Tai Basurto On Her Journey From Teach Plus Teacher Leader to Chicago Public Schools’ Director for School Leader Development
By Kathy Pierre
Tai Basurto is a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alumna from the inaugural 2012 cohort in Chicago. In the time since her Policy Fellowship, Tai has continued teaching, earned her doctorate degree, served as an elementary school principal, and is now serving in a newly created position as Chicago Public Schools’ Director for School Leader Development.
Tai spent nearly a decade in the classroom. She didn’t initially want to be a teacher — her focus was on social justice work — but once her dad talked to her about considering the field, she realized that the social justice work she wanted to do could be done in the classroom.
“If we’re going to work toward equity, what better place to do that?” Tai asks. “Education is the greatest lever for change and I have seen it and experienced it in my own family. My parents grew up in poverty and were the first in their families to go to college. Experiencing the social mobility of that makes me really believe that public education, public school is truly transformative.”
Tai credits her experience with Teach Plus with jump starting her understanding of the full scope of being an educator, from a policy standpoint and more. We talked to Tai about teacher leadership, her new position in Chicago Public Schools, her advice for teachers, and more.
Teach Plus: What will your new role as the Director of School Leader Development entail?
Tai Basurto: It’s too early to say what will become my norm, but right now I’m developing a scope and sequence of work around learning opportunities for new principals and assistant principals. That’s the plan for year one, whereas years two and on, it will be about attending to the needs of education leaders, which feels so critical now, when we’re seeing so many professionals leave the field. How do we ensure that they have the necessary support and the necessary learning experiences? I hope that the work I’m doing now will allow for greater success and for school leaders to have the necessary training, credentials, and skill set on day one.
TP: A decade later, do you recall what attracted you to the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship?
TB: I think the classroom is the center of education, but I also think that there are spheres of policy that educators — the people who are experiencing and doing the work — need to be a part of. Policy impacts schools, teachers, and students and so it shouldn’t just be dictated to teachers, but teachers need to have a voice in policy.
I’m grateful that Teach Plus existed at the time it did in my life. I went into my first meeting on the first day of the Chicago Teachers Union 2012 strike and Teach Plus was a place to learn where the intersections of politics and policy were with the work that I was doing daily in my classroom.
As I went through the application process, I think the thing that really made me want to be a Policy Fellow was community: I’m sitting among people who seem so intelligent, passionate, and who are thirsty for the same kind of stimulation as I am. And that was when I realized: This is something I really want to be involved in because the work can be really lonely. You’re the only adult in the classroom. And I was looking for community; educators who would help me feel less lonely in my work. And I absolutely got that.
TP: What has kept you involved with the Teach Plus Network?
TB: Whenever I am able to have touch points with Teach Plus, I feel nurtured in the same way I did when I applied. Being among people who really care about schools, kids, and education. Teach Plus has been a positive force to help me grow in my understanding of education policy and a context outside of my own. In any school I have worked in, the culture and traditions dictated the ways things were done, and my Teach Plus Fellowship and relationships over the years have allowed me to see things outside of that.
TP: Are there any lessons from your fellowship that you’ve carried with you through your work?
TB: Teach Plus is about giving teachers a voice and as a principal, and now as a district leader, I hope that I do that. Principals are really local policymakers — they make policy constantly. Whenever possible, I tried, as a principal, to engage teachers in that local policymaking. This is something that could be learned and replicated from Teach Plus: How do you promote teacher voice in decisions?
TP: You mentioned teachers leaving the field, and though that’s not your direct responsibility in this new role, how do you think we can increase teacher retention?
TB: I do think, indirectly, that I’ll have some sway in that because I think when you have strong school leaders, you can have greater teacher retention. I think I had strong relationships with the majority of teachers in my building. And sometimes that meant they didn’t agree with me or they didn’t know where we were going and they were willing to go there because I was asking them to. How can we make sure our leaders are trusted by the people they serve, and that teachers will want to work with them and alongside them?
In terms of the big picture, I think teacher retention requires societal changes and making sure that we, as a society, are valuing education, teachers, and the work of teaching.
TP: What advice would you give to aspiring or first-year teachers?
TB: As a principal, I was really invested in my early-career teachers. I made sure I was attending to them. I made sure my touch points with them were not always evaluative and I built relationships with them. I made sure they were in the New Teacher PLC. So even though I wasn’t doing the work, I was enabling the work.
The advice I would give someone pursuing this is that it has to be your passion. It has to be something that you are committed to. But once you become a teacher, my advice would be not to go it alone. And this brings us full circle back to Teach Plus: Seek out others, both like minded and non-like minded. Prioritize yourself and your own learning, meaning self-care and learning about the students in front of you. Because ultimately, I think when you do that, the work takes on a different level of reward.
Teaching is a calling that amazing people get and amazing people have and I’ve been impacted by people throughout my life who had that calling, and whose calling really impacted me. I can think of a teacher who truly saved my life when I was in high school and struggling with the things that teenagers struggle with. My algebra teacher saw this and was attentive to more than just my algebra.
TP: Your journey as an educator took you out of the classroom, but can you speak to how you think other teachers may be able to have leadership roles while staying in the classroom long term?
TB: I think a lot of teachers do that and do that successfully. I have so much respect for people who do it and I hope more people take on leadership because we need people who are really strong leaders to choose to stay in the classroom. My advice to them would be not to be afraid to experiment and to be as open and honest with their administrators. When you think about what good culture and climate are, it is when teachers have a voice, teachers have leadership, and teachers are contributing to the vision of the school.
Kathy Pierre is Communications and Media Manager at Teach Plus.