EPL Highlights Faculty Spotlight: Tiffany Miller

Tell me your story after you left AU grad school?
I did not go straight from my undergrad to my grad studies. I have always thought that taking a break is a good option to make sure that your master’s degree is something you really want to do in the future. 

I got a Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) degree at AU. I was exposed to research, evaluation, and statistics in the courses I took during my program and had no idea that I would enjoy that as much as I did. I believe that one of the great things about AU in general is that you have the opportunity to talk to and learn from different people and be exposed to different career paths that you would not be exposed to otherwise.

Going in a direction that I did not expect to go into, I took a job at a research and evaluation firm in DC after graduation. I worked in research and evaluation for eight years. Then, I entered the policy world and have worked there ever since. 

Describe your current job.
I am the Vice President of Policy for Communities In Schools (CIS). My job can be divided into two buckets: federal advocacy and legislation and state-level advocacy and legislation. This job meets all of my different interests. The combination of having my degree and my experience in research, evaluation, and politics has made being the Vice President of Communities in Schools my dream job. It combines all of those experiences.

How does your AU degree help you in your current role?
If it had not been for all those previous experiences I had before this job, including the master’s program at AU,  I would not have been able to take this role. The skills I developed in research and evaluation have helped me contribute to education in a substantial way. 

What motivates you as a professional?
What gets me up everyday is wanting to show my best self for the students and families I advocate for: Black and Brown students and students in poverty. I want to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have the same opportunities. I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had but  feel that I do not have the luxury to be tired. Especially given where we are in this country with respect to systemic racism. 

What do you remember most about your time as an AU student?
Getting to know different people and learn more about their careers, their interests and goals. When you are in an intense program, you develop a bond with your cohort. It is a good model to go after for a graduate degree if you are also working, because even though it was part time, you build strong relationships with your classmates. I continue to be in contact with some of the people I met in the program. 

What do you enjoy about teaching EPL students now?
Spring 2020 was my first time teaching and I loved it. It has been incredible and challenging at the same time. I feel it has helped me grow personally and professionally. I am excited to pick things up this Fall.

One of the things that was really important to me teaching the Education and Public Policy course is that I took it as a graduate student at AU, so I had an opportunity to put a spin on it and to bring my everyday experiences as the Vice President of Communities in Schools to my students. My biggest hope is that students apply what they learn in class in their real lives.

How are you helping to transform societies, as the SOE mission guides us?
I hope to push students to think differently about education policy and grapple some of the challenges education faces. I believe we have to be honest that there are opportunity gaps in education. We have to talk about poverty and race. So I hope to be bringing a lot of that thinking into class and to help students think beyond what they read in their textbooks.

If you could go back and tell yourself anything (advice), in grad school, what would it be?
I would tell myself to be open to any opportunity, to take it and lean into it. Do not be so quick to turn something down because it does not sound like a good opportunity. When I finished graduate school, I was hesitant to do that, but then I learned that it is very important to try different things, especially when you are early in your career.

Also, to lean on your professors. One of the great things about AU is that professors are well connected, they can give you a lot of advice and connect you to folks in the field. It is important for students to tap into their professors as a first step to build their professional network.

Anything else you would like to share with EPL students?
It is an incredible time to be in this program and to be able to take on so many real time challenges happening in education right now, like the pandemic and systemic racism, and being able to apply them to the classroom. We all know it is a challenging time to be in school, but try to embrace and think about how you can tackle these issues. Do not be afraid to bring these issues into class and make your professors address them.

Past EPL Highlights

Tell me your story after you left AU?
I have two degrees from AU. I received my undergrad in Public Communication with a Minor in Sociology and then got a Masters in Teaching.

After my undergraduate studies I worked in public relations and event planning for seven years. During that time I also volunteered in a tutoring program with elementary school girls. I actually liked that more than my day job, so I decided to transition into education.

I enrolled in the DC Teaching Fellows, which is an alternative teaching certification program specifically for DC. I taught at the same time as I did my MAT at AU. While I was only required to take enough courses to obtain a teaching certificate, I decided to complete my master’s.. Through the program, I taught first grade in DC Public Schools for two years before joining the founding faculty at a new charter school where I taught 4th grade ELA and Social Studies.

After a few years of teaching, I wanted to have more impact beyond the classroom. I started working with the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federally funded program to allow DC families experiencing high poverty to afford school. My role was to recruit families, help them in the process of accessing the scholarship funds, and ensure schools managed their federal funds appropriately. . We also worked with schools in providing wrap around services like transportation, tutoring, and summer intensive programs by partnering with other community organizations. 

After that I took a position in New Leaders for New Schools, which is a non-profit organization primarily focused on recruiting and placing and training principals in urban public schools. I managed the admissions process. This was my first official job on talent (recruitment and selection, leadership development, and organizational culture for retaining professionals).

Then I went back to DC Prep’s home office as Chief Talent Officer and ran recruitment for over six years. I was responsible for recruiting students and families for schools as well as recruiting staff and leadership. I worked closely with the academic team for professional and organizational development. My work at DC Prep as Chief Talent Officer expanded to include strategic planning and implementation.

Describe your current job.
Almost exactly 7 years ago I left my role at DC Prep and was ready to do something new. I became an independent consultant, even though I did not consider doing so before. 

I am currently working at the intersection of talent and equity. I initially started with recruitment for other organizations, but have expanded to center equity and support schools and other social sector organizations to foster inclusive workplaces. 

About 80% of the projects I work on are related to education, but I also work with the broader social sector. I want to help schools and nonprofits operationalize their mission and values tied to equity and inclusion. I work to equip adults in cultural competency and cultural humility in order to redesign organizations for equity. 

A big piece of my work is helping organizations create the conditions to successfully recruit, retain and develop Black and Latinx staff, especially in leadership roles.People sometimes assume that if you are Black or Brown you cannot lead or that your ideas are not strong enough, so I work on unpacking those biases through mind and narrative shifting. I focus on helping organizations find the assets and benefits that a person of color can bring.

This summer has been interesting with the protests and organizations putting up “Black Lives Matter” statements, but not putting action behind their words. So I have been working on coaching leaders of organizations around those topics so they actually do what they preach.

How does your AU degree help you in your current role?
When I was completing my master’s degree I thought that I would teach forever - and I did not. However, I came to understand the structure of schools and education in a different way. 

Even though many things have changed, like the Common Core, the foundational pieces of how education works (state-driven, federal role, etc.), as well as what it takes to teach a certain subject, are still the same. At AU, I also received a good foundation in special education; how to meet students where they are to get them where they need to be; how differentiated instruction should look. I am not directly doing this now, but I am able to think about educators’ and school leaders’ experiences and perspectives.

Also, getting a chance to understand organizational culture is important in order to make schools successful. My AU experience helped me understand what a successful school looks like, and about the role of professional development. 

I am not an expert on any of this, but AU also helped me understand restorative justice and abolitionist teaching, which adds to my credibility.

I think that, in general, my AU experience has kept me curious no matter where I worked. 

What motivates you as a professional?
I have seen the achievement gap. At one side of the spectrum, I worked with private schools, where I met the most advantaged students; and at the other end of the spectrum I met the most disadvantaged students.

When I first went into education, I thought that the problem came from teachers, but then I realized that they were not the problem, they were great educators. I probably learned the most from teachers in the practical side. However, I came to understand that issues of race,equity, and socioeconomic status are what create the education problems seen in DC. 

Being a predominantly Black and federal city, there are a lot of experimental programs that targeted low-income families, but did not make a sustainable change. When I started getting involved with charter schools, I saw how education reforms came in and did things to communities, instead of doing things with them. Additionally, the impact of many programs didn’t pass K-12, as these students went into predominantly white institutions of higher education where the social experience was so different that it was impossible for them to handle course work. 

At this point, I think more about equity, inclusion, liberation, and justice than ever before. I am determined to work with adults while keeping students in the center of what I do, never looking at things from the deficit perspective. 

What do you remember most about your time as an AU student?
My master’s program at AU was interesting because we rarely had classes on campus, most of the classes were held in DCPS buildings. So it was not traditional at all. 

I was a first-year teacher and part-time student at the same time, so I had a lot to handle. I believe that as a professor you have to remember that each student brings their own joys and struggles to class. While some professors excelled at understanding their students, others did not. I built strong relationships with other teachers in the program that were in a similar situation to me.

After my experience as a teacher, I now understand that educators are not robots, but human beings that also have joys and struggles. I have learned the importance of finding a balance between your own feelings and nurturing students, which I believe is the humanistic side of teaching. 

What do you enjoy about teaching EPL students now?
Comparing my time now as a professor to my time as a student at SOE, I notice important shifts in terms of equity, particularly this summer. SOE is now more focused on equity and antiracism, something that they danced around when I was a student. I appreciate the thoughtfulness that faculty are having around these issues. I also see conversations around these issues beyond SOE, across AU. 

But how does that translate into schools, students and their families? I work on helping students find how to embed equity in their projects by including all stakeholders, being antiracist and equitable, and not just saying it. 

How are you helping to transform societies, as the SOE mission guides us?
I always ask myself: “What will my legacy be and am I doing enough to push that legacy?”

One of the big reasons why I got into education is because it is such a game changer for people. I have worked at the individual and broader level of education. At all the different levels that I have been involved in, I feel I have transformed education because I have helped make them work for communities. 

In my career as a teacher, I felt it was important to talk about data and test scores, but also that it was more important to give students an understanding of community, a love for learning in different ways, and an ability to think critically. 

Also, I find it essential to accept different perspectives. I wish that there was more of this in the world right now. Understanding what other people’s experience might be and that it is okay to think differently. 

Lastly, move away from being a savior and looking from a deficit perspective to finding the way people’s skills complement one another. I think of myself as a great connector. I am responsive to thinking about who should know each other. I get people to work together and get a chance to really use different skill sets. I believe in creating a sense of belonging and worthiness for individuals. 

If you could go back and tell yourself anything (advice), in grad school, what would it be?
One, it was a certainly stressful experience, teaching all day and keeping up with a rigorous graduate program. So I would tell myself to strive for balance and allow myself some mistakes. 

Second, around equity, I would tell my graduate student self that while education is an important lever to transform society, there are other intersectional issues, like housing, security, health, and wealth. It does not mean to not worry about education, but thinking about the many other contributing factors. I wish to have understood that better at that time.

In a lot of ways AU is a great place for that, because there are many departments that overlap to transform society. I did not take enough advantage of that while being a graduate student. I focused too much on the teaching perspective. And that is what I enjoy from the EPL program; the intersection between policy and practice.

One of the distinguishing features of the Education Policy and Leadership program is the Proseminar course. Our extraordinary students utilize the skills and knowledge they have learned from their previous coursework – developing a research question, collecting and analyzing data and sources, critiquing and creating education policies, and pulling from real-world experiences – in order to make a meaningful contribution to an education organization seeking to create positive change for students.

Through this “capstone” course, all graduates develop the skill to provide effective leadership through collaboration, professionalism, management, and equitable practices.

AU is fortunate to work with incredible partners representing diverse perspectives.

TeachPlus, an organization that works with teacher leaders to develop and promote the policies teachers identify as most important, had students work with teams of teacher leaders in three states to create support for local policies around recruiting, supporting, and retaining teachers of color, clinical experiences for teacher training, and standards and qualifications of early childhood education teacher preparation programs.

A team working with the US Department of Education interviewed grantees about their two-generation approaches. Students used their research skills to analyze the interview data that will be used in a future federal report.

The Opportunity Institute, an equity-focused organization created out of President Obama’s National Commission on Education Equity and Excellence, asked students to review school discipline disparities, practices, and policies, and make policy recommendations in three states.

Students working with America’s Promise, first led by Gen. Colin L. Powell and then his wife, Alma, developed a strategy for the launch of a governor’s council where these policymakers would be asked to demonstrate their commitment to youth.

Students working with AASA, the Superintendents Association, developed a literature review on the mental health of students in grades 7 – 12.

Proseminar projects lead to real educational change and help EPL students gain real world experiences they can use throughout their careers.

According to Kayla Jackson, a Project Director at AASA,

The work that was done by the AU students has been foundational to AASA as we look towards expanding our mental health portfolio in the coming year. The literature review provides the kind of information that we need, but don’t have the time or bandwidth to research as we work on multiple initiatives. It was a joy to work with the AU students. They were always professional, always engaged and engaging. They shared how the research was informing their current practice in school and understood the importance of further work on mental health and school-aged students.

AU adds new partners each semester, as more well-prepared and capable students work to create real change, and fulfil our mission to create knowledge and prepare students to transform societies through education.

During the last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari to address two high-profile issues that could have a lasting effect on elementary and secondary schools. Even if the Court fails to add other education-law cases to its docket, the 2019-20 term could end up being remembered as one of the most consequential Supreme Court terms for schools in years.

Bostock v. Clayton County and R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
This first set of cases does not specifically involve schools but will likely have a significant effect on how schools protect LGBTQ+ students under federal civil rights laws. On April 22, 2019, the Court granted cert in Bostock v. Clayton County (consolidated with Altitude Express v. Zarda) and R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These cases focus on whether employee discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are included under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bostock and R.G. & R.G. Harris Funeral Homes both involve claims of employment discrimination. In Bostock, a child-welfare services coordinator, who is gay, alleges that he was fired because his fellow employees found out he participated in a gay softball league. The plaintiff in R.G. & R.G. Harris Funeral Homes is a funeral-home employee, who is a transgender woman. She would not comply with her employer’s demand that she wear male attire while at work and claims she was fired because she is transgender.

The Court’s decisions here are relevant for schools because the Court’s interpretation of “sex” under Title VII will likely inform the Court’s interpretation of Title IX, which covers discrimination based on sex in schools. For this reason, the decisions could have implications for whether Title IX protects students who are discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. That outcome, in turn, might also effect what bathrooms transgender students can use and on which sports teams transgender students can compete.

The Court heard oral arguments on October 8, 2019. An interesting note on the oral arguments: The petitioner’s counsel in Bostock was Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan, one of the four constitutional scholars who recently testified on impeachment in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Decisions in these cases are expected near the end of the term in May or June.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
The second case addresses church-state separation and might determine, to a large extent, if public funds can – or even must – be used for religious schools if they are used for secular schools. On June 28, 2019, the Court grated cert to Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The case involves a Montana law that provides a tax credit for those donating to a scholarship program for students. Citing the no-aid provision in the Montana constitution that prevents “direct or indirect” funding of religious programs, the Montana Department of Revenue prohibited the scholarships from being used at religious schools. The petitioners, including Kendra Espinoza, sued because they were not allowed to use the scholarships to keep their children in Stillwater Christian School.

In this case, the Court is considering whether a state’s decision to prevent a scholarship program from being used for religious schools, based on the state constitution’s “no-aid” clause, violates the religion clauses and the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. constitution. Thirty-seven state constitutions have no-aid provisions, which prevent state funds from being used for religious purposes.

This Court’s decision will likely have wide-ranging implications for school-voucher programs and other programs that permit public funds to be used for students in religious private schools. Although the Supreme Court previously ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the Establishment Clause does not forbid the use of school vouchers for religious schools, many state courts have rejected voucher programs because they violate the no-aid clauses in their state constitutions. If the Supreme Court holds that the education laws funding secular, but not non-secular, programs violate either the First Amendment’s religion clauses or the Equal-Protection Clause, then it is likely that more religious schools will be eligible for school choice programs, like vouchers and tax credits for scholarship donations.

Oral arguments in the Espinoza case are set for January 22, 2020. Sounds like a field trip to me!

Jason Snyder is a Full Time Senior Professorial Lecturer in the M.Ed Education Policy & Leadership Program at American University School of Education. He received his JD from the University of California Berkeley, School of Law. His area of expertise is in education policy, education law, school improvement, and teacher leadership. To read more about Jason Snyder’s background, please visit his profile here.

Okay. You are settled into your graduate school program. You have met your professors. You have your syllabus. You bought your books and maybe you have even started reading them. You have mapped out your assignments on your calendar. You have done all the stuff that makes you a successful student. Only here’s the thing, that is not how you should be thinking of yourself at this point. 

Instead, you should be thinking about yourself as an education professional. 

You aren’t in this program just to get good grades or to get to type a few extra letters after your name. You are in this program because you have a specific interest in education and because you want to make a difference. Unfortunately, if you just do the stuff that has historically made you a successful student, you are missing out on the chance to have a big impact.

So, on top of all that stuff that you already do as a good student, I have one more assignment for you – and it is likely the most important assignment that you will work on throughout your grad school career. You have to get to know as many people as possible in your field. 

Wait, don’t stop reading! I know, I know. I hear you. It is painful. You probably have a full-time job. You might be an introvert. You feel awkward talking to people. You don’t really have the time. You don’t know what to say. I get all of that. 

And yet I insist that the most important thing that you can do for yourself while you are in graduate school – the thing that you can do that will provide you the greatest likelihood of making a real difference in the world, and the thing that is most likely to land the job that you are passionate about -- is talking to people.

When I say “people” I really do mean a wide variety of people. If you don’t sit down with your professors at some point doing the semester to talk about your interests and ambitions, you are missing an opportunity. If you don’t find at least one classmate who you get to know because she has an interesting perspective, you are missing out. If you have guest speakers in your class who talk about topics you care about and you don’t follow up with them, you are not getting the full experience of graduate school. If you finish your ProSem and you never talk to your client enough to learn about their work, you are missing the point of the project. In short, you should look for every possible opportunity to connect with people who care about the same stuff as you. In a word, you should network. 

Networking is important, and networking is hard. The key is to figure out what you can do to make the painful process of networking more palatable for you. There are thousands of solutions to this problem. Here are my seven bits of advice.

  1. Talk to a professor. Right now, pick one professor in the program and email him or her to ask to have a conversation. Pick a topic that is important to you and that you think that professor can help you with (e.g. “I love working in the classroom, but want to broaden my policy influence”, “I want to start to explore school leadership positions, but don’t know how to move forward”, “I’m curious about what it is like working at different policy levels from the district level to the federal level”). Spend 20 minutes thinking through the topic ahead of time. Look at your professor’s bio and LinkedIn page so you know about his or her experience. Make a list of questions that convey your interest and show you are prepared. There, you accomplished your first networking task.
  2. Follow up with one guest speaker. Lots of professors bring lots of guest speakers to class. DC is the perfect place to do this. The city is full of folks who have deep expertise, and who care about the next generation of people working in the field. Decide right now that you are going to follow up with at least one guest speaker this semester. 
  3. Expand your list. Every time you talk to someone, you have the opportunity to expand your network. Ask who else you should talk to. Ask for introductions. Follow up with the people you are introduced to.
  4. Meet someone prominent. There are scores of prominent education people – from writers to district leaders – and most of them will want to engage with you. Over the course of this semester make a list of ten or more folks who are prominent and who are interesting to you. Find a way to introduce yourself to at least one of these people. It might not lead to much beyond a phone conversation, but it is excellent practice.
  5. Have reasonable expectations. It is unlikely that your networking conversations are going to lead to a job. Keep in mind that your aim is to build a network that will help support you throughout your career, not to get a job offer right away. That is why you should start now. You want to network when you are not stressed about getting your next paycheck, not when you are desperate to find a job.
  6. Don’t forget that you belong. You are every bit as smart and talented as anyone else in the education policy world. Your experience is unique, and it qualifies you to thoughtfully engage with anyone. You should, of course, conduct yourself with humility, but you should not be meek or intimidated. Our children are going to be better off if your voice is part of the conversation.
  7. Be incredibly thoughtful. While you are following all this other advice, remember this as well: the people who are helping you are spending time, energy, and their own capital to support you. They are happy to do it, but that will change quickly if you do not demonstrate respect. The people who offer up introductions for you are staking their reputations on you. That is not a small sacrifice. If you are introduced to someone, you have to follow up. If you schedule a meeting, you have to show up on time and you have to be engaged. 

Whether you are just starting your grad school career or you are on the home stretch, now is exactly the right time to build your network.

Pete Weber is an independent consultant, focusing on strategic planning and organizational development. His clients include school districts, charter schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations. Pete earned a bachelor’s degree in English and history from the University of Iowa and a Master’s in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

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