So rare it is for a teacher to write appreciatively about her principal. There are, of course, many reasons for the rarity: too much already on teachers’ plates, writing is hard to do, principals who perform all that is expected of them from diverse audiences are themselves an endangered species (add your own reason here). I found this personal portrait of a secondary school principal on the mark for capturing much that is often lost in the current lust for principals to do it all as instructional leaders, CEOs, and hand-shaking politicians.
I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in junior and senior high schools–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college. A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She has published two volumes of poems, Primary Sources and Instructions for the Wishing Light. I posted a poem she wrote about her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Kitchen.
Principal Jae Johnson hired Staley in her first job as an English teacher. She wrote this in 1984.
A Good One. No, A Great One
Iowa. Wide-skied, rural, back roads meandering, farm, tidy with care. In a rootless myopic and arcane world, it’s a place you’d like to come from. Jae Johnson did, and it shows.
Jae made his way to Oregon via his brother’s interest in the family farm and his own in a Ph.D. Although he has a way of making his life very much in the present, still, beside the Principal’s desk at Hedrick Junior High is a black and white photograph of a small farm outside Iowa Falls.
You get to see that photograph when you go in to talk with Jae. Taking off his glasses, he swivels around while nodding at a nearby chair. Neither folksey nor ceremonious, you feel as welcome as if you’ve come by after church. Though his manner is straightforward and eager, he waits for you to get down to things, and if you want some ‘personal time’, he sits back on that swiveler and listens. he likes people in his office, and committees, parents, faculty, delinquent or achieving kids, even a bus driver or two, all have their time to consider that central Iowa farm and the farm-boy who is now Principal.
Back in the early ’70s Hedrick had a hodgepodge faculty of the usual assortment–good ‘oleboys,’ spinster-types with dyed hair, hot shots from the ’60s schools of education, with some good and bad teachers among them all. When Dr. Johnson arrived there was a sub rosa rebellion amongst the old guard who were mad because a local golfing partner had been by-passed. Instead they’d gotten Jae, and although it took them a few years to come to their senses, over time they found that they felt privileged to work with this man of integrity.
He deals carefully with his diverse staff, agonizing over how to confront a mean history teacher with thirty years tenure and with helping the young art teachers gain control over a 2nd period class that is too creative. Looking through the Audubon Field Guide, he finds ‘a way’ with an out-of-touch math instructor who is an expert ornithologist. When chaos threatens the cafeteria, it is Dr. J who sits down to lunch with the kids. In an organizational structure where secretaries and janitors often have the ‘real’ power, he is the authority behind them. Taking people at their apparent value, he tries first to understand, knowing that real change is rooted in his comprehension and the teachers’ desire for it.
His organization receives the same measured care. New ideas are introduced slowly, after opinion polls, newspaper articles, and arduous committee work. It is clear this his view is large and broad, but he has infinite patience in moving toward it. He respects people and the durability (and sometimes inflexibility ) of the structure and the powers-that-be. It took a year and a half of faculty work to develop and implement a “floating period” which lessened the teachers’ load of students each day. He encouraged this change by finding the key people on his staff and using them as leaders while he gave rather objective and problem-solving advice from the sidelines. He uses the “sideline” like a winning coach.
With an insane September-June pace he keeps his ideas coming each week with “From This End of the Log,” a series of quotes from professional journals, children’s books, poems and the like. He is an avid reader who enjoys science, history, and baseball, and uses his newsletter for diversion and inspiration.
Drive by Hedrick on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see Jae’ old VW “bug” out front. He’s inside making plans, reading, getting those notes into mailboxes. Hard work and commitment are natural to Jae, in his genetic code, like the quiet blue eyes. It is as if he lived nature’s effect upon land and comes to people understanding their interdependence and cycles. He does not push the river.
But Jae’s very strengths are also his limitations. Commitment to his work makes for tension that at times explodes unreasonably at those nearby. His drive and intelligence set him apart, in loneliness, from his administrative colleagues [in other schools] who are quietly resentful of his successes and at odds with his values. Because he is has such “people savvy” and empathy, it is often impossible for him to make the tough decisions, and he has agonized and rationalized for many an undeserving staff member.
Finally, ironically, his love for the land keeps him in a quiet turmoil. Once he confided that he wished he could go back and farm with his brother or work as a teacher in a one-room school. Yet this last dilemma especially makes Jae a man to respect: he lives with the ambiguity of loving many things. Each year that he again chooses education, he inspires others to see their work as important, as weighing-out on the side of “good.” It is his land that has given him the strength of many loves, and he brings that plus his satisfaction and challenge to others.