Superintendent Interview Series

Leading with Empathy: A Conversation with Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ian Roberts


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

Dr. Ian Roberts reflects on his first year at the helm of Des Moines Public Schools, giving insight into his commitment to listening, learning and leading; how his experiences as an Olympic athlete influence his approach to leadership; and the strategies his district employs to prioritize the well-being of both students and teachers.

Listening, Learning, Leading: The Three L's Approach

From day one, Superintendent Roberts embraced a philosophy grounded in the Three L's: Listen, Learn, Lead. He wanted to emphasize the importance of truly understanding the needs of the educational community before enacting change. After ten months of implementing this strategy, Dr. Roberts has seen promising results, including a renewed focus on instructional leadership. Recognizing the pivotal role of school leaders in driving student success, Dr. Roberts set an expectation for principals to spend at least 70% of their time on the instructional core. This shift required a cultural change, but through support and guidance, all principals enthusiastically embraced the challenge, leading to tangible improvements in teacher growth and student outcomes: “The old paradigm [was] that less than 20% of our leaders [focused on instructional growth]. But today, I am excited to share that 100% of our leaders are quantifying getting towards that 70%. And we've seen how that impacts their ability to grow their teachers.” 

Another key focus area is fostering a culturally responsive educational system. With a majority non-white district, a significant proportion of English-Language Learner students, and three-quarters of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, Dr. Roberts believes that it’s important to embed cultural responsiveness into every aspect of school operations. His final focus has been fostering community engagement. Building meaningful, positive, and sustainable relationships with community partners and parents has allowed Des Moines Public Schools to work towards an eventual goal of becoming a hub of support and upliftment for the entire community: “There are many eras of celebration…but I also recognize that there are opportunities for us to grow and improve.” 

Prioritizing Teacher Wellbeing

Central to Superintendent Roberts' leadership approach was prioritizing the wellbeing of teachers: “If you find the right adults, … [and] you build capacity, invest in them, and ensure that you are inspiring them to recognize that the work that we're doing in this arena is so much bigger than us, then the sky's the limit.” He’s found that if you don’t prioritize teachers, students are more likely to fall through the cracks. Although Dr. Roberts has been an educator for two decades, his understanding of what it takes to make a great leader comes from his time as an Olympic track athlete: “I think of the discipline that was instilled in me, I think of my commitment to always been involved in a training regimen that was focused on continuous improvement, as well as just the necessity for my mindset to be a particular way––some people look at track and feel it’s an individual sport, but the team concept is so incredibly important.” 

Recognizing the diversity amongst teachers, as well as the immense challenges they face has been key: “How do I continuously improve the commitment to make sure that I am partnering with—and genuinely collaborating with—a team of individuals, many of whom are bringing very different skills, and are are at various places in their own development, all with the sort of common desire to have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of students and teachers?” he asked. The answer lies in a three-pronged approach that includes a belief in the inherent value of his teachers, refraining from making top-down decisions without teacher input, and making sure that all his teachers feel seen and heard. One of the most effective aspects of Dr. Roberts’ approach has been the weekly empathy messages he sends to the district. These missives share a story related to an event that’s happening in the real world––a school board member losing her battle with cancer, or Women’s History Month––and end with what Dr. Roberts refers to as a “radical empathy quote,” something they can “carry in their toolkit throughout the week.” 

Empowering Adults to Support Students

Superintendent Roberts emphasized the importance of creating psychologically safe spaces for all adults and students within the educational community. The district administers a survey 2-3 times per year to understand where and how teachers are struggling to support themselves and their students. Dr. Roberts emphasizes that not only do they care about what teachers are going through, they are responsive to their needs and try to work with their teachers to find solutions. For example, “we have a substitute teacher shortage, but we also have teacher absences that have increased as well exponentially since the pandemic,” says Dr. Roberts. “If you have to take some time off, and you are considering it a relaxation or mental health day, please do so. We value teachers actually taking care of themselves.”

Help is available in other forms, too. The district “makes sure that we are truly accessing and leveraging many of the community resources that are available to us in terms of mental health— providers, counselors, and the local healthcare system—and we are not shy about messaging the importance of this to teachers.” Teachers also have access to a meditation club. For Dr. Roberts, the final piece of the puzzle is SEL. “We've invested in an SEL curriculum next year,” he says. “It will be in 100% of our schools. We're targeting not only the competencies around SEL for students, but also for adults. We want to make sure that first and foremost we are prioritizing help for things like anxiety and clinical depression.” By centering the wellbeing of adults alongside that of students, Dr. Roberts is hoping to foster a culture of care and support that enables everyone to thrive. 

Through targeted investments in mental health support and recognition of diverse talents, Des Moines Public Schools hopes to continue growing toward being a model of holistic education.

Dr. Roberts shared three poignant reminders for fellow superintendents. First, to center the wellbeing of both students and adults in their leadership approach. Second, to recognize the trust and investment bestowed upon them by the community and reciprocate with thoughtful decision-making. And finally, to navigate relationships with prudence and foresight, always mindful of their responsibility to serve the needs of those they lead. Dr. Roberts' first year at Des Moines Public Schools exemplifies the transformative power of empathy-driven leadership in education. By prioritizing the wellbeing of students and teachers alike, he has created a culture of care, collaboration, and continuous improvement. 

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.