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When this Colorado principal learned about a student’s tough home life, she put him to work at school

Karen Shaw, principal of Columbia Elementary School, in Colorado Springs District 11.
Karen Shaw, principal of Columbia Elementary School, in Colorado Springs District 11.

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.

After a student’s mother used an expletive to describe her son, Karen Shaw decided to act.

The principal of Colombia Elementary School in Colorado Springs thought that giving the boy “jobs” might help him succeed. So Shaw tapped him to become a daily helper in the library and later in a kindergarten class — being careful to put him around adults he liked and trusted.

Shaw talked to Chalkbeat about how that experience changed her perspective, why teacher evaluations sometimes go awry and how poverty affects the school.

Shaw was the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. The award is sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first job in education was teaching second grade in Great Falls, Montana. My interest in education was sparked when I was in high school. I had the opportunity to teach vacation Bible school at our church. I really enjoyed working with the kids in my class. The rest is history.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
Visit every classroom. The success of every student and staff member is my number one priority. At Columbia, “All means all!”

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Having been at Columbia for the past eight years really puts me ahead of the game when it comes to getting to know the kids. We have weekly data meetings with either primary or intermediate teachers. I have my own system that I keep up to date with student data, just like the teachers. This helps me track how kids are learning and growing academically. Being visible in classrooms and other areas of the school is another way to get to know students. I supervise the fourth- and fifth-graders daily at lunch as well as work with my own intervention groups.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
On two occasions, I had teachers who were new to the profession. Both believed they already knew everything. I would show them data that documented kids weren’t learning. We would visit highly effective classrooms highlighting more efficient ways for students to learn and high standards for behavior. I would provide multiple levels of coaching from the building level and district level. These teachers didn’t want to take feedback to improve.

Even after 20- some years in education, I believe none of us have arrived. We can always learn ways to do things better.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Five years after being at Columbia we were named one of Colorado’s five 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools. This was a true team effort. Columbia was recognized based on student achievement growth over that five-year period. I was so proud of our staff, students and families. Being Colorado’s 2016 National Distinguished Principal was pretty awesome as well! I still can’t believe that was me!

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I speak to all involved to hear all sides of the story and proceed with an appropriate resolution. My favorite resolution is when there is a natural consequence. I also work hard to build relationships with our students. It is always my hope that when a student has made a mistake that disappointing me is one of the biggest consequences.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is working with reluctant staff members. When there isn’t an innate desire to grow and improve, it is very difficult to impact change.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
We have a student who is in his second year with us at Columbia. When our social worker first met his mom she was told by the mom that the boy is a little sh**. Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him. So I quickly “employed” him with a caring adult at our school. Our library technology educator gave him a job in the library. My purpose in doing this is to build a relationship with an adult in our school. The student gets to participate in the job regardless of behavior.

When there is a discipline problem, I have the student’s “supervisor” help me work with the child to reflect on the behavior and talk about different choices. This year I have him “employed” as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.
What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Families in poverty. The RJ Montgomery Center for homeless families is in our school boundaries. We assess students the first day that they come to our school and use the data to put students in appropriate math and reading intervention groups. This year we offer yoga classes to all kindergarten through fifth grade students once or twice a week. We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“When you know better, you do better”

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