Interview with Betsy Balmat.
The new Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction is no stranger to Lafayette Schools. Betsy Balmat, former Principal of Stanley Middle School, has taken on this critical role. And she’s diving right in. The morning we meet, she eagerly greets me, ready to talk; but she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Asked, “What excites you about this role?” and she quickly tells me, “Everything about my new position!” There are so many aspects of it that she loves, it’s hard for her to pick just one thing. So we ease into a conversation and start with the basics: her background.
Betsy has been in the area for a long time, but she’s originally from Connecticut. In her young and adventurous twenties, she moved to the West Coast where she got her start teaching in San Francisco. Mutual friends drew her to Lafayette. (Ask her the story sometime. It is one of pure serendipity, and it will make you thrill at the idea that you need never lose your kids’ favorite babysitter.) What kept her here? “Stanley and this community,” she says. Together they became her home away from home. “This is the kind of community where you end up staying. Everyone is here for the right reasons, working collaboratively towards common goals.” Happy to be here, she settled into teaching 6th grade core before stepping out of the classroom to become a teacher coach. She moved back to the east coast for a few years where she continued her educational reform work for the Boston Public School District. Upon returning to the Bay Area, she took a break when her children were young. Becoming a parent made her see her work as an educator differently. “When I stepped out, I learned a lot about the schools from being a room parent.” She came back with a fresh set of eyes when her youngest was in Kindergarten. She returned to teaching 7th grade core before moving on to become Assistant Principal and Principal of Stanley. .
During that time, the seeds were planted for her current role. Always interested in change and reform as well as implementing new curriculum and standards, she started asking questions like, “What are best practices? What does the student work reveal? What is the data? Let’s look at it!” While there were many aspects that she loved about being an administrator, she admits a piece of her was always in love with curriculum. Over the years, there have been many significant shifts. “I’ve seen a lot,” she says. Right now, the biggest question is “How are we approaching new research and new developments to maintain excellence in this district?”
Some of the answers to that question are grounded in solid data and research as well as student perspectives. Always at the forefront of her mind is “recognizing what our children are telling us they need in more meaningful ways and asking what our students need in order to learn.” Is there a particular academic goal? Are students seeking differentiated experiences? Is Social-Emotional Learning what they need? There are many ways to answer those questions. Looking at what our children already know how to do is a great place to start by asking, “Where are they strong and what do they need to do differently?” One way to find out might include giving a pre-test given at the beginning of a writing unit before deciding what students need to learn next.
Another way to gather information is to consider essential standards and grading practices by asking “What do we want our students to be able to do and how have they gotten it?” More can be asked in Professional Learning Communities, which are guided by four critical questions:
What do we want all students to know and be able to do? How will we know if they learn it? How will we respond when some students do not learn? How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?
Balmat knows that this is the most important work that educators do, so one of her major goals this year is “supporting the needs of teachers as they support the needs of their students. I want to make sure that everyone feels supported as they continue the amazing work they do.”
Other answers to that question of how to maintain excellence are less tangible. It can be easy to get lost in the many ideas swirling around about education, but one thing keeps her grounded—remembering that teaching is all about “turning on the light. Helping to flip the switch with students, teachers, and staff to help them find what excites them. With students, how can we help them be the best learner?” Data can lead the way to that answer; but sometimes the way forward is a bit more abstract. Balmat always comes back to a particular quote attributed to William Butler Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." That’s not always easy to measure. One thing she does know is “when you see magic in front of you, you don’t want to close the door.”
Balmat is interested not just in where students are going, but how to inspire them along the way. “I love thinking about that when talking about curricular shifts and data.” It helps to guide her when she asks, “what else do we need to do?”
In her role, Balmat is tasked with overseeing curriculum and instruction for the district, engaging in data-driven decision-making, and ensuring the academic success of our students. She knows, though, that the real magic is always happening in the classroom where students are engaging deeply and meaningfully with subjects they love. That’s what the best teaching moments are all about. Balmat has witnessed it happen time and again, as a teacher and a parent.
“Seeing my own son in jazz class at Stanley working one-on-one with skilled and dedicated LPIE music instructors was amazing.” That’s another feeling that’s hard to measure. Being an administrator, she wants to make sure those moments are happening, and she wants to help put the ideas that support them into action. “One teacher was so passionate about providing robotics and engineering, but we didn’t know if it was possible. LPIE asked, ‘What do you need?’” Stanley now boasts a thriving robotics program. She is grateful that LPIE is her partner in making that kind of magic happen.
The business of lighting fires in hearts and minds is fulfilling but tiring work. When Balmat unwinds, she likes to curl up with a good book or go for a hike. She’s a runner, too, participating annually in the Lafayette Reservoir Run and competing in the New York Marathon. “I also make the best popcorn,” she says. (The secret is brown butter, no oil.) But she comes from a long line of teachers—her mother and her grandmother were teachers before her. Teaching is her calling. She found her light years ago, and it is her greatest joy to share it with others. In her many years as an educator, though, she has learned that different things inspire us all. “Everyone is on their own journey.” She looks forward to lighting the way for students on theirs.
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Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement by Rich Karlgaard