Talent by Design: Designing for Engagement, One Human at a Time

Eric Chagala (Ed.D. Educational Leadership) is the founding principal of the Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA). Eric believes that all kids need a place to matter, that schools have souls and those souls need to be nurtured, and that our actions say what we believe about kids. EricChagala.com



When designing the Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA), we sought to gather empathy from students and as a result made a poignant discovery: students, particularly those from poverty, felt that school was irrelevant to their lives. We endeavored to reverse this by design, and we knew that if we created a school that was more about their lives than “just school,” we could capture their hearts, and then we could get to their brains. Engagement became our first intervention.

Engagement is not a one-way street: we cannot manifest this in our students if faculty don’t experience that same hope. It is nearly impossible for teachers to inspire and support “creativity,” “growth mindset,” or “risk-taking” in their students when those teachers do not have the self-efficacy in those domains themselves. How can teachers create genuinely-personalized and creative opportunities that will engage and inspire their students if they aren’t engaged themselves?

Around the same time in our school transformation, Gallup came out with findings that only 30% of teachers nationally were “engaged” in their work. An “engaged” teacher was defined as “involved with, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work… They know the scope of their jobs and constantly look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes” (Gallup, 2015, para. 2). It leaves one to ponder: as school leaders, how might we make our own teachers engaged in their craft?

Practically Speaking

A priority for our school transformation then begged the question: how might we best engage teachers? One of the leading mantras for that effort came from a central frame of empathy that sought to honor their humanity. “What have you always wanted to do with students that you have never been able to do?” It is an easy question to ask, but once teachers gave their answers, we had to figure out ways to fully realize those answers. We worked to turn those lost wants into brand-new, specialized elective classes and/or other opportunities on campus to engage the strengths, interests, and values of teachers. School leadership aimed to foster the conditions that would make teachers jump out of bed, put both feet on the ground, and want to run to school each day. The theory of action was that this energy would bleed into the soul of the school and pump into the veins of its students.

Why Talent Development

Our next level of growth around teacher engagement has become Talent Development. It is deeply empathetic work, in part inspired by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, when he wrote that “even the most optimistic workers will become discouraged if they are not being developed” (Nadella, 2017, p. 118). Often, when we mention Talent Development to school leaders, they default to thinking professional development. To be clear, this is not what we are referring to.

We foster Talent Development through supporting teachers to realize the best future version of themselves. If we have teachers working to achieve this feeling, they will genuinely support students to help achieve the best future version of themselves. We support teachers in first recognizing and defining their identities and then in refining and seeking the best stage for their talents to shine.

How we are working on designing for talent with our faculty

Talent Development is one of the most human concepts we infuse in our work on campus. Teachers seeking their own best version of themselves is contagious for the students they work alongside everyday. This work is about love, hope, and care. It is soul work and deeply human. It is work we tend to daily. An important note to leaders is that this is not something we were just able to dive into. To get to this point was built upon a strong culture of trust between teachers and administration.


Building on work by School ReTool, we asked all teachers to think about what their aspirations for the year are, personally and/or professionally. This was introduced with the principal publicly sharing first. Teacher aspirations were shared privately with the principal. Follow-up took place via cards, emails, check-ins, and conversation points in the hallway. Note: these were not “goal setting” or SMART Goals.

  • Prompts:
    • What are your aspirations for the year?
    • What are the behaviors that would be visible to achieve these?
    • What will it feel like to see your aspirations come to fruition?

30 Day Journal Challenge (borrowed from Alex Banayan on MentorBox).

  • Daily Prompts:
    • What filled you with energy today?
    • What drained you today?
    • What did you learn about yourself today?
  • Offered up to all teachers & provided Moleskin Cahier journals for each
  • Did an email check-in three times to see how it was going, share resource(s) if applicable from conversations coming up, etc.
  • At the end of the 30 days, Staffulty had the opportunity to engage in the following:
    • Go off campus with other interested participants using a soft-protocol to share learnings, insights, and thoughts.
    • Meet one-on-one to talk about individuals plans, hopes, realizations, and future planning as well as to devise a path to better align work with strengths, interests and values. This may include personal branding, side-hustle consulting work, and even opportunities outside education.
    • Forgo meeting and move forward on own.


All adults take the StrengthsFinder assessment and are encouraged to share their Top Five Strengths via email signature and/or classroom poster, making it part of their functioning as a team on campus. Students take the Thrively Strengths assessment, and we are currently working to make these more prominent in students’ awareness and tying them to metacognition and reflection.


All adults take the Strong Interest Inventory to identify their Top Three RIASEC Codes. The follow up conversations have been profound. Everyone spoken to feels very connected to the results, leading to insights such as “I am in the perfect career,” “I am not sure why I am in this career,” or “I can be doing more within this career.” All students have access to the assessment, and like Strengths, we are in the process of better tuning this information into daily experiences. In addition, each year we offer parents the opportunity to take the assessment.


This overlays our Design Based pedagogy and is a key component driving discussions and actions around “Identity and Talent.” In addition, Entrepreneurship helps develop the sense of craftsmanship for us all. This provides a platform for interested teachers with their own personal branding around “strengths” and “expertise” to provide added value to the organization while they realize and spread their influence as conference presenters, budding consultants, and more.

Flattened Hierarchy:

Charon et al (2018) shared that “hierarchy can isolate and bury talent” (p. 8) and that cross-functional teams help to triangulate talent development as levers for improvement and growth within an organization. We have two standing leadership teams and a number of other pop up teams and councils. These pop up teams come together to perform a targeted task and then disband when the work is accomplished. This is also an effective way to build trust, allow other to see how the process works, and to create a sense of “we are all in this together.”

Next Steps

Empathy is something we are continually working to hone. It requires us to be vulnerable as users within our own system and to practice humility to not assume that we know all of the answers. We have found, time and time again, that we avoid many pitfalls faced by conventional organizations by being human-centered and designing both for users and alongside users. By being empathetic to others and seeking humility, we are mindful of the assertion in Talent Wins that “talent can never be about the ego fulfillment of leaders” (Charan et al, 2018, p. 166). Our school transformation is now in its fifth year, and like any good innovation, we know our edge is in our ability to continue iteration and evolution. Failure to iterate and evolve would lead to stagnation and mediocrity. Some of the things on our mind as we engage with this work are:

  • Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey to be able to capture a snapshot of data for how we are doing.
  • Always seeking new insights and ideas.
  • Allowing the creative genius within us to help find the new levers to move on.


Charon, R., Barton, D., and Carey, D. (2018). Talent wins: the new playbook for putting people first. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press

Gallup. (2015). ​Lack of teacher engagement linked to 2.3 million missed workdays. Retrieved https://news.gallup.com/poll/180455/lack-teacher-engagement-linked-million-missed-wor

Gallup (2016). First, break all the rules: what the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, New York: Gallup

Nadella, S. (2017). Hit refresh: the quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone. New York, New York: HarperCollins

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