CLINE: Embracing the life of a principal

LILBURN — “And we’re on in 3, 2, 1...”

That’s how the morning video announcements shown live to all classrooms started last week during my visit to Camp Creek Elementary School. But it struck that it’s probably the way principal Kathy Jones feels at the start of every school day.

I visited Camp Creek last week as part of the Principal for a Day program held in conjunction with American Education Week. It was my third time participating in the program, put on by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, but my first foray outside of high school.

During my previous trips to the high schools at Dacula and Grayson, I observed the principal as CEO figure. Not that the principals at those schools lacked a rapport with the students — quite the contrary. It’s just at that level the person in charge can’t help but be viewed more as an authority figure.

At the elementary school level, I witnessed the opposite. I saw the principal as a rock star. To students of that age, the principal is not someone to be avoided or feared, but a person to be welcomed, and, as I soon found out, hugged.

I quickly discovered that hugs are not optional. A fist bump was OK, a handshake way too formal. But a hug? That’s the ticket for these students, a few who helped indoctrinate me to their ways by politely eschewing my attempts at a handshake and going directly for a hug.

What was new to me was routine for Jones, who has been a part of Gwinnett County Public Schools for 30 years, the last nine as Camp Creek’s principal. Running a school has many commonalities no matter what the level, but leading a group of youngsters from kindergarten to fifth grade makes for a very different principal experience.

“The best part of my job is the hugs I get on a daily basis,” Jones said. “What other job is there on Earth where you get 1,500 hugs a day? The thought of walking down the hall seeing students with big smiles on their faces and getting a hug — it’s the best thing in the world.”

There are many other parts of Jones’ job, of course. And I experienced a snapshot of those duties, from observing teachers and classrooms to meeting with front office personnel and custodians. There are budgets to be met, schedules to be made and plenty of testing to keep up with.

It’s a tough job with long hours, but it always comes back to those hugs. Teaching kids at the elementary level when they are most impressionable is a huge responsibility, one that Jones and her staff embrace.

Jones calls Camp Creek a “school of reading” and is proud of the test scores it produces, like the fact that 100 percent of first-graders are on or above class level for reading. She strives for academic success, but the neat thing for Jones and other elementary principals is the personal impact that is made with children of that age.

And as I found out firsthand last week, the hugs are a pretty nice bonus as well.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/toddcline.