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This Colorado Springs principal takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to leadership

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.

Manuel Ramsey, principal of Bristol Elementary in Colorado Springs, is not the kind of leader who holes up in his office all day. He leads a fourth-grade reading group almost daily, a fifth-grade math group once a week and often eats lunch with students — especially those who need extra help with their behavior.

Principal Manuel Ramsey
Principal Manuel Ramsey

It’s these kinds of duties and “lots of little conversations” with kids that help him connect with students and understand the workaday lives of his teachers.

Under Ramsey’s leadership, Bristol Elementary won the Excellence in STEM Education award at the inaugural Succeeds Prize event earlier this month. The Succeeds Prize is a partnership between 9NEWS, Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit that advocates for education reform on behalf of the business community, and mindSpark Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

Ramsay talked to Chalkbeat about what he looks for in prospective teachers, why lawmakers should talk to successful principals and how he became more courageous when meeting with parents.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I began my career as an elementary physical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1985. It was a great teaching job, as I loved sports and working with kids. I guess I had such good teachers when I was growing up that I wanted to be a teacher. I remember one day — it must have been my second or third year teaching — another teacher told me I would be a principal one day. Sixteen years later it happened.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ________. Why?
Help a staff member and make a student smile. As a principal, my primary job is to be a helper — helping teachers and staff succeed at their jobs and letting kids know we are there for them.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I am in classrooms, on the playground and in the cafeteria every day. I interact with students throughout the day in lots of little conversations. I teach in classrooms when there is no sub and I cover classrooms so that my teachers can observe others or leave early for appointments. Students also come to my office regularly to have lunch.

Being in the classroom really helps me understand what my teachers go through on a daily basis. I also teach a fourth grade reading group four days a week and a fifth grade math group on Fridays. This is a great way to connect with kids and demonstrate to the staff that all hands are on deck.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Teacher evaluations are always interesting because people receive information differently. Some receive suggestions and coaching well and some get defensive. A number of years ago, one evaluation was actually for a teacher with very solid scores on the evaluation rubric. There was only one identified area to work on for the coming year. As I presented the information, the teacher started crying. I felt like I was presenting the information in a non-critical way, but the reaction was surprising. It was an interesting experience and helped me realize that approach is important and that people react differently.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
The most important thing I do as a principal is recruit and retain the best staff. When I interview for a staff position, I have a team of people help. I’m always trying to get a feel for the applicant’s demeanor, especially related to having a positive attitude. I’ve had the best luck with staff that are detail-oriented because the job is so complicated and there are so many moving pieces.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
We have an amazing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, system and we use it to recognize students who are working hard and leaning throughout the day. Over 80 percent of our students never get a referral. When a student does get in trouble, I work with the teacher to identify the cause and appropriate consequences to help the student make better choices.

At Bristol, it is more about coaching a student to make good choices than about punishment. We have a very structured system of response to discipline issues and it has helped us reduce referrals by 70 percent. If students continue to get in trouble, they will be invited to join the Bear 5 Academy at lunch — where I can work with them personally to help them understand the importance of learning and making good choices.

What is the hardest part of your job?
This is such a high energy job. It is nonstop from the minute I walk in the door. The hardest part is just keeping up with the million tasks that must get done in order to have a high-performing school. I try to be very involved in the instructional piece and in supporting my staff so that they just focus on the kids. Sometimes the emails and paperwork don’t get done like they could.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I have sat through so many meeting with parents and grandparents where the child is not getting the care and attention all students deserve. I have been an administrator for more than 20 years and when I began meeting with families I tended to keep my opinion to myself. However, after seeing so many heartbreaking situations, I have become more courageous in my conversations.

I began to realize that I may be one of only a few adults in a student’s life that could speak directly and provide direction to their family with some of the issues they are experiencing. I didn’t want to look back on my career and wish I would have spoken more openly and compassionately.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now?
Honestly, I don’t think too much about what is happening in the policy realm. I have my hands full with helping kids learn as much as possible each and every day. That is my primary job and I stay focused on that 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent, I wish legislators would stop legislating without asking successful principals for input.

How are you addressing it?
I have presented to the state House Education Committee and stood before the State Board of Education. I have also hosted legislators at my school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I have been reading about the Great Alaska Earthquake. It was a 9.2 magnitude and last four and a half minutes. I lived in Alaska from 1967 to 1989.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Also, Have courage and be kind

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