As a parent of a Helen Keller Middle School (HKMS) student I had been curious about the new principal, Dr. Steven Clapp. I have been a technologist and strategist for Fortune 500 companies for over 25 years and am not that familiar with the academic world. I do know that the principal is critical for setting the vision for the school and implementing Board of Education directives.

When I walked into Dr. Clapp’s office, I was curious about what values he brought to our middle school students’ lives. It was an exercise to discover if he had what it takes to lead this challenging age group of students as they transition into high school.

What I came away with was that not only is Dr. Clapp a visionary principal but he is also prepared with an action plan for enabling future leaders.  Like other parents, I have high expectations and was looking for evidence that Dr. Clapp’s leadership and vision was based on best practices and actionable goals. I found that is to be true and more, and It is an honor to share my in-depth interview with Dr. Clapp.

Dr. Clapp earned a bachelor of arts degree from Moravian College, a master of science degree in middle school education from the University of New Haven, and a doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy studies from Southern Connecticut State University.

He has been a middle school educator throughout his career. He was a teacher at John Read Middle School in Redding from 2001 to 2013 and went on to become assistant principal at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan from 2013 to 2021. He has returned to the Easton, Redding and Region 9 School District after working in New Canaan for some time.

What prompted your decision to come to HKMS?

“It is a dream to come to HKMS as the principal,” Dr. Clapp said. “I am familiar with the community and love the idea of working in a hard-working community with parents who are deeply involved in their kids’ education.”

Is there a reason for your choosing to work with middle school students? Adolescence is a time of change and defiance.

He agreed middle school is a transitional age, and it can be challenging. But there is also the potential to make a positive impact on students this age. When he taught at John Read Middle School, other teachers often sought his advice about dealing with difficult issues, he said. 

“If you think of K-12 education like a doorway, the elementary school is the door frame, the high school is the door itself, and the middle school is the hinge,” he said.

Elementary school creates the structure and foundation for learning, and high school creates the finished product — the life-long learner ready for college or career — while the middle school connects the two and adds flexibility as students move through their education, he said.

Are good work ethics something that can be taught? What are the ways educators can achieve that?

Yes, it is teachable. First and foremost, teachers and administrators have the opportunity to model the behavior. Well-designed lesson plans that are comprehensive demonstrate to students the amount of effort teachers’ put in on a daily basis.

Are there ways to measure work ethics?

At this point Dr Clapp walked over to his work desk and came back with a rubric for habits of success. The Success Scale is geared toward measuring levels of learning as exhibited by students and observed for content being taught. He noted some of ways they look to determine these in the classroom and assignments are: 

Mindset: Are they actively learning and showing engagement? At what level? By taking notes, asking questions, collaborating? He illustrated the connection of grades to skills, and work ethics and success to learning.

Dr. Steve Clapp brings experience gained through years of educating middle school students to his new position as Helen Keller Middle School principal. — Rick Falco Photo

What is an example of active learning?

He defined the role of a teacher in making the students think, posing questions and encouraging trying out concepts. For example, how far can they make a paper airplane fly or hover by different processes and methodologies or even coming up with new ideas of their own. Or Joey asked a question that demonstrates he understands the concept and this prompts others to ask questions, thereby raising the awareness for the entire class.

This was truly amazing, and I told him I just love this; it goes beyond subjective thinking and takes individualized learning to the next level. I asked him if there was a term for this type of learning, in other words, is it a method within the curriculum that teachers or students use in the classroom.

Dr. Clapp said it was an approach called constructivism for teachers to use. He worked with it before and brings his expertise to Easton. He explained that this form of teaching achieves a dynamic environment of learning and teaching. This makes it interesting for teachers to teach and students to learn. 

“Highly engaged teachers are happier and have more energy, which engages kids at higher levels and increases their curiosity,” he said.

There are behavioristic, cognitive and constructivist theories of teaching, I found out, and constructivist is more focused on individualized teaching and “personalized learning.” Thinking through on what I learned it makes sense to encourage this approach, especially for the middle schools in today’s context of immense online influence.

We talked about the changes in the educational environment and the influence of social media on emotions, diversity and a myriad of sensitive areas for the students. It was reassuring to hear Dr. Clapp’s response and preparedness.

He talked about creating methods to engage parents and invite them to share their expertise via KED Talks (Keller Ted Talks) and encouraging parents to share their insights on solutions. He also showed me a book he was planning to read: “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”  by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Dr Clapp said he believes in being stronger as a leader by challenging assumptions and countering or highlighting thoughts. To sum up some of the points from the interview: 

How parents can we help

  1. Stay engaged and provide insight on what’s going right. Nothing is more important than parental engagement.
  2. KED Talks — Enrich the students with parental expertise and passion in areas if expertise.

He is cautious about making unnecessary changes as a new leader. “I learned not to tear down any fences till I know why they were put up,” he said..

I believe a principal is a CEO-equivalent in a company and sets the tone, culture and defines the vision for the organization. And they look at how to keep the staff motivated and provide exceptional service. I am impressed by Dr. Clapp’s vision for HKMS and his intention to create an enjoyable environment to teach and learn and be open to parents’ ideas. Easton is lucky to have Dr. Clapp as a leader for the middle school students.

Thank You Nancy Doniger and the Easton Courier for giving me the opportunity to spend time getting to know  Dr. Clapp. 

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