The new principal of Helen M. Knight Elementary, Michelle Searle, may be new to town but is more than familiar with the desert.
“I’m not shy about hot places,” she laughed in her office just a few weeks into the school year.
Having moved from the Wasatch Front, Searle brings with her over 20 years’ experience in teaching and education administration. She took the helm of Moab’s largest school this summer after former principal Jill Tatton moved into an administrative position with the Grand County School District.
Tatton, who now serves as the district’s director of student services, said she’s excited to see Searle take the reins.
“She brings a lot of experience to Grand County School District and HMK,” Tatton said. “[Searle] is an excellent addition to GCSD.”
For her part, Tatton said she’s looking forward to her new role, which includes directing the district’s preschool and special education programs. She replaces Sherrie Buckingham, who retired this year.
“[Buckingham] has lent a helping hand throughout the transition process,” Tatton said. “I am grateful for the tremendous staff at GCSD as I navigate new waters, and I look forward to many years in this position.”
For Searle, her first few weeks at the school district have proven fruitful. “I’m loving it,” she said.
An Idaho native, Searle has degrees from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Phoenix and has taught at schools across the Mountain West.
Most recently, she directed the special education program for the Wasatch Front charter school system. Before that, Searle had spent eight years running school services for Primary Children’s Hospital.
“There were a lot of facets that were hard, but a lot of really rewarding things about it too,” she said of that role.
Now, Searle said she’s excited to return to a diverse yet small-town school with close community ties.
“I just loved having that community connection,” she said. “It’s at my heart as an educator; having those family connections.”
Inviting the community into the classroom is one of Searle’s biggest goals for the year.
“I want you in the school, parents,” Searle recalls sharing on Back to School Night. “I want a welcoming community. I want them to partner with their teachers — that’s something that’s really important to me and kind of went dark during those COVID years.”
She pointed to a new program where parents are asked to substitute only when their own child’s teacher is out. “We’ve had a few parents that actually took us up on it,” she said.
Overall, Searle said HMK has avoided some of the district’s worst staffing shortages; nearly every position at the roughly 700-student school is filled. That required some creativity, Searle said, such as reaching out to local nursing assistants to fill positions with complex-needs students, whose education emphasizes daily-living skills.
“We got creative,” she said.
Creativity is central to another of Searle’s emphases: teacher resiliency. She’s currently working toward a doctorate from William Carey University in the subject, focusing on how to make teaching a sustainable career.
“When we look at education policy, we miss … [the fact that] this person in front of your child also needs to feel whole in order to help meet the needs of your child,” Searle said.
Her research was partly inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, which instigated widespread turnover among education professionals. For example, a RAND Corporation survey this year indicated 10% of teachers voluntarily left the profession by the end of the 2021-22 school year.
To stem the exodus, Searle said teachers need supportive administrators and a greater focus on mental health in the workplace. Interventions could include teacher support groups, mindfulness and movement exercises, or quiet spaces apart from the classroom.
“All the things are kind of on the table,” Searle said. “…What can we do with our limited funds to put something in place that supports them as educators?”
As for her student focuses, Searle pointed to district goals on improving math scores and general education outcomes for students learning English as a second language. The elementary school is partnering with a nonprofit, WestEd, and San Juan County to help shore up those metrics.
“It’s that old adage of, how do you eat an elephant? Just one bite at a time,” Searle said. “That’s really how we’re hitting it.”
Searle praised Grand County’s partnership with other southeastern Utah school districts to tackle issues unique to rural schools. For example, that includes HMK’s status as a Title I school, meaning the facility receives extra funding because a high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced school lunch.
“It means we get a lot of diversity, which is great,” Searle said. “I love that about Moab, I love that about our school.”