|Q&A Williamstown Elementary Principal Ready for Next Phase of Her Career|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
03:58AM / Tuesday, July 07, 2020
|Williamstown Elementary School Principal Joelle Brookner talks at a School Committee meeting in 2016. Brooker is the new director of curriculum, instruction and technology for the Mount Greylock district.
Joelle Brookner at a Williamstown School Committee meeting in 2013.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After nine years as principal at Williamstown Elementary School, Joelle Brookner is looking forward to a new role in the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
But she was denied a chance to look into the eyes of the final class she shepherded through the preK-through-6 school.
Instead of a grand celebration with hugs all around, she and members of her staff drove to students' homes to offer arm's length, socially-distanced congratulations.
"I think what I'm feeling now is extremely bittersweet," Brookner said after completing a third day of the school's "mobile graduation."
"It's different not to have closure. I don't feel a sense of closure at all. Yesterday was the last day with kids, and I'm still reeling with that. Ending yesterday with our last set of graduates was a really joyful thing to do."
If there was any consolation at all, it is that unlike years past, Brookner knows she will have an active and important role to play in the academic lives of those rising seventh-graders.
This winter, it was announced that Brookner, a former elementary school math coach at WES who moved into the corner office in 2011, will be taking over as director of curriculum, instruction and technology for the Lanesborough-Williamstown district, taking over a role that has been vacant since Mary MacDonald vacated a similar slot in 2013 to become principal at the middle-high school.
Brookner sat down with iBerkshires.com for a telephone conversation about her time at the elementary school and the challenges ahead.
Question: Why is now the right time for you to make this move?
Joelle Brookner: It felt more like the right time before the pandemic. These wheels were all set in motion, and I had the appointment in place before that. In all honesty, I think if the [March] closure had happened first and all that had happened, I would not have moved.
In general, I had finished nine years as principal, and when I took the job as principal, I remember the superintendent at that time saying that after around 10 years, you should start thinking about something else and move on. I always had that in the back of my mind.
My son graduating [from Mount Greylock in June] was another personal transition. It kind of felt right to make a change overall. And I had been very excited about that. I've been interested in curriculum since I was a teacher.
Q: When Dr. Rose Ellis said think about making a change in 10 years, most people would think that could mean changing schools or changing districts or applying to be a principal somewhere else. Did the fact that this opportunity arose within the district factor into your decision to make the move?
JB: A hundred percent. Honestly, when I began my career here, I was pretty fresh out of college. When you're that age, you don't see very far in the future. I pictured myself teaching for five years and then maybe doing something else.
Here it is three decades, and it sounds very cliche, but this school and district and town truly is my home. I really committed to this place.
The curriculum position was filled for a little while. And I had a year as a math coach, which gave me a similar perspective, before I became principal. So, the curriculum position was something I was interested in anyway. This position gives me a chance to do what I love with curriculum but not have to leave the district that I love.
Within my school I have really solidly established relationships, and I'm looking forward to developing relationships with people at Lanesborough and Mount Greylock. I have more experience with people at Mount Greylock simply because I'm a mom, so I feel like I know more people.
I think this is a way for me to stay in the place I love and expand my own horizons and support the good work that's going on.
Q: What was your classroom teaching experience?
JB: I did fifth and sixth grade. And most of the time, I looped, so I had a class in fifth and stayed with them in sixth and then went back. I'm certified preK through ninth grade. I really loved the middle school age.
Before I was a teacher, I was in early intervention. I really had a strong commitment to early childhood education. The other piece of this new position I'm looking forward to is to be actively engaged with the full scope of a child's education.
Q: That commitment to the middle school age is important because that is kind of the linchpin of curriculum planning, isn't it? Ensuring that sixth-graders coming up from both the elementary schools are on the same page?
JB: Before the closure and before the remote experience … my plan was to look at the need to do some alignment between the elementary schools so we're sure we're providing equitable experiences. We've done some of that informally … But I wanted to work with the upper elementary teachers and have them have some time to plan and meet and talk with the middle school folks.
Now, our focus is going to be shifted for a bit. We're going to be looking at planning for the fall and that means planning for the unknown. But we're going to be looking at assessing information about how remote learning went. Whether we're face to face with [students] or not, we're going to have to look across the gamut of things and assess what learning loss might have occurred.
And we have to really focus on the social/emotional health of students. That's going to be another big piece. We have to gauge where kids are academically and emotionally and make sure we have supports in place.
Q: Is it fair to say the emphasis on social/emotional learning is one of the biggest shifts that has occurred in elementary education during your time as principal?
JB: There probably has been some of that and definitely for the good a shift toward and absolute need for a commitment to educating the whole child. We can add to that now making sure we're looking at equity, diversity and inclusion in all ways, making sure that through our teachers and lessons we are representing all students and all students see themselves in our school.
Working to overcome racism is huge. Regardless of whether we get back to normal this fall or not, this is something we'll need to look at. The high school, I believe, has a head start on this, but we generally need to do a general curriculum review, making sure we're providing a wide range of voices and representing the stories of everyone. It's not just about the books you use to teach history but it's all the books we have in the library and the classroom and paying attention to how much they are representing diverse people in our world.
Q: What other big changes have you seen over the last nine years?
JB: The social/emotional learning piece has been really big. I didn't mention this before, but partnering with community resources … schools are becoming more things to more people. Becoming more involved with the community is a change. It isn't enough to have the children walk through the door in the morning and teach them what we teach them. We're involved in every aspect of their lives. We're extremely involved with their families, and this is for the good.
Technology has been a really big change, and I think we're all still figuring that out. I'm interested in how we can use technology … to create new things and new ways of teaching instead of using it as a way to teach the way we used to.
Honestly, this period of remote learning has brought out a lot of creativity in teachers that I've seen … and ways for students to learn that are individualized. It wasn't something we were actively seeking out, but it's a silver lining of the experience.
Q: One thing that people probably don't think about now as a change because it's just part of the scenery, but a big change on the campus was the building of the Williamstown Youth Center. How much of a change was that for the school?
JB: The Youth Center is wonderful. They have been at capacity for enrollment and it's been a huge support for families to have a safe place for children to be before school or after school.
They're great partners for us. We sometimes spill over to the Youth Center to use space, and that's been great. I'm in regular communication with the director. He comes and meets with [Assistant Principal Elea Kaatz] and I at least once a month. We talk about shared concerns whether around children or around training or staff
We talk all the time about things that work at school for a child and can they try them at the Youth Center or things they do there that we can try here. It's just more loving concerned people who wrap around our kids.
I'm also so grateful that they've been able to keep their prices low. Whenever there's been a situation with a family that could truly benefit from the Youth Center, cost is not something that inhibits a child from attending. I know that's part of their mission, and I'm glad they've been able to preserve that.
Q: Getting back to this spring's school closure, how difficult has it been to have this physical disconnect from students at a time when the national conversation dictates that talking about diversity and inclusion is more important than ever?
JB: It's been so difficult. It's been extremely difficult for teachers because they are just completely committed to their students and have been concerned about them all along. And then, with the current state of the United States, it's been difficult to have conversations with kids because … they have different levels of support at home and different levels of communication with their families at home.
Elea and I have been doing a weekly vlog. In one of our more recent ones, we shared resources for parents to use. We're really asking for parents to talk about issues at home, including race and racism. We're enlisting help from families to support these conversations.
When we have children back, we'll continue these as well. We have heard from a number of families that, for elementary school students in particular … those relationships are so important. The teachers miss the closeness that they have.
But they have done a great job trying to create other kinds of communities. In the Zoom sessions I've sat in, there's been a lot of joy and a lot of parent support.
Q: Looking ahead, how is a socially-distanced first-grade classroom even possible?
Brookner helps salute a graduating sixth-grader during this month's visits to pupils' homes.
JB: At all levels, but in our primary grade levels in particular, play is absolutely critical to development in all ways.
If we have to come back to school in a way where we have to be distant, that definitely will be impacted. I have a lot of faith, though, in the creativity of our staff to be able to do the best we possibly can to preserve the integrity of what we think is best for young kids.
I'd love to know what will happen, but I have a lot of faith in our staff across the district, and I know we'll do a good job.
I worry about … split sessions … and how that's going to greatly impact families and their ability to work. There are so many dominoes here that I'm anxious to know what will happen.
Q: Any other last thoughts?
JB: I look back on my time at WES with extreme fondness.
One of my favorite things still is to run into past students in town or wherever I am. I'll be in Boston and someone will be there or someone will know someone who was in my class and we can talk about memories of fun experiences from teaching.
I have so much love for this place.
The timing is difficult, but I'm trying to keep my eyes on the reason I was going to go in the first place. I'm excited for the school to have a new principal. I think Kristen Thompson will do a great job.
I guess I'm feeling more gratitude than anything else.