Maitreyi Bharath and Noya Chirashnya
Mrs. Butler has accepted a new position at the district office starting next year. In this podcast, two of our staff writers – Maitreyi and Noya – interview her about her experiences at Leigh.
Please note that the transcription beneath this podcast has been edited for length, clarity, and grammar.
Hi! This is Maitreyi Bharath and Noya Chirashnaya. We’re members of the Eleight Newspaper Club. Mrs. Butler, our principal, will be leaving Leigh this year. This interview is all about Mrs. Butler’s career at Leigh and how it has impacted the school.
Hi Everyone! This is Mrs. Butler here, your current principal!
Q: When did you first become the principal at Leigh?
A: So I started here … I’m gonna have to do math here. I’m finishing my 6th year and I started in the year 2016-2017 cause we live our lives in school years, not calendar years in education. So I just finished my 6th year here at Leigh.
Q: Did you have any particular goals for the school in mind when you started? And how did you strive to achieve those goals or improve the school?
A: Goals… Some of my goals and the district’s goals were the same, and some of them varied because of course we take a lot of our direction from the district. A big one was, of course, to address the WASC issue. When I started here, we were on our second round of being on probation. The first goal was to do some work around our plan, around our report, around our goals, and the tasks that had been outlined in the plan. We also were addressing the feedback from the prior WASC visiting committee. When the visiting committee came out, in literally the spring of my first year, we planned that they would see some shifts and some changes to hopefully then determine if we were going to have to continue on probation.
Q: So for listeners who don’t know what WASC is…
A: Yes, I know I should not assume people know what that acronym is. So WASC is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges – that is the accrediting organization or body that accredits all public and private schools and charter schools. Every school has to go through a six-year cycle, where there will be what’s called a “full visit”. You’ve got your focus groups — instruction, curriculum, assessment, culture, and organization — required for every school. It’s supposed to be a continuous improvement cycle — you’re going through this full self-study and collecting data about our plans, our students, and the effectiveness of our goals and implementation. Through that, you identify new goals and the tasks that would be completed to achieve those goals and to make growth and progress towards those goals. We had a full visit literally right before the pandemic hit. Our team was here doing our full visit 2 weeks before we went into shut down because the expectation is you’re going to take feedback and then continue working for your mid-cycle visit. We have our mid-cycle visit coming up next year in the Spring: it will be a two-day visit. We’ve been doing a lot of work around that. So that is what WASC is, probably longer than people needed to know.
Q: Thank you for the explanation, Mrs. Butler! You’ll be moving to the district office next year. Could you briefly describe what you will be doing there?
A: Absolutely. So my role will be the Director of Special Education. I will be overseeing all of the programs, such as our specialized academic instruction programs, which is where students are taking academic courses to support any type of a learning disability they may have. We also have other programs that address other needs, such as emotional needs or autistic needs, or severely handicapped needs. We have post-secondary for students who continue with special education support after they graduate until they’re 22. So there are a lot of different programs that happen across all of our schools, and it will be my job to oversee all of those programs and the people that are in them.
Q: Great! Sounds like you’ll really be interacting with the community and getting into how students learn. Back to Leigh now: What was your favorite part of being the principal of Leigh, and what will you miss about the school?
A: The kids. The students, for sure. I have a lot of anxiety. I’ve never in my career not worked in a school site, and honestly, didn’t ever see myself moving away from a school site because the whole reason I got into education was for kids. My daily interactions with students are what feed my soul and keep me going, you know, because it’s not an easy job being a high school principal. Whether it’s doing a lunch line, whether it’s announcing at a football game, whether it’s popping into classrooms, whether it’s spending the night with students at Relay for Life, those experiences and those connections with our students are the things that have brought me the greatest joy and are the things I will miss the most. I mean, our staff here is phenomenal here, but I will get to continue to work with them in the role that I support. While I can still see students, it just won’t be the same. I consider all of you my students. I take a lot of ownership in what happens for each and every one of you, so it will be different from this role. Thankfully, I’ll still get to work with the amazing staff here at Leigh, so while I will miss them in my daily interactions with people, I will still have those connections through my new role.
Q: So at the district office, it will be more working with schools themselves and not individual people?
A: I will be working with individual people, but I’ll be working more with adults than I will with students. Even as principal, I work with adults, but I have a lot more opportunities to work with students and I create opportunities for myself to work with students. It will be harder in this position since I will be working with overseeing adults.
Q: How have your personal school experiences impacted your role as a principal, if at all?
A: Oh gosh, yeah, so much so. So, I really ended up getting into education and specifically, high school, because of my own experience in high school. I was one of those kids who sort of bumped along, in the middle, unseen, invisible. Grades weren’t great, grades weren’t terrible, so I wasn’t on anybody’s radar for that. I didn’t have behavior issues either — wasn’t on anybody’s radar for that. But I also wasn’t on anybody’s radar to be connected or find something that connected me to my school experience. Consequently, I looked for it in a lot of different places and didn’t necessarily find it. It left me lacking in my experience, and I had always hoped that at some point I could find a way to impact how a high school provides some type of connection or opportunity for each of its students. That’s always been my major philosophy around education, that a school should be something to every single one of its students.
Q: So would you say that’s more like teacher-student relationships, and like how our peers are in the classroom, or would you say that’s through extracurriculars, clubs at school, or programs at school? Which part do you think has more influence in terms of how you connected with other people [as a principal]?
A: So I would say it’s really all of the above. It’s impacting what classes are we offering that maybe we are currently not offering that could excite students and engage them in something that maybe they didn’t know they were interested in… It’s looking at our clubs, what kinds of clubs can we encourage students to start because they don’t see something here for themselves. What types of activities, what types of events, what types of speakers, what types of opportunities out in the community, either volunteering or through career exploration, can we provide to them just to get them that connection to their high school experience.
That sounds really nice, the connection with students. We can see how it really matters to you, Mrs. Butler.
Q: What is something that you hope will be a part of Leigh, culturally, academically, in other areas, in the future. Like once you’ve gone to the district office, what do you hope will continue at this school?
A: I hope that the culture of caring will continue… Community was one of the values that people identified as one of the three that was really critical to the experience that our students and our staff would have here. And so I hope that that culture of community continues to grow. It’s not perfect, there are things that we really should continue to strive for and work towards, related to respect. Related to everyone, inclusivity. Related to everyone feeling that they have a place here at Leigh and that they are cared for. But we’ve built a foundation on that and we’ve really seen improvements. I just hope that work continues. I hope the work of openness continues. I love the fact that I think students, hopefully, for the most part, feel they can go to someone… And I hope the culture of excellence continues. I expect a lot from myself because the work that we do impacts the future of our country – you guys are future adults, future community members, future leaders, and so I take that work we do here very seriously. I think creating a culture of excellence and creating those expectations for ourselves makes sure we’re bringing our best selves to the work that we’re doing in this school… And I hope we continue to find things that connect students to their school experience. I know there are still students out there who may be listening to this and may be like ‘I call BS on that, there’s nothing here for me at Leigh, you’ve done nothing to connect me to my experience’ and I acknowledge that there is still work to be done. We still have to find things that we aren’t offering for our students to get those connections for them – the ones who don’t want to come to school, the ones who struggle academically, the ones who feel like they aren’t seen, they aren’t heard, so I’m hoping that work continues and they continue to expand on what we’ve already built.
Q: To piggyback off of that, will you be leaving the next principal with a “How to do this type of thing booklet”?
A: Oh gosh, you know I’ve been thinking about that. How do you communicate everything that exists in a role like a school principal, cause there is so much that falls under ‘other duties as assigned’? I’ve been thinking about how to organize information because, quite frankly, my Google Drive is a hot mess. I have a few folders, I’m proud of the folders that I have, but I think if someone were to look at that they’d be like ‘oh if that is her brain, we should be very concerned.’ So I have been trying to figure out what was going to be the best way of communicating that, other than being able to sit down and have conversations. I’m excited that I’ll still be in the district and I can still support the person – this will actually be my first time shifting into a new role in the same district. In my career as I’ve gone into new positions it’s always been in a new district, so that will be a new experience for me, still being in the same district. So I figure once the person comes on board, one of the things I could ask is “How do you organize your brain? How do you like to organize your information? so that then I could take my information and organize it in a way that makes sense to them.
Q: So what was the biggest challenge in your career at Leigh?
A: You know, it’s hard to say. I think unfortunately education is like a huge tanker that has run out of gas in the middle of the ocean, and you’re trying to turn it with a tiny tugboat. I’m not speaking just specifically about Leigh, it’s just education. Education is very difficult to shift and change despite the fact that you as students have changed. You are not the same students that sat in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1800s. And so I think just continuing to try and shift and change the approach that we take to instruction in the classroom, the culture of the school, and really talking about how “we don’t do that here, that is not what we do at Leigh”. We do not make fun of each other, we do not kill by a thousand cuts with microaggressions, we do not disrespect people based on their culture, their religion, their language, whatever it might be. That’s also a slow boat to shift. And every year when you get a new group of students you have to start all over again. Thinking back on it, I would say the pandemic certainly presented a huge challenge because I pride myself on communication. I feel like my legs were kind of cut out from underneath me, as I’m sure a lot of people felt, because I really like the in-person type of communication and connection. I was very limited in that capacity and I felt helpless. I felt really helpless to support my teachers, my staff, and my students because I was just one person, sitting behind a screen in my own house, really limited in what I was able to do. And then, of course, there was the challenge of working to address all of the mental health issues that have come with our return and the challenge that students and staff have experienced in returning to in-person learning — wanting to do the very best to get people up to speed and continuing to move forward and progress. So I would say those were the biggest challenges.
Q: So bringing you back to that analogy of tugboat and the really big boat of education that is kind of just moored there for endless time, what do you think is the biggest weight in that boat that’s holding it there? Or what would be the thing, if you could change, would have the biggest impact and maybe help that tug boat magically grow?
A: I think just the structures of education — the way the day is structured, the expectations around the classes that you have to take for a diploma. I think the funding sources that we have here in the state of California – I mean, we’re one of the least funded states in the United States — If you go and look at some of the other states, some of them have twice as much per pupil that they spend on a student in a year. I think all of those structures really limit our ability to make really large, systematic changes. It doesn’t help that we continue to use standardized testing as a benchmark or a yardstick to show success in student learning.
Q: So how has working with Leigh students impacted your personal values? So instead of your personal life impacting your career, vice versa.
A: I don’t know if it’s so much changed my values, because I have a really strong set of core values that I function from. But I think what I’ve taken from our students is just a constant reminder that what’s good for one student doesn’t necessarily fit for another. You have to remember that while you have a school of students, they are 1800 individuals who each need something a little bit different from the other person. You always have to take a moment, take a step back and recognize that everyone you’re interacting with has a whole line of baggage that they bring with them. You don’t know their prior experiences, you don’t know what has brought them to who they are today, you don’t know those aspects of who they are as a person, but that is absolutely going to impact the interaction you have with them, or what you’re trying to do to support them. I’m constantly reminded by our students that you have to take a moment and recognize that and that there always has to be that filter, that lens that you’re looking through when you’re working with students.
Q: So are there any memories you’d like to share about Leigh?
A: Oh gosh, performing in front of the students… or being in a dunk tank, or doing a stomp in front of the whole school at a rally, lip-syncing “Ice Ice Baby,” announcing at football games, being at football games, at dances, activities in the quad, seeing students [and] how they interact with each other. Definitely, a highlight for me was my first graduation because my youngest son graduated in that class and I knew so much about that class because he grew up in that area. So for that to be my first class that graduated from here and just having a chance to read his name or be there on stage when his name was read and hand him his diploma was definitely a memory that I will cherish. I also cherish the graduation in 2020 when the pandemic hit and we graduated every single senior one at a time with their families sitting in a golf cart on the field watching them. It took 13 hours for us to graduate the entire class. But we were committed to doing an in-person graduation ceremony. Just getting to feel the energy every time a new family came down in a golf cart, every time another graduate walked across, it was like a brand new moment in graduation… Our link crew orientations, getting to see our new 9th grade classes, and getting to feel the energy, because you know every class has its own feel to it… Doing the lunch line and getting to say hi to kids and yell at them to stay in line – I’m sorry Mrs. Butler… – And just getting to talk to kids… There are so many memories that stand out for me over my 6 years, so it’s hard to necessarily pick just one. I’m sure I’m leaving tons of stuff out.
Q: That’s cool that there are so many good things there, do you think that they’ll stay with the new principal?
A: I hope so, I really do. I think what’s so important is that the culture of a school has to be bigger than just one person, right? It can’t be just because of me, it has to be because of the whole school community. I can only create that vision, set those expectations, and provide the support and the leadership to make it happen. But really, it takes everyone in the community to actually enact it, because I’m just one person. Big person, but one person.
Q: That segues right into our last question. What is the biggest takeaway you’d like to share with these students about your career, your success, and just how you’ve gotten to where you are?
A: I think just the joy that exists out there. Despite the challenges and the difficulties, and the toughness of being a teenager – you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and be a teenager right now, thank god I was not a teenager in the days of social media and cell phones — but just the resiliency, the care that really is there. It’s sometimes under the surface, but it’s there. It’s so hard for me to put in words what I’m taking away with me from everyone in this community. I think that’s really what just sums it up: community. Fam-Leigh. Despite some challenges, good times, and bad times, it’s just like any family, right? … And that’s how I felt about my time here at Leigh. I know it’s a part of who I am now and for me, it always felt like that. I knew I would take that with me wherever I go. And I hope whoever comes in will help continue that and foster that feeling and keep striving to make this school something for every single student. I hope that work will never stop.
Thank you so much, Mrs. Butler, for all your service at Leigh!