Every school should have a Julie Tolfree, a veteran teacher-turned-behavior-specialist who supports both students and staff at Bridgeport-Spaulding Middle School in Saginaw, her colleagues say.
Tolfree extends a safe space to talk, help with physical needs – food or clothing, for example – and time to regroup from a difficult moment.
She operates whole-school systems to inspire and reward positive behavior, dispensing encouragement, advice and love as readily as treats, band-aids and ice packs. Colleagues describe her as “magnificent” and a creative “Wonder Woman.”
Her 22 years of classroom experience give her a sixth sense about how to solve problems with kids and when to intervene with teachers during a rough stretch. Without her, “I don’t know if I could do the job,” said MEA member Julie Licavoli, a longtime sixth-grade math teacher at the school.
“If we didn’t have that backup system where we can send a kid if they need help with a problem or a physical need, I think I would lose my mind,” agreed MEA member Stacy Rickers, who transitioned recently to teaching technology at the school after 23 years as an elementary music teacher.
A teacher trainer and problem solver, Tolfree says no two days are alike but her goal remains constant: “Whatever the issue is – good or bad – I take it upon myself to solve it. That’s my job.”
Since taking over the grant-funded position six years ago, Tolfree has led a shift in the building’s culture toward positive reinforcement. The school serves a high-poverty population. “It’s about really listening and building relationships,” she says.
When teachers are having ongoing behavior issues with a student or class, Tolfree brainstorms and implements solutions with them. Newer staff members – including her own daughter and a few former students now on the faculty – ask for advice on lesson plans and classroom management.
She consciously works to keep a 4:1 balance in the positive-to-negative ratio of interactions with students. She knows praise is uplifting and criticism can be destructive. She conducts restorative circles between kids in conflict and works on emotional regulation with students who have anger outbursts.
She runs a simple reward system. Teachers give students a raffle ticket and verbal recognition of the behavior or action they want to recognize: hard work, kindness, improvement. Tolfree raises money for prizes by running sports concessions, and she accepts donations from teachers and the community.
The school’s staff stays connected all day on a group text, using the GroupMe app, so if a student is sad, sleepy, or disruptive to the point of being unable to learn, a teacher can ask for help. Tolfree has a few teacher aides who assist her, plus a school counselor who intervenes in difficult cases.
Last year, amid attendance problems during COVID, she and Principal Steven Baker hit the road, armed with a Google spreadsheet, and visited hundreds of homes, delivering whatever help was needed – technology, instruction, food. She saw the harsh realities of some students’ home lives.
“Every teacher needs to experience something like that, because it helps to remember there’s a reason behind the behavior.”
Tolfree recently took over a huge empty shop classroom for her program with several smaller rooms that she turned into relaxation areas and a food pantry. She converted an upstairs area for donations and distribution of items such as clothes, underwear, socks, coats and hygiene items.
The job is exhausting but effective – referrals have gone down among older students, and a recent uptick came from children new to the building. “You’ve got to have the people to do this, and a place to do it and support from the higher-ups who realize it’s important. But I can’t imagine a school without a safe place for kids to go when they really need it.”