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Community Outreach with Dr. Tiawana Giles (Ep 57)

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Tiawana Giles is an award-winning Elementary School Principal in Richmond, Virginia. Tiawana has experience in Urban, Suburban and Rural areas. She has worked in schools with high poverty levels as well as very affluent schools and school districts. She has taught K-8 grade. She’s also a veteran of the U. S. Army! Dr. Giles believes in supporting our entire school community. Follow Tiawana on Twitter at @TiawanaG.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad. On today's episode, we have Dr. Tiawana Giles. Dr. Giles is an award-winning elementary school principal in Richmond, Virginia. Tiawana has experience in urban, suburban, and rural areas. She has worked in schools with high poverty levels as well as very affluent schools and school districts. She has taught kindergarten through eighth grade. She's also a veteran of the US Army. Dr. Giles believes in supporting our entire school community and this episode is all about the amazing community outreach that she does. Hope you enjoy the podcast.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, Tiawana. It is so good to have you on the podcast.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Hi, Nathan. How are you? Thank you for having me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: My day is so much better now that I get to talk to you and see you. We have been connected on social media for years and I can't believe this is the first time we're actually getting to have this conversation, so I am super honored to have you on the show.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Honored to be here. I hope I bring something to our folks, to our listeners, so I'm excited.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, my goodness. Oh, yeah, we know you will. As am I, I'm super excited. Tiawana, you are just such a beacon in the education world. Just in our conversation before we started recording here, you have so much expertise and wealth of knowledge, but what is so fascinating about you is your ability to communicate with people and bring people all on the same page. I know that as a principal in your school, you do so much work with the community and getting the community rallied behind you and the school, so thank you for your amazing work. I wanted to just give you all the praise and adoration for just what a wonderful job you do in that area, but I'd love to hear more about your work with how do you get the community involved in the way that you do.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Wow, that's interesting. I just think that the school should be the hub of the community. In order for the school to be the hub of the community, we got to go out. We have to, number one, welcome the community in, let them know what our work is, what we're trying to do, share our vision and our mission, and just partner with them. That's something that we do at Carver. At George Washington Carver, we definitely go out into the community. I attend all of our civic association meetings. I have the Carver Civic Association meeting. There's MAPS. They're not necessarily a part of my community, but they have adopted me, and so we're very excited to be a part of the work that they're doing. Then we have Historic Jackson Ward, and so definitely, when I say "we," I mean our school and our teachers, as well as our families. We go out, we do work with them. They do work with us and we just partner every time something needs to happen.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: If we have Read Across America, we reach out to that community. If we have something happening within the community, we're trying now, we want to do a race to raise funds for our scholars, that's who we reach out to. I'm so lucky to have such a great community. We have a foundation that was made up from the business community and it is just wonderful, so wonderful that, I think, right before COVID, we got very, very lucky. We had a fundraiser in January and we raised over $100,000 for things that we needed at our school to help our scholars achieve at a high level. That's what having a community that's willing to rally with you and wrap their arms around you, that's what happens. That happened one night within our community. Those are the pieces that we do and we stay in touch. We keep them informed through our written communication. We make sure that they understand and know all of the times that we try to reach out to our parents for family engagement, that that includes them.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Nathan, that's how we became part of Carver Nation, working with our business community, working with all of our communities that's around, including our faith-based community. We work with so many churches so closely together. They come out and volunteer. They work with our kids. We have a special group called Kiwanis of Richmond that comes into our building and read with our kids. They work with our kids. I actually joined the group. I was so impressed by the work that they do and how they wrap their arms around, not just Carver, but many of the schools in Richmond. I'm so pleased at the work that they do. We have a book club going. I just think that those things are important. When you're running a school, you really have to have a community mindset. That's what we do here at Carver and I just think it just shows in the work that we do and the family that we've built.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, my goodness. I'm amazed at just how embedded the community is in the day-to-day of your school. I'm curious, what do you think would not have been possible if you didn't have the community? Because I'm hearing all of that. I feel like your description is like the utopia, is like the exemplar for schools. I feel like schools achieve to get to where you are today. I would wonder, can you think of some examples of where your school wouldn't be today if you didn't have the kind of support that you have from the community?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: No, I would never think of that. I don't know any. I know that we will always have our community support and we love them.

Nathan Lang-Raad: [crosstalk 00:05:58].

Dr. Tiawana Giles: We love our Congress Civic Association and that's headed by the president, Jerome Legions. We love the work that he do. He pushes all of our good things out for us, so I send things out on social media, our teams send things out on social media, but so does the community. We have Janice Allen, who's the president of Historic Jackson Ward. She helps to send things out. We have Bob Rogers, who's with Kiwanis of Richmond. They help send things out. We have Bill Galosh, who was the president of the Monument Preservations Association that helps send things out within our community. Then we have all of our faith-based people, Steven Pore.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: We have so many folks that help us get our positive messages out that when we're doing things, we bring them in, "Hey, this is what we're doing this week. Come on in and help us. We're about to open up school again. Let's help get the word out. Can we go into the community and read to our scholars? Can we go out and make sure that our scholars are doing okay? Let's help us check in," and so I think those pieces are important. As I shared with you, I can't imagine not having that as part of the school community. For me, that's the most important thing that we do outside of teaching and learning is working with our community, and so you'll always hear me say, "Our school community," because that piece is so important. We just rely on them. We plan things together, we work together. I think that is a big part of our success as a school is how the community sees us and how they work with us. I think that piece is so important.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, it really is. You mentioned teaching and learning and I'm curious about where do you see the connection there to help students learn at a higher level so your teacher teams are collaborating, they are developing lessons or units together. I'm curious, how would a teacher in your school building have access to the community? Then how do you see that community access helping to enrich learning at a higher level?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Outstanding question. First thing, we have an open-door policy. Our open-door policy is truly an open-door policy. Community leaders, just the community at large will call or email me and say, "Hey, how can we help?" We put that out directly to our teachers. We have Billy McMullen, who comes in and read and work with our kids. He's even adopted a class. We have folks that just give us the things that we need, so we bring the community in. I often give them a tour to let them know, "Hey, I want to show you where we are. We call it the 'state of our school.' This is our school's reality. Here's what we need and here's why we need it. This is what my scholars need to be successful."

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Whether that is technology, whether that is some of the resources that you have, like we partner with VCU and Virginia Union, whether that's that resources that they're sharing with us to help us build our instructional program, we often want them to see what we're working with and how we're doing the work and meet with our teachers, and they often do that. We often, I push that down directly to our teachers so that they will have access and open it up: "If you would like to have visitors in your classroom, please let me know."

Dr. Tiawana Giles: As a result, Kiwanis, even while we're virtual, we still have community members coming in once a week to work with our kids. When I say "work with our kids," Nathan, I mean teach lessons. One of our Kiwanis members used to be a professor. Comes in, he works with the teachers, he plans with the teachers, and then he teaches the lessons. I just think it's amazing to hear my kids say, "Is Mr. Bob coming today?" because his lessons are so engaging. We just had one of our, who's not even our school board rep but is on our school board, reach out and say, "Hey, the community said how can they help," and so we asked them, "Can you videotape yourself reading a great book? Go ahead and introduce yourself, tell me what grade is for, and then we're going to play that for our kiddos so that you can definitely still be a part of it." We're always looking for opportunities to keep our community engaged, because for me, Nathan, for me, every time someone think of Richmond, I want them to think of George Washington Carver Elementary School.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, I guarantee they will now after listening to this podcast and hearing you share these amazing stories. I'm thinking about our goal is to help students become good citizens in our community. It's interesting to see when schools, or actually, kind of disappointing or disheartening to see when schools don't involve the community more. I know there's a lot of challenges sometimes and barriers that keeps schools from connecting with their community, but I'm even seeing the advantages in learning. For example, if a classroom, they are developing a unit and they want their students to present to certain members of the community, especially if the project is very connected to certain parts of the community, so I'm curious if you have any thoughts or anything that resonates with you about student projects that connect to certain parts of the community and the community almost served as an audience or is there as a support for the students?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Wow, that's interesting. We have not done anything like that, but we will. We are working on getting our project-based learning really growing off of year is thanks to our superintendent who is very, very supportive of us. He's given us about $100,000 to help build up our science program here at Carver.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Very cool.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: That's what we're focused in on and so I reached out to some of our community members to say, "Hey, we're going to do some hands-on science. We're going to do some PBL projects. We need your help. We want you to help lead this and also bringing your expertise," and so we are working together to craft that out, to see what that looks like in terms of a PBL project. That's what we're planning right now, and to me, that looks like what we want to be as a school. We have the support that we needed from our district level, we have the expertise of our teachers at the building level, and then we brought in our community to help really bring this alive for us and give our students an opportunity to present because we want them to have opportunities to lead and grow in that area. That's what we're working on. We don't have it yet, but we're definitely working on that, and so that's our plan as we open for the 2021-22 school year.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, the great part about it is you're already set up to have this amazing community response, so when the PBL kicks in, you're not going to have any problems finding people to help. I think it's fantastic. As a former administrator, I always was in search for, "How can we lower the teacher-student ratio? We need to have more adults in the classrooms," and it's so wonderful to hear how responsive students are at having more adults in the classroom.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Yes. That will really be aligned to our science program, our science curriculum that we have. We just want to really make sure that we're embedding opportunities for our communities to not only get involved, but to stay involved and feel valued, so we love having those opportunities.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful. Well, I'm ready to learn a little more about you and your views on different aspects, and so we are going to jump into our lightning round of questions, if you are ready.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Whoo!

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yay! Okay, so here we go. First question: If you were on a desert island, which three books would you have with you and why?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Wow. I love reading, so that's one of my past times, but I love all types of leadership books. Leaders of Their Own Learning is one of my favorite. I would say for every educator, you have to read it. I read it all the time. Leveraged Leadership has allowed me to grow a lot, it has given me some nice nuggets, as well as Get Better Faster. Those are three books that I read and I will be working with my staff with to continue to grow and get better, and so if I have downtime, I'm getting those nuggets and I'm just writing them down, so those are my three. Those are my three. It's all about education for me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love it. That's your passion. I think unapologetically you love leadership and education, so I think it's amazing. Wonderful. Okay, next question: How do you recharge?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Whoo-hoo! I love... Well, I didn't always. I'm a runner. I didn't always like it. I spent five years active duty in United States Army, and I started running, of course. That's part of what we do in the military and I just never left it and so that's how I unwind. I don't run as much as I used to, so sometimes there's a lot of walking involved, but that is where I start my day over. At the end of a stressful day, I can get some running in, and then when I can, I definitely go to the gym. Physical fitness is a huge part of it for me if I don't have a good book. That's a struggle right there, but definitely get the physical fitness in.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Well, thank you for your service. I think running is such a good mind-body connection, so it's great to hear that. Okay, what is the biggest challenge in education?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Wow. I would say funding, or a lack of funding. That is a passion of mine. I feel that we have to really fund our schools and we have to engage educators to be a part of what it looks like, what funding looks like for every school district, and then break it down to every school because just because we're in the same district and we may have the same amount of kids does not mean we should all get the same thing. Give schools what they need. In order to know what schools need, we have to talk to school leaders.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Nice.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I think that that is very, very important, and I think that's a challenge that we face every day is funding, lack of funding, and so we have to be fiscal-responsible, of course, but our schools should be fully funded. When I say "fully funded," I want folks to know it looks very different for every school. We need to give schools what they need and what it takes to educate kids. I think being in this pandemic and having schools close, my hope is that it has opened a lot of eyes to let people know that it takes money to run a school and to educate our kids and give them what they need to be ready, to be career-ready. That is important, so I would say funding is a huge challenge.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Right on. You're so right. Additionally, I think a lot of parents, if they didn't know before, they definitely know the challenges of what it takes and the level of skill that it requires to teach, and so hopefully more and more people will see the value that funding has in our schools and how much we need more funding.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Yes. That's why we have these classrooms are bursting with so many kids because we don't want to put the money in it. We have to fund schools so that our classrooms are smaller so we're employing great teachers and we're paying them well, we have the right resources in place. All of those things are important in order for us to build a world-class school system in the United States, so for me, it's all about funding.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yep. Right you are. Okay, what subject did you love in school?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Reading. Reading, reading, reading. I remember as a third-grader, I had a third-grade teacher, Miss Culpepper. I remember reading. I remember reading comprehension so well. I remember going to the grocery store and always wanting to pull out the Reader's Digest while we walked around the grocery store. Those pieces are important and I still love reading today and I think that's why I have my Master's as a reading specialist and served in that capacity. I love it. I think that's so important.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful. I was going to ask you, are you a fiction reader, a non-fiction reader? This isn't one of the questions, but I just thought of that as you were talking.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I am such a junkie. I used to read all kinds, everything, everything, but at this point, I only read leadership books because I want to grow so much in that capacity and I don't have a whole lot of free time, so I read a lot of leadership books to continue to grow from all industries, so I read from the business industry, from the medical industry, because I think the nuggets that you take away are so important, and I love hearing other folks' stories, so I do a lot of that type of reading.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Excellent. All right, who was your favorite teacher and why?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Oh, I think I mentioned it. I cheated. Miss Culpepper, my third-grade teacher. Still love her.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Miss Culpepper, she's a hero.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Because she just gave me that confidence. Just hearing someone that you look up to say, "You're a great reader, you're doing great," it means a lot. Here at my age, it's still Miss Culpepper, my third-grade teacher. I'll never forget her because she made me think differently about myself as a reader.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. It's so interesting how we don't ever say, "Well, I love this project we did in this closet," it's always about how that teacher made us feel. It was something that they saw in us that they helped to support and encourage and empower and so I love that it was Miss Culpepper for you in third-grade reading. All right, what did you want to be when you were growing up?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: That's a funny question.

Nathan Lang-Raad: [crosstalk 00:20:05].

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I think initially, of course, when you're little, you think you just want to make a whole lot of money, but I met Miss Culpepper and things changed. I wanted to be a teacher and so that had been my focus forever. I've always wanted to be a teacher. I think teaching is great. It's hard for me when I meet young kids not to push them into teaching. I'm saying, "Hey, have you ever thought about teaching? It's a great profession," and so I love teaching. I love working with our community and I've worked in many communities. I've taught in Maryland, I've taught in three or four districts in Virginia, and I just love it. That's has always been my passion and I just wanted to be a teacher.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's very evident it's your passion. Keep spreading that to others because we need more teachers, so thank you for that. All right, who had the biggest impact on who you have become?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Growing up in my professional world, there's a lot of mentors, and they're all very special and really, really important and they all play a significant role. Everybody plays a different role, but I would say my dad. My dad, he's so funny. I've learned a lot from him and I hope he's learned a lot from me as well, so I would say my dad.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I'm sure, yeah.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: My mom is wonderful. She's special. I love her, too, but definitely my dad.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's wonderful. What a gift. What's the most positive change that you've noticed in education?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I love the fact that we're talking about race in education. I love that we're talking about equity in education. I know that we're just hitting the surface, but that is a change that we weren't having before. Maybe even five years ago, we weren't having this conversation, and so I love that it's okay to talk about race, and of course, in a respectful way and recognize that everyone is still not comfortable talking about it. I think that piece is important as well. But that is a huge positive, to me, change in education is now we're talking about race and inequalities around education.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Because it's such a compelling answer and such a good, thought-provoking response to that question, I'd like to ask a follow-up: Do you feel that your conversations with your community are also focused around race and equity and social justice?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Again, I love my community and I think they know that I love them and I trust them. We often have heart-to-heart conversations and we could do that because in my three years of being here, we have those conversations, what it looks like for my kids and why it's different for the population that we serve. We do and we're very honest with each other and it's great seeing them from different lenses, because some of the community members that work with Carver are very affluent and they have never seen it from a different perspective, and so it's great allowing them to see it from a different perspective, what it looks like, what I call "on the ground," and it's also great for us to see it in a different lens from what it looked like from their perspective. We continue to grow and learn together. We don't always agree and that's the beauty of our relationships. We don't always agree, but we respectfully listen and dialogue together. I think that's what makes our community so special, so very special.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Okay, what's the worst advice you've received?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I think for me, it's, "Why do you want to be an educator or be a teacher because they don't make any money?" I still hear that today and so it just makes me sad. I often say I never looked at it like that when I decided to become a teacher. I look at the work and I love the work that we do and how we do this work and the people we meet along the way and so I always say to young folks now: "Follow your passions. Don't worry about anything else. Everything else will come. Make sure it's something that you enjoy and that you are truly passionate about it."

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, absolutely. Great advice. Okay, last question: What's the best advice you've received?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Work hard. Always work hard. That is something that I live by today: Work hard. I always say I'm probably not the smartest, not the best, not the best-looking, but I'm probably going to be one of the hardest-working people you meet, and so I just believe in working hard.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I can definitely, I can see that. It's so evident. Your passion is so evident and I'm just so inspired by being connected with you. Thank you for giving us insight into Tiawana and how you lead and how you see the world.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Thank you for allowing me to share. This is so amazing and this is a great opportunity. If I may, I'll just say that I think it's so important to hear from different folks and hear everyone's voice. It's just an honor to be here as an African-American, as a principal, and as a woman here on this podcast. I think it's so important that we definitely have diversity in the work that we do and so thank you so much for having me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, my goodness. The pleasure and honor is completely mine, so you are way too kind. Thank you. I know our listeners are going to want to continue to follow the amazing work you're doing. How can they find you on Twitter or any other place you are located on social media?

Dr. Tiawana Giles: I love Twitter. I think Twitter is great. My Twitter, I think I'm T-I-A-W-A-N-A-G, @T-I-A-W-A-N-A-G. Please follow me, reach out. I love to connect on Twitter. Again, I'm passionate about the work we do in education. I love working with our kiddos. Whatever your role is, I would love to know more and learn more. For me, it's all about Twitter.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: That's my favorite, of course. I'm also on LinkedIn, same one, and so I put stuff out on LinkedIn as well.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Fantastic. Tiawana, thanks again for your time today. This has been wonderful.

Dr. Tiawana Giles: Thank you.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our second annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit July 20th to the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social-emotional learning, and blended learning. This summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information, visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. I hope to see you there.