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Principal Traci O. Filiss: The Technology Pioneer

Principal Traci O. Filiss has experience working in traditional and virtual schools, but nothing compares to the blended learning model she created for her own charter school in Taos, New Mexico. This is the tenth spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter.

Long ago, Traci Filiss wanted to use her degree in biology to work in the State Forestry Division of New Mexico. Her mentor in the program told her that she’d be great in education, and “she was correct. It’s been an incredible career and highly rewarding. And I’m glad I did it.”

Before becoming an administrator, Filiss spent 15 years in the classroom, teaching every subject and grade-band at one point or another. She then returned to school for a master’s in curriculum design & digital learning. “That’s when I realized that education was quickly going to shift toward this new modality of learning, and I was highly motivated to get into that world.”

With this vested interest in digital learning, the superintendent asked Traci to open a totally virtual school that served students from across the state. “I did that for three years and realized that I really missed the kids. Because I never got to see them, I missed out on the face-to-face piece.”

So, she set out to change her life, and the lives of others, for the better.

Founding Taos Academy

After realizing that a completely virtual school didn’t suit her passion for teaching, Principal Filiss began working on a model for a school that would. At the same time, the district got a new superintendent.

The new superintendent did not approve of the vision for Taos Academy, so Traci took it to the state and got a charter approved. “That was ten years ago,” she tells us. And that was when I became an administrator by default.”

“I was not happy with my superintendent for not letting me do what I wanted to do, so I did it anyway.”

— Traci Filiss, founder and head of Taos Academy

The mission of Taos Academy “surrounds academic achievement, leadership, and global awareness.” Imagining the typical Taos Academy graduate was at the top of mind while Traci and friend collaborated to write the charter. “We felt that it was most important to be that self-motivated learner who understands how to give back.”

So, how does one create and nurture this kind of learner? Principal Filiss believes content education is only part of the solution. “To be honest, you know, content is content. Beyond that, it’s about how you use content to make a better place for yourself and others. And that takes internal motivation—how do you use what you have to make the world a better place?”

Traci’s proudest feat as principal is watching the school she built become the environment that supports a self-motivated, community-involved learner.  “The kids that we are graduating are stellar. They have incredible goals. They know how to give back. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that something that you know you you put on paper that is fairly new and innovative can actually produce such an incredible well such incredible human beings, actually. They’re really amazing.”

How is technology used to fulfill your school’s mission?

While technology “expands and quadruples itself every five minutes,” Principal Filiss uses its adaptability to benefit her school. The methods at Taos Academy have changed over the years, but only to rear the same result: “if you teach students how to learn, and how to grow a passion for learning, they will learn. Period.”

At Taos Academy, technology is used to give time back to teachers, so they deliver on-time support to the students that need it. By delivering content online, technology also increases autonomy for the students that don’t. “To sum it up, it’s about building lifelong, self-motivated learner. That’s actually written in our charter, and this school actually does that for real.”

Under the Taos Academy model, teachers also benefit from increased autonomy and ownership—a feat that Principal Filiss insists on as a school leader:

The strength of teaching has to do with teachers being able to create, and having the flexibility to do the things they feel passionate about. And boy, there’s nothing like a teacher when a teacher is passionate. Then, the students will pick up on it, and you can see their passion, too. So why not support teachers in the areas that they are passionate about? It helps everybody.

–Traci Filiss, founder and head of Taos Academy

Having learned from her time at a completely virtual school, and adapted , Principal Filiss now leverages technology as a tool for building relationships—not replacing them. “The Internet and computers have allowed us to become world learners instead of just local ones. And that’s what we need in our society: tools that not only help us to create, but also share out to the world and enlighten a broader audience.”

On Change Management (Straight from Her Dissertation)

With 25 years of experience in at least 3 different types of schools, Traci is no stranger to the toll of changing structures and initiative fatigue. For her Master’s Degree in Instructional Technology, Curriculum, and Design, she is writing a dissertation on change management as it relates to the challenges that administrators face, with a lack of support. “In business, [supporting leaders in change management] might get more focus, because it affects revenue. But in schools, we don’t necessarily have that.

In order for us to change education in this country and be more competitive in the world, we have to get our administrators on board with how to change, how to set and present expectations.

–Traci Filiss, founder and head of Taos Academy

According to Traci’s research and advice, the best structures for change management have a deep understanding of the communities they manage. “Our school is very community-oriented, and I think the structures and feeling we have here can be replicated. It’s all about building relationships. You have to look at the community, and mold [change] around the relationships that happen.”

Click here to download our change management guide, brought to you by Star School Leaders across the nation!

Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?

Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.

The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:

  1.  Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
  2.  Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
  3. Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.

To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.