Linking Leaders PodCASt

Insights from an Award-Winning Assistant Principal - A Conversation with Nicole Vibert

February 15, 2024 Connecticut Association of Schools Season 1 Episode 6
Insights from an Award-Winning Assistant Principal - A Conversation with Nicole Vibert
Linking Leaders PodCASt
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Linking Leaders PodCASt
Insights from an Award-Winning Assistant Principal - A Conversation with Nicole Vibert
Feb 15, 2024 Season 1 Episode 6
Connecticut Association of Schools

In Episode 6 of the Linking Leaders PodCASt, host Dr. Alicia Bowman chats with Nicole Vibert, assistant principal of West Woods Upper Elementary School in Farmington and 2024 Elementary School Assistant Principal of the Year.  Listen up as Nicole shares insights on trust-building, student engagement, and the delicate art of juggling work and family.  She also explores the complexities of the role of the school leader while highlighting the joy and fulfillment that comes from shaping young minds.

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In Episode 6 of the Linking Leaders PodCASt, host Dr. Alicia Bowman chats with Nicole Vibert, assistant principal of West Woods Upper Elementary School in Farmington and 2024 Elementary School Assistant Principal of the Year.  Listen up as Nicole shares insights on trust-building, student engagement, and the delicate art of juggling work and family.  She also explores the complexities of the role of the school leader while highlighting the joy and fulfillment that comes from shaping young minds.

Speaker 1:

Hi and welcome to the Lanking Leaders Podcast. Lanking Leaders Podcast features tanned conversations with top educational leaders who come together to share experiences and explore pathways to success. In each episode, we engage with dynamic leaders to uncover real-life stories, practical strategies and bold insights on timely and relevant topics. Listen up to link up and let us help you expand your network of innovation and support.

Speaker 2:

Hi, I'm Dr Alicia Bowman, host of the Lanking Leaders Podcast. Today, it is my pleasure to introduce Nicole Weber, assistant Principal of Westwood's Upper Elementary School in Farmington, connecticut, and the 2024 Connecticut Association of Schools Elementary Assistant Principal of the Year. Nicole, my friend and my colleague, it is such a special moment for me to welcome you to the Lanking Leaders Podcast.

Speaker 3:

It's wonderful to be able to sit down and talk with you.

Speaker 2:

Let's get ourselves warmed up. On this Monday morning, talk to me about what would you say are the three key qualities or attitudes that have contributed to your success as an educational leader.

Speaker 3:

I think this is an interesting question because the application for the State Assistant Principal of the Year asked this question. The national application asked this question. I was thinking about it for this morning and I have a hard time picking three and I feel like I'm changing my answer each time, but I think they all come back to just relationships and trust. No matter which one you pick, they all ground themselves in those ideas. When I was thinking about that in preparation for our conversation today, I was thinking about clarity.

Speaker 3:

One way I think that supports relationships and trust is just clear communication with everybody, all stakeholders, so that's inclusive of teachers. What are we doing, why? Where are we going? How are we going there together? It's true with families. What happened? How are we going to work through this together? What's your feedback and input? It's true with students when working through difficult situations, and or I work with students on a number of projects and helping them to see with clarity why this is going to be impactful for our school. I think one of the major qualities of any effective leader is just being really clear in purpose, clear in communication.

Speaker 2:

Excellent. You're right. Clarity definitely is a component of building trust. If, as leaders, we're not able to articulate why or what or how, then we may need to take a step back right and kind of rethink. If we can't articulate to those stakeholders and there's something missing, so that's great. Thank you so much. So how do you grow? What do you do to grow individually? And also maybe you could speak to us a little bit about how you support the professional learning of the adults at Westwoods?

Speaker 3:

Sure, it's an interesting question how do I grow? I think I try to do it as organically as possible right now because, as you know a mom of three young kids I wish I had more time to read and more time to go to conferences and be in places where I can learn and grow from others. But it's not a reality necessarily right now in my life, and so, you know, when I am thinking about how I grow, I really try to leverage the systems and opportunities that are already part of my job. And so I think about, you know, my involvement in district-wide committees, district-wide teams. I'm the district facilitator of our family school liaison team and the team used to be really sort of action-oriented. You know our goals were to reach out to families and to host events where families could come and get together with each other to build connections, and those still are important parts of what we do. But we've also, you know, with the help of some new team members, like Natalie Simpson, our equity inclusion coordinator, kristen Wilder, who's our family engagement specialist, we've really turned it into a time to learn and grow together professionally.

Speaker 3:

So, again, leveraging systems that exist and learning from the people around you, because there's a wealth of resource just within our team In terms of promoting the professional learning of the adults here at Westwoods. You know, I just actually left a specialist meeting and I think that really does take a team and thinking about who the instructional leaders are within the building. We're really focused this year on also building the leadership capacity of our leadership team beyond just, you know, those who might facilitate team meetings to those who might lead team meetings and those who might promote professional learning within all of those opportunities. Again, time is at such a premium. So how are we using team meeting times? How are we using faculty meeting times as times to learn and grow together, as opposed to being just times when maybe information is conveyed? So working as part of that team is one way that I help promote professional learning at Westwoods.

Speaker 2:

Excellent. Thank you so much and give yourself grace, because there are times in your life where your professional learning looks different, and you are certainly a lead learner, that's for sure, and it'll cycle and that's part of it, and being able to be vulnerable and transparent to those around you is really powerful to Nicole, so I hope you feel comfortable sharing that with those that you work closely with.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, the great thing about our school is that there are so many professionals who have young families and are wanting to grow and learn in these ways, and so I think everybody does see it in each other and everybody is incredibly supportive of each other, and so I think that's going back to, you know, the last question around just relationship building and trust. I think I have time on my side, people have gotten to know me here, and I think we all know what each other's intentions, strengths, goals are. That's awesome.

Speaker 2:

So what's one shift in education that has captured your attention recently, and why I?

Speaker 3:

think, probably like most people, it's AI, and I have tried my hand at it, actually recently, using it to kind of think through some of the responses to the national application, Because, like I said, the questions are similar but different, and I was trying to just sort of rethink my thoughts on you know, what leadership qualities are. Leadership traits are and we've been talking about it so much as a district leadership team when we think about purpose and learning, and you know, especially as we get to the higher grades and students are, perhaps you know, having more access to these tools, how are we ensuring that their learning is meaningful? So I'm trying to play around with it in my own role just to see you know. How does this help me improve efficiency? How does this make me think about things in a different way? How is this a tool that I can use Well, also then considering the implications it has for students and their own learning?

Speaker 2:

It's powerful, and not necessarily in a good or bad way, but I think in absence of engaging with it, we could, you know, fight ourselves kind of behind the times. So it's like, okay, got to get on board. So I can't believe it, but you've been an assistant principal for over six years now, so what are maybe one or two of your strategies for successfully managing the many roles that you have personally and professionally Like? Do you have any secrets to success that you could share?

Speaker 3:

I don't think there are secrets necessarily. This is still something that I'm working on and thinking about, especially, as I said, with three young kids and, you know, trying to make sure that I'm out of work at a time when I can go home and actually have dinner and focus on having dinner and all of the things. But I think the strategies that I try my best to use, somewhat successfully, are really using my calendar to prioritize my time, and so if it's on the calendar, it's important and it matters, and if it's not on the calendar, it doesn't. And that's not to say that there are a million things I do every day that are on the calendar, but it's just to say that what you label within your calendar is something that needs to get done, is the thing that you're giving your time to, and so the example of that and something that I feel like I'm not as successful with that I'm still working on is getting into classrooms. So being that instructional leader, giving ongoing feedback to teachers, getting to know kids as learners in the classroom setting you know it's always a goal and, as you know, our district is heavily invested in the framework of Breakthrough Coach and really being in classrooms two days a week, and so you know that is something that is on my calendar and that I try very hard to follow as a routine.

Speaker 3:

Things come up, things disrupt that you know, and so sometimes you have to make some choices about that, but you know, the strategy being just really living by the calendar, what's on the calendar matters. And then this took me several years, but I think actually it was something that you had said in a parent meeting very early on and it was about kids. But it's a routine. You know that adults, I think, can use as well A strategy that adults can use as well, as just, you know, having your kid plug in the phone in the kitchen when they get home and it like doesn't get touched right, turning off technology, and just knowing that this is time to be together as a family. I try my very best, you know, outside of working hours or family time. So you know school runs from 8.30 to 4. And that's when I'm available, and afterwards I'm not again barring significant things that come up, which do often but very hard to just live by. You know family time is family time, yeah.

Speaker 2:

And you know, research tells us that it's not the amount of time, it's really the focus that you're giving that time. So we can often feel like we're pulled in so many directions. But whatever it is, if you give it that full focus then it can be really productive, whether it's family time or work time. Great. So from reading your press release, it sounds like the implementation of crew has been instrumental in ensuring that Westwoods is a great place to work for both students and staff. Can you talk to us a little bit about through what it is and the impact it's had on your climate and culture?

Speaker 3:

Absolutely so. Crew is EL education's framework for how to build a close, connected community of learners that holds high expectations for achievement for all. We, several years ago, as a district, had moved in the direction of implementing ruler, and so we had sort of a framework for directly instructing students in emotional regulation and SEL competencies, and what teachers consistently gave us feedback was, you know, this is something that we know needs to be threaded throughout the day, but we would also like some very intentional time to do the work that we know is most important with regard to developing deep, trusting relationships with our students, and also time for students to build deep, trusting relationships with each other. And so we're about three or four years into now. The implementation of crew, and the first year really did just begin as like a structured progression of lessons around SEL competencies, but it's since grown to daily meeting time. So it's the way that every single classroom starts their day at Westwoods, and that time is for everything from those SEL lessons but then also to school wide initiatives. For example, this month students are working on a black history project that will be submitted to news crew so that students across the building can see it. So it's a time to do some of the learning around school wide initiatives and tasks, and it's also just a time to build in joy and curiosity and learning about one another.

Speaker 3:

We spent a lot of time looking at data just around how students feel with regard to do they have at least one caring adult that they trust within the building?

Speaker 3:

Do they feel as though their classmates are kind and respectful, and do they feel like the learning that they are doing each day is personally meaningful and relevant? And it's not to say, any of those data points were low, necessarily, but when we looked at our overall culture and climate data, relatively speaking, those were some areas that we knew that we wanted to target and work on, and so we've seen some good progress with that over time through the structure of crew, and we still have goals, we still have places that we are going with that. So we still kind of see crew as sort of in its infancy, I think, but we are making some really good progress and we're really proud of that time. Crew is for all, and so every single adult in the building is connected to a crew and attends crews regularly, which we believe just help strengthen the relationships between students and adults. That's awesome and I like how you're.

Speaker 2:

You know you're using data to kind of drive the improvement effort but also recognizing that you can take a framework and kind of make it your own. So what was established through EL and then figuring out, okay, what does that look like in our setting, and kind of innovating over time and making it really fit. Westwood and the benefits for not only children but the adults is so Powerful. So earlier this year I was listening to a podcast by Jeff Jones. He has the transformative principal and he mentioned this idea that teaching has involved from stage on the stage To guide on the side to the compass among us. So what are your thoughts on that? Do you agree with him and, if so, what is that idea of the compass among us mean to you as an upper elementary school leader?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I thought this was really interesting and I wanted to kind of get the background of his thinking on this. So I went to his blog post where he had the Sort of the the Twitter world or I don't know X, whatever it is now thread of thinking around this and how his thinking sort of evolved to this point and it makes sense to me for sure. I think it's kind of one of those like yes and moments. As a district, we have been really Thinking deeply, ironically, about deep thinking this year and coming off of last week we had a retreat as a leadership team and a broad leadership team, so their content leaders there and they shared some of the work that each of the departments were doing with regard to deep thinking and John met, a, joined us and he, yeah, it was really incredible and at the end, when he gave some of his warm feedback, he was talking about the head, the heart in the hands, and Over the course of the day, there had been a lot of great examples shared of how we are engaging students with their head. You know the deep thinking piece. Certainly, we are thinking carefully about how to have all students thinking in the classroom, but he was challenging us to pay more attention to the head and or six years me the heart and the hand. And I think the hand, we're making progress. I think by that he sort of met like the doing.

Speaker 3:

The heart, I think, was the piece that we are still struggling with. And how do we engage all students and their heart so that passion, that curiosity, that creativity? And that's what I think, or what I took away from Jeffery Jones's thread, the compass as well, which was just, you know, as teachers working with students every day, how are we building relationships with students? How are we knowing them deeply as people so that we can help align learning standards with their own individual passions, curiosities, and how are we igniting that within them? And it's, you know, to the point of that thread, it's it's not so much, certainly not the sage on the stage which is that content delivery model I'm the purveyor of information and you are the receiver and but it's also not that Guide on the side, guide on the side, which is kind of still sort of directive, but I'm giving a little bit more, I think, student leadership in the process, but it really does, I think, challenge everybody to think about how we are engaging students, passions, curiosities, and providing them sort of like an end goal. Like we know that we want our students to graduate 12th grade sort of with the vision of the global citizen and all those dispositions, but how are we providing meaningful opportunities along the way for them to pursue their own interests, with the ultimate goal being reaching that? So I think, yes, for sure.

Speaker 3:

I do wonder a little bit in this conversation about equity and I do wonder a little bit about the SEL components, and you know we see a lot of students who do struggle with things like executive functioning and focus, and so I think one of the threads in that chain was that we kind of need to get out of the way right and that it's not so much about teaching students how to learn, it's creating opportunities for them to learn. And I do think there is a little. That's when I started with the yes, and I think there's a little bit of that there in terms of helping students to become learners. I think it's an optimistic view of students in human nature. Maybe if we're just like well, we create the conditions, they will thrive. I think some of it does require explicit instruction and how to learn, but I also think that in 2024. You know, school really does have to provide opportunities for students to connect with the content in a meaningful way.

Speaker 2:

Thanks for making that connection to John, met him and that's pretty cool. But also that idea of that the head, heart and hands and that idea of, yeah, the heart. You have to make that connection for meaningful learning right between now is not easily done. No, so you ready for the night rounds? Sure, we're going to rapid speed. Okay, so who are your favorite non educational people that you learn from my?

Speaker 3:

family. Yeah, I mean I have a few others that I can list as well. I will say that most of the learning that I'm trying to do right now is how to be a good parent, but I think it couples pretty well with my role here in the school as well. So I think probably the greatest professional learning opportunity that's ever been afforded me is becoming a mother, and I don't know that I would be able to tackle this job in the same way if I didn't have like the lens of a parent in a lot of what I do.

Speaker 3:

But to honestly, more directly answer the question, I am very interested in human behavior. I've always been really interested in like why people tick and why people do what they do. So we've read a lot of Brene Brown as a district last couple of years. You know Adam Grant is always an interesting person to follow along those lines. So those are the two people that I follow sort of through social media, get little dipstick ideas on how to approach human behavior. And then I also am just interested in parenting books right now, and so I was reading the coddling of the American mind, not far in my full review, but I am interested in how we're creating really sort of independent, resilient young people in a world that's becoming increasingly challenging and diverse.

Speaker 2:

That's great and honestly, this is like a like minds mulling, but I would agree I'm sure you've heard me say this before, nicole but being a mother of sons, particularly as someone who grew up with sisters, has certainly made me a better educator. And, just like you, I do love Adam Grant and rethinking in those podcasts, and I also, by myself gravitating towards things like on boys, as I navigate tween life and try to you know as much as we know we're still trying to grow and it's a different time. So, yes, it definitely helps us in our work as educators as well.

Speaker 3:

So it's a really helpful position to be in, but also an incredibly challenging one to be a parent of a student in the district that you lead in, because you get pulled in a lot of directions, emotionally and otherwise, in terms of how to create the most meaningful opportunities for them, while also knowing that at sometimes you just have to kind of step aside and be the parent and not the educator or the leader. But it's uniquely rewarding to live and work in the district and it also feels like the ultimate opportunity to sort of give back. It's also the district I grew up in, you know, so it's a unique internship for me.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely, and it also shows your dedication, your commitment to the community. And you're right, it has those like frozen con moments, but I think that certainly your ability to kind of step in and out of those different roles helps everybody really, because you see things from different perspectives. If you were to pick one or two of your best pieces of compression, so like kind of a condensed thought, or you know, like say go slow to go fast, what would you say that they are? Do you have one?

Speaker 3:

I think the one that I live by the most in this role is that if everything's an emergency, then nothing's an emergency, because that's how it can feel sometimes. I think that's another Jeff Rowe-Jones thing is like stop putting out all the fires yeah, in reality there's a lot of fires. You just really have to prioritize and think about really what would always come first are students, and so when I'm thinking about things that could potentially get in the way of a student being at school feeling confident and connected and happy, then that's kind of where I have to start, but also knowing that you can't live in the world of reaction and you have to kind of get up on the balcony and see the big picture so that you can do that important planning. So just trying to keep everything in perspective, what's an emergency? No-transcript.

Speaker 2:

So we know you're passionate about elevating student voice and promoting agency. Can you share with our listeners one thing you've learned from your Westwoods Wildcats? I know there's way more than one, but one that's impacted your approach to leadership, Sure.

Speaker 3:

We've had a really interesting couple of years with data trends and ELL students, and in my time here we've always had what feels like a large influx every fall of new students. But in the last couple of years it's been particularly interesting where in the world they're coming from and what skills they're coming with, especially in the area of English language learning. So my Wildcat pack had a really interesting idea and we're going to run with it. We haven't started the process yet, but they really challenged us to think about how our school helps those families and students feel when they first arrive. Are there signs in various languages? How welcoming do we feel? I mean, we're a beautiful school and that always helps us.

Speaker 3:

People walk in and are just in awe in the main hallway. It's a beautiful space, but then once you look past that, you know. Do they know where to go? Is it welcoming? Is it warm? Do people smile? Do people offer the resources that families need walking through those doors? So our Wildcat pack is our student leadership team and it's something that they identified as a goal for our school, which I always think is particularly meaningful, and so something we're going to start working on this year with the hopes of writing a grant to, whether it's produce signage or just create spaces that are welcoming to that particular subgroup of families who we think may be arriving to our school and lacking that experience that we want for them.

Speaker 2:

I love that, and that is a perfect example of what you described before. With regards to the head, heart and hands. Yeah, because it's deep learning. It, you know, comes from students. It has their hearts, they have their hands and doing the work, and that was just. That's a perfect example of that type of work, so I love it. They always come up with better things than you or I could have ever imagined. So what's one thing I should have asked you, but I didn't?

Speaker 3:

I guess just you and I, sort of having begun here together.

Speaker 3:

It's just how are things going, how things changed or not?

Speaker 3:

You know, one of the things that I think about as being an important thing that Katie Bloor and I have done over the last few years that I know you and I had talked about quite often was just teaming and how to sort of change that in a meaningful way sometimes, so that people have opportunities to work with new teammates and grow in those ways, and so that is something that we did do a couple of years ago. We're in year two of that now and it was really hard, as I think you had predicted it would have been, but I think we did our best. You know it wasn't perfect, but we did our best to set it up with success and then we kind of just gave it over to. You know, just wait and see, wait and see how it goes. I think if you ask people now, they would really report enjoying their new teams and report that they are learning and growing from one another. So that's been an interesting development here at Westwoods in the last few years. I can imagine.

Speaker 2:

The change process is not easy and we know that with change, our real feelings of loss, and so moving through that and, like you said, coming out the other side and kind of reflecting on, you know what worked and what didn't work and how did this help us overall. That's awesome and you know that's a brave leadership moment. It takes brave leadership sometimes to do things like that. So where can our listeners go to find out more about you and your work? If they want to know more about crew or your work with Student Voice and the Wildcat Pack, if they want to come see a beautiful space and how you view space to drive your leadership, where can they learn more about you?

Speaker 3:

Certainly if anybody wanted to visit the school. I think that's the best way to learn about any place is just immerse yourself in the location. So they're certainly welcome to reach out to me via my Farmington Public Schools email, but a lot of what we do is shared work. So when you say to learn about my work, it's really the work of the school and the district and all of that is on our website, fpsctorg Newly redesigned and beautiful. Shout out to Matt Prasad on his hard work on the district website. But there is a lot of information there if people were wanting to know more.

Speaker 2:

Awesome, nicole Vibber, assistant Principal of Westwood's Upper Elementary School and the recipient of the 2024 Connecticut Association of Schools Elementary School Assistant Principal of the Year Award. Thank you for your honest conversation, your humor, your humility. Our goal of the Linking Leaders podcast is to connect the great educational leaders like you across our small state and I'm confident that your experience, your passion and your enthusiastic leadership style will spark ideas, create conversation and inspire action from colleagues throughout Connecticut. Nicole, my sincere gratitude for you sharing your time and your talent, and to our listeners, we'll see you next time for a new episode of Linking Leaders.

Speaker 1:

Thanks so much for joining us for this episode of the Linking Leaders podcast. This episode is brought to you by the Connecticut Association of Schools, serving schools and their leaders since 1935.

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