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Leading with love in the classroom and beyond

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Across 30 years as a tireless and innovative educator, Dr. Tiffany Anderson has achieved a long list of accomplishments. She is the first black female superintendent in the Topeka Kansas School District, was recognized by former President Obama, honored at the Oscars, and is a candidate for ordination as a deacon in The United Methodist Church. Dr. Anderson, who says her career is her ministry, shares where she finds joy, including how living out the gospel for her includes sitting on the floor with a classroom of kindergartners.

Guest: Dr. Tiffany Anderson

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This episode posted on March 3, 2023.

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Across 30 years as a tireless and innovative educator, Dr. Tiffany Anderson has achieved a long list of accomplishments. She is the first black female superintendent in the Topeka Kansas School District, was recognized by former President Obama, honored at the Oscars, and is a candidate for ordination as a deacon in The United Methodist Church. Dr. Anderson, who says her career is her ministry, shares with us where she finds joy, including how living out the gospel for her includes sitting on the floor with a classroom of kindergartners.

Crystal Caviness, host: Welcome, Dr. Anderson, to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."

Bishop Williamston: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Crystal: Dr. Anderson, there is so much to say about you, your career as an educator, an advocate for underserved communities. Currently, you are the superintendent for the Topeka Kansas School District. Your work across almost three decades has been recognized locally, regionally, nationally. You have testified before Congress received the lifetime achievement award for volunteerism from President Obama. And in 2017 you were honored at the Oscars as one of six people with a purpose for your innovative work in education. Your work also has focused on health, and the Washington Post referred to you as the woman who made schools work for the poor. Wow. So I just have to ask you from the very beginning, Dr. Anderson, do you have some supernatural power from God that you're that to keep going, some supernatural energy that God gives you?

Dr. Anderson: You know, I think you said that. Well, it is, uh, Christ that gives the energy and, and, and truly I believe that you're given the energy to do the things that Christ has purposed you to do. And I'm so thankful for that. It is the only explanation that I can give <laugh> for the path and journey that my life has taken.

Crystal: I want to talk to you just briefly go back to you were raised, your parents were pastors, you were raised in the church. Can you talk about what having that foundation as a pastor's child, what did that feel like? What kind of memories do you have?

Dr. Anderson: You know, for as long as I can remember, I have been not only involved in the church, but understanding the connection that Christ has to my life and the lives of others. Um, and it's a beautiful space to be in as a young child because you develop, at least from my experience, in a way that wants you to truly serve above self in every way you can. So as a young child, it was serving as an usher at church or helping at the food pantry, you know, seeking ways to serve others, and you realize and know that that is, uh, part of your life's work. So that has been, uh, wonderful and has led directly to the work that I'm doing today, still serving my title just as, uh, as a teacher. Well, superintendent, which is also a teacher.

Crystal: And I've read that you said education is a ministry. Can you talk more about that, how you see your space in working with families and children as ministry for you?

Dr. Anderson: Yes. It's so much as a ministry, I get the opportunity every day to speak hope in life and to others. And to be a light in a place in which darkness could be existing, or perhaps be a door and a bridge to seeing who Christ is through you. I get the opportunity to be in a space that maybe some churches may not be in, because there are people that might not cross the path and the doorway of a church, but they will come to public school because everybody has to send their child to public school. And so the ministry that I'm in really is a ministry of serving others and serving them well and being of service to the whole child. And to do that, you have to serve the whole family. And so love is really kind of that benchmark from which we lead in the classroom, whether you're a principal or teacher or cafeteria person, bus driver, uh, standing on the foundation of love, which is really the foundation of standing from a Christian perspective about how you serve without judgment. So schools, uh, are, I believe public schools are an ultimate ministry. We take everybody that comes through our door, <laugh>.

Crystal: I love that. You're right. It, it's places that, and spaces that churches may not have access to. And there and there you are. And I love what you said, this leading with love. You know, I have many friends who are public school educators, and I've heard them talk about this tension of being Christians and being in a public school setting and perhaps finding it challenging to openly live out their faith with their students. How does, what does that look like for you? You mentioned it, you know that you're always, you know, really putting love out there, but are there some tangible ways that you just really live that out?

Dr. Anderson: Absolutely. And I'll give some examples for those educators that are listening and those teachers and leaders that are listening. Um, you know, I really feel as though when you know that your mindset is your only barrier and you are purpose to be here, to be of service to others, there is tremendous freedom in what you do and how you do it. So for Topeka Public Schools, living out the gospel reflects itself in the pantries that we have every week in different areas of Topeka living out the gospel is reflected in the 18 washer and dryers that we have in schools where parents can wash and dry a load of laundry while volunteering in their child's school. Living out the gospel is reflected in the clergy coalition that I have for those families that we can't reach or who have attendance issues, uh, but do go to church, uh, their pastor becomes their mentor and spiritual guide on why it's important to get an education.

So we live out the gospel in this space by standing on the word and what the word says in terms of serving others and being of service in ways that really reflect God's love. You know, often depending on the environment you work in, there may feel as though there's judgment or isolation or exclusion. Uh, sometimes even in a church, you may feel that in a public school in which I am able to serve with this being my ministry, we get to create spaces of inclusivity, which is living out the gospel. And we get to have the opportunity to integrate the lessons of the Bible into our daily walk. And we don't have to do that even in speaking. We do that in our actions and, um, and in showing our faith by how we greet and welcome the people who we have the privilege to encounter every day.

Crystal: I was reading about some of the innovative ways that you and your teams have done that through the years, and one really kind of caught my attention because it's so relevant in our, really in our culture right now. And it's the work with Ukrainian refugees. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Anderson: Oh my goodness. So what started with five families coming here has now evolved into 30 families. And, and those families that have relocated to Topeka, Kansas have done so sometimes with just the close on their back and not a place to live and, and having experienced in the last week severe trauma. And so we as educators get to meet them in this space, just imagine, and to ensure that they have a home. But we do that through other partners often who may be, uh, church partners or, or other individuals who were already co-laborers in this work, uh, as their own ministry. But we get to do it from a school perspective with clothes and food and being a liaison and saying that it's okay. And that your darkest moment as Pastor Adam at Church of Resurrection often says, is not your last moment. And evil never trumps good.

So we get to demonstrate that. So we have hired are Ukrainian families, uh, and helped invite them into not only knowing the love that we have for them, but also seeing what prosperity can look like and what hope can look like. So we have staff at the three schools in which their children are, and they are able to watch their children every day and not have the fear of where they are, what's going on in this new place. We've also had the opportunity to shepherd and mentor them and walk alongside them in this new life as they learn English and, uh, navigate this new space with love, uh, as the foundation. And they talk a lot about compassion. In the most recent article, the national article that was perhaps what you read that was published recently, they talk about compassion, which is the message that Christ give without any judgment receiving them from where we are. It has been remarkable now that work has been seen through that national article by other places, allowing us to truly be apostles, if you will, <laugh> showing and being disciples of the word and showing what's possible. So other places are now replicating much of what we're doing and or visiting and calling. It's been really incredible for the refugees, whether they are Ukrainian or otherwise in their spaces. So it's, we feel blessed, and I thank God every day for giving us this opportunity.

Crystal: What a gift that you're giving with your welcoming and your love and your really, your radical hospitality that you're showing these families.

Dr. Anderson: I have to start using that, radical hospitality. I love that <laugh>.

Crystal: Well, that's what I'm hearing you talk about, so it's absolutely appropriate for that. As I hear you talking about ministry, I want to talk about that last spring, you completed your coursework, you earned a master's degree in divinity, and you're currently a candidate for ordination. You're a longtime member at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. And I just have to say, I want to talk to you about the call to go back to school for this, that with all that you're doing, Dr. Anderson, then you're like, okay, I'm going back to get my MDiv. Tell me about that.

Dr. Anderson: You know, it has been quite the journey and I just love how God takes us to a space, and we don't even know what the rest of the space will look like, but we take the first step, and I'm sure we all have that in our lives, and knowing that if you trust God, those next steps will reveal themselves. And so you walk into that just without significant fear, you know, it's the unknown, but knowing that he has you, and that's really describing the path that I experienced my late husband of 24 years, Stanley Anderson, he was an OB-GYN surgeon, and one of the physicians that introduced robotic surgery. So now if you go to a doctor and you have a prick and you are able to have all kinds of procedures that you weren't able to before. Well, on our 24th anniversary, he passed from multiple myeloma, uh, cancer.

And we thought he'd live through this going in and out of remission. And that was a secret that we kept, we did not share that with others. And because what we knew is that God purposed us for some great things, and that has not changed. And with that, Stan knew the Bible very well. He was quite the Bible scholar. And so in that time period of being a widow part of just the study of the Bible with my late husband was a desire that I had to, you know, I just continued to have, so my first class was women of the Hebrew Bible at St. Paul, and, and right across the street from where I live at, which is on the campus of Church of the Resurrection. And that led to the next class and the next class <laugh>. And I signed up for my master's in Divinity.

And within two years, being able to not only have that master's in divinity by taking classes in two places, so full-time, I went to ministry, to school really to be around others and to talk about what God's doing in our lives and, and to learn about the scripture. Here's my thing. If God's going to trust me to lead this, which he has, then I want to do it well and right. And to do it well and right, I have to study his word and know him well. And for me to know where he wants me to lead, the beautiful people that he's encharged me with leading and guiding, the only way that I know to do that is to, for me, continue this work through study. And that study hasn't stopped. So while the master's in Divinity has been obtained in the last handful of months, I am continuing to look at classes that I can take. I took a class not too long ago, at Candler in Atlanta, so, Emory University. So, I am continuing to look at how do I learn and grow in ways so that I can just fulfill his will? And, again, it's been a beautiful path. So my Master's in Divinity and have gone through the charge conference and the ordination will be as a deacon serving right here in the community that I get the privilege to serve in a superintendent.

Crystal: Well, thank you for sharing that. And, what a beautiful way to honor your husband's life and memory is to continue like that, you know, learning about the Bible and continuing that, just being a lifelong learner, that it sounds like he may be instilled in you during your marriage.

Dr. Anderson: Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. Isn't it just beautiful how God puts people in your life <laugh> to help you grow and develop you to that next level and that journey? And so when people say, oh, 24 years and on your anniversary, I stop them right there and say, but look at that. God gave me 24 years to learn and grow and develop and continue his legacy. So Stan used to say, “Baby, I'll bring them in the world, and you take it from here. We got this thing from birth through grade 12.” We still do that. I still do that in the space of living out his legacy through all the other Stanley Andersons who grew up in poverty, who got the opportunities through education, who knew God's word. I get the opportunity to still impact other people in that incredible way. And had I not met him, I don't know that I'd be doing this work in this way at this moment in time.

Crystal: Dr. Anderson, you were saying that God has given you this work and entrusted you with the, this work, with the people, the families in Topeka, and that you really just wanted to feel closer to him. As you've gone through these classes, how have you felt yourself changing? How has that changed your faith journey?

Dr. Anderson: Well, a lot of it's been reaffirming. And for those that are listening, if you are right now in seminary or even thinking about it and taking that first class, know that God's plan for you is so real and lean into your calling. And as I leaned into my own calling, it was affirming and knowing which direction, because remember, two years ago we ran a pandemic. So we set up stations through our churches on every other corner within Topeka. We moved our freezer and refrigerator to one of these churches, largest churches here in Topeka. And they were able to feed families without missing a beat. There were so many things we did in partnership with the church. Um, and so, uh, the United Methodist Church that's right down the street from my office, turned their parking lot into a food serving line and just, there were so many wonderful things.

So it allowed me to be reaffirmed that this path that God is leading you on, it's not by happenstance. It is divine and orchestrated in a way that will uplift his will and serve others so that we have this incredible impact showing who Christ is. The other piece is I have quite the structure in my own life and have had this in place throughout my entire marriage of devotion. So I start my day at five in the morning with devotion. I wake up somewhere around two. And at that five o'clock hour, having that devotional time, and then again in the evening at 8:30, having that devotional time and having this time to yourself is so important to listen. Listen to learn, not listen, to respond, and to be able to walk on the path that you were supposed to, but with great clarity. So I'm thankful for that. But through those courses, it allowed me to further do that. You know, one of the classes was prayer and study, and then many different ways to pray and study. Those were all new opportunities for me to learn, as well as to be developed by others in ministry that are actually leading churches that don't reflect a K-12 setting. <laugh>,

Crystal: You know, your vocation puts you in some challenging spaces, but then as a volunteer, you also find yourself in some challenging spaces as you're working with communities on topics of injustice and inequality. Where are the places where you find the most joy?

Dr. Anderson: Oh, around children. I will tell you that the innocence and love and opportunity and possibility of young children who just want to learn and grow and be loved and accepted brings me such joy. And knowing that every adult was once a child and being able to see even through sometimes adults who are challenged, uh, in their lives in ways that we can't even imagine, and seeing that inner child in them is so important for me. I get to be reminded every day by doing that with children. And so I may go into a classroom, a kindergarten classroom, and just sit on the floor and <laugh>, and that is my space for an hour or two. It is pure joy. Or I just left a middle school, uh, right before I got on here, and I got a chance to talk with a couple of young people as they're dismissing for the day and spending time with some teachers. And so I am so thankful and grateful to have the ability to be around people and build relationships and be part of relationship daily, but being around children of any age has just brought me tremendous joy. And seeing them live lives that are full and joyful and filled with hope has been incredible. And, and I am committed to continuing to remove barriers to allow that to happen.

Crystal: So in your role as, once you're an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church, you'll be working in the community. Do you see new places where you may go?  I love what you said earlier. You said, the next steps will reveal themselves. So you may not know what the next steps are, but do you have some thoughts on where this path may go for you?

Dr. Anderson: You know, when this is over, I'm going to send you the Doctor Seuss book, “Oh, the places that you'll go.” <laugh>. And I will tell you, I have no idea where God will lead me, but I do know that I am led to be in Topeka, Kansas, as the first African-American female superintendent. That is not by accident. You know, not too long ago I was the co-chair for the Commission for Racial Equity and Justice, an appointment by the governor. And it was at a time where there's, and still is a tremendous racial division. And I just happened to be, uh, and perhaps, uh, not so happenstance, but happened to be the first black female superintendent doing the work that we're doing. So the natural piece of being in that role has been quite impactful. So I just think that God, his ways, which what we know is that his ways are not our ways, and I must not question, but understand and listen to learn and go down that path knowing that he will only leave me in the places in which he needs me to go, and he will give me the provision for that vision.

So sometimes I see things and I'll say, what, washer dryers in schools or pantries on every side of the community. So if you lived in Topeka every week, there's somewhere where you can get groceries if you had no money at all. In Topeka, we've uh, reduced homelessness by 50% and we've replicated it from Wyandotte. And so that's been incredible. Uh, a number of partners coming together. You walk in homeless and believe it or not sounds too simple to be true, but you walk in homeless in an organization called Impact Avenues, which the Church of Resurrection has given money to the parent organization, but they have helped pull together the entire community. And, landlords and all the other people that are there that help people get out of homelessness are there. So you leave with the home and they've had an incredible impact on homelessness. So just if you approached me and said, we can do this again, mindset is your only barrier. And when you realize that and you walk on faith, anything is possible. How exciting is that? I just get the opportunity to be the instrument to show it in the work that we get to do through this ministry.

Crystal: You're certainly doing some amazing, you and the people you're with are doing some amazing work there, and I just can't wait to, I hope I’ll have you back in a couple years to get an update on this <laugh>  Dr. Anderson, before we finish up, there is one question we ask all of our guests on “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” And you may have alluded to this earlier when you were talking about your devotional time, but how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Dr. Anderson: Well, and I did speak about that a little bit. You know, I make sure that I create time for, um, my own reflection and relationship with God. And I listen to the preached for every day cuz I drive quite a distance to come to Topeka, but also read the written word and then just reflect through prayer and study on what God is saying to me and how his word is living out in my life. So that has allowed me to stay very balanced and very focused with great clarity. The other Space, church of Resurrection has been just an instrumental part of my life. And I thank God every day for Pastor Adam and Pastor Cheryl and all the other people that show what true inclusivity looks like in how God can open doors and create opportunities to just love on people in a special way. And, I that has helped me continue to keep my spirit in shape. Meeting people like you and others who create opportunities to bring voice to how we can be ambassadors of hope for one another keeps my spirit in shape. So thank you for allowing me to be part of your program and may God continue to keep yours and all the listeners' spirits in shape through this program and the many others that you do.

Crystal: Dr. Anderson, what an honor to meet you and get to hear, just to just talk with you and hear more about the amazing ministry that you definitely have and how God is working in your life in such a tremendous way. I can just imagine the ripples of impact that the love you give out to all the kids, how that's just rippling out through Topeka and beyond. So thank you for letting God use you in that way. Thank you again for being with us.

Dr. Anderson: Thank you so much for having me and remember to keep your spirit in shape in all that you do. I know that you're closing out, but I have to share the Bishop of the Methodist Church, gave the sermon last Sunday at Church of the Resurrection and he said to pay attention. This is what his, the three points, pay attention, be in awe and spread the gospel. So as people leave from this space, hopefully they remember those three pieces from the bishop of the Methodist Church in this area.

Thank you.


That was Dr. Tiffany Anderson discussing how faith has been a driver throughout her career as an educator. To learn more about Dr. Anderson and her work in the Topeka Kansas School District, the community and the world, go to and look for this episode, where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected].

If you enjoyed today’s episode, we invite you to share the link with others and to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.

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