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Lots of detective work and no snap judgments: How this Colorado school leader approaches discipline

Bavaria, Germany, Europe
Bavaria, Germany, Europe
Niedring/Drentwett | Getty Images

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.

When students get in trouble at Bayfield Elementary and Bayfield Primary in southwestern Colorado, Assistant Principal Bill Hesford casts a wide net in his search for answers.

That’s because he knows the first story he hears, even if it’s from a staff member, is often incomplete. He prefers to spend extra time doing a thorough investigation than to mete out undeserved consequences.

Hesford, who was named the 2018 Outstanding Assistant Principal for Colorado by the Colorado Association of School Executives, talked to Chalkbeat about his restorative approach to discipline, his reliance on school counselors for the inside scoop, and his promotion to principal next year.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

Before getting my teaching license, I worked as a wilderness therapy instructor at an outdoor program for at-risk teenagers. Those clients spent a minimum of 90 days in the wilderness attempting to address their personal challenges. It was this experience that convinced me that education would be a good career for me.

My first teaching job was teaching third grade in Bayfield, but right from the start I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role. My father had been a school leader and once I came around to education as a career path (in my early 30s), I knew that leadership was where I wanted to be.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ______. Why?

Get time to have a meaningful check-in with the school counselors. The counselors at my schools are the clearinghouses for critical information from students, parents, and teachers. They are aware of hot spots, sore spots, and critical spots that need my attention immediately. When I neglect to get their reports about daily events, things get missed and those situations get tougher to handle.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I try to spend as much of my day as possible being out in the halls, on the playground, and in classrooms. I interact with students every day when they arrive at school in the morning and lots of days, I get out to the bus lines to say goodbye for the evening. When I interact with students due to their negative behaviors, I always make an effort to dig in to what their out-of-school lives are like. This lets them know I care about them as individuals while giving me some context for why they might be struggling or acting out.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

It was the first year of implementation of Colorado’s teacher evaluation law and no one was familiar with the tools yet. A young teacher was so angry when I arrived to meet with him that I thought he was going to take a swing at me. He thought that I had given him mostly “basic” ratings on the rubric. As it turns out, he had been looking at his self-assessment and thought they were my ratings.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I have spearheaded a move toward restorative discipline practices and a more supportive social emotional curriculum in our school. This has created a culture that is focused on addressing skill deficits in behavior as opposed to a culture of punishment. It is time-consuming and can be frustrating at times for staff members who believe in punishment, but I believe a restorative approach is best.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I am always careful to get firsthand information from as many adults and students as possible. I have learned that the first story I hear is often missing critical information, even when it comes from a staff member. It takes time to gather these reports, but I prefer spending the time over possibly making a mistake and giving out consequences that are unwarranted. My focus is always on having students accept ownership for their choices, repairing the relationships, and getting back to work as soon as we can safely do so.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my assignment has been managing two campuses — one for kindergarten and first-grade students and one for second- through fifth-grade students. Next year, I will be a principal of Bayfield Intermediate School, a new building for third- through fifth-grade students. I am ecstatic that I will be able to focus my energy on one campus and, what I consider, a manageable number of staff and students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I could not get in touch with a family whose student had been in a fight. The next day, after school, he was in another fight and I still had no resolution with the parents from the day before. The student shut down for staff and would not give us anything to work with as far as contacting someone at home. Eventually we learned that the student had not been staying at home and had been couch-surfing with various friends. We were able to wrap supports around the student and his family and address the true cause of his fights, which was a fear of losing his few friends. Nothing about it was perfect in the end, but having valuable context about a family situation certainly changed the way we treated this problem.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

I am encouraged that the state has reduced the hours of mandatory testing for Colorado students. I think there is still work to do in this area. I can envision one comprehensive test for elementary school students that could be done in one or two days and still supply valuable information on the effectiveness of the instructional program in a school or district. Our district is working on a definition of student success that fits our community and will allow us to view state test results through the lens of what is important to our community. The emphasis on test results does not feel quite right in our community. We want input from all of our stakeholders that will define the criteria for how we measure ourselves.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Trust your gut.

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