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James Chamberlin, principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand school district, with students.

James Chamberlin, principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand school district, with students.

What one principal learned from daily classroom visits, brain science and a paperwork mistake

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.

As principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, James Chamberlin stops by classrooms every single day. At first, the teachers were nervous, wondering why he was coming by so often.

But soon they learned that was just his style. Chamberlin learned something, too: Focus more on the results teachers are getting and less on the way they get them.

He likes to say, “I don’t care as much about how you organize your kitchen. I care more about the quality of the meal.”

Chamberlin won the 2015 Administrator of the Year Award from SHAPE Colorado, a professional group of health and physical education teachers. Under his leadership, Fraser Valley Elementary has also won several awards for excellence.
We asked Chamberlin how he thinks about leadership, what brain science has taught him and how lagging school funding affects his staff. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first formal paid education job was as a high school teacher in Craig, Colorado. I taught social studies and Spanish. Ironically, I didn’t have a Spanish endorsement but had put on the top of my resume that I had a “strong desire to work with Spanish-speaking students.” Back then social studies teachers were plentiful and jobs scarce.

Fortunately, I was able to attend night classes at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs to get Spanish credit hours and lesson ideas to use that first year of teaching. Over the summer I was able to complete and add a Spanish endorsement and enjoyed a second year of teaching and coaching varsity soccer, and I did get to work with some Spanish-speaking students.

My interest in education was sparked by positive relationships with my teachers and coaches at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County. The idea of teaching was always ingrained in my family tree. One of my grandfathers was a principal at Thomas Jefferson High School and the other was a music teacher in Denver Public Schools. My grandmother was a second-grade teacher in DPS. My father is a retired administrator from Cherry Creek School District and my mother is a retired physical education teacher from Cherry Creek.

My interest in the field of education was solidified at the University of Northern Colorado, where I became involved in student government and was elected Vice President of Faculty Affairs. This opportunity provided me a unique education around the policy and politics of public education and teacher training.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I____________ . Why?
Visit each classroom. The opportunity to be present in the classrooms every day gives me insight into the student and teacher dynamics that drive the school climate and culture. I also observe the components of individual student learning and engagement. At first, the teachers were really uncomfortable with the frequency of my visits, but over time they realized that it’s my “style” to gain a better understanding of what is going on with students and staff.

As a new principal, I spent too much time focusing on teacher behaviors in the classroom. What I have come to understand is that the student behaviors and outcomes — as a result of the teacher’s decision-making and ability to unpack the learning target — are equally important.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I try to learn all the students’ names and associate an interest or activity with them so when we visit I can ask about their particular interest.

As an elementary principal, I spend hours in the lunchroom and the playground engaging with students and observing how they are interacting with each other and the adults around them. I am also fortunate to have school-age children of my own who participate in numerous activities where I can engage in some positive sideline support.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
About two months ago, I set up a time to conduct a mid-year review with a teacher. At about the same time, the district sent out the “intent to return forms.” I had looked over the form and the teacher indicated she wanted to transfer to another building and wanted to retire in the next three years. So I carefully set up ample time to visit with the teacher thinking we had some differences to discuss and the teacher had some concerns about her satisfaction in the building and profession.

Halfway into the conference I wasn’t getting any indication of her dissatisfaction so I asked for a moment, went to the front office to get a copy of her intent to return form, set it in front of her and asked her to help me understand the form. She immediately burst out laughing and apologized for filling the form out wrong. Lesson learned: Don’t believe everything that you initially think. You have to investigate further, confirm and then collaborate.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I came into a school that had had numerous transitions in leadership and was struggling with day-to-day nuts and bolts operational issues. For the first year, I was also assigned this position as a job share, with a veteran elementary principal serving as principal two days a week and myself serving two days a week. (We were on a four-day week, and my other two days were as a central office administrator.) While this was one of the most challenging school and job assignments I have had, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding. We were able to set up a coordinating council that served as a collaborative decision-making team.

This process helped improve the day-to-day operations and the ability for staff to problem-solve school issues. Having systems, structures and processes to handle the operational nuts and bolts of the school allows the teachers to focus on the teaching and learning. Through this focus on teaching and learning we are proud to have received the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award four years in a row and the John Irwin School of Excellence award. The district has been recognized with an English Language Proficiency Act Excellence award, as well as being named an outlier district that outperforms other districts with similar demographics by A Plus Colorado.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Discipline is about changing behavior and improving relationships. If you don’t fully understand and address the root causes that are driving the behaviors, then changing the pattern of behavior becomes more difficult. While high expectations for behavior are important, differentiating the approach to get the end result is equally important.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job currently is learning the unique dynamics of an elementary school. I served 17 years of my career as a middle school principal, high school principal/administrator and central office administrator. I have come to learn that an elementary school is really three schools in one. The preschool — 3- and 4-year-olds — the K-2 level and the 3-5 level. Each of these levels have distinct developmental and pedagogical differences.

While trying to learn about the unique dynamics of elementary education, I have also had the recent opportunity to teach for a graduate school master’s degree program, instructing classes in assessment, curriculum and instruction as well as the psychology of learning. This experience has helped me realize the educational importance of birth to age 5 on the brain and learning.

Recent research in neuroscience has shown that a student’s learning trajectory starts very early and is significantly impacted by trauma and toxic stress. I see evidence of this daily in our preschool and kindergarten students and the amount of intervention necessary to overcome the barriers to learning. But I also see hope and resilience when students learn to persevere, grow their minds, and believe they can learn to read, believe they are good at math and can communicate well in writing.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One day we were hosting a “Mother Read/Father Read” workshop for our preschool parents and as a courtesy we allowed younger siblings to join the school’s preschoolers while the parents were in our library learning about the program. About halfway into the program, our preschool teacher came running into the nurse’s office carrying a 3-year-old visitor sibling who was struggling to breathe and whose lips were blue. Another student had indicated the child had put something in their mouth, so we began first aid by trying to clear the airways and called 911.

What we came to find out was that this was one of the first times the child had been away from his parents and had become so upset, he was crying hysterically and was struggling to get air. We also learned that he had been playing with a blue marker and had gotten some on his lips. While this was an incredibly intense emergency situation and had a positive ending, it was good to see how quickly paramedics responded — and the parents were appreciative and supportive of how we handled the situation.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The biggest education policy issue impacting our school is the lack of adequate funding. The Colorado paradox is that we have a highly educated population with subpar funding for our public schools. While many argue, including me, that schools need to improve, grow and change to meet 21st century thinking and learning standards, our teachers and principals need time, professional development and feedback to continue to grow and learn. Some larger systems can afford these supports for educators, but most cannot.

Our district has made some tough choices and we are addressing the lack of funding by grant-writing, collaborating with the BOCES to provide staff development and paying teachers to attend training on their own time. We also chose to provide daily planning and collaboration time, free full-day kindergarten for all students, full-day preschool for qualifying students and manageable class sizes. We do these things because they are important, but they come at a cost: lower salaries for staff compared to our cost of living and cost of medical insurance.

What are you reading for enjoyment? Chalkbeat, of course!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

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