This Colorado principal thinks educators should stop turning to experts — and look inward

Here, in a Chalkbeat Colorado 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 West Grand Elementary and Middle School in the northwestern Colorado town of Kremmling, Jess Buller noticed something alarming a couple years ago: his middle-schoolers were disengaged.

It prompted Buller and his staff to redesign the school schedule. Today, students are happier, more relaxed and doing well academically.

In addition to recounting that experience, Buller told Chalkbeat about his first nerve-wracking call to a parent of a misbehaving student, and why he has little patience for political rhetoric.

Buller is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

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 as a high school German teacher in Gretna, Nebraska. I was fresh out of college and moved right into a position where I was department head and sole teacher of beginner through advanced German. My plans always involved education; I just struggled to narrow down the content area. I danced around English and German as well as music, finally realizing that my true passion was helping students acquire another language.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _____ Why?
Pray. It takes a lot of strength, courage and wisdom to do this job. Alone I am weak.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Getting to know students is a very challenging part of the job. Fortunately, I work in a smaller district so getting to know students becomes an inherent piece. When I have the opportunity to speak with students — be it in my office, the hallway or the classroom — I try and dig to get to know them better. I want to gain whatever insight they are willing to offer into their interests and their background in order to find a common bond we can build upon.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
During the 2015-16 school year, we recognized that a need for a change to our middle school schedule was imperative. Students were going through the school day like bricks through a factory and there was no real connection to the content.

As a staff, we spent the year researching effective models and schools of thought regarding a better middle school experience, ultimately coming up with the model we currently operate under — a flexible block schedule. The change provides larger blocks of time for core subjects and aligns subjects strategically to emphasize cross-curricular units. It has proven extremely beneficial to our students as they are happier and more relaxed. Oh yeah, and they are experiencing success in school as well.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I seek always to view discipline as an educational opportunity. Students exhibit negative behaviors for a variety of reasons. To simply write them off as “habitually disruptive” or (even worse) a “problem child” without making any effort to understand the behavior would simply be setting them up for future problems. We all know there are consequences for our choices, so if I am able to work with students from that level — and perhaps even instill some empathy in the process — I can reduce the probability of repeat offenders.

What is the hardest part of your job?
To be truthful, I don’t handle lip service and political rhetoric very well. “Do what is best for students” has become an overused phrase we toss around in the world of education, but we never really get to the heart of what that means. We can easily hide behind programs and data and attend conferences headlined by “gurus” in the field, but we often do those things at the expense of putting ourselves under the microscope and asking if we truly are doing what is best for kids. Nobody wants to admit where they struggle — or perhaps even fail — but the difficult discussions are what will help us ultimately grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
It was the first time I had to contact a parent. I had some behavioral concerns about the child and was hesitant to make that initial phone call. Some of the teachers on staff assured me that the student’s mother would make excuses for the child’s behavior and ultimately end up blaming me. I went ahead and made the call and the response I got was memorable. The child’s mother thanked me for the conversation and let me know that she would speak to her daughter about how things needed to improve. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Parents appreciate proactive educators who have the best interests of their children in mind.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The children’s books “Skeleton Hiccups” and “I Wish That I Had Duck Feet” (favorites of my 5-year-old son).

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Some day you will get credit for the things you don’t say.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat on June 7, 2017

Photo Credit: John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools