Early in what proved an award-winning career, Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald noticed something interesting in her elementary school computer lab: The boys always controlled the mouse.
“Every time there was a mixed sex group, even if a girl sat alone and asked for help, the boy would control the mouse and do the work for the girl,” said Fitzgerald.
She mulled over the problem. Seeing the boys did the work for the girls instead of helping them do it themselves, she started telling the children, “Helping is not doing.”
That observation grew into her Ph.D. dissertation on the subject and helped define an educational philosophy that led to a recent statewide award as at the Payson Unified School District.
Now, she teaches teachers — while still believing that “helping is not doing.” Instead of telling the district’s hard-pressed special education teachers how to do their job, she seeks to empower them.
The team of teachers she manages appreciates that approach.
“She’s a very good listener,” said Christy Wilcox a special education teacher at Julia Randall Elementary (JRE), “she suggests good ideas or helps you come up with solutions.”
“She helps you accept it may just be,” said Dawn Proudfoot, a JRE and Payson Elementary School (PES) SPED aide.
“She has an open door policy,” said Deb Jones a Rim Country Middle School (RCMS) SPED teacher.
Fitzgerald’s management philosophy won her the Arizona Distinguished Administrators award this year from the Arizona School Administrators organization. The award recognizes administrators who “act to produce a positive climate, high morale among students, staff, and colleagues, and improved educational programs and student achievement.”
The administrator must also promote the goals of the district, foster community support for education, and volunteer outside the district.
Fitzgerald is a founding member of Amnesty International in Payson.
Superintendent Casey O’Brien nominated Fitzgerald for the award “because of her amazing dedication to students, teachers, staff and our district.”
He said, “In team sports there are players and there are impact players — those that change the game. Dr. Fitz is an impact player.”
She also seeks to help the underdog, which drew her to work with special education.
After completing her undergraduate degree in elementary education at the University of Maine, her first job involved a California school for the children of migrant farmers.
She loved this position. “It was my favorite,” she said, but because of the inconsistent enrollment, she got laid off twice from the school.
The last time she got laid off, her superintendent went to part-time work in order to free up enough money to bring her back.
She only left that position to care for her ill parents in Massachusetts.
Two years later, she started her doctorate in Florida, still focused on helping the less advantaged.
Yet, she missed the West. After completing her doctorate, she jumped at the chance to take a job as a director of Curriculum, Technology, Professional Development and Special Education on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
She shifted to Payson in 2006 as the director of special education, wanting to ease the isolation of living in such a remote, reservation community.
At a recent meeting at JRE, she worked with her Response to Intervention (RTI) team to assess the effort to identify and bolster elementary school students starting to fall behind academically. The discussion centered on how Fitzgerald had changed the game for students over the last four years in the Payson school district.
Roxanne Savage, the Title I and RTI teacher for JRE explained the various data collection tools Fitzgerald developed to help those students who fell significantly behind in reading.
In the past four years the RTI program has helped teachers identify students who need help and give parents tools and support to move their children forward.
As she pulled out notebook after notebook of data on individual students, Savage said she had been extremely uncomfortable with the mass of data. But Fitzgerald had patiently showed her how it would work.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I’d have gotten into data, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Savage, “Now I get it and have it under control. I love data.”
So do the students. Fitzgerald suggests teachers put up bar charts outside their classes, which show the classes’ improvement in reading from the start of the year to the end of the year.
“It’s important to have kids understand why they do the stuff they have to do,” Fitzgerald told her RTI team.
The children feel empowered by seeing their improvement — so they can take charge of their own educations.
And for Fitzgerald, it’s one more example of helping, not doing.