Back to School
As part of Gwinnett's Principal for a Day program, Daily Post County Editor Judy Green headed ... Back to school

My Grandma Green taught first grade for 40-plus years - long enough, she said, that she'd had three generations of some families come through her classroom. Her sister, my Aunt Dee, retired having spent her life teaching kindergarten.

After retiring from teaching first grade in the public school system, my Aunt Cherryl now teaches at a Catholic school. Her daughter, my cousin Shelly, is a teacher. My cousin, Lonna, taught Spanish ... you get the idea ... I'm from a family of educators.

So it stood to reason I would be a teacher. Or so I thought.

Upon returning, in January 1988, to the campus of Northwest Missouri State University after Christmas break and a stint at substitute teaching, I changed my major to journalism. Teaching, I decided after a week of subbing, was not for me. Maybe it was the school, or the subject, or the fact that as a sub I was, as explained to me Tuesday, "fresh meat." Regardless, my career path changed direction.

So this past week's opportunity to be principal for a day intrigued me. As part of American Education Week, the Principal for a Day program this year allowed 106 people to shadow the school district's principals for a firsthand look at the operations of Gwinnett's schools.

This is the fourth year the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and the Gwinnett County Board of Education has offered the experience and my first year to participate.

The person who matched me up with Principal Peggy Goodman at Gwin Oaks Elementary School knew what they were doing. Match.com couldn't have paired me with a better principal.

This is the second year Ms. Goodman has served as Gwin Oaks' principal, her first principal job. She's been an educator since 1977.

I asked Ms. Goodman what her biggest challenges were as an educator.

"Time," she said. "Finding enough time to fit in all I need to do so that I don't let anything let me lose focus of what we're here for ... teaching and learning."

Ms. Goodman said she often leaves e-mail unchecked and paperwork undone until the end of her day. She can't be in the classroom, she said, if she's behind her desk or at her computer. And it's clear, Ms. Goodman loves the company of her teachers (50), support staff (81) and students (1,018), all of whom she calls "friends."

Ms. Goodman and I first met in October at an orientation. We'd since corresponded via e-mail to plan our day. So when I got to Gwin Oaks early ... REALLY early ... 6:45 to be exact ... Tuesday morning, I felt as if I was meeting a friend. When I arrived, she told me to move my car from a "visitor" spot to that of "principal." My own parking spot. This was going to be fun.

Top of the morning

It's been said that if I'm up before 8 a.m., there needs to be photographic proof. On this day, there was. The Post's photo editor, Jason Braverman, chronicled my day starting with the car pool and bus lanes at 7:45 a.m. I could spot some of my "not a morning person" peers as soon as they got out of their mom or dad's car. Obviously, first grade is too young to know the beauty of vast amounts of strong black coffee.

After Ms. Goodman and I did the morning announcements, which are broadcast to each classroom, we met with fifth-grader Ben Kloz.

The school's writing classes are learning about persuasive writing. Ben, who I contend has a bright political future ahead of him, was called to the principal's office to talk about a letter he wrote on behalf of all his classmates trying to persuade Ms. Goodman to allow the fifth-graders to play flag football.

While extremely complimentary of his writing and obvious grasp of the lesson in persuasive writing, Mrs. Goodman discussed with Ben her side of the issue and asked for more time to consider it. Sadly, my gig as principal for a day didn't give me the latitude to make such a decision. Sorry, Ben.

Teaching and learning

My day also found me listening in on a second-grade instructional focus meeting. There, the teachers had a grid, developed to show what students, all assigned a number, of each teacher, also assigned a number, need extra help. This common-sense approach to educating assures "no child is left behind" while letting those who are ready to move on to the next lesson go ahead. But the caring spirit of each of the second-grade teachers in that room was obvious. They could identify their students who needed more help, and they've come up with a way to see that they get it.

Oddly enough, it was in another Ms. Green's classroom, that of Dawn Green, that I was asked a question about my career choice. Fifth-grader Samantha Schutter wanted to know if I always knew I wanted to work at a newspaper. I explained the substitute teaching debacle, which earned some chuckles from the kids and some "I understand completely" looks from the teacher. Assistant Principal Ann Adams, who incidentally has already retired from the Gwinnett County school system once, explained to me that having your own classroom makes all the difference. A substitute, she explained, is viewed in the student kingdom as "fresh meat."

In Laura Belue's fourth-grade class, the students were asked to draw a line at the bottom of their paper and, with one end being "pro" and the other "con," draw an "X" on the line to show their support of or opposition to having school uniforms. From where their "X" was on the continuum, they were to write some persuasive sentences. Some students (who the teachers call "friends") were completely against school uniforms, including Emma Blaze who thought they'd be "plaid and ugly and wouldn't allow kids to wear nice clothes on picture day." Another girl was all for school uniforms, arguing that if everyone wore the same thing, no one would get made fun of for what they were wearing. Some "friends" fell somewhere in the middle.

In every classroom I visited, I found it very interesting the way each educator builds on the teachings of the one before. In kindergarten, for instance, the students were writing three-line stories and then illustrating each line. Rhea Grose in Sue Eason's class chose to write about Hall-oween and how she enjoyed trick or treating.

An excellent teacher with an obvious love for her profession, Ms. Eason first read to the kids a three-line story she'd written. She'd talk at barely a whisper, a secret, I'd imagine, to keeping about 20 potentially squirmy little bodies hanging on to her every word. Then she'd be very animated and the kids responded, anxious to go to work on their projects. They marched like little angels to their designated spots, a feat that, Ms. Goodman told me, didn't happen overnight.

Ms. Eason is teaching her students to sound out words and spell them phonetically. So when a student asked me to help him sound out and spell "coat" it came out more like "cot." But with the drawing to accompany it, Ms. Eason will figure it out.

So in Sara Stephenson's first-grade writing class, I was surprised when Hannah Nguyen asked for help spelling "rose."

"Let's sound it out," I told her.

We got the "r" and "o" and when we got to the "s" we had to decide for sure it wasn't a "z."

"Is there another letter?" Hannah asked me wide-eyed, having the "ros" so far written on her paper. "You act like there's more."

I didn't know whether or not introducing the concept of the silent letter would mess her up. So I asked if she knew what letters are sometimes silent.

To which she replied "You mean 'e'? Is there an 'e'?"

I nodded.

"Oh yeah. Those are tricky."

New friends

In Beverly McCallum's kindergarten class, I met Gardenia Valencia. Now, I know teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but Gardenia won me over in a hurry. Gardenia, her "elbow buddy" (the "friend" you are touching elbows with at the time -this helps the teachers pair students up for sharing.) explained to me, only speaks Spanish. So she didn't understand when I asked her what her story was about. Judy, I explained to Gardenia, only speaks English. But I told Gardenia, utilizing my limited Spanish skills, her drawing was "muy bonita." Her beaming smile and big brown eyes told me we were speaking the same language.

My day ended with bus duty. There, the "not a morning person" kids were wide awake. Some, as advised during morning announcements, asked me what books I was reading. They waved at me and said "Bye, Ms. Green" and many, many of my new "friends" gave me a hug.

I hope that this past week, the other 105 community members who were given the opportunity to be a principal for a day enjoyed their experience as much as I did.

And if I'm answering Samantha's question again, my response would go something like this:

"Well, Samantha, until I was in my second year of college, I wanted to be a teacher. But I substitute taught and decided teaching wasn't for me so I changed my major. But then, on Tuesday, I thought I just might want to be a teacher again."