Pop Quiz: 15 Questions for TN Assistant Principal of the Year

While School Leaders Now often writes about principals and superintendents, we also have many other types of school leaders in our midst. In our new Pop Quiz column, we will be posing a series of questions to a variety of educators. In this inaugural column, we talk to Tennessee’s 2015 Assistant Principal of the Year Nivia Serrano. Nivia, a former English teacher (pictured above, center, in jeans) is serving her sixth year as Assistant Principal at Siegel High School of the Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee. We hope you enjoy Nivia’s responses as much as we did.

And if you’d like to take our Pop Quiz, email us at greyb@dnb.com. We’d love to hear from you.

Big Picture…

If you had the power to make a big change in education, what would it be? National standards that are skills-based (skills that are foundational for workplace and college success), with states having the ability to add any specific content knowledge that they want their students to know. As a former Army brat, I would move to one state and be way ahead of where the other students were, and in another state I would be behind and struggle. Students can go to college or accept a job in any state so it makes sense to have national standards.

What can U.S. schools can learn from other countries? The U.S. could learn from Finland. For example, Finland saw that education is key to economic recovery. Therefore, they hire the top 10 percent of graduates and they have to earn a required Master’s degree. Special education teachers are paid slightly more than general education teachers. There is no mandated testing except for one exam at the end of the student’s senior year. Though there is an option for sixth graders to sit for a district-wide exam.

The teachers spend fewer hours at school each day, and spend less time in the classrooms. PD is free. The teachers are more concerned with teaching the students to learn how to learn, instead of learning how to take a test. The bottom line: It is about relationships with the students and hands-on/cooperative learning. The schools provide food, medical care, and counseling. Student health care is free. As we know, if a student’s basic needs are not met, then they are not ready to learn.

Conversely, what can we teach other countries? The U.S. has competition, data-driven curriculum, and mandated standardized tests. Data itself is not bad. If it is used to name, blame, and shame teachers and schools, then it is bad. If it is used to inform instructional decisions and identify students who are struggling and monitor their progress, then that is the right way to use data. A way to see if what you are doing is effective or not. Standardized tests do not tell the full story about a student’s achievement, and is only one piece of the puzzle.

What’s the public’s #1 misconception about our education system? The misconception that teachers have it easy with all of their breaks and summers off. A teacher’s job is not a 9 to 5, Monday – Friday job. They continue to work at home grading, planning, calling parents, answering students’ emails, or they are at school coaching students and sponsoring club activities. They spend their summers attending conferences and meeting with their teams to plan the next school year.

AP Advice…

Any advice for new assistant principals? Meet and greet the teachers, students, and parents.  It’s all about relationships.

What’s your biggest job challenge? Balancing the duties of discipline, testing coordinator, and observations while still getting into the classrooms and forming relationships with the teachers and students

What 3 qualities matter most to you in a hire?  1)Their answer to the question “Why did you become a teacher?” We’re looking for those who want to teach teenagers and not just teach their subject because they love it; 2)  Leadership Potential. We’re not looking for someone to fit in, but for someone who can help take us to the next level; 3) Finally, we look for people who seeks out and is open to feedback.

About Teaching…

Any advice for new teachers? In my first year, what I found challenging about teaching was classroom management. I thought that meant being militant so the students wouldn’t dare act up and didn’t smile until the third week of school. That wasn’t good for the students or me.

What’s the best and worst thing about teaching? It is best expressed with a quote by [education expert and author] Todd Whitaker: “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.”

What’s the funniest thing a student has ever said to you? When I was an English teacher, we were studying the poem “My Last Duchess,” and I asked who the speaker was. The students could tell it was a man, but could not be more specific. I tried to help them, by saying that the male form of princess was prince so the male form of duchess would be . . . .? A student raises his hand and with a straight face replies, “A Douche?”

Share a memory of your own school years: When I was in the 6th grade, I was skipping school with my older sister who was in high school.  At the end of the 6 weeks, my social studies teacher, Mr. Watkins, gave a trophy to the student who had the highest grade in his class to keep until the next 6 weeks.  I really wanted that trophy so I stopped skipping school and worked hard in all of my classes.  The next 6 weeks (and for the rest of the year) I got the trophy.

About Siegel High School…

What are you most proud of? Our caring, hardworking teachers. Several examples: One year our Algebra I proficiency rate increased 22% after a new PLC Leader was put in place, and they created a systematic, coordinated system of interventions. Another example is that after trending downwards in our average ACT composite for the past 5 years, our composite rose by .6 after we worked together to create a system of ACT supports. This means more students are accessing the HOPE Scholarship! Lastly, a teacher at our alternative school has created a mentoring program where a returning student to our school is paired with a teacher mentor so as the student has a successful transition back to school. A little more than half of our teachers volunteered to be a mentor!

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Favorite quote: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda

Last book you read: Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success by Baruti Kafele.

Favorite Tech Tool: iPad