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

A Bronx principal explains secret behind $25,000 award: teachers learning along with students

Kristin Erat with students graduating from Grant Avenue Elementary.

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.

In a unanimous decision last week, principal Kristin Erat won the Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize on behalf of her school, an annual award that bestows $25,000 on a public school in or around New York City to spend on advancing opportunities for students by helping to position their teachers, in the words of the prize criteria, to “lead, learn, and thrive.”

As the founding principal of Grant Avenue Elementary School, which opened in the Bronx in 2009, Erat knew she wanted to create a collaborative community for teachers, families and students. Although the school quickly developed a strong literature program, mathematics proved to be a heavier lift. That changed when Grant Avenue became part of the DOE-funded Learning Partners Program two years ago. The initiative, started by former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, seeks to improve schools through internal and external collaboration. Principal Erat and her assistant principal have used the funds from this program to support teachers sharing innovative ways to provide students with a stronger conceptual understanding of mathematics.

While reflecting on the changes she has seen within the past couple of years, Erat discussed and highlighted some of the reasons why she believes the school’s work attracted recognition.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Describe the work that you are doing. How will the prize money help you expand on that work?

In the past we had really flat and bad math data we were at 12 percent proficiency for a number of years. At the time, we were using a very procedural, highly scripted curriculum. Teachers would just go lesson by lesson, using the workshop model of ‘I do, you do, we do,’ and basically what we found was that our students were compliant, but there was limited transfer in terms of conceptual understanding of mathematics. Because the way the curriculum was set up, teachers also had a limited conceptual understanding of the material, because they were teaching lessons in isolation and going by a script. So, two years ago we decided to rip off the bandaid and move in a radically different direction and became part of the Learning Partners program in New York. Principals, assistant principals and teachers are a part of it. To start as a host school, you identify a problem of practice in our case, that was around mathematics  and you set up day-long visitations where other schools visit classes, take notes and then gather feedback for the school that should give [its teachers] a new direction to go in. For our host work, we would always use a professional text to study, which in our case was the 5 Practices For Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion. Whenever we were trying something new, we would have a core group of teachers trying it out to see if it’s working and based on the impact, we would decide where to go next. The funding from the DOE is set up to stop formally after three years, so the money from the prize will go to all of these initiatives that support teacher leadership in the community. The prize will work in two directions it will go towards the work we are doing around innovating how we taught mathematics and towards the visitations within the school (and the ones that support other city schools) to help them roll out practices.

Why do you think you won this award, and what about your work made it stand out?

I happen to have worked with every one of the other principals who were up for consideration in various roles. I know that they are all very strong leaders. I have experienced their leadership and know they are doing tremendous work in their schools. So in a sense, it was difficult to win, because you know you’re standing in a room with other folks who are doing terrific work. I was really proud of winning, and I think the reason we won was because the work that we were doing fit so well with the the language of the award, which is given to highlight leadership and excellent work taking place in a school, always with a focus on teacher effectiveness. My assistant principal and I believe that the more invested we are in supporting teachers in professional growth, the more students will be taken care of. We also demonstrated a huge impact in advancing opportunities for students and by positioning teachers to “lead, learn and thrive.”

Kristin is presented with the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize by Teaching Matters.

How do you train your teachers to become leaders? What are the specific strategies you use?

In our professional development blocks, we have dedicated time set up for mini-courses, where teachers will be leading six to eight different colleagues and will work on a particular area of practice, like using backwards design to prepare for math units. At the end of each year, teachers can either nominate themselves or their colleagues for a particular area of strength that folks think others can benefit from, and on Mondays, colleagues can sign up for one of the mini-courses and work alongside those colleagues to learn. Teachers are broken up into teams, and each of the teams have a mathematics representative and a literary representative who meet with me monthly. We have model teachers and peer-collaborative teachers. The model teachers are the teachers who use their classrooms as places to get together with administration and to demonstrate teaching techniques, and they visit each other to give each other feedback. Peer-collaboration teachers teach during half of their schedule and coach during half of their schedule. They receive a stipend on top of their salary, and it’s a great way to ensure that your strongest teachers are growing in their practices and are incentivized to stay. Their coaching is one-on-one throughout the year.

How have the new teaching methods transformed your community? What are some of the major changes you have seen?

We are known as a school to visit around literacy practices, but unfortunately math was neglected. It was not an area of emphasis. From a teacher and student standpoint, attitudes about math were low, but now we see something completely different. One of the elements that has been really powerful is work that we have drawn from 5 Practices For Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion. A specific practice we do is that students in a class are given a grade-level task and virtually no teaching before taking the test. We call the problems they’re given ‘persevere problems’ and say that they have to use all they know about math to unpack the problem. While students are independently working, the teacher is circling and seeing what students are using models, previous lessons, common misconceptions. The teacher then selects three to four students to present their work in front of class, but in a way where each example links to a connection or math understanding that will lead to the answer. It used to be that kids would get a test, and you would see slumped shoulders and upset students. But these instructions happen two to three times per week, and you see kids energized and encouraging each other during them with questions and feedback. Since starting, we have had huge gains from 12 percent proficiency to 31 percent proficiency, and I know that when our results come back this year, we will see more gains.

Can you describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that you have seen?

One of the exciting aspects of this work is that sometimes people hear “model teacher” or “teacher leader” and perceive that to mean that that person knows it all, but in fact some of our most beautiful and challenging moments came from model teachers being learners. One of our teachers in particular, when we had to talk about changes to make, would be tearful and ask why she was teaching if she didn’t know what she was doing. She is very competent, and it was uncomfortable to have to learn to teach a different way and to then have to teach that to someone else. She’s someone whom we talk about all the time though, because she teaches the third grade special education class that outperformed the city on the math test. There were lots of tears in the beginning, but we come to work every day because we want our students to succeed.

How do you ensure parents grow with the community as well?

Every Friday we have ‘Family Fridays’ in the early afternoon, and parents are welcome in the classroom to engage in learning with their child. We have a strong parent leadership team that works on crafting goals as well. It’s mainly the little things, like we get 100 percent engagement with parent conferences. It’s just the expectations we have for our parents. These conversations we’re having are important, and meetings have to be a two-way dialogue. On parents’ night, we also have a scavenger hunt where parents have to meet with at least seven educators who work with their child. The more informal opportunities parents have to get to know teachers, the easier the serious conversations will be because there is already a relationship built.

How I Lead

Meditation and mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

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.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school.

Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness.

For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving [and] for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.