Spotlight: Wendy Shirey (NV '18)February 12, 2019
Wendy Shirey (NV '18) spent her first year in the classroom at a school with high poverty and high transiency—but “that little school in a tough neighborhood in Las Vegas became the place I learned to love teaching.” Now the principal of Pinecrest Academy Horizon, Wendy won Nevada’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award on December 19, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: You’re known as a data-driven leader. How do you help your teachers incorporate data into their daily and weekly routines?
Wendy Shirey: Our teachers and administrators are equally compelled by the data. Students are also very aware of their own data. It is the culture of our school that we watch it, use it, and celebrate it. We give weekly awards to celebrate students who have met their goals. Teachers update students and their parents weekly on student data, and any student on campus can tell you his or her percent of progress on the programs if you ask.
We have school-wide goals to reach, and the teachers are always watching to see how close they are to reaching the goals. There is some friendly competition but the teachers know that goals met increase student results for the whole school. Teachers use the data as feedback on their instruction and use the data to make corrections to their own instruction.
By celebrating success and being transparent about the data, we have created a culture of data-driven instruction. Teachers collaborate on lesson planning, so each teacher across a grade level has taught the same lesson. When results come in at different levels, teachers reflect on their instruction and ask for suggestions. Barriers are removed because, at the end of the day, everyone wants the students to succeed. If teacher A and teacher B used the same lessons to teach the content but received very different results, they can observe each other and glean best practices from each other. They ask questions and share ideas with each other.
There is an overarching desire to ensure every child has the best education every day, and this attitude among the teachers propels them to be open to each other for help, guidance and support. All of this is possible because the teachers remain positive and truly believe they and their students can do it. There are no excuses. There is only, “How can we be better?” It is incredible to be a part of such a group of educators.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Wendy: As a kid, I always loved school, and I had a fantastic education. I often pretended I was a teacher when I was young. One of my favorite times of year was the end of summer in the weeks before the school year started. I would get all my school supplies ready, pack and unpack my book bag, and pick out my new lunch box. It was such an exciting time of year.
I was always naturally good at working with children and teaching them. I had a lot of patience, and I think I always knew I would be a teacher. I loved math and actually considered accounting for a few weeks during my freshman year in college. My dad and brother both worked in the financial sector and I thought I should do what they did, but I quickly declared my major as elementary education. It was an easy decision and as soon as I made it official, I knew I was going to finish my degree, move to Las Vegas, and teach elementary school. I think teaching was a part of my identity and it was the career that made the most sense based on who I was as a person.
MFF: You’ve written grants that have brought millions to Pinecrest Horizon to fund technology programs. Why is technology so important for the early years?
Wendy: This generation of children has been born with technology at their fingertips, but they need to learn to use technology for more than social media and games. Nothing can replace face-to-face instruction with a teacher, but we can enhance it with technology.
Our children come to us at so many different levels, and we need the technology to push all the students to higher levels. We use it for individualizing instruction, researching, writing, creating presentations, and collaborating with peers. Using technology daily for these purposes will prepare them for the careers they will someday have.
Teachers can only work with so many children at a time, and technology is a way for the children to reinforce skills and content when they are not sitting with the teacher. They can keep learning when the teacher is working with other children.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Wendy: My favorite teacher was Bernadette Lewis in Yakima, Washington. She taught my kindergarten and first grade class, and she was just so kind. I think she made all of us feel like the most important people in the world. We all probably thought we were her favorite students—she was one of those special teachers who could make kids feel like that. To have my first two years of school taught by someone with those qualities was the best thing that could have happened for me in my education.
My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Murphy, was also wonderful and made learning very fun for us. Mr. Morgan and Mr. Martin, my sixth grade teachers, were terrific. Every teacher I had in high school was incredible. My hometown high school of Sheridan High School in Wyoming was filled with fantastic teachers. I learned so much from them and am so thankful I had a great education to prepare me for college and beyond.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Wendy: I love the joy and wonder that the elementary kids bring to school each day. They still love school, they love to learn, and they get excited when they learn something new. They love to share ideas and they love to laugh and have fun. It is the most rewarding work and the most important work, and it never feels like work to me. It just feels like I am going to the school and helping children build bright futures.
MFF: What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Wendy: When I interviewed for my first teaching position, the principal said, “We are an at-risk school. Are you okay with that?” Aside from a textbook definition, I had no idea what she meant by “at-risk.” I quickly learned what she meant—and learned to sink or swim.
I taught fifth grade at a school with high poverty and high transiency. Many of the children did not speak English as their first language. Some of the students lived in a hotel across the street. It was unlike anything I knew from my childhood.
From that group of kids, I learned to create a structured environment that would be a constant for them. They knew what to expect each day and they knew it would be a happy, warm place.
The weird thing is, I didn't really think about it until after I left, but that little school in a tough neighborhood in Las Vegas became the place I learned to love teaching. I had a couple of mentors at the school, and they gave me a lot of good ideas. My administration was also supportive. Nothing can replace your first year of teaching, and I would not have traded my first year for anything. I learned many important lessons about life and teaching that first year.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Wendy: I was absolutely shocked. I had spent a decent amount of time organizing details for the assembly that I thought was to celebrate Pinecrest’s 5-star achievement. I remember introducing and welcoming everyone, and trying to return to my seat. When I turned around to take what I had planned to be my seat on the end of the row, it was filled. The only open seat was in the center of the row, so I took it.
I had heard of the Milken Award, but I did not know I was sitting next to Mr. Milken until he went up to speak. As his speech went on, I was watching the fun the students were having interacting with him and just enjoying the moment. I did begin to wonder why he was really there when he started talking about $25,000, but in a room full of educators and other leaders and principals, I didn't think he was talking about me.
When Mr. Milken said the Milken Award recipient was “your own principal, Wendy Shirey!” I was in absolute shock and didn’t know what to do. It felt like a long time before my body could actually stand up after hearing those words.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Wendy: My students have been very sweet and genuinely happy for me. Many of them are still congratulating me, asking me what I am going to do with the money, and saying, “I saw you on TV.”
I think the Award will have a lasting impact on them, because that is a huge event to witness. They will attend a school with a leader who is always dreaming and reaching for new opportunities for them. The students will learn that they can dream big and good things can happen in their lives too.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Wendy: The rational part of me thinks I might use it to pay for the student loan on my administration degree. The fun part of me thinks that I might set up a travel fund to visit many places I never thought I could, like Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, France and England. Another part of me thinks I may give some of it to help others less fortunate in life. At this point, I still don't know.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Wendy: For my students, I look at academic success as improving at least one full year (hopefully more) beyond where they were when they started every year. I also look at academic success individually as meeting goals they have set and being better than even they thought they could be.
I look at student success through a social and emotional lens as well. Our students are successful each day when they are kind to one another and help each other. It makes me so happy when I see students helping each other around school, and I consider this a success for humanity.
I define success for myself on a daily basis as being a better person than I was the day before. I write in a journal and reflect on what went well and what I could improve each day. I try to approach each day as a new opportunity to help people—to make teachers’ and students’ days better. I also write what I am thankful for each day, so I never forget how blessed I am. I start every day with this activity and try to set myself up for success from the beginning of every day. I must admit, some days are more successful than others! I also consider success on a different scale when we have waiting lists in all the grade levels at school and when our student achievement reaches the goals we set each year.
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