CLEARFIELD — Crouched next to a child's desk, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Syndee Dickson listens intently to a kindergartner explain how she uses an iPad to build her math skills.
The child doesn't use those words, of course, but she adroitly moves icons about the screen to form groups of four.
"You're doing great," Dickson says to the child.
On her way out of the kindergarten classroom at Wasatch Elementary School, Dickson made a point of acknowledging the girl's teacher, too. "You're doing a good job," she said.
On Friday, Dickson visited four schools in the Davis School District as well at its enormous nutritional services facility in the Freeport Center. It was the latest leg of her listening tour, which has taken her to tiny rural school districts, charter schools and some of the state's largest schools.
"I want to get out and see how policy and programs really impact learning for kids. We hear a lot about it. The adults in the system often tell us what's happening in their systems, but to be able to experience it, to interview the teachers and the students and see it firsthand, really makes it all come to life," she said.
That means spending time in classrooms and asking students and teachers what they like about their schools, what's working for them and what they struggle with the most.
Wasatch Elementary School first-grade teacher Kathy Baker said she knew Dickson was going to visit her school Friday, but she had no idea Dickson would make a stop in her classroom.
"It's exciting to have a superintendent visit your class. The kids were very excited to have a special guest, of course, and to get to show off some of the things they've been learning, especially with the technology we have here at our school," Baker said.
At Davis High School, Julie Laub, who teaches honors and Advanced Placement chemistry, said it was it was a "privilege" to sit down with Dickson and talk about the state science core curriculum.
"(I was) very impressed they want teacher feedback. That's the biggest thing, honored to be there and impressed they are listening and they wanted feedback," she said.
Not only did Laub get to meet with Dickson in a small group, the superintendent visited her AP chemistry class where students like Ben Murdock were graphing ratios of chemical reactions.
Meeting Dickson was "cool," said Murdock, who is a junior.
"She knew a lot. It sounded like she understood what she was talking about. I didn't know she was the superintendent. Well, I know now," he said, laughing at himself.
Down the hall, in a sophomore honors English class, Dickson asked students questions about the technology they were each using to write an analysis of an article on ambition.
Davis High student Adelynne Walley said Dickson was nice and especially interested in the technology they were using for their web-based assignment.
"She seems to really care about how we're learning, what we're learning, if we're learning," Walley said.
"She was really nice. It was nice to talk to her and see what she was thinking about our classroom and nice to talk to her about what I think about what we're learning and how we're learning."
Whether it's a high school sophomore or an elected school board member, everyone Dickson encounters on her visits contributes to her understanding of how education policy affects students, teachers, administrators and school employees.
"Two of the most important things I do is talk to students and teachers and find out what's working for them, what they like about their school, what they struggle with and then to be able to take that back and inform policymakers as well," Dickson said.
While it's human nature for superintendents and other high-level administrators to want to showcase accomplishments or initiatives, Dickson said her staff, when arranging the visits, emphasizes that she wants to spend as much time as possible in classrooms.
Educators are, of course, eager to share innovations and best practices. But they are also willing to discuss their challenges, she said.
"I find people are always really willing to talk about things they're struggling with as well. I have never felt in any district I've been in or charter that people are trying to cover up or not be transparent. So it's really helpful to hear what's on their minds," she said.
Another purpose of the visit is to learn more about the good work that goes on in classrooms so she can spread the word.
"Educators are not good about telling their story. I feel like I can not only give them a voice to tell their story to others and promote what they do, but then share those best practices with others," she said.
While Dickson is not unfamiliar with the innovations rural educators employ to help level the playing field for their students through technology, it is helpful and heartening to see it in person.
"I find that often, especially in our rural settings where they have to be innovative and they do these amazing things, they just think everyone else is doing the same," Dickson said.
Sometimes the best practices aren’t about curriculum or teaching techniques, they’re about nurturing children.
Educators in Iron and Sevier counties, for instance, have implemented trauma-informed practices that “address the whole child and a lot of the issues they bring to school,” Dickson said.
A growing body of medical science links many health issues — cancer, coronary artery disease and diabetes — to experiencing multiple adverse factors during childhood such as abuse, parents who are addicts or witnessing domestic violence. Such experiences are also connected to higher rates of behavioral issues and low educational achievement.
“They try to mitigate some of those factors so students can learn,” Dickson said.
Utah’s public schools are diverse with respect to size, location, and stakeholders’ priorities and expectations.
There are public charter schools in urban areas that serve just a few dozen students. There are urban high schools that serve student bodies larger than the populations of many towns in rural Utah. Rural communities within short driving distance of a college or university have different tools they can rely upon than towns in very remote locations.
Given that, Dickson’s road trips help her understand context, she said.
“When there's policy that comes forward or a program, 'Oh, I can see where that might work in Delta differently than it works in Price, differently than it works in Kanab or in Logan.’ So context is really important," she said.
The visits aren’t all wonky exchanges about education laws, programs, initiatives or school grading systems, often conversation peppered with acronyms that to the unaccustomed ear sound a lot like alphabet soup.
Sometimes they’re just fun.
Take Friday for example. On her way out the door at Davis High, the school’s robotics lab caught Dickson’s eye.3 comments on this story
She zipped in the door and started chatting it up with students about the robots they had built and programmed, as well as an upcoming competition.
A robot was stacking cones, which one student explained could go 14 cones high.
As she walked out the door, one student asked another, “Dude, who was that?”
“She’s the supreme lord of the state school system,” he replied.
When told about her new moniker, Dickson laughed.
“What would that be, SLOSSS?” she said, boiling it down to an acronym.
“I’ll take it,” she said, joking.