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 Colorado principal believes in the power of positive phone calls to parents

PHOTO: Courtesy of Kristin Golden
Kristin Golden, principal of Riverdale Elementary School in Thornton, talks 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.

When students visit Principal Kristin Golden’s office at Riverdale Elementary School in Thornton, it doesn’t always mean they’re in trouble. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite — a time to spotlight a child’s accomplishment with a phone call home.

Golden talked to Chalkbeat about what merits those calls to parents, where she starts her day, and how she evaluates teachers.

Golden was recently named Distinguished Principal of the Year award for Colorado by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I grew up in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. My first few teaching jobs were in a couple of districts in Kentucky, where I taught kindergarten, second, third, and fourth grade.

When I was a little first-grader I loved my teacher so much. I remember knowing at an early age I would grow up to help children by being a teacher.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day at school isn’t complete unless I start the day off by greeting all our families outside as they come onto campus. Not only do I benefit from seeing my students’ smiling faces each morning, it is a great time to chat with parents and build a sense of community within our neighborhood.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
In addition to visiting classrooms frequently, I spend time with students during arrival and dismissal, and lunch and recess.

Also, each month we focus on one scholarly habit, such as excellence, perseverance, respect, or risk-taking. When students are recognized for going above and beyond in one of our scholarly habits, their teacher submits a special form. We then call the student to the office and phone a family member with the great news. The student gets a chance to speak with family about his or her accomplishments before going back to class. It is such a celebration between the student, their family, and the office staff, and parents are thrilled to be receiving a positive call from school!

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Teacher evaluation has truly changed for the better in the last four years. Our teachers are engaged in cycles of observation and feedback about every three weeks. Teachers are observed and provided a bite-sized action step that they practice along with the administrator during the debrief session. We then return to the classroom to see the action step in place and provide teachers with additional feedback. This process has allowed us to develop our teachers in a way that is motivating.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I believe that a strong culture is a crucial element in a school. When leaders create a vibrant and joyful environment, staff will be more willing to work hard because they feel respected and valued. We have made this a true focus at Riverdale Elementary, celebrating teachers and scholars wholeheartedly.

We began this process by creating a new mission statement: “At Riverdale Elementary we are career-bound scholars going from good to better to best to achieve success.” We also have a school chant: “Good better best, Never let it rest, Till your good is better, And your better is best!” Each day during morning announcements our mission statement and school chant are cheered by both staff and scholars.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
When students make a choice that is not best for them, it is critical to teach them how to make a better choice next time. We work together to identify what the student needs, and at the same time we provide them with a plan that leaves them with a sense of personal responsibility and the confidence to make sound decisions.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Just as I have very high expectations for my staff and our students, I set the same standards for myself as a building principal. At times, there is so much on my plate that it is important to prioritize to meet the needs of all my stakeholders.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
When I was growing up, my mother would often say, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I interpreted this quote to mean that each and every day is a gift, and it is up to you to decide how you will use it.

How I Lead

A scooter, a reflection journal, and no surprises: One Denver principal’s approach to leadership

Scott Wolf, the principal of North High School in Denver.

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.

Scott Wolf, principal of Denver’s North High School, expected pushback when he discussed a teacher’s poor showing on an evaluation. Instead, the teacher readily acknowledged the problems and vowed to do better.

The episode was an example of Wolf’s belief in a “no-surprises” approach to staff feedback.

Wolf talked to Chalkbeat about how that teacher later went on to excel, why North emphasizes restorative justice, and who he looks forward to chatting with in the hall each day.

In January, Wolf was honored by the Colorado Music Educators Association for encouraging arts programming at North High.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

While studying learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, I worked at the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. During my time there, I saw just how complex and challenging it was to improve educational outcomes, and felt called to this work. I saw education as the highest leverage opportunity to improve life outcomes for all people and wanted to do what I can to make a positive difference. My work at the central office inspired me to volunteer at a local elementary school where I worked with students on their reading skills and saw light bulbs go on every day. I knew that my career would focus on education from this point forward.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day at school isn’t complete unless I have the opportunity to talk to Diego in the hallway and encourage him to get to class. Almost every day Diego struggles to get to class, but there is something about our conversations that makes me think he looks forward to our conversations just as much as I do.

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

I love getting to know students. I would spend my entire day with students if I could. I get to know students by sharing my whole self and trying to embody the value of fun. I ride my Razor scooter around the hallways, I ask students about their lives, and I try to be present during lunch and after school activities to connect with kids. In addition, I have feedback groups so I can hear student voices and learn student stories.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Thankfully, most of my teacher evaluations have gone great because I have had ongoing conversations with teachers, so there were no surprises. There was one time years ago where I thought there would be lots of pushback from a teacher on the scores because they were not very good. The teacher did not push back at all though and instead said to me, “You have been telling me this all along, and now it is in my face. This is the motivation that I needed.” This teacher became one of the best teachers I have ever supported. I have found that evaluations are about honesty and humanity, and it has been great to work with so many people who just want to be the best they can for students.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I am proud that North High School has increased its enrollment from 769 students when I started at North five years ago to a projected 1,216 students this coming school year. I have spent significant time creating a great school culture where we are a model restorative practice site for the nation, improving our academic performance so we reached a “meets expectations” status last school year, and building relationships with our community as we value diversity.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
As a restorative practice school, it is all about working to build skills with students so that everyone involved makes different choices in the future. I don’t really believe in students getting in trouble, but see opportunities for students to learn. Restorative practice focuses on what happened, who is affected, what’s the ownership, and what needs to be resolved.

We work to bring individuals together to dialogue with each other, understand different perspectives, and work to improve the next time. We have even started a restorative practice class this year where students facilitate the restorative process for other students and staff members.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is keeping an even temperament regardless of the situation. My days are filled with extreme highs and extreme lows, and I have to go from one situation to the next. I might arrive at school to receive great achievement results back, only to find out that we did not get a grant we were hoping for, to going into a classroom where there is amazing instruction taking place, to find out that two students tried to resolve their issues by confronting each other. The days ebb and flow, and it is hard to stay calm and collected in all situations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I love talking with families! My favorite place to have conversations is on a home visit where families can share with me their special place. On a home visit three years ago, a family shared with me that while they were not always able to attend every event, they wanted to be in the loop and asked to join things. This has helped me to make sure that everything is transparent and that we create a welcoming environment.

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 having an impact is school funding. My school leader friends in New York get over twice as much money per student as we do in Colorado, where we are funded close to last in the country. To address it, I am trying to work with community organizations and businesses to provide additional resources at North since we cannot simply rely on state funding. I think we have to work on mutual partnerships so that the school can give back to the community and businesses can give back to schools.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is from my first principal who told me to slow down and reflect. He told me that I was really good at my job as a teacher, but I needed to reflect more. As a gift, he gave me a mirror to remind me to reflect, and for the last ten years I have religiously journaled to help me reflect intentionally.