Member of a "stealth profession" shines

Dr. Britton Schnurr, a psychologist at Lynnwood Elementary School in Guilderland, has been named a recipient of the Teacher Leader award as part of the 11th annual “Champions of Character” program presented by the Academy for Character Education at The Sage Colleges. The awards honor individuals, schools, and organizations throughout New York State for their leadership and dedication to the vision and mission of fostering positive character development in youth and communities.

GUILDERLAND — Although Britton Schnurr describes herself as a person who works behind the scenes, she is about to be in the spotlight, at center stage.

A psychologist at Lynnwood Elementary School, Schnurr will be given the Teacher Leader award as part of the “Champions of Character” program presented by the Academy for Character Education at The Sage Colleges.

Schnurr and her peers — she is one of just five award winners in the education category — will be honored at a banquet on April 9 at the Franklin Plaza ballroom in Troy.

“She is a leader in her building,” said Marie Wiles, the superintendent of schools, who, along with Lynnwood Principal Alicia Rizzo, nominated Schnurr for the award. “She has great instincts and is terrific in a crisis.”

Lynnwood has special-needs students from throughout the district in self-contained classrooms as well as hosting programs run by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“Lynnwood has a lot of students with complex needs,” said Wiles. Schnurr is busy evaluating those students and — with parents, teachers, and other staff— working out plans to meet their needs.

Schnurr is also part of the building’s crisis team, responding “when the unexpected happens,” said Wiles.

Vita

Schnurr describes her own childhood in Auburn, N.Y. as idyllic. Her parents, who adopted her as an infant, were “fabulous,” she said. Her father was in the New York State Army National Guard and her artistic stay-at-home mother had a gift shop.

Always good at science, Schnurr seized on her life’s work when she was a junior at Syracuse University.

She was just a few days into a research project at a local school when she asked herself, “Do people get paid to do this?”

She was working with kindergartners and first-graders on how sounds can be manipulated into words and, right then, her career path was clear — she wanted to be a school psychologist.

After graduating from Syracuse with a major in psychology and a minor in biology, Schnurr went on to earn a master’s degree from the State University of New York College at Oswego, working under Professor Betsy Waterman, who had been a special-education teacher and was geared towards “the whole student,” said Schnurr.

Three-quarters of school psychologists are certified at the master’s level, but Schnurr was determined to earn a doctorate as well.

“We do a lot of research on learning,” said Schnurr of those in her field. “It doesn’t always translate to the classroom. I wanted a foot in both the classroom and research.”

She moved to the Capital Region to pursue her doctorate at the University at Albany, working first at Hoosic Valley.

She started working at Guilderland in 2004 and also maintains a small private practice.

 “I’m very fortunate,” she said of working at Guilderland. “We have phenomenal parents and teachers. We’re working in a system that is already functioning well.”

She considers the most challenging part of her career to also be the most rewarding — and that is “trying to understand the whole child.”

Schnurr named “three pillars” of learning — education, psychology, and child development. The challenge and the reward, she said, is “understanding it through the lens of the particular child in front of you.”

There is “no one typical day” in the life of a school psychologist, said Schnurr; the tasks vary with the individual needs of students and teachers.

“We call ourselves the stealth profession,” said Schnurr. “I’m really a behind-the-scenes type of person.”

Her job, she said is “to understand a child on an individual level” and then “see how all the pieces fit together.”

She went on, “If we keep having the same question…maybe it’s the system.”

Bullying revelation

One example of looking at the system to tailor programs for specific needs is a district-wide study on bullying that Schnurr worked on with Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton. They presented their findings at the National Association of School Psychologists in 2012.

Schnurr, as a member of the Safe and Respectful Schools Committee, was aware of many bullying prevention programs. As she considered these programs, she said, “I always thought, ‘Does it fit our need?’”

To answer that question, she said, “We did a needs assessment and needs survey on school climate and bullying,” which took into account cultural diversity.

What the researchers set out to determine, she said, was “Where are the kids? Where are the parents? Where are the stakeholders?”

Once these questions were answered, meaningful interventions could be tailored to fit the needs.

Information was amassed from all the district’s schools at all levels, and then analyzed.

“Developing a sense of community,” said Schnurr, is essential to stem bullying.  “Otherwise, you’re constantly putting out fires,” she said, adding that noticing bullying is “an overall symptom of school climate.”

A good school climate, she said, is one where kids have a sense of belonging and purpose, where kids have ownership of their experiences at school, and where they have at least one trusted adult.

A good school climate reduces bullying and increases academic performance and the graduation rate.

What the Guilderland study found was surprising even to the researchers. The assumption had been that the victims of bullying feel disconnected from their school. What the researchers found, and shared at the national convention, was that the kids who do the bullying are the ones with the least positive views of school.

“They are the kids most at risk,” said Schnurr.

Being a leader

Typically, school principals or other administrators are thought of as leaders. But, according to Wiles, Schnurr is a leader.

Schnurr explains this, modestly, as part of the unique role of a school psychologist.

Because she is not an administrator, said Schnurr, but, rather, a colleague of teachers, “I can hear both perspectives.”

She can interpret directives from the State Education Department, and weave them with stances of school administrators and the perspectives of classroom teachers.

“We’re not trying to solve the problem in isolation,” Schnurr said of school psychologists.

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