Dana Boyd has been principal for just 5 years in Ysleta ISD, but she’s already captured the honor of being named as the Texas 2016 National Distinguished Principal (NDP). In her brief but action-packed time in leadership, she’s shown how small, measured changes can add up to big results.

East Point Elementary, an urban school in sprawling El Paso, Texas, confronts challenges familiar to many schools—a large population of English Language Learners and a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students—but Principal Boyd’s approach to managing these challenges shows creativity and a deep understanding of how to support teachers and learners. After the surprise assembly at Principal Boyd’s school to announce the NDP award, we chatted with Principal Boyd to learn more about her approach to school leadership.

One such example of innovation—which was cited by TEPSA when they announced the award winner in May—is what East Point calls Extended Learning Time (ELT), a tutoring program during the morning instructional period three times a week that has been wildly successful in providing intervention and enrichment. Principal Boyd explains that teachers never tutor their own students, saying that “it’s an opportunity for our students to be able to see instruction in different ways.” Students who don’t need intervention go to enrichment, reinforcing what they’ve already learned and allowing them to interact with other students that aren’t in their grade level.

After seeing ELT work so well, Principal Boyd and East Point’s teachers have shared the concept at national and state conferences, as well as providing workshops to other educators in the El Paso area. Principal Boyd says, “It’s not just all about us—we’re really in the business of helping all kids. We believe that if it’s something good, then we’re going to share it.”

In this spirit of freely sharing best practices and great ideas, Principal Boyd laid out her philosophy as a school leader in our interview, adamant that the success of ELT and other programs at East Point goes back to a strong foundation of trust and strong relationships among school staff. Building that foundation then allows successful programs and positive change to follow. Read on to hear Principal Boyd’s perspective on shaping school culture in her own words.

On Building Trust with Staff

“You know what, it takes time to build a culture. When I came here in November 2011—it was really hard timing to come in as a new principal—I had my first meeting with the teachers, and asked them, ‘What are your values? What’s important to you? What it is that you want or need from your principal?’ I’ve really guided my plan based on what it is that is important to them. So, it’s just trust. To be honest, that’s the first thing that you have to build.

“You also have to build leadership capacity. It’s not all about me and how many people like my ideas. I’ve got to build up leaders that are around me, not only my administrative team, but the teachers too, and empower them through professional development opportunities. I have them come back and present [what they’ve learned] to the staff.

“We also do instructional rounds where we go to each other’s classrooms and watch each other. We’ve built a culture where, when I go into the classroom and I see great things are going on, I’ll videotape it with my phone, and I send the clip out to the entire staff to celebrate, hey, this is something that we’ve all been trying to implement, or look at the great things that are going on. No one is going to take it as a punitive because we’re looking at things we can do to grow. And you can’t do anything like that if you don’t have trust.”

On Managing Change Incrementally

“I’ve learned to keep your changes minimal for two reasons. Too much change at once is hard for teachers, and then you really have to be able to have good strong data to see if the change is working. When you’re going in to change a school, at first it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have my empire now, and I want to do all of these things!’ But you’ve got to start small because these relationships have to be the most important thing. All those other things can fall into place if you have a relationship that is based first on trust.

“When I do introduce change, I think, look, this is what’s coming down the pipe, how are we going to roll this out, or how are we going to make this not too overwhelming for the teachers. It’s just a good feeling for us to be able to minimize the stress that they’re having. When something new comes down the pipe, maybe we can just give them a little bit right now where we can put it in perspective, telling them, ‘This is what you’re already doing, and where we’re going next.’

“Recently, I made a mistake and tried to pile on too much, too soon. I had to say, ‘Look guys, I apologize, I thought that this would be a good idea, but we’ll start fresh at the beginning of the year.’ I had to apologize for taking them over the edge. Some principals won’t be able to say, ‘That’s my mistake,’ but that’s where we’re at. Sometimes I jump in there with the pressures from above, and because accountability is there. But when I sat there with my teachers, and I saw them like, it’s too much, it’s too much, I had to apologize and take responsibility for that. They emailed me feedback after that, saying thank you for understanding, or, I really appreciate you doing that because it was too much. They’ve said, ‘Well, that would be good for the beginning of the year. How about we try this?’ So, those are the kinds of conversations and relationships that I am talking about.”

On Promoting Professionalism

“Every day is a new day. All our teachers stand outside their classrooms when students get there in the morning and give them a high five or a hug as they come in. It’s also an opportunity to read them on what kind of night the kiddo has had. You know, I don’t expect teachers to be putting their make-up on, or this that or the other, when the kids are coming in. They are ready as a professional. Today is a new day and we’re going to go strong.”

On Celebrating Students and Teachers

“We really try to be able to support them on a personal side. We have lots of celebrations for our teachers and for our kids. We have celebration parades once every six weeks. Teachers nominate kids for good growth that they’ve made, and they create posters and the entire schools goes outside and celebrates with them, focusing on the good things that the kids are doing. We have pep rallies and a multiplication hall of fame for students that know their whole multiplication facts.

“Some of our kids might not make it on the state assessment, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t worked their butts off to be able to make growth. When we see that growth, we have to celebrate it. If they’re a child that is constantly failing, they’re not going to have anything to be able to look forward to, but if you’re celebrating that they’re making small growth, then that’s an incentive to keep going in there and trying.

“For my staff, I give them awards that they can put on their door, like when they do something that they really own, to really be able to celebrate with them. It’s important to embed that in the culture.”

On Promoting Open Collaboration

“It’s not a program; it’s a practice that you become a part of a professional learning community. Everybody needs to be, you know, a stakeholder for all of our students, so it’s not just about the students that are in your class or in your grade level, it’s about the entire school community. So that’s why we share responsibility when it comes to crunch time when STAAR is coming along. We’ve got our lower grade teachers helping our upper grade teachers with tutoring.”

Thank you to Dana Boyd for sharing her insight with us! Dana Boyd is principal at East Point Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, and was named as Texas’ 2016 National Distinguished Principal by the Texas Elementary Principal and Superintendents Association (TEPSA). Mentoring Minds proudly sponsors this annual award.