As I wait in the office at Robert Semple Elementary, I am transformed back into a young girl, stricken shy by the awe of awaiting a meeting with the principal. Yet as I look around, the office no longer holds an aura of mysterious authority per se, but rather a sense of productivity, pride, and – dare I say – a little cheer.
When the principal is ready for me, I am swept deeper into the office, to her private desk, where I begin my interview. Principal Moore, who was once my second and third grade teacher, is just as I remember her; beaming smile, gracious demeanor, and a directness that commands efficiency.
BM: When did you first decide you wanted to be a teacher?
CM: “I knew my entire life, since second grade. My teacher was so inspirational that as an eight-year-old I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life, and I never veered off of that path. I started teaching in 1996, here at Robert Semple.”
BM: When did you become principal? Were you always drawn to that position?
CM: “I became principal 5 years ago. After teaching for 15 years, I was inspired by a number of principals who pushed promoting leadership capacity for teachers and I appreciated that. It made me a better teacher, but it also made me want to know what was on the other side of education, which is administration. One of the most inspirational principals, to me, was Gary Diaz. He pushed me into leadership roles and made me believe in myself.
BM: How has Robert Semple changed since you first came in as a new teacher in 1996?
CM: “When I first came to Robert Semple, it was the first year of the class size reduction policy. Since then, we’ve had to increase class size and I had to become somebody different in my teaching. With less one-on-one time with each kid, I had to become more creative in my teaching. This inspired me to explore the possibilities that are out there for teaching and helped me understand how easy it is to lift the ceiling off of learning for students. I was able to do that because we [teachers] had support from an administrator who believed in what we believed in.
When I left Robert Semple [to pursue a principal position at Benicia middle school], the school was very family-oriented and bustling with events and culture. When I came back it wasn’t that way. I started talking to parents and staff and realized we needed to make a change to bring back that family feel. My first order of business became reaching out to the parents to let them know they are welcome, they are an integral part of their child’s learning and to the climate and culture of the school. All of the sudden the school was bustling.
Next, I took a look at student discipline. We brought in PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Support). It’s a whole-school, whole-child approach to supporting students that is imbedded with trauma-informed practices. It addresses questions like ‘Who are our kids? What is going on before they come to school that might be a barrier to their learning?’ We really explored that, and it has transformed our school. Our behavior problems have dropped by 65%. We established 3 rules: Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible. We hold everything and everyone accountable to those rules.
The third piece was getting to know my teachers. I started by holding conferences with each of my teachers to get to know them and rebuild relationships. With this final piece in place, I had my parents in line, I had my students in line, and I had my staff in line. From there, it just became this well-oiled machine that has moved in a positive direction.
BM: And has student performance moved along a similar trajectory?
CM: “We did exceptionally this year and we are really excited. We are at or above where other schools like us in the district are performing, so we’re doing really well. Especially since state testing has changed so much with the implementation of technology. We’ve had to embrace technology in the classroom to prepare students for what state testing expects of them. We’ve risen to the challenge and technology isn’t a barrier anymore. We are effectively preparing our students for future jobs with technologies we can’t even imagine yet, making sure they are tech literate.”
BM: What are your future plans for the school?
CM: “Our mission right now is to work on our social-emotional well-being. We are working on providing a level playing field for all students, taking into account their different backgrounds. Sometimes social-emotional wellness can be a hinderance to them doing their best at school. We can’t fix what we can’t control, but we can certainly teach kids to adapt, to be equipped with tools to be resilient. Our mission is that everyone feels a sense of belonging at our school. If you feel like you belong somewhere, you’re happier and you do better. If you feel like you belong there, you want to go to school.”