Situated in a small town in southern California, Nicolet Middle School in Banning is a community that has fallen on hard times over the past few years yet keeps getting up whenever they’re knocked down. Led by their third-year principal, Veronica Rodriguez, Nicolet is an example of how a community can overcome grief, strife, and tragedy by coming together and staying resilient.
Hi, Veronica. Thank you for taking some time to speak with us today. To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your school, and your community?
This is my third year as the principal here at Nicolet Middle School, and it hasn’t been a normal three years by any means. There have been a lot of challenges, but it has been extremely rewarding. I love what I do.
I left the district that I was raised in to come to Nicolet Middle School in the city of Banning. In my former district, there were no opportunities opening up for middle school. I loved being an elementary school Assistant Principal, but I knew that I was not in my element which is why I decided to leave my long-time district and pursue my passion for this level. When I came to Nicolet Middle School, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into other than it was a somewhat tough community.
Banning is a very beautiful yet small town. We’re the only middle school, so in terms of enrollment we’re fairly large with 900 students. There are lot of things working against students being college and career ready – there are high amounts of crime, violence, drugs, and gangs. There is also a larger number of English Language Learners and poverty. It takes a lot of extra special people to be here in the school system – and that’s what we have here right now. The staff is dedicated, committed, hard-working, and caring for kids. This has been one of the key ingredients to really turning the school around.
When I started the job, the community had recently gone through several traumatic events. One of the administrators was arrested for inappropriate relationships with minors. The staff also started that year off on a strike and later one of the eighth-grade students passed away. That’s the situation I walked into – along with years of declining test scores and administration turnover. I think I was the eighth administrator in 10 years – something like that. It was a staff that was just feeling defeated, but their hearts were in it and they kept working hard because they wanted to see the success of our kids and our community. It was a tough thing to walk into, but I love where I’m at, and I think the staff is just an exceptional group of people.
Veronica, I want to follow up because you talked about a lot of the challenges and I’m remembering the article that you wrote for SchoolRubric almost two years ago now “Transforming School Culture: Shining the Light on a Hidden Gem” where you discussed some of the challenges you faced as a new administrator. What are some of the specific successes and challenges you can share with us since your last article you published with us?
We did start seeing a lot of successes pretty quickly with respect to staff turnover. These last three years, we have pretty much the same staff we did two years ago when I wrote the article, and that was something that hasn’t happened here in at Nicolet for a very long time. In the past, we had 8-10 teachers leaving every year to go to different schools or districts. This year, we did have a few staff leave, but one left because she got promoted to an assistant principal position, and another staff member who went to teach in the district independent study program.
What would you attribute the rise in staff retention to knowing that it is a challenging community and there are some challenges at the school? That seems like a dramatic shift in staff turnover over a very short period of time.
I ask myself a lot the question “What makes them want to stay now?” And I think that something I really pride myself in is showing appreciation to the staff because this job is not easy – it’s so hard. I try to empower the staff by letting them know that they have the power to change lives as well as the community because I feel like the school system is the hub of our communities. If we can make an impact in our schools, we can really change communities.
I think that reminding teachers daily about the power that they have helps them to keep going in those tough moments and to be resilient. The unity within the staff is huge. I have a professional learning network of principal from all over the place who really emphasize the importance of showing our staff love. We do regular things such as monthly gratitude gestures where we put together blueberry yogurts and blueberry muffins with an article called The Blueberry Story, which is a beautiful story about a teacher and how touching a teacher’s life can be. So it’s these kinds of things that build trust within your staff along with treating them like professionals and allowing them to make decisions and take risks without them feeling like they’re going to be judged. I believe that all of these things create the type of culture where teachers feel valued and safe and where they can trust you in return.
It is important that teachers and staff are treated like trusted professionals. Micromanaging and making decisions without staff input are two things that can kill a culture. When you give teachers the autonomy to be their own creative selves and you include them in decision making you create a culture where teachers are valued, appreciated, and safe to take risks. I always strive for commitment over compliance. When staff is compliant, you may see shifts in data, but when you get commitment from staff, and they have to buy in and their hearts are in it, you start seeing a shift in culture, which will bring shifts in data but with commitment over compliance the shifts you see are long term and sustainable even if I were to leave.
You mentioned resilience, which kind of transitions us into the next question, because the theme of this issue of InterACT magazine is all about highlighting stories of resilience that can help inspire and inform educators across the globe. Do you have any stories of resilience from your community that you can share with us?
Right now, it’s an emotional day for us here at Nicolet, and I think the perfect story to answer this question is one of our very, very special teachers. Her name is Mrs. Bea Smith. She has been been a teacher at Nicolet for 34 years and with the district for 42 – even at the school when it used to be known as Coombs Middle School. She’s just one of those exceptional teachers who has changed many lives in our community by just loving her students beyond just being a student in the classroom, beyond the test score. She keeps in touch with so many of her students that are now grown adults and have kids that are in her classroom.
This year our district offered a “golden handshake” and I thought that Mrs. Smith was going to take this opportunity to go ahead and retire after 34 years. And she came to me and she’s like, “I’m not ready. I have at least three more years to go.” And I said, “I am so happy to hear that because I’m not ready for you to go either.”
But in July, we found out that she had cancer, and it came quickly. She passed away last week on a Saturday. She was the heart and soul of our staff. As she spent her last few weeks in hospice at her home, the staff came together like they have often through a lot of the trauma that they’ve been through in the last few years. They came together and they told stories of the impact that she made on everybody – not just her students, but with staff as well. When we had new staff join the school, she would go out of her way to give them a welcome package of teaching materials and things from the Banning community, stuff from mom-and-pop shops. She would share the history of Banning and constantly tell people what makes Banning so beautiful and such a great place to work.
She was just such an incredible human being and her loss hit the community hard. She someone who has been through all the trauma in this community over the past 30 to 40 years, and somebody made a comment when I first started here about there being this black cloud lingering over Banning because it sometimes feels that we can’t get a break. Yet, over 34 years – this woman never stopped loving what she did, never stopped giving 110 percent, and never stopped lifting everybody up around her and encouraging our students and staff to be the best that they can be. She’s really left a legacy here.
I’m really sorry for your loss. I think someone who’s been there 34 years through all of the pain, the strife, even the successes are clearly a story of resilience. What do you think that Mrs. Smith would want for Banning middle school going forward? How do you think that your community could best honor her memory and her contributions to the school?
That’s a great question, and that’s actually been the question that I have been asking myself over and over again – what do we need to do to continue her legacy in her honor? Because one thing she always said is “Nicolet Middle School is going to be the beacon in our community.” That’s what she wanted. She wanted Nicolet Middle School to be the pride and joy of the city of Banning.
I think we need to just continue to focus on the positive. There’s challenges every day – student behavior, district and state mandates, testing and assessments – things that can put a damper on a profession that’s so rewarding, and I think she would want us to focus on the students. Hearing the stories about Mrs. Smith, was never about her doing a great job teaching reading language arts standards, but the way she made them feel. It’s like that quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Mrs. Smith just had a way of making everybody she met feel so special.
We need to continue to try make every single person we come in contact with and that we have the opportunity to interact feel special and that they’re are part of a community. That connection and sense of belonging is one of the key ingredients for student success, especially at the middle school. So I think it would be just trying to make sure that our students, our staff, our community, and our parents know that they’re special to us.
Shifting gears a little bit, you started as a school administrator only a few years ago. Not only were you thrust into the learning curve of educational leadership, but also amid the pandemic. I would love to learn more about your own professional growth and journey as a leader. What have been some challenging moments and how have you worked to overcome those challenges?
The pandemic was very difficult. We were in a professional development day on a Friday – Johnathan Alsheimer from Virginia and author of Next Level Teaching – and had said goodbye to our kids on a Thursday afternoon telling them to enjoy their three-day weekend. There was a ton of energy that Friday, and the teachers were excited to bring in the new learning and energy back into their classrooms on Monday. That afternoon, though, we learned that we wouldn’t be coming back, and the students wouldn’t be coming to school daily where they are able to connect, feel loved, and feel safe. I felt helpless.
It was very difficult to know what to do in those moments, because when people are here and everybody’s on campus, I’m one of those principals who is never in their office. I felt lost. How can I lead from a virtual place where I’m not able to connect in person? A lot of it was just keeping the connection and the relationships and figuring out how to do that virtually. We took advantage of platforms like Google Classroom and creating videos which really got my out of my comfort zone. I’m not a big fan of creating videos, but I had to in order to stay connected. So one of the lessons I learned was that leaders need to embrace the discomfort zone in difficult times to effectively lead their communities.
A lot of those skills you just mentioned were developed during the pandemic. What are some things that you’ve taken from the pandemic now that you’re back on the campus physically, simply because you’ve found them to be good practice irrespective of whether it’s a pandemic or not?
One of the biggest things is a principal’s Google classroom and having allowing students to have access to you anywhere. My office is a place where kids can come to just talk to me, hang out, or grab a snack or water, which are things you can do when you’re physically present, but giving the option to be available virtually at any point has been transformational. We do things where students can fill out a Google form to thank staff members and we shout them out in Google classroom, which in turn lifts morale. We also have ways to recognize students for what we call the five Ps: being positive, prompt, prepared, polite, and productive. So I think being able to blend both in-person and virtually activities just makes your ability to be accessible and to connect on a whole other level.
What does resilience mean to you personally?
It’s a bit of a funny thing in my house right now. My son’s teacher handed out these really cool little wristbands that have little motivational sayings on them, and he shared one of them with me which was “If you fall seven times, you get back up eight times.” And so I think the definition of resilience for me is knowing that you’re going to fall and that you’re going to fail, but you’re going to fail forward and you’re going to get back up and keep going because success is never linear. The trip to the top is going to be all over the place and we’re going to have setbacks and we’re going to have struggles and challenges, and that’s a given. We just have to go in knowing that and be prepared to overcome these challenges being driven by our love and passion for what we do. It’s about making a difference in the lives of kids. We’re here to impact the school system to the point where it changes the community and we let that be our driving force.
How do you work with your staff and others to help them identify and develop resilience?
I think a huge component is creating a culture where everyone feels safe, where they know that somebody’s there to support them and pick them back up without judgment while being compassionate and empathetic and then modeling that yourself and being vulnerable. I think one of the things I bring as a leader is that I’m very vulnerable, sometimes to the point where somebody might criticize the fact that I am too open or too transparent. But I think as leaders, it’s important that we show that vulnerability to show that we struggle, too, and even despite the challenges, we’re going to get back up the next day and we’re going to come and we’re going to give it 100 percent.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about the school or the community related to the story that we haven’t talked about?
In addition to the challenges presented by the pandemic, one of the things we’re currently going through is an overhaul of district leadership. We have a new board, new superintendent, new assistant superintendents and high turnover at the district office level. The systems that were in place are no longer in place, so that has just been another additional challenge. What I’m trying to say is that despite the challenges, this also brings in hope for change in a positive way. Hope is very powerful and when you bring hope into a school system, it gives people motivation and inspiration to drive forward.
Finally, I’d like to add that the staff at Nicolet help me be resilient. They are so supportive and express their belief in my and my leadership often. I don’t think they realize the impact that their words of support and encouragement mean to me. It is often what drives me and keeps me going when things get rough. They lift me up all the time, and I hope that I can do the same for them in return.