This year's Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year hails from Carver Road Middle School in Griffin, Ga.
Dr. Tiffany Taylor shares what led her to becoming a middle school principal, how she keeps students at the forefront of her decision-making and even some advice for first-time principals.
Georgia Department of Education: What was your journey to becoming a principal? How did you know you wanted to be an educator, and how did you know you wanted to move into administration?
Dr. Tiffany Taylor: I began my teaching career in 1998. I taught one year at the elementary level and my remaining teaching tenure was at the middle school level as a language arts teacher. I served in leadership capacities, such as grade level chair and department chair and as a member of the leadership team. In my last couple of years at the middle school level, my principal recognized my leadership skills and forward-thinking and began to nudge me to lead professional learning and train teachers. Before this time, becoming a principal had not crossed my mind. I must admit that I was concerned that if I left my classroom, I would not have the same impact on students.
After completing a Masters in Educational leadership from Mercer University, I came to realize that leadership is key to impacting the entire school, not just the students in my classroom. After leaving the classroom, I first took on a graduation coach position at the middle and high school levels. I felt that I was directly impacting the most at-risk students and the students who most needed me.
Next, a colleague had been appointed to turn around a challenging high school and asked me to come along to develop teachers in an instructional coaching role. Though I hated to move away from directly working with students, I was excited to be able to return to supporting teachers, as I know that building capacity in teachers would have a strong effect on students. I quickly moved from serving as a coach to a high school assistant principal. This position was the best of both worlds, working with students and supporting teachers. By this time I had completed my doctoral studies and wrote my dissertation on best practices of Middle school principals. When a middle school principal position became vacant in my district, I applied and was appointed to my first principalship. Ironically, it was at the middle school where I first taught.
How did you react when you learned you’d been named Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year? What was going through your mind at that moment?
When I first learned that I had been nominated as Principal of the Year, I was surprised. I did not join the profession to gain esteem or recognition; but rather, to make a difference in the lives of young men and women. When I received further notification that I was a finalist, I was humbled, realizing that there are many outstanding principals throughout the state of Georgia. The day that representatives from GASSP came to my school and announced that I was the 2017-2018 Middle School Principal of the Year, my heart was proud that I have lived a life of compassion and servanthood. I am also grateful to be recognized for the work that I love and to which I have devoted my life’s work. Finally, I am proud to represent all of the great principals around the state of Georgia.
What does your average day as principal of Carver Road Middle School look like?
I start my day out everyday before school by reflecting on the previous day, checking emails and writing my to do list. Once students are on campus, I spend my time walking the entire building to greet students, teachers and staff. I make sure to visit the cafeteria, see the custodians, and from time to time I get to see bus drivers. On Mondays I meet with my administrative team to review our strategic objectives, review discipline, determine teachers to support, and develop a course for the week. Next, I visit grade level meetings and give input where needed. On Tuesday and Thursday I participate in content Professional Learning Communities. This is where teachers review data and plan lessons.
Every other Wednesday I lead or participate in job embedded professional learning based upon identified areas of need. I attend the Kiwanis Club meeting when I am not in professional learning.
When the bell rings and students move, I move. I monitor the hallways and interact with students. Daily I monitor the cafeteria along with my administrative team. I visit no less than 6 classrooms each day for at least 10 minutes and provide feedback to teachers. I respond to parents in between grade level meetings and classroom observations. On Fridays, I observe RTI meetings. On the 1st Thursday of the month my Principal’s Advisory Council meets to plan community service projects for the school.
After school, I try to be in attendance to most sporting events and programs, be it a dance, Beta Club, or an academic competition.
Nonetheless, no day is predictable, nor are school days exact. Oftentimes my calendar is filled with problem-solving. Every day and all day I am reflecting on how I can improve our school and help students. This could range from working out a schedule for a new student to finding resources for a homeless student or student with a mental illness who is in need. I top my day off by handling car rider duty where I get to wave, smile and greet parents.
What would you say is the most important work you’ve undertaken as a principal?
My most important work has been to rebuild school pride and a positive culture. I believe that every student deserves to learn in a safe, clean, and supportive learning environment. And, as a principal, I will ensure it. When I was named to Carver Road Middle School, I was the third principal in three years. My teachers had retreated to working in isolation. My parents’ faith in the school was disdained, and students lacked school pride. The school had achievement gaps and had been placed on the Focused School list. Immediately, I began working on rebranding the school. Our climate plan started with branding our school and telling the story that we want to be heard. We use the hashtag #2185PRIDE, which represents our school address. Our belief is that when we are at Carver; it’s about Carver.
Although our teachers, students, staff and administrators come from diverse backgrounds and may have taken various paths to get here, once we are at Carver we join a team, and each member plays an integral role. We collaborate, we work hard, and we celebrate. We have embraced discipline as an opportunity to teach desired behaviors, and we punish the behavior, not the child. With that we are trying to implement restorative practices to get students to exhibit the behaviors that we expect. We were removed from the Focused School List and have been named a Model School for two consecutive years by the International Center for Leadership in Education in 2016 and 2017. We have improved our student attendance, decreased office disciplinary referrals and made the 2016 Beating the Odds List.
What makes you passionate about the work you do? What motivates you to go above and beyond in your role?
I have always had a passion for serving others. This was instilled in me by mother. I watched her work tirelessly to provide for my brother and myself without complaining and without giving up. She continues to work to this day and to serve others. She has always taught me to exercise my faith, treat others with respect and to give in order to receive. I know that every student needs a champion. They need a principal, teacher, or caring adult to ensure that they are provided with the best education that they can have.
I believe that people are placed in each others lives to make a difference, so I live each day believing that there will be something that I do or say that will impact someone’s life and that person will then impact another. I eagerly get up in the morning believing that I am going to make a difference today. I am a believer, a dreamer, an over-comer. I value resiliency. And, I believe that others can beat their situation as well.
What advice would you give to a first-year middle-school principal?
Get to know your school for yourself. Provide strong organizational leadership. Be the instructional leader. Make every decision based upon your students, not adults. Ensure a positive and safe learning environment for every student.
Remember to celebrate and tell your story.
Determine the data that you need to monitor your school’s progress. Don’t just listen to what people say, but more importantly, watch what they do and monitor what the data says. Data doesn’t lie.
Keep a to-do list, plan forward, and communicate, communicate, communicate.
Remember that you and the other adults are in your respective positions to serve students first. Ensure that every student is able to learn in a risk-free environment.
Celebrate small achievements and big achievements. Celebrate faculty and staff when they deserve it. Tell the story that you want the public to hear about your school.
As Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year, you’ll have a platform to advocate for your profession. What message do you hope to get across?
I have worked at every level - elementary, middle, high school and higher education. I have held positions that give me a unique and well-rounded perspective. I have been a teacher, academic coach, graduation coach, parent involvement coordinator (part-time), assistant principal, and principal. I have worked in affluence and with Title I; schools of distinction and schools in needs improvement. I feel that my varied background uniquely provides a wide perspective.
I still believe in public education. I believe that our public schools cannot simply be reduced to a score or a grade. If provided the appropriate supports and resources our public schools can succeed. I believe that each school has unique needs that need to be addressed. Nonetheless, we need strong and knowledgeable leaders at every level.
There needs to be leadership development and coaching to assists leaders in dealing with the complex problems of school.
As Middle School Principal of the Year, I will use this platform to share the experiences that I have learned along my journey and inspire best practices in educational leadership. Leadership impact is only second to classroom instruction. If we build stronger leaders, we can build stronger schools.