on the Advisory Board. Can you share more about all these experiences and why you’ve wanted to be involved with the Foundation and the LIGHT Awards?

Taica Hsu:聽

Thank you so much, Joanne. I had been involved in the initial PacTIN grant awarding, so I loved stepping into this space where people were committed to hearing from teachers in the classroom about what makes them thrive, what makes them grow, and what supports them. From the first moment, I knew that Intrepid was serious about this; I saw that they wanted to hear from people on the ground in the classroom. Immediately, I felt valued in the space they were creating, and I wanted more teachers to feel that way.

Becoming a grantee of the LIGHT Awards helped me grow as a teacher leader. I was mid-career at that point. Having the grant and the time to think about how to be a teacher, a leader, and support other teachers set me on a new path in my career, allowing me to grow my practice. Having that project helped me stay in the profession at a critical moment when I could have considered leaving if those supports were not in place.

Every year, when we get a new batch of applications, I get reinvigorated. I always look forward to reading and discussing what all these teachers want to do and how we can support them. When Karen reached out to me and asked me to join the Advisory Board, it felt like the natural next step. Joining as an Advisory Board member, I knew that my voice would be heard and considered. Intrepid has created a multi-generational and diverse space; we have different perspectives coming to the table to think about and decide what’s best for teachers and students. It has always felt generative; it has always felt supportive. It’s been a fabulous journey, and I want every teacher to have an experience close to this so that they feel connected and can stay in the classroom as long as they wish.

Joanne Schneider:聽

Thank you so much for sharing that, Taica. Can you tell us more about the LIGHT Awards project you participated in?

Taica Hsu:聽

We were funded in 2016 to do transformational teacher mentoring, and we developed a six-year plan for supporting and coaching teachers, which had never been thought about before. Usually, you think about pre-service and induction, but you don’t consider the years after that. We felt that to retain teachers, we needed to support them beyond the second year. We developed a six-year model, and I was able to see the impact it had on my school. We had teachers staying beyond their fifth year; we had new teachers stepping into leadership roles either on smaller teams or thinking about becoming teacher mentors themselves. As a district coach, I am now working with a teacher who was a part of the original six-year mentoring process. She is currently the department chair at San Francisco International, and we’re working together to co-mentor another new teacher. In that way, it feels like my project has come full circle. I’m so grateful that the LIGHT Awards gave us the opportunity to think in a cross-district manner and adapt our project for individual communities.

Joanne Schneider:聽

Thank you, that is incredible to hear. Karen, you mentioned this is a special year for Intrepid and the LIGHT Awards. It’s the 10th year of the LIGHT Awards. To commemorate this milestone, you commissioned a researcher to look back over the past nine years and to see what you could learn about the impact that you’ve had. Can you talk about what the report found and what excited you about the findings?

Karen Leshner:聽

Thanks for that question, Joanne. We’ve done this amazing work for 10 years and had an academic researcher conduct research and publish a report titled “.” The researcher interviewed over 100 LIGHT Awards alumni, and the findings were quite inspiring.

Hearing the findings made me feel like I’m on the right track and need to keep doing this work. It was beautiful to hear that the award was not simply a two-year project for grantees but something that impacted them over their careers. There are a couple of the findings that fill me with joy that I wanted to read. The researcher writes, “The LIGHT Awards experience had a significant positive impact on teachers’ professional identities, with many reporting increased happiness, joy, and satisfaction in their work as a result of their involvement.” That was extremely validating feedback to get.

She goes on to write, “The LIGHT Awards experience inspired a renewed sense of purpose for several teachers, helping them sustain in challenging times and increasing their motivation to continue to improve their craft.” That point resonated with me because we did the LIGHT Awards through the pandemic, a particularly challenging time for teachers. We heard that for many grantees, their projects were a bright spot during a time when things were so difficult in the educational community.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years, but then I look at our website at the almost 100 projects we’ve funded, and I can remember meeting the educators and seeing their work in action. It feels great, and I feel like we’re just getting started. We were also able to ask the folks who participated if they had any thoughts or wanted to stay in contact, and we’re now thinking of new ways to engage with our LIGHT Alumni Network, which consists of almost 500 Bay Area teachers.

Joanne Schneider:聽

My last two questions are for both of you. Can you share a story of a LIGHT Awards team that you are particularly proud of, the proposed project, and their impact on themselves and their school community?

Taica Hsu:聽

I’m particularly excited about a project currently being funded, Operation Lesson Study in Healdsburg. I remember reading that application, and it called out so many of the practices that I know work in education. I’ve been doing lesson study for years, and even though it’s something I had heard of before, I think it was intrepid. It is fearless to step into vulnerability in teaching because I believe the system is trying to separate us. The system is trying to make us siloed to tell us we’re not doing a good enough job. This project allowed the team to step out of their classrooms and collaborate realistically, looking at practice in each other’s classrooms and student work to determine practical next steps. That’s the creative, hard part of teaching: now that we taught something, how do we take all the information and the data and figure out what to do next?

Karen Leshner:聽

I love all our projects, but I particularly enjoy seeing projects that allow teachers who might feel alone to build community across other schools in ways their administration would never fund. There are a few different examples. We’ve had two LIGHT Awards projects that focused on music teachers, a group that can sometimes feel isolated because most schools only have one or two. Their needs for professional learning and growth are unique. We had two different cohorts of music teachers do two very different projects. One project involved a group of educators in the South Bay that wanted to learn techniques for teaching stringed instruments.

Another example took place in Oakland, where a group of elementary school music teachers collaborated to build a curriculum around music that celebrated the Indigenous heritage in the Oakland community. They worked with Indigenous standard-bearers to understand their musical traditions and then built curriculum and experiences for the students. There are many other examples of these cross-school collaborations where teachers have been able to build community and grow together.

Joanne Schneider:聽

With all your experience in the 10 years of the LIGHT Awards, what do you hope other funders, educational institutions, districts, educators, etc., learn from Intrepid’s experience?

Karen Leshner:聽

The most important aspect of our work is giving voice and choice to in-service teachers. The teachers who have received LIGHT Awards have worked as teachers for varying periods of time鈥攕ome three years, some twenty-plus years. Over and over again, we have seen teachers at every level express that no one ever asked them what they want to learn to succeed in their profession. Other funders and administrators can learn from this example and prioritize giving voice and choice to teachers.

Taica Hsu:聽

I completely agree. Having a voice in decision-making processes, but also choice in how you grow as a teacher, is empowering. I would add that targeted, strategic, and ample support for in-service teachers cannot be underestimated. There is a huge debate now surrounding the retention or recruitment of teachers. We’re seeing that you can recruit a lot of teachers, but if you can’t retain them, the pipeline stops. It’s so important to keep good teachers in the classroom because they help new teachers, teach model lessons, and show what it means to have powerful instructional practice.

Districts especially need to give teachers the tools to teach well. They need to create the conditions under which teachers can show their most powerful practice. That includes support in the form of money and resources, but it also the time to plan and look at student work and do the myriad of things teachers must do within the seven-hour workday. Intrepid and its funding provided all of that for me in many ways. It provided the time for teachers to collaborate. As Karen said, it asked teachers what they wanted to do so they could grow on their own, and it inspired them to stay in the profession.

As a district coach, I’m seeing incredibly high teacher turnover rates. I am in three different schools that support multilingual learners specifically. In these types of schools, we see the most teacher turnover and the most challenging teaching conditions. Districts need to strategically talk to communities that are under-taught, where teachers are leaving in larger numbers, to figure out how to do something like the LIGHT Awards that afford teachers more time, more resources, more collaboration space, and more agency to figure out how to teach their students best.

We are living through a particular moment in our educational system where we must change something because the current conditions are breaking. That’s not going to stop until there is a massive shift. I thank the LIGHT Awards for being a model for that, and we can learn a lot from this model of providing support directly to teachers. District leaders need to learn from the organizations treating teachers as professionals to shift how they treat the teachers in their communities.

 

Image from Adobe Stock.

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