How I Lead

Respect, dignity and no assumptions: How one Colorado school leader handles student discipline

PHOTO: Phil Roeder/Creative Commons

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Andrea Smith, assistant principal at Niwot High School in the St. Vrain Valley district, was surprised when a normally well-behaved student received an out-of-school suspension. But she soon found out from the boy’s parents that he had been suffering from severe depression and anxiety.

Smith quickly got the school counselors involved and they worked with the family to get the student the help he needed.

Smith, who was named the 2018 Colorado Assistant Principal of the Year for Secondary Schools, talked to Chalkbeat about how she approaches student discipline, what happened when a teacher observation took a strange turn, and why laughing at work is a must.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first education “job” was when I worked with sixth graders as a part of a spring break camp. I was a senior in high school, and I had been laser-focused for several years on preparing to go to college for animal science and becoming a veterinarian. I went home that day and told my parents I had changed my mind — I wanted to be a middle school science teacher.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
Laugh out loud at least three times. I think having a sense of humor when working in a middle school or high school is really important. I want students and teachers to understand how much I love my job, and I think being able to have fun and laugh is the best way to show that.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Moving from the classroom into leadership, I was most worried about being able to continue building strong relationships with students. I use every opportunity to get to know students: popping into classrooms, greeting students as they come in for the day, spending time in the counseling office, working with student council, and training students to help with iPad deployment. I can better support all of our students when I can build relationships. It is not always easy, but I try to be available for students as much as possible.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
One time I evaluated a newer science teacher, and the students loved her! They were nervous for her, and I could tell they wanted the lesson to go well. I was impressed by their devotion to the success of their teacher. At one point in the lab, she walked up to a group of students and talked to them about the data they had collected. She wondered how their data had been so accurate and consistent. One student very quietly explained to her that they had made up really consistent data to “show that it was a good lab so she would get a good evaluation.” She handled the situation well, and we talked (and laughed) afterward. She had obviously built great relationships with her students, and it was fun to see how much they supported her.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I am really proud of working with our learning technology coach and district support staff to design a professional development structure that gives voice and choice to our teachers. I believe that we have true experts at Niwot High School — in both content and instruction. Creating a professional development format that highlights that expertise and builds a platform for sharing that with others is something I have loved doing.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Everybody makes mistakes. I think it is really important to remember that students should always be treated with respect and dignity regardless of the choices they have made. When approaching a discipline incident, I work hard to never make assumptions about a student. It is important to get the entire story and ensure that students feel heard and valued. It is not about what they did … It’s about what they do next.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Balancing it all. I love my job, but every day is different and challenging in its own way. Assistant principals wear a lot of different “hats,” and sometimes it is hard to switch gears and get it all done in a day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Several years ago, there was a discipline incident with a student where he was suspended out of school. I knew the behavior was out of character for the student, but I wasn’t sure what was really going on. I met with his parents and learned that he was struggling with severe depression and anxiety. I was able to partner with our counselors to help the parents better understand the resources available to help the student. This situation taught me that there is almost always more going on beneath the surface, and it is only by working with parents and families that I can truly support students in finding success in life and at school.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
We are still working on adjusting our teacher evaluation system as a part of the policy shift associated with Senate Bill 10-191. Each year we have improved the process to better support teacher growth and student achievement gains in my district. Our adjustments have increased teacher buy-in and ownership. Clear connections and alignment between building goals, teacher evaluation, and professional development is something we strive to achieve.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. I have seen the movie and now I am crying my way through the book, too.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Live your values. A school leader early in my career reminded me that a philosophy of leadership is only as good as my ability to live it each day. She urged me to work every day to act in ways that illustrate my values as a leader. I have always appreciated this advice, and I think it has helped me remember the importance of day-to-day interactions within the big picture of leadership.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

How I Lead

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

PHOTO: Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
Happy birthday sign and balloons on school locker

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Can you imagine marking the birthdays of more than 2,000 people?

Probably not, but Sharee Blunt, the principal of Northglenn High School, can. With the help of a massive spreadsheet and a talented office manager, she hand-delivers a birthday card to every student and staff member in her suburban Denver school.

Blunt talked to Chalkbeat about how recognizing birthdays helps her get to know students, what a mother’s emotional reaction made her realize, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry.

Blunt was recently named the 2018 High School Principal of the Year for Colorado by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first job was at Shaw Heights Middle School in Westminster teaching physical education and health. I have always had a strong desire to work with young adults and inspire them to reach goals through education. My parents always stressed the importance of a good education and how that can positively impact a person’s life, and I wanted to share that same philosophy with others.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?

My day at school is not complete unless I get the opportunity to connect with at least one student, one teacher, and one parent. I believe it is our social responsibility to help positively impact at least one person’s life each day.

PHOTO: courtesy of Sharee Blunt
Principal Sharee Blunt, with students at Northglenn High School.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I get to know students by showing them that I genuinely care about them. Every morning I try to start my day by being out in the hallways and telling them good morning and to have a great day. I make every attempt to support our students at extracurricular activities such as concerts, sporting events, and banquets. I look for opportunities to bring the student voice into building decisions through the principal’s advisory committee that I established when I became principal.

I also love celebrating birthdays so I hand-deliver a birthday card to each of our students and staff members on their birthdays. I have a lot of help organizing this with my office manager, of course.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Recently I was in a teacher’s classroom for a formal observation on a Friday afternoon right before spring break. I had thought about postponing the observation because I anticipated the students would be restless, but I also wanted to honor the teacher’s intentional and thoughtful planning for the evaluation. The lesson did not go as the teacher had planned and I felt her stress and frustration quickly. I reassured her that we all have those kind of days where even our best laid plans do not go as expected and it was OK. She is a great educator and I hope that she felt supported – I look forward to being in her classroom again in the next week.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

A couple of years ago I wanted to start up a system of “giving back” and “paying it forward,” so I created a campaign called Norse Cares, after the school’s nickname. I am proud to say that climate and culture we have inside our building is built on treating others with kindness and we look for a variety of different ways to help our Norse families and community members.

During winter break we provided gifts and food to 120 students. We provided three books to each kindergarten students at North Mor Elementary School. In October we raised money to put together 60 bags for cancer patients enduring chemotherapy at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Thornton.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

Student discipline is one of the toughest parts of being an administrator. Great people make poor decisions from time to time and I believe it is really important to discipline the behavior and not the person. What I mean by that is that you can have a hard conversation with someone without making it personal. I always try and handle discipline situations with dignity and kindness so that the student knows that I care about them through those tough times.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job has been handling the death of a student or staff member. We are blessed with the opportunity to work with over 2,000 students every year and you make every effort to get to know them. When something happens to one of them, it is like losing a family member.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Four years ago I was working with the family of an incoming ninth grader who did not live within our school boundaries. Their son Frank had applied to our STEM biomedical and engineering pathway, a four-year program that allows students to earn college credit and work closely with industry partners. The family knew that we had a waiting list to get into the program and waited anxiously to find out if Frank was accepted.

At our spring STEM celebration that year the family learned that Frank had been accepted and Frank’s mom came over to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. I will never forget her words as she told me how we were going to change her son’s life forever. Frank is a senior at our school and will be graduating in May. Not only has Northglenn High School and our STEM education changed Frank’s life and his future, he has changed our lives too – Frank and his family inspire me every day. They are a great reminder of the true value of education and the work we do every day.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

The issue having a big impact on our school and every other school would probably be school funding. Financial resources are low, deferred building maintenance is high, and other financial responsibilities have a negative impact on daily operations. As a school, we are addressing the issue by seeking grants and other resources to provide the best quality education for our students.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received is to end each day on a positive note and wake up every morning with a grateful heart. “Not every day is a good day but there is good in every day.”