Natalia Ramback, Principal
Picket Elementary School
Georgetown, Texas, Georgetown ISD
Raise Your Hand Texas Alumna ’14 (Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership)
The little boy watches quietly as his friend pulls a sandwich from his superhero lunchbox.
A baggie full of carrots.
A juice box with a tiny, clear straw.
After a while, the little boy turns to his own brown bag, hesitant and unsure, embarrassed even, almost paralyzed by doubt.
At eight years old, he doesn’t know why he feels this way. Why his heart is beating so fast. Why he wants to curl up and hide.
And he does know, too.
Like most every other kid, he’s afraid to be different. To not fit in. It’s just easier to be like everyone else.
Eventually, slowly, out of the brown bag he pulls the familiar tin foil bundle. His stomach growls. His angst gradually slips away. Finally, defeated handily by hunger, he takes a bite of his taco.
Individualism. The ability to boldly blaze a trail. That indomitable Texas spirit.. For many of us, these things are learned. The capacity to feel tranquil when every impulse says flight or fight is developed over time.
So much of that development happens in public schools.
Natalia Ramback knows this. She takes very seriously the job of preparing young students for their futures. As principal at Dell Pickett Elementary in Georgetown, her days are about so much more than board meetings, paperwork, and discipline.
Many times, it’s her job simply to notice when a child has momentarily lost heart. When he’s feeling insecure and alone. When, in a bright, bustling lunchroom, he’s undone by a perfectly good sack lunch. Because he thinks it sets him apart.
“I see myself in a lot of our kids,” Ramback says. “That fear. That knowing that, ‘Hey, I bring a lunch, too, but I bring a taco in my lunch.’”
A taco. What’s wrong with a taco? For Texans, tacos have become the quintessential food — the southwestern response to east coast haute cuisine. But mostly in restaurants and from food trucks. Not in your school lunch.
When Ramback says ‘taco,’ she evokes the essence of her culture. The sound of her “t” lands somewhere between a “th” and “d.” She emphasizes the first syllable – drawing it out with leisure, finishing the word crisp and clean. THAA-co.
“I walk in the cafeteria and I see somebody that’s like me in that way – same culture,” she says. “They open their lunch bag and they have a taco. I always make it a point to go up – as silly as that sounds – and say, ‘I wish I had your lunch.’ Because I remember what it was like to be that child who had the taco, who didn’t know how they were going to explain to their friends who had a ham sandwich what this rolled up thing was. When in reality it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a big deal for me. So if I can remove those barriers, quickly and effortlessly, using the fact that I am the principal, then absolutely.”
This idea of overcoming fear became the singular, central focus for Ramback during her week at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she attended the Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership course at the Principals’ Center (sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas). The topic of fear met her almost immediately when, on a Monday, she and a team of fellow principals were challenged to successfully complete a ropes course.
Ramback balked at the thought of climbing 50-foot poles, making her way across thin planks of wood with only a harness and strands of nylon keeping her from catastrophe. She was beside herself with fear, and she nearly bailed out.
“I’m not a super athlete,” she said. “It was a challenge to me.”
But, thinking about her students and why she was in Cambridge, not only did she climb the pole – she volunteered to go up first.
“All the way up, I did a lot of self talk,” she said, laughing. “I went up the ladder. My goal was to get up to the top. I got to my goal, feeling good. It was a metaphor for so many things in our lives. The fears that you have that maybe you didn’t know you had. I reflected on myself in a way that was almost scary. It really makes you look at what holds you back.”
It made Ramback think more about the things that could be holding her students back. And she won’t let it be something as superb as a homemade taco. Since Harvard, Ramback has launched new initiatives at Pickett including regular classroom “walk-throughs” where she or a member of the administration observe a teacher’s performance for short spans of time. And Ramback is using what she learned in Elements of Immunity to Change to prepare her school for its transition from a 3-5 to a full pre-k-5 campus. The workload at Pickett isn’t getting any lighter and the students aren’t getting any less complex and diverse. So, for Ramback, removing doubt, anxiety, and fear — at every level — is key to her success.
“My mission, my purpose for being here is to make a difference for children,” she said. “The more of those webs I can pull off and the more of that fear I can help them let go of, just the better and better for the kids. And that’s such an exciting thing.”
For Ramback, fear transcends age. Those feelings of anxiety and insecurity that debilitate school-age kids can still paralyze you at 35. Ramback confronts fear daily, whether it’s dealing with the “fast-changing worlds of technology and curriculum, which seem to be ready to swallow you up sometimes,” or worrying something will slip through the cracks because there’s just not enough of you to go around.
According to Dr. Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, when we humans engage our avoidance motivational system, we experience fear and anxiety, a natural phenomenon. But, in a public school arena, principals want to focus on engaging the approach motivation system as much as possible.
“It’s understandable why a principal might be focused on what can go wrong,” says Markman. “There is a lot of research on what happens when people focus themselves primarily on responsibilities in life – things you feel like you ought to do. The stronger the ‘oughts’ drive what you do, the more you tend to be kind of anxious about the life you lead. People who take administrative responsibilities in school tend to be responsibility-driven. So, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of potential there for developing anxiety.”
Markman says school leaders must trust their training. “Trust in your past successes. Be willing to say, okay, there are potential problems out there, but I’m ready for them. And really approach those situations with some amount of confidence. That can be difficult, but important.”