Women’s History Month: Tiffany Tresler

When Dr. Tiffany Tresler looks back on her last five years as principal of Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School (TRES) in Howard County, Maryland, she is particularly happy about achievements in reading growth and in special education programming. More than that, she is aware that her achievements at Triadelphia and throughout her career have been partly inspired by her brothers, who never got through high school. Ever since, she has been fulfilling a promise she made to herself when she stumbled into elementary education while seeking a degree in biology as a pre-med student. 

“I wanted to be a champion for kids who were like my brothers,” she says. “It shouldn’t have been a problem for them. It probably wouldn’t have been today.”

Starting out in a house trailer in the hills of West Virginia, Tiffany, T.J. and Travis didn’t have a lot in the way of material advantages. A time came when they almost ran out of money, and her bigger-than-life father, T.L., hopped on his motorcycle and took off in search of work. The children ended up living with their grandparents in Pennsylvania for a while until her father landed a job in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. 

It was mainly in Waynesboro where the children were raised by their loving parents, T.L. and Carolyn, but each child ran into a roadblock. T.J. had a learning disability, Travis struggled with being a compliant student, and Tiffany became a mother while still in her teens. Today, the brothers are more successful than a lot of high school graduates. T.J. is thriving as a tattoo artist, having learned the ropes from his father and mother, who turned tattoo artistry into the family business. Travis is a truck driver and entrepreneur; he earned his GED along the way.

“If it weren’t for my parents, I would have dropped out, too,” Tiffany recalls. “I was 15, and when they saw I was determined to have my child, they just did what they could. Because of them, I didn’t have to get a job in high school. My parents stood by me in college, and I also applied for financial aid and won a Board of Governors Scholarship for Academic Excellence.”

Her shift from medicine to elementary education came when she figured out  she would be able to support her young son Raven a lot sooner if she went that route. “And I found my passion,” she says. “I loved learning about child development.”

Her teaching career began in 2003, the thick of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), at Eastern Elementary School, in Washington County, Maryland. It was a tense time for American educators, with success measured mostly on standardized testing, and the main target was high-poverty schools, with the intent of turning them around or closing them down. In this, her first Title 1 school, “we had to commit to an extra 2½ hours of PD every day.”

As a fifth-grade novice teacher, she thought “it was amazing.” Her upbeat attitude had a lot to do with her principal, Kathy Stiles, who is retired today and remains a good friend. “Kathy’s passion and advocacy for disadvantaged children made me realize I wanted to be like her,” Tiffany said, and she followed her to Bester Elementary School, which was also a Title 1 school.

“She gave me all my teacher/leadership opportunities and suggested I get a master's,” Tiffany said, and she soon began her work toward that degree at Frostburg State University in Maryland. 

While at Bester, she became a fifth, fourth and third grade demonstration classroom teacher for Washington County Public Schools. Soon thereafter, she became a student achievement specialist at Salem Avenue Elementary School. Although still mired in NCLB compliancy and paperwork, she was grateful that this first foray out of the classroom allowed her to take a deep dive into staff development, one of her great loves to this day.

By the time she became an assistant principal at Maugansville Elementary School, also in Washington County, she was well on her way to becoming a principal. Her own principal was headed to retirement and let her be an instructional leader, working on the Common Core State Standards, curriculum design and effective instructional practices. At Maugansville she also became a founding member and secretary of The Alliance of Black School Educators. “It was part of my journey of diversity awareness because I came from a small town with little diversity,” she says. 

Her time at Maugansville was a milestone in more ways than one. While there, Tiffany met Chris Rattay, a high school principal from a neighboring school system. They married a few years later. Today, they are both principals, he at Wilde Lake Middle School in Howard County, Maryland. Her stepdaughters are Mya, 20, and Ava, 17.

Moving to the principalship at Northfield Elementary School in Howard County was the defining moment of her career, a moment that continues at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary, where she is currently principal.

“I feel very comfortable in what I know now and yet there are also things I still don’t know,” she says. “It’s that sweet spot. It’s as if it all came together in 2014 when I was appointed to my first principal position at the same time I was defending my dissertation and earning my doctorate.” Her dissertation focused on the components of professional development.

“I love PD. It’s about our continuous improvement as educators,” she says. “As leaders, we have to keep modeling improvement for others and figuring out what helps children.”

Right up until 2020, she had an unruffled sense of professional and personal fulfillment and promise. 

“My mom is like my biggest cheerleader and supporter,” she remembers, and says she rooted her on during every upward step. “She is always on my side, and so is my dad.” 

Tiffany calls her 27-year-old son Raven “my greatest success and my best friend. He has grown up to be a successful, self-supporting and outstanding man.” In his stellar career in the U.S. Navy, he has been an operations specialist and a recruiter, and he is now training to be a rescue swimmer. “He will jump out of helicopters into the ocean to save people.”

With all the joys and accomplishments in Tiffany’s life, she couldn’t have guessed what lay over the horizon. All was going so well. As principal at Northfield, her school was honored with the 2016 “Let's Move! Active Schools National Award" for its efforts in creating an active school environment as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!" initiative. Tiffany Tresler’s commitment to an active school environment fit in with her own personal commitment to working out, running and doing indoor rock climbing. And her professional achievements as an instructional leader were moving apace as well, and continued to move in the right direction when she moved on to Triadelphia Ridge.

At Triadelphia Ridge, in her second year, she and her team closed opportunity gaps in reading, increasing the percentage of students scoring at high levels from 70% to 76% for all students, 71% to 83% for Black/African American students, and 70% to 81% for Hispanic/Latinx students.

Then the pandemic intruded, and Triadelphia Ridge completely closed down for a full year. Echoing principals nationwide, she says, “It was all paperwork and compliance. I didn’t have the people piece anymore. Going into virtual classrooms just wasn’t the same as seeing and interacting with kids. There was a very small number of kids who seemed to thrive in those conditions, but most of them didn’t engage. We got through it because our staff pulled together. I love the people I work with.”

Her saving grace was opening a regional program that served students with emotional disabilities during the school closure, and then working with teachers in the program to successfully transition the students back to school. She says, “Working with our students who are served by this program brings me joy every day.”

In general, students are experiencing social and emotional delays now. “Kids kind of forgot how to be together. Even their body/spatial awareness has suffered. Their anxiety has increased. When they hear talk about war, they worry about how it will affect them.” There is only one counselor to work with all of them.

“My APs and I are teaching now,” she goes on. “I love that, but it is so much. We did contact tracing on weekends and at night. Everyone has been doing more for a long time. There are substitute teacher shortages and our own teachers’ immune systems are down. They get sick.”

On New Year’s Eve, Principal Tresler was felled by the Delta variant herself. Despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, she was hit hard and had to stay out of school for two weeks, but she knew it would have been even worse pre-vaccine. The mask mandate was recently dropped. She estimates that a little more than 40% of the children still show up in masks.  “There are parents on both sides of the belief line about things like this,” she says.  “But they never held me responsible for mandates.”

Staples in her life have been her family; membership in the Howard County Association of Supervisors and Administrators (HCASA), AFSA Local 36 (where she is second vice president); and reading books. Last summer she and some of her staff read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Right now, she is reading Coaching for Equity by Elena Aguilar. 

Another staple has been humor. Tiffany Tresler has emerged with her sense of humor intact. The humor might come from her father, T.L., who has always championed her. She gets a kick out of relating a recent conversation with him.

“You have to understand my father is the quintessential leather-jacket biker dude with all the gear. I’m definitely daddy’s girl even though I’m the opposite of him. I said, ‘Think of it, I’m your Ph.D. feminist daughter,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I tried my best. Where did I go wrong?’"