[How I Work] Connecting the dots with students, staff, and a new Chicago office

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Ellie Canter is the Managing Director of the Washington, D.C. Office for Turning the Page (TTP), which has been working for 18 years to engage families as partners in their children’s education within D.C. Public Schools. With the organization’s recent expansion to Chicago, Canter and the TTP team have gained insight by scaling their model; she recently spoke with Work for Good about the challenges of her evolving role, the inspiration she finds on the job, and more.

Ellie Canter

My role, the short version: I connect the dots for our staff, ensuring that they feel invested in the TTP mission, and united both across teams and across our offices in D.C. and Chicago.

My role, the long version: We recently created a change in our staffing structure as part of our national expansion, establishing two leadership positions for both of our regional offices. My role is in D.C., and my colleague Kylia Kummer is the Managing Director in Chicago. We work together to think strategically about collaboration, evaluating outcomes, deepening partnerships with schools, and expanding opportunities for family engagement. In addition, we each manage our own regional team. Much of my work is supporting and empowering my team in D.C., which consists of five Americorps VISTAs and four full-time program staff, in their efforts to develop curriculum content, identify outreach and engagement strategies, and grow professionally.

Ellie Canter

Most challenging part of my job: My job has required that I transition from working closely with our communities and schools to a role where I lead from within. I’m now thinking about where the organization is going, how to discuss our work with a broader audience, and when staffers need me to step in or to step aside. It’s an exciting challenge, but also a learning process.

How I got here: I served two years at a rural high school in Virginia through AmeriCorps. My mission was to build a college-bound culture, which taught me how important it is to have someone who can broker relationships among students, parents, staff, college reps, and financial aid institutions—to navigate the complex systems at play during the college application process. I learned that school counselors never have enough time or support to handle the overwhelming load put on them. That experience squared my resolve to work in public service: I then attended grad school at the University of Washington, where I studied educational policy and leadership, focusing on family engagement. My research took me to New Orleans, where I worked with parents advocating for change in their school systems. After that, I joined the Turning the Page team—a great, timely find that allowed me to return to the D.C. area, where I’m from.

What the role requires: You need a good deal of patience in the face of obstacles—we’re working with systems that require vigilance and constant effort. You also need a commitment to understanding people: I see different sides of the puzzle, and it’s my job to understand educators, parents, students, and people on my team, in order to recognize where they’re coming from and encourage them to work together effectively.

 

Ellie Canter at TPP

One of my proudest moments: This past spring, we worked with a group of parent leaders who testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, speaking out about the challenges in their children’s schools, and the areas of support they want prioritized. Seeing their courage in action, and knowing what it meant for them to prepare their thoughts and stand before those leaders, was an inspiration to the team. It made us realize that we should be testifying, too—and start planning to make it happen.

My favorite way to support coworkers: We use icebreakers every time we gather—for staff meetings, interviews, community workshops—to make sure everyone starts off feeling seen and heard. It’s a way to remind everyone that we’re people first, and we can all connect on a personal level.

The latest skill I’ve learned: Learning not to just receive feedback, but to actively seek it out, is something I continue to work on. If I’m open to receiving “bad news” or critical feedback, it creates a precedent for the rest of the team to be open, honest, and accepting as well.

My top goal for the year: Building the vision of our organization as a national enterprise: Why we’re expanding and why now, what it means in terms of our brand, and how we maintain fidelity to local offices and contexts. It’s been great to have leaders and partners in Chicago to explore these questions together.

Turning the Page is an organization linking public schools, families, and communities together so that they can ensure students receive valuable educational resources and a high-quality public education. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

A special thanks to the University of Virginia for alerting us to the amazing work of one of their alumni.

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