Inside the Principal’s Office

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 34 │Inside the Principal’s Office

Tuesday, November 10, 2020



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Dr. Tayarisha Batchelor

Parents dread getting a call from their child’s principal’s office. But maybe It’s time to shift our mindset and think of principals as partners who support our children’s development. We talked with Dr. Tayarisha Batchelor, principal of the Rawson STEAM school in Hartford, Conn., about how families and parent leaders can collaborate with their principal. She shares how she has supported families in her communities during the pandemic and how she helps her staff engage in meaningful family engagement practices.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast, I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your co-hosts. At National PTA, we talk a lot about family school partnerships. Many parents are used to the parent teacher conference or back to school night that happens in person, but there are many ways that schools can connect with families and certainly this year, for sure family school partnerships look different.

LaWanda: Absolutely Helen families and schools are getting creative finding ways to engage with each other this year. I'm so excited we're going to get to hear directly from a principal today, about her own experience, fostering family engagement amidst COVID-19 we're welcoming Dr. Tayarisha Batchelor to the show today.

Dr. Bachelor is the principal at Rawson STEAM school, a pre-K through eighth grade school in Hartford, Connecticut. Prior to becoming a principal. Dr. Batchelor served in many capacities in the Hartford school system with a track record for excellence. She's also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and a Founding Member of Black Leaders and Administrators Consortium. Dr. Batchelor, earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Connecticut, she and her husband have two children ages 20 and 22.

Dr. Batchelor, welcome to the show.

Tayarisha Batchelor: Thank you so much for having me and I am enthused that I'm able to be a part of this conversation.

LaWanda: Well, we're really excited to have you. We were talking before the show and a lot of times parents don't really get a chance to talk to the principal or they don't feel like they can talk to the principal unless something bad is going on. So, we're really happy to have you here and we're not in the principal's office, so that's great.

So, Dr. Batchelor, tell us a little bit about yourself and what makes you so passionate about education?

Tayarisha Batchelor: I have always thought that education is the great equalizer. I do a lot of work around equity, but growing up school was definitely a safe haven for me. It was a place that I got to, meet with my friends, enjoy my teachers. It just opened up a world to me and I want it to do the same thing for the students in Hartford. When I went to school to become a teacher, I initially wanted to be a music teacher, music was my passion. But, once I started getting into the classroom and I was seeing that, students didn't have that love for books or just love for school that I had. And, I wanted to make sure that that changed for students. So, I always had a passion for teaching and learning for loving books and loving learning. And I just wanted to make sure that other kids had that same experience too.

Helen: That's great. Well, I want to talk to you a little bit about what parent involvement means to you. And like LaWanda said, I think for many families, family engagement matters a lot in their school, but they don't necessarily know like what to expect or what to even look for. And I was sharing before you got on the line, Dr. Batchelor, you are the epitome of what a great school leader looks like when it comes to family school partnerships, tell our listeners a little bit about what family engagement means to you and why?

Tayarisha Batchelor: Well, thank you for the compliment, I think that I have great relationships with my parents because I introduce myself as a parent first. So, I connect with them because I had kids who went to schools that are similar to the schools that I've worked in. I'm a black female. At one point in my life, I was also a single working parent, so I can relate to them on many of the things that they're experiencing and going through as they support the education of their children.

I see parent engagement as something that is, is ongoing and is a partnership, so it's not necessarily myself and the staff dictating what parent engagement looks like, but it's me coming to them saying, you know, let's talk about what we want for our children, yours and mine. And, how we can make that happen for them, how we can advocate, how we can work together, how we can make sure that they have those same experiences that I had.

And everyone has something to say about education because everyone believes that because they went to school, they know how schools work. I say that our parents were not just the first teachers, but they're the ongoing teacher. So you learn something at school and then you may go home and your parents may teach in a different way, which, I don't know if we're going to talk about math instruction. But, which is perfect because the way that we're teaching math now is we're teaching new math and old math mixed together. So that, kids think about the way that they learn, and then they're able to incorporate that into different strategies.

So, I tell them that this is an ongoing partnership, and I have to change the way that people feel about school. So, if they had a bad experience with schools, then they may not want to come into the building and some of our parents, it's generational. I also see some parents coming in with their kids and I had their kids when they were in kindergarten and elementary school.

So, I think it's also easy, easier for me because I'm in the same community that I've worked in for a long time. I've lived in this community. I'm close to this community. But, I think it's also about them being able to know what's happening during the day for me to understand what's happening when they're at school and for us to join those, those two things together. So, it's continuous, learning doesn't happen one way in school. And, then another way at home, we have to kind of mix that up and we have to make sure that this is just the way we live. Like I live as a principal. It's not something that I turn off. I don't go home and turn off my phone.

This is who I am and, and parents know that. And, I can also say things to them as a parent, that maybe some other people can't, because I've been in their shoes.

LaWanda: I love that, Dr. Batchelor, and you made me feel so much better about teaching my son -- he's in second grade -- the math that I know, because when I'm looking at his math, I'm like, okay, but I know how to carry the one. So, I'm going to show you that, but I'm not trying to screw you up. So, I'm really happy out of everything that you said that you said it's okay to combine the two, because I think that's definitely an example of how parents, some of the anxiety that we feel about, especially being home during the pandemic, trying to help, but not trying to mess them up.

So, I just appreciate, personally, that you said that it's okay.

Tayarisha Batchelor: We all are learning. We're learning a lot of different things and we also have to value what the parents and what the community brings to our students. Especially when you look at standardized testing. And, and there's a lot of, if we talk about equity and racism and bias, we have to also recognize that when you have a diverse population, our kids are bringing in their culture. They're bringing in their lived experiences and they haven't historically been acknowledged, as something that, that we value. So I appreciate the stories of, how grandma is teaching math while she's teaching them how to cook and how to measure. Those are the, the life skills and the learning, and the things that help our students to connect to.

That's why kids love learning and love coming to school, it's because we're not separate we're showing them all of the worlds put together and all of the things that they can learn and this is truly as a partnership. So I learned from the parents every day, they learn from me. And I'm also saying to them, this new math, I wasn't doing this math with my kids when they were in second grade. Like, I'm struggling too, I have to, if you see my car in the parking lot from seven to seven at night, it's because I'm learning math too. So, as teachers and administrators, we're going through this at the same time.

But, I do appreciate that they're willing to come and watch the teachers do it. And virtually, now there's so many tools, but you have to be careful with that. I don't want people to think that virtual learning right now, that during this pandemic means we're taking everything from the classroom and putting it online. No, we are exploring how do we use technology? How do we engage our students? And also, how are our students going to be using technology in the new fields? What doors is this going to open up for us? So, we're doing this together at the same time. And, we have high expectations that our staff is going to learn how to use new tools and our students are going to learn it. And then, our students are going to go home and teach it to the parents. And, when parents have questions, they're going to text me, they're going to go on Class Dojo. They're going to go on our Facebook page, they're going to call Ms. Smithy, our family resource person.

They're going to see us when we do four corners in the community and they're going to ask us, explain what number bonds means, because I have a kindergarten kid and that's all she talks about and we're going to laugh about it. And I'm going to explain it, and I'm going to it two and three different times in three different ways. And when our kids do it well, while I'm going to take pictures of it and I'm going to send them pictures, and we're going to keep this conversation of how we're educating our kids as an ongoing conversation, something that we continuously talk about and go back and ask questions and, show them what the kids are doing.

That's why I say I live as a principal. It's not something that you turn off because it's continuous.

LaWanda: I love that.

Helen: Yeah. It's I'm I would love to go a little deeper even with the new math example, cause you talked about a few things, always being accessible and your staff are accessible and parents can come to you with questions. Are there other ways you're sharing ideas and or examples with your families, so they can support their kids learning at home? What does that look like for you in a normal year? And what does that look like for you now?

Tayarisha Batchelor: In a normal year, I would have families coming into the building all the time. It is really an open door policy and it took some time, because I needed the staff to be comfortable, with people coming in and watching them because, sometimes there's some insecurities on teachers' parts also. When you have students in front of you and administrators in front of you and then parents, so we had to develop that trust factor and, and be able to know how we give each other criticism and how we push each other to excel.

So, we had to work on developing that one way that I did that, once a month we would do rounds and teachers always do rounds where they go into each other's classrooms and they visit each other and they give each other feedback on instruction and they look at what the students are doing. Well, we have that where the parents come in and they do that with the teachers. And again, you don't just invite everyone into the classroom, everyone into your building, you train people what evidence to look for of good instruction. And then you, you're very clear on, what will it look like when we go into the classroom? So there's norms and there's team building.

So, you do all of those things with teachers and staff members at the same time together, and then you bring them in a part of the conversation and then you start doing these walk-throughs. The other way is We have on any given month, we could have about 50 parents coming in for PTO and we don't waste their time. So, there's a tight agenda and the agenda comes from the parents. And, I know that there's times when there's things that I feel that I need to cover, but I have to step back and I have to allow them to do that.

So we, we also had to make it a little less formal. When I was at another school we had meetings at McDonald's. So, we would try different places in the, in the community because people weren't always comfortable coming into the building up, because remember some people had bad experiences in schools and we have to change that. Some people didn't know if there will be people in the building that spoke their language. There was a lot of reasons why people were not as comfortable coming into the building.

So, we have to work to get people comfortable, me greeting families outside in the morning when they come in. A lot of Facebook posts, Twitter polls, letting them see me talking to their kids, all of those things made them feel more comfortable, so that they would come into the building.

But, now what we're doing is we're doing that virtually and we're also doing it with home visits. So I spent a lot of time this summer going to homes and I'm going in, but I'm respecting their privacy and it is COVID-19. So, there's times when I'm just doing door knocking and then I'm standing behind and I'm dropping off signs about their kids and I'm waving to the kids.

We also do, drive bys now. Where we drive by our parents drive by and they pick up materials that they're using for the virtual classes. So, some families are working with their kids at home, but we know they still need those tools. They need those manipulatives. They need those cubes from math. They need whiteboards. So, our teachers do a lot of packing things so that the kids can have the things that they need so that they can do it at home. But the things that we do inside, I want to make sure that they're seeing it, in their homes. So, we're using jam boards, we're using Google meets, we are still doing four corners where we go out and, and we're accessible, so that families do want to come and have conversations. What I do is I tell them who is going to be on what corner. Some parents may be mad at me, in October.

[00:15:18] I may have had to say, your child is not logging in, and, and so we're going to have a meeting about that. But, I understand that and I understand that when parents are upset is, because caring for kids is very passionate. So sometimes we have to allow people to be upset with the principal because, the principal called them out on something, or they called me out on something.

So, four corners means you may not come to my corner to meet with me, but you may go to one of the other corners and meet with another teacher that, that you have a good relationship but then I'm going to ask that person to help me build a better relationship with this parent. So, when we have our team meetings and, and we're discussing, students who need extra support and the students who are doing an excellent job, and how can we make sure that we are not watering down the curriculum for them?

So, when we have our data team meetings, I ask that question. So, who has a great relationship with this family? So, who's going to be the person to contact this family. And, I'm okay with knowing that it's not always going to be me, but it's my job to then loop back around so that I am one of the people who can reach out to them.

LaWanda: That's really great. So using your example of four corners, what are you hearing from families right now, during the pandemic? What type of feedback are you receiving about school?

Tayarisha Batchelor: One thing is that, they are feeling really stressed about the decisions that they have to make. So, they have the option of having the students in person or virtual. And, they're struggling with that. And they're hearing a lot of people's opinions of whether or not they're making the right choice. So for me, the first thing that I have to do is tell them that, your choice is personal. It's your choice, and you have reasons why you want your kids to be in-person or virtual.

My job is to make sure that their kids have the best education, the best experiences possible, whether they're in person or virtual. So, the first thing I'm telling parents is the choice that you've made is okay, it's the right choice that you had to make for your family and for your child. Trust that I'm going to make sure that no matter where your child is, they're awesome Rawson, and they're going to get the best education. So, that's one thing that they're struggling with. Another is just the uncertainty.

Our superintendent does a great job of providing information for families it's on the website. She works with the mayor, so they know that there is a connection between what the mayor is looking at in terms of the whole city and what she's looking at in terms of education. So, there's a great partnership and communication there. And then, she lets them know when there's going to be updates in terms of where we are with our learning.

And, and there is of course a plan B and a plan C, in case we have to pivot because of, COVID, but because she's talking to them about what's coming next, making sure that my parents know that if things change, there's still a plan in place and to just stay connected and know that, if we do have to pivot, there's going to be a plan and there's going to be support. So, the other thing that parents are asking a lot about is, if my kid is, is behind, what's going to happen when, when COVID is over? So, the after effect, and that speaks to social emotional learning. So, we have a team working on that also like, they want to make sure that what they're doing for their kid is okay.

And that, when the kids come back, that we're going to appreciate what they're doing and that we're going to be able to, to pick up and support their kids no matter where they are.

Helen: Thank you for that. I want to pick up on what you were sharing around sort of the role of families in your community and especially parent leaders.Many of our listeners are families trying to do the best by their own child. But are also interested in that next step of their own leadership journey, whether that’s joining their school’s PTA or advocating for their kids or all kids in their school community. Could you talk a little bit about what parent leadership looks like, at Rawson and, and how you've built that?

Tayarisha Batchelor: I am in year five here as a principal, and this is my 10th or 11th year as a principal. So, what parents leadership looks like right now in this building is not the same as what it looked like when I first came, it has to be developed. But it starts with a sense of, you know, what is your vision? So, my vision is that, our parents feel that they can advocate not just for their kid, but for all of the kids and that they look at our school as a place with pride and that they own that.

I give credit to Ms. Jackie Bethia who's our family resource support. I give that credit to Tracy Casey, who led my PTO for years and now to Ms. TT Lael Thompson. I give them the credit because they're doing the work. It's that kind of grassroot thing where it's, what do the parents know? What are they saying, and where do I insert myself? So, I'm careful not to insert myself, too quickly. I'm careful not to take over. And, I've learned to trust the people that have gone through the process and the training of how to work with parents, how, how to advocate, understanding the differences between students who receive different services.

So all of those trainings happen, special ed services happen, social emotional learning, we did a lot with helping them to understand some of the policies that, we have to follow. Because, sometimes there's things that we do and people have to understand the why. They see what we're doing, but they don't understand why we're doing it or the how. So we made sure that we did all of those trainings and, and a lot of that training is ongoing because things change. So, we provide the training, we provide the information and just being very transparent. And the more you're transparent with the parents, the more training you give them, the more you see who are the leaders and you let the leaders lead and you let them know I'm here, because I am accountable. So if something goes wrong, they are going to look to me.

So I'm saying, okay, we're going to do this right, but you're going to support me and I'm going to support you. But it, it, it is the training, it is the constant communication, it's being transparent and then allowing them the space and the platform to lead.

Tayarisha Batchelor: So they lead the conversations. I will tell them how much money we have for different opportunities. How many meeting slots we have, and then I ask them, what should we put in place? But then there's also a process. There's that accountability. So, you know, how do they collect the data so that it's not just the voices of some is, but it's the voices of most people, the majority. And then, we also looked at how do we get the voices of those that are not being heard?

We looked at a population of parents, because they didn't have transportation and their kids were being bussed here. They weren't coming to some of our meetings. So, how can we make, make sure that their voices are heard and that they're participating, even though they're not physically in the building because, parents participate in other ways, it doesn't mean that they always have to be in the building. I was that single parent for a few years, where the way that I was supporting was by calling other parents by putting positive things out there, by asking questions, by doing homework. So one thing that, that some of our families do is I give them homework for different grade levels and let them try it out.

And then, let me know what is difficult on the parents part, what they didn't understand. So, that then I can talk to the teachers about, communication from homework, but you have to make sure that everybody's able to participate. So, for that parent who works nine to five and can't get here, I'm not going to allow them to think, oh, I can't do it. I can't be there, so I'm not a part of it. No, you're going to be a part of the decision making here too. You're going to be a part of what, what happens. So, just making sure that everyone voices heard and being ready to jump in with some solutions when, when, when people are not available, and making sure that we know that we're serving everybody.

It's everyone's voice here, it can't just be a few. And, when it's just a few, you got to step back and say, okay, we're going to stop. And we're going to look at how we can get other people to join and to understand the work that we're doing. The other way I do that also is with my partnerships. I have great partnerships because, what I have to do right now is I have to make sure that, there's safety and there's teaching and learning. So, those are the two things that I do. So I have to have great partnerships so that they can do the, the other work that, that I can't do, the mailing, the phone calls, posting things on social media, having different groups, meeting on the other side of town with, with families and sometimes doing the door knocking when I'm doing teacher observations.

So, I have partnerships with like the village for children and family, UCONN Neag School of Education. So, that partnership helps too, because then they're bringing in some of their assets and but it's matching the vision. So, sometimes people come to the door knocking and I'm like, no, you're not coming into Rawson because that's not our vision right now. We're not ready for that. But, the partnerships that you have, you keep them involved in and you use them and they use you. And that, that's how our community continues to thrive.

LaWanda: I think that's really great. And it sounds like you guys have a great relationship with your parent community. What advice do you have for a parent leaders who want to strengthen their relationships with principals?

Tayarisha Batchelor: I think one thing that they need to do is get to know their principal on a personal level also, understand what their vision is, understand what their passion is, look into their background, what was their upbringing? What was their experience with school? Is this a second career for them? So, understanding the perspective of the principal helps you to advocate and, and meet them halfway. And then spending time looking at how the schools have changed over time. So, when I came to this school, it was the beginning of the, of the turnover into the lighthouse grant.

So this school, all of a sudden became a STEAM school. This school all of a sudden, started to have a bigger EL population. So understanding the school, the demographics, the changes that are happening, and then knowing who the leader is. And understanding that you're working with the principal not against the principal, and also knowing how to advocate for, for all kids and not just for your own.

Leaders have to support other people. So, like shame on me if I have a great PTO for three years, but then when those students go on to high school, my PTO drops. That means that I didn't make sure that those leaders looked to other parents to help them to become leaders, also. I think that's a mistake that's that some schools make, because parents are going to leave, their kids are going to get older, so you wanted to develop that. And I'm all I'm always saying, okay, I'm looking for the next round of leaders. Ms. TT is doing it now, Ms. Thompson, she's doing it now, but some of you have to be ready to pull ranks when, when her kids move on to high school.

Always knowing that parents are a part of this and always looking to see who's going to be the next leader and making sure that they're training and sharing information with others.

Helen: Oh, that's great. I think after this conversation, we're going to have a lot of our listeners wishing that their kids went to your school. For sure. We just want to thank you for your time and what you've done. Before we go, I do want to give you, one last opportunity to share a takeaway with our listeners.

If you could give advice to all the parents out there who are listening right now, what's something that you'd like them to walk away with from today's episode?

Tayarisha Batchelor: I want them to be encouraged, to know that yes, we're in a pandemic and things have changed quickly. But, be encouraged that, we're off to a good start. It's like something it's coming, something new. A new world has opened for our kids because we were forced into it, but just be encouraged that our, our kids are, adapting really well. Our kids are learning new strategies, learning new skills and just know that our kids are going to be okay.

They're going to be fabulous and they're going to achieve everything that we set out for them to achieve. I know that the kids are going to make it.

Helen: Great. thank you.

LaWanda: And, to our audience listening thank you for joining us. Before you go, we want to remind you to please rate and review our podcasts, your reviews and ratings, help others find our show and, we love hearing from you. And, as always for more resources related to today's episode, check out

Thanks for listening and join us next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.