Principals are key players in the delicate and ever-evolving ecosystem of a school’s culture and growth.

School leadership matters. Second only to teachers as a primary in-school influence on student success, principals are key players in the delicate and ever-evolving ecosystem of a school’s culture and growth.

We had the pleasure of catching up with a passionate educator, leader, and member of the CTQ community: Vanessa Valencia, who serves as Assistant Principal at Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora, Colorado. Vanessa shared important insights from her leadership journey with us. Read on to learn how a shift in mindset has helped her remain joyful, flexible, and solution-oriented in the face of systemic challenges and competing demands.

Q: What’s a typical “day in the life” of a school leader? How has your view of the role shifted from your first year as a school leader to the present?

A: Every day is different. Like teaching, your best “plan” doesn’t always (or ever) go as planned. You can have a full schedule of commitments and one event, emergency, or unexpected hallway conversation can take the day in a completely different direction. The role requires immense flexibility. Last year I struggled when a day didn’t go as planned. I felt like I was always letting someone down. Now I approach the day from an ‘I don’t know how this day is going to go’ mindset. This has impacted how I show up — in classrooms, meetings, and one-on-one conversations — in a positive way.

I’ve come to realize school leadership is incredibly creative work. I’ve been at my school since it opened seven years ago, which has allowed me to observe growth and improvement over time. Schools are constantly iterating, refining, and co-creating systems. This is why staff retention and growing leaders committed to the school community is so important. Focusing on this, the fact that at its core school leadership is about creating better learning experiences for kids, helps me remain flexible and responsive to each day’s demands. 

Q: What brings you joy in your work?

A: Witnessing the development and growth in a teacher’s practice and its impact on student learning. For example, one member of our staff was an effective teacher, yet very traditional, a few years ago. Her classroom was always on-task and compliant, but didn’t necessarily reflect the cognitive engagement she knew was possible. I worked with her, initially as her coach, and eventually as her evaluator. Today her classroom is completely different. Every day she offers students opportunities for interactive and hands-on learning, and cognitive engagement is high. Seeing authentic student engagement and the growth in her teaching, and knowing I played a role in impacting her practice, brings me great joy.

While instructional leadership has always been really important to me, this year I made it the primary focus of my daily work. I spend as much time in classrooms as possible. When I started working as a school leader, I was so worried about completing tasks as they came in that my inbox consumed large chunks of the work day.

Through reflection and conversations with my colleagues, I realized a clean inbox is never going to impact student achievement! This shift in mindset helped me reframe where and how I should be spending my time.

Prioritizing being in classrooms has resulted in stronger relationships with staff, a deeper understanding of each educator’s professional growth goals, and an increase in timely and specific feedback to each staff member I evaluate. This feedback has resulted in more risk-taking and implementation of the feedback by teachers in classrooms. It’s shifted the culture from one of compliance to one where teachers say, ‘I’m trying something new today, can you come watch?’

Q: CTQ believes unleashing the collective capacity of teachers and administrators is the key to creating an equitable public school system that serves all students and their communities. What is your reaction to this? How does this value show up in the work you do?

A: I couldn’t agree more that we must work to remove the line that still exists between teachers and administrators. We cannot be divided if we are serious about serving all students. We must view and respect each other as professionals, and resist reaching to external ‘experts.’ Instead, we must leverage the collective genius that already exists within our system.

One of the ways we’re doing this is through our professional learning studio structure. As a teacher, it was frustrating to me when professional learning didn’t mirror the instructional practice expected in classrooms. This made me realize our professional learning must model what we expect — if we want differentiated and personalized learning for students, we must orchestrate what that might look like with adults. Choice, and teachers’ real inquiry questions and problems of practice, should always drive professional learning. All studio-based learning that happens in our building happens through other teachers, including collaboration with practitioners at other schools.

Keeping a “teacher mindset” at the forefront and constantly reflecting on what it was like to be a full-time practitioner helps me co-create meaningful professional learning experiences with staff.

Living our 7 Mindsets “Attitude of Gratitude” by delivering coffee to staff.
From L to R: Vanessa Valencia, Larry Thigpen (assistant principals) and Yolanda Greer (principal).

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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