PROFILE: Timothy Lee, Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School principalMore Info
Great Barrington — Timothy Lee is a big fan of going to school each day. After a decade in Lenox, six years of which were spent at the helm of Morris Elementary School and four as superintendent of Lenox Public Schools, the Chicago native moved into the principal’s office at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School over the summer. “I’m happy to be back in a school with children,” said Lee, who began his career in education as a Spanish teacher in Cambridge and Brockton. Despite his propensity for being a bit serious and business-oriented in his role as principal, Lee has been having fun getting to know the nearly 340 students in pre-K through Grade 4. He brought his guitar to Campfire Night in October — a PTA-sponsored community builder — and for Halloween, he dressed up as Dr. DeSoto (a mouse dentist from the children’s book by Willliam Steig). “I’m trying to take the opportunities when I can to spend time with [students],” he added, in a nod to the basketball on the bookshelf behind him used for impromptu games at recess. Lee took a short break from familiarizing himself with the way in which Muddy Brook works to share what drew him to his new post and his plans for the future.
Hannah Van Sickle: How does it feel to be back in an elementary school?
Timothy Lee: It feels good. Now. September was a little stressful. I found that, coming to a new district and a new school with new responsibilities, there was a lot that I just didn’t know. And it was taking me a long time to figure out how things work and, of course, get to know the people. October was a little bit better, and now I feel like I kind of have a pace going — I’m getting to know all of the kids and the work of the teachers very well. And it feels great!
HVS: What is one of your favorite parts of the school day?
TL: At 8:30 each morning, I try to go to the front entrance and hold the door open and greet people as they come in. I really enjoy that. I like recess — I go out sometimes with first grade and third grade when I have time — and then I also just like to visit classrooms. I try to get into the classrooms at least twice a day to see what’s going on and watch the teachers work with the kids. It’s a delicate balance and some teachers are more comfortable with it than others, but it’s been good to get back into the classrooms and see what’s happening.
HVS: What drew you to Berkshires Hills Regional School District?
TL: I’ve lived in Great Barrington since 2003. My daughters came through this school system, they attended this school, and the attraction to Berkshire Hills was the chance for me to really work in the community where I live. That was number one. Number two, I think the school has gone through some interesting demographic shifts in the past five to 10 years, and it’s presented some real challenges for the school in terms of how to meet the growing and differing needs of kids. The number of students with special needs, including IEPs(Individualized Education Program) has increased steadily over the past decade; the number of students who are not native speakers of English has increased quite significantly over the past five years, as well. In addition, the school’s low income percentage has increased. In short, a lot of different needs have come into the building that have been absorbed over a relatively short period of time, and how to accommodate all of theses needs while being as inclusive as possible has been a challenge. We are doing a lot of interesting things here to try and rise to that challenge, and I was really interested in being part of it.
HVS: Has there been a particular moment this fall that has embodied the spirit of Muddy Brook?
TL: There was a project back in September around Peace Day. The school has an annual tradition where there is an all-school assembly about peace, where we recognize peace heroes and the students all construct these pinwheels that we place in the circle out front. Considering the culture in the arts at this school, that activity in particular was just full of integration of art and music and that was really nice to see. Something else that wasn’t as curriculum- or community-oriented was the Halloween parade we had a couple weeks ago. I’ve never really quite gotten into the celebrations around Halloween and Valentine’s Day, but it was just so much fun! The kids loved it, the teachers got into it and, again, it’s an annual tradition here. The students dress up in costumes, they parade once through the school, and then they go outside and parade once around the school. When we left the building, there must have been 200 parents waiting outside with cameras to take photos, which showed me that the parent culture of participation is very important here.
HVS: Being tasked with shaping elementary school students is no small feat; where is there room for growth at Muddy Brook and what is your vision going forward?
TL: I know that the caliber of teachers we have here is really quite excellent, but the performance of our students is consistently at or below the state average. So I’ve been digging into some of the areas where that is the case, and there seems to be an issue or a shortcoming in our math curriculum that is leaving our students without the computational fluency I would like to see them have by the time they get to third or fourth grade. Computational fluency is all about math fact fluency; it’s about rapid recall of math facts, and understanding numbers in such a way so that, in your future math work, you can be more efficient. You can see that 3+4=7; you don’t have to count it up. Another area that I’d like to focus on is writing instruction. We have teachers who use a lot of model programs in writing but, again, what we’re finding is that our students’ writing abilities are lagging behind their peers — and I’m using MCAS data as one of the benchmarks to make this judgment. Looking at what we do for writing instruction — how often do we do it, what process do we use, and whether or not the way we approach writing is connected from grade to grade — [will ensure that] when students move from one grade to another, from one classroom to another, they are not having to learn an entirely new process with a new set of expectations. Something else we talk about here is social-emotional learning. What are the social norms we want to see in our school? And what sort of citizens do we want our students to be, both within the school and outside the school? We are going to be doing a lot of talking about that and seeing if we can’t come up with a consistent plan not just for within the school day, but across the school year [that will make room for] ideas like empathy, friendship and kindness, those sorts of things that we can teach deliberate lessons about and remind our students.