A conversation with Superintendent Tahiliani upon the occasion of her two-year anniversary on the job


David Rivera

Superintendent Priya Tahiliani was gracious enough to grant us this interview in April, two years after we initially interviewed her during her first week on the job, just days before schools closed due to the pandemic.

Emma Santos and David Rivera

EMMA: So the first time we interviewed you was on March 5, 2020.  At the time, I don’t think any of us could have possibly expected what was to come for the next two years.  What was it like having just started out as the superintendent and getting hit so suddenly with the major crisis of COVID-19?

TAHILIANI: It was terrifying.  It was completely terrifying because, you know, I’m still learning how to do the job, let alone do it during a pandemic.  Like, you guys depend on one another for studying, for notes, for advice, but every other superintendent I called had no idea what to do either.  We’re all sort of trying to figure it out as we go.  In some ways, there was some comfort in that, because I didn’t exactly feel like the underdog; we were all dealing with something that was completely new.  We had to troubleshoot, we had to be creative, we had a lot of failures, but many successes too.  I think it’s one of those things where it’s interesting to look back on it now, but when you’re in the moment you just do it, you just go.  It was one issue to the next.  How do we get instructional materials to students?  Now we need Chromebooks.  Now we need hot spots because the Chromebooks won’t work.  So I think it was just problem solving every single problem and taking it problem-by-problem, day-by-day.

DAVID: You talk about the negativity of the pandemic, but have there been any positive effects due to the pandemic on your life, either personal or professional?

TAHILIANI: Absolutely, I would say that, even today, I have several meetings with other superintendents that I would’ve still have to had, but before the pandemic but they would have been done in person. And nowadays, with Zoom, it is so much more convenient because we have gotten to learn how to use technology to our benefit. All superintendents don’t have to drive all around to the place where we meet just to be able to talk about things and make plans. So I think that has been such a huge benefit. And I think we even see in school that we are approaching the new normality with a hybrid mentality, or thinking about how to can we best utilize our in-person time, thinking about what are the best moments and experiences that should be done in-person, and what are the things that we can do virtually that are just as effective if not more so because you get more participation? There are plenty of meetings that I wouldn’t be able to attend because I would have to drive to them and all the other meetings coming in. I think it provides a level of access that we didn’t have before. I also think that we could always do better in education, and I mean this federally and statewide too, at using these experiences and how we have been innovative to really change how we look at education. I think we have done that, but only to a point, and I think because we have to continue to follow certain mandates, we have to continue with certain testing, that is so easy to fall back into old patterns. I think it would have been a great opportunity for us just to see what education looks like altogether. And so, while I think that’s happening a little bit more slowly, we are exploring what alternative education could look like, what alternative schedules for students can look like, how that would work for our teachers, whether that means teaching flip schedules, whether that means more educators to support students who need to work in certain hours, but they would also wanna be able to take advantage of the high school experience. So I think there are definitely been some positives, but I think that we could do more to really learn some of the important lessons from the pandemic.

EMMA: So we definitely learned a lot about using technology for school, especially in the 2020-2021 school year, but how has your job changed now that students are back in school this year, and is it more enjoyable?  Or are there any new challenges that you’ve faced with that?

TAHILIANI: It’s been wonderful to have students back.  It really is so much more enjoyable.  I mean, I don’t think anyone gets into the field of education if they don’t want to be around students.  So not being able to be with the students was really tough.  I know it was really tough on your educators.  And even walking around the school building when they were empty, it was spooky and kind of disheartening.  And when we did come back, we came back just about 30 to 50 percent, depending on what school building you were in, and that was definitely something.  I mean that was exciting in-and-of-its-own-right, but it has certainly been an entirely new world to be back.  It’s funny because it’s what we used to do before, but it feels completely different.  I feel like I have a greater appreciation for it than I did before, to be in a building where students are bustling around, where they have activities, where there’s a softball game happening outside, and I know percussion is rehearsing later today, we have arts exhibits happening, and the theater performance, all of these experiences that neither you guys nor I got to experience for two years.  So I think it’s been very, very enjoyable.  As far as challenges, I think that we all know that the social-emotional well-being of all of our students and our staff is really something that’s on the top of our mind.  However, I think that the pandemic also maybe just elevated something that we should have been paying attention to more before the pandemic.  I don’t think that these are issues that just suddenly erupted.  Kind of like technology in schools.  We hadn’t kept up with technology and our technological needs in schools, especially the way industries are. I think that this has elevated the fact that we do need to be spending more time thinking about what social-emotional support looks like in school, that it’s not an add-on, that it very much should be part of the fabric of what happens in a school building.

DAVID: Now that you talked about prioritizing certain issues, before the pandemic were there any problems or issues that you were hopefully targeting in some ways? So have there been any of those plans that were not able to be used because of Covid? And have those plans changed?

TAHILIANI: That is a great question. Yeah, it’s really hard for me to remember. I remember that I came in so excited about all these things that I was going to do and then quickly things changed. It’s been really hard, and I think students and teachers and everybody was experiencing this too. I was just really excited about getting to know the staff. I was going to do a listening and learning tour. I was excited to meet with people personally, get to know their faces, the same with students, and really have that listening and learning tour not just to be about conversations, but actually be about being part of the school culture, being with people. And I think that definitely altered greatly, and it has been really hard because for two years we spent time on Zoom and that is a whole two-dimensional kind of view of what a person is, then we got to come back, but then I’m meeting people for the first time who I have only seen them on Zoom, and now we were wearing masks, so I’m trying to figure out who I have met, like “I think I’ve met this person before, maybe I have maybe I have not?” Now that the masks have come off, or now that they are optional, I started to realize how nice it is to get to see who people are. It’s been very difficult to be able to make those visual connections of,  “Oh, I know who you are or what school you teach at,” with so many people and such a big school system. I feel that I’ve spent two years still trying to learn people’s names, and it’s not because I haven’t met you, but maybe I met you but I didn’t know how tall you were, or I didn’t know what you looked like in three dimensions. So that part definitely changed. I certainly also was excited about getting in and observing instruction, and seeing what all the curriculum looked like, and that is something that now I’m getting to do now but definitely took a pause because all of us were just trying to do the best that we could, and my job was managing day-to-day, making sure to get everything that we needed in order to get back to school.

EMMA: What’s your favorite part about being a superintendent, or more specifically, what do you like about working in Everett?

TAHILIANI: I actually love this job, and I love doing it here in Everett.  It has been the honor of my life and of my career.  I was a teacher for 15 years.  I never, ever thought that I was going to be any kind of administrator, whether it was school-based or district-based.  And it’s really nice to be able to be in a position where I remember the things that I would have wanted somebody in my role to do when I was in the classroom.  I would have wanted somebody to think about this, I would have wanted somebody to come out ahead of this issue, and all of these things I try to keep them in mind as I’m making my decisions, as I’m approaching my work and as I’m taking on the role of a leader.  So I think that it has been really nice to operationalize some of these things that I always thought in my head.  Even a lot of the programs that we’re bringing into the school for the students, like Minecraft and video games. What are the things that I wish I’d had in school?  What are the things that I wished when I was a teacher that we had in our school building to make it a more exciting place, to make there be something for everyone?  I think that has been so wonderful and to be able to still work with students, still work with staff and educators at all different levels has been really wonderful.  I think what I love about doing it here in Everett…well, you know I sometimes wonder, does every superintendent feel this way about their own city?  Like, “It’s the best and I wouldn’t want to go somewhere else.”  But I really do!  I feel like Everett was the place that I was meant to be, and I’m so happy that I’m here, even after these two years with all the challenges that they’ve brought. I can’t imagine myself being somewhere else.  I feel like we’ve already started to do so many great things and there are so many more things left to do, and now that we’re all back I’m excited to do them.  I feel like the community here is just incredibly resilient and supportive.  I feel like this school community, the students and the staff, are some of the most empathetic, creative, innovative people I’ve ever gotten to be around, and so that’s really nice.  I also love the size.  I came from a really large district, and I don’t think I realized how challenging that was until I came here.  Everett is still very large as a school system, but to have 10 schools versus 120 schools, to have students that I actually see, that I recognize and know their names, that was not the case when I was in Boston, and that was really hard.  When you’re a teacher who has students who you know and then you get to watch them go from sixth grade all the way to graduation, and then to be in a space where you’re on the district level and then you don’t have those connections, you don’t recognize students, because there’s 52,000 of them; it feels kind of counterintuitive as somebody who started out as an educator because you don’t have that connection.  You don’t have that familiarity.  So I think that this has been such a rewarding experience because I have been able to, in some ways, kind of return back to the reason I started doing this work in the first place.

DAVID: So you talked about how as a community we support each other in different ways, and I know you mentioned in our previous interview that you are a former English language learner, or that is the title that you were given, and you also said that you never thought you could be an administrator, that you never thought that you could go that far. So are there any words that you would like to give to the ESL community right now that at some point we think that we cannot do much more than learning a language?

TAHILIANI: Absolutely, and I would actually say it to all students to not discount your own potential and not to feel like opportunities are not yours for the taking, that you should have the ability to dream and think outside of what you even believe is reachable for yourself, and to take those risks, to be ok to fail because, you know, failing is what then eventually takes you to succeed and then to really appreciate that success when you get there, and I know how hard it was all throughout school for me, and not just K-12, but even as I was in college, and as I was doing my masters. You know, I struggle still, and I thought I might not belong here, in this program, with these other students, and even just that negative self-talk, I think it’s so damaging and that’s me holding myself back, right? Like that is not somebody else in that room sitting there thinking about me, that’s me thinking that about myself, and I think there is so much power to us being confident and us realizing that yeah maybe we cannot do it right now, maybe we cannot do it yet, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a possibility for us, that doesn’t mean that if we don’t work hard and try, that it can be something that we can achieve, and just to not to give up. That is so tempting when you get discouraged over and over and over again, it can be tempting to just give up and be like, “the odds are stacked against me.” I certainly sympathize with you all seniors because I remember this particular time in my life. I did not get into the school that I wanted to go to, in fact I didn’t get the top three schools that I wanted to go to, and I remember thinking that that was the end, right? I worked all this time just to try and get into these schools, and hadn’t gotten into any of them, and now what? Like, ok I guess I will just go to school, and I will do the best I can. And now I realized that, had I gotten into any of those other schools, I wouldn’t be doing exactly what I’m doing right now, I wouldn’t have met my husband, I wouldn’t have these kids, I wouldn’t been in this job that I am in right now, and so to know that there are two ways to look at it, either like it’s you are destined to be in this moment that you are in and everything is kinda leading up to that and you just have to kinda trust, or to know that you can and you will take advantage of every opportunity and circumstance surrounding you and make it into the best possible want for you, I think that is really important, because I do it sometimes think, “Oh this is just where I was just meant to be,” and then I also realized that I spend a lot of time and effort and the work for not giving up to be here too, so I think it’s both of those things. 

EMMA: What have you found to be the most important thing to consider throughout your job?  When you have to make important decisions, what is the most important thing in the back of your mind?

TAHILIANI:  You have to think about all of the different groups and how it’s going to impact each of them.  Every decision has so many more consequences than you realize.  You may think it’s a very simple decision, but it’s not.  There are impacts for everything.  So I always say, “Stop, take a beat, really think it through, think about all of the different people who will be impacted.  What are some of the things we can do to minimize negative impacts?  If there are too many negative impacts, potentially we need to go a different direction.”  I think the thing that’s in the back of my mind is just really being thoughtful about all of the different people that are part of a school community and making sure that everybody is an important part of that community.  If you discount any member, you’re not staying true to what I think should be the spirit of a community, which is that we work together to accomplish things, to move forward.  So you have to make sure to always be keeping that entire universe in your mind.

DAVID: Earlier in this interview, you mentioned mental health, and now you talked about being the superintendent and how people look at you and keep their eyes on you to see what is your next move, so how do you keep up with your mental health in this position so it doesn’t hurt you as a person?

TAHILIANI: I love my job, so that helps tremendously. When you love what you are doing everyday, it actually supports good mental health, and that’s not to say that it can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, I kind of think to myself, “I’m making the choice to be here because this is where I want to be,” and I try to make sure the little frustrations don’t overshadow the greater picture of what I’m doing, but then what I would also definitely recommend for everyone is to make time for yourself, and make time for your family. I think my family keeps me really grounded. I have two kids, so I make sure that I also prioritize them, that I make it to all of the games, to make it to all of parent shares, I try my best to make sure that I’m present for them as well, and I think that helps my own mental health because otherwise I would be worried that I am not a good mom, right? I’m changing this part of my life to do something better here, and I think you just have to be at peace with the fact that we all cannot be perfect all the time, we can’t do everything, so you would just need to be able to put balance on all of the things in a way that does make us truly happy and satisfied.

EMMA: Having been here for over two years now, is there anything about working in Everett that you wished you had known back when you started in this position?

TAHILIANI: I mean…that we were going to have a pandemic! But that isn’t specific to Everett.  That’s the thing I wish I had known more than anything else, if I could have anticipated that, right?  As far as knowing anything in particular about Everett, no.  I think part of the fun and the enjoyment has been in that discovery process.  If I had known everything it wouldn’t have been as much of an adventure.  And I feel like I also have so much more to learn, and now that we are back in school I feel like I’m having the opportunity to learn so many more things.  I feel like everyday I’m here I feel more at home.  I feel like I understand better, but there’s always so much more to understand.  I don’t think I could have ever been told these things.  You have to experience it for yourself.  Even the things I had heard weren’t all true.  I think in any new experience you go into, you want to be prepared of course, but you also want to walk in with as much of an open mind and an open heart as possible.

DAVID: Now that you said that you have gotten to know the Everett community a little bit better, do you have any plans or short term goals for the community in general that we could know of?

TAHILIANI: Well, something that we have been trying and we have been working really hard on, certainly important during the pandemic but remains important now, is how are we getting the community involved in the schools, and how are we getting parents engaged, and I think that that’s going to be an ever-evolving process because we could always be doing better, we could always be communicating more or engaging more. And it’s interesting, I actually even got feedback recently that families were feeling like they were receiving more communication during Covid than they are now, and I thought that was really interesting, and I’m like, “That might be, that maybe there is something, maybe because we were trying to over communicate, but how are we really opening our doors for us to having the parents being involved, and their children having education and feeling welcome in our school building. Some of our greatest power here in Everett is some of these partnerships that we have with this amazing community, with business partners, with our community based organizations. How are we inviting them in and partnering with them in order to create better, richer experiences for all of us? That has been really hard too with Covid, so it has been nice to get out and start to meet a lot of the people that I didn’t get to meet, or met through Zoom. Starting to build those relationships and those collaborations, and thinking about, how can we better support our community, our students? How can we have internships? How can we build a greater partnership? Because I think there are so many opportunities here that we should take advantage of.

EMMA:  We’ll actually be the first class to have graduated having gone through all four years of the academy model.  You mentioned when we interviewed you last that you’d heard that students wanted an expansion of the arts, and one of the most common criticisms of the academy model at EHS is that it leaves out students who don’t want to go into a career in one of the 19 pathways, particularly performing and visual arts.  Has there been any talk in administration about improving or adjusting the academy model so that all students can feel like their interests are included and respected?

TAHILIANI:  Yes. And I think this kind of goes back to one of your previous questions about “What were some of the plans you had that got put on pause?”  I think this would be a great example of that: how are we looking at the academy model?  How are we looking at the pathways?  I know one of the things we’ve been talking about right now as I’m sure you know is getting a new school building, but we need to have these kinds of conversations now because a school space, especially if we were to build a new high school, which pathways we would have would sort of determine what that space needs to have and how it needs to look.  So we need to plan accordingly or plan ahead of time to know, “What does the ideal Everett High School look like? What are the ideal academies?  What kind of staffing will we then need?  Do we need to have a whole other academy, or how are we fitting into the existing infrastructure?”  So I think that that is certainly something that we need to be focusing on a lot in the next year, and I’d be very interested to hear what our students, this first exiting class, what their thoughts are on how we can improve this moving forward and if there are other ideas for pathways that we should have.  I know that some of the things that cross my desk are applications for students who want to go into electrical, so they apply to other schools because we don’t have that here.  Just thinking about what the opportunities are that students want to have and, why couldn’t we build those into what we are going to provide?

DAVID: So you mentioned earlier that in the position you are in you always see frustration every now and then, and during Covid, we all faced that, and even now having this conversation of what would we do with the model of the academies, so how do you, as a leader, make sure that the people who follow you do not get discouraged by all these little non-great experiences?

TAHILIANI: I feel like, especially as a leader you have to stay positive, you have to keep your eye on what your goal is, and to make sure you are explicitly making that vision known, and making the progress that you have made known. Over the past two years, I wish I could have accomplished more, but I feel like we still made gains in a lot of different ways during Covid, and so I try to focus on our successes and our wins as part of, again, that longer path towards where eventually we want to be, so I try to stay upbeat, keep focused, and also keep us in a problem-solving mindset. I think that’s another huge thing, and it’s fine, we all need to vent and admire the problem for a little bit, but at some point too, it’s “How do we solve the problem? What are we going to do to make this better? What is within our control to change the situation?” And I’m a very strong believer in that we all have some level of control, and that we all have to use it as much as possible. And there is nothing else that I love more than someone coming to me with a problem and hears my potential solution. I feel that those are the conversations I want to have as we talk about certain solutions and debate on which one is the best versus just thinking about all the problems. I think we all could do that all day, but that doesn’t move us forward.

DAVID: And thinking about those issues, with the ESL community growing within the Everett community, not just in Everett High, do you have any plans to strengthen this program that keeps growing and growing? 

TAHILIANI: Absolutely. I think that has been central to how we have approached certain things even since the beginning of the pandemic. I think, for example, adding sixteen family liaisons throughout the district to speak multiple languages, adding translation services, making sure that we are providing meaningful interpretations for families, in addition to our English Learner parent advisory panel that are all led by parents in their native language rather than being led in English, which is the typical format. So how are we creating all of these opportunities to make sure that any newcomer families or families of English learners or English learners themselves have access, not only to their students’ education, and being able to advocate and understand the complexities of the American educational system, but also how are we supporting them in their own growth? That’s another reason we teach technology home classes in their native language, where then the families graduate and they get a Chromebook, but during that class they are sort of taught, “This is how you use Aspen, here is how you connect with some of your student’s teachers.” Educating our families about how they can best support their students and then making them feel–because even I have trouble navigating the system and I’m from here–so being able to provide as many of those opportunities as possible. One of the huge values in those opportunities too is just the fact that they are engaging with us, that they can put a face to the Everett Public Schools, that there’s somebody that they know that speaks the language that they know, that they can call or now have their email. So a lot of that too, it is just the connection that you make, regardless of what you’re making the connection over, and so I think that we originally started thinking about these things during the pandemic because we were so nervous about how are we going to support everybody and communicate out when everybody is all over the place, but I think that now, it needs to be an ethical part of our strategy moving forward, and just making sure that we do still connect as a community and that we are providing everybody with all the opportunities and information that we can.

EMMA: So last time we interviewed you, we ended with some less serious, more fun questions, just to kind of get to know you, and we wanted to do the same thing again.  So the first question is what are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?

TAHILIANI: I love binge-watching shows.  I think back to the times when you couldn’t do that, you’d have to wait like a whole week for a show to come out, and I love finding a show that I find really riveting and getting to watch it.  So that’s one of my hobbies.  Another thing that I spend a lot of time doing outside of school but that I actually really enjoy is I’m a hockey mom, I’m a goalie mom, so we spend a lot of time doing that.  But I do enjoy ice hockey so it’s at least good that it’s a sport that I’m actually interested in.  Getting to watch my kids play sports is always fun.  And I also just love being with my family.  We do game nights, we watch movies, eat popcorn—you know, typical family stuff—and I think that those are the kind of things that I enjoy in my time.

EMMA: Do you have a favorite book?  And why is it your favorite?

TAHILIANI: I am a huge Harry Potter fan.  I do have some other favorite books, too.  I love Lord of the Flies; I always loved teaching Lord of the Flies.  It’s interesting, I didn’t like it when I read it in high school, but I loved it when I started reading it as a teacher and teaching it.  Another book that is one of my favorites, but it’s very obscure and nobody’s ever heard of it, is called The Hidden Hand.  It was something I read in college.  I think I may own the only copy ever, because nobody else seems to know about this book.  That’s one of my favorites, too.  I also love The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, but one of the things I will definitely eventually is read all the Harry Potters all the way through again.  I’ve read them through several times.  I may have told you this the last time we met, but I had a Harry Potter-themed Indian wedding.

EMMA: You did not tell us that, but please do tell.

TAHILIANI: My husband isn’t Indian, but we did have a fully traditional three-day Indian wedding.  Maybe it had a Harry Potter motif throughout it, so like the cake toppers were Harry Potter characters, we gave out Harry Potter books as part of our favors, all of the tables were named.  Instead of table numbers, they were named after different places like Hogwarts, and we sat a bunch of our friends at Azkaban, and me and my husband were at a sweetheart table called Diagon Alley.  My nephew actually played—because he plays the saxophone—he played the Harry Potter suite at our sangeet, which is like a rehearsal dinner.  So there were several different things throughout that were kind of Harry Potter-aligned.

EMMA: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?

TAHILIANI: The Ring.  I watched it a long time ago, and that was the day I decided I wasn’t going to watch scary movies anymore because I just…I couldn’t.  I’m not a scary movie person.