Principal Tammy Taylor
The Teacher Advocate, Star School Leader Recipient
We spoke to Principal Tammy Taylor about her process of teaching students to nurture a strong connection to their community. This is the third spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter, or check out our School Leadership page, which we will update with each new spotlight.
To the compact gait of an elementary school student, the path between a teacher’s classroom and the principal’s office may seem far and long. Such is not the case at the Wellton Elementary School District in Arizona, where Principal Tammy Taylor leads her staff by example. Mrs. Taylor started her journey in education as a classroom teacher for fourteen years, and she continues to teach today, in addition to being principal of a school that serves K-8 students.
The Makings of a Star School Leader
In college, Principal Taylor made an honest effort to become a veterinarian, but her grades in organic chemistry wouldn’t cut it. (Who among us can relate?)
Her friends and family pointed out that she thrived in roles that let her work with kids: one job as a daycare provider, another helping kids find books at the public library. When she found her true calling as a 2nd grade teacher, she put away her chemistry textbooks and never looked back.
“The thing I like most [about being a principal] is being able to interact with all the students. Because we are a small school, everyone knows me. Seeing the kids outside the community and they still recognize you—that close-knit kind of a family atmosphere is what I really like the most.”
— Principal Tammy Taylor, Wellton Elementary School
Principal Taylor stays connected by regularly popping into classrooms to say hello. But these visits are strictly as a community member and not a supervisor. Under her leadership, teachers receive a lot of trust to lead their classrooms without intervention. “Unless they need help or I see a problem, I just let them do their job.”
Wellton Bulldogs and the Wall of Kindness
As a small school for a wide range of students, Wellton Elementary emphasizes a personal responsibility to the community. But the community wasn’t always so harmonious. After observing a need for dissolving conflict between grade levels, Principal Taylor implemented some creative ways to bring students together.
With the help of its students over the past three years, the school has added five murals to the campus, each brandishing quotes about kindness. Throughout the project, students had the chance to adorn the walls with their own handprints and express themselves creatively in honor one of the greats, Vincent Van Gogh.
Another way Wellton imparts a sense of kindness and responsibility is through a house system inspired by Harry Potter: every year, fourth through eighth graders are sorted into four houses. Through themed challenges and activities, they exercise teamwork, kindness, and inclusivity. This gives students a chance to work with people of a different ages and interests.
World Kindness Day brought on another opportunity for the initiative — students wrote anecdotes about giving, receiving, or witnessing kindness on pieces of paper. These speech bubbles were housed in the cafeteria for several weeks. This let students read stories from their peers at lunchtime, and keep the theme of the activity at the top of their minds at least once a day.
How does Mrs. Taylor foster a supportive teacher community?
Wellton is a school of 200 students and 10-12 teachers. In many cases, there is just one teacher per grade level. As such, getting teachers to convene and align can be difficult, but Principal Taylor keeps an open environment for communication and colleague support holding morning meetings for professional development.
These trainings are sometimes divided by grade level, but are often conducted as a unified group where staff invent ways to collaborate across grade level. For example, in one meeting, the intermediate staff shared activities and games they created for the primary staff.
Before she became principal, Mrs. Taylor worked with Donors Choose to get sewing machines for our school. Now as our Principal, she helps teachers apply for donations through Donors Choose. This is just one of the ways that Mrs. Taylor has inspired teachers and staff members at Wellton Elementary. With her positive attitude and incredible energy, she has been an excellent role model for our teachers and staff.
— Lisa Jameson, Teacher at Wellton Elementary
The State of Technology at Wellton Elementary
For many school districts, technology used to be an afterthought, or a special treat. But Principal Taylor has witnessed technology tunnel to the forefront of her students’ lives and helped her school in the effort to become a 1:1 (student to device) community. “It’s not like when we were students and, you know, ‘Yes! We got a computer class this semester.’ This is their life.”
The longer we prolonged having (technology as) part of their educational and academic life—which is the majority of their time during the year—I think we felt like we were holding them back. So having added that in, to me, is just important.
— Principal Tammy Taylor
This initiative also helped Principal Taylor to extend a helping hand where her teacher’s didn’t have bandwidth. “We are short-staffed to be perfectly honest. So our ideas, we have incorporated this year some online tutoring.” Eighth graders that are eligible can take algebra online, which frees up the math teacher to work more closely with students still approaching that level.
Advice for Other Schools Implementing 1:1 Technology
As the principal at a 1:1 school, Taylor understands that implementing a new tech initiative can be scary. But first and foremost, it’s important to remember that everyone learns at a different rate. “Baby steps. Start with one program and get them to where they’re competent and then you can add another one. Even our most reluctant teachers have slowly started to use it more and more in the classroom.”
For administrators that are hesitant to embrace technology, Principal Taylor recommends leaning on the people and resources in your community as mentors. She notes that kids are often more likely to listen to other kids than to a teacher.
Just find those teachers and students that have those strengths, and use their strength. Having the older kids who know how to do it go in and show the little ones can take some of the pressure off the teacher trying to figure it out all on their own.
Whereas the teachers may be reluctant to use tablets and other devices as part of their instruction, the students themselves often feel right at home. “We had the 7th graders go in and help the kindergarteners learn how to log into the program and show the teachers how, for about two months.” By encouraging collaboration and relying on the students to step up for their community, Principal Taylor enjoyed a much smoother transition to using tablets in grade K. “By that time the kids could get in on their own. And the teachers were less worried about spending time with log in.”
This anecdote emphasizes the dual intent of technology at Wellton Elementary. Principal Taylor understands that it can be used to enhance the classroom experience in different ways. “At the primary level, it needs to be there to help support and help fill in the gaps of our students. In the intermediate, we have it to help and improve their comprehension and understanding of the subject areas, as well as knowing that our state testing is done on the computer.
All in all, what makes Mrs. Taylor such a sensational leader is her ability to pinpoint and rely on the individual strengths of people in her community. “The kids are why we’re here the most. The adults, we help guide them, but you have to trust them to do their job and that’s what I do. I trust them to do their job.“
Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?
Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.
The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:
- Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
- Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
- Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.
To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.
More From the Star School Leader Series
As a principal, Mr. Nemlich views technology as a way to open doors that may otherwise be closed to kids from a rural environment.
We spoke with Taos Academy founder & Principal Traci O. Filiss about change management, empowering teachers, and inspiring students to be self-motivated.
Principal Tamara Jones-Jackson sees teaching as a relationship: “You’ll never be able to get through to anyone if you don’t have that [first].”