WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Changing jobs in the middle of a global pandemic can be tough. Moving 2,000 miles to do so is even tougher.
But Kristen Thompson was motivated to make a move and is dedicated to making the most of the opportunity to serve as principal at Williamstown Elementary School.
And she has found a community of like-minded professionals ready to take on the challenge of teaching in the COVID-19 era when students return for remote instruction on Wednesday.
"If I've learned one thing being at WES in this short amount of time, it is that we have a staff of absolutely dedicated, motivated and supportive teachers on staff here," Thompson said.
"They are not only dedicated to students, they're dedicated to growing professionally in order to impact students. I believe that there is still a learning curve for everyone, and they are embracing that curve and making the best of it … so students are still getting the best education we can provide."
Thompson is one of two new principals in the Mount Greylock Regional School District this fall. At the middle-high school, Jake Schutz moves into the corner office after serving as the school's assistant principal.
Thompson comes to the Berkshires after 11 years in education in New Mexico, most recently as an assistant principal at West Mesa High School in Albuquerque.
Former Mount Greylock Superintendent Kimberley Grady, who appointed both principals in the spring, this week praised Thompson, an applicant for both open spots, for her experience with restorative justice and restorative practices.
"Kristen was so well respected by her administration and colleagues in New Mexico," Grady said. "The interview committees -- both of them -- loved her responses to many of their questions.
"She is experienced and student-centered. She ran lead on new initiatives and worked collaboratively with a variety of teams in her years in New Mexico."
As she helped make final preparations for the year ahead, Thompson chatted with iBerkshires.com about her reasons for relocating to Williamstown, her background and her plans for the year ahead.
Question: So, this can't have been how you pictured your introduction to a new school community. How has it been trying to make connections with the staff in the building?
Kristen Thompson: It's been great. I've been working with the admin team, and they've been super supportive to find outlets for contact with building staff. Via email and Zoom meetings, I met with the staff in the summer.
Now that we're back on contract and in the building, I've been doing what I call entrance meetings, spending 15 minutes with individual staff to chat about what's on their mind and to start building relationships.
Q: It sounds like you're pretty comfortable with the Zoom interactions and that sort of thing, but can it take the place of being able to sit down one-on-one with someone?
KT: There's no substitute for having that face-to-face interaction that's going to be as highly effective as it could be, but it's what we have right now that's most effective that we can use. It allows us to at least see someone even if it's on a screen.
Now, having folks in the building, even though we're following protocols and maintaining social distance, it's been wonderful to hear people and have people around.
We're lucky to have those [high tech] tools, I think. I can't imagine when I was in elementary school how our teachers could have done it.
Q: Have you been able to make any connections with families or even kids?
KT: As far as contacting families, I have been using the same platforms -- phone, email, robocalls.
It was definitely in my plan to do [more one-on-one with families], but I felt getting things ironed out logistically so I had accurate answers to give them in those meetings was a priority.
As we move in and are able to slow down, I think I'll be able to have those meetings with the community more often. It's definitely something on my mind and feel is incredibly important. I just felt I needed to take care of logistics so I could have answers for them.
It's a complete learning curve for me right now -- not only learning the school but also learning about the community and how the community wants to communicate.
Q: You mentioned the administrative team. How important has it been to have the support of people like your assistant principal and people in the office and at the district level who have been on the ground for years?
KT: Especially this year, it's been everything. The support I've had from this team has honestly gotten me through every roadblock I've faced. They've been completely open to any question I have, clarifications, helping me talk through problems, showing me where to find information, helping me with the culture of the school and the traditions we want to keep at the school when we can have those traditions in person again.
They've given me insight on why certain procedures and protocols are in place and why things are done the way they're done. That insight is vital for me. I come from such a different district and different community.
Honestly, the support they've given me has been the .. sometimes it feels like the only way I've gotten through some of the situations
Q: Pandemic aside, why was this the right time for you to relocate to Massachusetts?
KT: My in-laws and significant other are from Central Mass. I had visited, and even though it was dead of winter, this desert girl fell in love with Massachusetts.
I visited a few times afterward. We were looking at family planning and where did we want to end up and where did we want to anchor ourselves to build a foundation, and I just felt this feeling that this is where we should be.
Obviously, education here in Massachusetts is top notch. Everything Massachusetts does is top notch.
I felt kind of that calling. You know the feeling when you're in a place and feel, 'I belong here.' That's the feeling I got
Q: And what about WES makes it a good fit?
KT: I feel like our mission and our thought processes were very much aligned, putting students first. I feel that strongly in this community.
It was very apparent as I was going through the interview process and being introduced to members of staff on my interview team that putting students first definitely aligned with my values.
I think that there's a comfort in being in a small community that I've never really known before. But it came on quickly. It came on quickly as I was chatting with people and doing a little research on my own. Just this overall comfort feeling of not only would I be successful personally here but also successful professionally because of the people here and community at large.
Q: You were a finalist for the principal position at the high school. Were you also aware of and interested in the elementary school position at the same time?
KT: I was not aware about the elementary position. At the time, when I applied, I was looking at mainly high schools.
When there was the opportunity to look at the elementary school, I thought, I have experience in elementary education. Yes, I haven't been in elementary schools for a while, but I was thinking about the positives of the elementary situation and the warmth and the absolute joy of being in elementary school. It is something that's always stayed with me as I've moved forward in my career
Q: You started your career as an elementary school teacher, right?
KT: I started as a fifth-grade teacher. Then I moved to kindergarten for three years. From there, I went to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and started teaching sixth-grade -- middle school in Albuquerque is sixth, seventh and eighth. I spent six years teaching social studies and English there.
Q: And then you went into administration?
Q: What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Albuquerque schools?
KT: Around the same time, March, when schools in Massachusetts had to move to remote, schools in Albuquerque moved to remote as well.
We were in the middle of student-led conferences, and we got the notice on a Friday that we would be out for at least two weeks remotely. All the information was coming down from the state and district and superintendents. We were very much in the same boat as Massachusetts.
Q: Did you return to in-person instruction at some point?
KT: We stayed out for the year. In the district I was at, they still are in remote.
Q: I know you weren't in the classroom at the time, but what was the experience like of trying to support your teachers and students through that process of going remote?
KT: It was a whirlwind. It was a balance of being supportive and changing the mindset from, 'This is new, I can't do it,' to 'Yes this is new, but I can embrace it.'
We were balancing the supportive role and also an instructional role -- supporting teachers with the different online platforms, saying, ‘Have you thought of this strategy with your students?' There were almost individualized problems and challenges that teachers had.
Q: And you were learning about all this at the same time.
KT: One hundred percent. I felt like I was juggling 10 or 12 balls at the same time.
Q: I realize that most of the energy this summer has been directed toward making plans for remote and hybrid instruction, but longer term, do you have thoughts on innovations that you might want to look into?
KT: I feel like even without COVID, without all of this huge change, I always like to learn and look at the systems we have in place and look at what's going on.
I'll be looking at our strengths and building on those strengths but also looking at opportunities for growth. That's what my plan was to do: take a year to acclimate, look at systems, curriculum, teams we have in place, data and be able to compile all that information. I was not going to go in and change everything dramatically.
Even in a normal setting, my goal was to look at what works and build on opportunities to grow in all areas of teaching.
Q: Does that timeline get pushed back now? In other words, is next year the year to do all those evaluations if, ideally, the school year opens normally?
KT: It's all fluid at this point. … I think we're going to be faced with some opportunities that we maybe weren't aware of before. We can have the best laid plans in place, but we still have to be fluid.
As far as putting a timetable, we have to take things one day at a time right now. The number one thing is safety, safety and instruction, making sure our kids are not only safe but getting the best instruction they can right now.
For me that's a constant process. If we're not fluid and looking at that, we're limiting ourselves in how successful we can be
To say that things are going to stay the same and my timeline hasn't shifted would be inaccurate.