A California Teacher’s Secret to Raising Grades and Morale

A supportive principal has made all the difference for one Fresno teacher and her students.
Abril Garcia says her students are thriving thanks to support and feedback from her principal. (Photo: Victoria Pearson)
Jul 6, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

When Abril Garcia started teaching high school biology, anatomy, and physiology 10 years ago in Fresno, California, she says she was only 22 years old—just a kid herself. “They gave me kids to teach at that age?” she says now with a laugh. “I’ve really grown up in the realm of education.”

Garcia says she has spent much of the past 10 years in the Fresno Unified School District teaching herself how to become an excellent educator. Most importantly, she has always strived for interesting lesson plans and healthy relationships. “At the end of every year, I do a reflection in which I look at my interactions with colleagues and students,” she says. Unfortunately, those interactions often fell short of Garcia’s goals for improvement.

While Garcia says she had met a few older mentors along the way, she mostly struggled on her own to succeed in her field. In an underprivileged school district, where funding is low and morale is often lower, Garcia spent a lot of time working in an environment where teachers were forced to fight their own battles with little or no support.

She says it was very tough trying to be a good teacher with little influence on her administrators or colleagues. “I was frustrated about the decisions being made,” she says. “I work hard to bring labs to my class and to make sure my kids have the best experience. It’s very hard to work with colleagues who don’t have that same view.” Could she go to her principal for guidance? “Curriculum-wise, he was not a person I could go to for help.”

Everything changed for Garcia two years ago when her school, McLane High School, hired a new principal and administrators as part of a district-wide initiative called Skillful Leader Project (SLP). SLP is a program initially launched in Fresno in 2006 as a means to teach principals how to better support their flagging teachers—and in turn, raise student achievement.

We’re being offered compensation for our work during off time. A lot of people are feeling respected and valued.

Fresno Unified School District determined that teachers were simply not receiving consistent or constructive feedback on their work. “Our leaders were not equipped to support teachers,” said Julie Severns, FUSD administrator of leadership development told The Education Trust, which recently highlighted SLP as an excellent way to boost teacher satisfaction in their jobs. “And if we are going to be holding [teachers] accountable, we have to support them.”

For Garcia, this translated into an exciting and supportive new school environment. “My new principal and his vice principal do more walk-throughs and encourage me to talk to them—they want to look at my lesson plans and see what I can do to get better,” she says.

Her principal gives her advice and has an open-door policy so that teachers always feel like they can stop by to talk. Garcia adds that the entire staff is encouraged to get together to create committees where their voices and opinions will be heard. “We’re being promoted to join committees, to preplan and to work collaboratively,” she says. “We’re being offered compensation for our work during off time. A lot of people are feeling respected and valued.”

I notice that the kids are making connections better and retaining more information.

The difference is felt, not only in Garcia’s sense of enjoyment in her job, but also in the classroom. “I notice that the kids are making connections better and retaining more information,” she says. “Their test scores have gone up. My kids are beating benchmarks across the board. There have been gains in proficiency and advancements. My current administration has helped me become a better teacher and planner.”

SLP’s focus on teamwork has made Garcia feel that initial thrill she felt long ago when she first became a teacher. “It’s only July, but I’m really excited for this next school year,” she says.

Do you think strong leadership plays a role in attracting, developing and keeping strong teachers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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