Located in Kearns, Utah, Thomas W. Bacchus Elementary School serves a racially and economically diverse student population of approximately 400 students in grades K-6. Fifty-four percent of the school’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, 50% are of an ethnic minority, and approximately 30% are English Language Learners. The principal at Bacchus, Becki Monson, has been an integral part of the school’s recent transformation efforts–as a first-year principal, she took on the challenge of leading a turnaround school with passion and grace, and she has worked extensively to help Bacchus provide a high-quality education and caring environment to its diverse student body.
Recently, we sat down with Becki to learn more what it has been like to be the principal at Bacchus and what she hopes to accomplish entering the new school year.
Being a new principal requires intense dedication and time management. How do you meet the various demands and commitments required of you?
BM: I’m not afraid to put in the hours. I’m committed to putting in the hours, but I also learned quickly that I have to set limits because being a principal can consume you if you let it. I set myself a limit that I will stay late one night and the other nights I go home and try to leave school behind. Meeting the demands during the day is also definitely a challenge, so each day I prioritize what’s the most important thing I need to get done that day and then I follow through on it.
My process each day is that I print off my calendar and go through everything I need to do that day, then I add anything additional from my to-do list. I have learned that it’s better to schedule things in the calendar than just having a to-do list. I have all these open slots on my calendar, but I need to identify how I’m going to use that time to get specific things done. If I schedule a specific time for it, then it seems more like a commitment to getting those things done.
As a new principal, you’ve clearly established a culture and climate at Bacchus that is welcoming, positive, and fosters a growth mindset. What steps did you take to accomplish this?
BM: My whole approach has been to think about what I would want as a teacher. I always appreciated having a principal who didn’t ask me to do more than they were willing to do, so I have that philosophy that I won’t ask my teachers to do something that I’m not willing to do. When others see my commitment to what I’m trying to accomplish here at the school and I know that they’re watching that, it helps me, and I try not to forget that. I think the advantage of being a new principal is that I’m less than a year removed from being a teacher, so it’s still fresh in my mind–what it’s like to be in the trenches every day. I try to ask myself, “What would I appreciate as a teacher?”
I’ve also worked on establishing clear communication, so teachers get a weekly bulletin and it always includes something positive in it. I just try to be very transparent in my communication with everything that we are trying to do, remind everyone that we’re all in this together, and to acknowledge and appreciate the hard work that they do.
I think simplifying and narrowing the focus has helped as well, so teachers don’t feel like there’s always something new being thrown at them, which can be overwhelming. Picking those few things that we’re committed to doing well has also helped establish a positive environment here.
What do you want teaching and learning to look like at Bacchus? As a principal, how do you ensure that vision is embraced and implemented by all staff members?
BM: My vision is that we have teachers who are committed to planning engaging lessons that are purposeful. There’s an abundance of resources out there, so it’s really looking at what we are doing with our time and what the purpose is for doing the things that we do. Also, finding ways to engage students so that you are holding them accountable for their part of learning and helping them to recognize that. I envision that we have an environment where kids can learn, they know what they’ve learned, and they are excited about coming to school because they see purpose in what they’re doing here.
I think giving staff opportunities to share their successes and for those teachers who are seeing success in their classroom to share that with their colleagues can be very powerful. Using examples from our school and with our students shows everyone that it’s possible for us and can help bring people on board. Continuing that narrow focus, reminding people that we can do this, and building that collective efficacy–those are all things that we’ve been working on.
As a principal, one of your most important responsibilities is helping other educators develop their own leadership ability. In your experience, what are the most impactful methods for building leadership capacity?
BM: I believe it’s giving them opportunities and not picking up the pieces afterwards. Just like we teach our students to learn from mistakes, we need to have those opportunities as adults. Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and let go so the teachers can have those opportunities, but I think about the opportunities I was given as a teacher that helped me develop as a leader. I think I can help by giving support ahead of time so that they’re willing and able to say, “Yes, I can do that piece.” There’s nothing like doing it, to learn it. Sometimes it’s hard because it might not turn out the way you had it in your mind, but it’s also about being flexible enough to say we’ll go from here and see how it comes out. It’s the same philosophy we take with our students—it’s okay to make mistakes.
In addition to being a new principal, you’re also the principal of a turnaround school. What have you learned through this process of improving teaching and learning at Bacchus?
BM: I think having taught in a turnaround school helped me be better prepared for being the principal of a turnaround school. That’s where I learned about some of the things we’re implementing at Bacchus. I’ve also learned that you can’t make assumptions. I had made certain assumptions about what things would look like, but it really takes getting out in the classrooms to see what’s going on. It’s like knowing your student data. You can’t just say, “I’ve got about 75% proficient,” you have to actually know how many students are proficient.
I try to keep in mind that change is hard. Sometimes I need to remind myself to be patient with change. I feel so strongly that the change can happen and that we can do it. It’s just allowing other people to work through and accept it. So, it takes patience. You’re nearing the end of your first year as a principal. What advice do you have for new and aspiring administrators?
BM: I think you have to learn to set limits for your time. The other thing to remember is that building relationships is so important. Show an interest in people as people, not just as an employee and help them feel comfortable with you so that when they do make a mistake, they’re not afraid to come to you for help.
There will be discouraging times but remember that isn’t the way it’s always going to be. As a whole, I’ve had a positive experience this year, but when I do get discouraged, I just remind myself that it’s going to be okay. It’s a process. This isn’t going to happen overnight.
Accept the help and support you are given. I couldn’t have done it without the support of Ed Direction, district leaders, and systems coaches. Be open to help.
For more information about how Becki and her team at Bacchus have transformed teaching and learning at their school, see our turnaround whitepaper series. We’d also love to connect with you personally if you’d like to talk more about the needs of your own district or school. Just send us an email!