Sunday, May 3, 2009

Principals I Have Known

This week, my principal at Sigonella, Sonny Bertschinger (at left), told the staff that he is being transferred to another school in Germany next year. Of course, the school was abuzz with who might be his replacement. In DoDDS, principals come and go quickly. I've already had three in just five years here. In the States, it doesn't happen as often, but even there, I had quite a few. Let's crunch the numbers.

37.5 = years in education
28.5 = years in the classroom
5 = number of schools where I've taught
14 = number of principals (10 male, 4 female)

My very first principal was A. E. Heck at Galva High School. We never knew what A.E. stood for, but everyone, even the teachers called him "Mr. Heck," anyway, which we all thought was hilarious at the time. He a a serious guy. I don't ever remember him laughing, or even smiling. Galva was a very small, rural, conservative town in the 1970s, and he seriously told me, "We don't care if you drink. That's your business. But just don't do it in town." We all went to a private club one town over every weekend. One time my mother came to visit and we went to a basketball game. My mother mistook my principal for the janitor, because he went out at halftime and swept the court with the big dustmop. In the meanwhile, the real janitor stood on the sideline in a sport coat and watched.

The very best principal I ever worked with Sherwood "Woody" Dees, at Hall High School in Spring Valley. Why was he the best? He was respectful, efficient, caring, smart, supportive, and available. We didn't always agree, but he always listened and made sure I knew he understood my point. He, like my other mentors, empowered me to become better and better, as a teacher, a coach, and a staff developer. He was strict with kids. He once told a kid whom I had caugh doing something, "We don't need a Polaroid print of you doing it. If Ms. Pienta said you did it, THAT is proof!" If coaches had to miss a faculty meeting, he held a special "make-up" for them the next morning in his office. He rewarded two or three teachers at every faculty meeting for something he had witnessed them doing and pinned a big paper medal on them. Corny, but we loved it and coveted the medals. He made the whole community shape up and behave appropriately at graduations. He saw me through two babies and came to my mother's wake. He was the best, hands-down.

Marj Lewallen (left) was my friend as well as my principal. I knew her when she was an assistant at Bitburg, when she became a principal there, and eventually had the good fortune to work for her for one year at Sigonella--her last as a principal. Marj had the best sense of humor, sense of fun, and personality of all my principals. And, as I said at her retirement, she was once of the best, in my opinion, because she had kids at the center of her focus, she listened to parents, and she took care of her teachers. This is a hard balance to achieve, but she did a pretty good job of it. Marj was another one who empowered me, and I always do my best for those kinds of people. I was empowered to take the AVID program and grow it, strengthen it, and all for the benefit of the entire school.

In my job as AVID Program Monitor for DoDDS-Europe and then with the AVID Center, I got to visit many school and meet dozens of principals. There are some really great ones out there and I was honored to meet and work with them. It really is true that the principal is the single most important influence on the climate of the school. What they don't always understand is that teachers make them look good, and that it's the people under you, not above you, that make you successful.

And they can be really bad. At one school I worked at, people would sneak in and out of school, or go up a flight of stairs and over just to not see or be seen by the principal. We dreaded getting an email from her saying she wanted to see us. In just one year, she demoralized, alienated, and mentally and emotionally abused 80% of the staff. One teacher, who was being "scolded" for the twentieth time or so, said she might as well go home and shoot herself. The principal didn't even pause, but just kept deriding her. The superintendent said, "You think she's bad? I've three more worse than her in this district!"

There was the wishy-washy principal whose decisions were based on whom he talked to last, the one who couldn't or wouldn't make any decisions, the one who locks himself up in his office, the one who can never see you because she's "in a meeting," the insecure micro-manager, the one who couldn't organize a kindergarten picnic if he had to, and the one who ran hot and cold (and you never knew which it might be). In spite of them or because of them, teachers always come through, especially in DoDDS, and rise to do their best for the kids.


  1. Thanks for sharing and you are such a jewel---an excellent writer and communicator. My head swells when I read your kind words. ~~Marj

  2. Maryellen,
    Yes I did receive it and was humbled and honored by what you wrote. And, for the record, my sentiments and memories about you were the same!

  3. Congratulations on your retirement!
    I was a former student at Galva High and would have been a class of '78 Grad if I hadn't moved.
    You may remember my brothers Scott and Mike MacAdam.
    You were great!
    Glad to see you didn't spend your whole career in the City of Go!
    Cathy MacAdam Mason

  4. Truly enjoyed your article. Your comments are so true about GREAT principals. Thanks for sharing.