Compiled by Irene Racz and Mike Dunphy
This is the second of two parts of an interview with Montpelier’s new school superintendent, Elizabeth “Libby” Bonesteel. The first part appeared in the July 5 edition of The Bridge.
In the first part, Bonesteel discussed her background and motivation for seeking the position. This part touches on the challenges faced by students and teachers and how to maximize opportunities for students.
Comments have been edited for length.
Bridge: What strengths and weaknesses does the Vermont school system have compared to other places you’ve worked? What might you bring to our schools?
Libby Bonesteel: In Louisiana and Brooklyn, I taught in incredibly impoverished situations, with kids whose experiences were quite different than the vast majority of Vermont kids’. I didn’t have para-educators, and I didn’t have support systems. I’ve had amazing mentors who made it crystal clear to me that we have to get all kids to learn at high levels. One of the things we need to say is that we can do this a different way, meaning we don’t need to have a para-educator for every kid who struggles. We’ve gotten very comfortable with adding people to problems, and I don’t think we always have to do that. We can look at our system and how we are teaching kids, be clear about who does what, and be more efficient that way. That’s a definite thing that I bring to the table.
Do you think a boost is needed to current school spending, or is it sufficient?
Bonesteel: Can I answer yes to both questions? I think we can use what we have in a more efficient manner. [In her prior position] at Franklin Northwest, we found that we could really tighten up our systems and structures to ensure more learning for more kids without adding staff. So there are ways to do that without an increase of special educators, without spending another dime. It is completely rethinking the paradigm of education and the systems that we have had in place for many years. It’s not going to happen overnight, but there are ways to do it.
Having said that, with respect to the social-emotional learning of kids and what some kids experience in their homes, we’re dealing with social systems that may not be as great as they could be and the schools are taking the brunt of that challenge. That’s where increased funding should come. How do we support the mental health of our kids?
In light of the school shootings, do we need to address that particular issue as opposed to having more security guards or other measures?
Bonesteel: We need to be looking at our kids, how we’re building relationships with kids, and how we’re responding to their mental health challenges. We need to know when they’re troubled, and we can’t do that unless kids are talking to us. And they are not going to do that unless they trust us. So we really need to work on how we build those relationships. What are the supports we have for them when they are in distress and challenged?
Do you think the schools should be offering more practical vocational subjects for students?
Bonesteel: I would agree that all kids need an avenue that they can see themselves in. And some kids see themselves in that avenue while some kids don’t. So we can’t cut that avenue off completely, and we can’t belittle it in any way. We have to recognize that it is just as good a pathway for a student and offer them the opportunity to take advantage of that. Flexible pathways and lifelong learning will enable them to do that.
What about college?
Bonesteel: Again, there are pathways for everybody. There is a place for college education, but I don’t think it’s the answer for every student. My goal as superintendent would be to create a system where there’s lifelong learning, so that kids know that regardless of whether they go to college or they go to technical school, or they go to an apprenticeship that they’re a learner.
It doesn’t matter what job they have, they will always be asked to learn something. To know how to do that, they need to re-learn things. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to be successful. There are people who have gone to college and who have not gone to college who are successful now. Those are the people who know how to learn and re-learn things.
How do you instill a desire to learn and ask critical questions?
Bonesteel: There are two things. The first is building those strong relationships we’ve talked about. The second is to ensure our teachers know the best pedagogical practices, so that when our kids go into multiple classrooms throughout the day, all teachers are at the top of their game. We have to create the most amazing professional environment for our teachers so that they can take risks in their teaching and they can learn new practices that allow students to take the lead in their learning.
What about salaries? Will you try to pay teachers more or is current pay sufficient?
Bonesteel: I think there are multiple ways to create really good professional environments for teachers. Salary is certainly one of them, and I would never belittle that. As far as how our teachers are paid, we’re going to be in negotiations, so we’ll find out exactly what happens later this school year. But I do think there are ways to create a successful and thriving community of teachers. We ensure they are collaborating—that they’re not just teachers sharing a parking lot. There’s that feeling of trust. There are lots of conversations that can be had with teachers to ensure they have a really successful professional environment, 95 percent of which has nothing to do with salary.
But if they’re exhausted, that’s not going to matter as much.
Bonesteel: I know. We lose a lot of first-, second-year teachers because of the exhaustion. And one of the things that’s coming out of the latest research is all about how to support our newest teachers so that they continue. How do we support them so that they understand the dips in the year and how they can take care of themselves during that time? Using your colleagues around you, and using your friends and family, church, charity, you can get through this. Being a teacher is extremely hard. So, as a system, we need to figure out how we support our newest, youngest faculty with our veterans who have got that down by now.