In the Principal's OfficeThis is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
Kristen Williams didn’t think she’d become a principal at Albemarle County Public Schools.
Prior to joining the division, she taught kindergarten and fourth grade at Crown Point Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida.
After her husband left the military and landed a job as an airline pilot flying out of Dulles Airport, the family searched for a home to raise their children. With high expectations for education and a town that’s a two-hour radius from Dulles, the Williamses decided to settle in Charlottesville.
At first, Williams was hired as a substitute teacher in the county schools. Since then, she served as a literacy specialist and language arts coordinator, where she helped start the instructional coaching model for the division.
Before taking the reins as principal of Woodbrook Elementary School over the summer, she served as principal of Stone-Robinson Elementary School. There, Williams raised the school’s Standards of Learning scores.
The year before Williams joined Stone-Robinson, the English SOL pass rate was 66%, according to the division. Since 2015, the pass rate steadily increased from 72% to 88%.
For math, the SOL pass rate was 60%. That shifted after Williams became principal. Since 2015, students’ rates went from 81% to 87%.
Q: How different are Stone-Robinson and Woodbrook?
A: The biggest difference is getting to know the parents, the surrounding business partners that we have [in northern Albemarle] and, of course, all the students and the staff and getting acclimated to a new community of people.
Other than that, there’s also a lot of similarities because we’re part of a school division. The principal who was here before me was a mentor to me. She and I align in our belief in teaching and learning. Stepping in here after her, in many ways, have been comfortable for me.
Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to become a teacher?
A: I was in the second grade. I was so inspired by the teacher I had. I had her for second grade, and the next year, she was moving to become a third-year teacher. I’ll never forget. My mom and I went during the summer and knocked on the window because I wanted to be in her class again. My teacher was very kind, not just with me, but I noticed how she was with all children.
I started off working towards a business degree because that’s what my parents wanted me to work on for the family business. After the first semester, I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be.
Q: You graduated from the University of Florida in 1989. What was your experience like?
A: I was fortunate to be part of the first five-year program where you went straight through, and I didn’t realize what a gift that would be. Having your master’s opens the door for leadership roles. I didn’t have to go back to get my master’s while I was teaching full time.
The other part was I had to pick a specialization while completing my degree at UF, and I chose reading because I love to read. I also earned an administrative endorsement in K-12 administration from James Madison University.
When I first started as a principal, it was very difficult. I wasn't shutting down at all, and eventually that can take a toll on you in a lot of ways. I have a team that we partner with together, principals, and we meet regularly and visit each other in each other's schools
Q: You’ve clearly developed a passion for teaching at an early age, second grade to be specific. What do you enjoy about teaching?
A: What I love is the puzzle around it. And I’m talking about the teaching of working with adults and children. As a principal, I work with the teachers and the students.
Every individual person is a different puzzle to solve and has individual need. And I love the idea of getting to know people and then working to understand what’s the best way to meet their needs.
Q: Many people working in the education field argued it’s hard to shut down. What do you do to take care of yourself?
A: When I first started as a principal, it was very difficult. I wasn’t shutting down at all, and eventually that can take a toll on you in a lot of ways. I have a team that we partner with together, principals, and we meet regularly and visit each other in each other’s schools.
The goal we set for each other was to hold each other accountable for taking care of ourselves. There’s always something else to do, but it’s going to be there tomorrow. The toughest part of the job is to prioritize what can’t wait until tomorrow. Let’s take care of that, so tonight you can go to sleep and come back well rested and take care of the next thing.
I have a very set period of time where I know I’m going to work, and I shut it down for the rest of the weekend. I go bike riding and go out with friends. I have a book club that I still, very much, commit to. This job takes a lot. And if you’re tired, and you’re not taking care of yourself, you cannot give everything that you need to give.
Kristen Williams became principal of Woodbrook Elementary School July 1.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
Q: How do you think you’ve grown as an educator?
A: I continue to grow every day. One of the ways I’ve grown the most is by the teams of people I’ve worked with. While this is a very complex job, there’s never anything you cannot solve or figure out. It’s a matter of keeping the calm present and know that you’re going to problem-solve this.
I learned to not panic, or escalate about things, especially as a leader. If I panic, everyone around me will do the same. I try reassuring people with that sense of calm that we’re going to figure this out. There’s not really anything we haven’t been able to figure out yet.
Q: You’ve raised SOL scores at Stone-Robinson. Talk about the strategies, or new ideas, you’ve used.
A: At my previous school, coming in, it was a school that was a little down on itself. They weren’t proud of it. The decline in scores for that school was gradual. The first thing I knew I had to do was building confidence in the teachers themselves and their ability to open their doors to start working together, as well as problem-solve.
I’ve rebuilt the confidence of the community in the school and for them to see themselves as partners of it. It shouldn’t be ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ but ‘How can we do this together?’ I think, when I left there, there was a sense of community.
We also had to tighten up on some structures. And to do that, you have to give the teachers time. We revisited all standards and made sure that we’re aligned. Not only do we get it all in, but we have time to review. We knew there were certain students who were right there but needed that extra push. We started to champion programs.
Q: What can teachers do to better serve minority students, as SOL scores corroborate that minority students score lower than their white peers?
A: As a division, with the focus on culturally responsive teaching, that’s the first thing that comes in mind. We’re working really hard. At Woodbrook, it’s been a huge focus because we have a high population of African American students here.
We try to understand what our own biases are that we’re not even aware of and how that impacts what we’re doing in the classroom, or how it impacts how we make assumptions — perhaps engage or not engage with families because we’re really not understanding each other.
Not that these families don’t want to engage, or it’s not that we don’t want to engage with them, but there may be a disconnect. How can we learn about what’s causing that and break down these barriers? And that takes the right, courageous conversations in some instances.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: What I know is anyone that’s into teaching, they’re in it for all children. These teachers are doing home visits, after school and [working] late hours. If a family cannot come, we go to them. We [recently] talked about community events. How are we going to invite parents in — not just to the big things?
We want to communicate with them on a day-to-day basis, so they’re part of their children’s education. We’re using a tool named Remind. We’re noticing a lot of parents might not have a computer, but they have a cellphone. We’re realizing that these parents sometimes might not answer to phone calls or email, but if we text, we can get a quick response.
Remind provides the privacy, as well as the safety, for teachers and parents to communicate about their students. It also translates 90 languages. For example, I can text you in English, and it will translate in Spanish.
We try to understand what our own biases are that we're not even aware of and how that impacts what we're doing in the classroom, or how it impacts how we make assumptions — perhaps engage or not engage with families because we're really not understanding each other
Q: You’ve worked with [English for Speakers of Other Languages] students. What are your thoughts on people arguing it’s hard to see a child’s gift because of the language barrier?
A: If you have the mindset that all children have gifts, you’re going to find a way to connect and find out their gift. You might be outside on the playground, and all of a sudden, you see a student who’s struggling with some concepts and is a super star on the basketball court. How do you build him or her up based on those strengths and bring that skill into learning? Let’s tie basketball into math.
Every child has a gift. Our job is to seek that out. Nowadays, we have three ESOL teachers in our building. That is their focus. More and more assessments are available in more languages.
So, we can assess kindergartners with Phonemic Awareness Literacy Screening Español and see at least in their native language how they’re developing. And if they’re having a hard time developing in their native language, then we know they might need some support in even developing in the English language.
Q: You started this role July 1. What should parents, or the community at Woodbrook Elementary, expect from you?
A: Our long-term goals are to continue working on closing the achievement gaps that we know exist. The biggest strategy for that is going to be family engagement, and the way that we’re putting ourselves out there that every family feels connected. And every family knows that we’re here problem-solving and celebrating their child in their journey.
Just like I did at my other schools, I feel like we’re at this place right now because so much is new in terms of size and space in the school. [Woodbrook has doubled in size.] The long-term goal is to make sure that we’re putting structures in place now align with some of the newness because when you make big changes like that, the things that you’ve always done and done well may not be going as well.
That’s what we’re trying to name. What are the things when Woodbrook was smaller you valued and they were working well, but all of a sudden, they’re not quite working the same way? OK. But we want to keep it because it was making a difference. How do we need to adjust it, so that it works in our new school? That’s my biggest goal.
Q: What are some of the complexities of being a principal?
A: It’s complexed, but it brings so much joy. What’s interesting to know about this role is that, it is not just managing a building anymore. The role of a principal has changed a lot in wonderful ways. With that comes a lot of responsibilities. The ability to prioritize what to do in any given day has become a more increasingly important skill for an administrator.
How do you balance the workload and then working and not coming in tired the next day? I think of my role as a listener, listening to children and asking what’s happening and looking for ways to better serve them.
Our long-term goals are to continue working on closing the achievement gaps that we know exist. The biggest strategy for that is going to be family engagement, and the way that we're putting ourselves out there that every family feels connected. And every family knows that we're here problem-solving and celebrating their child in their journey
Q: As the face of Woodbrook Elementary, what’s your role in the hiring of teachers and, essentially, minority teachers?
A: We’re lucky in the county because we have a big pool of candidates who want to work here. As a principal, what I value about HR is that they do a lot of the screening for us, because otherwise it would be overwhelming.
For example, I can post that I need a teacher. And I will have over 100 applicants. When I know I’m working hard to bring in more minorities, I can communicate that with HR. It’s hard for me as a principal because I can’t necessarily see who’s a minority because we cannot ask these questions when they’re applying. I cannot see that part of their application.
HR conduct screening interviews before meeting with us. They call me and might say they just interviewed an excellent minority. They might know that I’m seeking a minority candidate in that role.
Hiring is one of the most important things that a principal does. We do have that autonomy of screening what HR has already pre-screened, and then interviewing and making our own decisions. It has to be a good fit for that candidate as much as it needs to be a good fit for me.
Q: As a student, what was your experience like having a Black teacher?
A: I didn’t have many minority teachers growing up. Probably for me, it was when I moved to Florida at the age of 13. I don’t know that I had a minority other than a male, which in the field of education, a male teacher can be a minority as well. Having a Black teacher, for me, the learning was not different. It was just an aha moment.
I remember as a young child asking myself, I wonder why this was the first time I had a Black teacher. I loved all my teachers. And I probably was too young and naïve to think through the lenses of my friends who probably might have liked to have a Black teacher prior to that. And maybe they did.
There’s a lot more awareness of that now than before, which is wonderful because students need to see themselves when they come to school. They spend a lot of hours with us. They need to see themselves in each of us.
Williams said her long-term goals are to continue working on closing the achievement gaps.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
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