5 Questions: Dr. Deborah Gist
Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools
After serving in educational leadership roles around the country, Dr. Deborah Gist is ready for a homecoming. It has been many years since she graduated from Tulsa’s Memorial High School, but her passion for Tulsa schools is as strong as ever.
1. What first drew you to a career in education? I remember wanting to be a teacher from a very young age. I still have a folder at home with the project I did in the eighth grade at Nimitz Junior High in Mr. Henderson’s economics class called “My Career as a Preschool Teacher.” I just knew that was what I was put on this earth to do. My grandparents were teachers, too. I loved school and loved my teachers. I thought it would be the best job in the world and, as it turns out, it absolutely is.
2. What were the main factors in your decision to return to Tulsa Public Schools? I would say a couple of things. No. 1 was this great opportunity. I feel like being superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools is the job I’ve been preparing for my entire life, from my years as a teacher to my years in government … literacy work, volunteerism, leadership and educational development. All of it I see leading to this one opportunity. It’s the perfect combo of work that I love — work that matters — in a city I deeply adore.
3. You have been called first and foremost a teacher. How do you bring the mindset of a teacher into the position of superintendent? No matter how long you’ve been away from the classroom, you always remember the joys and challenges of being a classroom teacher. When we are thinking at the district level about our work, we always have to think about how what we’re doing supports the educators in our classrooms. That is our only job. Too often the decisions administrators and others make outside the classroom cause the job to be harder for the classroom teacher, not better. That’s something I’m very aware of.
4. Oklahoma is consistently ranked in the bottom tier for education quality. What steps must be taken to ensure higher academic success? The steps we need to take to improve students’ academic success have already begun. One of the reasons I’m excited about coming back to Tulsa is that I have been watching Tulsa from afar. What I plan to do is come into this role with a full awareness of the work that’s gone on. Hearing what’s working, what’s not working and learning about our past performance. I’ll use this information to work with the TPS board in developing a new five-year plan. This will involve extensive community engagement.
5. What is your proudest achievement in your career so far? Without a doubt, my proudest achievements are in the classroom. There’s nothing I’m more proud of than thinking back to the children I’ve known and those I’ve had a chance to influence. It touches my heart deeply to know that my service as a teacher has had an impact on the trajectory of their lives. There is no more noble profession than that of being a teacher.
FILL IN THE BLANKS
The No. 1 thing you should know about me is ... I’m going to work tirelessly at this job to make sure we have an education system that is one every Tulsan can be proud of and one that prepares children for life after high school.
My favorite people are ... kind. Tulsans are kind.
The best thing about returning to Tulsa is ... the opportunity to be superintendent of TPS, which is the most exciting professional challenge I’ve ever had. Also, the fact that I’m returning home to Tulsa. Being close to my family is a real gift. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Coney Islander.
As a student at Memorial ... I was a class officer, and in my junior year, we did a service project around Christmastime and “adopted” a family. This experience was a pivotal moment in my life. I decided I wanted my teaching career to be focused on those who needed education to improve their life circumstances. That continues to be a focus.