Principal of the Year talks teacher pay, achievement gap

jalexander@newsobserver.comJune 9, 2014 

— The awards keep coming in for Morris Grove Elementary principal Amy Rickard.

After winning the Wells Fargo Piedmont-Triad/Central Region Principal of the Year in January, she was recognized by the National Association of Elementary School Principals as North Carolina’s National Distinguished Principal.

Rickard helped design Morris Grove Elementary before it opened in the 2008-09 school year. She became the school’s first principal after previously serving as Glenwood Elementary’s principal.

As she walked down the halls and into the cafeteria of Morris Grove Elementary last week, students ran up and hugged her.

“Why are you out of the trophy case?” one kindergartener asked.

The previous day students walking to the library had been surprised to see their principal standing inside a closed trophy case, reading a book. Rickard was promoting literacy before the End of Grade Tests in a couple of days.

“Why am I out? Did you really expect me to stay in there forever?” Rickard asked the student lightheartedly.

“Yes,” a couple of students at the lunch table responded.

Rickard laughed and told the students she had to get back to work. The students – she knew them all by name – accepted her answer.

We sat down with Rickard for an interview about her job and other issues.

Q: What do you think the key to being a good principal is?

A: I try to balance the instructional leadership and the organizational leadership (by) valuing instructional time and creating positive conditions for learning, while at the same time really supporting teachers in the classroom.

Carving out time for them to work together collaboratively to plan instruction. To go to professional development and participate in that. To be a coach in supporting (teachers) in their classroom, giving them constructive feedback. Being available, trying to support them professionally and having trust in them as professionals is important.

Q: With teacher pay being as low as it is and the General Assembly trying to take away teacher tenure, how do you retain teachers and recruit new ones?

A: That is certainly a challenge. I think people always say “Teachers don’t go into the profession for the money,” but I think the demands of the job continue to increase.

Working conditions for teachers are very important for me. The most effective teachers are happy teachers. If teachers feel positive about their work environment then they’re going to be better teachers for children. So I think being supportive of teachers and creating an environment where teachers are sharing ideas and sharing the workload, and not working in isolation, (is important). Protecting instructional time and trying to find the resources that they need, all those things make a difference.

Q: What are your thoughts on closing the achievement and suspension gap?

A: It is our responsibility to support children in reaching high levels of success and (to make sure) that people are committed to that.

We want to make sure that teachers do have that belief that we can help children learn and grow (by) shifting towards that growth mindset that intelligence is not fixed but that it is really valuable, and you can all do things to grow your brain. And if you don’t know it now, then you will learn it and we will teach it to you.

We have a strong behavior support system. We use the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) framework and have really been focused on it. (PBIS is an evidence-based, data-driven framework proven to reduce disciplinary incidents, increase a school’s sense of safety and support improved academic outcomes.)

We’re trying to make sure that our discipline data is really reflective of our student population. I’m happy that we’re on a positive trajectory with that and are continuing to work to develop support systems and supporting classroom teachers in helping our children succeed and working with parents in that way.

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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