Leadership Insights: Kelly Garcia, lifelong and empathy-driven public school leader
Written by Rachel Chewakin
This spotlight highlights a conversation in January 2021 moderated by PIC team member Rachel Chewakin and Kelly Garcia, Principal of Freeman Elementary School in Garland, Texas.
Inspired by family roots in Garland, Texas
As the daughter of a recreational fast pitch pitcher and community advocate, her father’s deeply seeded roots in Garland, Texas have shaped Kelly Garcia since childhood. Her father is a lover of sports, serving as a coach in the City of Garland for years. Wanting to make an even greater impact in the Hispanic community around them, he eventually transitioned into school administration in Garland Independent School District (Garland ISD). Her father has led the charge for ensuring their community understands the education system and the opportunities they have.
Growing up, Garcia was surrounded by educators and knew in college, after trying out a degree in computer science, that her passion for serving students in her community was just as strong as her father’s. Fueled equally by her love of sports, she pursued a career in athletic training in the public school system.
Expanding Impact & Path to School Leadership
Five years into serving as an athletic trainer, she knew she wanted to make an even greater impact on students. Reflecting on her desire to transition from the classroom, she shared, “I felt like I was working with a very select group of students in only athletics. There was an opportunity to support in place of Assistant Principals while they were off campus. After this experience, I knew I wanted more interaction with more than just one student population. I wondered, “What other students am I missing out on by limiting myself to this one specific group of students?”
It was then she enrolled in a graduate school program to pursue school leadership. After working hard to complete her studies, Garcia interned at Sachse High School by supporting teachers on their campus. In a role that was only supposed to last a year, Garcia found herself serving that school community for three years before finding a permanent placement in another school. She then became an Assistant Principal at Sam Houston Middle School in Garland ISD, and four years later, earned her position as Principal at B.H Freeman Elementary.
During that experience, she reflected on the opportunity in front of her to lead a campus and shared, “To this day, I am still in awe that someone trusted me and believed in me to lead in this capacity.”
Impact through a human centered approach: uncovering motivation
As a now seasoned leader, Garcia has built a culture of excellence, celebration and openness on her campus. Though even in the midst of this great work, she knew there was more she could be doing on her campus, and was not quite sure on where to start.
As a part of her journey in the PIC program, a two-year fellowship focused on using design to innovate, she discovered that starting with empathy would lead her to finding deeper meaning.
She shared, “When we first started learning about leading with empathy through design thinking in our PIC 2020 Cohort, I initially saw empathy at a very superficial level. At the time, I thought I might show empathy toward the staff by providing a “Jean Day” or “Hat Day” but I found I was really struggling with how to go deeper than that.”
After spending a few months in the program, learning about the design thinking, or human centered approach, she began to uncover the deeper meaning of empathy by intentionally talking with her staff. She shared, “The empathy interviews were a specific way I was able to understand my staff, the choices they made and why. Through this experience, I learned to see people beyond their roles as employees and see them for who they are as humans.”
Using empathy interviews to design solutions
To prepare for the informal, 20-minute interviews, she narrowed in on a particular challenge she was eager to learn more about: staff wellness and self-perception of success. Up until this point, she was challenged by understanding staff motivation and empowerment as it relates to celebrating one’s success. During her first few months of the school year, she met with every one of her staff members and asked them a series of questions.
She shared, “I was determined to go past that level of being very superficial and began formulating questions that might have an impact on teachers’ wellbeing and how they perceived themselves as successful to that point in the school year. I wanted them to see their successes through the questions I was posing to them.”
She continued to share, “The first question I asked them was, “What has surprised you the most about yourself?” From there, they were then able to reflect on all they accomplished for two and a half months and shared pride about their work. Next, I asked them, “If you could press the reset button on any decision you’ve made, what would that be and why?”
After conducting several of the interviews, she saw a noticeable impact from the staff member’s physical demeanor and their detailed, transparent reflections about the successes they have encountered as an educator leading in a global pandemic.
“Following the interviews, I realized I didn’t want my staff to think I was just simply going through the motions of interviewing them. I knew that design calls us to improve what we are doing by using empathy. This gave us an opportunity to redefine the word interview as something that simply allows others to share their opinions and perspectives. I also need to be transparent with how I was going to use the information to make changes on campus,” she shared.
By uncovering these motivations and by consistently meeting with each of her staff members on a quarterly basis, she is equipped to design solutions that connect motivation with empowerment. In her next nine weeks, she will be focusing on how this development translates from her staff to the students they serve. She posed a thought provoking question, “How might we empower students to uplift one another through their own voices?”
Learnings and advice for other leaders: deeply listen, be transparent and take action
In reflecting on her journey using the human centered design approach to uncover the intrinsic motivations her staff embodies, Garcia offers three learnings for other leaders to consider. She encourages leaders to, “First, you need to be willing to listen. Listening is more than just hearing the words that people are saying and I realized that after speaking with my staff in an intentional way. Second, a leader must be transparent through the empathy process, and be clear about how they will use the information being shared with them. Lastly, leaders need to take action based on the insights and perspectives shared with them.”
Motivated by understanding the perspectives of others, it is clear Garcia empowers those around her by continuing to listen to varying perspectives, to dig deeper and to ensure her team’s input is built into the experiences, processes, and policies she co-creates for her campus.