Who will be the next principal in Teton County School District No. 1?
When a leadership post opens up, district officials hope to fill the bench with qualified applicants from within, thanks to a new professional development program.
“We’re trying to grow building leaders and teacher administrators for the district,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said. “You want to have a variety of experiences to draw on.”
The program, called Leadership TCSD, has five teachers from a variety of backgrounds as participants for the next two years. The five are Seth Fetters, a sixth-grade science teacher at Jackson Hole Middle School, Anitra Jensen, a gifted/talented teacher at Wilson Elementary School, Ellen Kappus, an English language development teacher at Jackson Elementary School, Kelly Matthews, a fourth-grade special education teacher at Colter Elementary School, and Diane Woodard, technology coordinator.
District officials hope to grow that cohort each year and eventually have each class mentor those that follow it.
Chapman said the program is similar to a two-year internship and will help teachers applying for leadership positions “have something on their resume that stands out.” Participants can also get graduate credit.
School board members say the idea of having an internal leadership development program arose when Superintendent Pam Shea decided to step down.
“I was pretty concerned about the lack of bench strength that we had,” Trustee Kate Mead said. “It was a priority of the board before we hired Dr. Chapman. We’re trying to make sure we have people who are ready to step into different roles should the need become necessary.”
Mead called the program “a smart management tool.”
“Schools do not do well unless there is consistency all across the board, whether that be administrators, teachers or school board members,” she said. “There’s no housing, which makes it difficult to get leaders from outside the community, and we have tons of good people in the district. Why not give people the opportunity to grow and potentially do something else as time passes?”
Chapman was a strong proponent of the idea because she participated in a similar program before becoming associate superintendent at her old stomping grounds — Shawnee Mission Unified School District in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
“She got the ball rolling on it,” Mead said.
An extra-duty contract was awarded to Jackson Hole Middle School Principal Debbie Pfortmiller to be the co-facilitator of the program. Pfortmiller also came to Jackson from Shawnee Mission Unified School District and met Chapman through that district’s leadership development program.
People familiar with the contract say it’s a $10,000 addition to Pfortmiller’s salary. According to Pfortmiller, the co-facilitator position and its accompanying salary boost was not offered to other administrators employed by the district.
Chapman said Pfortmiller is “taking the bulk of the preparation duties.” The extra-duty contract, she said, is because the program is “a huge time commitment. She’s basically acting as a professor.”
Participants applied to the program for a variety of reasons.
“I wanted to continue to learn and grow in the area of leadership,” Matthews said.
“I’ve had so many leadership experiences that I’ve just been thrown into with no direction, so I was excited to hear of a leadership program where I would be spending time with current leaders in Teton County that I could learn from,” she said.
Kappus, who’s writing her dissertation on Jackson Elementary School’s new vocabulary initiative — aiming to bridge the gap between students who are exposed to more academic language at home and those who aren’t — wants to broaden her influence to better help kids through curriculum, grant funding or training teachers.
“I would like a larger role, but I get such joy out of the classroom,” Kappus said. “I’m torn.”
Pfortmiller said participants learn from one another, not just current leaders.
“Our goal is for them to think about things from all different lenses,” she said. “This way they’re not just thinking about the kid lens or the parent lens but also the different teachers and their building lenses.”
Jensen said she’s enjoyed zooming out from her classroom, where her philosophy is “every day, every child, something new.”
“I like to see the big picture and see how the little pieces add up,” she said.
So far, the program has met twice. During one of those meetings, Chief Operating Officer Brad Barker talked about what goes into building a new school. Participants also took quizzes about their leadership styles and are reading the book “You’re A Principal. Now What?” by Jen Schwanke.
A highlight of the program is shadowing people in district leadership positions.
“You can go to school and get book learning,” Pfortmiller said. “But this is a hands-on experience to learn how your district works.”
Kappus is excited to shadow Pier Trudelle, the director of school improvement and accountability.
“It’s real world, not theory,” Kappus said. “We really get to practice. I’m a learner, and I love to learn more. I think it adds more to my profession.”
“It’s going to be eye opening, and I’ll probably be exhausted,” Matthews said. “Just being able to see things from their point of view, rather than from my inner center of Colter, helps when we are talking about decisions being made.”
She’ll be paired with Holly Voorhees-Carmical, the director of curriculum and instruction.
“It’s scary, but my day is going to be an incredibly eye-opening experience that I would never have if not for this program,” Matthews said. “It’s an experience for growth.”
Matthews hopes to be an assistant principal in the next five years. She and others say the program helps give teachers like her with a lot of experience outside the district a chance to break down barriers that can sometimes be caused by a lack of longevity.
“It was a clean slate for everyone,” Jensen said. “We all had the same chance.”
Jensen also hopes to be a principal some day. She said she’s more comfortable around kids but is still working on their parents.
“Give me 50 kids, it doesn’t faze me,” Jensen said. “But give me 50 parents, I’m a little more nervous.”
Chapman is looking forward to future successes and growing strength in the district thanks to Leadership TCSD.
“It’s time and money well spent,” she said.