There’s this cool thing that sometimes happens when a person gets to know Bellwether as a client or intern and then decides to work here. One shining example is Kirsten Schmitz, an analyst on our Policy and Thought Leadership team who started as a short-term fellow after finishing graduate school. Kirsten got a taste of the Bellwether magic and decided to come back!
Since joining us full-time in 2016, Kirsten has written about inequitable teacher pensions, done live coverage of election issues at the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, blogged about gender and language barriers, and much more. She brings her journalism chops and teaching experience to the team and always keeps kids in mind as the ultimate mission of her work. Read our short conversation below, where we talk about Kirsten’s journey to Bellwether, her love of the classroom, and why we need to keep examining gender parity for teachers.
Tell me a little about your education trajectory — both your own schooling and how you got involved in teaching and education policy.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs — Mundelein if you want to get really technical — and was lucky enough to attend strong public and private schools in my community. I studied journalism at the University of Missouri and to this day am still a big news nerd. A large part of my interest in journalism was rooted in social justice, and I still feel the two are closely related. To me, journalism was a means of amplifying the voices and stories of those who had been historically silenced.
I was drawn to Teach For America’s mission early in my undergraduate career, and the organization was my original point of entry to the education equity space. As a 2012 corps member, I taught sixth grade English in Irving, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Being “Miss S” was the greatest privilege of my life, and I miss the classroom fiercely. My students are talented, kind, hilarious, and strong. As you can imagine, leaving was incredibly difficult. Many factors went into my decision to pursue policy, but ultimately, I was eager to find a space that married my journalism background in writing and research with meaningful outcomes for my students and others. Education policy was that intersection for me.
How did you hear about Bellwether? What attracted you to working here?
I started at Bellwether as a summer fellow. I had just finished my master’s in education policy and was assigned to research teacher pensions with Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan. Pensions were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic I knew very little about. That said, I’m nothing if not curious, and Chad and Leslie were generous and supportive with their time and knowledge. By the time my fellowship was complete, I had built up shallow but substantial expertise. More importantly, I had gotten a taste of the Bellwether magic.
No organization is perfect, but Bellwether attracts smart, driven, and thoughtful people. This place is a bit of a talent magnet, and I wanted to soak up as much as I could. After my fellowship, I spent a year working at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and then made my way back to Bellwether in the summer of 2016. I don’t always agree with my colleagues, but I admire them all the same. Honestly, I think that’s more important.
Leaving the classroom gutted me. I do think I’ll go back at some point, but until then, Bellwether’s flexible hours allow me to get as close as I can to students, teachers, and communities. I appreciate Bellwether for many reasons, but a work environment that allows me to volunteer (I coach with Girls on the Run and teach at Washington English Center) during typical office hours is invaluable.
You bring a gender lens to your work on our Teacher Pensions team. With the majority of the teaching profession being women, it might seem like a redundant focus. Why do you find it important to look through an explicit gender lens?
I’m actually working on a paper examining gender inequities and how they manifest in teacher retirement systems, and it was important to me to have another female researcher read a draft of my report. But when I pulled up an informal list of researchers in the teacher pensions space to seek out guidance, the overwhelming majority were male. It was disheartening, and it gave me real pause. We know the majority of the teaching profession, 76%, is female. Why is it that the vast majority of people researching their retirement system are male?
At face value, it can feel really redundant to examine gender in education. But I think it’s just the opposite. If we want to examine topics like teacher recruitment, teacher pay, teacher turnover, etc., we are remiss not to consider what it means to be a woman in our larger workforce, and how those dynamics play out in a field dominated in number by females, though still led by men. Here, it’s especially important to consider the intersection of race and gender, too.
What’s an education success story you’re proud of right now?
I’m most proud of my students, whether that’s my original sixth graders from August 2012, my Girls on the Run team who just wrapped their season with a 5k and a service project, or the adult learners who come to night classes at Washington English Center eager to learn even after a full work day.
I was lucky enough to be back in Irving, Texas last week, and I set up coffee dates with a few of my former students. I met Litzy when she was a sixth grader, one who willingly came in on Saturdays to bring up her reading level. Nothing is more powerful than hearing the eleven-year-old you tackled The Outsiders with talk about where she wants to apply to college next year. It gives me goosebumps. I’m proud of the work we do at Bellwether, of course, but listening to Litzy is next level.
Education policy work isn’t always flashy. In fact, I would argue that it’s very rarely flashy. If you’re in this space, it’s because you truly care about positive outcomes for all kids, but especially those who have been historically underserved. I’m here because our current system is objectively inequitable, and I want to do everything I can to change that.