Profiles in Leadership:

Robin Reagler Executive Director of WITS

WITS executive director Robin Reagler Photo courtesy of WITS.
WITS executive director Robin Reagler
Photo courtesy of WITS.

The University of Houston is celebrating its Homecoming this November, and Center for Arts Leadership at University of Houston director Sixto Wagan sat down to highlight Robin Reagler, a UH alum who is shaping future leaders locally and across the country as the Executive Director of Writers in the Schools (WITS) in Houston, TX and the head of the WITS Alliance, a national consortium of over 30 literary education groups.

Each year WITS serves 28,000 students in K-12 with long-term literary programs locally, and through the Alliance, she consults with writers starting new programs in the US and Canada.  Robin earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her poems have been published in Ploughshares, North American Review, American Letters & Commentary, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, and VOLT, and her chapbook Dear Red Airplane appeared in 2011.

What enticed you to begin working with Writers in the Schools (WITS)?

At WITS, I began as a writer. I had been a high school teacher, and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When I started at UH as a graduate student; it seemed like a natural fit to be working at WITS as a writer. I thought to myself, this is like getting to eat to dessert and skipping dinner because I could teach in schools, but I didn’t have to attend faculty meetings or fill out bureaucratic forms.

How did you transition to the management side of things?

I don’t know at what point I thought of myself as an administrator, but as [WITS] grew, Victoria Jones, our founding director, began handing off things to me that she could no longer do. I got to work with teachers, lead planning meetings, and observe other writers.

At the point when I graduated with my PhD, I had the opportunity to teach in small colleges in the middle of nowhere, or work with WITS in this vibrant, inner-city project. Where kids were getting a chance to work with writers, and I could see how it changed their lives.

My last year at UH, I worked with every 6th grader at Grady Middle School.  Grady is located between an immigrant housing complex, [the upscale neighborhood of] Tanglewood, and a middle-class neighborhood.  Basically I met a cross-section of Houston, and I saw how WITS affected all these kids with different issues. Some of them had two boats and three cars, others had only 3 months in this country.  Everybody who was Houston was in the sixth grade.  I saw how WITS affected people in a positive way, and I wanted to make it possible for more students to experience this.

WITS young writer in action Photo by Alyssa Stephens.
WITS young writer in action
Photo by Alyssa Stephens.

Where did you acquire your skills as an administrator?

I grew up in a family business; we had a general store in a small town in Arkansas.  My parents would discuss personnel issues at dinner, and I learned how to work a cash register when I was 8.  When I ended up in an administrative position, I drew upon that experience constantly.

It is an interesting coincidence that [WITS Associate Director] Long [Chu] grew up in a family business too.  At WITS we share the idea that a non-profit is a hybrid of a charity and a business.

WITS has trained many writers to be effective in a classroom, is that a natural extension of the creative writing practice?

Our model works on the assumption that everyone has a story to tell, and writers can teach their craft. Students become writers through WITS. That idea comes from WITS founder Marv Hoffman who was a director of Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City.

We ask people in our interviews, how is it that your creative process can be a model for classroom teaching.  In other words, the writing process itself becomes the flow of each class.  The way a writer would brainstorm, do research, interview people, before writing… that can become the structure of a workshop.  The way that real writers do their editing, revision, or collaboration with other writers, all of those things are built in to the WITS teaching model.

All of the WITS writers are practicing writers; that is a requirement. We’re helping them understand their own creative process and share that with teachers and students.

How does WITS support a national network?

Teachers and Writers helped WITS get started in Houston 30 years ago. Now there are many different sister organizations in the US, UK, and Canada. As all of the organizations have evolved, we have developed specialties.  Teachers and Writers focused on publishing, and WITS has organized a national network. We reach out to people who are doing this work and see how we can support them, in the same way that T&W supported our organization in the 1980s.  It’s grown.  It’s a movement that has taken off.  There were only four or five organizations like us in the country when we started doing this, and now there are over 30.

Part of that proliferation is due to the proliferation of college MFA programs in Creative Writing. WITS is a great teaching opportunity for MFA graduates because of the training they receive.  It’s an equally amazing opportunity for K-12 students. The WITS writers are some of the most amazing teachers in the country; placing them in public school classrooms to work with kids serves both sides, providing the writers a chance to serve the community, paying them well and giving them teaching experience, and the kids ultimately benefit.

wits2Why was a national network important to WITS?

WITS had started doing this before I got involved. When I took over at WITS, I discovered that our “big sister” relationship to other groups fit us, culturally, and we secured grant money so that we could help them out. Because we’re not highly structured or formulaic, we were able to support those organizations in ways that suited them.  The growth and capacity building in those organizations was exciting to them and to us. In Seattle, for example, we talked to the superintendent with our colleagues, and suggested that every high school in the city should have WITS, and later it happened.  We couldn’t have done that here in Houston because it is decentralized, but in Seattle we were able to present it as a vision. We showed them what had happened in our city, and they decided they wanted it too.

We did things like that with every program.  It’s been a lot of fun for me personally to be able to listen to what people are doing and help them.  A number of the programs said that they would never have charged money for their services if we hadn’t encouraged them.  This has made their programs easier to run.  Many people who start WITS programs are artists, and they aren’t thinking about money. The business model is something the schools can afford; the sliding scale doesn’t mean that schools get the service for free, but the price is low enough for schools to buy in. I think we’ve been very successful in balancing the business with the charity.

How do you reinforce value in the creative work?

The inherent value of creative work is real, but it often difficult to force the issue of charging money for creative work. I often talk about sustainability. It’s not that you can’t give of yourself; generosity is a beautiful thing. But if you aren’t getting paid for your efforts, if your teachers are all volunteers, it’s hard to continue to do it, to justify doing it, over the long haul.

One of the things that the writers find most rewarding is the transformation you see in the children.  Not because they’ve learned a skill called writing, but because they’ve realized that through the writing, they are unique, they have a particular vision, and that their words matter. This doesn’t happen in math class, doesn’t happen in a class where everyone is asked to give the same answer.  It only happens in a creative situation in which people are respecting one another.

Many of the writers say that they are inspired by teaching. Many like the idea of returning to childhood through this imaginative process.  To be let in by these children, talking with them and asking them questions, and hearing the things that they say—it is a wonderful kind of conversation. WITS writers witness in young student the pleasure of creating without the cognitive framework.

The idea that an object is not just black, but black as coal is familiar to many of us. But children don’t have that structure yet so when they say something is black, they might compare it to a hundred things that we might not have imagined. In the WITS classroom, inexperience forces children into a kind of creative genius.

wits3As a leader, how do you balance sustainability and risk?

It’s hard for people in our world to accept that some things can’t be scripted.

People think that curriculum is something that tells teachers what to do every hour.  There’s a certain amount of trust required for real teaching to happen.  WITS has done that.  No two WITS classes look the same.  We’re working with 25,000 kids a year, but we’re not teaching “how to write about a dog.” We might start out with an idea of accidents. A child might say, “one time my dog fell off the porch and hurt his paw.” We’re starting out with concepts that involve conflict, and the child finds his/her own story, ultimately writing about themselves.

The balance comes from the rigor that the writer uses in the classroom –  a process, not a product.  We go in and observe our writers twice a year, and we look at the product too, but it’s not about control because we’re thinking about the individual children in that room and the teacher who is supporting them.

WITS has been around for 30 years, how have you identified and responded to changes?

Our practice – teaching writing as writers in the classroom – hasn’t changed much. But we have become more responsive to schools as we’ve gone along.  Because we are charging a fee, our attentive customer service informs how we do things. Principals are key decision makers for each school. Our key relationships are not with the district; we work with each principal and faculty.

We’ve changed in size, which has made a difference as well. When we started, there were 12 writers, now have 90.  We’ve had to be clearer about policies so that we’re consistent with quality across the board.  We used to be more loose, more hippy-like, with everybody doing their own thing.  We don’t have a dress code or anything like that, but we have had to standardize things a bit more.

How have you standardized a creative process?

Every school placement begins with a planning meeting in which the writer, the teachers, the principal, and a WITS administrator sit down together so everyone can sit down to discuss what is expected on all sides. This structure helps us avoid problems later in the year. Our writers publish an anthology or put on a class performance at the end of the year, which is another sort of standardization.  It’s not “cookie cutter”, but every WITS writer creates these milestones with their students.

wits-4How do you measure success?

Evaluation is about how the writer is engaging both the teacher and the student.  When I first started, I left the teacher out of the equation, focusing on the students.  But the teachers’ role is incredibly important.  The writer comes in as a visitor for an hour a week, maybe two, so the teacher is key to the success of the program.

The people who do the WITS observations are writers who have lots of teaching experience. We find that the writers like having a peer in the classroom. The evaluation we do is helps us gauge the progress of the students.

We also have a program evaluation led by a professor that includes surveys and sample writing. We have collected 15 years of data proving that WITS students outperform other students, including their standardized test scores.

How do you balance your own writing career and the needs of the organization?

I am a social person and work with a small group of friends. Two months a year we write a poem-a-day, sharing through blogs and responding briefly, encouraging one another to produce new material.  During the rest of the year, I revise that material and put manuscripts together.  I find that having company is a good thing for me.

How was the transition to being a leader for you?

It was dramatic.  I was program director before the executive director, and I didn’t realize things would change in the ways that it did.  I was the same before and after the title change, but people looked at me in a different way. I asked one of my friends six months after the transition, “What’s different? I haven’t changed.”

My friend said to me, “When people look at you now, 10% is what they always saw.  The other 90% is … their mother. And in most cases their mother is someone you’ve never met” There is a certain level of projection that happens when you have an authority position.  It was definitely surprising. It took years for it to become comfortable because I grew up through the organization, and I’d done everything in the organization, in the same way you do in a family business.  It was a jolt to move from being an artist in the organization to being its head.

What will be your legacy at WITS?

I tend to be simple about this.  I didn’t start this garden, I came to it. Victoria Jones founded this program, and many of our signature programs were in place when I started teaching for WITS.  The one at MD Anderson, the Menil Collection, school programs, the young writers readings… were all here. There have been new additions along the way, most recently WITS Collaborative, our teachers’ program, and Meta-Four Houston, our slam poetry project, but I’m a gardener. I’ve made the garden bigger and able to feed a lot more people.

Leaders have different strengths.  Often founders have an edge and a fire in them. I’m much more of a peaceable leader, and my role is to find people who feel the spark, a passion for our mission, and find a way for them to get involved.  I have a knack for nurturing these relationships.

You’ve trained a number of writers, students and teachers, what skills did you need to learn to nurture each one of those constituencies?

You have to work with lots of different people. Some will be easy to work with, and others will be people you need on the team but not as easy.  I make myself sit down and listen to people.  The person I’ve tried to avoid is the person who requires that I tell them in detail what to do.  I’m not a micromanager; that’s not my leadership style. I prefer to describe the big picture and encourage people to be creative. Listening to what they want both now and in the future is the way to nurture them.

More often than not, people are looking for something, not just money.  If I can figure out what that is for these people, I can be part of their journey. WITS can be part of their journey.  My hope is that whatever time they spend in our garden will be a key point in their lives. I welcome them.

This is the latest in a series of interviews as part of partnership between   Arts+Culture:Texas Magazine and the Center for Arts Leadership at University of Houston. The Center for Arts Leadership investigates, creates and tests leadership practices in the arts through gatherings and strategic partnerships.