• Jennifer Meliton

It's the Principal.

October is National Principals Month. Before you get too excited, I should also reveal, in the spirit of journalistic openness, that it is also Cookie Month (and Diabetes Month), Eat Country Ham Month, and Awareness Month (be aware of awareness, friends). But it's nice to be noticed among the other appreciation and celebratory occasions.

Principal-ing wasn't my original dream job. One of my earliest memories is sitting in Sunday School singing Jesus Loves Me in the head-shaking, emotional style of Karen Carpenter. I remember Mrs. Palace and her assistant poking each other like "Check this one out," and feeling like, "Oh yes, that's right ladies!" So it's no shock to learn that I longed to be a singer/performer. If I think back, my principals did stand out in my growing-up memory bank. Mr. Fazekas was larger life at my elementary school, especially when Mr. Rogers chose our school as the setting for his "Mr. Rogers Goes to School" series. Mr. Fazekas became great friends with Fred and his street cred was mind-blowing. (Pictured- Mr. Rogers and my bus driver, Gracie Lutz.) From then on I regarded Mr. F as a deity. In middle school, Dr. Huey was the imposing, yet caring figure who listened to two eighth graders pour out their heartsick souls, distraught that there would be no yearbook. Instead of giving us the brush, he armed my best friend Susan and I with the tools to create a yearbook for our school, and he saw us all the way through publication.

High school in the 80's meant that I didn't have much face-time with the principals until halfway through my junior year when they started handing the keys over to a few of us. Literally. This is another post altogether. (Is there a statute of limitations on things that may or may not have happened in high school in the 80's? Asking for a friend.) I digress, and God bless you Mr. DePaul (who didn't know my name) and Mr. Moran (who knew the name of my dog).

It was when I began teaching that the principalship truly beckoned me. Ron Izzett was my first principal at Connolly Middle School in Tempe, Arizona. Ron knew almost every student by name and had the same kind eyes as Mr. Rogers. He nudged (pushed) me into leadership roles from the day I arrived, and I felt certain he had neither read my resume, nor realized it was my first year teaching. After two years he had given me more opportunities to grow than I ever could have hoped for. His vulnerability, love for all students, and belief in me remain an inspiration.

When I moved across the country back to the Pittsburgh area, Jay McElravy and his counterpart (Janet "assistant co-head principal"...yes I'm serious, no wonder she was so defensive) were the yin and yang who cemented my path. Like Ron in Arizona, Jay gave me leadership opportunities from the get go. My youthful exuberance must have had either "go-getter" or "sucker" stamped on my forehead (note to self, research this). Working with my other principal at the time gave me the impetus I needed to pursue graduate school and my administrative degree. I would get so frustrated with her that my non-confrontational nature dissolved into advocacy for the kids, parents, and teachers I saw under her thumb. And in the words of Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that."

When Janet was reassigned to another building, members of the administrative team encouraged me to apply for the newly created assistant principal position. My response was something like, "No way are you kidding me? I would have to be insane to go from teacher to administrator in the same building! And I don't want to be here for the next 20 years. Pssht no way."

"Just go through the interview, it's good experience." they said.

What felt like five minutes later, that team took me under their wing and kept me there. I was 29. Thankfully their wings were big. I think about Jay and the administrative team of Paul Mueller, Matt Stromberg, Tim Petty, Bill Andrews, Dave Bowlin, Zeb Jansante, and Terry Dawson all the time. School today is nothing like it was two decades ago, and the role of principal now more closely resembles a Swiss Army Knife than the spork it once did.

I am a singer, singing to and with my kids all the time. And I perform on the daily. Believe me, it takes true performance skills to gracefully morph from time with kids, to soothing an angry grown-up, to working with the data team, to handling a crisis, to giving time to someone who needs a hand, to riding the bus home with a boisterous crew, to listening to a teacher. The leadership lessons I learned from all of my principals remain with me, and I know they are proud of the leader I've become, thanks to the groundwork they helped me build.

Mr. Rogers is still my hero. And I know he counts principals among the helpers he tells others to look for in times of trouble. I can't imagine a better role to play.

(That's me! Girl holding red folder, admiring Mr. Rogers who is riding her bus, sort of concerned that those bangs will haunt her 40 years later.)

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