February Person of the Month: Maisha Riddlesprigger
Maisha Riddlesprigger, Principal of Turnaround for Children partner Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is Turnaround’s “Person of the Month.” Principal Riddlesprigger was nominated by Partnership Director Dawn Foreman for developing strong relationships with staff, students and families in the school community: “During every visit to Ketcham, I see Principal Riddlesprigger interacting with students in ways that buffer adverse childhood experiences that might be present; hugs, fist bumps, conversations, smiles and laughter, lunch in the principal’s office (students seek her out), and students coming to read to her.” Principal Riddlesprigger was honored with the 2019 District of Columbia Public Schools “Principal of the Year” Award, and her school received the 2019 “Together With Families” Award, which recognizes and applauds a DCPS school that has actively deepened partnerships with families and their community.
THE 180: How did you get started working in education?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: I grew up in a family full of educators. I had an aunt who worked in education, older cousins, a father who was a community college professor and was on the school board… so, I grew up around many educators and was pretty convinced that I was not going to go into education. But the bug bit me at UCLA. I picked up the education studies minor, and part of that is doing hours in schools in the greater Los Angeles area. Through that experience, even though I was fighting it and fighting it, I really got drawn into working in elementary education, specifically. I kind of just fell in love with teaching.
THE 180: Was there a relationship in your childhood that was fundamental to who you have become today?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: My father, Bill Riddlesprigger, really emphasized education, specifically a commitment to urban education, particularly African-American and Latino students. That shaped some of my ideology about where I wanted to work in my career. I’d actually never thought about working in a community that was not filled with African-American and Latino students. So whether that’s Compton, where we were 75 percent Latino, about 23 percent African-American, or whether it’s here at Ketcham, where we’re about 98 percent African-American and two percent Latino, that has been a crux, my father shaping me and molding me and my thought process about education. He was president of our local branch of the NAACP. He was a member of the Black Political Council. He was the go-to person about all “black issues” in our hometown of Fresno. That really shaped my perception of quality education and a commitment to quality education for students of color.
THE 180: You were recently named DCPS “Principal of the Year,” which is an amazing testament to the work that you do. What do you think it is that is so special about what you’re doing?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: I predicate everything on the early lessons I learned about building relationships and building rapport with students and families. The first step was to really get parents and families to trust us as a school community — getting parents to see that we are here for your students, we’re committed. And again, and I think this goes back to my early days as a teacher, understanding the community that we’re working in. Understanding some of the challenges, some of the resilience that the community has. Understanding some of the amazing things in the community that often get overshadowed by the negative. Building upon those strengths from our community was really important.
It’s also about a commitment to developing teachers. I tell people there is no secret sauce in what I do. I don’t have any magic fairy dust or anything. We have just really worked on getting teachers better faster. Because our students cannot afford to wait on incremental growth. We need dramatic growth in the people that are in front of children so that we can, in turn, ensure that they have the best possible outcomes.
THE 180: What does Turnaround for Children bring to your school that helps you do that?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: This year, Turnaround is really helping us focus on our mindsets about students, because as well-meaning as any educator can be, there are times when we may have fatigue about student learning challenges. Turnaround has really helped us to examine our own implicit biases about students and to anchor our work in a growth mindset: about students, about the way that we approach student learning, and about failure being an opportunity to grow. That’s been helpful for us, not only in the way that we view students, but also in the way that staff view their own failures. You can work really, really hard with a student and then see no growth. And you can view that as a failure and internalize that as a teacher. And then you’re less motivated. So Turnaround really helped us change that.
Also, Turnaround helped us look at our systems and figure out where we really were. We had all these systems in place, right? Looked great on paper. But there were things that were falling apart. Where are systems falling down and what kind of support do we need to make sure that the vision is not far off from what we’re seeing in reality here at the school. That could be a vision for classroom management, for schoolwide transition management, for how we do interventions… we’ve got a plethora of systems, and Turnaround helped us monitor the most effective components of those systems and then strengthen the strong points so we don’t have to focus on doing a whole bunch of things well, we can focus on doing the right things well.
THE 180: What kind of impact are you seeing from that?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: Hearing, “Oh my God, this PD is so great. This is the best session we’ve had all year” from teachers is really good. When Turnaround first came in, teachers were really just in awe, like, “Oh wow, I had no idea of the brain science behind learning or trauma.” I think the content Turnaround provides is what our teachers need. Now, there has to be a commitment to do the work, right? Because it is very difficult to shift the mindset of a person at this juncture in people’s careers. But you have to be able to see the possibilities. We have to make a cognizant effort to practice what we preach, especially in terms of growth mindset. So that comes from me. I try to be very vulnerable about my own growth and development.
Slowly but surely, we see progress in growth mindset, but teachers want to know, “How is this immediately applicable?” You know, we have PowerPoint presentations, the research, the brain science but teachers want to know, “What does this really look like in a classroom?” So Turnaround’s partnership has been really helpful. Dawn [Foreman, Turnaround Partnership Director] will say, “Hey, let’s walk into classrooms together and see if we see some of these things that we’re talking about in the professional development. Do we actually see them in action or are teachers just nodding and smiling without changing their actual practice?” That’s been really helpful for us, to really see if teachers are implementing changes. At some point, you’re either going to have jump on board completely or figure out another train to ride.
THE 180: What would you tell someone who hasn’t worked in a school like yours that they might be surprised to learn?
MAISHA RIDDLESPRIGGER: So often in urban schools we try to focus on control. One of the things that I have found through my work here at Ketcham, and that has evolved throughout my career, is the idea of giving students choice and agency in their own learning. I think people would be really surprised that students in urban communities are really, really detailed about what they want and what they need to be successful. So many times, we’re so focused on top-down, draconian ways in which we see education. In reality, we have to step back and listen. Students have the agency, and if we give them choice, students often make those choices better than those of us that think that we know what’s best for them.
For example, we give students in our math classes the opportunity to select what they work on in their blended learning programs based on their own needs and skill gaps that they identify. We give students the opportunity to tell teachers which learning style works best for them, and they choose how to attack problems in the curriculum. We try not to tell students how to approach a problem — we give them the opportunity to tell us which strategy works best (in their opinion) to attack a math, science, social studies, or ELA issue. The more choice you give students on how and what they are learning, the more they buy into the teacher’s role as a facilitator of learning.
So I would say to people outside of urban communities, outside of a community like ours, to sit down and listen to the people that you’re serving. Sit down and listen to the people that are most impacted by us as educators.