How I Lead

This Colorado Springs principal takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to leadership

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.

Manuel Ramsey, principal of Bristol Elementary in Colorado Springs, is not the kind of leader who holes up in his office all day. He leads a fourth-grade reading group almost daily, a fifth-grade math group once a week and often eats lunch with students — especially those who need extra help with their behavior.

Principal Manuel Ramsey

It’s these kinds of duties and “lots of little conversations” with kids that help him connect with students and understand the workaday lives of his teachers.

Under Ramsey’s leadership, Bristol Elementary won the Excellence in STEM Education award at the inaugural Succeeds Prize event earlier this month. The Succeeds Prize is a partnership between 9NEWS, Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit that advocates for education reform on behalf of the business community, and mindSpark Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

Ramsay talked to Chalkbeat about what he looks for in prospective teachers, why lawmakers should talk to successful principals and how he became more courageous when meeting with parents.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I began my career as an elementary physical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1985. It was a great teaching job, as I loved sports and working with kids. I guess I had such good teachers when I was growing up that I wanted to be a teacher. I remember one day — it must have been my second or third year teaching — another teacher told me I would be a principal one day. Sixteen years later it happened.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ________. Why?
Help a staff member and make a student smile. As a principal, my primary job is to be a helper — helping teachers and staff succeed at their jobs and letting kids know we are there for them.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I am in classrooms, on the playground and in the cafeteria every day. I interact with students throughout the day in lots of little conversations. I teach in classrooms when there is no sub and I cover classrooms so that my teachers can observe others or leave early for appointments. Students also come to my office regularly to have lunch.

Being in the classroom really helps me understand what my teachers go through on a daily basis. I also teach a fourth grade reading group four days a week and a fifth grade math group on Fridays. This is a great way to connect with kids and demonstrate to the staff that all hands are on deck.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Teacher evaluations are always interesting because people receive information differently. Some receive suggestions and coaching well and some get defensive. A number of years ago, one evaluation was actually for a teacher with very solid scores on the evaluation rubric. There was only one identified area to work on for the coming year. As I presented the information, the teacher started crying. I felt like I was presenting the information in a non-critical way, but the reaction was surprising. It was an interesting experience and helped me realize that approach is important and that people react differently.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
The most important thing I do as a principal is recruit and retain the best staff. When I interview for a staff position, I have a team of people help. I’m always trying to get a feel for the applicant’s demeanor, especially related to having a positive attitude. I’ve had the best luck with staff that are detail-oriented because the job is so complicated and there are so many moving pieces.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
We have an amazing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, system and we use it to recognize students who are working hard and leaning throughout the day. Over 80 percent of our students never get a referral. When a student does get in trouble, I work with the teacher to identify the cause and appropriate consequences to help the student make better choices.

At Bristol, it is more about coaching a student to make good choices than about punishment. We have a very structured system of response to discipline issues and it has helped us reduce referrals by 70 percent. If students continue to get in trouble, they will be invited to join the Bear 5 Academy at lunch — where I can work with them personally to help them understand the importance of learning and making good choices.

What is the hardest part of your job?
This is such a high energy job. It is nonstop from the minute I walk in the door. The hardest part is just keeping up with the million tasks that must get done in order to have a high-performing school. I try to be very involved in the instructional piece and in supporting my staff so that they just focus on the kids. Sometimes the emails and paperwork don’t get done like they could.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I have sat through so many meeting with parents and grandparents where the child is not getting the care and attention all students deserve. I have been an administrator for more than 20 years and when I began meeting with families I tended to keep my opinion to myself. However, after seeing so many heartbreaking situations, I have become more courageous in my conversations.

I began to realize that I may be one of only a few adults in a student’s life that could speak directly and provide direction to their family with some of the issues they are experiencing. I didn’t want to look back on my career and wish I would have spoken more openly and compassionately.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now?
Honestly, I don’t think too much about what is happening in the policy realm. I have my hands full with helping kids learn as much as possible each and every day. That is my primary job and I stay focused on that 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent, I wish legislators would stop legislating without asking successful principals for input.

How are you addressing it?
I have presented to the state House Education Committee and stood before the State Board of Education. I have also hosted legislators at my school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I have been reading about the Great Alaska Earthquake. It was a 9.2 magnitude and last four and a half minutes. I lived in Alaska from 1967 to 1989.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Also, Have courage and be kind

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

Meet Colorado’s distinguished elementary school principal of the year

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.

Tobey Bassoff, principal of Ryan Elementary in Lafayette, knows a lot of thought goes into decisions about how students are placed in different classrooms. But when she met with an upset father whose child had been assigned to a new teacher, she realized that parents were in the dark about the process.

It was an experience that prompted her to improve communication with parents about all the considerations that go into student placement. Meanwhile, the man’s son stayed in his assigned class and had the best year of his elementary school career.

Bassoff talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know students and families, why social and emotional learning is important, and who gave her the best advice she’s ever received.

Bassoff was named the 2017 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado, an award sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Tobey Bassoff, principal of Ryan Elementary School in Lafayette, with students.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I received my first education “jobs” in fourth grade when Mrs. Jackson allowed me to sit next to Joseph when I noticed he was struggling with school work and whom I knew I could lend a hand to help. That same year, my principal, Mr. Van Schoonhoven, created a job for me to call bus routes over the public address system when I came to him with that solution to support students safely boarding buses at the end of the day. The educators in my life nurtured my belief in making a positive difference in my community and they created opportunities for me to do so.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _________.
Connect with students, staff and families because they are the heart of what I do every day.

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

Golly! I’m just everywhere! I try to be out and about before school and after school, at recess, and in classrooms. I create opportunities for students and families to engage in learning after school through learning symposiums and on the weekend through service learning activities where we work together to take care of our community. I also show up at students’ soccer games and dance recitals.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I could say that I am most proud of being the first school in my district to support a one-in-one-out gender neutral bathroom policy, or that I’m proud of being a part of the effort that brought a $2.8 million grant to our community, or that I founded numerous community partnerships to help support our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) focus. However, I would say that I am most proud of the everyday ways that I help build capacity in our educators, students and community members to believe in the power of their ideas to positively impact the lives of children and work with them to make them a reality.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I view discipline as an opportunity to get to know students better. Behavior indicates need and it’s my responsibility to identify the need and help each child, and the adults supporting them, see incidents as learning opportunities from which we grow.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The most challenging aspect of the job is time management. It just seems that there are always a million things I want to do and a minute to do them.

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

One memorable interaction I had with a student’s family happened when a dad insisted that his son have a veteran teacher even though he had been placed with a newer teacher at the beginning of the year. Prior to this meeting, I held firm that our staff invests a lot of energy in developing class lists, so class placements were not up for discussion. However, as the parent pushed, I realized that perhaps I hadn’t effectively communicated all of the components that went into classroom placement decisions. After speaking with him, I implemented additional ways for parents to learn about the classroom placement and class list development process. His son stayed in that class and had the best year he had ever had, and I was able to strengthen home/school communication throughout our learning community.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Fostering social emotional learning is a federal expectation of public schools and it continues to have a big impact on schools. Students enter the school system with a wide range of skills and talents, as well as emotions that support or distract them from learning. I am fortunate to work for a district that just approved hiring counselors at the elementary school level, which is greatly supporting our efforts to address this policy. In addition, we intentionally teach students social skills through a schoolwide program and we teach and model respectful ways to engage in productive discourse.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Solve for Happy” by Mo Gawdat.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Wow. No pressure. Advice is “best” because it is delivered when you need to hear it most. For me, the best advice I received at an early age was from my mother who said, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It was what I needed to hear to believe that I can make a positive difference in this world by the smallest deed if I only believe in my ability to do so. The advice was about believing in my ability to start a conversation, spark an idea or change someone’s day just by offering a smile or a listening ear. It’s as much about transforming a school by synergizing a community to believe in their collective capacity as it is about making time for a 4-year-old to tell you everything he knows about electricity.