How I Lead

This rural Colorado principal discovered that the ‘principal’s office’ can be an intimidating place. So she adapted.

Lana Gardner, principal of Las Animas Elementary School, with two 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.

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.

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.