By Steven Law
Special to the Chronicle
PAGE – It was a busy and productive day for Shannon Garrison, Page Unified School District’s new director of curriculum and instruction. It began with a meeting with Superintendent Rob Varner, followed by a trip to Lakeview Elementary School where she and Principal Cathy Erickson went over items for the district’s Early Literacy and Language program. After her meeting with Erickson, Garrison walked through the school and stepped into a few classrooms.
“It’s the best way to assess a teacher’s ability, teaching style and methods and to see their classroom environment firsthand,” she said.
Garrison began her tenure as the director of curriculum and instruction on July 1. She’s coming to us from Sweetwater County School District No. 1, which is in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Garrison spent her first three years in Rock Springs as principal of Pilot Butte Elementary School, after which she became the district’s director of grants and programs, something she did for another three years in Rock Springs.
But Garrison began her teaching career right here in Page, teaching second grade at Desert View Elementary School. She began her teaching career in the 2005-06 school year. At the time, Desert View was an elementary school.
Garrison knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I had some really awesome teachers and coaches who had a big impact on me,” she said. “I love teaching. Even during my time as a principal, and now as the director of curriculum and instruction, I enjoy the times when I get to teach.”
Garrison was born in Nebraska and got her teaching degree from Doane University in Crete, Nebraska. She heard good things about Page and PUSD from Matt Dominy, a Doane alumnus who, at the time, was the principal at Desert View.
Before leaving PUSD at the end of the 2012-13 school year to become the principal at Pilot Butte Elementary, Garrison had built a very strong resume during her eight years teaching at PUSD.
In addition to teaching second grade, Garrison also coached freshman softball and volleyball, and seventh-grade boys’ basketball and eighth-grade girls’ basketball. In 2009, she taught sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade physical education, something she continued for the next two years.
She then taught art for two years at Page Middle School, and also became the elective department head.
During that same period, Garrison completed a master’s degree in education leadership and administration.
“After that I was ready to be a principal, or vice principal,” she said.
She looked for such a position inside PUSD, but none were open at the time.
Looking back, Garrison said she is happy she took the job in Wyoming because it let her see how other school districts met their challenges.
“During my time as principal at Pilot Butte Elementary, we took it from a `not-meeting-expectations school’ to a `meeting-expectations-school,’ and I got to see firsthand the steps we had to take and the methods we had to employ to make that happen,” she said.
“I loved my time and cherish what I learned during my time in Pilot Butte, but I always wanted to move back to Page,” she said.
“I love everything about the Page area. I love the lake, the river, and winter hiking in Page is the best, but I came back to Page because this is where I started my career, and this is where I want to make a difference.”
Garrison continued, “From the moment I moved to Page in 2005, it felt like home to me. I’ve always wanted to give back and make a difference to Page, to Page schools, (to) Page students and the community. A big reason I wanted to come back to Page is because I knew we had the right people to move this district where it needs to be. I’m excited to be back, making that happen.”
But Garrison doesn’t come into the job wearing rose-colored glasses.
“We have pockets of excellence, and I want to expand on those,” she said. “But in some areas, we still have an attitude of doing some things a certain way just because we’ve always done it that way. Some of those old ways aren’t working anymore, and we need to identify them and move beyond them.”
Garrison is the first to emphasize that she sees herself, and her role in the district, as just one pole in the tent.
Part of what she wants to continue at PUSD, and throughout the Page school system, is its great tradition of collaboration between departments, teachers, and schools.
“We have such a deep wealth of knowledge throughout the district,” she said. “I think one of the best things we can do is to tap into it. We have teachers with decades of experience––lets draw from that experience. We have teachers fresh out of college who know the most recent research, best practices and methods. Let’s use that. It’s going to take everyone working together to make that happen.”
One of Garrison’s key focuses will be further encouraging and implementing a professional learning community throughout the school district. Garrison regularly meets with the school principals and together they learn about methods to develop and utilize a professional learning community.
Garrison and the principals are using a textbook for teaching professionals called, “Learning by Doing.”
“The principals then return to their schools and pass that information on to their teachers,” Garrison said.
Perhaps the most crucial component of developing successful students, classrooms and schools is building strong relationships between the district and the community, between the teacher and their students, and between the teacher and her students’ families. This is something Page schools have been implementing for years, and Garrison wants to keep it going.
“To build those relationship you have to get to know the families of our students as intimately as possible,” Garrison said. “We want to earn their trust. We’ve learned that one of the best ways to a student’s mind is through their heart. With strong relationships there’s not anything we can’t solve.”
Through all these efforts, Garrison is striving to create a feedback loop of success where kids love learning and perform well in class and on tests. This, at least in theory, will help attract the best teachers to the district who are passionate, who are great at what they do, who will then go on to teach and inspire the next generation of Page students who will go on to become lifelong learners and engaged, community-minded citizens.
“It’s an ongoing and continuous process and a lot of hard work,” Garrison said. “If you’re looking for a finish line with professional learning communities, don’t look. There is no finish line. Of course, the ultimate goal for doing all of this is to build successful students, but it’s going to take everyone working together to make it happen.”