Friday, 07 June 2019 00:00
By Aidan Rice, SMARTACUS Creative Group | Lifestyle


As principal of Saratoga Springs High School,
Michelle Tsao keeps her focus on the students. 


As an undergraduate at Northeastern University, Michelle Tsao had an internship that changed her life -- not because she enjoyed the experience, but because she didn't. 
Deciding that a career in accounting was not for her, she switched majors, a step that ultimately took her into education and set her on the path that 20 years later would lead to Saratoga Springs High School. She'll mark her first anniversary as SSHS principal July 1. 

"Imagine if I never did that internship," she says. "I would have put in four years toward a degree in accounting, gotten a job in that field, and then figured out that I'd prepared for a job I didn't want to do. That's why it's really important for young people to have opportunities to explore different things. The more connections we can build as a community, the more opportunities our students will have to explore what they want to do in the future." 

After she switched her major from accounting to economics, Tsao became fascinated by international economics. Thinking she might like to join the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, she focused on developing countries in Africa and South America. 

"I would get to travel and visit different countries," she says. But the prospect of teaching appealed even more to her.  After her college experience, Tsao realized that sharing her interest in finance with young adults could be a viable career.  So, she set herself to earning her masters in education at UAlbany, and became a teacher of economics at Ballston Spa High School. 

"I loved economics and I wanted to make my students love it, too," she says. 

A Passion for Working with Students

As much as she loved the classroom, Tsao also enjoyed the challenge of figuring out  systems and ways to make them work better. That led to assistant principal positions in the Queensbury Union Free School District and at Shenendehowa High School, and a  principalship at Averill Park High School. In announcing her appointment at SSHS, Superintendent of Schools Michael Patton praised her "strong instructional leadership experience, collaborative approach, and passion for working with students.”

Tsao is proud of the fact that, within just a few months of joining SSHS, she was able to "walk down the hall and know every teacher's name in the classrooms I passed." 

"When I was teaching economics, I was exploring how I might improve the teaching of economics, or how to more clearly show the relevance of economics. Now the question is: How can I improve the overall learning experience? How can I facilitate all of the different pieces that come into play in making the experience better?" 

Saratoga's principal maintains a view of the big picture as she considers a student's lifelong learning path. "I think not just about the high school, but the middle school and the elementary school," she says. "I like to think about the systems -- how one supports the other and how one can also break the other. It's all about communication and collaboration, and how do we work as a school system to help and prepare our students?" 

New Approaches

Whether it's a new internship program, a new technology, or a new pedagogical approach, Tsao will be inclined to try it. 

"You have to take risks and try new things," she says. "That's what echoes for students, teachers, and administrators." Tsao believes the work of trying new things breeds collaboration. Everyone celebrates the victories and learns from the mistakes. 

"One of the biggest fears that people have is that you're going to try something new in the classroom and it fails. That's when you have to decide whether you're going to give up on technology because it didn't work or you're going to figure out what happened and what you can do to make it work. That’s the difference between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. I always try to be creative." 

Partnerships with Global Foundries, SUNY Adirondack, and others are among the new things Tsao is exploring to give students the opportunity to try out career paths and "get a better sense of what they want to do post-high school."

"The more connections we can build as a community, the better students can explore what they might want to do in the future and to be exposed to different experiences. We have to create balance because everyone has a different path," says Tsao.

In a large city school district like SSCSD, Tsao knows it is especially important to create pathways to success for students with varied interests and backgrounds. 

"There are so many students like this who feel like they have to do something because it is societally normal for that to happen, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone. You can take your time to get there, and however old you are when you go back to school is fine. It's really hard for people to decide what they want to do at the age of 18." 

Basic Foundations

SSHS has many valuable resources from which students can benefit, including textbooks, advancing technology, and internship programs to help students gain real-world experience. 

"We still need textbooks as an equalizing factor," Tsao notes. "Not all of our students have access to technology at all homes. So, the textbook creates equal access to learning.”

Success is not achieved through technological awareness alone. Tsao acknowledges the faculty and staff play the most important role in determining student outcomes through their commitment to innovative teaching practice.

"We're focusing on the basic foundations that will help our students be successful," Tsao continues. "Whether I go to work for Hannaford or join the military, if I can work with other people, and not be dismissive of other people’s ideas, then I can be a successful person, no matter what I do." 

"Whatever the job, if they have collaboration skills, if they know how to write, if they can articulate and do presentations, if they have the basic foundation to be a good citizen, to be a good employee, and to be able to communicate well, we are preparing them," says Tsao.

As new job pathways arise, especially in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields, high school educators work to convey computational thinking skills and specific knowledge sets. "The specialty skills are the hard part," Tsao adds. "So, we have many programs to meet different demands -- from Advanced Placement to Project Lead the Way."

Of course, to prepare students for careers in STEM fields, secondary schools must be prepared for change. "We need to have students develop skills with different types of technology. That requires planning because we know that over time we are going to have to update our machines. We're going to have to replace them." 

And that will be a challenge given the budgetary outlook. "We aren’t going to see any increase in revenue; so, we’re going to have to figure out how we balance all of the needs," she notes. 

Asked what she would like her legacy at SSHS to be, Tsao thinks for a moment and says, "I would want people to think that I always thought of the students first. Whatever the program, whatever the extracurricular activity, I would want them to know it was always for the students first."


The SMARTACUS Creative Group is a student-driven creative agency dedicated to supporting the economic development of Upstate New York. A senior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School and a varsity soccer player for three years,  Aidan Rice will attend SUNY Geneseo this fall with a focus on psychology and communications. "I enjoy working with other people, and am interested in how the human body and mind function in given situations," he says.
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