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

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.

How I Lead

This Colorado principal saved a student’s life by paying attention at the right time

PHOTO: japatino | Getty Images
Imaginary friend

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.

Joe Simo, principal of Centennial Middle School in Montrose, was stunned when a former student thanked him for saving his life. At first, Simo had no idea what the newly minted high school graduate was talking about.

But the young man explained that Simo’s interest in him years before, and his suggestion that he go out for basketball, helped him survive trying times.

Simo said that heartfelt moment of gratitude meant the world to him.

Named the 2018 Middle School Principal of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of Secondary School Principals, Simo recounted the conversation he shared with the student, the teachers who inspired him to go into education, and the importance of a positive school culture.

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 teaching elementary special education on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. During that time, I became an Eagle Scout and experienced amazing opportunities in the community. That started my thinking about community service and giving back to youth. I think about my scout leader and all the time he gave to me through scouting. I also had a great experience in my school career and had two amazing teachers and coaches. The commitment they made, and the extra time they put in during my education, is a major reason I became an educator.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ___________ Why?

I believe that being visible as a principal to students and staff is important and my goal is to visit each classroom for a few minutes every day. It helps me have a pulse on the building and I get to see the great things that are going on.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

During an evaluation of a master teacher in my building the teacher asked me if there was an area he/she could work on. I had to think for a minute and we discussed an area that was very minor. The next day, the teacher came into my office with a letter of resignation saying he/she took offense at having to work on anything. We discussed that he/she had asked for an area of improvement, so I found one. The next day the teacher came back and decided not to resign. During our next year’s evaluation, he/she admitted that he/she had focused on the area of improvement from the year before and thought it made a difference.

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

I am very proud of Centennial for becoming an innovation school. As a building we worked for a year to design an innovation plan, which we presented to the State Board of Education for approval. This has given Centennial amazing opportunities to improve our instruction and our students’ growth.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I make it a learning opportunity by first allowing the students to reflect on why they were sent to the office by completing a “think sheet.” Then we discuss their thoughts and I provide guidance on how they can make it right. I also mention that it is human to make mistakes, but I want them to learn from the mistake. We also then discuss our school community and what role they play in making it a great place to learn. This process has been powerful because students come up with solutions and normally are tougher on themselves than I would have been.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I look at myself as a teacher and my role is to help improve my staff’s instruction to improve student learning. I would like to spend more time in classrooms observing teaching and modeling best practices in instruction than dealing with adult conflict.

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

A few years ago, after high school graduation a student walked up to me and thanked me for saving his life. I was surprised – because I didn’t recall an emergency that included an ambulance or me providing lifesaving treatment to the student. He must have seen my reaction because he explained to me that during middle school he had a hard time. He said my interest in him and recommendation that he go out for basketball changed his life and ultimately saved him. That meant the world to me.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

Currently, the most important education policy that is affecting our school is being able to hire highly qualified teachers. I am addressing the issue by communicating our needs to our state representatives and the Colorado Department of Education.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Having a positive school culture is the most important thing a principal can work towards. Change in education is hard and if the culture of the school is poor – nothing can be accomplished.