As Executive Director, Valerie Sakimura (she/her/hers) brings a belief that great teachers have incredible power to honor and lift up children and 15 years experience supporting leaders and teams in education, non-profit, and for-profit organizations to strengthen their impact. She previously served as Vice President of Program at Deans for Impact, Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, and a consultant at Monitor Group. Valerie holds an AB in Social Studies from Harvard College, an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Valerie is: from Hawaii originally but currently Colorado-based, proudly hapa and sansei, a wife and mother to two multiracial daughters, and a lover of the outdoors and elaborate home-cooked meals.
Why did you start working in education?
When I was little, I loved going to dance class. I was on scholarship at the studio, so I served as a teacher’s assistant for younger kids. I loved getting to know kids and breaking the steps down in ways that built their confidence. The best part was getting to see them shine on stage. Those first experiences as an educator made me excited about teaching. At the same time, I grew up experiencing different types of schools: private, traditional public, and public charter. Those vastly distinct experiences made me question: Why do some students have more opportunities than others depending on what schools they go to? I started working in education because I believed in the power of great teachers and wanted to ensure all kids had access to them.
What compels you about DFI's mission of ensuring that every child has a well-prepared teacher?
When I drop my daughter off at school, the questions running in the back of my mind are: Do her teachers see her as I do? Do they cherish her as I do? Do they want for her what I do? Families put incredible trust in teachers to see and care for their children and help them build the knowledge, skills, sense of self, and sense of the world that will ultimately enable them to live full, meaningful lives. And because kids don’t get to start their educational journeys over each new year, every teacher they encounter in their history of schooling matters. Helping shape how future teachers are prepared so that they can stand in front of kids better able to see them, lift them up, and foster their potential is an immense privilege.
Describe a teacher or student who made a lasting impact in your life.
In Hawai’i where I grew up, many kids speak Hawaiian Pidgin, a local dialect often used in everyday conversation, but looked down on in academic settings as an uneducated way to speak and write. My high school English teacher, Mr. Teter, asked us to read literary works in both standard English and Pidgin. It was the first time that I had experienced Pidgin being treated by a teacher as worthy of study and intellectually on par with standard English. I remember how affirming it was for my classmates to see their language lifted up like that and how engaged students were in the learning they were invited into. Mr. Teter really opened my eyes to how teachers have the power to honor students in their fullness and, in doing so, open up new ways of thinking and seeing the world.
What's a principle, philosophy, or quote you live by, and why?
In grad school, one of my instructors shared a simple sentence with me: Everyone has a story. While seemingly obvious, I was struck by how true it is. It can be really easy in day-to-day interactions to forget how fully human any individual is. But I’m constantly reminded that every person I encounter has done truly remarkable things, overcome incredible challenges, and is holding both joy and struggle at any moment. The work we do is about people, and I try to stay grounded in this idea that each person is bringing the richness of their story into each interaction.