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The Job That Never Stops: National Principals Month Highlights the Challenging, Crucial Role of Campus Leadership

Press Release|
Shane Mauldin|
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
McClure Principal Matt Arend participates in a staff development activity prior to the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

McClure Principal Matt Arend participates in a staff development activity prior to the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

McKinney, Texas – The work of a principal never really stops.

From the time they get up until…well, the next time they get up, they are the final authority on everything that happens on their respective campuses.

They get the phone calls/texts/emails, etc. when there is good news, when there is bad news or when people simply have questions—and people always have questions.

Twelve hour (or longer) days are more the norm than the exception, but even that fact doesn’t frame the job quite accurately because the world of the school is always in motion, and so for principals, the school day doesn’t ever really end.

The leadership they provide at the campus level is crucial to the success of the school. And, it’s why the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) designate October each year as National Principals Month—to recognize and honor the hard work of principals and the importance of the position.

“The job of principal is the most challenging job that I’ve ever had,” says MISD Superintendent Dr. Rick McDaniel, who served as principal of Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler for two and half years before being hired by MISD in 2006 to open McKinney Boyd High School.

McKinney North High School Principal Jae Gaskill greets students as they enter the building.

“It truly is difficult to overstate the crucial importance of the leadership of our campus principals,” McDaniel continues. “Great instruction happens in the classroom, and great teachers are, of course, absolutely essential to that. But, the leadership of the principal is what pulls all of that talent into a cohesive team with a singular mindset and goal. Great leadership at the campus level helps our teachers and—most importantly—our students, succeed.”

In addition to the relentless nature of the job, principals shoulder a tremendous responsibility, leading a staff at each campus that must carry the hopes and dreams of an entire community of students and their parents.

“As a principal, you are always thinking about the school,” says McKinney ISD Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Student Support Suzy Woodard, who served as an elementary campus principal for 19 years. During her days as principal of Reuben Johnson Elementary, the school was ever present in Woodard’s thoughts.

So much so that three years after she moved to Central Administration, “I still remember some of the kids’ car pool numbers,” she says with a laugh.

cheering with star mascot

Walker Principal Melanie Raleeh (center) and staff go to great lengths to energize students.

“The role of the principalship, now more than ever, is critical to the success of the school,” Woodard says. “Our McKinney ISD principals are instructional leaders; they are knowledgeable about curriculum from Pre-K to fifth grade—speaking for elementary—that includes all of the academics for those grades plus art and music and P.E. They have to be knowledgeable about special education and about changes to laws for attendance and discipline.

“Principals have to have a vision. They have to know the challenges that the school faces and the strengths of their staff and how to take their vision and bring it to life—to move every individual forward and bring that vision to fruition.

“They work collaboratively with their teachers to help growth happen for every student. And, their vision has to include the positive culture of the school as well, which includes making parents feel welcome and engaged in their children’s education, making students feel welcome and engaged in their own learning. The same is true for their staff—linking arms and creating that esprit de corps and being in it together with that vision.

“Our principals are teachers; they’re coaches; they’re substitutes nurses; they are in the lunchroom; they are at the night time events. The principals are the face of the school, and there’s a lot of weight in that. It is a job that has a lot of challenges, but there are a lot of rewards, too,” Woodard says.

McKinney ISD Campus Principals
Amy Holderman—Bennett Elementary School
Al Conley—Burks Elementary School
Kelly Flowers—Caldwell Elementary School
Sharon Havard—Eddins Elementary School
Erika Echegaray—Finch Elementary School
Molly Hovan—Glen Oaks Elementary School
Michelle Baumann—Reuben Johnson Elementary School
Susie Towber—Lawson Early Childhood School
Rhonda Gilliam—Malvern Elementary School
Matt Arend—McClure Elementary School
Kim Luyster—McGowen Elementary School
Tracy Meador—McNeil Elementary School
Inetra Nelson—Minshew Elementary School
Rachel Constantinescu—Press Elementary School
Nick DeFelice—Slaughter Elementary School
Megan Richards—Valley Creek Elementary School
Mike Forsyth—Vega Elementary School
Melanie Raleeh—Walker Elementary School
Kyle Luthi—Webb Elementary School
Kristin Ellis—Wilmeth Elementary School
Fran Gratt—Wolford Elementary School
Dr. Amber Epperson—Cockrill Middle School
Holly Rogers—Dowell Middle School
Darla Jackson—Evans Middle School
Dr. Jimmy Bowser—Faubion Middle School
Dr. Mitch Curry—Scott Johnson Middle School
Dr. Jennifer Peirson—McKinney Boyd High School
Alan Arbabi—McKinney High School
Jae Gaskill—McKinney North High School
Cynthia Morton—CRC/DAEP/MLC
Stephen Issa—Serenity High

looking up towards screen

Dr. Jimmy Bowser, principal of Faubion Middle School with his administrative team at staff development over the summer. The workshop had a luau theme, but the planning sessions were all business.

We talked with five MISD principals about the challenges, the rewards and the weight of responsibility that comes with the job. Here are their thoughts…

Rhonda Gilliam, Principal of Malvern Elementary (12 years as a principal)
“As educators, we talk about the fact that our job is to inspire and educate our students, but what I really find is that I’m inspired by the children,” Gilliam says. “They all grow at a different pace, but when you get to have the bird’s eye view as principal, you see them grow and learn over time, and then the inspiration comes from them.

“One of the beautiful things about being a principal in McKinney ISD is that you are able to keep track of your kids after they’ve moved to middle and high school. It’s always a moment for celebration to see one of them show up as a Student Athlete of the Month or a Student Artist of the Month and to see former students in the community and celebrate the progress they’ve made.

“I think one of the challenging aspects of the job is that when you’re working with a community of over 500 people, when someone hurts, we all hurt. So, that’s the biggest challenge, just being able to serve people in tough times.

“There’s definitely a heavy weight on the shoulders of a principal. But, the way you deal with that is you just stay centered and keep your focus on the purpose of the work, and the purpose here is that a child’s life will be better because of the work we do. And I can be grounded in that. That’s the anchor.

“But, the reward for all of that is seeing all the moving parts, every single member of our staff, the custodians, the Aramark food service providers, the paraprofessionals and the teachers and the team members—just every member of this school community—coming together with the single purpose of serving kids.

in costume in the library

Malvern Principal Rhonda Gilliam dresses as Froggy from the popular picture book series to celebrate the conclusion of a special reading unit with Malvern’s teachers and students.

“And, it’s gratifying to see so many different teaching styles and experiences and different backgrounds and different life experiences…all come together for that common purpose.

“At the end of the day, when you get to celebrate student growth because of the effort of all of those people, that makes the job worthwhile. That’s why, even though this is a hard job, there’s no job that I would rather do.”

Erika Echegaray, Principal of Finch Elementary (4 years as a principal)
“The rewards that teachers look for are those moments when a child learns something, and they light up because they finally understand a concept or a skill that was taught,” says Echegaray.

“For me, that is also a rewarding part of my job, but as administrators we oversee so many things in the overall picture. So, it’s also rewarding for me when I see a teacher realize how much they have to offer and rise to their potential as an educator. And, because of that growth, the kids benefit from that as well. That’s huge for me. For the teachers, for my assistant principal, for the coaches and everyone on campus—I thrive on their success.

“I don’t know what it is, but when I walk in this building, I just get energized, and I do a thousand things in one day. One day is never the same as the next. The minute I walk through those front doors, I just get bombarded—teachers that are waiting to talk to me about something, students that want to share something with me, parents…and I love it.

“I have to have that. I love to multi-task. I have to have all these things. I remember all the details—everything I need to. I don’t remember little things like things that I need to buy at the grocery store, but I remember an observation that I did two months before. I remember with clarity what I saw and what I heard. I guess it’s just an energy that I get when I enter the building. When I leave, it’s depleted. I don’t know what it is. I never sit. I go all over the place. I try to be many places at once.

Finch Principal Erika Echegaray (left) and counselor Sara Gonzales (right) celebrate the start of a new school year with the Finch staff at the 2019 Convocation.

“The responsibility of this job is huge. It’s scary. It’s a lot on my shoulders because I have 380 students, and I have to make sure that my instructional leadership supports their learning. And, when a student doesn’t get what they are supposed to get, I take it personally.

“But, it’s a shared responsibility. I can’t do it alone, and the teachers can’t do it alone, so working together, we make sure that our kids get what they need in all aspects of their education—not just academically. Our kids here at Finch need so much. They need their academics; they need emotional support; and, they need caring adults that allow them to see their full potential and help them achieve that full potential.

“We spend our whole life here. I get here really early, and I leave really late. I enjoy it. It’s work, but I enjoy it.”

Fran Gratt, Principal of Wolford Elementary (22 years as a principal)
“It is a huge, challenging job,” says Gratt. “And, I think one of the most important things as administrators that we need to do is to prioritize what’s important first. You’ve got parents that want to communicate, you’ve got teachers that need your support—whether its related to curriculum or a student—and you have discipline and you have all the other pieces that we do on a daily basis.

“I’m always looking at the safety of the community first, and so I’ll highlight my list for the things that I feel that will make the school run the best that it can and to ensure that children are getting what they need on a daily basis.

“The challenges are big, but I think the rewards are many—when you see your teachers grow, and you see that your students are growing…and, not only them, but when you see yourself as an administrator growing…because you can’t be stagnant. Every day, there’s always an opportunity to learn to do something better and to grow as an individual.

in hall in front of sign

Wolford Principal Fran Gratt and Assistant Principal Carol Turquette

“We’re really lucky in McKinney because our principal group is really fluid about sharing ideas and collaborating and helping one another. It’s not, ‘My school is better than your school.’ It’s all of our schools. How can we help each other? Because the kids deserve that. That’s what’s important, and if I see that somebody needs help, I’ll offer it. And then, sometimes, I’ll call a colleague and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing something this way but I think it could maybe be better. Do you have any ideas?’

“I think the rewards we get ultimately boil down to the success of our kids. I look at these kids as my grandkids, and I want what’s best for them—as if they really are my grandkids, and I think that’s important.

“When I see a child in my office, and they’re sitting in these chairs across from me, it’s not, ‘I got you!’ It’s, ‘Yes, you made a mistake. I still love you.’ I tell them that all the time. ‘I’m not happy with the choice you made, so what can we do to change that?’ I’ll also tell them, ‘If you haven’t done something the way it should be done, then own up to it. No one’s perfect. You’re going to make mistakes.’

“The responsibility that comes with this job is difficult. When I know I have to have a difficult conversation with a staff member, I’ll practice at home the night before. I do sometimes, and sometimes I cry about it because I know it’s going to be hard for them to hear. But, I always have to put the children first.

“What I love about this job the most is that you come in every day with an idea of what you’re going to do, and you’re lucky if you do half of it just because of the dynamics of the job. But, you’re making a difference for children, and that’s what really counts.

group looking up

McKinney ISD elementary principals and assistant principals at staff development during the summer.

“A couple of years ago our family went on a cruise to Alaska, and every time we got off the ship into a place where I had phone reception, my daughter-in-law said, “Would you get off your phone?!’ And, I said, ‘I’ve got to check my emails. I’ve got to make sure everything is ok.’ Even though I knew things were being handled fine, I didn’t know if there was something I needed to respond to. She said, ‘You really can’t get away from it.’

“I said, ‘No, you really can’t.’

“The community is an extension of your family. That’s the way I view this school. This is our family, and we’ve got to take care of our family.”

Dr. Mitch Curry, Principal of Scott Johnson Middle School (19 years as a principal)
“The principal role is a never ending thing,” says Curry. “It literally does not stop.

“We have kids that we help on Saturdays. We have kids that we help in the afternoons…summer school. Teachers…teacher prep stuff. One of the parts I really love about my job is working with adults, and teaching adults also. So, it never stops, and with social media and email there’s not a day or a time that parents aren’t emailing and asking questions, and I need to be available for that.

“And, one of the things that’s great about the profession is that you see the fruit of all of that. Living in this community for over a decade, I see people that have gone through our schools. Parents that had students here, and they’re leading our city and starting to lead our country and state, and it’s really a cool thing that gives you great pause when you think about the effect that principals and teachers have on students and the community in general—how important it is.

“I think it’s crucial that we are here because for a lot of kids, we are family. We are modeling for them the AVID way that school doesn’t have to stop at twelfth grade.

“It’s a personal thing with me to be here every day. I don’t know the last time I missed a day of work. And, it’s not because of anything other than it would be like being absent as a parent. There’s not a day I can just say, ‘I’m not going to be a parent today.’ I have to be a parent every day. So, I kind of feel like they are all my kids, too. And, I know the other principals feel the same way.

shaking hands with student

Dr. Mitch Curry, principal of Scott Johnson Middle School introduces himself to a new student and her family.

“I’ve always gone to ball games on Friday nights because I wanted to see my Johnson Tigers at North, and I get such a good feeling when I hear their names called out. Or, I go to the basketball games and the volleyball games. I’m at the graduation every year for North because I want to see the end. I take pictures and shake their hands.

“But, that’s how I like to end my year. We get our kids finished with middle school, but that’s just one chapter. What comes next? I want to hear about, ‘I’m going to this school,’ or ‘I’ve got a job,’ or ‘I’m going into the military,’ or ‘I’m going to help my dad at his company.’ Whatever it is that they’re going to do is just really cool.

“The responsibility of it all is really hard. We have a really good team here, and we share the burden. I couldn’t possibly shoulder all the things I do here without the staff and the students and of course Dr. DeFelice and the Board of Trustees and Dr. McDaniel and Mrs. Woodard. If we didn’t have their support I think it would be physically impossible.

“I tell our students that being a good person is more important to me than anything else. I want to know that you’re going to be a good person; you’re going to be a good, kind, contributing person in our society and that we can live in a community together when you’re an adult, and I can be proud of you. Along with that, I would like you to have a great academic background. It has to be the whole student. Everybody preaches that same message. Like I said, support. That comes straight down from Shawn Pratt to the coaches, straight down from Dan White to the Fine Arts people and it comes straight down from Todd Young and the AVID people. Everybody is aligned.

“That’s what I love about this district. You don’t find outliers of people who don’t follow that message that comes straight from the Board to Dr. McDaniel and down to us. That’s how I do it. I come to work thinking, ‘Ok, I have a hundred allies today.’ It’s not just me, and so that’s the best part of it.”

Dr. Jennifer Peirson, Principal of McKinney Boyd High School (6 years as a principal)
“I’ve always said, ‘We don’t deal with products; we deal with people,’” says Peirson. “So, I think one of the tough things is there are so many things going on all at once, and everything that is going on is very personal to those people that we’re working with. So, it’s not something as simple as, ‘Oh, we can just let it go,’ or ‘We don’t need to fix that,’ because we know at the end of the day, it’s a person and their issues are extremely important to them—which makes it important to us.

at podium in regalia

Dr. Jennifer Peirson, principal of McKinney Boyd High School addresses the Class of 2019 at the school’s commencement ceremony this past June.

“What I love about the job is that there are days that are crazy with a lot of stuff going on, but I can walk out in the hallways, and I can shake hands with kids, and I can tell dad jokes with Randy Bilyeu, and I can go to events and see our kids participate at high levels. It’s not like the business world where you are still looking at a product. We’re looking at people. I just enjoy our students and who they are and their laughter and their spirit.

“For lack of a better way of saying it, the job of principal is a 24-7 job. I mean if something were to happen with one of our kids in the middle of the night, I’m being called. If we have a leak in the building in the middle of the night…I’m being called.

“I’m up here for events three or four nights a week. Part of that is because I want to make it a little bit better for our assistant principals who have young kids, and so I would say that most of the time it’s easily 12-15 hours a day. And, then depending on the time of the year…In the spring it can be almost every night that you are doing something—concerts and senior events and banquets and athletic events and fine arts.

“Being there at school events is definitely a constant, but you go into that knowing it. If you don’t want to be doing all that then you really shouldn’t go in to do this job because that’s how, in my opinion, you build those relationships with those kids and those directors and those coaches and those teachers that are out there.

On stage in costume singing

McKinney High School Principal Alan Arbabi sings in “The Phantom of the Opera” during the school’s inaugural performance at the new Sperry Performance Hall at the MHS Performing Arts Center. (Courtesy of Hoss McBain Photography)

“I absolutely love to see what our graduates are doing. One of the things that I love is that they love to come back to Boyd. So, I’ll see our former choir kids at choir events, or I’ll see some of our former football players at the football games. It’s a great time just to catch up with them, and that’s the best feeling when they want to come back, and they want to share with you. That’s what it’s all about. You want to see them succeed, and we always say we prepare them for life outside these walls.

“As far as the responsibility of the position is concerned, it’s one of those things that you are very thankful and blessed that you are surrounded with great people—because you can’t do the job by yourself. There are times when you come in here, and you shut the door, and you cry or you yell, and then you figure it out and walk out there and get the job done. I’ve always said I don’t ever want it to become a non-emotional job. If there’s no emotion involved, then you’re forgetting really why you’re doing the job.

“So, you have those people where you can walk around the corner or pick up a phone. And, I’m very thankful for [McKinney North Principal] Jae [Gaskill] and [McKinney High School Principal Alan [Arbabi]. We’re a great team, and I love the fact that I can pick up the phone at anytime and say, ‘Hey, can we go to lunch because I’ve got a laundry list of stuff.’ And, that makes all the difference in the world.

“Sometimes, you just need to talk to people that are in the same trench you’re in. Not that anybody else doesn’t understand, but they are doing the same thing that I am doing and have the same responsibilities.

Do the students know that you frequently meet with the principals of the rival schools?

“Absolutely! (laughs) Any time we talk to kids, we always say, ‘You know what? We’re all on the same team. We’re all McKinney and we’re going to all love our different cultures and our schools…’ But, obviously when it comes down to game time we know what colors we bleed (laughs).”

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