The motto at Maple Elementary is “Be Your Best,” a mantra that its principal, Dr. Juan Manuel Santos, took on as a personal challenge to empower teachers and students to grow in their abilities each and every day.

This commitment to his school won Dr. Santos the honor of being named as the 2016 recipient of the inaugural Mentoring Minds Administrator of the Year Award from the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators (CALSA). Cheryl Triplett, a first-grade teacher at Maple Elementary, summed it up: “Dr. Santos works very hard every single day being a presence in our school. His presence causes not only the teachers but also the students and the support staff to want to step forward and do their best and be their best. This is his motto, but it all comes from him being his best and being there for us in every way.”

Since winning the award this summer, Dr. Santos has been promoted to be a district administrator for Conejo Valley USD in California. His story emphasizes the importance of mentorship for school leaders (both given and received), a top priority for CALSA, and we were lucky enough to talk with Dr. Santos about the impact of the organization and how it’s changed his approach to leadership.

Be inspired to “Be Your Best” as you watch Dr. Santos in action and learn from his work at Maple Elementary. Read on for the full interview.

Q: What do you see that needs to be changed in schools?

I’m most passionate about getting everybody to the table and providing opportunities to every student. We’re seeing students, who are most often of color, come into our school system millions of words behind, and we need to get those students to participate and be a part of the process. I can’t say that what we are doing now is not necessarily working; it just needs to be tweaked. Our teachers are doing wonderful things in the classroom; we just need to keep educating them.

That means changing their education as teachers, and changing the classroom by taking teachers out of the silo mentality. Many times teachers never get a chance to visit other classrooms. So if we can mentor them, connect them with another teacher, or find ways for them to explore beyond their own classroom, they will grow. The best ideas will create the best classrooms. And the best classrooms will educate kids regardless of their color and regardless of language barriers.


Dr. Santos addresses a school assembly at Maple Elementary with the school motto on the screen behind him.

Q: What is your role in mentoring teachers as a principal?

Leadership and mentoring are very important. I believe that we are all mentors and leaders here at Maple Elementary, no matter what your position is. To me, it’s about empowering individuals. Unfortunately, in many schools, there tends to be a top-down approach; that doesn’t work. The only way to achieve true ownership is to get people involved and provide them opportunities.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had teachers come and ask me, “Hey, can I do this in my classroom?” My answer is never “no.” I ask, “Well, have you done the research and really looked into it?” If they have, why not empower them to do it? It will result in them doing great things for kids, and that’s what we’re here for!

It’s always remembering the “why”—why are we here? To me, that’s the first step in leadership— mentoring. My philosophy is that no one really cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

Dr. Santos participates in field day at Maple Elementary.

Dr. Santos participates in field day at Maple Elementary.

Q: What role has mentorship played in your career as an administrator?

When I first started the Protégé mentoring program at CALSA, my mentor shared with me the importance of getting the chip off my shoulder. Growing up as a person of color in Central California, I was angry, and I didn’t know I had that anger in me. Through CALSA, I’ve been able to channel my passions—not to come off through aggression but through passion and excitement about motivating others. It’s changed my life; it really has. As a result, I just want to keep giving back to the organization. So, you’ll still see me with the Protégé mentoring program. I want to share my vision and the vision of our organization, which is to help all students—more specifically students who are at risk, which at our schools tend to be Latino students and students of color.

Q: How has CALSA helped to shape your trajectory as an administrator?

Within CALSA, I’ve been a part of a cohort that includes six superintendents who have been instrumental in helping me grow. I came into the organization as “Mr. Santos,” and now I’m “Dr. Santos” because they encouraged me to go back and get my doctorate. They’ve encouraged me to take a more active position, and every time I speak to them they tell me, “You can do this.” It’s definitely a support, hearing from someone who will be honest with me. These people truly care about each other and are truly familia.

Thank you to Dr. Juan Manuel Santos for sharing his insight with us! Dr. Santos is the 2016 recipient of the inaugural Mentoring Minds Administrator of the Year Award from CALSA. Dr. Santos served as the principal of Maple Elementary in Newbury Park, California, prior to his recent promotion as the director of Student Support Services for Conejo Valley USD.