How I Lead

This rural Colorado principal discovered that the ‘principal’s office’ can be an intimidating place. So she adapted.

Lana Gardner, principal of Las Animas Elementary School, with two students.

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.

Lana Gardner, principal of Las Animas Elementary School in southeastern Colorado, noticed something fishy when she arrived for a scheduled teacher observation early in her career. The teacher had dressed up, the classroom was more organized than usual and the students’ answers sounded rehearsed.

The experience helped Gardner evolve into a different kind of boss — one who favored informal observations and casual conversations with her teachers.

Gardner is one of five principals and assistant principals who participated in the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

Gardner talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses photography to connect with families, why she helps out in the lunchroom and how she realized the main office isn’t always the best place for parent meetings. 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 as a student math tutor in the Math Lab at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. As a naturally strong math student, I enjoyed helping friends and not only complete problems and assignments, but truly understand the beauty behind mathematics!

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _________. Why?
Take pictures. Capturing life through photos is very important to me. Many of my students rarely have photos taken by their family or friends with a real camera. I take pictures of students and teachers working, playing and learning. I share these photos with our community via our local paper, Facebook and hard copies mailed to the students’ and staff’s homes with a personal note.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
As a principal in my small, rural hometown, I have the incredible advantage of knowing many of my students and their families both in and out of the school setting. That said, I employ many tactics at school to get to know students. When a student is referred to the office for an undesirable behavior, I utilize our “Positive Behavior Intervention and Support” matrix and strategies to re-teach appropriate behavior and try to determine the motivating factors.

I spend time with students taking a walk around the block, working on a puzzle or coloring motivational pictures when they need a little positive adult interaction. Our entire school staff sends postcards to individual students on at least a monthly basis. Additionally, as part of my weekly classroom observations, I talk with at least one student per classroom about their learning objective and how it pertains to their life or might be important to them.

I participate in a least half of all meetings to discuss individualized education programs, advanced learning plans or 504 plans (an educational plan that gives students with disabilities individualized help), and make positive and challenging phone calls home with students. Several times per week, I support staff and students by playing and supervising at recess and in the lunchroom for breakfast or lunch. All of these strategies allow me to discover students’ likes and dislikes, and make personal connections to build upon.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse.
Early in my career as a principal, I visited a classroom for a planned formal observation. Everything seemed very rehearsed, from the prepped sticky notes and pencils to the students’ answers to questions. The teacher was dressed more neatly than typical and the classroom was certainly more organized. This experience was certainly part of my evolution and growth in my evaluation process to much more frequent, informal observations and reflection conversations.

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

Several years ago, I was introduced to the organization Destination Imagination (a program that teaches 21st century skills and STEM principles). For the past three years, our school has sponsored teams and each year the number of students and sponsors has increased! Destination Imagination gives our students an opportunity to collaborate, problem-solve, create and perform with only their own imaginations as limits.

In addition, for several years I have struggled to implement a system to encourage teachers to participate in peer observations and reflections. This school year, I began inviting two teachers at a time to participate in classroom observation “data walks.” These observations have been incredibly well-received by staff and the feedback has been invaluable to me and other teachers.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Our school believes strongly in the philosophy of PBIS – Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. I handle discipline by trying to determine the root cause of the behavior. We re-teach desired behaviors, encourage our apology process, deliver an appropriate consequence depending on the kid and the infraction and finish every interaction on a positive note. When appropriate, I connect with the student’s parent.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Time management! All too often, I get to the end of the day and know that I have been busy all day, but wonder what I have accomplished. Recently, I have started keeping a daily journal/log to reflect on how I spent my time. This strategy encourages me to be more mindful and purposeful.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One day, I was taking a walk around the block with a student as I waited for a different student’s grandparents to arrive to discuss their dissatisfaction with my handling of an issue with their grandson (of whom they have custody). The grandparents arrived early, so I sent the walker back in and I stayed outside visiting with the grandparents outside so their younger children could play in the lawn. The grandparents were much calmer and less hostile that I anticipated. This interaction made me realize that no matter how much I try to make the school office a non-threatening and welcoming environment, some people will still feel that the “office” is a negative place to be. Since then, I make an effort to consider the environment when meeting with people.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My favorite advice came in an excerpt from Mother Teresa’s “Do Good Anyway”: “Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.” Some days, it feels as though the odds are stacked against so many of my students and our school will never be able to provide everything our community needs. I strive to remember that many days I will fall short; but in the final analysis on my life, I will reflect back and take comfort in know that I gave my best 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 negative factor (the amount of money withheld from Colorado schools to help balance the state budget) continues to have a major impact on our school district. This ongoing decrease in funding has greatly limited our ability to provide kids with developmental opportunities that they deserve such as exposure to the arts and music. Currently, I am trying to develop a schedule with community members to provide “specials” on a rotating, limited basis. Additionally, I strive to be creative with incentives for staff members that go above and beyond the school district’s expectations.

How I Lead

This Colorado principal thinks educators should stop turning to experts — and look inward

PHOTO: John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools

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.

As principal of West Grand Elementary and Middle School in the northwestern Colorado town of Kremmling, Jess Buller noticed something alarming a couple years ago: his middle-schoolers were disengaged.

It prompted Buller and his staff to redesign the school schedule. Today, students are happier, more relaxed and doing well academically.

In addition to recounting that experience, Buller told Chalkbeat about his first nerve-wracking call to a parent of a misbehaving student, and why he has little patience for political rhetoric.

Buller is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

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 in education was as a high school German teacher in Gretna, Nebraska. I was fresh out of college and moved right into a position where I was department head and sole teacher of beginner through advanced German. My plans always involved education; I just struggled to narrow down the content area. I danced around English and German as well as music, finally realizing that my true passion was helping students acquire another language.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _____ Why?
Pray. It takes a lot of strength, courage and wisdom to do this job. Alone I am weak.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Getting to know students is a very challenging part of the job. Fortunately, I work in a smaller district so getting to know students becomes an inherent piece. When I have the opportunity to speak with students — be it in my office, the hallway or the classroom — I try and dig to get to know them better. I want to gain whatever insight they are willing to offer into their interests and their background in order to find a common bond we can build upon.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
During the 2015-16 school year, we recognized that a need for a change to our middle school schedule was imperative. Students were going through the school day like bricks through a factory and there was no real connection to the content.

As a staff, we spent the year researching effective models and schools of thought regarding a better middle school experience, ultimately coming up with the model we currently operate under — a flexible block schedule. The change provides larger blocks of time for core subjects and aligns subjects strategically to emphasize cross-curricular units. It has proven extremely beneficial to our students as they are happier and more relaxed. Oh yeah, and they are experiencing success in school as well.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I seek always to view discipline as an educational opportunity. Students exhibit negative behaviors for a variety of reasons. To simply write them off as “habitually disruptive” or (even worse) a “problem child” without making any effort to understand the behavior would simply be setting them up for future problems. We all know there are consequences for our choices, so if I am able to work with students from that level — and perhaps even instill some empathy in the process — I can reduce the probability of repeat offenders.

What is the hardest part of your job?
To be truthful, I don’t handle lip service and political rhetoric very well. “Do what is best for students” has become an overused phrase we toss around in the world of education, but we never really get to the heart of what that means. We can easily hide behind programs and data and attend conferences headlined by “gurus” in the field, but we often do those things at the expense of putting ourselves under the microscope and asking if we truly are doing what is best for kids. Nobody wants to admit where they struggle — or perhaps even fail — but the difficult discussions are what will help us ultimately grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
It was the first time I had to contact a parent. I had some behavioral concerns about the child and was hesitant to make that initial phone call. Some of the teachers on staff assured me that the student’s mother would make excuses for the child’s behavior and ultimately end up blaming me. I went ahead and made the call and the response I got was memorable. The child’s mother thanked me for the conversation and let me know that she would speak to her daughter about how things needed to improve. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Parents appreciate proactive educators who have the best interests of their children in mind.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The children’s books “Skeleton Hiccups” and “I Wish That I Had Duck Feet” (favorites of my 5-year-old son).

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Some day you will get credit for the things you don’t say.”

How I Lead

What one principal learned from daily classroom visits, brain science and a paperwork mistake

PHOTO: James Chamberlin
James Chamberlin, principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand school district, with students.

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.

As principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, James Chamberlin stops by classrooms every single day. At first, the teachers were nervous, wondering why he was coming by so often.

But soon they learned that was just his style. Chamberlin learned something, too: Focus more on the results teachers are getting and less on the way they get them.

He likes to say, “I don’t care as much about how you organize your kitchen. I care more about the quality of the meal.”

Chamberlin won the 2015 Administrator of the Year Award from SHAPE Colorado, a professional group of health and physical education teachers. Under his leadership, Fraser Valley Elementary has also won several awards for excellence.
We asked Chamberlin how he thinks about leadership, what brain science has taught him and how lagging school funding affects his staff. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

My first formal paid education job was as a high school teacher in Craig, Colorado. I taught social studies and Spanish. Ironically, I didn’t have a Spanish endorsement but had put on the top of my resume that I had a “strong desire to work with Spanish-speaking students.” Back then social studies teachers were plentiful and jobs scarce.

Fortunately, I was able to attend night classes at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs to get Spanish credit hours and lesson ideas to use that first year of teaching. Over the summer I was able to complete and add a Spanish endorsement and enjoyed a second year of teaching and coaching varsity soccer, and I did get to work with some Spanish-speaking students.

My interest in education was sparked by positive relationships with my teachers and coaches at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County. The idea of teaching was always ingrained in my family tree. One of my grandfathers was a principal at Thomas Jefferson High School and the other was a music teacher in Denver Public Schools. My grandmother was a second-grade teacher in DPS. My father is a retired administrator from Cherry Creek School District and my mother is a retired physical education teacher from Cherry Creek.

My interest in the field of education was solidified at the University of Northern Colorado, where I became involved in student government and was elected Vice President of Faculty Affairs. This opportunity provided me a unique education around the policy and politics of public education and teacher training.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I____________ . Why?
Visit each classroom. The opportunity to be present in the classrooms every day gives me insight into the student and teacher dynamics that drive the school climate and culture. I also observe the components of individual student learning and engagement. At first, the teachers were really uncomfortable with the frequency of my visits, but over time they realized that it’s my “style” to gain a better understanding of what is going on with students and staff.

As a new principal, I spent too much time focusing on teacher behaviors in the classroom. What I have come to understand is that the student behaviors and outcomes — as a result of the teacher’s decision-making and ability to unpack the learning target — are equally important.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I try to learn all the students’ names and associate an interest or activity with them so when we visit I can ask about their particular interest.

As an elementary principal, I spend hours in the lunchroom and the playground engaging with students and observing how they are interacting with each other and the adults around them. I am also fortunate to have school-age children of my own who participate in numerous activities where I can engage in some positive sideline support.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
About two months ago, I set up a time to conduct a mid-year review with a teacher. At about the same time, the district sent out the “intent to return forms.” I had looked over the form and the teacher indicated she wanted to transfer to another building and wanted to retire in the next three years. So I carefully set up ample time to visit with the teacher thinking we had some differences to discuss and the teacher had some concerns about her satisfaction in the building and profession.

Halfway into the conference I wasn’t getting any indication of her dissatisfaction so I asked for a moment, went to the front office to get a copy of her intent to return form, set it in front of her and asked her to help me understand the form. She immediately burst out laughing and apologized for filling the form out wrong. Lesson learned: Don’t believe everything that you initially think. You have to investigate further, confirm and then collaborate.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I came into a school that had had numerous transitions in leadership and was struggling with day-to-day nuts and bolts operational issues. For the first year, I was also assigned this position as a job share, with a veteran elementary principal serving as principal two days a week and myself serving two days a week. (We were on a four-day week, and my other two days were as a central office administrator.) While this was one of the most challenging school and job assignments I have had, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding. We were able to set up a coordinating council that served as a collaborative decision-making team.

This process helped improve the day-to-day operations and the ability for staff to problem-solve school issues. Having systems, structures and processes to handle the operational nuts and bolts of the school allows the teachers to focus on the teaching and learning. Through this focus on teaching and learning we are proud to have received the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award four years in a row and the John Irwin School of Excellence award. The district has been recognized with an English Language Proficiency Act Excellence award, as well as being named an outlier district that outperforms other districts with similar demographics by A Plus Colorado.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Discipline is about changing behavior and improving relationships. If you don’t fully understand and address the root causes that are driving the behaviors, then changing the pattern of behavior becomes more difficult. While high expectations for behavior are important, differentiating the approach to get the end result is equally important.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job currently is learning the unique dynamics of an elementary school. I served 17 years of my career as a middle school principal, high school principal/administrator and central office administrator. I have come to learn that an elementary school is really three schools in one. The preschool — 3- and 4-year-olds — the K-2 level and the 3-5 level. Each of these levels have distinct developmental and pedagogical differences.

While trying to learn about the unique dynamics of elementary education, I have also had the recent opportunity to teach for a graduate school master’s degree program, instructing classes in assessment, curriculum and instruction as well as the psychology of learning. This experience has helped me realize the educational importance of birth to age 5 on the brain and learning.

Recent research in neuroscience has shown that a student’s learning trajectory starts very early and is significantly impacted by trauma and toxic stress. I see evidence of this daily in our preschool and kindergarten students and the amount of intervention necessary to overcome the barriers to learning. But I also see hope and resilience when students learn to persevere, grow their minds, and believe they can learn to read, believe they are good at math and can communicate well in writing.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One day we were hosting a “Mother Read/Father Read” workshop for our preschool parents and as a courtesy we allowed younger siblings to join the school’s preschoolers while the parents were in our library learning about the program. About halfway into the program, our preschool teacher came running into the nurse’s office carrying a 3-year-old visitor sibling who was struggling to breathe and whose lips were blue. Another student had indicated the child had put something in their mouth, so we began first aid by trying to clear the airways and called 911.

What we came to find out was that this was one of the first times the child had been away from his parents and had become so upset, he was crying hysterically and was struggling to get air. We also learned that he had been playing with a blue marker and had gotten some on his lips. While this was an incredibly intense emergency situation and had a positive ending, it was good to see how quickly paramedics responded — and the parents were appreciative and supportive of how we handled the situation.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The biggest education policy issue impacting our school is the lack of adequate funding. The Colorado paradox is that we have a highly educated population with subpar funding for our public schools. While many argue, including me, that schools need to improve, grow and change to meet 21st century thinking and learning standards, our teachers and principals need time, professional development and feedback to continue to grow and learn. Some larger systems can afford these supports for educators, but most cannot.

Our district has made some tough choices and we are addressing the lack of funding by grant-writing, collaborating with the BOCES to provide staff development and paying teachers to attend training on their own time. We also chose to provide daily planning and collaboration time, free full-day kindergarten for all students, full-day preschool for qualifying students and manageable class sizes. We do these things because they are important, but they come at a cost: lower salaries for staff compared to our cost of living and cost of medical insurance.

What are you reading for enjoyment? Chalkbeat, of course!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”