Understanding Culture as a Lever for Change
A Conversation with Katiusca Moreno, Ed.L.D.’13
Note: This is an expanded version of a story that appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Ed. Magazine.
For Katiusca Moreno, achieving what we want for young people in this country goes hand in hand with developing the leadership capacity of adults and teams. Following this passion, she was recently named senior managing director of Organizational Culture Initiatives at Teach For America (TFA), which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities across the country. Moreno, who spent her Ed.L.D. residency with TFA, now works with the organization’s regional staff to model the leadership they expect from their teaching corps, with the ultimate goal of making a bigger impact on students.
“I love working with adults, and that’s what has always driven me,” she says. “The Ed.L.D. Program continued to solidify my interest in adult development and leadership.”
Moreno steps into her newly created role as TFA continues recent efforts to increase its diversity. Research has shown that closing the teacher diversity gap results in better outcomes for students of color, and teachers who share students’ backgrounds can serve as powerful role models. TFA’s 2014 corps reflected its commitment, with half its members identifying as people of color and 47 percent coming from low-income backgrounds.
Changing demographics, however, are just the first steps towards TFA reflecting, and better partnering with, the communities where it operates. That’s why Moreno has been tapped to lead a national pilot program to understand and improve TFA’s organizational culture. Deploying many of the strategies she learned in the Ed.L.D. Program, she examines how TFA regional staff and corps cultures — specifically staff and corps member engagement and inclusion — can catalyze efforts to improve educational outcomes for students in each local context.
Tell us about your current role with TFA.
We are our piloting this new initiative with a handful of regions who are looking to explore how the culture that these regional teams create with their staff, as well as with their teaching corps, impacts the efficacy that they are trying to achieve. As part of the larger TFA model, each region believes that one day all kids can receive a great education, but how to reach that is specific to each region, especially given its unique local context, whether in a large urban area or small rural area.
How do you define team culture?
When we think about team culture, we ask: is there intentionality behind how teams operate? What are the systems, routines, and structures that reinforce culture? Is there an equitable and inclusive environment on this team? TFA strives to ensure diversity across our staff and teaching corps. And while we can celebrate the increased number of staff and corps members that share the same racial or economic background as the students we teach and the communities we partner with, we must also build a thriving and inclusive culture where all our staff feel valued for their individual experiences, unique leadership, and assets they bring to our work. My work is to figure out, from a regional perspective, how to create these thriving and inclusive team cultures, where everyone feels that they can be part of an effective team that will create the outcomes that we want for our teachers and, in turn, create that ripple effect of what we want for students.
What is the biggest challenge you face in this role?
We’re seeing some initial evidence that focusing on staff and teacher corps culture can rapidly move a region from an okay place to a good place and from a good place to a really great place. The challenge is how to scale it. What we do with regions is so customized; there’s not a one-size-fit-all blueprint to building a strong culture. How do we ensure that 50 TFA regions all have the resources to help move their culture forward — without compromising what real, sustaining change is going to look like?
You spent your Ed.L.D. residency with TFA. What drew you to the organization?
After I completed my residency, I was presented with an opportunity to continue working within the realm of adult learning, particularly leadership development for individual staff and teams. My goal was to redefine leadership development to include more than just the technical aspects of a job, but also the essential noncognitive skills. How do you build self-awareness — of the values you bring, the identity you hold, and the experiences you have — into how you lead? Leadership development was where I wanted to continue my work, whether it was exploring Lecturer Lisa Lahey and Professor Robert Kegan’s work on Immunity to Change, [Harvard Kennedy School] Lecturer Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative Framework, or Robin Ely and Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp’s work on race and identity.
When I joined TFA to complete my residency, the organization was on a parallel track piloting their work to redefine leadership, calling it Values-based Leadership for their teachers and their staff. They gave me the opportunity and the autonomy to implement a framework that I designed for second-year teachers in Los Angeles. They said, “Here’s a group of 30 teachers, go for it!” I stayed [after completing the Ed.L.D.] because I realized that, in order for the kind of systemic change in teacher leadership that I was proposing to happen, we were going to need to create real change in how we develop our staff.
How did the Ed.L.D. prepare you to do this work?
The strategies I design and facilitate in my work are directly tied to the learning experiences I had as a student with my cohort. I could not have done it without this firsthand experience. And the Ed.L.D. coursework continues to give me those “aha!” moments of thinking, “this is what we’re going through as a cohort; this is about effective teams, it’s not just about the one person who can be a superstar.” What our system needs is a better understanding of how adults and teams work, through a lens of race, identity, and inclusiveness.