Co-Principal Monje: Thriving on hard work and challenge
For Kristine Monje, who this year took up the post of co-principal at the Block Island School (BIS), the move highlighted yet one more in a series of choices that have marked much of her professional life. After teaching fourth grade at the island school for 22 years, Monje stepped into an administrative role in order, she says, to assist staff in aligning curricula to Common Core standards and to help the school navigate what she believes will be years of significant change ahead.
Unreservedly enthusiastic about her years of teaching, she says, “I love the classroom and will miss it.” She never tired of it, she points out, “because each year I found myself facing new opportunities and new students. Every fourth grade class required a different set of skills I had to call upon.”
As many others have, Monje began coming to the island for summer work between college semesters. She was studying at the University of Rhode Island (URI) pursuing a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and communicative disorders, which was to have been the first step toward becoming a speech pathologist, Monje says.
It was during those years at URI that Monje also met her future husband, Peter Monje, and the couple worked seasonally for the Block Island Grocery, joining their growing relationship to their growing love of the island. After graduation in June of 1988, Monje says she decided to remain on island only until she was to enter a master’s program in speech pathology in December of that year.
Choices: teaching and life on the island
However, fate intervened when Barby Michel (second grade teacher at the time) asked her if she’d like to work at the local school as a resource aide assigned to helping high school students prepare for graduation. Applying, Monje turned away from speech pathology toward education, the field to which she has devoted herself for nearly 25 years.
In 1990, Monje became a full-time fourth grade teacher, a position she’s held until this most recent career change. That same year, she and Peter married and settled down to the rhythms of life on the island — working and raising a family: a daughter Thea, now 16, and a son Silas, 14, both students at the island school.
While she taught, Monje says, “Peter held many positions on the island.” In 1996, she notes, “We were lucky enough to get the last affordable piece of land on which to build a home.”
During those years, Monje says she was also a testing coordinator, a teacher-certification trainer, a part of school improvement teams under the period of the school’s site-based management, vice-president of the Block Island School Friends, and president for many years of the New Shoreham Teacher’s Association.
Learning what to do and not to do
She was also involved in the accreditation process with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which sets standards for all levels of education: kindergarten through doctoral studies. Monje adds, “And I was here while the school ran a whole gamut of school administrators, which was a real learning process for me. I learned what to do and what not to do.”
Referring appreciatively to her friends and colleagues at the island school, Monje says, “While learning to be a teacher, I stayed here [at the BIS] because I had really wonderful mentors.”
Smiling broadly, she adds, “You would think I knew everything, but I don’t. I’m still learning — about the physical plant, the budget process and the new regulations for college preparation.”
With hard work apparently never daunting Monje, she began to follow procedures for principal certification. She studied for and earned a master’s in educational leadership at the University of New England through a two-year on-line program, which she worked at while maintaining her full-time teaching position.
However, the process was to take three years; to earn principal certification, Monje needed to complete an internship, for which she took a year-long sabbatical — while continuing curriculum development part-time at the island school. She is grateful to the district for supporting her through the sabbatical year, she says.
To fulfill the internship, she entered a one-year Principal Residency Network (PRN) program administered through Johnson and Wales University. She credits the efforts of Block Island School Superintendent Robert Hicks for placing her at the Matunuck Elementary School in Narragansett where she served her practicum under the leadership of Debra Zepp, herself selected as Rhode Island Elementary Principal-of-the-Year in 2011. Monje says, “It was an unbelievable program!”
Monje notes that while he was Superintendent in South Kingstown, Hicks put through a number of South County teacher-leaders who became principals through the PRN. Of Hicks, Monje adds with admiration, “He finds the modus operandi to build the capacity within the people you have [faculty on staff] in order to create teacher-leaders.”
Combining two posts
Monje’s current full-time position at the school is actually created by filling two part-time posts: co-principal and curriculum coordinator. She explains that she will help faculty follow and align with Common Core standards, advising them about materials and resources and to be personally available as a resource for them. She says, “If we weave Common Core through everything, it will strengthen the overall curriculum.” Monje quickly adds, “Teachers will still be masters of their content.”
She says with obvious pleasure, “I’ll still be able to get into the classroom, and because I have a history in a fourth-grade classroom, I can be a resource, can share what I’ve learned.” She, too, is still learning “about the high school end of it,” she says.
One of Monje’s goals is to encourage the faculty to “spend time in other people’s classrooms — not only to learn new approaches, but to validate your own approach.” Another is to bring more volunteers into the school — for lunch-room duty, for the homework club, for “reading with kids and hopefully “to bring people with special skills who are willing to share their talents with our students.” Also “big on parent-communication,” Monje hopes to encourage parental involvement in the BIS Friends and to strengthen parent-school communication.
Transitional period for island school
She is also concerned about the transitional period the school finds itself in because of the number of faculty retirements in the wings. During this past year, two well-loved, long-term teachers — Teri McCombe and Barbara Michel — retired. Monje explains the transition as one from a stable, experienced staff to a younger, less experienced one. However, she quickly adds that the younger faculty often compensate by bringing with them a great deal of energy, innovation and a broad understanding of technology.
Though Monje is also interested in discussions about a blended teaching/learning approach, she still strongly supports having a teacher in the classroom. “I don’t think technology can take the place of a teacher ever,” she adds. Ultimately, it will require a collaboration of the two, she believes.
Reflecting on her life on the island, Monje says, “Something brings you here, and it’s hard to leave and you adapt.” The last year was very difficult for Monje and her family, with her husband’s illness and his death this spring. Of Peter, Monje says, he was particularly gratified that she was stepping into a new role as principal. “He was always supportive of my goals; he made it possible for me to continue.” She says, “I’m so appreciative of his legacy; he left me the ability to pursue my career.”
Looking ahead, she says it is important to keep developing new models for teaching, and to encourage problem-solving, analysis and the development of a critical ability in students. She quotes Buckminster Fuller who wrote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
For her, “it all fell into place,” largely because she loves “going to school,” she points out. Believing that learning is an ongoing process, Monje wants to foster a “culture of continuous learning for everyone in the school.”