Alumni Q&A: Jim Calvin
Jim Calvin, Ph.D. earned his Master of Educational Administration from TCU in 1996 and his Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership in 2013. He has coached, taught, and served as an administrator. He is now principal of Burleson ISD’s REALM Secondary School, a school of choice that teaches core content and computer science through a gamified learning management system — students earn badges and level up when they’ve mastered content.
Can you talk about how your career has progressed in education?
“I coached and taught at the high school level before moving to the middle school level to teach. Then I earned my elementary certificate and began attending TCU while teaching at the elementary level in Keller ISD. I served as an assistant principal in Southlake Carroll, then as principal in Northwest ISD, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD and Fort Worth Christian Elementary School. I started working in Burleson because public school offered me an opportunity and challenge to help transform an existing campus into what became an award-winning STEAM Academy.”
“Where I am now is a direct outgrowth of the work I did as a doctoral student. I now have a better understanding of what my personal best is. I learned the intricacies of leadership, and I learned how things interconnect, and that has been imperative.”
What is it like serving as principal of a new secondary school with a unique learning model?
“I was named principal of a traditional elementary school campus and led it to become STEAM Academy at Stribling Elementary in the fall of 2016. There we sought to teach students design principles and create an atmosphere where it’s okay to fail. In fact, we referred to FAIL as our First Attempt In Learning. Creating that atmosphere for STEAM was a fun process. Leading REALM has been similar in that in the gaming world you don’t see players using all their lives within a video game only to quit and walk away. Instead, they keep trying until they can reach the highest level.
We teach core content through a learning management system that’s gamified, so lessons are in episodes that students must master. They can earn badges and a spot on the leaderboard. All students are required to take coding as an elective and our first group of middle school students achieved the mission of the school, which was to see each student develop a video game by the end of their eighth grade year. Those choosing to attend REALM in high school will have the chance to earn trade certificates that will make them immediately marketable. The first cohort to attend REALM in high school will graduate in 2023 and many have been a part of REALM since it began when they were in sixth grade.”
What are some of the challenges you face in your current role?
“We must be intentional in providing opportunities for students to collaborate to guard against isolation. On the upside, I see many compassionate students that want to learn in ways that resonate with them.
There are many different people and departments that want to see this school thrive. Therefore, part of my role is to align those many different ‘gears’ so they turn the machinery of our school in ways that are productive and beneficial for everyone. And as a standalone campus for the first time in the school’s history, everything we do is much more visible than ever before. We desire to be a model for other schools considering a similar approach that allows students to learn in ways that make sense in today’s technology-focused world. We have a system that let’s us adapt to where students are, but we must also see that our students are succeeding academically as well as in coding amazing games.”
How has your education and past experience helped you lead?
“As a former English/Language Arts teacher I had no experience with video games or coding, but a good video game involves characters that appeal to the player, and a story that draws in the player, just like a good book draws in a reader.”
“In STEM and STEAM, we use stories to build empathy muscles. Our students have to engineer and design a solution to a problem. At REALM, students must empathize and see through the lens of the player in order to understand what will motivate them to keep playing.”