What learning gains can students make when their teachers and leaders are practicing a growth mindset? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher as she interviews Principal Patches Calhoun and teacher Ms. LaTonya Smith from Della Davidson Elementary in Oxford, MS. Listen now to learn what it takes to create an inspiring workplace where mindset matters and students achieve phenomenal outcomes.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • How does creating a positive workplace culture enhance teacher motivation and increase student achievement?
  • What specific actions do school leaders take to make teachers feel valued and supported?
  • What challenges do classroom teachers face, and how can leaders help alleviate these challenges?

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Episode Transcript

LaTonya Smith: I’m continually growing and learning to be the best version of me that I can be for the students that I teach.

[Intro music plays in background]


Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Wow, do we have an exciting show for you today! I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a long time.

Today we welcome Principal Patches Calhoun, and teacher Ms. LaTonya Smith from Della Davidson Elementary School in Oxford, Mississippi. Patches is the principal of Della Davidson Elementary School in Oxford. In fact, this past year Patches was the recipient of the Oxford School District’s Administrator of the Year Award.

We’ll also hear from Ms. LaTonya Smith, a second grade teacher at Della Davidson Elementary. LaTonya was recently recognized as the 2023 Della Davidson Elementary School Teacher of the Year. She’s also been invited to be part of the Oxford School District’s strategic planning process.

So let’s jump right in to hear more about Patches’ leadership journey and LaTonya’s passion for serving students and the success their team has created together.


Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Patches and LaTonya to our show today. Welcome to our show.

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: Thank you.

Patches Calhoun: We are glad to be here.

Janet Pilcher: So excited about this interview. I had an opportunity to see some of the interviews, the video interviews that you all did and just can’t wait to have the conversation on our podcast because the work that you do is meaningful and what you brought to the field is something that we all cherish. So again, thank you for being here.

So Patches, let’s start with you. You’ve been in education for about 20 years and all of them at Della Davidson Elementary School.

Patches Calhoun: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: Seventeen of those years as a classroom teacher. We were talking about that earlier. So throughout your tenure, you’ve seen many initiatives come and go, but what differentiates the continuous improvement work that you’re doing right now in, in your school?

Patches Calhoun: I think this has gotten us very focused together. So we’re a pretty big school district and so we could all easily be on different pages and things that happened before. This school might be doing this. The other school might be doing that.

This got us very focused. We all have goals that are related to the school district goals. So that’s what keeps us focused and going. We are…with this, I think that it’s being able to also hear the voices of the people, and the people being the teachers, the community, the students, and something gets done about what you say.

Before, we would do surveys, collect data, but nobody ever did anything with them. It was just kind of a checkbox type of thing. But this, we come together. We celebrate the good things that we’ve done, that parents say that we’ve done, that staff say that we’ve done. And then we look at the things that we need to improve on and discuss and come up with a plan. And so the teachers, the parents, the students, they’re all able to see that what they say matters.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: And we’ve never, I’ve never experienced anything where you take all of the voices of all the people and you use that to try to be better. Normally, you just go, you’re going through a routine every day. I know what I need to be better at, but it might not be what I really need to be better at, you know,

Janet Pilcher: [laughs] Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: Because you might not have the same, you know, perspective of yourself that others do. So I think it’s just kept us focused and goal oriented, you know?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Yeah. You know, and as you, we, I talk about it in the book and say this quite often is feedback is a gift. And it’s really looking at that feedback as a gift on ways that we can look at some of the things that we do well and recognize those, but also look at those areas where we can improve. And that’s, you know, that’s the work that you’ve done.

You know, LaTonya, just as you’re listening to Patches and she’s talking about the goals and the alignment and how that goes from the district to the school and then to the classroom, can you see that in your classroom? Can you see that alignment from where you are all the way to the school to the district?

LaTonya Smith: Yes, ma’am. Most definitely. I can see the impact that this has made on me as an educator because I can see where I have what I’m doing well, and I can see the areas of growth that I need to take my students. And I feel that this has helped me understand, “oh, my students feel this way about us as an educator or as a, as Della. So we need to do this so we can help our children feel value and so that they can grow.” “Oh, our parents feel this way about us as Della or as teachers, so we need to do this.” So it has just shifted my whole mindset to a growth mindset, a goals mindset.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And, you know, as we’re continuing to talk Patches and LaTonya, I have really, again, there’s certain things that you start saying that become really meaningful to you. And the other thing as I wrote the book, I had to really think about some of the words that I chose to write and one of them in Chapter 6 in terms of “be accountable” is our job is really to help people be deeply connected to their work.  Right?

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: Mmmhmm.

Janet Pilcher: The goals and the processes and the improvement is that at the end game, we’re just trying to help people be deeply connected to the work. So does that resonate, Patches? Does that resonate with you when I say that?

Patches Calhoun: I am a believer that relationships are key to greatness of anything, you know, honestly. And so I think by building great relationships here with the staff that it has helped them buy into things, you know, quicker or—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: —like they believe they believe in what I say because they believe in me. You know?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: And um so, yeah, I definitely feel that the teachers here at Della are very connected to the work that they do.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: They’re connected to each other.

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Patches Calhoun: They’re, I call us the Della family. I don’t call us, you know, that anytime somebody’s hired, I’m like, “welcome to the family” or “thank you for reaching out to say that you want to be part of the Della family.” And I truly believe, and Ms. Smith, you can, you know, I—

LaTonya Smith: I’ve been wanting to say something so bad because I’m like, they literally treat us as family. I feel like I am a part, this is my family. I have a work family and that I really strongly feel that they love me and they care about me and they value me. So my voice is important. I’m, I am important. Things that they celebrate are my successes. And it’s just nice as an educator when you feel valued and loved by your administrators, whatever bar they set, you work your tail off—

Janet Pilcher and Patches Calhoun: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: —so you can get to that bar. And I learned the bar keeps rising. Ms.

Patches Calhoun: I know, that’s what Ms. Smith says. Ms. Smith says, “Ms. Calhoun, you put the bar up high and I always feel like I’m going to get there.” And what do I do, Ms. Smith?

LaTonya Smith: And she let me know, she said, “Ms. Smith, the bar is not attainable.” It can’t…[laughs]… moving.

Janet Pilcher, LaTonya Smith, Patches Calhoun: [laughs]

Janet Pilcher: That’s great. That’s what you’re creating that great creative tension, Patches. Raising that bar and building that tension.

LaTonya Smith: We’re building that tension and the bar keeps rising and we keep trying to get there.

Patches Calhoun: [laughs] We want to be better. We want to be better here for our—

LaTonya Smith: Yes. Yes.

Janet Pilcher: You got it. So Patch is in a, in the Oxford Magazine, there was a quote in there by you and you said, “I’ve lived the classroom life. I know what it’s like. I know how hard it is. As a leader, I’m always going to think about what it’s like to be the person in the room that is doing the work. And my teachers know this about me. They know that I value the work that they do.”

Talk about, you know, the challenges that you see classroom teachers face and the influence that you as a leader have to help them overcome those challenges.

Patches Calhoun: I think the biggest challenge of a classroom teacher right now is just all of the things. You know, like there’s not one thing that you could say, “let me take this off your plate and everything’s going to be better for you.” It’s all of the little things, the day-to-day things, the just those tiny, small, tedious things that build up and make the teachers’ plate extremely full. And I want to serve my teachers. Like I want to be able to say, “what can I take off your plate? What can I do to prevent you from having to do?”

You know, I just, I don’t know. I just want to serve them because when I was in the classroom, I didn’t feel like people wanted to do that for me all the time. You know, I don’t, I didn’t think that anybody thought that made decisions like, “oh, this is what it’s like to be in the classroom.” So I don’t ever want to remove myself very far from that atmosphere, you know, because that they do the work, the teachers do the work. They’re the boots, you know, boots on the ground and anything that I can do to make their day-to-day better, to make them happy because we’re happy teachers, woo, you’ll have happy kids, you know.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Patches Calhoun: And so, um, yeah, just, just all of the things I don’t want to forget as an, as a, as an administrator that they have to do.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And that’s the, it’s always pushing ourselves and pulling ourselves back to that and just the value that you provide to, like we just talked about a few minutes ago. I love what you all were talking about where LaTonya, where you were talking about, “look, I’m okay to push myself, right? I’m okay. Even if the goals are higher than what I know that I can achieve at this time, just keep pushing, just keep pushing.”

I mean, that’s a phenomenal place to be. But you, I think you know, you’re going to strive for that, but you know, you’re supported, right, in that process?

LaTonya Smith: Yes.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. Good.

You know, so let’s talk a little bit about results. So we’ve created a great workplace environment. You all are highly interconnected with each other, built that family relationship. And then we, we also are looking at, well, then what impact did that have on students, right? In terms of the work that we’re doing.

So your second graders came into the year at 28% math proficiency and they, the year, this is unbelievable. They ended the year with 72% proficiency, and you had a reading, that’s unbelievable.

Patches Calhoun: It actually, actually it was 72.6.

LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

Janet Pilcher: 72.6. We could round that to 73 then.

Janet Pilcher, LaTonya Smith, Patches Calhoun: [laughs]

Patches Calhoun: That is unbelievable. It really is. I mean—

Janet Pilcher: It is.

Patches Calhoun: They have put in some hard work this year.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so talk about that. I mean, that’s such a push. You got reading proficiency scores up too, but your math, you know, was just an unbelievable push up. So as you’re, you challenged your students to achieve beyond probably what you thought were even possible. So, you know, talk about like, what did you do? What, how do you credit that success?

Patches Calhoun: So second grade has only been at Della for two years. This past year was their second year to be, to be with me. And so before that, they didn’t do a whole lot of looking at data. They didn’t have testing in their school. So it just wasn’t something that they practiced.

And so at Della, we spend a lot of time looking at data. So, but first and foremost, that was the first thing they had to see, “what am I doing that’s working and what am I doing that’s not working?” so that we can get on the road, you know, we needed a roadmap. And I think they were just kind of going down the road.

LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

Patches Calhoun: Right, Ms. Smith? We started looking at data and then we got PD this year on tier one instruction. Uh, we did like a week, I called it math camp where they went and they were like students for the day from eight in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. And at the university, the teachers were teaching them like they were students. So they got to see what a math block of time should look like, you know.

The teachers have worked together during their PLCs to make sure that everybody on the team knows where they’re going throughout the unit. Every day, they have set target goals for that day of what they want their students to learn and created a just a progression that they feel like would work well for that unit. Ms. Smith?

LaTonya Smith: Yes, I would also like to say this. We also took time to look at our standards and to break the standards down so we could better understand our standards. We brought our academic vocabulary that we wanted the students to know and to understand. So our time during our PLCs were not wasted time, but it was very intentional. That’s Ms. Calhoun’s favorite word. We have to be intentional.

Patches Calhoun: Yes. [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: Very intentional about understanding what our students need to know. How does that look in the classroom? What is the goal, and how are we going to meet our target? So we were very intentional this year about how we use our PLC time and our planning time.

Patches Calhoun: Those target goals, I feel like were very important because I wanted them to be able to end that day, like when you go into your classroom that day, what do you want the student to be able to do at the end of that day? And that’s what you have to, need to accomplish.

Janet Pilcher: Love it. Yeah, it sounds so simple, but it’s so, I mean, it’s so significant. Something we don’t always, haven’t always done—

LaTonya Smith: Yeah.

Janet Pilcher: —but so significant. And the kids know what they’re trying to accomplish and the goal that they’re trying to reach. You know, LaTonya, as you were implementing this process as a teacher, a little bit of a change, right, in terms of where you’ve been.

LaTonya Smith: Yeah.

Janet Pilcher: I mean, how did it, how did it feel for you to do this?

LaTonya Smith: It was a big change because before, as a second grade teacher, I just wanted to make sure my students successfully passed second grade. But now my mindset is I know where my students are, and I have a goal of where they need to be. And I have targets to help me get them to the goal that they need to get at. So this whole process has just looking at data. I was like, “OK, what is the big deal about this?” But now I know what the big deal is. [laughs]

Patches Calhoun: I was going to say, Ms. Smith, the feeling I feel like you had was scared.

Janet Pilcher and Patches Calhoun: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: Yes. Thank you. Scared is an understatement.

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: Yeah, I was mortified. I was like, “what does this mean? How does this look?” But I am so thankful now because I know this is what my children need. They need, the data shows me where they are. It shows me where we need to go. And our planning has morphed into “what do we need to do as a team in order to get our students where our goal is?” And we always want to meet our goal. We have become very competitive. [laughs]

Patches Calhoun: In a good way!

LaTonya Smith: In a good way, in a very good way, because we want to meet those goals that we set as a PLC team. And in order to do that, we have to plan together. We have to work together. We have to be like of a growth mindset. So now we reflect on our teaching practices as educators. When before we, we just assumed we knew our standards, we knew what to do. When the rubber met the road, we did not know our standards as well as we thought we did.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

LaTonya Smith: And so this has just shifted our whole mindset to deeply dive into those standards. What does that look like? What does that mean? And talk about what our students need to know in order to grow and thoroughly know and understand the information that we’re trying to teach them.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s a good. And now it’s just a habit of practice. It’s just what you do. It’s how you show up every day. You know, and so let’s talk a little bit more about your accomplishments, um LaTonya and, you know, Patches, you talked about teachers have a lot on their plates, right? And so we know that they do. And so when we ask teachers to do more than what they do every day in the classroom, we question that a little bit because we don’t want to burden teachers.

But you were asked, LaTonya, to be on the strategic planning committee and kind of managing that as one more thing on your plate. But something shifted once you began that work. Can you tell us more about when you were part of the district piece of the thinking, you know, what shifted for you?

LaTonya Smith: So I took this as one more, like you said, one more thing on my plate. My plate is about to break now.

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: But being a part of this, it didn’t break my plate. Thank goodness. But it created a whole different mindset. So now I have a different mindset when it comes to data. I have a growth mindset. I’m continually growing and learning to be the best version of me that I can be for the students that I teach. So this whole process has helped me morph into a growth mindset mentality to where it’s not about me, but it’s about me becoming a better version of me so that I can work and improve as an educator to help the babies that have been entrusted to me to grow.

Patches Calhoun: And let me say this, Ms. Smith, you being on the strategic planning committee, too, you know, I’ve been able to experience that with you. And I have seen just like in our last meeting, Ms. Smith has realized the importance that she plays in the planning.

LaTonya Smith: I know, I have a voice.

Patches Calhoun: Yes. Because who do you represent?

LaTonya Smith: Yes, I represent. I represent number one, I represent educators—

Patches Calhoun: Right.

LaTonya Smith: —who are in the trenches. And so I represent those educators and being on this team lets me know that our voices are heard as educators.

Number two, I represent women as well. So I have [laughs] I have the voices of women. I have the voices of the educators of the Oxford School District. So it helps me feel valued as an educator that they want to hear my voice. They want to know what we as educators feel, what we think.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

LaTonya Smith: And that makes a big difference, a big impact.

Patches Calhoun: Yeah, because when we get into those hard conversations, I mean, the room will pause and say, “hey, Ms. Smith, what do you think, you know, from a from a teacher perspective?”

LaTonya Smith: From a teacher’s perspective, yes. Yes.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, you know, and so good because what I, I love what you’re saying in this way. You’re not just representing you. You’re representing the voice of teachers, right?

LaTonya Smith: Teachers.

Janet Pilcher: And you’re really thinking deeply about “how do I represent that?”

LaTonya Smith: Yes.

Janet Pilcher: So good. So, you know, Patches, Ms. Smith was voted as your school’s teacher of the year.

Patches Calhoun: Woohoo!

Janet Pilcher: So can you share a memorable moment of that achievement or a little bit of highlights about that time of recognition?

Patches Calhoun: You know, I don’t think there can be just one memorable moment for Ms. Smith. [laughs] There’s there’s a million memorable moments. Ms. Smith lights up a room when she, she comes, and don’t listen, Ms. Smith because I don’t want your head to get big.

LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

Patches Calhoun: But but truly, she changes the energy of a room when she enters it. Um, she’s so very positive. And I think that that she plays a very important role on her team by doing that. Like she doesn’t let things get to the negative. And she’s always about, like she said, a growth mindset. She’s like, “no, we’re going to do this. Everybody get in here. We’re going to do this.” She— “we’re going to do it. We’re going to do it with a good attitude.” And so I don’t know, Ms. Smith, she’s everybody’s cheerleader. She is, Ms. Smith.

Janet Pilcher: Your energy is contagious. Really, it really is.

LaTonya Smith: Thank you.

Patches Calhoun: And she pushes herself like she said before.

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Patches Calhoun: She’s like, “Uh-uh. I’m coming. You if you say I must—she already told me a minute ago. She said, “my goal.” What’s your goal next year, Ms. Smith?

LaTonya Smith: I have a goal of 80% for next year. I already have my goal. I do not know who my students are.

Patches Calhoun: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: I know what our goal is for next year.

Janet Pilcher: They better watch out. Because they better. [laughs] Better watch out. You know, so Ms. Smith, you know, as you’re as you’re thinking about leaders, you know, when you think about, because really what we talk about in the work that we that we do and the conversation today, it’s about good leadership. You have to have good leadership at the forefront in order to make any of the things happen that are occurring today. And teachers are leaders of their classrooms as well, of their students.

But when you think about, you know, leaders and the connection that you have at your school and district. How does that make you feel valued? What is the, what are the things that occur that make you feel like you’re valued?

LaTonya Smith: We have meetings. We have rounding meetings and during our meetings with our administrators, they ask us “how is life? How is life treating you? What’s something, tell me something good. Tell me something that you wish you could change.” So that lets me know that my voice is valuable to my admin as well.

When we came to Della two years ago, we were scared. We were going to be the new kids on the block. We didn’t want to come because we were scared.

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: We were scared. We didn’t know what that looked like. But Ms. Calhoun and Ms. Crowe, they went above and beyond to make sure that we were welcomed here, to make sure that we will feel like this is our home at Della. They sent videos with them singing and dancing. They, a lot of videos with them singing and dancing. They walk down the hall. They greet us. They come see how we’re doing in the morning.

They just make us feel like they really care about us. And when someone, when you feel loved and supported by your administrators, you just want to do everything you can to work harder and harder. That’s what, we work hard so we can work [laughs] harder at Della.

We continue, we play a little bit, but we work really hard so we can play a little bit. So we have fun and I am so thankful. I always tell Ms. Crowe and Ms. Calhoun that they are our eagles. And so when we came, they made sure Della would be our eagle nest to where it will be our home. So our first year, they, they treated us with love. They cared for us like they were our mama eagles. We were in our little eagle nest, and the second year at Della, guess what happened? They kicked us out of the nest!

Janet Pilcher, Patches Calhoun, LaTonya Smith: [laughs]

LaTonya Smith: Janet, Dr. Janet, they kicked us out of the nest. We were trying to go back in the nest, but they were like, “no, you can fly. We have prepared you. You’re ready. You can go.”

Patches Calhoun: You’re ready!

LaTonya Smith: And as a result of them kicking us out of the nest, we flew as the math team and the reading team as well. Second grade showed a lot of growth because we, they gave us, they set high expectations and they supported us and made us feel valued and loved so we could rise up, so we could try to meet those expectations. Even though the expectations keep rising and rising, but we keep rising because at Della, we make impossible things possible.

Patches Calhoun: We do.

LaTonya Smith: That’s what we do. We make impossible things possible.

Janet Pilcher: So good. So good. And so as we close today, Patches, I’m going to, I’m going to let you close us out because you as a leader, you can choose to do the things that you have chosen to do to build the environment and not only just to build an environment because it’s to build a great workplace environment, but to push people beyond what they think is possible and to help our students achieve goals that are beyond expectation. I mean, that’s what you’ve done as a leader.

You know, so just as you close this out today, how have you changed as a leader? How have you grown as a leader that’s really provided value to not only you, but to the school that you lead into the district?

Patches Calhoun: I would say just making it about the people here. You know, I say the great thing about Della is the people. It’s the people that are in the building, the people that care about each other that would do anything for anybody else.

I am very passionate about education and very passionate about making sure that all kids receive the best possible education, you know, like no matter what room they’re in, I don’t care if you’re in room 141 or you’re in room 168. I want every child to receive the best, so I think that our teachers do a great job of doing that because they also care passionately about kids. And I just feel like my energy from that, it carries over into them.

Janet Pilcher: And, you know, I’ve always found that almost all teachers go in to this profession because they are so called to it.

Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith: Mmmhmm.

Patches Calhoun: I truly believe that.

Janet Pilcher: I do. I really do. And, you know, as leaders, we could really kill that passion if we’re not cautious. Right, Patches? I mean—

Patches Calhoun: Right.

Janet Pilcher: And so, you know, our main job is to fuel that passion—

Patches Calhoun: Mmmhmm.

Janet Pilcher: —and to keep that fire lit and burning as bright as we can. And you do that so well.

Patches Calhoun: Oh, thank you so much. I get to do this every day and get paid for it. You know, I, it’s that, I think it’s crazy sometimes because I’m like, this is what I want to do. If you love what you do and you’re passionate about what you do and get paid for it, wow.

LaTonya Smith and Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it’s a bonus, isn’t it?

Patches Calhoun: It is! And it is like, I get to do this with these people every day for these kids.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And LaTonya, I’m sure you feel the same way. You show up every day with that, you know, the great passion to do what you do for your kids. So appreciate you so much.

LaTonya Smith: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Our motto here at Della is “we rise by lifting others,” and we truly, truly, try to live up to that motto. We rise by lifting others.

Janet Pilcher: Great way to close. Thank you all very much.

Patches Calhoun: Thank you for having us.

LaTonya Smith: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Thank you for listening today. As we heard from our partners in Oxford, wow, what a show today. You can hear that Patches and LaTonya are both dedicated to what they do and have a firm commitment to helping their teachers and students be successful.

Their enthusiasm really is contagious. If you got as much out of this episode as I did, please share it with a friend. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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