How I Lead

This Denver assistant principal builds relationships and heads off misbehavior with bow ties

PHOTO: Paul Hudson/Creative Commons
Fernando Branch

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Lead,” which features principals and assistant principals from across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” series, in which distinguished teachers tell us how they approach their jobs.

Fernando Branch, high school assistant principal at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School, still remembers Ms. Mannis.

When he was in sixth grade, the teacher worked with him on spelling and grammar every day after school, driving 45 minutes across Memphis to drop him off at home afterwards. Eventually, the extra help landed him on the honor roll for the first time.

Branch says Ms. Mannis’ commitment helped him overcome the dyslexia that haunted him throughout elementary school. It also helped shape a philosophy ingrained in him today: “There’s no such thing as a child who can’t learn.”

Branch 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.

We asked Branch how he thinks about leadership, what he’s learned from evaluating teachers, and why he’s so into bow ties. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I ran from the field of education at first. That all changed when I was working as a management trainee at Cintas and started coaching fifth grade boys basketball in Maumelle, Arkansas. From that moment on, I became a servant to the profession and have never looked back.

My first education job was at Sheffield High School in Memphis, Tennessee as a geography teacher. I walked in, mid-year right before Christmas break and before I knew it, eight years had flown by.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ____________ . Why?
Walk the entire building at least one time. Building positive relationships with students, teachers and support staff takes time. It’s my experience that having an organic routine that gives you a chance to talk, laugh, reflect, and discover helps support a positive school culture.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom? The best way to get to know students is first by respecting students. Once students know you’re socially cognitive about the school and students’ voice, seek out opportunities to engage in authentic conversations.

One way that I have done this is by starting a Bowtie Tuesday Club at every school I’ve been in. The voluntary activity — where students dress up and wear bowties or bows — is a conversation-starter and heads off misbehavior, too. It’s amazing how a school culture can change when students start wearing bows and bow ties.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
There was this one time that a teacher and I disagreed on the professionalism rating they received. I try really hard to be more of a coach rather than a evaluator, but in this particular situation, the teacher scored themselves distinguished in every area of focus. This simply was not true nor did the collected evidence support this rating. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but I learned a very important lesson from that: In the future, I should build in checkpoints to talk about professionalism over the course of the year.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Our recruitment effort — being strategic about marketing and branding. We created student shadow days where students and parents visit the school. Also, our arts team does art tours to showcase our work to feeder middle schools. High school enrollment projections are up in every grade level. We are bringing in one of the largest freshman classes to date and are attracting 49 percent of new ninth-grade artists from outside of our school, which serves grades six through 12.

The second thing I’m most proud of is the frequent feedback we hear from students, teachers, parents and district partners about the drastic change in school culture. When behavior incidents are down 90 percent, attendance goes up, and the creative flair of an arts school began to blossom into a colorful canvas of school pride and purpose.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
There is no such thing as a bad child. We have to meet children where they are and build them up to where they need to be. I use a social emotional support system that teaches students to own their mistakes and change their thinking habits.

When the event is too great for a restorative coaching session, tough love plays an important role in teaching our students that there are real consequences for your actions as a young adult. After the consequence has been addressed, students will revisit the type of thinking that caused the event to happen in the first place. This is where true learning happens.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Leading an art school carries an additional financial burden. The per-pupil cost at my school is often more expensive because of the type of programming art schools support. I’m paying close attention to TABOR, Gallagher and Title II funding because each has the potential to harm or drastically improve the state of my school.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is shutting it off so that my two daughters and wife see daddy and a good husband who tries to cook during his assigned week. A Mr. Branch that is not taking care of business at home is no good at school either.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember meeting with [a parent] about her son, Mohammed, who was one of my outstanding students and athletes. Mohammed had earned a full scholarship to college in his senior year but was not his usual positive self. When asked what was going on, he told me that he couldn’t attend college because he was just told by his mother that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and was in the country illegally.

I was blown away that this young man did everything right since first grade and was not able to receive the award he earned. I worked tirelessly to ensure he got his chance at a post-secondary education. Mohammed graduated from college three years ago and still carries true grit in his work ethic.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Socially Healthy Children” and “Why Students Disengage in American Schools And What We Can Do About It,” both by Paul Bernabei.

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.