Having been an assistant principal and principal, I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember much about the principals I had in school. I literally had to look back at my class pictures and yearbooks just to remember their names. But one person I will never forget is the principal who recruited me 30 years ago to be an elementary teacher at Cascade Elementary School in Elyria, Ohio. It was my first teaching experience, and I could not have landed at a better location to start my career. As I celebrate National Principals Month, I’d like to honor my first career principal, Brenda Peaks.
The Professional Standards for Educational Leaders were released in 2015, but Brenda was living those standards back in 1987. It was very clear to me when I first stepped into Cascade that the school’s mission, vision, and core values (Standard 1: Mission, Vision, and Core Values) were well known to all teachers. Everything we did as a staff was based upon a “child-first” culture (Standard 2: Ethics and Professional Norms), and in our diverse building, Brenda wonderfully modeled what it meant to “recognize, respect, and employ each child’s strengths, diversity, and culture as assets for teaching and learning” (Standard 3: Equity and Cultural Responsiveness).
During that first year, I was so green! I had a sense of what it meant to teach reading and mathematics, but I definitely needed a lot of help. Brenda arranged that a veteran teacher with a genuine love for the profession would serve as my mentor. I was encouraged to ask my mentor all those questions I might be afraid to ask but my students definitely needed me to know (Standard 6: Professional Capacity of School Personnel). Brenda also strongly encouraged me to exercise my creativity in order to keep my students engaged. However, every unit and lesson had to be aligned to the Ohio student standards. I learned quickly that it was the curriculum that drove my instruction, not the textbook (Standard 4: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment).
After teaching for a few years, I began to close my classroom door and do my own thing. I was keeping my best ideas to myself and not taking advantage of the expertise of my colleagues. Brenda recognized this and urged all of the teachers at my grade level to consider collaborating more closely (Standard 7: Professional Community for Teachers and Staff). Before long, the other two teachers and I began exhibiting all of the tenets of an effective learning community. We jointly planned lessons, co-taught, visited each other’s classrooms, and shared our best ideas with each other. I’m not sure when — or if — that would have happened had we never received Brenda’s gentle push.
As I began to hone my craft as a teacher, Brenda helped me develop my own leadership abilities. I was encouraged to join district curriculum committees, participate in statewide initiatives, and begin my Masters program in Education Administration. A condition of my involvement in all these extracurricular activities was an agreement to bring all new ideas and learnings back to Cascade for the benefit of our teachers and students (Standard 10: School Improvement).
Every corner of Cascade Elementary School was influenced by Brenda’s values and beliefs. Students were surrounded by a web of supports (Standard 5: Community of Care and Support for Students), and parents were welcomed with open arms (Standard 8: Meaningful Engagement of Families and Community). I remember feeling as if our school was a place where students could feel safe and nurtured no matter what was happening in the community around us.
During my years teaching at Cascade, I took so much for granted. I always imagined Brenda was busy in the office handling reports due to the state, planning staff meetings, and connecting with central office staff and other principals (Standard 9: Operations and Management). What I didn’t realize then, but absolutely appreciate now, is how much more she did to create the conditions that enabled every child at Cascade to have so many wonderful opportunities.
As we celebrate principals this month, I ask you to remember one of those building leaders who influenced your professional or personal life. Perhaps it was a principal from your childhood you’ve come to appreciate even more as you better understand the complexities of their job. Or maybe you recall a principal from a point in your career, someone who enabled you to be an effective teacher or encouraged you to embrace your own leadership aspirations. It might even be your own child’s current principal who has helped surround your daughter or son with all the supports needed to thrive. Whomever it is, I encourage you to find a way to let that school leader know how much you appreciate their efforts. Believe me, your principal will be so thankful you noticed and took the time to let her or him know.
Happy National Principals Month to all the hardworking principals who are making a difference in the lives of our educators and our children! Let’s celebrate school leaders year round by ensuring they have their own opportunities for continuous improvement even as they ensure those opportunities for others.