Love of Learning Central to Principal's Success
UT Tyler Alumna Named State's Best Elementary School Principal
Cristi Parsons believes in the power of education to transform lives, including her own.
“Education is the way to get our world to where it needs to be,” said Parsons, an alumna of The University of Texas at Tyler and principal of North Elementary School in Hallsville Independent School District in Northeast Texas.
That philosophy has inspired her work as a student, teacher, counselor and now principal.
In May, Parsons was named the Texas Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association and was awarded $5,000. She simultaneously was named the Texas National Distinguished Principal by TEPSA’s national affiliate, the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
The award “is the highest praise a principal can receive from his or her peers in the profession,” and honors exemplary principals “who set the pace, character and quality of the education children receive during their early school years,” the TEPSA website says.
As the reigning Texas Distinguished Principal, Parsons met President Barack Obama and fellow Distinguished Principals of the Year from other states at the National Distinguished Principals program and awards ceremony this fall in Washington, D.C.
“The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association consists of 5,800 educational leaders with an interest in elementary and middle schools in Texas,’’ said Dr. Ross Sherman, dean of the UT Tyler College of Education and Psychology and professor of educational leadership and policy studies. “To be selected as the 2013 Texas recipient of the National Distinguished Principal award is an amazing honor.”
Parsons learned in January that she had been nominated for the award when TEPSA notified her by email requesting that she formally apply for the award. Expecting stiff competition, Parsons was not initially going to apply, which required answering four essay questions, but finally did at the last minute on the insistence of the district’s deputy superintendent.
Parsons was then selected among 11 finalists who were evaluated during campus visits in April by a three-member team of evaluators from TEPSA, including the 2012 Texas National Distinguished Principal. They toured her campus, interviewed Parsons, talked with a few teachers and visited classrooms.
The following month, TEPSA representatives – along with the school board president and members of Parsons’ family – made a surprise appearance at a school safety program at Parson’s school to present the award to her before the school’s students, faculty and staff.
“Our district is very honored and very proud of this accomplishment for her and for our district as a whole,” said Hallsville ISD Deputy Superintendent Paula Rogers, who was among the first to know of the award.
Rogers called Parsons “a natural leader.”
“She has a passion for children and a passion for excellence that is evident as soon as you meet her,” Rogers said.
Cristi is gifted in creating a positive and nurturing environment for staff and students, while at the same time having incredibly high expectations, Rogers said, noting, “You don’t often find both of those simultaneously.”
“I just believe that it’s our moral and ethical responsibility as educators to be here for all kids,” Parsons said. “When our doors open every single day, I want our campus to be a place where all kids feel a sense of belonging, they feel safe and secure, and they know that we’re going to do everything we can.”
TEPSA made a more formal presentation of the award to Parsons at its June convention in Austin, where she made a brief speech before fellow school administrators from around the state.
“It is the responsibility of all of us to work together in Texas to make sure that our students are successful,” she recalled telling them. “We can’t work in isolation; we have to work in collaboration. And through the Internet and technology, we shouldn't have any excuse not to collaborate.”
A Lifelong Learner
Parsons’ walk through education began as a kindergartener at Hallsville Primary School.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. I loved school growing up. I was one of those kids who didn’t want to miss school,” said Parsons, who attended Hallsville schools until graduating from high school.
After getting her bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin University, she taught sixth grade for three years.
Being a teacher at that time had its challenges, because teachers didn’t have the resources they do today, she said.
"Back when I taught, teachers taught in isolation. It was pretty much, ‘Here’s your textbook, here’s your keys, go teach,’” she said “… I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to teach, and I didn’t feel successful.”
Ready for a change, she opted to return to school to learn to be a school counselor, and she earned a master’s degree in education, counseling and student services from the University of North Texas. When she graduated, demand for her new skills was high.
“I got a job as a school counselor very quickly and loved it,” Parsons said. “And it was really just what fit me well.”
As a counselor, she often sat in on other teachers’ classes for the purpose of observing students who were having trouble, and she enjoyed collaborating with the teachers to help those students socially and academically. In the many hours she spent observing in classrooms, she learned many teaching techniques and best practices. Being a counselor was also like being a school administrator, she said, because it enabled her to see the big picture of what was going on at the school, and she was often asked to fill in for assistant principals in their absence.
“Ten years of school counseling is what has really benefitted me as far as being in a principal role,” Parsons said.
Her school counseling experience was indeed pivotal for her career and helped develop her interpersonal skills, Sherman said.
“As a former school counselor, Cristi understands that building relationships is the key to success. She truly cares about people first,” Sherman said. “As the adage states, ‘People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ Cristi has a knack for getting to know people and establishing a rapport and empathy with them that guides her interaction with them.”
Though Parsons enjoyed working as a school counselor, people kept commenting that she fit the role of a leader, so she went back to school to get her second master’s degree, this time in educational leadership at UT Tyler.
“I had heard exceptional things about UT Tyler and the quality of its educational program,” she said.
Parsons believes that her time at UT Tyler proved invaluable on a personal and academic level, and provided a stable foundation of theory and knowledge to put into practice.
“I love the family atmosphere of UT Tyler. I made lasting friendships there, and every professor that came in contact with me impacted my career,” she said.
Sherman, her academic advisor at UT Tyler, said the master’s degree program has the goal of helping students acquire the technical, conceptual and human relations skills necessary for success as an educational leader.
“But even more importantly, we want our graduates to become lifelong reflective practitioners committed to continuous professional development. Cristi has embraced that philosophy and has become the epitome of what an educator should be,” Sherman said.
Since earning her master’s degree from UT Tyler in 2007, Parsons has served as a school principal for six years – first at Hallsville Intermediate School for third and fourth grades, then at North Elementary School when it opened in 2011 for kindergarten through third grade. Under her leadership, both campuses received the top "Exemplary" rating from the state.
Parsons is now enrolled at UT Tyler again, this time in the university’s Superintendent Certification Program.
“Every time I turn around, I’m saying to my husband, ‘I’m going back to school,’” Parsons said. “I just love school. So that’s always just been who I am.”
Parsons’ love of learning is a distinguishing trait, Rogers said.
“The most important quality that I see in Cristi and other highly effective campus principals,” Rogers said, “is they truly know and understand that education is the key to changing lives.”
Sharing her Success
Parsons’ talent for school leadership not only won her the title of Texas Distinguished Principal of the Year, but also led to opportunities to share her educational philosophy and success with others.
This summer, another sizeable Texas school district that learned about her work asked her to provide consultation to its leadership team of top administrators and elementary school principals. Parsons has since been advising them on improving literacy and strengthening their system for intervening when students are not progressing or not being challenged enough.
“That’s where I find that school districts and campuses have a difficult time, because they don’t have a system in place for monitoring all students,” Parsons said. “You have to make sure it’s purposeful, prescriptive and timely.”
As the reigning distinguished principal, she has also been asked to speak about her campus and leadership through presentations at statewide meetings and conferences of academic leaders.
This spring she will serve on the TEPSA selection committee to find the next Texas elementary school principal of the year.
Long after she passes the crown, she plans to continue mentoring principals around the state and nation on building leadership and intervention systems on campuses.
Her goal, she said, is “to make education a priority for everyone.”
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