Since 1987, Women’s History Month has been celebrated every March in the United States. Its goal is to highlight women’s contribution to history, culture and society.
In honor of that we wanted to shine the spotlight on Dr. Chelsea Kirk, the Goodwill Excel Center‘s School Director.
Q: Tell us about your journey to Goodwill of Greater Washington and your current role on the team. What’s your story?
I came to GGW in 2016 REALLY (!) excited about being part of the founding team to open the amazing GEC. Joining the founding GEC Team was a dream come true and as I look back on the last 5 years as part of this team and see how powerful our community is, I am in awe and constantly inspired each day. Our students have shown grit, resilience, and determination to achieve their goals. Our students have trusted us and the environment we have created. Our students have said yes to GEC and have fully embraced the journey. I am so proud of our entire community and cannot wait to see where our alumni community continues to go as they continue to excel and how we continue to elevate and innovate our GEC community to push our students even further.
Q: Throughout your career journey, who do you look up to for inspiration? Who have been some of your mentors? Any female role models?
Throughout my career I have been guided by so many amazing and fierce individuals who have allowed me to grow into my own leader. I’ve also been fortunate to have been surrounded by amazing women in my life who have molded and shaped me. I must start with my mom, Joy, she has grounded me and showed me that being supportive is the most important trait of a leader and that genuine and authentic support is critical. My best friend’s mom, Geri, has been a constant sounding board throughout my life and has pushed me to think beyond what I “see.” In my first year as a teacher at Maya Angelou Academy, my co-teacher, Ms. Barbara, became an instant mentor and guided me each day. She helped frame for me what excellent teaching looks like, feels like, and what must take place in a classroom and school to create that magic! Even to this day I ask Ms. Barbara for advice and learn from her wisdom. At GWW/GEC I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have found more tremendous women role models in our President and CEO, Catherine Meloy, and our Chief Mission Officer, Colleen Paletta. Both Catherine and Colleen always remind me that creating excellent service is our priority and the values of RISE must forever guide us. I also would be remiss without saying that my journey has been grounded around truly phenomenal women. I went to an all-girls K-12 school in Baltimore, MD and those 13 years provided me with the foundation of female power and strength. As an athlete, I have been surrounded by so many amazing teammates who always push me and inspire me to strive and continue to strive. I could go on and on, but the power of the women role models in my life is a key part of my journey!
Q: What obstacles have you experienced as a woman throughout your career journey?
Some “harder moments” I’ve had to push against in my journey as a woman in my career has been around my age. As someone who is “younger” in my position, I often lead with my experience. I think it’s important to always establish boundaries and never let your age be a determining factor! I also think the education sector leans female-dominated, so that has been a benefit and has allowed me to meet, connect, and collaborate with so many amazing women who have laid the groundwork for the work we are doing. So many fierce women have paved the way for younger educators to continue the work and I am so grateful for this and find passion in continuing to carve out pathways for agency and empowerment for our students. As a white woman, I also must acknowledge that my race has played a part in my journey as well and the opportunities that my own white privilege have provided me have also been part of my journey. Everyone’s story and journey are their story and journey. I fully understand that my experience and journey might look different than many of my colleagues and the community I serve. It is my responsibility to listen and understand each story within our larger community and never make assumptions or understand an experience that I have not lived. I feel so fortunate and grateful to be where I am in my professional journey and each moment along the way has shaped and defined me.
Q: What leadership and/or career advice do you have for those just starting their career paths?
When I first started as a teacher I felt really overwhelmed (and surprised at how overwhelmed I was!) and a colleague of mine who was a Math teacher at my school said, “Be you and know that your first responsibility is to always show up and to always care.” That has always guided me. As an educator and in any job and especially as a leader, it’s critically important to make sure you show up. Showing up means more than one thing – show up mentally and be fully present, show up physically on time and ready to listen, learn, and move, and show up emotionally and with a new perspective and mindset for each day. Caring is fundamental and it must never be forgotten or underestimated how important it is to show care and do this through empathy and truly valuing those around you.
Some leadership advice…
Culture is the most important piece of a positive work environment (and especially a school) and so, so much goes into this! Building a culture of appreciation is key. When people feel appreciated there’s a larger buy-in to the larger community. Appreciation comes from taking time to learn about those around you and listen to the stories that surround you. Once a culture is founded in appreciation and every individual in the community knows he/she is appreciated, then the real work can happen. I would also say that communication is fundamental. Never forget to communicate actions, outcomes, and next steps. Without communication there can be a vacuum of mystery and mystery creates gaps in culture and is the start to breaking any formed trust.
One more thing… as the leader, you are always guided by excellent customer service. Never forget this! Regardless of what sector you work in, leadership is doing what is needed at times where there is a need and always moving with the best customer service first.
Ah and one more thing!! Always make sure to pause and reflect and ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Be fueled by your “why” and make sure those around you also know their “why” and what brings them to the work you do each day.
Q: Any favorite quotes?
I must give my favorite Maya quotes! “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” And this one! “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
I also must include this quote from Scott Bess (he’s on the board of GEC) and this always, always grounds me. “Innovation is hard. It’s really, really hard. What you have to keep at the forefront is the ‘why.’ Because everything else will drag you back to the norm.”
And then this Toni Morrison one! “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Q: What inspires you to achieve your dreams? What drives you to excel?
The first thing that always inspires me in the work I do are the students – our current students, our alumni, and our prospective students. Our work is grounded in providing the best educational experience to our students and our community. That drives me each day to continue to create a better GEC community, continue to push against traditional norms of education and continue to innovate so that our students can excel! What also drives me to excel and inspires me to achieve my dreams is the idea that we have the opportunity to truly re-define success through our innovations and approach. We know what has not worked for our students before and we have the amazing opportunity to re-think the structures and systems and create something that does work and will generate success for our students. I’m also driven by our students’ families and children and the hope that our students have not only for their futures, but also those that come after them. Ah and lastly, I’m driven to excel by our community at large. The power of the GEC/GGW community pushes me and inspires me each day.
I am also driven by the idea that the work we are doing at GEC can pave the way for more experiences and opportunities like GEC to come about for more students who can then excel in their journeys. There’s so much work ahead and we are just beginning! I am motivated by what can be and will be and by shifting the larger narrative around students returning to high school and finding what success means for them.
Q: Any self-care tips for mental and physical wellness?
I am going to start with this – my biggest piece of advice is to always make time for yourself and define what this is and how it looks. Time is the most valuable thing that we cannot get back. Use it wisely and carve out non-negotiable time for you. When that non-negotiable time for you begins to disappear, there’s an imbalance and that shift is hard to get back. For me, workouts, long walks with my dog, and connecting with my friends and family are what I need in my time for me to feel re-connected and re-fueled. Find out what you need to get re-fueled and don’t lose sight of it! I also think it’s so critically important to build some structure/routine into your day. I am someone who needs to move in the morning before the workday begins, so the morning workout jump starts my day. Find out a structure that works for you and keep it consistent.
Q: Any favorite podcasts, books or resources that you use for self-care, to uplift you, and to help motivate you as you achieve your dreams?
Books/resources – I’m currently reading “How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community” by Mia Birdsong. I’m in two book clubs and both book clubs just finished books -“Mexican Gothic” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” . In high school a teacher gave me the book, “The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing” by Melissa Bank. I remember looking at it and laughing and not really investing in it. I then had to read it for a Creative Writing class in college and the book really made me think and to this day is one I always go back to! In college I was a creative writing major and had the opportunity to read so much of so many genres. Three books will forever be major impacts in my life for various reasons and they are, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis, “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion and “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines. A few other books that came into my life and made an impact are, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” by Kate Manne, “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches” by Audre Lorde, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, and “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.
Q: What did we miss?
Last piece of advice – know when you need to turn to a mentor, close friend, or an outside help to have an extra ear and for someone to hear you out and provide direct feedback. Be ready for feedback and always look at feedback as the best gift for growth (even when it’s hard!).
Actually, last (last!) piece of advice – get yourself a dog! And always stay connected to friends and family and your dog! My amazing dog Otis has been such a big moment in my lie and he has made me realize the need to make time and space for others outside of work and continue to always stay connected to those you love.
You can see Dr. Kirk’s bio here https://www.goodwillexcelcenter.org/blog/dr-chelsea-kirk/
*The Goodwill Excel Center is a unique, tuition-free adult charter high school that awards industry recognized certifications and high school diplomas, not GEDs, to adult learners in the District.