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.