In Maureen Walmsley’s Creekside Elementary School classroom, fifth-grade students were sharing “I am” poems during Superintendent Heather Tow-Yick's recent visit. Student authors used “I am” poems to share facts about themselves with their classmates in response to a series of prompts.
“It's a very cool thing to hear,” Tow-Yick said, noting some of the poems that students read aloud that day started with “I am from Sammamish,” or “I am from my family.” One boy centered his poem around being descended from his great-great grandmother, the inventor of the Heath Bar.
“He was really proud of that,” said Tow-Yick, who started her new position as the superintendent of the Issaquah School District in July. As part of her First 100 Days Plan, she visited Creekside and each of the other schools and facilities in the district within the first few weeks of school. After the poems had been read aloud, Tow-Yick had the opportunity to chat briefly with the great-great grandson of the famous candy bar chef and shared with him that as a child, her cousins had nicknamed her “Heath Bar” because of her first name.
Teachers and staff members are intentional about creating opportunities for students to make connections like this, particularly at the beginning of the school year. Tow-Yick believes this is vital to providing an excellent education, because if a student doesn’t feel a sense of belonging and community, it is difficult to learn. In the same classroom at Creekside, students sat in a circle and bumped arms with the student to their left and to their right, greeting one another in multiple languages.
These two examples of forging connections were just a couple of many such instances she noticed across the district. “Our classroom culture is in a really good spot. I felt a sense of strong teachers and teaching that is rooted in relationships, content knowledge and teaching practices,” Tow-Yick said. “Teachers and staff seemed really joyous and brought their own personality and spin to their classroom – sharing about themselves, who they are and what they like to do, in addition to asking students to share about who they are.”
“I see a lot of strategies being used to build relationships and provide a sense of belonging and affirmation of identity for all students” she added, noting that not only was this apparent among teachers, but also in bus drivers, Food Service workers and other support staff.
While the initial tours are complete, Tow-Yick already has plans to keep the visits going. She said she is excited to continue to connect with students, families and staff members firsthand as she continues to learn about our district and develop a clearer sense of its priorities, strengths and potential areas for growth.
As she shared in her introductory video on Aug. 1, Tow-Yick was inspired to work in public education by her mom, a former high school civics teacher. Tow-Yick earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University in Rhode Island, a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University Teachers College in New York, and a Master of Business Administration from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. Tow-Yick taught as a middle school English and Social Studies teacher in the south Bronx in New York City. “Those two years served as a foundation for my commitment to excellence and equity in public education,” she said. In addition to teaching, Tow-Yick served on the leadership teams at Teach for America in New York and Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, then most recently as the deputy superintendent of the Mukilteo School District.
After her husband retired from 20 years of service with the Navy and took his first civilian job, the family relocated to the Seattle area. They enjoy visiting local beaches, local attractions and playgrounds with their son, who will turn 4 this fall. Tow-Yick says that most of all, they enjoy spending time together on the weekend, as a family and with their close friends. She enjoys cooking and has loved sampling the freshly made food at some of our schools across the district during her tour.
When talking with principals and other administrators in August, Tow-Yick emphasized the central and integral role that teamwork plays in a school district. “A team beats an individual every time. You cannot accomplish something bold, ambitious and worthwhile alone,” she said.
At Pine Lake Middle School, Tow-Yick had the chance to visit teacher Jeffrey Burgard’s classroom, where he was asking students to help define a “system.” The students answered that all the parts rely on each other, are interconnected or dependent, and have attributes and features that are valuable to the other parts. Listening to the class talk about the interconnectedness of a system made Tow-Yick reflect on the skills our students are learning that will transfer beyond education and help each of them succeed in the world after high school.
She emphasized that in her own journey of getting to know all about our own interconnected system, the Issaquah School District, she still has more learning to do. “I have a good idea of the assets of the district: Our schools, staff, families, PTSA, unions and community,” Tow-Yick said, noting that she looks forward to continuing to meet with community leaders and organizations, as well as deepening her knowledge of our students and staff.
“Our kids and adults need social-emotional and mental health supports. And, we know that we have to continue to maintain a high caliber of excellence in academic programming and instruction. We know that we have a budget deficit and we’re going to have to continue to make reductions,” she said. “We’re going to have to continue to make tough choices and prioritize, however we should look at these constraints as an opportunity to be more creative and innovative with our efforts and intentions.”
Inspired by the fifth graders at Creekside, Tow-Yick offered her own one-stanza “I am” poem:
“I am able to see the ‘both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’ in any situation because of literary critique as an English Major
I wonder about the future of our students and their unique contributions to care deeply about each other, our environment, our economy, our community and global connectedness
I hear the call of our ancestors asking us to do better, be better, and lean into a different vision for the future and collective impact
I see the joy and deep care of humanity as we tackle our future together
I want to deliver on the district’s role in creating and facilitating value for students and families”
You’re invited to a Community Forum as part of Tow-Yick's First 100 Days Plan, at 5 p.m. on Oct. 20 in the board room at the Administration Building, 5150 220th Ave. S.E., Issaquah, WA 98029.
Above, Tow-Yick bumps arms during the greeting with multiple languages in Maureen Walmsley's Creekside Elementary classroom. Below, Tow-Yick (left) in one of her former positions, when her mom, center, and grandmother, right visited her. It was wonderful and impactful to have three generations of female leaders together during that visit, Tow-Yick said.