Kristen Richards has a multitude of experiences she brought to the classroom as a teacher. Now she will use those and what she has learned as an assistant principal as she takes over as principal at Sand Hill Elementary.
She said her father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and her grandmother was a teacher in Chatham County.
“I really didn’t go into teaching right away,” Richards said. “I was a newspaper reporter, and I was a writer for magazines. It was actually my second career after doing the journalism and there was a little stint as a co-caretaker on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia with my husband. We did that for five years.”
When they returned, she began teaching a program about living on a barrier island to children at the library, and she became a substitute teacher.
“I was a late in life mother, so when I had my daughter I know there were a lot of moments where I looked at her and looked at my impact on her and being a role model,” Richards said. “I combined that and I was giving programs at the library on what life was like on a barrier island. I was doing a lot with little children, and really enjoyed the interaction.”
She continued to write and did a children’s radio show, “Pajama Time,” for Georgia Public Radio.
With her writing background, Richards “gravitated to language arts,” she said, when she began teaching full time. She started as an eighth grade language arts teacher in Chatham County “many moons ago,” she said.
After coming to Effingham County, she was a fifth grade language arts teacher and became assistant principal three years ago.
She said her other life experiences prepared her to go into the classroom with a different perspective, and she was able to “bring some of those experiences in.”
“There was a moment that I had, and I guess it was when I was teaching fifth grade at South Effingham Elementary — I don’t want to use the word epiphany, but that’s sort of what it was — I stood in that classroom and I knew there was not anything else I was called to do in my life at that very moment,” Richards said.
She was South Effingham Elementary and Effingham County’s teacher of the year for the 1999-2000 school year and said SEE principal Cheryl Christain mentored her.
“She believed in giving a lot of leadership duties and responsibilities to her teachers to empower them,” Richards said. “Through her guidance I was able to do a lot in leadership before becoming officially an administrator.
“Melanie Reiser took over from there,” Richards said. “As the principal, here was a wealth of information for me.”
Her love of the classroom kept Richards from moving quickly into an administrative capacity.
“I was probably one of the slow and steady finishes the race kind of people,” she said. “I still draw immense gratification from going into the classroom and working with children, and I didn’t go into the leadership program whole hog.”
Instead of taking all the classes she could to move to a leadership role, she took one at a time. Then she was asked to do things outside of the classroom.
“When the state accountability A Plus Education Act was first being talked about, and they were trying to take the state accountability and fuse that with the No Child Left Behind at the state level, they asked counties to send people to work on that,” she said. “I was privileged to be chosen to do that.”
Richards said it was a bigger picture type of step that took her outside of the classroom.
“I remember when I came back with the information for that thinking, ‘wasn’t it a nice application of all my skill sets to be able to take the perspective from the classroom and look at the big picture,’ then come back and deliver that information to teachers so they could understand better what they needed to do. That took me one step up looking at the bigger picture,” she said.
She said as she was afraid of losing the impact she had with children in her classroom, she began to realize that in an administrative role she would be able to impact a larger group of children during their elementary school career.
“It opened me up more and took me from the fifth grade classroom to the whole continuum from (kindergarten) through (fifth grade),” Richards said. “It was easier to let go of the classroom when I realized that I could have possibly a broader effect.”
She said the other side of becoming an administrator was the ability to help support teachers.
“This is really important to me as an administrator, and that is not ever forgetting to be a teacher in the classroom and to be mindful and thoughtful and sensitive to the concerns that teachers have,” she said. “It is not an easy job, and it is an intensely packed, compressed year. It is filled with stress, and yet I see the teachers come in with extremely positive approaches and attitudes, leaving their troubles at the door, and giving of themselves everyday to the children.”
She said the other part of being an administrator that appeals to her is the ability to “support and make the lives of teachers better or easier to make their jobs more manageable.”
Richard said she appreciated that her mentors, Christian and Reiser, shared leadership.
“Even though there’s accountability — the idea of the buck stops here — with decisions I might have to make, they seek input into the decisions and respect opinions,” she said. “Ms. Reiser, when she hired me as her assistant principal, really had that idea of shared approaches to the day to day. There were no secrets, and she would include me in many of the decisions that we had to make.”
She was unsure at first if she would seek the principal position because she was happy being the assistant principal.
“The assistant principal job encompasses some parts that the principal doesn’t always, like some professional learning,” Richards said. “Not that the principal isn’t involved with that, but the AP has more direct responsibility.”
She said when she thought about why she would ask to be considered for the position and thought of the impact on students and teachers.
“I felt like I had developed a relationship with the staff and with the children, and three years at Sand Hill, I began to know my families and the demographics,” she said. “Also I was lucky because prior to my time my husband was here. Sand Hill has been in our house since 2001, so it wasn’t like I was totally new to the school. I wholeheartedly at that point applied and was absolutely delighted and thrilled to know that I had been chosen. I took a little bit of time off, not much between trying to learn everything I could before Ms. Reiser stepped down, but I took enough time to now get really excited.”
Richards’ focus is on student achievement, and doing what is needed to improve that including staff development.
“We are doing our curriculum, the entire county will be doing it, but we started it last year to improve our writing scores,” she said. “We’ve seen gains already from last year with our writing scores.”
She said the new writing curriculum is “less segmented from grade level to grade level” and more of a continuum from kindergarten to fifth grade.
“Every grade will build on what the grade before it did, adds another piece to it,” Richards said. “Everyone knows vertically, all the teachers are planning together and training together, so everyone knows who’s doing what. So it becomes a whole school initiative instead of counting on one grade level that might have accountability through assessments.”
She said another goal in student achievement is in the area of math.
“We’re not alone in the county or the state in adjusting to new Georgia Performance Standards being reflected on testing and just making sure our students can meet the bar of achievement,” Richards said.
She said the school has many 21st century classrooms, and is adding more for the coming school year. She is “excited that our staff embraces new technology” because she has seen the way students respond to interactive technology.
Richards would also like to “strengthen the parent-faculty connection.”
“I really want our parents to be involved,” she said. “We have a program that we will have this year that will help parents learn how to help their children at home. There is a mini curriculum and a video series, and we’re going to be asking parents to volunteer to come and have lunch with us and (use the) video courses to help them with their at home support of their students. Their children’s schooling is absolutely a partnership that helps children. I don’t mean that because it is a stock thing.
“The children whose parents can take the time to check behind them, to follow through, to communicate, those children achieve and are more successful because they can’t fall through the cracks because they have people looking after them.”
She said she would like to improve parent communication with the school by being available formally and informally to speak with parents.
“We also have an open door policy,” Richards said. “That means that I’m accessible to parents’ concerns, and we schedule conferences with teachers on a regular basis to make sure parents’ concerns are recognized and addressed.”
Sand Hill will have more students this year. A new wing has been built, and the system redistricted, adding 100 to 150 students to the population of the school. It will be the largest student body Sand Hill has ever had.
“It’s bringing us on par with the rest of the elementary schools as far as numbers,” Richards said. “Growth is an adjustment, but it’s not so big that it doesn’t still feel that everybody’s going to know every child.”
Richards said moving a child from one school to another “naturally creates anxiety,” and she would want parents of students who have been redistricted to know that the schools in the county are in “horizontal communication” with each other.
“Their children are not going to walk into Sand Hill and it be a totally unknown type experience,” she said, “because what’s wonderful about our county is we try very hard to have us all be on the same page, especially curriculum wise and policy wise, so that a child who has to transfer from one school to another is not missing or skipping a beat.”
She said the students who have been redistricted will have an “equally gratifying experience when they come to Sand Hill.”
“I am so proud of my faculty here,” Richards said. “One of the very first things I noticed when I came on as an assistant principal is the depth of dedication. Our new teachers who are coming on board are enthused and excited.”